If ever there were any illusion in anyone’s mind regarding the commitment of Ethiopia’s current leaders to solve their problem with Eritrea peacefully and legally, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s September 19 letter to the Security Council stating his government’s rejection of the Border Decision should dispel the illusion once for all. It’s high time to accept the truth, notwithstanding how inconvenient or bitter it may be: the Tigrayan ethno-nationalist elites at the helm in Addis Ababa never had intention of solving the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict peacefully unless their home region’s claim to parts of Eritrea was recognized and accepted by Eritrea as well as the international community, if possible through diplomacy, if not by force. At its core the conflict is the result of the elites’ unbridled ambition of expanding the territorial boundary of their home region even if that meant truncating Eritrea’s border; they want to have a say how Eritrea is governed, to bring Eritreans under their indirect control, and if possible to turn Eritrea into a Bantustan, a marginalized and nominally independent state, a dependant of a powerful neighbor that their region they hope to become—one day.
The September 19 letter which should be described rightly as a black-mail or a ransom note that has made it abundantly clear that either Ethiopia gets her way, or the region would be engulfed in another disastrous war. In a language most notable for its breathtaking arrogance, petulance and presumptuousness, Prime Minister Meles signaled to the world community that his government would no longer abide by the terms of the Algiers Agreement as well as the April 2002 Border decision. To a world rightfully sick of war, Ethiopia’s leader is threatening another round if he did not get his way. He has put the Security Council on notice that he would defy five years worth of Security Council resolutions pertaining to the conflict. Most arrogantly he is daring the Council to take whatever steps it deems necessary to force him to comply. He has put his government beyond the pale of international law.
The Prime Minster’s angst revolves around the Commission’s decision to leave Badme in Eritrea. Neither he nor his government could conceive that possibly that according to international law, Badme was not theirs. Any decision to the contrary was unacceptable, even if the government had agreed in advance that it would abide by the international tribunal’s decision. Badme was Ethiopia simply because the Ethiopian government said so. As if insisting that black is white, and red is blue, Ethiopian Prime Minster called Badme an Ethiopian village even if the Commission said it was an Eritrean village, the Prime Minster clung to his imagined facts. Thus for him what happened on May 6, 1998 was an Eritrean invasion of Badme, an Ethiopian village. It did not matter to the Prime Minister even when the Commission told him it wasn’t so and that Badme is in Eritrea and thus an Eritrean village. The importance of the decision on Badme could not have escaped official Ethiopia, to wit, the decision went a long way in pointing the finger at who was the aggressor. In the Prime Minister’s convoluted formulation of the problem the invasion of Badme by Ethiopian forces becomes the defense of Badme, never explaining the logic by which one can defend a territory by invading it. In a key paragraph, the Prime Minister writes,
"Badme, having been the first Ethiopian village to be occupied by Eritrea at the start of the Eritrean aggression, is the casus belli for the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Obviously, it does not require great wisdom to see how symbolically important the village is for the people of Ethiopia who have paid so much in blood to reverse the Eritrean Aggression and liberate Ethiopian lands, including Badme. It is unimaginable for the Ethiopian people to accept such a blatant miscarriage of justice. The decision is thus a recipe for continued instability, and even recurring wars."
The decision on Badme was the principal reason why Prime Minister dismissed the April 2002 Border the Commission’s work out of hand, calling it “totally illegal, unjust, and irresponsible,” and “a blatant miscarriage of justice.” He appealed for the United Nations to take over the work of the Commission, contemptuously suggesting that its work was in “terminal crisis” and that “nothing worthwhile could be expected from the Commission,” a harsh and unfair judgment of the integrity and competence of five internationally known lawyers three of whom were appointed by Ethiopia, two directly, and one indirectly. Then he suggested how the decision should be recast, or to use his more presumptuous term, “salvaged” to accommodate, he wrote, regional “peace and stability” a euphemism for the result Ethiopia looked for in the Commission’s decision but could not get because the Commission found Ethiopia’s claim legally weak and unsubstantiated. In short Meles wanted a political solution for a legally weak case. He volunteered Ethiopia’s assistance in the search for a revised solution.
After engineering the current dead lock, Meles turns around and offers help to “break the present deadlock” by offering a six point proposal, a diktat to Eritrea that assumes that the Security Council would force Eritrea to go along with the proposal to revise the “final and binding” April 2002 Border decision. The proposal is built on the premise that suggesting that as far as Ethiopia is concerned nothing is final or binding until the government said so, that is it’s satisfied that its demands have been met. The proposal includes the following:
1. ... as a sign of its full commitment to durable peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Ethiopia, while reaffirming its commitment under the Algiers Agreement, stands ready to enter into a formal commitment to reject the use of force as a means of resolving disputes and calls upon Eritrea to do the same.
The past years have demonstrated that from the point of view of the ruling enthno-nationalist elites, the prerequisite for a “durable peace and stability” is Eritrea’s acceptance of their claim to Eritrean territory and a political system in Eritrea responsive to their needs a sovereign, stable and prosperous Eritrea is looked with suspicion. As for Ethiopian reaffirmation of commitment under the Algiers Agreement, the less said the better. By rejecting the final and binding decision of the Border Commission created under a key provision of the Algiers Agreement, far from affirming its commitment to Algiers, Ethiopia, by her actions has negated the Agreement. Truly one cannot affirm what one has already negated. As for the rejection of the use of force for resolving conflict, one has to wander the seriousness of the proposal. Every peace package the parties agreed to before the May 2000 invasion of Eritrea had a clause that rejected the use of force. The clause did not prevent the use of force.
2. Ethiopia supports the suggestion made by the Secretary General of the UN contained in his 23 June and 4 September 2003 reports to the Security Council, as well as what is referred to in operative paragraph 6 of Security Council resolution 1507 (2003) with respect to assistance by the international community to help the two parties meet their joint obligations for durable peace between them
As desirable as it is for the two countries to work together to meet their obligations for a durable peace, it’s hard to see how this can be achieved since the Meles government is on record saying that unless there’s a “regime change “in Eritrea that it’s openly helping to effectuate, the Ethiopian government would have nothing to do with the current Eritrea government. Neither the actions nor the official statements from Addis Ababa or Mekele give hope that normalization is in the cards.
3.... it is crucial that the Security Council set up an alternative mechanism to demarcate the contested parts of the boundary in a just and legal manner so as to ensure lasting peace in the region. The alternative mechanism could be composed of the guarantors and witnesses of the Algiers Agreement and representatives of the two parties. Ethiopia is ready to address the problem through such a mechanism.
This is the heart of the proposal. The final and binding clause in the Algiers Agreement becomes inoperative in the part of the decision Ethiopia does not approve. There’s nothing in the Algiers Agreement or the various Security Council resolutions that each party has the right to cherry pick the decision. By demanding an “alternative mechanism” to demarcate the part of the boundary by the guarantors and witnesses of the Algiers Agreement and representatives of the two parties, Meles is proposing that the Border Commission, a key feature of the Algiers Agreement be done away with, and that the decision to demarcate the “contested” portion of the boundary be entrusted to a political group. There are at least three problems with the proposal. Meles proposes to gut the heart of the Algiers Agreement while vowing to affirm it. How one can gut and affirm simultaneously is a mystery. Furthermore, the first responsibility of the guarantors is to guarantee the implementation of the Algiers Agreement, including the implementation of the 2002 Border Commission decision. If they can’t guarantee the implementation of the work of a body created by the Security Council, then the rule of law has lost all meaning. Finally, to give a place in the body for a representative from Ethiopia in the body responsible for the “alternative mechanism” is one of those familiar deal-breakers the government of Ethiopia insists if it wants to make sure nothing it does not approve is accepted.
4. The uncontested parts of the Boundary, specifically the whole eastern Sector of the Boundary and that part of the Central Sector where the river Mareb constitutes the boundary, can be demarcated without waiting for the setting up of the alternative mechanism. The alternative mechanism’s mandate can be limited to the contested parts of the boundary.
If the proposal were to be accepted the “contested” portion of the border, meaning Badme and perhaps Irob, would remain Kashimirized, unresolved for ever, and a tinder box at all times.
5..... Ethiopia will recognize the current status quo, which is the Southern boundary of the Temporary Security Zone, as the boundary between the two countries. Pending completion of the demarcation process, the mutual commitment by both parties to resolving their boundary problems peacefully will make it possible, if the international community so wishes for financial reasons, to expedite the departure of UNMEE.
There is a sub-text to this proposal in the form of a carrot to the Security Council. It is suggesting that the acceptance of the alternative mechanism would allow the UN to remove UNMEE from the region to ease financial burden on the world body on the basis of a commitment that the border would be drawn, not the actual demarcation, just the promise of one. Again the presence of an Ethiopian representative responsible for the alternative mechanism will ensure that nothing that leaves Badme in Eritrea which the Commission said is where it belongs would be acceptable. The result a long drawn out process designed to wear out the other members of the body, and in the mean time Ethiopia will continue to administer the “contested” portion forever, in other words creating a Kashmir in the Horn of Africa, with all the instability the real Kashmir continues to engender in the Indian sub-continent.
6. Ethiopia is willing to consider any ideas that could lead to a just and legal process of demarcation of the boundary and can therefore ensure lasting peace in the region.
Fealty to international law is the only one to ensure lasting peace in the region. By rejecting the final and binding decision of the Security Council created Border Commission, the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has signaled to the world that it is above the law. To put it simply, Ethiopia has chosen to defy international law. One cannot help but remember that in the months to the run up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush said that there were consequences to Iraq’s defiance of Security Council resolutions. To be sure Ethiopia is not Iraq. It is not an oil rich country; in fact it’s a dirt poor country as is Eritrea. But African lives are no less deserving of Security Council action as did the people of Iraq. Action must be taken against the rulers of Ethiopia. There must be consequences for defying the Security Council. The people of the region do not need to go through another war. Too many lives, too much resource have been wasted already. Enough suffering.