A border dispute in the Badme area in May 1998 flared up into a full-blown war which lasted for two years. There were thousands of deaths on both sides, both military and civilian, and many more people displaced. The aftermath of the war is still reverberating as intense reconstruction efforts are now underway.
In June 2000, the sides signed a cessation of hostilities agreement which led to a full-blown peace accord signed in Algiers in December of that year. The June accord paved the way, in September 2000, for establishing a UN peacekeeping force (the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea - UNMEE) to monitor and patrol a 25 km wide buffer zone between the two countries.
"FINAL AND BINDING DECISION"
An uneasy peace has held since December 2000, although both sides have continued their war of words. But in keeping with Algiers accord, an independent border commission based at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, issued a "final and binding" decision on 13 April stating where the border would fall. Both sides gained and lost territory, but the wrangling continued over who had been awarded the controversial and now symbolic village of Badme, with each country claiming it had gone to them.
Ethiopia immediately announced it had been awarded all the territory it claimed, including Badme. Eritrea's response came later and was more muted. Asmara said it had been "vindicated" by the decision which it described as a "victory for both peoples". The reality of where Badme lies will become apparent this year, when physical demarcation of the border is due to begin. Both sides said however that they accepted the ruling - a condition of the Algiers accord.
The lead-up to the border ruling was marked by intensified diplomatic activity. From 20-25 February, all 15 members of the UN Security Council, in an unprecedented move, visited the two countries and obtained pledges from both leaders that they would move the peace process forward. In the same month, religious leaders from both countries held an historic meeting in Addis Ababa, to be followed soon after by a similar meeting in Asmara.
The year was clouded by continued bickering over the border. After the UN took a group of journalists to Badme via Asmara, Ethiopia temporarily closed the border to UN peacekeepers. In May, Addis Ababa came under fire from Eritrea for "essentially contesting" the border ruling after it called for "clarification" of the Boundary Commission's decision. Two months later, the Commission rejected Ethiopia's request as "inadmissible". Furthermore, it called on Ethiopia to stop settling its citizens in a small village on Eritrean territory, an issue that is still dogging relations between the two countries.
MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
However events seemed to be moving in the right direction with the slow, but regular, release of prisoners-of-war by both countries in compliance with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). By December, both countries had freed all POWs and civilian detainees. Demining activities - a prerequisite for border demarcation to take place - suffered a setback when the Eritrean government in September ordered most international demining organisations to leave the country, accusing them of not working quickly enough. The government set up its own demining authority to carry out the bulk of the work. In August, UNMEE's mandate was changed to include mine clearance ahead of border demarcation.
In October, the UNMEE force commander Major General Patrick Cammaert of the Netherlands ended his tour of duty amid accusations of bias by Ethiopia. He was replaced by Major General Robert Gordon of Britain, who listed his priorities as stabilising and securing the situation along the border to enable the Boundary Commission to carry out its work.
As the year drew to a close, politics were pushed into the background by a devastating drought which gripped both countries. In Ethiopia, 11 million people were said to be at risk, while in Eritrea over two thirds of the population were facing food shortages. In a report to the Security Council at the end of the year, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed concern over the impact of the drought on the peace process and urged the international community to support humanitarian operations in both countries to avoid further suffering.
He said the peace process was progressing steadily "despite delays and difficulties", noting it was now about to enter the crucial phase of border demarcation, with all its legal, humanitarian and human rights implications.
OUTLOOK FOR 2003
Indeed, 2003 will be a vital year if lasting peace is to be achieved between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Already, UNMEE has warned of a possible cash shortfall which could delay demarcation and urged donors to follow up on their pledges. Demarcation is due to start in May and challenges ahead will then revolve around the sensitive issues of transferring land and people between the two countries. The respective governments have the responsibility of sensitising people to the new border situation, but regional observers have expressed concern over a lack of information. They warn of possible confusion, misinformation and tension - particularly in the border areas.
If - as is scheduled - demarcation is completed this year, UNMEE's mandate will end with the placement of the last pillar and the two countries will then be "on their own". However, a clause within the peace agreement provides for the UN to deal with problems associated with the transfer of territorial control, and this could affect its exit strategy.
As the global war against terrorism gears up in 2003, both countries will play a strategic role given their location in the Horn of Africa. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the two countries in December and US military officials have made a number of visits for talks with President Isayas Afewerki of Eritrea and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. The desire to secure US bases could also be a major factor in the peace process with a shift to another agenda.
ERITREA-ETHIOPIA: Interview with new UNMEE commander, Maj Gen Robert Gordon : http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=30714
ERITREA-ETHIOPIA: Interview with outgoing UNMEE commander Maj Gen Patrick Cammaert: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=30603
ERITREA: Focus - US-Eritrea military ties: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID(639
ERITREA: Interview with Yemane Gebreab, PFDJ political boss: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID'952
ERITREA: Feature - Life slowly resuming in Tserona: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID(148
ERITREA: Rehabilitation reversing trail of destruction: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID(010
ERITREA-ETHIOPIA: Life goes on as normal in disputed Badme: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID'392
ETHIOPIA-ERITREA: Interview with boundary expert Martin Pratt on border ruling: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID'313
ETHIOPIA: Symbol of hope in the ruins of Zalambessa: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID'434 ]
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