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Ethiopia-Eritrea: Political stalemate continues amid rising tension

 

 

The year 2005 saw the stalemate in the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace process becoming more entrenched, and the possibility of an outbreak of war increased as the year came to a close. Though the leadership of UNMEE continued to engage all stakeholders in the peace process in an effort to resolve the deadlock, the two parties remained as polarised as ever. Sustained efforts by the international community to convince Eritrea to engage Ethiopia in dialogue were also in vain. While Ethiopia continued to reject significant parts of the decision of the Eritrea- Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), Eritrea maintained its rejection of the Five-Point Peace Plan that Ethiopia announced in November 2004.

 

Two factors further worsened the tension. First, Ethiopia moved its armed forces closer to the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ), between December 2004 and early 2005. Although Ethiopia insisted the change was largely defensive, Eritrea viewed this as an aggressive stance. Ethiopia did not heed Security Council calls to reverse its decision. Then, on 5 October, Eritrea imposed a ban on all UNMEE helicopter flights in its airspace, as well as many night-time patrols by the Mission’s vehicles inside the TSZ. The Government said the ban was needed to protect its territory, but the move generated suspicion within the international community – and more so in Ethiopia – as to Eritrea’s real intentions.

 

The helicopter ban immediately reduced the Mission’s ability to monitor and observe developments in the TSZ and its capability to warn the international community of any impending danger. In addition, the ban endangered the safety of UNMEE peacekeepers deployed along the TSZ, as it meant that in the event of accidents, medical evacuations by air were also not possible. UNMEE, joined by the UN Security Council and the Secretary-General, among others, made urgent appeals, in vain, to the Eritrean Government to lift the ban immediately.

 

In November, the Security Council demanded that Eritrea lift all its restrictions imposed on UNMEE and urged both parties to exercise maximum restraint and to return to the status that existed in December 2004, within 30 days. On 6 December, the Eritrean Government requested that UNMEE staff with nationalities from the US, Canada, Europe and the Russian Federation leave Eritrea within 10 days, a decision which was strongly condemned by the UN. In a statement, the Secretary-General stressed that Eritrea’s decision contravened its obligations under the Charter and the fundamental principles of UN peacekeeping.

 

The helicopter ban forced UNMEE to relocate some of its deployment sites for the safety of peacekeepers and to avoid logistical problems. The deepening stalemate and continued restrictions imposed on UNMEE also forced the Security Council to authorise UNMEE to temporarily relocate some of its personnel from Eritrea to Ethiopia, an operation which was carried out in December.

 

These difficulties notwithstanding, the Mission continued to focus its work on other important areas. For example, in 2005, UNMEE’s humanitarian component began to advocate a more coordinated approach towards the implementation of the quick impact projects, the HIV/AIDS programme, sexual exploitation and abuse training, as well as the inclusion of gender view points in its work. A forum met regularly to coordinate work, exchange information and implement projects. As a result of its initiatives, the forum took steps to improve management of quick-impact projects, speed up their adoption and get Mission funds with minimum delays.

 

UNMEE, in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, continued to monitor and report human rights cases involving vulnerable groups such as children and women, especially abductions, disappearances and border crossing in the TSZ and surrounding areas.

 

In response to the stalemate, UNMEE increased its public information activities by reaching communities on both sides of the border to raise awareness of UN days and the issues they represent. These activities were carried out in both capitals as well as in the Sectors, where they were received most enthusiastically by the public.

 

UNMEE’s work to clear landmines in the TSZ has been largely successful. In 2005, UNMEE formed an “integrated” approach to clearing landmines, combining the Mission’s military resources with those of a private demining contractor, Mechem of South Africa. Mechem’s use of mechanical techniques and mine detection dogs complemented the manual demining expertise of the peacekeepers. This initiative led to an immediate, significant rise in mine clearance at a much lower operational cost. So far UNMEE has cleared millions of square metres of minefields in some of the most heavily mined areas of the TSZ. The land has been returned to the local population for farming and occupancy. UNMEE’s unique approach to integrated demining could serve as a model for future UN peace operations, and has already been adopted by the UN mission in Sudan.

 

For UNMEE, 2005 began with a note of concern over the increased Ethiopian troop strength close to the border. The year ended on an even more disquieting note with the mission’s ability to monitor the TSZ degraded by some 60 percent due to the helicopter ban and other restrictions imposed by Eritrea on its ground patrols. The stalemate remained intractable, and a real threat of renewed hostilities existed between Ethiopia and Eritrea, despite calls for restraint by the Security Council.   

 


Prepared by the Peace and Security Section, United Nations Department of Public Information.

© United Nations 2006