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Indian-led UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea may be Forced to Withdraw

Dr. Nivedita Ray was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 13, 2006

    The Indian-led United Nations Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE), which is monitoring the five-year-old ceasefire between the two countries, is in danger of being withdrawn due to escalation in tensions. Eritrea has imposed restrictions on the movement of UNMEE personnel and has made its functioning almost impossible. The fragile peace maintained by Ethiopia and Eritrea since signing a comprehensive agreement at Algiers in December 2000 seems set to end. Tensions have grown in recent weeks with military build-ups on both sides of the border, raising fears of a repeat of their 1998-2000 border war. Though neither side appears eager for war, growing bilateral tensions cannot be dismissed lightly either. A resumption of conflict will not only have a devastating impact on these two countries but could destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region by fuelling flows of small arms to armed groups, rekindling a proxy war in Somalia and jeopardizing the peace process in Sudan.

    After a costly war and five years of stalemate, patience on both the sides of the border has worn thin. The problem arose in the wake of the July 2002 ruling of the independent Boundary Commission, which was established to delimit and demarcate the contested border. It awarded the small border settlement of 'Badme' (the primary bone of contention) to Eritrea , which Ethiopia has found unacceptable. Consequently, Ethiopia has been seeking a revision of the award, though both countries had agreed in advance that the Commission's decision would be final and binding. This is the root of the stalemate that has brought the two countries back to the brink of war.

    After seeking revision of the boundary award for three years, Ethiopia , in an October 2005 letter to the UN Security Council, emphasized its eagerness to engage Eritrea in a dialogue for a win-win outcome that is consistent with sustainable peace. But Eritrea saw this offer as a delaying tactic and demanded the full demarcation of the border before any dialogue began.

    Apparently frustrated by the stalemate and the belief that the international community is biased towards Ethiopia , Eritrea has targeted UNMEE, which monitors the demilitarised Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) along the border. The restrictions imposed have meant that UNMEE can monitor only 60 per cent of the border, which it moreover asserts is "tense and potentially volatile." Eritrea has also demanded that UNMEE staff drawn from Western countries should leave.

    UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his recent report to the Security Council has said that as a result of the restrictions imposed on UNMEE, its position is becoming increasingly untenable and that the time may be fast approaching to take difficult decisions on the Mission 's future. The report outlines six options for the Security Council's consideration ranging from maintenance of the status quo to full withdrawal of UN troops altogether. Annan said that UNMEE could buy time "for diplomatic initiatives to unblock the current dangerous stalemate," or opt for relocation, moving most of the UN staff now in Asmara to Addis Ababa . While making it clear that none of the options was perfect, Annan said that both sides would still have to fully implement UNSC Resolution 1640 passed on November 23, 2005 . The resolution threatened actions, possibly including sanctions, against both countries if, in the case of Eritrea it does not immediately rescind its flight ban, and against both parties if they do not reverse their military build-up.

    Annan has asked the Security Council to impose a deadline by which the two countries would have to meet its demands. He has warned that if the parties do not fully commit and cooperate, not only the future of the mission but also the continuation of the peace process between the two nations would be called into question. He has also added that dialogue between the two parties should resume without any precondition and in good faith.

    In fact it is the absence of dialogue and the military build-up on both sides of the frontier that has fuelled the friction. To avert this present warlike situation, a dialogue is necessary and before that de-escalation of political and military tensions is essential to bring about an environment favourable for dialogue. This essentially requires both countries to comply with Resolution 1640. Ethiopia has shown certain positive gestures by withdrawing some of its troops, but Eritrea has persisted with its demands.

    As for the UNMEE mission, it is apparent that the world body is avoiding a hasty decision on its future. In the January 9, 2006 Council meeting, Under-Secretary-General Jean-Marie Guéhenno stated that there is a sense of urgency and that the status quo is unsustainable. But at the same time he also pointed out that there is a recognition that one should not rush to precipitous decisions. In his view, time has to be given for diplomacy to work. Mr. Guéhenno further added that the troop contributing countries were aware that a decision to withdraw could have "momentous consequences," though at some point tough decisions would have to be made if developments did not go the way they should.

    As far as India is concerned, the Indian Mission to the United Nations in New York has not commented on the options given by Annan though Indian Ambassador Nirupam Sen had told a meeting of the Security Council in October 2005 that UNMEE would collapse unless the UNSC took a decisive decision. India has expressed concern about the safety and security of its peacekeepers, as the helicopter ban has complicated urgent evacuations for injured UNMEE troops who must now be taken by ambulance over treacherous roads for medical treatment.

    According to the UNMEE spokesperson Gail Bindley Taylor-Sainte, the UN Secretary General has appealed to both India and Jordan to give some time for the resolution of the issue. She added that the situation would become serious if India and Jordan were to withdraw. Currently the two nations provide about 2000 of UNMEE's nearly 3300 troops. Major General Rajender Singh of India heads the mission.

    In the present situation UNMEE has been almost immobilized. Its efficiency has degraded by more than 55 per cent in terms of surveillance, logistics, safety and evacuation capability necessary in view of ongoing de-mining operations and also to airlift the sick and the injured. If Eritrea continues with its restrictions, it would jeopardize the integrity of the mission and the safety of the troops. If the environment were to turn hostile and the mission's purpose gets defeated, India could think of pulling its peacekeeping troops out instead of placing their lives at risk. For its part, the Security Council needs to deal with Eritrea 's attempts to restrict UNMEE while at the same time focusing on the larger issue that is driving the conflict, viz., the boundary dispute. Re-engagement by the Algiers Group (AU, EU, UN, and US), which witnessed the June 2000 Peace agreement, is urgently required to calm the immediate crisis and move the peace process into implementation phase. If peace is to be preserved, both defusing the present crisis and addressing the root causes of the problem have to proceed in tandem.