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Ethiopia and Eritrea: Preventing War
Ethiopia and Eritrea: Preventing War
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?
Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?
Report 101 / Africa

Ethiopia and Eritrea: Preventing War

The fragile peace maintained by Ethiopia and Eritrea since they signed a comprehensive agreement at Algiers in December 2000 is fraying dangerously. With a costly two-year war now followed by nearly five years of stalemate, patience on both sides of the border has worn thin, and there are worrying signs that the countdown to renewed conflict may have begun.

Executive Summary

The fragile peace maintained by Ethiopia and Eritrea since they signed a comprehensive agreement at Algiers in December 2000 is fraying dangerously. With a costly two-year war now followed by nearly five years of stalemate, patience on both sides of the border has worn thin, and there are worrying signs that the countdown to renewed conflict may have begun. Neither side appears eager for war, but to dismiss the tensions as mere sabre-rattling could mean missing the last chance to preserve peace in the Horn of Africa. The two parties need help urgently from the Algiers Group – the African Union (AU), European Union (EU), UN and U.S. – who witnessed the original accords. Its members need to work together urgently to forge a “3-Ds” parallel process of de-escalation, border demarcation and bilateral dialogue, using both intensive diplomacy and the credible threat (and employment as necessary) of punitive measures.

The stakes could hardly be higher. The last war cost scores of thousands of lives, severed the economic lifeline between the two countries and ended in a way that confronted both governments with unprecedented domestic challenges. Resumption would destabilise the entire Horn, fuelling flows of weapons to armed groups throughout the region, rekindling a proxy war in Somalia and undermining the fragile peace process in southern and eastern Sudan.

At the heart of the problem is the ruling of the independent Boundary Commission established to delimit and demarcate the contested border. Both sides agreed in advance that its decision would be final and binding, but the ruling produced a stalemate that has brought them back to the brink of war. The primary bone of contention is the small, dusty border settlement of Badme, where the 1998-2000 war started. Having initially welcomed the boundary decision, Ethiopia reversed itself upon learning (after closer examination of the less than clear documentation) that this town – against the expectations of both sides – had been awarded to Eritrea.

After more than two years of seeking revision, Ethiopia appears to have made at least a partial shift toward accepting a judgement it considers “unjust and illegal”, with Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, in a letter to the Security Council on 31 October 2005, not only repeating his government’s earlier acceptance of the decision “in principle”, but adding specifically that this “does not mean going back to the drawing board, and it does not imply that we are introducing a precondition”. In a subsequent letter on 9 December, he emphasised Ethiopia’s eagerness to engage Eritrea in a dialogue looking for a “win-win outcome which is consistent with sustainable peace”.

Promising as this may appear, Badme still remains under Ethiopian control, and Ethiopia has not been prepared to clearly separate the issue of dialogue from that of demarcation: Mesfin’s 31 October letter says that it committed to dialogue not only “to achieve normalisation and to address all issues that have been at the root of the crisis”, but also “for the implementation of demarcation”. Eritrea’s position is that Ethiopia has violated the peace accords through refusal over nearly three years to implement the border ruling and its continuing occupation of sovereign Eritrean territory. Having conceded defeat in a similar territorial dispute with Yemen in 1999, it has little patience with what it perceives as Ethiopia’s delaying tactics and demands full demarcation of the border before any dialogue.

Eritrea’s frustration found an immediate target in the United Nations Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE), which monitors the long strip of demilitarised territory along the border – almost all of it inside Eritrea – known as the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ). Asmara increasingly resents the continuing existence of the TSZ as a derogation of its sovereignty, and in October 2005, it banned UNMEE helicopter flights, reducing the blue helmets’ capacity to monitor the TSZ by more than half and prompting major troop contributing countries to contemplate withdrawing their forces entirely. In early December, following a Security Council demand that it lift the flight ban, it upped the ante by demanding that UNMEE staff from eighteen Western countries leave. In the meantime, small units from both sides have infiltrated the border area, greatly increasing the risks of a clash.

It is highly unlikely that progress can be made on any single issue in isolation from the others. Eritrea rejects dialogue unless it sees concrete progress on demarcation. Demarcation is practically impossible in the absence of Ethiopian consent, which means a degree of flexibility is needed from Asmara on dialogue. De-escalation of political and military tensions is essential for an environment in which both demarcation and dialogue can proceed, which requires both countries to comply with Security Council Resolution 1640 (23 November 2005): Ethiopia by removing from the border seven divisions it deployed there in December 2004 (it seems to be in the process of doing this) and Eritrea lifting its restrictions on UNMEE. If these things happen, the UN will have an opportunity to review the structure of the peacekeeping mission and, as the peace process moves into its implementation phase, resume the reduction of force levels it actually began more than a year ago.

Reengagement by the Algiers Group is required urgently to calm the immediate crisis and move the peace process into its final, implementation phase. The next decision point will be early in January 2006, when the Security Council will again address the situation. Before then, the Algiers Group should consult together, commit to reengage individually and collectively, and make clear publicly both what it is prepared to do and what is expected of the parties. Defusing the present crisis and addressing the root causes of the problem have to proceed in tandem if peace in the Horn is to be preserved.

Nairobi/Brussels, 22 December 2005

Podcast / Africa

Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Crisis Group expert William Davison to discuss the Ethiopian federal government's offer of a humanitarian truce in its seventeen-month war against forces from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. 

After almost seventeen months of devastating civil war in Ethiopia, the federal government on 24 March announced what it called a humanitarian truce. The offer would ostensibly allow aid into Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which has, in effect, been under a blockade for months and where millions face what the UN describes as a serious lack of food. The government’s unilateral truce declaration comes after its offensive in late 2021 pushed back Tigrayan forces, who had advanced to within striking distance of the capital Addis Ababa – the latest about-face in a war that has seen the balance of force between federal troops and Tigrayan rebels swing back and forth. It also comes alongside other signals that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed may have tempered his initial goal of crushing Tigray’s leadership. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood, Naz Modirzadeh and William Davison, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, discuss the causes and significance of the government's proposal. They map out the military dynamics on the ground and the evolving calculations of Tigrayan leaders, Prime Minister Abiy, other Ethiopian protagonists in the conflict and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, whose forces were also fighting alongside the federal troops against the Tigrayans. They talk about the role of foreign powers in supporting President Abiy Ahmed and in pushing for peace and break down how regional relations are shaping the conflict. They ask how optimistic we should be that the truce eases Tigray’s humanitarian disaster or even serves as a foundation for peace talks and how such talks might surmount the thorniest obstacles – notably resolving a territorial dispute in Western Tigray – to a political settlement.  

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Ethiopia page.

Contributors

Executive Vice President
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Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Ethiopia
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