An Eritrean Perspective on the Demarcation Of
The Eritrean Ethiopian Border
H.E. Mr. Girma Asmerom
Ambassador of the State of Eritrea to the United States
Sponsored by
The Elliott School's Conflict Resolution Forum
George Washington University
Washington, DC
Monday, November 21, 2005
7:00 p.m.


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good evening.

First, allow me to thank you for inviting me to Elliot School's Conflict Resolution Forum.

Eritrea, the youngest country in Africa, is one of the most promising democracies of the African continent. The history of its struggle for independence dates to the colonial scramble for Africa, during which its administration passed through the hands of foreign colonial rulers including the Italians from 1890-1941, the British under a protectorate system from 1941-1952, federation with Ethiopia from 1952-1962 and finally forceful annexation by Ethiopia in 1962. After thirty years of armed resistance against Ethiopian annexation and occupation, Eritrea gained its independence from the Soviet backed communist regime in Ethiopia in 1991.  Soon after independence in 1991, the building blocks for a vibrant democracy were put in place.  In 1993, following the UN observed referendum in which 99.8% of Eritreans overwhelmingly voted for independence, a National Assembly was established and Isaias Afwerki was elected president by the legislature.  

Eritrea is a country that can be characterized by its immense respect for and adherence to public awareness building and accountability, grassroots participation and the rule of law.   As a matter of principle, Eritreans have approached all matters of nation building from the perspective that the process must be inclusive, transparent, democratic and free of corruption.  This principle is apparent both in law and practice.  An undeniable example of this belief being put into action was the formulation of Eritrea's Constitution from 1994-1997 during which Eritreans both in and outside of the country took part in one of the most transparent, extensive and publicly engaging deliberative processes. 

The ratification of the Eritrean Constitution in 1997 first by the 527-member Constitutional Assembly comprised of Eritreans from all walks of life, representing communities nationally and worldwide and second by the 150-member National Assembly reaffirmed the values upon which Eritreans struggled tirelessly for decades to realize, including freedom, justice, democracy, the respect for human rights and gender equality.  In line with the tenets of its national Constitution, Eritrea at this time began the process for its first Constitutional elections against a backdrop of rapid social and economic development. 

Unfortunately, within months of these commendable achievements, of ratifying the constitution a seemingly resolvable border conflict with Ethiopia erupted into all out war in early 1998, during which over 250,000 Eritreans were quickly mobilized to defend the country, over one million Eritreans became internally displaced, over 90,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin were forcibly expelled from Ethiopia, 120,000 Ethiopian and 19,000 Eritrean lives were lost and over $500 million of damage was done to property and the country's infrastructure.

Investing in our people

The people and government of Eritrea, as part of both the country's short and long-term development strategies, have invested heavily into the development of one of its greatest resources, its people.  As exemplified by the various indicators, Eritrea's commitment to the physical and intellectual development of its people is great.  With the few resources available to it and even in the midst of war, Eritrea in the last 14 years has been able to take command of the development of its people and to produce tangible results.   The principles by which Eritrea achieved its independence from foreign domination, namely self-reliance, justice and grassroots democracy, continue to drive the development efforts of the country today with intensity.

Access to education and proper health care are not only an inviolable human right in Eritrea but also a matter of national policy.  To give you a brief overview of some of the achievements registered in Eritrea over the last 14 years in these sectors.  I would like to mention the following activities. In the education sector, the number of primary, junior and secondary schools in Eritrea increased from 473 to 1001, boosting enrollment rates up by more than 100%. Whereas only one university existed in the country at the time of independence in 1991, the country now boasts a university which offers graduate degree programs, a College of Medicine and an Institute of Science and Technology both recently founded in February 2004 and expanded technical and vocational schools in which women's enrollment has increased by 129%. Additionally, colleges of agriculture, marine technology, economics and business management, social sciences and commerce are  established.

In the health sector, hospitals and clinics now located throughout the country increased by over 200% and are providing services to communities formerly neglected.  Two of the deadly diseases plaguing Africa, malaria and HIV/AIDS, are being tackled vigorously.  Targets to reduce the incidence and mortality of malaria by 60% set by the Abuja declaration in 2000 to be met by 2010 have already been fulfilled in Eritrea in early 2004. Eritrean health authorities therefore have set new targets of 80% for 2005. The country has one of the lowest HIV/AIDS infection rates in Africa, much of which can be credited to the aggressive community education and awareness campaigns taken on jointly by the government, the people and the media. One such program sponsored by the government of Eritrea to promote peer counseling and education within the armed forces recently received international recognition. 

Demobilization of the armed forces, which began March 1, 2004 with the demobilization of 65,000 soldiers, will be completed over three phases.  Not only does the program provide financial and physical assistance to all demobilized soldiers, but also psycho-social, professional and educational counseling through a nation wide network of case managers so as to lessen the difficulties in reintegration and to support rehabilitation.  

Economic Freedom

A fundamental part of Eritrea's national development strategy and in particular its poverty reduction strategy emphasizes the importance of food security as well as trade in place of aid and the presence of a vibrant private sector.  In order to encourage these two objectives, the government of Eritrea has implemented very liberal investment and trade policies, streamlined and now recently computerized the tax system, instituted programs to provide low interest small business loans and simplified the business licensing process to a one-stop-shop. 

Special attention has also been given to rebuilding Eritrea's infrastructure, which has included the rehabilitation of the two existing airports and the construction of two additional modern airports that can accommodate any size plane, the asphalting of all major roads connecting Eritrea's cities and towns, the expansion of feeder roads to villages and areas of agricultural production, the reconstruction of the Asmara - Massawa railway line, the institution of a national airline carrier, Eritrean Airlines, the rehabilitation of the two major ports Massawa and Assab, the electrification of major cities and villages and the upgrading of nationwide telecommunication services. 

Within two weeks of its launching in 2004, the Eritrean mobile provider, EriTel, sold approximately 10,000 mobile telephone lines, 96.8% of which were sold to individuals, 3.1% to diplomats and NGO's and 0.03% to senior government employees. 

The liberal trade and investment policies in addition to a number of other advantages allow unrestricted movement of capital and remittance of profits and guarantees foreign capital from nationalization.  They also encourage the transfer of Technology, knowledge and expertise through the hiring of nationals.  Out of the 42 companies nationalized by the former Ethiopian communist regime that ruled Eritrea until 1991, 2/3 of them have now been privatized.  The Asmara Brewery Company and the National Insurance Corporation of Eritrea are transformed into shareholder companies. 

Increased effort has been put into expanding key industries, including fisheries, tourism, manufacturing and mining, as well as reducing and eventually eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade.  A Free Trade Zone Authority has been established and its construction activities in the port of Massawa have already begun. 

In short Eritrea's vision for economic development and regional stability are anchored in 6 core pillars:

  1. Developing our human resources and the acquisition of knowledge in the fields of science and technology through public investments in education and health.
  2. Adhering to the principles of self-reliance and national ownership of development strategies to prevent the trap of dependency on foreign aid
  3. Encouraging equitable partnerships in trade and investment
  4. Cementing dynamic public-private sector cooperation grounded in sound regulation and effective public sector institutions free of corruption and mismanagement
  5. Promoting widespread and comprehensive development throughout all regions of the country with the popular participation of all Eritreans, especially women and other disadvantaged groups
  6. Expanding the physical infrastructure of the country to create an environment conducive for investment and growth in key advantageous economic sectors

Ruling Justly

The foundations for a grassroots, inclusive, participatory and transparent democracy are also taking root. Village and district elections for local councilmen and magistrates held in 2003, 2004 & 2005 and the 2004 & 2005 elections for regional assembly representatives are clear manifestations of the people's and government's commitment to the democratic growth of the country. The 2004 & 2005 elections in the six regions of Eritrea witnessed 92.1% voter participation and the ascension of women candidates to the forefront of public leadership, making up 30% of the elected regional assembly representatives. These elections took place without any presence of social, religious or ethnic strife and have paved the way for the coming free and transparent national elections. A democracy owned by the people is a living reality in Eritrea that continues to grow with each day.

Eritrea's battle with terrorism

While Eritrea has labored tirelessly to remove its population from the scourges of decades of conflict and poverty, it has not had the fortune to be free from the ugly faces of terrorism that has violently made its presence known to the rest of the world in recent years. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon to Eritrea. Wanton acts of terrorism that destroy lives and property and undermine development have been occurring since 1991.

As a secular state, with 50% Christians and 50% Muslims living in peace and harmony, Eritrea was one of the first targets for fundamentalist and terrorist groups. Ten years ago when Osama Bin Laden was an invited guest in Sudan and supported by the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Khartoum, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups financed and trained individuals constantly attempted to infiltrate Eritrea's borders.

The activities of a handful of Eritrean terrorist groups financed and trained by the minority regime in Ethiopia and the NIF in Sudan, such as the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement (EIJM) which is a member of the umbrella organization of mercenary and terrorist groups, the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), has links to Al-Qaeda and whose members are trained in Afghanistan, Sudan and Ethiopia include the planting of land mines in pastoral and agricultural fields, the shelling of civilian and humanitarian transports, the destruction of public facilities including schools, hospitals and water supplies, and the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians. They were responsible for the ruthless and brutal murder of 5 Belgian tourists in 1996 and more recently, the murder of British mining expert, Timothy Nutt, in Bisha near the Sudanese border in April 2003, the bombing of a hotel in Tessenei in 2004 and massacring of innocent civilians in Barentu and Aquerdat in 2004.

In spite of these atrocious acts by the Ethiopian and Sudanese financed and trained mercenaries and terrorists, Eritrea has successfully thwarted their activities and secured its borders through a disciplined and vigilant people and approach. Eritrea knows how determined and vicious these ruthless murderers are and we encourage our partners to stay the course in these difficult times. The people and government of Eritrea respect the enormous costs being paid by peace loving peoples all over the world to uproot terrorists wherever they might be.

Partnership with the United States

In line with our commitment and contribution to fight terrorism, Eritrea sees itself as linked with the world and the United States in the noble cause to defeat fundamentalism and global terrorism. Indeed, we are charter members of this fight. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in recognition of Eritrea's important role in this united effort, stated in a joint press conference with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea on December 10, 2002 in Asmara:

"The way we think about the relationship is the way the President stated... it is that this country has been dealing with the problem of terrorism as our country has. We both agree that these are the kinds of problems that are global, not the kinds of things that can be dealt with by any single country that requires cooperation over a sustained period of time, and multi-faceted relationships that are mutually beneficial... we would say that this country [Eritrea] has considerably more experience than we do. Over a sustained period of time. And we can benefit from its knowledge and from that experience."

Eritrea was also the first African country to join the "coalition of the willing." Our participation was immediate, public and bold. In a written declaration of its stance delivered to the White House on March 12, 2002, the Eritrean government stated:

"The decision taken by the Bush Administration to complete an unfinished job is very much welcome... The task is indeed one of completing an unfinished job for the sake of the stability and security of the Middle East and the permanent removal of a serious threat without losing another opportunity. In this vein, Eritrea continues to maintain that the necessary measures must be taken without equivocation."

Translating words into action, Eritrea has made it clear on a number of occasions that it stands ready to assist the United States in any way it can. It has offered among other things its resources, including the use of its facilities along its 1,200 km strategic Red Sea coastline, two major deep-water ports in Assab and Massawa and the new airport near the port of Massawa that can accommodate any size airplane, blanket flyover rights and the sharing of intelligence.

For any serious anti-terrorist activity to succeed, troops must be on the ground; airspace flyover rights have to be secured; friendly ports are needed for refueling and restocking supplies; live fire training facilities must be close to areas of conflict; air control and radar capabilities need to be established; and for major ground offensives, there must be a front line staging base and a solid regional ally to provide unwavering political and military support. Eritrea is therefore the natural choice and partner. In this context, I can say that Eritrea stands willing to share the burden and success of this fight and that on the basis of mutual benefit interest and respect, we are willing to do even more.

I would like to underline that Eritrea's cooperation with our development partner is not based on political expediency or financial reward but on mutual benefit, long range vision and strategic thinking. In this respect, Eritrea's location along the Red Sea, a major international trade route and oil rich volatile region, should be utilized to create the favorable conditions for regional and global peace and stability so that the real enemies of peace, poverty and ignorance, can be collectively challenged.

Demarcating the Eritrean Ethiopian Border

When we talk about mutual benefit partnership and co-existence in the Horn of Africa region, it is imperative that we discuss the issues of sovereignty and the rule of law. During the last four years, Eritrea experienced the destructive campaign of a regime in Ethiopia bent on waging war despite numerous attempts to resolve the matter peacefully and diplomatically.

Ethiopia's acts of aggression and expansion against Eritrea were apparent as early as 1997, during which it published an illegal map of Tigray [a region from where the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Chief of Staff, the Chief of Police, the Chief of Security and many others come], incorporating large parts of sovereign Eritrean land.  Additionally, before it adventures in Badme in May 1998, the Ethiopian government in July 1997 illegally occupied and dismantled by military force the Eritrean administration in Adi Murug.  These in addition to many other expansionist and provocative actions were deliberate violations of Eritrea's sovereignty preceding Ethiopia's declaration of war, all of which are to be investigated further by an international body.

Prior and even during the war, Eritrea repeatedly insisted that the matter could be resolved peacefully.  The Ethiopian Government was not interested in peace and unleashed war of aggression and expansion.   Whilst it spent hundreds of millions of dollars on building its war machine, millions of its people languished in absolute poverty, widespread communicable disease including HIV/AIDS, chronic drought and famine, illiteracy, state mismanagement and corruption.  A country, with 65% of its national budget dependent upon foreign aid, should not be allowed to divert its meager resources to finance an illegal and destructive expansionist war with its neighbors.

Defying the rule of law and adhering to the concept of "might is right," the regime in Addis  Ababa sent over 400,000 innocent Ethiopians to the frontlines to be used as cannon fodder and human minesweepers, resulting in the death of 120,000 Ethiopians and 19,000 Eritreans.  Additionally, over 90,000 people were forcibly deported from all over Ethiopia for no other reason than their heritage.  Another 15,000 Eritreans have been uprooted from their villages along the border and cannot return because their villages and farmlands are still occupied by Ethiopian troops.  60,000 Eritreans today live in makeshift camps unable to return to their ancestral villages until the demarcation has been completed.

In 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement in Algiers, which would allow an independent boundary commission to determine the common border between Eritrea and Ethiopia.  A major stipulation in this UN Security Council adopted agreement is that the Commissionís decision shall be "final and binding," meaning no changes or amendments can be made and no appeal is allowed; it must be accepted as is.  Both parties agreed.  In April 2002, the Commission delivered its "final and binding" decision, settling the border dispute legally once and for all.

As we talk about regional coexistence and mutual benefit today, one of our biggest lessons is being played out in the region.  A legal, final and binding resolution to the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been delivered in 13 April 2002 and endorsed by the UN Security Council.  Both parties are now today required by international law to implement the Commission's decision without any precondition and concentrate on their economic development agendas and regional integration and peaceful co-existence.  However, one year after the Commission delivered its unanimous decision, on September 19, 2003 Ethiopia's Prime Minister submitted a letter to the UN Security Council reneging on the 2000 Algiers agreement, out rightly rejecting the unanimous "final and binding" decision of the independent Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) and threatening a return to war.

Nevertheless on October 2, 2003, the UN Security Council, rejecting the Ethiopian Prime Minister's attempts to amend and change the verdict, wrote him urging his government to "provide its full and prompt cooperation to the Boundary Commission and its field offices in order that demarcation can proceed in all sectors as directed by the Boundary Commission." Moreover, the President of the EEBC has also rejected Ethiopia's insulting allegations.  In a letter sent to Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the UN, the Chairman of the AU, the Foreign Minister of Eritrea and the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia dated October 7, 2003, he explicitly states that "there is no 'crisis' [as alleged by Ethiopia] terminal or otherwise, which cannot be cured by Ethiopia's compliance with its obligations under the Algiers Agreement."

So now I ask, what kind of precedent do these actions, more specifically Ethiopia's rejection of the final and binding decision of a legal body and U.N.S.C. resolutions, set for other conflicts taking place on our African Continent and the world? Ethiopia is engaged in territorial disputes with three more of its neighbors, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya.  What are we saying about our trust and commitment to arbitration and the rule of law in the world as a basis for conflict resolution?  What signal does this send about the success of regional integration and coexistence as well as the principle of rejecting the use of force to resolve disputes and conflicts when some countries revert to "might is right" policies, violate international laws, reject U.N.S.C. resolution and promote the law of the jungle?

The International Community and particularly the guarantors and witnesses of the Algiers Agreement, the US, EU, OAU (AU) and UN, must not allow the blatant violation of international law to take place. It must hold the regime in Ethiopia accountable to the U.N.S.C. endorsed signed Algiers Agreement and follow through on its role as guarantors/witnesses which includes the imposition of punitive measures against the party that refuses to demarcate the border without any precondition. 

The International Community and especially the United States has a very real and significant stake in the upholding of international agreements and the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions. Ethiopia must be forced to accept the Commission's final and binding decision as it is required and as it had promised to do. Demarcation must take place without any precondition and further delay in accordance with the EEBC directives and orders.

As a result of Ethiopia's intransigence, another war between Eritrea and Ethiopia would be extremely disastrous and destabilizing to the peace and security of the region and the world. It will also create a devastating humanitarian catastrophe, offering opportunities for terrorist breeding grounds to emerge. If the rule of law and international agreements are respected by Ethiopia, this can easily be prevented and must be avoided.

Ethiopia's refusal to accept the final and binding decision of the EEBC is a clear violation of international law and basic international norms that require appropriate punitive measures by the International Community. It is also an irreverent test of international resolve. I say again it is not too late for the International Community, in particular the United States, to avert a disaster in the Horn of Africa. With the speedy demarcation of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border, the hope of the Horn of Africa becoming a stable and promising region will be restored. The Eritrean government has a clear vision and agenda for economic cooperation and peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the countries of the region.

With regards to the prospects for partnership and coexistence in the Horn, I confess I remain hopeful.  Even from our experiences in Eritrea as disappointing as Ethiopia's recent actions may be, if the international community exerts the necessary pressure to ensure that the rule of law and final and binding agreements are respected by Ethiopia, I am optimistic of the fact that mutual economic cooperation and peaceful coexistence will prevail in our region.  In today's global village, there is no other alternative.

The Horn of Africa region holds great potential for economic growth and prosperity.  The countries of the region must focus on combating famine, poverty, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy and the challenges of democratization.  We must place more attention on our human and physical resources and strengthen institutions to support the development of the public and private sectors.  Much can be gained from our peaceful coexistence, regional cooperation and integration.  They should be our priorities.  If we do not, we the people of the region and the International Community have only much to lose. We don't have to lose much because of the intransigence and defiant nature of regime in Ethiopia.
Thank you.