The UN Secretary General's Visit: An Opportunity That Must Not Be Lost
By: Shaebia Staff
July 1, 2004

The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is set to visit Eritrea and Ethiopia this weekend. Considering that the peace process is close to unraveling, the visit provides the Secretary General with an excellent opportunity to salvage the situation and avert another tragedy. It is also possible that this latest endeavour, like so many others before it, could turn out to be a mere public relations exercise.

Clearly, the outcome will depend on the Secretary General's brief. It will hinge on whether Mr. Annan is prepared to seriously confront the crux of the matter or, shying away from that, prefers to engage in secondary and diversionary issues.

Both the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission and the UN Security Council are aware that Ethiopia has derailed the peace process by rejecting the border ruling and refusing to allow the border demarcation. It can only be brought back on track, if the Secretary General and the international community can persuade Ethiopia to live up to its treaty obligation to accept the ruling as "final and binding" and cooperate in its ''expeditious" implementation. Indeed, the Algiers Agreement, which Mr. Annan signed on behalf of the United Nations, as one of the guarantors of the Agreement, places the responsibility on the UN to take measures, including under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter against the party that violates the terms of the Agreement.

Mr. Kofi Annan will travel from Asmara to Addis Ababa, where presumably, the Ethiopian authorities will tell him what they have told all previous delegations, including his special envoy, Mr. Axeworthy, that they will not accept and implement an international arbitration decision that they have castigated as "a recipe for disaster". They will reassert that they will in effect continue to flout international law and UN Security Council resolutions. What then will the Secretary General do? Will he provide leadership and galvanize the UN to live up to its commitments under the Algiers Agreement? Or will he continue to refrain from recommending action and let Ethiopia's rejection of international law stand?

And what will key international actors do? Will they tell Ethiopia that enough is enough and that the day of reckoning has come? Or will they continue to send Ethiopia the message that it is business as usual and that it has nothing to lose by its lawlessness? Will they continue to reward it by writing of its debts, increasing aid, granting it hundreds of millions of dollars for ''internal food purchase'', even while it is busy on a massive shopping spree for arms?

Of course, Mr. Annan can be expected to bring up in Asmara the issue of his special envoy, Mr. Axeworthy? But, if the obvious can be stated, and the objective is really to secure Ethiopia's compliance, what can the Secretary General's envoy accomplish that the Secretary General himself can not?

Or is the real goal, as many have intimated to Eritrea, to sidestep the demarcation of the border, which has become an "intractable" problem because of Ethopia's stubbornness, and focus instead on normalization of relations? But isn't this once again rewarding lawlessness? Isn't this setting a dangerous precedent, sending the message that for favoured countries it is all right to violate international law and Security Council resolutions and that there is no price to be paid? And how can Eritrea be expected to normalize relations when it its territory is forcibly occupied, its people displaced and the Ethiopian Prime Minister threatens yet another war?

Another matter that can be expected to come up during the Secretary General's visit is the supposed infringement by Eritrea of the freedom of movement of UNMEE. On this issue, it is UNMEE and not Eritrea that is at fault. Eritrea continues to respect UNMEE's unhindered freedom of movement in the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) as provided for in the Algiers Peace Agreement. But UNMEE has argued for and acted as if it has the right of movement everywhere and anywhere in Eritrea without the approval of the Eritrean government. In fact, the Force Commander, deployed UNMEE units to surreptiously monitor at night the movements of the Eritrean Defence Forces 20 Kms north of Asmara, an area way out of the TSZ. What is galling is that UNMEE does not claim the same right of movement or act the same way on the Ethiopian side. Eritrea hopes that the Secretary General will impress upon UNMEE to respect the Algiers Agreement and Eritrea's sovereign rights.

Apart from UNMEE's freedom of movement, its very viability and size has began to be broached. In a little more than three years, a UN peacekeeping mission that was characterised as one that was "doomed to succeed" because of auspicious circumstances is on the verge of failure, because of Ethiopia's rejection and the failure of the international community to act decisively. More ominously, Ethiopia's position means that there is once more a serious threat to regional peace. The Secretary General can as an outcome of this crucial visit arrest the dangerous, downward spiral, undertake measures that would positively influence and rescue the peace process, leading to the demarcation of the boundary. Obviously, Ethiopia bears the major responsibility for the present crisis. But the UN and the international community also have their moral and legal obligations. A principled and firm stand on their part would not only avert another war, but also bring the present tense and costly standoff to a quick end.