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Ethiopia and Eritrea: Stopping the Slide to War
Ethiopia and Eritrea: Stopping the Slide to War
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?
Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?
Briefing 48 / Africa

Ethiopia and Eritrea: Stopping the Slide to War

The risk that Ethiopia and Eritrea will resume their war in the next several weeks is very real. A military build-up along the common border over the past few months has reached alarming proportions. There will be no easy military solution if hostilities restart; more likely is a protracted conflict on Eritrean soil, progressive destabilisation of Ethiopia and a dramatic humanitarian crisis.

I. Overview

The risk that Ethiopia and Eritrea will resume their war in the next several weeks is very real. A military build-up along the common border over the past few months has reached alarming proportions. There will be no easy military solution if hostilities restart; more likely is a protracted conflict on Eritrean soil, progressive destabilisation of Ethiopia and a dramatic humanitarian crisis. To prevent this, the international community – in particular, the UN Security Council and the U.S., which is the single most influential outsider – must act immediately to give both sides the clearest possible message that no destabilising unilateral action will be tolerated. Once the immediate danger is past, efforts should be reinvigorated to ensure that the parties comply with their international law obligations, disengage on the ground and restore the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) – in a longer time frame – to develop political and economic initiatives for resolving the fundamental problems between the old foes.

Citing Eritrean encroachment into the TSZ, Ethiopia announced on 25 September 2007 that it was considering terminating the Algiers agreement, which ended the war in 2000. In reply Eritrea accused it of repeated violations of that peace treaty and called again for the Security Council to enforce the decision of the Boundary Commission Algiers established. The U.S. now estimates that Eritrea has 4,000 troops, supported by artillery and armour, in the supposedly demilitarised TSZ and an additional 120,000 troops nearby. In August it estimated that Ethiopia maintains 100,000 troops along the border.

Both sides agreed in Algiers to submit the border dispute to the Boundary Commission, whose mandate was to “delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) and applicable international law”. They further agreed that its decision would be final and binding. In April 2002 the Commission gave its ruling, delimiting the border on the map and in so doing locating the village of Badme, the site of the original dispute that sparked off the war in 1998, in Eritrea.

Since then Ethiopia, though it won on other aspects of the ruling, has blocked demarcation of the border on the ground, while Eritrea has called for the international community to insist on this without further delay. Eritrea has right on its side on this point but has played its cards very badly. Frustrated by the lack of progress, it has alienated many of its supporters, including a number of Western states, aid agencies and the UN. It has seized their vehicles, restricted their monitoring teams, expelled their personnel and arrested Eritreans working for embassies. In addition, its repression of its own people and lack of democracy have left it shunned by all but a handful of states.

The stalemate came to a head at the Commission’s most recent unproductive meeting, in September 2007, during which the Ethiopian delegate insisted on prior satisfaction of a range of extraneous measures. On balance, however, Ethiopia has played its hand skilfully. It has used its position as the major power in the region to win U.S. toleration of its intransigence and to keep criticism of its own human rights record to a minimum. Its military intervention in Somalia has drawn little overt adverse response. It would not be surprising if Addis Ababa believes an effort in the near future to stage a coup in Asmara and use force against an Eritrean government that has few friends would also be tolerated in Washington.

The rapidly approaching danger point is the end of November, when the Boundary Commission indicates it will close down unless it is allowed to proceed to demarcation. Before then it is essential that the two sides be left in no doubt that use of force, directly or indirectly, is not acceptable and that a party that resorts to it will be held accountable. Specifically this means that:

  • the U.S. should convey a firm private message to both sides that direct or indirect use of force to resume the conflict and reach a unilateral solution would be unacceptable and, specifically to Ethiopia where its influence is at this time stronger, that it will take appropriate diplomatic and economic measures against it if it attacks or seeks to overthrow the Eritrean regime; and
     
  • the Security Council should pass a resolution reiterating its support for the Boundary Commission decision, requesting it to remain in being beyond the end of November so that it is available to demarcate the border, and stating that even without such demarcation the border as found by the Commission is acknowledged as the legal boundary between the two countries.

Once this line has been drawn, the international community should resume with new urgency its efforts to break the immediate stalemate. Consideration might be given to the following:

  • a Security Council resolution or statement reiterating the requirement on Ethiopia to accept the Boundary Commission ruling unconditionally and cooperate in its implementation, including by pulling back from its forward military positions south of the border, and on Eritrea to withdraw its army from the TSZ;
     
  • appointment by the Secretary-General of a new Special Representative and head of the UN mission (UNMEE), who should press both sides to allow the international peacekeepers to reoccupy the positions they have been forced to leave in the TSZ and proceed unhindered in their work; and
     
  • discussion among members of the Security Council and within other key international constituencies including the guarantors and witnesses of the Algiers agreement – the African Union (AU), the UN, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) – about incentives (primarily economic) and disincentives (credible sanctions) that would likely be required to obtain cooperation in de-escalating the situation on the ground and implementing the Commission decision.

In the somewhat longer run, Addis Ababa and Asmara will need to end their military and financial support for rebels operating on the other’s soil, respect the arms embargo on Somalia and restart a dialogue with the support of their regional and other international friends. None of the steps to break the current deadlock and begin to rebuild mutually beneficial relations will be easy or quick. But the immediate need is to prevent the war from restarting so that there is time to work on them.

Nairobi/New York/Brussels, 5 November 2007

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
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Ethiopia
wdavison10