First Things First: Demarcate Before Dialogue
By Tekie Fessehatzion
October 21, 2003

        "The members of the Security Council therefore wish to convey to
        you their deep regret at the intention of the government of
        Ethiopia not to accept the entirety of the delimitation and
        demarcation decision as decided by the boundary commission"

        "They note in particular, that Ethiopia has committed itself under
        the Algiers Agreements to accept the boundary decision as final
        and binding."

        "The members of the Security Council reaffirm serious concern at
        the continuous and abnormal absence of political dialogue" between
        both countries." UN Security Council Letter to Prime Minister
        Meles. (IRIN, October 3, 2003)

Part I

The UN Security Council firmly rejected Prime Minister's call for an alternative mechanism to reopen the Eritrea-Ethiopia border dispute, putting aside the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission's April 2002 ruling and directed Ethiopia to cooperate with the Border Commission and its Field Officers to implement the Commission's ruling. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia glossed over the rebuff and took solace in the segment of the letter that called for the initiation of political discourse, a dialogue towards normalization. Although the paragraph on the necessity of political dialogue was recycled from previous reports from the Secretary General, and hardly drew any attention, this was the first time Ethiopian officials seized the idea of dialogue. While the Council referred to dialogue towards normalization to expedite demarcation on the basis of the EEBC Decision, Ethiopian officials hijacked the idea as a means of reopening the EEBC Decision. The Security Council recommended dialogue to expedite smooth demarcation and eventual normalization of relations. Ethiopia thought to shoehorn the concept to sidestep the April 2002 EEBC Decision. Still for whatever purpose, the move towards dialogue signifies a welcome change of attitude, but one can't help but be skeptical about the motive, coming as it did five years after the initiation of the conflict.

Considering Prime Minister Meles' numerous scornful statements of the past five years that Ethiopia would have nothing to do with Eritrea as long as the current government is in place, the Prime Minister newly cultivated fondness for dialogue with Eritrea must be seen for what it is: a public relations gimmick designed to forestall Security Council action while keeping Eritrea in an interminably long but fruitless discussion on where the pillars should be erected knowing full well if the pillars are not erected where Ethiopia wants them, they would never be erected. So long as Eritrea agrees to dialogue or a return to bilateral discussion on an already delimited border, the time-table and the final disposition of the lines on the ground would be controlled by Ethiopia. If Eritrea wants to see the border demarcated it would have to be in Ethiopia's terms. Given Ethiopia's control of the Temporary Security Zone, Ethiopia would have minimal incentive to demarcate the border in a way other than what meets the approval of Tigray which is on record claiming parts of Eritrea.

Participation in a bilateral discussion or dialogue on an already delimited border is not in Eritrea's interest, or for that matter for peace along the border. The time is long past for demarcation to be conducted through bilateral discussion. Bilateral discussions to resolve the border issues are not inherently ineffective, but given the history of the current conflict, at this time, it is not the way to go. Before 1998, there were several face to face discussions on the border. At least after Eritrea's liberation in 1991, several meetings took place, the first as early as November 1993 when a TPLF/EPLF joint committee met in Asmara. There were at least thirteen face-to-face meetings between 1993 and 1997. In 1997 alone six meetings were held along the border between officials from the two countries, although the Ethiopian delegation was composed solely of TPLF officials. All the meetings failed, leading to the fateful incident at Badme on May 6, 1998. If the boundary issue could not be resolved through dialogue and bilateral discussion when the two governments enjoyed warm relations, it is highly dubious the effort could succeed given the bitterness of the past five years.

One has to put Ethiopia's call for dialogue with Eritrea into proper perspective. It helps to remember that the past five years the government of Prime Minister Zenawi vowed never to engage in any official or unofficial face-to-face with anyone in the Eritrean government. The reason? According to Ethiopia, Eritrean troops had occupied "Badme," which Ethiopia claimed was its "sovereign" territory. Never mind that every proposal Ethiopia agreed to, beginning with US/Rwanda Plan, stipulated that Badme was a contested territory whose disposition would not be decided until delimitation and demarcation by a duly appointed Border Commission. Now that the Border Commission has ruled that Eritrea has sovereignty over Badme, Ethiopia has challenged the Decision. Yet it wishes to engage in face to face talks while its troops are still occupying Badme, insisting that-get this-- Badme is a "contested" territory, to which Sir Lauterpacht, President of the EEBC, archly noted in his letter to Prime Minister Meles that no segment of the delimited boundary is any longer a contested territory. Because one side is disputing the award it does not follow that the territory in question is contested. Given the odds against success, it's not clear what sort of dialogue Ethiopia has in mind to convince Eritrean officials to surrender sovereign Eritrean territory. Outside of what is required by published EEBC rules and procedures on erecting pillars that deviate from the delimited line, no one in the Eritrean government has the mandate to tamper with Eritrea's sovereignty.

While as a general proposition dialogue among adversaries is always salutary, one has to concede that Ethiopia is a recent convert to the idea. Its resistance to political dialogue the past five years is well documented. Thus what was from Ethiopia's perspective a valid argument against dialogue at the beginning of the outset of the conflict in May 1998 should be equally valid from Eritrea's perspective on the eve of the Ethiopian-induced abortion of the demarcation of the border in October 2003. Not that dialog by itself is bad. In fact it's the absence of political dialogue that has made a bad situation worse. The problem now is the sequence, whether it should precede or follow demarcation. Since the decision on delimitation is final and binding, demarcation should precede without further delay without any preconditions about the necessity of face-to-face dialogue.

Ethiopia's recent conversion to the imperative of dialogue as a way of resolving conflict with Eritrea is, to put it mildly, not genuine. If it were it would not have subjected a final and binding decision, not subject to appeal by prior agreement for a rehearing by another body. For anyone who closely followed the tortuous diplomatic journey that culminated with the EEBC Decision, it is clear that the call for dialogue is a recipe for more frustrations, more delays. At a time when closure is needed, the Ethiopian proposal attempts to keep the dispute open for the foreseeable future. From Ethiopia's perspective persuading Eritrea to entertain dialogue is to get the Security Council out of the issue, for as long as Ethiopia is in non-compliance of the Algiers Agreement and the EEBC ruling, the enforcement remains in the hands of the Security council but the moment Eritrea accepts Ethiopia's offer of a dialogue, the Security Council would move to the sideline, easing the pressure on Ethiopia considerable.

Even if the call for dialogue fails to convince Eritrea to come to the table to renegotiate its sovereignty, from Ethiopia's perspective the call, even if it is a non-starter, will serve another purpose. To qualify for the massive aid Ethiopia needs to keep soul and body together Prime Minster Meles has to show that his government is committed to peace with Eritrea. The gesture towards dialogue is intended to reassure donors who have been asked to provide Ethiopia huge sums of money to fight poverty and destitution. Donors are less likely to provide Ethiopia with the resources it needs if they suspect the region is headed towards more violence, and political upheaval and instability.

To be sure donors are committed to helping Ethiopia, but their actions would be severely constrained if they think Prime Minster Meles' government is acting outside of the rule of law as non-compliance with UN Security council Resolutions would imply. Donors would be forced to act if Ethiopia continues to defy the EEBC ruling because such an illegal act would set a terrible precedent for future decisions of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It is in this context that Ethiopia hopes the call for dialogue with Eritrea even it does not impress Asmara, would at least persuade donors that Ethiopia is attempting to find a civilized way of resolving its border conflict with Eritrea even the request for dialogue is an ingenious way of asking Eritrea to reopen for discussion an already delimited border. Nevertheless, the perception that Ethiopia is seeking a peaceful way out would not jeopardize the flow of external assistance in a way the resumption of conflict would.

It goes without saying that a modicum of normalization is needed if both countries are to attend to their huge internal social, economic, and political problems. But normalization is impossible unless the Algiers Agreement and the Border Commission are accepted and implemented in their entirety. The border must be demarcated on the basis of the Commission's ruling because it has already been delimited. Currently there are nationals of each country residing in territories awarded to the other party. What's more in Eritrea's case there are 60,000 displaced persons currently in camps but waiting to return to their homes and fields. Since they come mostly from west of the delimited line, but now inhabited by squatters from Tigray, only a speedy demarcation would ease their pain and suffering. Dialogue that promotes normalization will allow for the smooth and expeditious transfer of populations as called for in the Algiers Agreement, for this is the only basis to build peace and harmony among people on both sides of the border. The welfare of the two peoples who live on both sides of the border should be a primary consideration if peace is to take hold in the troubled border areas of the two countries.

To say that peace can be maintained only if one side is pacified at the expense of the other will sow the seeds of future conflict. To argue as Meles has repeatedly done that Tigrayans should be allowed to keep what they claim is theirs' even when the Border Commission said is not, is a recipe for future instability. Peace in the region should not be held hostage because one side, Ethiopia, insists that its territorial claim should be met even if international law says the territory in question belongs to Eritrea. Just because Ethiopia's is much bigger than Eritrea and its population twenty times larger does not mean that Ethiopia's claim should take precedence unless there's a legal basis for the claim in which case endemic conflict will ensue; bad for Eritrea and equally bad even for Ethiopia's own internal stability. One has to be totally ignorant about recent history of the region not to understand that unless there's peace between the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea, Ethiopia itself will enjoy no internal peace. The way Prime Minister Meles and his government are proposing to deal with the boundary issue will insure that there will be neither peace across the border, nor, for that matter, ultimately within Ethiopia itself.

Notwithstanding Ethiopia's pledge not to go to war over the territory, or at least not to be the one to fire the first shot, the pledge although solemnly made by Prime Minister Meles before the Ethiopian parliament, is meaningless. As long as Ethiopia refuses to vacate Eritrean sovereign land, from which it has promised not to budge unless it gets what it wants, it's difficult to see the circumstances under which any government in Eritrea would tolerate the occupation. The time will surely come when an Eritrean government would do what any self respecting government would, exercise the right of self defense, permissible under international law. If Ethiopia's continuing occupation of Eritrean territory is not an act of provocation, one wanders what is. If this is not a manufactured provocation to justify another invasion of Eritrea, then one is at a loss to explain Ethiopian intransigence in the face of opposition from the community of nations.

Prime Minister Meles' pledge not to go to war with Eritrea on the border issue, while creating the environment for one, is a hallow pledge even the most gullible would have a hard time accepting. Not to believe that the logic of continuing Ethiopian occupation would inexorably lead to anything but war is to say the least nave. One can't say one is for peaceful resolution of a problem only to do everything possible to undermine any possibility of achieving one as the Ethiopian government is currently doing. Prime Minister Meles has embarked on a path that would engulf the region in another mega disaster. The Security Council is fully aware of the looming catastrophe if Ethiopia does not permit demarcation on the basis of EEBC Decision as well as past Security Council resolutions, hence the urgency with which it must handle Ethiopia's intransigence. Once Eritrea has agreed to the EEBC Decision, and it has, knowing full when in some parts the decision was unfair, the decision whether Ethiopia fully complies with the ruling or not is up to the Security Council and the guarantors of the Algiers Agreement.

To be continued ...