By E Abraham,
A FEW days ago, in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, there was a gathering of African heads of States at the headquarters of the AU chaired by the newly elected chairman President Robert Mugabe. In one of the sessions, Eritrea’s permanent representative to the AU and UNECA (the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa), H.E. Araya Desta, made a call for the umpteenth time for the AU to shoulder its responsibility (as one of the guarantors of the Algiers agreement) by urging Ethiopia to vacate Eritrean land that it still occupying.
For a quick background, the Algiers agreement was signed in the year 2000 between Eritrea and Ethiopia to end a bloody border conflict that lasted for two years and costs more than 100 thousand lives. That agreement, which was signed by President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and the late Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi, was the basis for the establishment of the EEBC (Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission).
The UN, the AU and the US were witnesses and guarantors to this treaty and the agreement clearly states that the delimitation and demarcation decisions of the EEBC shall be ‘final and binding’. In the EEBC, both Eritrea and Ethiopia were represented by two high caliber lawyers. A fifth neutral commissioner, Professor Sir Elihu Lauterpacht was the President of the commission. Following lengthy deliberations on the arguments presented by both sides, the EEBC’s delimitation decisions were passed on April, 2002. Furthermore, in the absence of cooperation from the Ethiopian government to physically demarcate the border, the commission had to declare the border virtually demarcated and concluded its mission as of November 30, 2007.
The irony of this whole saga is that, Ethiopia was the first to accept the delimitation decision as soon as it was released with much fanfare and jubilation. Eritrea, on the other hand, took its time, studied the documents carefully and while expressing reservations about some of the determinations, it however accepted the decision in the spirit of the final and binding nature of the Algiers Agreement. And it did look like for a while that the outcome of the arbitration could pave the way for peace and normalization of relations between the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia and the greater horn of Africa region. There were also high expectations that it could serve as a blue print for resolutions of future conflicts of a similar nature in the continent at large.
At least that was the hope, until all of a sudden, ‘binding and final’ or not, Ethiopia decided that it doesn’t accept the EEBC decisions which it says were ‘biased‘. Ethiopia also proposed that for it to withdraw its troops from sovereign Eritrean territories and for peace to prevail, another mechanism should be put in place with ‘dialogue’ as a pre-condition. In other words, in breach of its commitments of the Algiers Agreement, Ethiopia wouldn’t vacate Eritrean territories it is occupying unless Eritrea was willing to sit down for a ‘dialogue‘.
Just as a reminder, this whole international arbitration process came about because previous mediation efforts to bring the parties together for a dialogue had failed. Not only did they fail, but also led to a senseless war that had a devastating consequence as highlighted above. The dialogue option had been there all along; before Ethiopia’s failed successive offensives, in the middle of the war and before heading for arbitration. It was only when Ethiopia finally realized that it could not achieve what it wanted through war that it agreed to sign the final and binding treaty in Algiers.
Some still find it baffling that Ethiopia would willingly sign a binding treaty while apparently having had the ‘upper hand‘ in the war. People who were there on the ground, however, describe the situation quite differently to what the mainstream media was reporting at the moment and state that Ethiopia actually was losing the war and was rather in a hurry to sign the treaty. History should be able help clarify this in the future.
Eritrea’s patience in the face of this arrogance and aggressive occupation has been remarkable. No other nation would tolerate a situation whereby ones land has been occupied indefinitely by another nation. A no-war no-peace situation where a significant majority of young Eritreans are mobilised to defend the sovereignty of the nation; depriving the country of such a huge chunk of productive capacity. The cost to Eritrea, as an emerging new nation has been enormous both in terms of thwarting the promising development efforts and the missed opportunities. Eritrea has been made to go through years of incessant adversities and political isolation, most of which are not unrelated to the situation with Ethiopia.
In the face of all of these, Eritrea has kept registering tremendous development results; and at the same time has tirelessly kept on reminding especially the AU and the UN to shoulder their responsibilities, as the guarantors of the Algiers agreement, in urging Ethiopia to vacate its sovereign territories.
It is unfortunate to hear some commentaries about how weak Eritrea is compared to Ethiopia and how powerless it is to even remotely entertain the idea of being able to reverse this no-war no-peace situation. One can only say that those who believe such commentaries are absolutely clueless about Eritrea and its people. This is a nation which, against all odds, was carved out of the globe by nothing but the sheer determination and will of almost super-natural proportions of its liberation fighters and its people. If anyone thinks that this is a small feat, then go and ask the Palestinians, the Tamil Tigers, the Western Saharans, the Basques etc. The reason why Eritrea wants to resolve the situation rather peacefully and without further bloodshed is purely because it understands the cost of war better than anyone else.
Eritrea has shown the world that it is civilized enough to abide by the decisions of international courts of arbitration in the past; in an earlier case with Yemen and recently with Ethiopia. It has also shown the world that it is mature, patient and far-sighted enough to refrain from exercising its right to self-defense, in lieu of peaceful resolution, while the aggression and occupation of its sovereign territories by Ethiopia continues for several years. Understandably, the longer this situation is allowed to fester, however, the less sustainable it will be for Eritrea and the thinner Eritrea’s patience is going to wear.
What the international community is urged, time and again, therefore is to help avoid a situation whereby Eritrea feels it is alone, abandoned by the international community and once again left to fend for itself. People who follow Eritrea’s history remember what happened the last time Eritrea was put in such a situation. It is then long overdue for the international community to speak in one voice and reward Eritrea for abiding by international law, for its patience, show of maturity and unprecedented restraint. It is also time for the international community to stop playing politics and tell Ethiopia, in no uncertain terms, to vacate sovereign Eritrean territories.
It is then and only then, after helping ensure peace and security, that the international community could claim the high moral ground and credibility when expressing concerns regarding good governance, democratization and human rights issues in either Eritrea and/or the region at large.