Demarcation Watch: UNSC in the Footsteps of the League of Nations
By: Tekie Fessehatzion
April 13, 2005

To-day is the third anniversary of the April 2002 EEBC Decision on delimitation of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border.  Unfortunately the border remains un-demarcated, with all the attendant political tension the impasse has caused. There is even talk of another war in the air, before the wounds of the last one have healed. The early hope that with the conflict behind them the two countries would turn their attention to raising the standard of living of their people has been dashed.   

All this because of the intransigence of one man, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has the habit of giving his word that he would comply one day, only to renege on it later; a man who accepted the EEBC ruling in full once, only to call it "totally illegal, unjust, and irresponsible" later; a man, who under pressure, says he accepts the ruling "in principle," only to reject it in practice.          

Prime Minister Meles has accomplices. As a group they aided and abetted his intransigence: a compliant Office of the UN Secretary General, the African Union, and the UN Security Council who have made it a habit of paying undue sensitivity to the political needs of the Ethiopian leader ought to share culpability for the impasse. Only the EEBC has been consistent in its faithful reading of its UN Security given mandate to delimit and demarcate the border on the basis of the Algiers Agreement, and when Ethiopia rejected the ruling, the Commission's President unlike the guarantors of the Algiers Agreement, had no problem holding Ethiopia accountable.    

The development agencies for their part have also contributed to the intransigence. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars for development and other poverty reduction purposes, knowing full well that the money is consistently diverted to purchase arms. In a way the multilateral lending institutions who indirectly financed the 1998-2000 war are about to repeat a similar feat if people of courage don't come forward and say "enough is enough: the border must first be demarcated without preconditions." 

Although based on false premise and a far fetched parallel, there is a method to Meles Zenawi's intransigence. By imposing a "no war, no peace" environment he believes he could do to Eritrea what Ronald Reagan did to the former Soviet Union. Reagan engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union by engaging Moscow in a wasteful arms race. While the US economy was strong enough to support huge defense expenditure, the Soviet Union was forced to divert resources from the civilian economy to the detriment of economic growth, and ultimately the standard of living of people in the Soviet Union suffered, thus ushering the collapse of the entire system. Meles hopes to achieve the same purpose in Eritrea as if what he has in mind would be lost on Eritrea. 

The parallel with the US is false because unlike the US Ethiopia pays for its defense not from local resources but from donated monies diverted from their intended uses, mostly for poverty reduction purposes. But sooner or later Ethiopia would be asked why it is spending so much in the face of extreme poverty. Initially the Soviet Union bankrolled Mengistu's war until Mikhail Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union was wasting resources on a losing cause. Thus putting Eritrea under a "no war, no peace" trap by using resources initially intended for poverty reduction may not be a wining strategy in the long run.

It should be clear to any one that by engineering a "no war, no peace" climate, Ethiopia has essentially declared an indirect economic war on Eritrea. To respond to the military threat Eritrea has placed its economy on a war footing that unfortunately results in stagnant economic growth, inefficient resource allocation, and an untenable macroeconomic imbalance. From Ethiopia's point of view nothing could be a better strategy for bringing Eritrea to its knees. But this assumes that Eritrea has no strategy to break out of the "no war, no peace" straight jacket. 

As Sir Lauterpacht, the EEBC's President said in his letter to the Security Council, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border has been delimited. The line on paper is "final and binding" regardless what each party thinks. Badme is Eritrea's according to international law. It would be nice to have demarcation now, but that can wait for another day. As long as the border has not been demarcated UNMEE is obligated to stay there to separate the two armies. Eritrea could switch to a strategy that emphasizes diplomatic pressure on the witnesses of the Algiers Agreement, to remind them of their responsibility to the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea that war is not an option but because of their benign neglect that the region has turned into ticking bomb.   

The Security Council should take the lead in forcing Ethiopia to comply with the EEBC ruling. At a deeper level the dispute is between Ethiopia and the Security Council which has a choice of spending $200 million until kingdom come or force Ethiopia to comply with international law. Secondly just as the West paid a price (the spread of fascism) by not taking a principled position on behalf of Ethiopia and small nations in general seventy years ago, the Security Council would pay a price. It will create a precedent that it is acceptable to reject rulings and resolutions from the highest organs of the United Nations and the World Court if one is inclined to do so.       

There was a time when defiance to Security Council resolutions meant quick punitive action. But then Eritrea is not Kuwait, or Bosnia, or Lebanon, or even Darfur to excite the interest of at least one of the major powers; nor does Meles remind anyone of Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussien. Meles knows this and he is exploiting it to the fullest extent possible. He is making a mockery of a "final and binding" Tribunal decision thus setting a precedent the World community would regret.   

Just as the League of Nations thought it could buy peace and security at the expense of Ethiopia in 1935, the Security Council in its eagerness to appease Meles Zenawi is setting a precedent for other countries to ignore Tribunal decisions and Security Council resolutions in 2005. If the current members of the Security Council thought they could get peace and security in the Horn of Africa at the expense of Eritrea, they are grievously mistaken.

Here a bit of recent history might help. The US built Emperor Haile Selassie's army from scratch. It did not help the Monarch. The Soviet Union armed Mengistu Hailemariam to the teeth. It did not help the Comrade either. In case a reminder is needed, Eritrea was the main reason why both who looked so formidable in their prime, lost. No reason to believe that Meles Zenawi would be spared a similar fate for the simple reason that any Ethiopian ruler who tries to subdue Eritrea losses power at home. This is something Ethiopia's financiers ought to ponder.       

Western diplomats and journalists rationalize the Security Council's reluctance to press Ethiopia to comply fully with the EEBC decision to Ethiopia's size and its role as a strategic ally of the West in the fight against international terrorism while sheepishly admitting that indeed Eritrea holds a higher moral ground on the issue. But the proponents of this view may not immediately recall the irony of their observation. The last time international morality was sacrificed to the exigencies of geopolitics was seventy years ago when Emperor Haile Selassie went before the League of Nations to demand justice for his small nation. The irony of ironies is that yesterday's small nation, Ethiopia, now wants to become today's neighborhood bully, and the same Powers that appeased Mussolini then are eager to placate Meles Zenawi now. The UN Security Council appears to be following in the footsteps of the League of Nations.