We Can Prevent This War

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By Ghebre Selassie Mehreteab
Saturday, July 23, 2005

President Bush has announced his commitment to fostering prosperity and stability in Africa, and as part of this effort he dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to visit Senegal and Sudan this week. But there is nowhere in Africa that the United States could do more to promote prosperity and stability than along the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is a place where war threatens to resume at any time, ruining hopes for prosperity. It is also a place where the United States has a unique capacity to prevent war.

In 1998 a long-simmering border dispute resulted in a two-year war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in which more than 100,000 combatants were killed and countless more were wounded. No one really knows the exact number of civilian causalities or the amount of destruction inflicted on the two countries. Now there is the prospect of renewed warfare.

The last conflict ended in December 2000, when Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the Algiers peace agreement, which created a neutral boundary commission in The Hague with a mandate to determine the line between the two countries. The agreement was the result of almost two years of negotiations brokered by the United States. The agreement provided that the boundary commission's decision would be "final and binding," with no provisions for appeal. In April 2002 the commission carried out its boundary-setting mission and ruled, among other things, that the town of Badme -- the flashpoint in the recent war -- was in Eritrea, not Ethiopia.

Eritrea's president, Isaias Afwerki, has complied with all facets of the boundary commission's final and binding ruling. But Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia has called the ruling on Badme "illegal, unjust and irresponsible." Meanwhile, Ethiopian forces continue to occupy large expanses of territory that, according to the ruling of the commission, belong to Eritrea. This illegal occupation has displaced more than 45,000 Eritreans, who are forced to live in makeshift camps. A U.N. peacekeeping force is monitoring a 15-mile-wide temporary security zone at an annual cost of $200 million.

The boundary demarcation between the two countries is at a stalemate because of Ethiopia's refusal to implement the commission's ruling and the international community's failure to pressure Ethiopia to comply with it. Ethiopia has significantly reinforced its military positions throughout the border area, and Eritrea has responded in kind. The slightest miscalculation on either side could plunge the region into another bloodbath. As former Canadian foreign minister and U.N. envoy Lloyd Axworthy cautioned the international community, "Time is running out." The U.N. Security Council urged Ethiopia this month to accept and implement the commission's final and binding decision.

The United States cannot afford to ignore the signs of a pending war between these two strategically important friends. For most of the past century, Ethiopia, a country of 73 million, has enjoyed a close relationship with the United States. Eritrea is strategically located at the crossroads of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, with 700 miles of coastline and numerous islands on the Red Sea. It is a country of 4.5 million people, divided about equally between Muslims and Christians, who live in harmony. In fact, Eritrea has been steadfast in opposing Islamic fundamentalism, especially that coming from Sudan. The United States and Eritrea have enjoyed a close relationship since Eritrea's independence in 1991.

Washington deserves full credit for bringing these two countries together and persuading them to resolve their boundary dispute through a legal process rather than continued bloodshed. The result thus far has been five years of peace. But that peace is now in jeopardy because of Ethiopia's refusal to comply with the decision of the body chosen to set a boundary. Peace can be preserved, but only if the United States engages in serious diplomatic efforts to preserve what its diplomacy created. Such efforts, while they no doubt should be discreet, need not be subtle: Ethiopia must be made to understand that its interests are best served by complying with the decision of the boundary commission and withdrawing its forces from Eritrean territory. Through its aid and other bilateral relationships, the United States is capable of changing Ethiopia's assessment of its own interests. Should war come again, no amount of U.S. aid will make up for our failure to engage in effective diplomacy.

The writer, an Eritrean American, heads an affordable-housing foundation.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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