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Virtual Demarcation: Poor Excuse for Ethiopia’s 14yr Long Occupation

Many scholars, journalists and lawmakers prefer to label Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrean territories as being some kind of “stalemate”, “deadlock” etc. in the peace process. This has emboldened the minority regime in Ethiopia to continue with its belligerent stance for over a decade. Instead of enforcing the EEBC’s decisions, the US led international community has instead chosen to remain silent publicly, while it works to erode the EEBC’s delimitation and demarcation decisions in private. John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations speaking to the Press Corps on 14 December 2005, hit the nail right on the head when he said: “…one reason we’re in this dilemma is that the government of Ethiopia has never complied with its obligations under the 2000 agreement and the 2002 border demarcation…the Council’s [UN Security Council] unwillingness or inability to confront Ethiopia’s three-year long refusal to adhere to the very agreement it made in 2000…”

Some have erroneously written that there were no mechanisms in the Algiers Agreements to enforce the EEBC’s decisions. That is categorically false. Article 14 of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement adapted and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council clearly states the following:

“….the OAU and the UN commit themselves to guarantee the respect for this commitment of the parties. This guarantee shall be comprised of measures to be taken by the international community should one or both parties violate this commitment, including appropriate measures to be taken under Chapter 7 of the Charter of the United Nations by the Security Council…”

The Security Council, at the behest of the United States, chose instead to appease the minority regime in Ethiopia.

Another often cited excuse for not vacating from sovereign Eritrean territories is that the border has not been physically demarcated-with pillars on the ground. On 30 November 2007 speaking to Voice of America’s (VoA) Peter Heinlein about the “virtual demarcation” of the Eritrea Ethiopia border, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said:

“…As far as the virtual demarcation of the boundary is concerned, I have heard well-respected diplomats and lawyers describe it as ‘legal nonsense’…Our lawyers agree with such characterization. Until the boundary is demarcated on the ground, it is not demarcated. As soon as it is demarcated, there will be relocation of administrations, police and so forth. But not before that. Only after actual demarcation on the ground. And we prefer to engage the Eritrean side in pushing forwards toward demarcation…”

Interesting that Meles Zenawi would insist on demarcation on the ground when it was his regime that prevented the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) from doing just that. Meles Zenawi presumed to know more about the law than the distinguished members of the Boundary Commission and Ethiopia, in its 18 January 2008 letter to the President of the Security Council claimed that virtual demarcation had “no validity in international law” and that the coordinates are invalid “because they are not the product of a demarcation process recognized by international law.” The regime’s lawyers and “respected diplomats” must know that while placing pillars is accepted practice, not all international borders are demarcated with pillars.

It should be recalled that after waiting for over 5 years, the EEBC, due to Ethiopia’s refusal to allow for the expeditious demarcation of the Eritrea Ethiopia border in accordance with the final and binding delimitation decision of 13 April 2002, the Commission closed its offices and left the area. The Commission in its November 2006 Statement said that it was “ obliged to adopt another approach to effect the demarcation of the border” and complete its mandate to demarcate the Eritrea Ethiopia by placing coordinates on maps “virtual demarcation”, as opposed to pillars on the ground. The EEBC, in its Statement of 27 November 2006 explained its methodology:

“…Modern techniques of image processing and terrain modelling make it possible, in conjunction with the use of high resolution aerial photography, to demarcate the course of the boundary by identifying the location of turning points (hereinafter called “boundary points”) by both grid and geographical coordinates with a degree of accuracy that does not differ significantly from pillar site assessment and emplacement undertaken in the field. The Commission has therefore identified by these means the location of points for the emplacement of pillars as a physical manifestation of the boundary on the ground… Although these techniques have been available for some time, the Commission has not resorted to them because the actual fixing of boundary pillars, if at all possible, was the demarcation method of first choice. However, it is only possible to demarcate a boundary by the fixing of boundary pillars with the full cooperation of both the States concerned…”

As the EEBC said in its eloquent statement of 2006, “the feasibility and acceptability of the use of coordinates alone as a means of identifying international boundaries is clearly affirmed by the manner in which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea deals with the limits of maritime claims by States”.

Kathleen Claussen in “Invisible borders: Mapping out Virtual Law” dismisses Ethiopia’s arguments about precedence and legality of the approach used by the EEBC:

“…The actual process of carrying out all the calculations and measurements necessary for virtual demarcation varies depending on the technology employed. The most accurate and reliable method available today is stereophotogrammetry…Stereophotogrammetry is commonly used for marking points where it would be impossible to emplace monuments, such as on mountain tops. Geographers use stereophotogrammetry to ascertain a point that parties agree to on the basis of a particular set of stereo reference data. Thus, Ethiopia’s claim that there is no precedent for this type of demarcation is incorrect to the extent that stereophotogrammetry is used in these remote areas… With the precision and permanency of these geographic coordinates, this system would far out-last any monument and be less subject to abuse… many international lawyers concede that the monumentation principle is not, in fact, required by law. It is a purely technical operation of minor importance…”

As the American Embassy cables mentioned below show, there was never any genuine effort by the US and its partners to urge Ethiopia to abide by the rule of law. Instead, they promised to support Ethiopia’s intransigence and prevent the UN Security Council from taking any punitive actions against the belligerent regime. Ethiopia and its handlers conducted an orchestrated diplomatic blitz to stop the EEBC from moving forward with “virtual demarcation”, but did nothing to compel the regime in Ethiopia to abide by the EEBC’s demarcation directives and orders and allow for the physical demarcation by placing pillars on the ground.

So who were these “well respected diplomats” who were advising Ethiopia and preventing the Security Council from taking punitive actions against the regime for it occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories for the last 14 years?

Suffice it to mention a few US Embassy cables on the issue of “virtual demarcation”.


“…In meetings with FCO Minister for Africa Lord Triesman November 21 and Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn the next day, AF A/S Frazer stressed the need to adopt a UNSCR on Somalia flexible enough that frontline states could play a positive role. She also floated the suggestion of a UK-Norway initiative to break the deadlock in the Eritrea/Ethiopia boundary dispute…A/S Frazer expressed appreciation for Lord Triesman’s earlier offer of whatever support the UK might be able to provide to facilitate resolution of the Eritrea/Ethiopia boundary dispute, including use of the prestigious Lancaster House where historic agreements have been concluded in the past…Both sides agreed that the Boundary Commission’s intent to proceed with “virtual demarcation” would do more harm than good. The British indicated they were working indirectly to nudge the Commissioners away from that course of action…”


“…Pol/C reviewed reftel points with Harry Purwanto, Director for North American Affairs at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DEPLU), November 8. Pol/C–noting ongoing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea–urged Indonesia to avoid commenting publicly on the substantive merits of any decision by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC). He also stressed the need for countries to avoid putting any pressure on either country to take any specific action re the EEBC’s decisions or decision-making process…Purwanto expressed appreciation for the information and said he had so far not been aware of the issue. He said he would review the matter with relevant DEPLU officials using USG-provided points…”

“…Africa Watcher conveyed reftel demarche to MFA AF DAS for East Africa Helene Le Gal on November 8. Le Gal commented that France agreed on the need to support U/SYG Pascoe’s efforts and to allow space for the parties alone, as signatories of the Algiers Agreements, to decide the effect of and whether to implement the EEBC’s virtual demarcation decision…Maintaining that American and French views were similar, Le Gal expressed dissatisfaction with the plan of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) for virtual demarcation of the border by map coordinates at the end of November. Le Gal’s core objection was that the EEBC, which she called a valuable independent instrument, intended to disband after virtual demarcation. Without the EEBC, there would be a need either to reinvent it by establishing a new international body or some sort to monitor the crisis or else the Security Council itself would need to play a more frontline role, which could further escalate tensions. It was unlikely, however, that the French delegation would voice criticisms of the EEBC plan when the UNSC meets to consider the situation…”


“…Poloff delivered reftel demarche to Ambassador Vladimir Lomen at the UNSC Coordination Unit at MFA. Lomen promised to share US concerns within the MFA and with Slovakia’s mission to the UN. Lomen opined that encouraging UNSC members to avoid statements on the merits of the EEBC’s demarcation decision and to avoid putting any pressure on Ethiopia or Eritrea to take specific steps to implement that decision is a departure from past US policy on this issue. …Lomen said Slovak policy on this issue would likely be made in New York, and encouraged Poloff to have USUN offer a more clear explanation of the reasons for this request to Slovakia’s mission to the UN…”


“…Poloff delivered reftel demarche to MFA East Africa Office Director Fabrizio Pignatelli November 15. Poloff sought Italian agreement on a unified approach to avoid pressure on Ethiopia and Eritrea to implement the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) “virtual demarcation” of the border by map coordinates. Pignatelli agreed enthusiastically with our points. He said Italy fully supports UN Under Secretary General Lynn Pascoe’s attempts to mediate the conflict, saying it was our best chance for lowering tensions and resolving the disputes between the parties…”


“…MFA International Organizations Counselor Albert Sitnikov told us on November 20 that while the GOR supported UNSC Presidential Statement 9169 urging both Ethiopia and Eritrea to accept and implement the EEBC’s delineation decision “without preconditions,” the GOR was opposed to the EEBC’s idea of “virtual demarcation” and believed it may lead to violence. According to Sitnikov, Lavrov called virtual demarcation “legal nonsense.” The GOR believed virtual demarcation falls outside of the Algiers Agreement and that it was up to involved parties how to demarcate the border. He said Russia would have to support Ethiopian withdrawal from the agreement were the EEBC to insist upon virtual demarcation…Deputy Director for Africa Nikolai Ratsiborinskiy told us the EEBC’s current proposal had paralyzed the situation. He noted that Lavrov had stated publicly that a virtual demarcation could destabilize the entire region, and the GOR believed signals from Asmara and Addis Ababa had hinted at their readiness to resume conflict…Commenting on the November 7 visit of Ethiopian FM Seyoum, Ratsiborinskiy said Lavrov told Seyoum privately the GOR would support Ethiopia’s opposition to virtual demarcation in the UNSC, but also warned Seyoum about statements and actions that could destabilize the fragile situation…GOR support for the UN Presidential Statement was carefully worded to support “delineation,” not “demarcation.” If Ethiopia does not recognize the EEBC’s virtual demarcation, the GOR has said it will be prepared to take its side in a UNSC debate…”

The US Embassy cables clearly show that, instead of upholding the rule of law and urging Ethiopia to abide by its treaty obligations, permanent members of the UN Security Council and their allies were instead using their diplomatic clout to undermine the EEBC and its decisions regarding the Eritrea Ethiopia border.

As if that was not enough, adding insult to injury, in its meeting at the end of January 2008, the Security Council declines to address Ethiopia’s possible status as an occupying force, but urges the parties to show constraint and adherence to the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities (from June 2000). The UN Security Council also stated on several occasions that “Eritrea and Ethiopia bear the primary responsibility” for achieving a comprehensive and lasting settlement of the border dispute and normalisation of relations.

The Security Council is in effect sidelining decades of international law, undermining its own authority, and writing off the rights of the Eritrean and Ethiopian people to live in peace within their own internationally recognized borders. Under normal circumstances, outlaw states are not invited to negotiate with their victims over whether or not they will abide by basic tenets of international law, while the Security Council sits idly by, or worse, supports the aggressor as is the case of Ethiopia’s 14-year long occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories. The Security Council places the occupier, Ethiopia, and occupied, Eritrea, on the same footing, and reduces the right of the Eritrean people to the whims of the belligerent regime in Ethiopia.

A regime that does not respect international law, repeatedly violates the UN and African Union Charters, refuses to take responsibility for its actions, relies on crude diplomatic and political machinations to advance its interests, and remains the biggest threat to peace and security in the region. The US led-international community ought to adhere to the principles of mutual respect and compliance with international law, which are at the center of peaceful coexistence between nations-big or small.

14 years after the Eritrean Ethiopia Boundary Commission delivered its final and binding delimitation decision, Ethiopia, with the tacit approval of the international community, including the United Nations, continues to occupy sovereign Eritrean territories, including Badme, the casus belli for the 1998-2000 “border conflict”. Ethiopia has introduced several gimmicks and ploys to have the final and binding delimitation decision reversed. Eritrea and Ethiopia are not the first to have their borders delimited and demarcated and will not be the last. It is not uncommon while traveling across Europe’s borders to encounter “divided villages”, as that is the nature of demarcation-it divides nations, villages and homes churches and burial grounds. That does not mean the inhabitants of the two neighborly states cannot live in peace, as in the case of many European and other villages that straddle international borders. They are neither intellectually or culturally inferior to Europeans….

The rule of law must prevail over the law of the jungle!

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