Ethiopia's Hostages: Peace and Demarcation
Tekie Fessehatzion
March 31, 2003

The constellation of factors that came into play preceding the May 2000 war--massive humanitarian assistance for Ethiopia, troops deployment, arms purchases and donors' assistance for emergency and development purposes is coming into full view to the discomfort of many who believe in the peaceful resolution of the conflict. If the usual pattern holds these are the usual tell-tell signs that Ethiopia may be contemplating the use of force to resolve its border problem with Eritrea. And what's more, all the external actors who perhaps unwittingly financed the last war are at it again: the flourishing "Relief Industry" comprised of international aid agencies and Addis Ababa based NGOs have successfully secured 600,000 tons of emergency assistance while donors have pledged another 3.5 billion dollars, more than enough to feed and arm the next deployment of Ethiopian troops for the possible resumption of the conflict.

Given that the worst drought since the early eighties is wreaking havoc on the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea, one would assume that another war would be the last thing the hard luck people of the region need, especially one paid for in part by the diversion of international assistance meant to combat famine and fight underdevelopment. In case anyone has forgotten, the 1998-2000 war was an unmitigated catastrophe in every conceivable way. It's hard to put in words the degree of devastation the wretched war has caused. The population in the region has suffered a level of calamity unusual even in the calamity prone region called the Horn of Africa. The socio-economic indexes of well being in both countries have fallen precipitously, living standards have plummeted, and democratization has reversed course.

In addition to the incalculable loss in human lives and dashed hopes, the war was a colossal waste of scarce resource. It has sapped their energy to cope with the almost certain devastation of the looming famine or the horrific impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. By some estimates, the hard currency component of war related expenditure has been put at 2.5 billion dollars, Ethiopia spending four dollars for every dollar Eritrea spent. It does not take much to assume that had it not been for the war, Ethiopia and Eritrea would have been better prepared to cope with the current calamity. In the current environment, particularly the latest United Nations Security Resolution affirming the Border Commission's ruling there is no alternative to peace. Another war is sheer madness.

There is a palpable longing for peace among ordinary people in Ethiopia and Eritrea, but their heartfelt longings may not be realized if Prime Minister Meles succumbs to the demands of "Abyssinian Fundamentalists" as John Sorenson calls them, who have little in common except that they are on denial about Eritrean independence, and in the case of the Woyane variety, they believe Tigray's boundaries should extend deep into Eritrea. The Fundamentalists, most of whom reside in Europe and North America, safe from the reaches of another devastating war, are almost alone in their advocacy of the use of force to resolve the conflict. Even the elite Addis Ababa press, best represented by the Addis Tribune, is against war (March 28 editorial; "We can't afford another war."). Either through conviction or opportunism, the Prime Minister has joined the Fundamentalists in their call to defy international law, to play the politics of blackmail, holding demarcation and peace hostage to their territorial demand. The message is clear: There will be no demarcation; there will be no peace, unless the Ethiopian government's demands have been met, notwithstanding the ruling of the impartial Border Commission.

Badme, in whose name Ethiopia declared war on Eritrea, has assumed importance far in excess of its size. The Commission's decision to award Badme to Eritrea has presented Prime Minister Meles' government with a political minefield: how best to explain to the people of Ethiopia why thousands of Ethiopians perished in a pointless war to "restore Badme" to Ethiopia when in fact as the Commission ruled, Badme was inconvertibly Eritrea's all along. In its March 21 statement ("Observations") the Border Commission rested for good the controversy about Badme, its location, and Ethiopia's evidence to support its claim:


"The references to Ethiopian governmental control of Badme and its environs were insufficient to persuade the Commission that an Ethiopian presence west of the line from Points 6 to 9 would support a departure from the line that had crystallized by 1935. This conclusion followed from the inadequacy of Ethiopia's evidence. Since Badme village (as opposed to some other parts of the Badme region) lay on what was found to be the Eritrean side of the treaty line, there was no need for the Commission to consider any evidence of Eritrean governmental presence there, although Eritrea did in fact submit such evidence."

As incredulous as it may seem, even the maps Ethiopia presented to the Border Commission in support of its claim placed Badme where it should be: inside Eritrea. As the Commission tersely noted:


"Moreover, even some maps submitted by Ethiopia not only showed the distinctive straight line between the Setit and Mareb Rivers, but also marked Badme village as being on the Eritrean side of that line."

The Prime Minister is attempting to achieve the unachievable: how to satisfy the demands of the Fundamentalists in his party and simultaneously to pretend to comply with international law as called by the various UN Security Council Resolutions on the border issue. If for nothing else to keep international assistance flowing. Goaded by the Fundamentalists, the Prime Minister is searching desperately for a way to reverse the Commission's decision on Badme. The Fundamentalists principal argument is that the sacrifices of thousands of their compatriots in the battles for Badme would go in vain if Tigray is not awarded Badme regardless of what the Border Commission ruled. For the Prime Minister the chickens have finally come home to roost, reaping what he has sawn. The fact is that he had misled Ethiopians twice: first when he said Badme was Ethiopia's; and, second when he said the April border ruling gave Ethiopia Badme. Now he wants the Border Commission to bail him out, by reversing its April 2002 decision, or else ...

Ethiopia hopes to gain through demarcation what it lost in the April 2002 delimitation decision. As Sir Lauterpacht, President of the Border Commission, noted in his report to the Secretary General, Ethiopia continued to present a rehash of the arguments its lawyers made during the hearings before the Commission, and which the Commission had rejected for the most part. Saying it accepts the April Decision as final and binding, Ethiopia, in the January 24, 2003 submission to the Commission, nevertheless, demanded that the issue be reopened. The 141-page document challenged the Commission's ruling not just on the Western Sector where Badme is located, but also on the Central and Eastern Sectors, with the exception of Bure. The intent is to push the classical 90 km straight-line border of the Western Sector further west; move north the Commission mandated border in the Central Sector; and, push eastwards the Eastern Sector line. The complaints in the January 24 brief have once more have been firmly and sternly rejected by the Commission's March 21 "Observations," a point- by- point response to the 141-page brief.

The thrust of Ethiopia's appeal, although no provision for appeal is provided in the Algiers Agreement, is that demarcation, unlike delimitation must take into account the "reality on the ground," which covered several factors, including the alleged cultural unity of the communities that would be violated if the boundary was to be drawn on the basis of the April delimitation decision. It was also suggested that the line that would necessarily emanate from the Commission's ruling would be harmful to the communities adjacent to the new line: it would close off access to educational and health service facilities to the communities that would be transferred to Eritrea. It was also alleged that resettlement of people whose land has been awarded to Eritrea would cause undue hardship as it would severe them from their cultural base. But resettlement is nothing new in Ethiopia. At the moment the government is seeking donors' assistance to resettle thousands of people from the drought affected areas to other parts of Ethiopia where people can make a new start on life, but where cultures may not mix. Unable to consider that the Commission rejected Ethiopia's claim on merit, Mr. Meles' government is hinting that the Commission failed to appreciate the importance of religious symbols in keeping communities whole in Africa. In a not so subtle dig at the jurists who sat on the Commission, Ethiopia decried at the inability of Westerners to appreciate the place of the Church in Ethiopian community life since some of the communities would lose their church if their town or village were to be awarded to Eritrea. It's hard to believe that Prince Bola Adesombo Ajibola, a distinguished Nigerian international lawyer, and one of Ethiopia's nominee in the Commission would fail to bring an African's perspective to the Commission's deliberations.

Leaving aside for the moment that Eritrea could advance similar justifications on to retrieve territory it believes were wrongly awarded to Ethiopia, the Ethiopian brief overlooked important components of the Algiers Agreement; that the Commission was precluded from making any subjective judgment outside of the parameter set by the Algiers Agreement which rejected any decision based on ex aequo et bono, any subjective consideration not based on a strict interpretation of colonial treaties and applicable international law; that Ethiopia along with Eritrea had agreed in advance that the delimitation decision would be final and binding; and, that both countries knew that the boundary line may divide some communities and that arrangements would be made for their transfer. But even if the Commission were to make subjective judgment by taking human and physical geography into account, it is difficult to see how on its merit the readjusted line could be drawn to favor Ethiopia's position.

An understanding of the evolution of the communities adjacent to the straight line border shows the weakness of the Ethiopian argument about the cultural unity and rooted-ness of the communities whose interest Ethiopia is defending. Until recently and perhaps immediately before the war, the communities adjacent to both sides of the 90 kilometer straight line boundary were Eritrean. The names of the communities are self-explanatory. Besides all the Kunama names that indicate the Eritrean nature of the area, names such as Dembe-Asmara, Sembel, Adi-Tsetser, Dembe-Habela, Hiret,... are names Eritrean Highlanders gave to the communities they established in these traditional Kunama areas. The area was under the control of ELF forces for most of the seventies. The areas the Highlanders settled in are traditional Kunama lands. The Kunama are an indigenous Eritrean population as recognized by the 1902 Treaty between Menelik and the Italians, and reaffirmed by the Border Commission's interpretation of the 1902 Treaty that placed all Kunama west of the border. The fact is, and the Commission has admitted it in its April Decision, there are still Kunama settlements east of the now legally binding straight-line border. If human geography was going to be taken into consideration, then the border can only be pushed further east to make sure no Kunama community is left east of the border. Tigrayans started moving to the areas only after the Derg pushed the ELF forces from the area and subsequently the TPLF, which took advantage of the situation, followed a policy of expelling Eritreans from their land under the pretext that they once supported the ELF. The policy continued even after Eritrean independence, and simultaneously the TPLF assuming power in Ethiopia. The policy of changing the geographic make-up of the communities adjacent to the straight-line boundary had began to take shape with more determination after the 1998 war. If there are any Tigrayans adjacent to the straight-line border at this time it is only because they are living on stolen property whose rightful owners, Eritreans, have been expelled.

It should be noted also that as an occupier of sovereign Eritrean territory Ethiopia has had ample opportunity to change "the reality on the ground" through deportations and expulsions of Eritrean citizens while encouraging new Ethiopian settlements in the areas Eritreans were expelled from. "Changing reality on the ground" was what Ethiopia tried to do recently, after the April Decision, in the area around Dembe Mengul, an illegal act the Commission found it necessary to tell Ethiopia to stop immediately through its Order of 17 July 2002 and its Determination of 7 November 2002. The policy, designed to "change the reality on the ground" has destroyed scores of Eritrean communities along the border. Three years after the conflict has officially ended, there are more than 60,000 Eritreans displaced from their original communities in the border areas, for the most part areas the Commission has ruled to be part of sovereign Eritrean territory. Thus if the Commission were to accede to Ethiopia's request to redraw the line as to incorporate the depopulated Eritrean communities into Ethiopia, the Commission would be legitimizing the form of ethnic cleansing Ethiopia had pursued for the last several years.

Ethiopia's request for reopening the final and binding case has been accompanied by a poorly veiled threat. Hence Prime Minister Meles' warning that if Ethiopia's demand does not prevail and if the Commission's decision were allowed to stand it "would cause problems." Through written briefs and oral arguments Ethiopia's lawyers sought to convince the Border Commission that for the sake of peace and stability in the border areas the drawing of the boundary line should reflect the "reality on the ground" to the degree the April delimitation decision did not, implying that it's in Ethiopia's hands whether peace or stability will prevail in the region. A thinly veiled threat, but a threat and a blackmail, nevertheless. While paying lip service to the demarcation process, Ethiopia's actions continue to tell a different story. Unless Ethiopia changes its position on demarcation in response to the Commission's latest update on its decision that Ethiopia must expeditiously comply with the delimitation decision, Ethiopia is likely to look for ways to block demarcation. Ethiopia's posture has become, "either change the ruling to my liking or there would be no demarcation." Peace and demarcation will remain hostages as long as Ethiopia's request has not been met.

The essence of the blackmail is clear. Refusal to accede to Ethiopia's request would delay demarcation, laying the groundwork for another war. The international community, therefore, has a choice. Either accept revision of the April Decision or risk another war. By virtue of its occupation of sovereign Eritrean territory, Ethiopia believes that it has the final say whether demarcation occurs or not, or whether there is peace or war in the region. The message Ethiopia is sending is clear. Ethiopia will delay demarcation and its occupation of sovereign Eritrean territory until the international community puts enough pressure on the Border Commission to revisit its April ruling to accommodate Ethiopia's demands. The hope in Addis Ababa is that a war weary international community would rather accede to Ethiopia's demand than risk another devastating war even if it meant amending the Algiers Agreement. Apparently Ethiopia's rulers have calculated that pointless loss of lives is more painful to the world than it is to the victims' own government, which on reflection may not be terribly off the mark.

Ethiopian officials can't imagine that anyone would contest their assertion about Badme and the other areas it lost in the April ruling as anything but Ethiopian territory. " I would find it absolutely difficult," said Mr. Tekeda, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, " to believe that any person in his right mind would put Badme in Eritrea," a preposterous charge considering Ethiopia nominated two members of the Border Commission, and approved the nomination of the Commission's President. Mr. Tekeda may refuse to believe it but perhaps he should read, if necessary several times, to understand and digest the finality of the Commission's decision. It serves no purpose to engage everyone concerned on a wild legal goose chase when the Border Commission, the highest authority on the border issue has said time and again that its decision is final and binding. After spending close to 5 million dollars on lawyers to defend the indefensible the time has come to for Ethiopian officials to stop holding peace and demarcation hostage and start thinking about not spending any more money on lawyers but on other areas where there's an urgent need. God knows Ethiopia and Eritrea have lots of urgent needs without the government of Ethiopia haggling over a decision it said in advance that it would accept the decision in its totality, whatever it may be, as final and binding.

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