Global Policy Forum

Horn of Africa War Possible if UN Leaves - Ban


By Louis Charbonneau

April 9, 2008

If U.N. peacekeepers abandon the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a new war could break out between the two Horn of Africa neighbors, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report. The U.N. border mission, or UNMEE, has already withdrawn nearly 1,700 troops and military observers who for the past seven years had been trying to prevent Eritrea and Ethiopia from resuming a border war they fought from 1998-2000.

The peacekeepers had been stationed in a 15.5-mile (25-km) buffer zone inside Eritrea. But Asmara turned against UNMEE because of U.N. inability to enforce rulings by an independent commission awarding chunks of Ethiopian-held territory, including the town of Badme, to Eritrea.

Most UNMEE troops have been sent home temporarily and only 164 peacekeepers are now in Eritrea, Ban said in the report, obtained by Reuters on Wednesday. But those troops are only there to guard UNMEE equipment until it can be evacuated. There are also a few peacekeepers on the Ethiopian side of the border, but Ban said Addis Ababa told him: "Ethiopia would find it extremely difficult to accept a long-term deployment of UNMEE limited only to the Ethiopian side of the border."

UNMEE pulled most of its troops out of Eritrea after the government cut off access to fuel and restricted deliveries of food and other essential supplies. Asmara denies this and accuses UNMEE of enabling Ethiopia to occupy its territory.Ethiopia has offered to hold talks with Eritrea but Asmara says Addis Ababa must first withdraw from Eritrean territory.

With Eritrea refusing to discuss the question of UNMEE's return, Ban said there were several options for the future of U.N. forces on the border, where both sides have amassed troops in recent months. He also said the Security Council must make a swift decision on the fate of UNMEE. "It is essential that the Security Council makes the necessary decisions as a matter of priority," he said. In the meantime Ban said he could try to mediate between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the council could also consider sending missions to both countries.


One option is to remove all UNMEE personnel from the area, though this would be a very dangerous move to make, he said. "The total withdrawal of UNMEE ... could result in an escalation of tensions in the border area with the risk of a resumption of open hostilities, despite declarations by the two parties that they have no intention to restart the war."

One of the problems of withdrawing UNMEE from the border zone is that their presence is required under the ceasefire agreement, which could then be dismissed as invalid. A better option would be to deploy a small observer mission in the border area, which could try to defuse tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This mission, Ban said, could "serve as the eyes and ears of the international community and would continue to report to the Security Council on the situation."

If one of the countries were to reject this option, observers could be placed on one side of the border, though that "could be perceived by one party as freezing the status quo and serving the interests of the other," Ban said. Other options would be for UNMEE to return to its original full deployment -- an unlikely scenario given Eritrea's refusal to discuss the issue -- or to establish "liaison offices with civilian and military personnel" in Addis Ababa and Asmara.

More Information on the UN Security Council
More Information on Ethiopia and Eritrea
More Information on Peacekeeping


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