The Ethiopian-Eritrean crisis:
The Eritrean perspective

Foreign Minister Haile Woldensae
(Initially published in "American Foreign Policy Interests".
Vol. 20, Number 6, December 1998)

Allow me to preface my re marks to this group of emi nent persons by expressing deep appreciation to the officers and members of the Executive Boards of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the Peace and Development Committee for their kind invitation and the opportunity afforded me and my colleagues to share with you our thoughts on the current Eritrean-Ethiopian crisis. There is reason to hope that these and the other problems of the world will be amenable to solutions as long as far-sighted people like you recognize the essential interdependence of our world and the fact that a disturbance of peace and tranquillity in one region will sooner or later affect the peoples of other regions. Two major challenges confront any developing nation in the world today: the betterment of the living conditions of its nationals and the preservation of peace. These are, of course, mutually interdependent. The government and the people of Eritrea recognize that peace is an essential precondition for development. The commitment to peace has therefore been a prominent cornerstone of Eritrean foreign policy. To this end, it has set out to create peaceful conditions at home and, in collaboration with its neighbors, to establish a regime of peace and enduring stability in a region of the world in which the two have been absent for several decades. Thus Eritrea has assiduously worked toward the revitalization of IGAD with a view to making it more relevant and purposeful in meeting the multifaceted needs of the region. It has also cooperated with all the countries of the region, including, in particular, Ethiopia, to bring about peace and stability to the region, in particular, the Sudan and Somalia.

Eritrea's geographical position as a littoral state of the Red Sea and as a member of the historically troubled Horn of Africa has hitherto made it the victim of an inordinate number of colonial wars and wars of aggression in the declaration and conduct of which its people had no say at all. The thirty years92 war of liberation, caused to a large extent by the UN's unwillingness to live up to its responsibilities of ensuring respect for its resolutions and decisions, has taken an excessive toll inhuman lives, the loss of property, and the destruction of the ecology. Eritreans are thus determined that their country will not again be scarred by the ravages of war and that their foreign and domestic policies will not be counseled by the logic of the use of force. They affirm and strictly adhere to the principles of peace, non aggression, good neighborliness, non interference in the internal affairs of states, nonintervention, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. These principles are applied uniformly, with neighbors and others alike.

This policy framework had hitherto enabled Eritrea to establish an exemplary close tie of friendship even with a former enemy, Ethiopia. It has also helped to defuse conflict with the Republic of Yemen and to arrive at a mutual agreement to resolve the conflict between them over the Eritrean archipelago of Hanish-Zuquar in the Red Sea by peaceful means of arbitration. It has also helped bring about a peaceful resolution of the misunderstanding with Djibouti. In all instances, Ethiopia had steadfastly upheld Eritrea's policies and actions. Almost equally important is the fact that it underlies our determined search for mutually beneficial economic and commercial relations among the countries of the region.

Eritrea's conduct of its foreign policy and its relations with all states, including Ethiopia, have been consistent with these declared policies. Today too the government of Eritrea insists that the road to peace with Ethiopia extends from the strict application and enforcement of the principles of the charters of the UN and the OAU as well as the OAU decision on colonial borders. Once again, Eritrea calls on the international community, particularly the UN and the OAU, to ensure respect for these principles and decisions.

Conflict with Ethiopia

That is why Eritrea was surprised and disturbed by the eruption of conflict with Ethiopia because in spite of disagreements on the issue of boundaries dating back to the days armed struggle, the Eritrean government had assumed and hoped, in view of the close relations between the two, that it would be possible to arrive at an amicable and enduring solution.

Responsibility for the escalation of the dispute rests solely with the government of Ethiopia that has for a long period of time consistently violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Eritrea, resulting in the occupation of large tracts of Eritrean territory followed by the forced displacement of Eritrean peasants and the replacement of Eritrean administrative structures by Ethiopian institutions. It reached a climax on May 6 only as a result of the further unprovoked incursions by members of the Ethiopian armed forces that attacked Eritrean troops in the Badma region in southwestern Eritrea. These incursions were premeditated and meticulously planned.

For a long time Eritreans opted for patient and quiet diplomacy. They had hoped against hope that the periodic incursions were only the petty acts of some miscreant and ill-advised regional officials. It was only at a late stage and particularly after the publication in 1997 of an official map of the Tigray Administrative Zone, the home base of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which s the senior and hegemonic member of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), incorporating additional indisputably Eritrean territory, and particularly after the issuance of the new Ethiopian currency note depicting the same map, that they realized the full meaning of the Ethiopian adventure.

Consequently, even in the aftermath of the fighting that was triggered by the unprovoked Ethiopian incursion and attacks on Eritrean troops, Eritrea never crossed its internationally recognized border; but Ethiopia still controls other Eritrean territory in southwestern and southeastern Eritrea.

In spite of all this evidence of its aggressive deeds, the Ethiopian government is conducting an absurd propaganda campaign to portray Eritrea as warmongering nation that committed aggression against Ethiopian territory, which it occupies. Nothing could be further from the truth. At no time have Eritrean troops crossed Eritrea's internationally recognized borders, and its territory is there for everyone to see. On the contrary, it was Ethiopian troops that invaded Eritrea after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's declaration of war on May 13, 1998. They were repulsed. In fact, it is important to recall that Dr. Tekeda Alemu, the deputy foreign minister of Ethiopia, articulated Ethiopia's expansionist designs by publicly declaring in a speech to members of the Ethiopian community in the United States that Ethiopia would occupy the Eritrean port of Assab within a short time. In light of the above, Ethiopia's claims that it is the victim of aggression and will not negotiate unless Eritrea withdraws from "its territory" are obviously false and are meant to hoodwink the international community and to cover its own acts of aggression.

Even today Ethiopia is threatening war unless Eritrea withdraws unconditionally from territories that are within its internationally recognized borders. Today virtually the whole of the Ethiopian Army has taken positions along the Eritrean border, and almost all of the most powerful leaders of Ethiopia, including the president, the prime minister, the deputy minister and minister of defense, the chief of staff of the armed forces, the president of the Tigray Region, and the senior official of the TPLF, publicly declared only in the past few weeks that Ethiopia has finalized preparations for war and will soon teach Eritreans lessons they will never forget.

The violation of Borders

This is a dispute about borders and the violation of these borders by Ethiopia, nothing more and nothing less. It is not linked to the differences on trade between the two countries. It is not about mineral deposits in the disputed area and definitely not about aggression, as Ethiopia claims. It is about Ethiopian expansionism and the willful violation of the non-controversial and clearly defined, internationally recognized boundaries between the two countries. Indeed, these boundaries are probably some of the most meticulously defined African borders. The village of Badma is well inside Eritrean territory. The Ethiopian occupation of Badma and its environs was therefore nothing short of a blatant violation of the UN and OAU charters and Resolution AHG/RES 16(1) of the First Assembly of Heads of State and Government held in Cairo in 1964 that sanctified respect for colonial borders in Africa.

The Ethiopian authorities have unabashedly declared that Badma and its environs "have never been part of Eritrea," either during Italian colonialism or since. This awkward falsehood can easily be contradicted by any map of Eritrea from Italian times to the present, including those that were produced by the governments of both Emperor Haile-Selassie and Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam and by the UN before it created the ill-fated Ethiopian-Eritrean Federation.

Badma is located, without any ambiguity, within Eritrea's colonial boundaries. These boundaries were defined by internationally recognized colonial treaties and confirmed by the UN when it created the ill-fated federation and when it gave Eritrea its first constitution. The constitution, which incorporates part of the UN Resolution (390 [v], 1952) that created the federation, unequivocally states that "the territory of Eritrea, including the islands, is that of the former Italian colony of Eritrea." The current Ethiopian government cannot therefore invoke legitimacy as a successor state to an administration in Badma that existed outside its recognized colonial boundaries.

In any case, it must be a supreme irony of history that Ethiopia, which was the most important sponsor of the Cairo Resolution on colonial boundaries and had effectively used it against the claims of the Republic of Somalia in the sixties and seventies, is now attempting to undervalue it because it undermines its occupation. It also augurs bad for inter-African international relations because it will open a Pandora's box of claims and counterclaims.

In spite of all this, the government of Eritrea has been consistently pursuing a peaceful policy to resolve the situation first by bilateral means and then through international mediation. It has been constant in its condemnation of force and has upheld the view that border disputes of whatever nature can and should be resolved by peaceful and legal means.

In this connection, it must be mentioned that both the executive and the legislate branches of the Eritrean government have repeatedly called on the government of Ethiopia to pursue a similar policy of peace.

Two examples will suffice. In July 1997 Ethiopian forces unexpectedly and forcibly occupied the Eritrean village of Bada (Adi Murug) in southeastern Eritrea. They entered the area with the express permission of Eritrean authorities ostensibly to pursue Ethiopian Afar opposition elements. On that occasion the president of Eritrea wrote to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to remind him that "the forcible occupation of Adi Murug [was] truly sad" and to urge him "personally to take the necessary prudent action so that the measure that had been taken [by Ethiopian forces] will not trigger unnecessary conflict." Then again, President Isaias wrote to the Ethiopian prime minister about ten days later, on August 25, 1997, to inform him that the transgressions that had been committed in Bada were being repeated in Badma and to suggest the creation of a Joint Commission to avert further deterioration of the situation and to resolve all outstanding problems amicably. Similarly, in a resolution that it passed on June 18, 1998, the Eritrean National Assembly urged the leaders of the Eritrean government to continue their attempts to engage the Ethiopian government in a constructive dialogue with a view to achieving a peaceful and legal solution to the problem. Unfortunately, all Eritrean efforts to bring about a peaceful solution to the dispute have failed because the Ethiopian government obdurately insists that Eritrea must unconditionally withdraw from the territories that Ethiopia illegally occupied in the first place, that is, from Eritrea's own territory. This precondition - as unfair, unjust, and fraudulent as it possibly could be - is not acceptable now and will not be acceptable at any time in the future.

The Eritrean Reaction

The question may be asked: What took you so long to react? The asnwer is that since its liberation Eritrea has had no particular fixation with the problem of borders for several reasons. First, the borders were just about the most clearly defined in Africa, and it was believed that there would be no room for controversy. Second, Eritrea had an abiding faith in its presumed strong bond with Ethiopia and in the two countries92 common commitment to regional integration. Under the circumstances it saw no reason to pay any significant attention to what it considered to be a secondary issue. Finally, it believed in quiet diplomacy.

The Ethiopian offensive

On the other hand, Ethiopia has unremittingly pursued a policy of chicanery and the use or the threat of force. It is also perpetrating the massive violation of the human rights of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin and conducting a propaganda campaign emphasizing ethnic hatred against Eritreans and their leaders.

I cannot believe that at this late stage the distinguished members of both committees are unaware of the horrendous human rights violations, including kidnappings, arbitrary arrests, detentions, deportations and expulsions, the deplorable and dehumanizing conditions of expulsion and deportation as well as the cruel, degrading, humiliating, and inhuman treatment of more than 20,000 Eritreans and Ethiopian government. The expellees include Eritrean staff members of international organizations, mostly from the UN, and citizens of third countries, including the United States and Canada who are of Eritrean origin. The implausible reason given by Ethiopia to justify this veritable ethnic cleansing, which, by the way, is still continuing, is that all the victims are spies.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the Ethiopian government has also accompanied its threat of force with a bombardment of lies, distoritions, perversions, and deplomtic subterfuge that, in an amazingly refined appplication of the Orewellian peinciple, accused the Eritrean government of precisely the outrages and atrocities it committed against Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin. The truth is that the Eritrean government has not detained, expelled, deported, or otherwise violated the rights - human or otherwise - of Ethiopians living in Eritrea. This contention has been verified by legitimate third parties such as representatives of the European Union, specific UN agencies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. As usual, the Ethiopian government has called all of them liars. We have extended to all interested parties invitations to make on -the-spot verifications of the human rights conditions in both Eritrea and Ethiopia. We now extend this invitation to your committees. We also would like you to receive a similar invitation from the Ethiopian government.

Eritrea seeks no territorial expansion or selfish advantages. It has no plan of aggression against any other state. We have no objective that will clash with the peaceful aims of any other state. On the other hand, we will not passively countenance territorial changes, acquisitions, or special advantages made at our expense and obtained by force or the threat of force, diplomatic duplicity, or any other coercive measures.

Eritrea's Proposal for Peace

Eritrea desires peace with all the world but perhaps most of all with its neighbors. Eritrea has thus made several proposals to solve the current problem peacefully, and I hereby submit the proposal made by my president, H.E. Isaias Afwerki, to the Nonaligned Summit recently held in Durban, South Africa.

  1. A comprehensive solution of the problem through a technical demarcation based on established colonial treaties that clearly define the boundary between the two countries;

  2. Arbitration based on the sanctity of colonial borders in the event that that is demanded by the other party; and

  3. An immediate cease-fire and the cessation of all hostilities that will be monitored by an observer force under the auspices of the UN until a lasting legal solution can be adopted.

    There are limits to misdeeds, and any self-respecting state should be expected to endure few of them. We hold the view that he territory of a state is always inviolable and cannot be the object of occupation or of any other measure of force imposed by another state directly or indirectly for any motive or purpose whatsoever. It is the right and duty of the government and people of a country to protect their rights against misdeeds that affect their vital interests. Such an action is legal and legitimate and promotes peace and justice.

Quiet Diplomacy and Other Initiatives

To date several countries, including Norway and other European countries, are conducting quiet diplomacy. In addition, the OAU is continuing to conduct its initiative, and the U.S. government has also embarked on a new initiative. Eritrea welcomes all these gestures of goodwill; but it hopes that they will be supportive of one another and that their proliferation will not lead to contrary and unexpected results.

In this connection I wish to refer to the U.S. - Rwanda Facilitation effort. I have no doubt that the facilitators acted out of goodwill and in good faith; but they acted in ultra vires. The mandate of a facilitator - any facilitator - is to a dispute a framework for the resolution of the conflict that should be acceptable to both parties. It is not part of the mandate of any facilitator to make recommendations to the parties involved and certainly not to third parties. This understanding was made clear to them by the Eritrean government, which, on several occasions, made strong reservations about some of the details of what would have been a negotiating framework. The facilitators made an error of judgment in ignoring the reservations. They compounded the problem when they presented not a negotiating framework to the parties but recommendations to the OAU. The Eritrean delegation to the OAU Summit in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, took strong exceptions to the submission of recommendations and again made known its reservations. It may be argued that the facilitators took this unprecedented step, in spite of the strong objections of one of the parties to the dispute, to avert imminent armed conflict. History, of course, has proved that assumption wrong. On the contrary, it is now abundantly clear that it only made the government of Ethiopia, which is still clinging to the recommendations, more obdurate and intransigent. It must also be remembered that it was on the day that the facilitators were to present their recommendations that Ethiopian Air Force jets, for whatever reason, were ordered to bomb Asmara International Airport and thus escalate the conflict. That was to be fatal to the U.S. - Rwanda initiative.

Eritrea appreciates the apprehension of all women and men of goodwill, both in and outside of government, about the possible renewal of fighting. It understands and shares their concerns about the disastrous consequences that could take place. I wish to reiterate that Eritrea is committed now, as it has been since the beginning of the crisis, to a peaceful and legal solution. It will remain open to all constructive advice. Above all, Eritrea will not abandon its vision of a peaceful and stable region that fosters cooperative relations with all states.