Message to the U.N.: The Ball is in Your Court!
Berhe Habte-Giorgis
September 19, 2003

After series of postponements the U.N. announced in its latest report that demarcation of the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia is due to start in October. The delay, other than minor logistics problems on the part of the U.N., was caused by Ethiopia. Ethiopian government officials at the local and national levels voice rejection of the Algiers agreement of 2000, which was signed by both parties in advance as final and binding. Ethiopia reneges from fulfilling its part of the agreement because the ruling was not in its favor. The Border Commission ruled that Badme and most of the territory claimed by Ethiopia belong to Eritrea. The Commission patiently but resolutely addressed all questions and objections raised by Ethiopia, following the April 2002 announcement of its decision. Thus, in a due process a verdict has been reached, what remains is enforcement of the ruling.

For Eritrea, what is happening is not a mere delay of a mechanical process of erecting markers on a border that has already been identified on the map. The border on the map is a done deal and Eritrea has its legal right of sovereignty of the territories established. The main issue is continued illegal occupation of Eritrean territory. Ethiopia has to leave this territory, willingly or unwillingly, so that Eritrea can restore administration and public services in the area so that internally displaced Eritrean living in shelters can return to their homes and farms and resume normal life. If Ethiopia refuses to comply with the ruling, the U.N., under whose auspices the Algiers Agreement was signed and the Border Commission formed, has responsibility to apply full force of all means at its disposal to ensure Ethiopian compliance. So much has been achieved so far that it should not be allowed to go to waste because of a recalcitrant government.

The peace process is the culmination of effort by many individuals, organizations, and governments that incessantly worked for ending the fighting and bringing the two sides to the negotiation table. Many countries sent military contingents to enforce the ceasefire. All of them deserve special thanks. They will be repaid for all their effort when the peace process is concluded successfully and the two neighboring countries live in peace.

The Algiers Agreement and its implementation fall under the auspices of the U.N. The people of the two countries should be obliged to the U.N. for establishing the U.N. Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE), sending military observer teams in the temporary security zone, and footing the bill in the order of $250 million a year. The U.N should take solace from the fact that its commitment at bringing peace is bearing fruit. The first two components of the Algiers Agreement, primarily cessation of hostilities and determining the legitimate border between the two countries by a Commission, have been implemented successfully. What remains is the last stage, albeit most crucial, demarcating the border on the ground. If the demarcation process is accomplished fully and the two countries return to their respective sides of the border, this peace process will go down in history as one of the most successful peace programs ever undertaken by the U.N. Everywhere else, U.N. peacekeeping missions start for short periods of time but invariably seem to go on forever.

In the case of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict, continued presence of the U.N. would only mean protecting Ethiopia’s illegal occupation of Eritrean land. On the other hand, pulling out the U.N. forces out of the area without proper demarcation is the devil’s alternative, as it would definitely mean resumption of war. The only appropriate course of action is enforcement of the Border Commission ruling by demarcating the border. The ball is in the U.N. court. This is a responsibility that will not go away and requires resolute action.

The U.N. has an arsenal of alternatives at its disposal. To begin with, Ethiopia is a client nation that is benefiting from the largesse of the international community. A big chunk of its annual budget is subsidy from international aid. With the exception of famine relief that goes directly to the people, all aid given to the country should be on the cutting block. Without foreign aid, its economy will not stand long. If this action does not produce results, then more forceful measures should be taken. International organizations that are cash cows for the Ethiopian government must be prepared to refrain from financing Ethiopian brigandage. Its accounts in international banks can be frozen. U.N. member countries and regional organizations should also be willing to augment action taken by the U.N. U.S. Congress bill H.R. 2760 is a step in the right direction. However, it should not be watered down and become toothless in the legislative process of horse-trading, and after passage should be implemented.

Indecisiveness and assumption of position of neutrality by the U.N., in the name of trying to appear fair to both sides, will definitely embolden the Ethiopian government to stiffen its neck and encourage it to renege from obeying the law. The U.N. cannot assume the role of a neutral body. It has to be on the side of justice and implementation of its own rules. Statements coming out of the U.N., both from the Secretary General and the Security Council have been mild and fail to single out Ethiopia as the culprit. Instead, they blame both victim and aggressor and urge both sides to comply with the ruling. Eritrea has accepted the ruling of the Border Commission and has incessantly worked for its implementation. Any violations by Eritrea that are cited in the reports are minor and not affect the substance of the ruling or the process. Ethiopia, on the other hand, is in “material breach” of the process and has openly defied the ruling of the Border Commission.

The U.N. Secretary General in his reports faults the two countries for not taking steps to improve their relations. The truth is that Eritrea has taken crucial steps such as making its ports available for famine relief shipments to Ethiopia, which the Ethiopian government declined. It is also worth mentioning that the Ethiopian Prime Minister is on record as openly stating that his country will not establish any relations with Eritrea unless the present government and leadership is changed. Hence, responsibility for lack of improved relations falls squarely on the Ethiopian government. Under such circumstances, bundling both countries for collective admonishment is bereft of fairness. Individuals or organization that are worth their salt should have the guts to call a spade a spade. Otherwise, they will realize when it is too late, that the cost of indecisiveness is very high, as was shown in the massacres in Rwanda and the Balkans.

One need not go far to find other historical precedents that are appropriate to the situation. The League of Nations was doomed to its demise and took the world to a devastating world war with it when it failed to uphold the principles of justice and protection of members from attacks by stronger powers. Adolf Hitler idolized Benito Mussolini as his mentor because Mussolini taught him that it was possible to invade another country (Ethiopia in 1935) in defiance of the League and get away with it. This time history is repeating itself, with a reversal of roles. Ethiopia is the aggressor because it is attempting to annex Eritrean land by force and is refusing to obey international law. So, it is an irony of history that Ethiopia ends up proving right the notion that the oppressed and the abused end up as oppressors and abusers. The victim, Eritrea, is a country with a population 5% that of Ethiopia. The burning question of the day is, will the U.N. repeat the folly of the League of Nations and meet the same fate, or will it learn from history? The story is still unfolding and we should get the answer soon. We will stay tuned.

Berhe Habte-Giorgis
New Jersey, U.S.A.
September 19, 2003

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