Thousands of Eritrean Americans, from across the nation, are marching today, Monday, February 13, 2006, in two major U.S. cities--Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, CA--to urge the United States government to force the minority regime of Ethiopia to respect international law and allow the demarcation of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border immediately and without any preconditions.
This will require a major adjustment in approach by the international community, especially the United States, to the two parties in the conflict. It will require an approach that is even-handed and fair, in appearance and in reality.
One of the constant things in the Eritrean-Ethiopian border case, which is now in its eighth year, is the unmistakable lack of even-handedness in the approach by the key members of the international community.
This tilt in favor of Ethiopia has created predictable behaviors among the parties: a) it constantly and unmistakably increased Ethiopia’s intransigence on the issue, and b) it also increasingly reinforced Eritrea’s mistrust of the fairness of the process. As a result, instead of bridging the gap between the two parties and bring the issue to closure, every move by the key representatives of the international community, especially the United States and the United Nations, tended to exacerbate the situation, most of the time. If you need evidence to see how this behavior manifests itself, all you have to do is look at how the Ethiopian prime minister acted in the wake of the recent visit by the Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for African Affairs to Ethiopia. He came out swinging on the question of “dialogue before demarcation” ratcheting up Ethiopia’s intransigence another degree, widening the chasm further.
The lesson we have learned over the last eight years is that any approach towards this situation that lacks balance will only lead to what all of us are trying to avoid: another round of death and destruction on both sides of the border, destabilizing the region and jeopardizing the hard and long fought peace in the Sudan as well as the war against terrorism in the Greater Horn of Africa.
That is why the tilt will have to be rectified if the international community is going to play a positive role in this deteriorating situation on the Horn of Africa. This dangerous situation is not going to be resolved at the expense of the rule of law and justice. I know it won’t be resolved at the expense of Eritrea. It has been tried the last four years. So, it is high time that the guarantors of the Algiers Peace Agreement, especially the United States, took an approach that is just and fair.
What makes this situation even more painful for Eritreans, at home and abroad, is the fact that the present eerily looks and feels like the past, a painful past, when Eritrea, a former Italian and British colony, was singled out in 1952 for annexation, under the guise of a federation, by Western ally Ethiopia—when the rest of African nations were preparing for independence. This led to a bitter 30-year armed conflict between the two countries which claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides of the border, destroyed the economies of both nations, and left Ethiopia as the ultimate symbol for famine and poverty in the world.
For some distant observers this may be too remote to have relevance to the current border issue between the two nations. However, if you want to fully understand the present, why the parties behave they way they do, especially the victimized party, Eritrea, you have to start here. After all, we are talking about the same three-way pull and push with the root cause being basically the same. If you know this recent past, then you can understand why Eritrea or Eritreans would mistrust the process in which the international community has played so far.
Let us now fast forward to the present. When the border war broke out in 1998, some of the key members of the Ethiopia–based diplomatic corps said that “Meles Zenawi has to be save and has to come out stronger from the conflict.” When we add to that Washington’s initial reluctance to take a stand against the expulsion from Ethiopia of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin, the early bungling of the negotiation by the first team of U.S. facilitators, the unwillingness to force the Ethiopian regime to respect international law the last four years, and repeated attempts to find an alternative mechanism to the Eritrean-Ethiopian Boundary Commission, which seems to be the only party upholding the law, then the picture becomes even clearer.
Naturally, this also makes the other side of the picture—the tilt against Eritrea—equally clear. All you have to do is look at almost any of U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan’s many reports on the demarcation of the case to the U.N. Security Council, in which he purposely confuses the primary and secondary issues of the matter, and spins every little alleged or perceived transgression by Eritrea to perfection. Then at the bottom of his report, almost as an afterthought, he fleetingly mentions that “Ethiopia should also implement the border ruling,” with no sense of urgency or force—all these to make the compliant party look like the guilty party. The secretary general knows the fundamental issue here is the demarcation of the border—not the restrictions of the movement of UNMEE. He knows the reason the U.N. peacekeepers are still in the region is not because of anything Eritrea has done—it is because of Ethiopia’s refusal to respect international law.
The amazing aspect of this is that Ethiopia is so confident that the international community is not going to lift a finger against it that its high officials openly brag about it—in fact at the United Nations. Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin, in his address to the fifty-ninth session of the United Nations General Assembly, ridiculed the “The hope of getting the Security Council to impose sanctions on Ethiopia” and declared that it was not going to happen. Why is he so sure that this will not happen? Why is poor Ethiopia so sure that the guarantors/witnesses—the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union and the government of the United States—will not impose sanctions to force compliance by the intransigent party? Ethiopia, which depends on the international community’s largess to feed millions of its own people, does not think the world will ever impose sanctions on her for its international lawlessness.
What does this say of the guarantors/witnesses of the Algiers Peace Agreement, who are supposed to ensure full implementation of the accord? What does this say of the many United Nations Security Council resolutions, which urged full implementation of the ruling? The stakes are bigger than the two parties in this conflict; it may greatly damage the conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms of the international system.
So, as a first step, the guarantors/witnesses of the Algiers Peace Agreement, especially the United States, will have to rectify the imbalance and unfairness that undergirds their current approach in order to close the chasm of intransigence and mistrust at the same time. Otherwise, we are likely to see a continuous deterioration of the situation, ending in another cycle of death and destruction---something Washington can prevent by pulling the tilted lever of diplomacy to a 90% position. We know what an imbalanced approach can bring. Let us see if an approach that respects the rule of law and is driven by fairness can bridge the gap and bring this dangerous situation to a peaceful end. The Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples, who have been subjected to so much violence the last half century, deserve no less.