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Troop Cuts Raise New Questions About Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Dispute

High operating costs and frustration over two Horn of Africa nations’ inability to settle their eight-year border dispute have led the UN Security Council to cut back the size of its UNMEE peacekeeping force by six hundred. Former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn says that Ethiopia’s rejection of an international commission’s border solution and Eritrea’s restrictions on the UN mission’s ability to carry out its mandate are troublesome. But he says both sides remain at a standoff under the continuing international presence, which is stationed for the most part on the Eritrean side of the border.

“There have been so many difficulties in operating the UN peacekeeping mission. Virtually all of it is located inside Eritrean territory. And it was done that way because the Ethiopians insisted upon it. They basically won a military victory, and when the UN decided to set up the peacekeeping mission, they probably felt pressured to have the buffer zone inside Eritrea,” he said.

Ambassador Shinn, who served as American envoy in Addis Ababa from 1996 through 1999, says that because of the setup, during the last year or two, Eritrea has limited the UNMEE mission’s effectiveness and frustrated the international force.

“Eritrea has made it increasingly difficult for them to carry out their mandate, and has prevented them from traveling in certain areas or on certain roads. And they claim that, ‘Look, if we can’t do our job, then why have all these people hanging around when it’s costing so much anyway',” he said.

Ambassador Shin is currently Adjunct Professor of African Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He points out that the Security Council had intended years ago to reduce the size of its UNMEE border mission, and in fact scaled down the force one year ago, before the current cutback.

“I don’t know what else the UN can do. They continue to give hortatory pressure against both parties. And in this case, particularly Ethiopia, to accept the original agreement because it was supposed to be binding arbitration. But beyond that, what do you do?” he asks. “The idea of having a buffer zone was simply to prevent war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and it’s had that effect, or at least has contributed to preventing war. Even with a reduced number of troops, it will still have that effect. My own view is that I’ll be very surprised if there is a return to war along that border.”

The former US diplomat says he does not think the current pullout of Ethiopian troops from Somalia would encourage Addis Ababa to build up forces along the disputed border.

“It’s always possible, I suppose, that a few of the troops that are being pulled out of Somalia would go to the Eritrean border, but I think Ethiopia probably figures it has sufficient troops along that border now, that it can deal with any perceived potential threat,” he said.

Ambassador Shinn notes that Asmara has been extremely careful not to overplay Eritrean disapproval of Ethiopia’s two-month intervention campaign in Somalia.

“They have been amazingly quiet. They continue to be critical of Ethiopia for going into Somalia. They have been critical of the United States for, in their view, aiding and abetting Ethiopia. There were an undetermined number of Eritrean advisors in Somalia. The number was probably much less than the two-thousand that the UN said were there in its famous report to the Security Council last Fall – and Eritrea denied that it had any troops there. But I think that is just not a defensible position, and I think they probably know that and as a result, except for continuing to criticize Ethiopia and the United States, they’ve been very quiet on the Somali issue,” he says.