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Eritrea Slouching Towards Another Confrontation

All UN resolutions are non-binding, except when they are not. The Isaias regime has spent 17 years of miscalculation trying to figure out which is which, and there is fresh evidence that the issue is still beyond its grasp.

On June 10 -11, 2008, Eritrea and Djibouti engaged in a skirmish at their common border.  The battle came after weeks of complaint by Djibouti that Eritrea was occupying its territories since January and reinforcing its troops, a claim which was dismissed by Eritrea as “fabrication.”  Since then, the Isaias regime has rebuffed all efforts by neighbors, regional bodies and the UN to conduct fact-finding missions and to initiate conflict resolution mechanisms arguing that there is no dispute to solve, there is no need for diversions from bigger threats to peace and security in the region: Ethiopia’s refusal to vacate Eritrean territories, and Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia.

On January 14, 2009, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on Eritrea to redeploy its troops to status quo ante (which existed prior to the Eritrea-Djibouti skirmish of June 2008); to demilitarize entirely the Ras Doumeira and Doumeira Island;  to acknowledge that it has a border conflict with Djibouti and engage in a dialogue accordingly; and to respect the conflict-resolution principles of the UN enumerated in its charter, and specifically Article 2 and 33 of the Charter which call on member states to settle disputes peacefully, refrain from threatening other states and co-operate with UN bodies.

DÉJÀ VU

In November and December of 1995, there was a skirmish in the Hanish Islands between Eritrea and Yemen.  The case, which was referred to the ICC (correction: PCA) and ruled on in 1998, is now cited by the Isaias regime as a textbook case of compliance with a ruling, and its adherence to the rule of law. But there has been no serious discussion as to why blood needed to be shed in the first place —and why the case had to be referred to a lengthy PCA process, when there was no shortage of mediators including Ethiopia, Egypt and France.

On April 18, 1996, the Washington Times reported of a skirmish and troop buildup in the Eritrea-Djibouti border. Asmara denied the skirmish—(it called it a “fabrication”)–but at the same time, it dispatched the then foreign minister, Petros Solomon (now in jail for nearly 7 8 years without charges) to Djibouti to discuss the unresolved issue of their borders. Maps were exchanged, briefings held and the matter was quickly diffused—thanks in no small part to the involvement of France.

And on May 9, 1998, there was the eruption of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Ten years on, the alleged genesis of the war, border dispute, is still not resolved. This is, certainly, primarily because Ethiopia refused to comply with the EEBC ruling. But the lack of initiative and creativity on the part of Asmara is because it thinks that with sufficient pressure on the world—via Somalia, Djibouti—it can change the non-binding nature of a UN resolution regarding the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict, into a binding resolution that compels action on Ethiopia.  This has been its strategy since 2002, when the EEBC gave its verdict on the disputed border and almost seven years on, there is no evidence that Asmara is tired of banging its head against the wall.

RESOLUTION 1862*

It is obvious that the Isaias regime does not take the UN resolution seriously because it responded to the UN call for withdrawal, Resolution 1862,, dismissively, within 24 hours.  The braintrust of the PFDJ, such as it is, is convinced that the Security Council is issuing an empty threat, another non-binding resolution, like a piece of paper stuffed in a suggestion box.  But there are reasons to believe that this could be one of the few resolutions where non-compliance results in punitive measures:

  1. The resolution was drafted by Djibouti and France. Many disputes are left unresolved because they involve two poor countries which are a danger to nobody but their poor populations. But France is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council—and it is likely to get its way on the issue. This will be the third engagement for France with the Isaias regime: once before on Djibouti, and once on the Hanish Islands. It is unlikely to give endless benefit of the doubt, given its knowledge of the regime.
  2. The resolution has a specific requirement.  Many UN resolutions are muddy and the language is deliberately vague to allow all sides to do nothing. This one is different: it demands that the Isaias regime withdraw troops from Ras Doumeira and Doumeira Island.
  3. The resolution has a deadline:  Many UN resolutions outline broad parameters (“soon as possible”, “promptly”) to allow the affected countries to do as little as possible while at the same time averting what the UN hates the most: a special emergency session. This one specifically requires that an action be taken within five weeks after the passage of the resolution.
  4. Follow up: The secretary general is mandated to report within six weeks after the passage of the resolution. He will be able to report whether Asmara has complied or ignored the UNSC resolution.

All of the above suggests that Eritrea now needs a wise leadership—one that has learned from all past mistakes, one able to navigate through the treacherous diplomatic channels, one that is able to spare Eritrea further humiliation or war. Alas, there is little reason to believe that the Isaias regime is any wiser than it was ten years ago and Eritrea appears set on a collision course to another futile confrontation.

Most countries of the world have an intelligentsia that is able to assist the government on issues as delicate as this new one confronting Eritreans–but not us: we have a government too stubborn to seek advice, and an educated class too timid to give any advice that contradicts the worldview of the delusional head of state. And so, we stumble and slouch from one disaster to another—17 years now!

* Resolution 1862 deals with the Eritrea-Djibouti issue.  In case you are wondering, Resolution 1863 deals with the Somalia issue and, as far as the UN is concerned, Eritrea is also on the wrong side of that issue as well.

awateteam@awate.com

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