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Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Tensions Fuel Risks of Renewed War

Over the past six months, Ethiopia and Eritrea have fortified heavy weapons along their long-disputed common border. Yet despite both sides’ consent to abide by an international commission’s determination of their boundaries, both sides continue to keep tensions simmering in a region that is burdened with other international conflicts. Vice president Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group has just returned from the region. In a new report he helped author for the Brussels-based research group, Schneider warns that even a minor incident could spark new fighting, even though neither side professes it wants to resume a deadly war. He says the mobilization can only be diminished by incentives to get Ethiopia to withdraw its soldiers in exchange for international guarantees by Eritrea to honor diplomatic and trade benefits between the culturally linked countries.

“The key there is to provide Ethiopia with some assurance with their own concern that this would not be the first stage in a new border with Eritrean troops closer, deeper into Ethiopia that would result in future incursions, by having Ethiopia receive some assurance that their relations with Eritrea would become normalized,” he said.

The two Horn of Africa countries fought a border war from 1998 to 2000 that killed 80-thousand people, and though each side has accepted the international border commission’s determinations in principle, awarding territory delineated by a temporary security zone to Eritrea, neither side has shown a readiness to implement the agreement. The International Crisis Group’s Mark Schneider suggests that each country should get a part of what they want as a quid pro quo, in return for benefits granted to the other side.

“What we’ve tried to design is each side building confidence as it sees the other side take steps in the direction of their own concerns. So Eritrea would see a border that would increasingly be physically demarcated. Ethiopia would see increasing linkages in terms of economic relations and diplomatic relations between the two countries. And one of the things that we’ve suggested is that the international community could support that by helping to develop a development plan and cross-border economic projects that would benefit both countries, but would be put into effect only after there was a final demarcation of the border,” he noted.

Since the beginning of the year, the United Nations has moved 17-hundred peacekeeping troops out of the unoccupied border security zone after Eritrea cut supplies to the force. Schneider says their departure and forced relocation has made the crisis more dangerous, but he notes that UN supervision is still needed to guide the parties to a solution.

“I think that the key is to create a situation in which the UN is the manager of mediation with respect to Ethiopia receiving clear benefits in terms of economic relations. Beginning to see that the end of this process of access to the Eritrean port of Asab, which is Ethiopia’s natural port as well to the outside world, and that in this process, hopefully, they would recognize that the clear benefits to agreeing to accept (which they did in the past, but they’ve refused to permit it to be implemented) the final and binding arbitration of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission, which essentially recognized most of Eritrea’s claims as to territory,” he said.

With Ethiopia tied down by domestic strains and by a heavy mobilization in Somalia, and with Eritrea backing Somalia’s Islamist opposition and various Ethiopian regional ethnic groups, Schneider says a border flare-up would be like throwing oil on a simmering fire. Each side, he notes, supports the opposition in each other’s country, and helps arm rival proxy forces in the Somalia conflict. For that reason, he hopes that cementing a resolution of the border dispute could get the two sides to desist from fueling regional wars in neighboring Horn of Africa countries.