Over the past several months, the powerful winds of change have swept across the Horn of Africa, ushering in the possibility for lasting peace, stability, and security. The rapidly unfolding, momentous events are both highly encouraging and a greatly welcome development in a long troubled region. While the spate of peace declarations and cooperation agreements has elicited considerable comment and discussion, especially in regard to Eritrea, it is important to reexamine and clarify a number of points.
First, in stark contrast to the general portrayal, Eritrea’s commitment toward peace with Ethiopia is not a recent or new development, a point clearly illustrated and substantiated by the historical record. For example, after the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) rendered its ruling on 13 April 2002, Eritrea accepted the EEBC’s decisions in their entirety and without equivocation or ambiguity, hoping that the final determination of the border would open the doors to lasting peace and development between the two countries and the region as a whole.
Unfortunately, however, Ethiopia’s response was different. Although Article 4.15 of the Algiers Peace Agreement (voluntarily signed by Eritrea and Ethiopia on 12 December 2000) clearly stipulates that both Eritrea and Ethiopia “agree that the delimitation and demarcation determinations of the Commission shall be final and binding,” Ethiopia completely failed to abide by its legal obligations and responsibilities, and persistently sought to obstruct, subvert, or reverse the EEBC’s rulings.
Shortly after the verdict, Ethiopia actually appeared to accept the EEBC ruling. Both the Ethiopian Foreign Minister and the country’s parliament made statements proclaiming Ethiopia’s “satisfaction” with and wholehearted “acceptance” of the decision, and the Ethiopian government also expressed gratitude to the Commission for delivering a “just” verdict, even calling on the international community to “compel Eritrea to agree to a speedy demarcation.”
However, this initial line of approach was quickly and dramatically reversed. In 2003, Ethiopia denounced the ruling as “illegal, unjust and irresponsible,” while castigating the Boundary Commission and seeking to reopen the EEBC’s decisions through an “alternative mechanism.” Subsequently, in 2004, Ethiopia vacillated again, this time shifting its position to claim that it accepted the ruling “in principle,” but within the context of various and numerous reservations, qualifications, and preconditions prior to implementation. Ethiopia also began to establish illegal settlements within sovereign Eritrean territories, and in 2006 the Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Seyoum Mesfin, sent a highly publicized letter to the President of the EEBC, Sir Elihu Lauterpacht, again criticizing the EEBC.
Despite Ethiopia’s patent failure to abide by its legal obligations and responsibilities, manifest in its military occupation of large swathes of Eritrean territory (including Badme, the flashpoint for the war) and policy of unremitting aggression and hostility against its northern neighbor, Eritrea, to its credit, remained committed to peace and the rule of law, and generally sought to uphold the integrity of the Algiers Peace Agreement. It vehemently rejected the UN/US supported “appointments of special envoys” – Lloyd Axworthy and Dan Forth respectively – as it knew full well that these “alternative mechanisms” were primarily conceived and designed to circumvent and alter the “final and binding” legal ruling of the EEBC.
Eritrea also refused to engage in “dialogue” with the Ethiopian regime, in spite of intense pressure to do so from vast segments of the international community, as this was, again, rightly interpreted as another tool for confounding the problem and in effect, a thinly-veiled euphemism for discarding the EEBC ruling.
This is the historical and diplomatic backdrop to the momentous event of the Comprehensive Peace and Friendship Agreement signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia on 9 July this year. This agreement is squarely anchored on the unequivocal implementation of the EEBC ruling and respect of each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Credit is, of course, due to the resilience of the Eritrean people and the statesmanship, vision, and boldness of President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April on the back of years of massive anti-government protests across Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Prime Minister has indeed played a pivotal role in making the recent rapprochement possible. That said, it is also indisputable that Eritrea has long been committed to genuine peace with Ethiopia, based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Second, there are lingering misconceptions surrounding the EEBC. As the recent peace initiatives have given rise to great optimism and a sense of hope across the region, many commentators have also looked back upon the long period of “no war, no peace” between Eritrea and Ethiopia and attributed it to alleged flaws and shortcomings of the EEBC process and ruling. Once again, however, this is far from accurate.
Formally established in 2001 in accordance with the terms and conditions of the Algiers Peace Agreement, which was guaranteed by the UN and the OAU/AU and witnessed by the US, the European Union (EU), and Algeria, the EEBC consisted of five distinguished and highly respected international jurists. Ethiopia and Eritrea appointed two commissioners each, while the fifth commissioner, serving as the president of the Commission, was selected by the party-appointed commissioners. After a lengthy investigation and litigation process, the Commission presented a report described by many as being based on sound legal principles and a rigorous examination of detailed historical and other evidence. Furthermore, the Commission’s ruling was authoritative, objective, and impartial, notably being immediately and strongly endorsed by numerous countries and international organizations.
Beyond being inaccurate, solely or overwhelmingly focusing on supposed flaws with the EEBC ruling or process overlooks how the international community egregiously shirked its fundamental moral and legal duties and simply turned a blind eye to Ethiopia’s flagrant violation of international law. Despite the Algiers Peace Agreement containing explicit provisions stipulating the invocation of Chapter VII of the UN Charter to impose punitive measures on the recalcitrant party, both the UN and AU, as guarantors, failed to fulfill their mandate and carry out their responsibility to guarantee the EEBC ruling without preconditions and enforce both parties to implement it.
Remarkably little was done or even said in response to Ethiopia’s violation. In fact, the international community, led by the US, actually supported – actively or implicitly – Ethiopia’s refusal to implement the EEBC ruling (for example, through raising unrelated issues and exploring options for “an alternative mechanism” to the EEBC, as per Ethiopia’s requests). The simple fact of the matter is that Ethiopia could not have managed to violate fundamental pillars of international law to occupy sovereign Eritrean territories with impunity, without overarching international political and diplomatic support and protection.
Finally, many recent headlines and articles have crudely equated Eritrea and Ethiopia to small, weak pawns being maneuvered by larger, more powerful players from the neighboring region. Although it is certainly true that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become increasingly active within the Horn of Africa in recent times, as well as played a significant role in paving the path toward normalization, this characterization crudely diminishes and denies the courageous, forward looking role and initiative undertaken by Eritreans and Ethiopians themselves.
In terms of Eritrea, such simplistic portrayals are also belied by the fact that it has historically been, and continues to be, firmly guided by a clear policy of nonalignment, independence, and self-reliance. The country remains singularly and unfailingly averse to dependency and fiercely protective of its sovereignty. As well, despite being a small country with relatively limited capabilities, Eritrea’s pragmatic efforts toward increased engagement, strengthened ties, and closer cooperation in all areas with the governments of the region allow it to contribute actively to the potential for lasting peace, security, stability, and prosperity in the Horn of Africa and wider Red Sea region – thus helping preserve and advance its fundamental foreign policy and national security interests.
Ultimately, after years of conflict, instability, and crisis, the Horn of Africa is witnessing encouraging developments. Moving forward, peace and cooperation opens great opportunities for prosperity and better circumstances for ordinary Ethiopians, Eritreans, and others across the region.