13 March 2001


Press Briefing



Despite problems that must be resolved, the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea would not fall apart, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Ethiopia and Eritrea and Chief of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon.

The United Nations Mission was negotiating with two disciplined leaders, two disciplined nations, and two disciplined armies, he explained.  The people of Ethiopia and Eritrea were ready to make peace.  That was not necessarily easy to do, as one result of the conflict was bitterness and distrust, but he was confident the problems would be resolved, and soon.

Mr. Legwaila briefed the press following his meeting with the Security Council.  The UNMEE mandate is due to expire on 15 March, and the Council is currently considering the Secretary-General’s recommendation that it be extended for six further months.

Mr. Legwaila added that he was a happy man, because overall cooperation between UNMEE and both host countries was very good indeed.  The Mission’s progress in fulfilling its mandate had also been excellent.  UNMEE was the United Nations newest peacekeeping mission.  It had been able to set up and deploy its 4,000 peacekeepers, and some 200 military observers very quickly.  It had begun its work monitoring security in the contested areas.  That was thanks, in large part, to the quick response of the donor countries.  He highlighted the importance to that rapid deployment of SHIRBRIG (the Standby High Readiness Brigade -- a United Nations initiative to have a list of military assets available at short notice), which was used for the first time for UNMEE.

Recent difficulties had prevented the Mission from formally declaring the establishment of the Temporary Security Zone -- the zone meant to separate the parties.  In some places the two armies had been deployed 100 metres from each other, he observed, and they were “armed to the teeth”.  He was confident, however, that the Zone would be established soon.  He had consistently urged both parties to cooperate with the Mission in that regard.  The Temporary Security Zone was an operational requirement for the peacekeeping force, but one that was temporary, as its name suggested.  UNMEE was seeking a resolution to current problems, and he believed that good sense would prevail.

This morning he had met with the Security Council, he said, and the international community wanted to see that Zone established.  It was essential for the return of civilians, who had been forced from their homes and their fields by the fighting, and it was necessary if UNMEE was to fulfil its mandate to monitor the parties’ security commitments.

It was important to remember, in the midst of current problems, that the United Nations was not imposing the concept of a Temporary Security Zone on the parties, he said.  The parties themselves had come up with the idea and agreed to it last June, when they signed an Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities.  That Agreement had been brokered by the Organization for African Unity (OAU) before

UNMEE was created.  The Temporary Security Zone was an interim measure that had nothing whatsoever to do with future decisions on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. 

Unfortunately there was still a great deal of bitterness and distrust between the parties, he continued.  Despite their genuine desire for peace, the respective troop positions were -- understandably -- an extremely sensitive matter.  However, he hoped that those operational issues would soon be resolved, which would allow UNMEE to be in the best possible position to assist the parties in addressing the challenges of the peace process.

A most pressing issue was the forthcoming influx of internally displaced people and refugees into the Temporary Security Zone, he added.  Because of that, he endorsed the Secretary-General’s call for a generous response from donors to the United Nations consolidated appeals, launched recently.  That aid would alleviate the plight of those affected by years of severe drought and by war. UNMEE stood ready to help with humanitarian efforts.

The long-term consolidation of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea would require the continued political will of their leaders, he said, and the continued support of the international community.  One key element was the final delimitation and demarcation of the border, entrusted by the parties to a Border Commission.  The successful completion of the work of the Commission -- and the successful conclusion of the United Nations Mission -- were complementary in nature.

In response to a question about the source of the problems preventing the establishment of the Zone, Mr. Legwaila explained that the main problem was one of maps.  There had been a meeting of the Military Coordination Commission in Nairobi on 6 February, where a map -- called the political map -- was adopted, with reservations, by both parties.

Ethiopia’s reservations concerned a mistake made on the redeployment map it had initially submitted to UNMEE, concerning Irob -- an area in the centre that Ethiopia stated categorically had previously been under its administration.  In the process of implementing the political map, Ethiopia wanted UNMEE’s Force Commander to adjust the operational map to account for that mistake, and he had done so.

Eritrea also had an initial reservation, he said, but it was a very simple one.  It wanted to ensure the southern border of the Temporary Security Zone was not called the “Line of 6 May 1998” -- to ensure it was not mistaken for the line referred to by that title in the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities.  That was taken into consideration, and the southern border of the Temporary Security Zone was not referred to by that title.

The Eritreans then objected to the subsequently drafted operational map -- the translation, for operational purposes, of the political map.  According to them, areas now fell behind the line of Ethiopian redeployment that were not behind that line on the original political map -- most notably the Irob area.  Eritrea was still insisting that only one map -- the political map -- be used, he continued, but UNMEE’s military experts insisted that it was not possible to redeploy on the basis of a computer-drafted political map. 

That was Eritrea’s stated reason for freezing the redeployment of its forces, he added.  Ethiopia had completed its redeployment.  Although Eritrea had redeployed the bulk of its forces, it still had large numbers of troops within areas that were supposed to be part of the Temporary Security Zone.

As recently as Saturday, he had discussed the problem with the parties, he explained.  On Friday last, he had met the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, and on Saturday, prior to leaving for New York, he met the Eritrean President.  When he returned to Asmara he would again meet with Eritrea’s President to impress on him the urgent need to resolve the problem.

He was worried, he explained, because the people who had been displaced from the  Temporary Security Zone were yearning to return to their villages.  The timing of their return was particularly important, as the rains would start soon and the villagers needed to prepare their lands for tilling.  The longer they were forced to wait to return, the more complicated their lives became.

The United Nations Mission was trying to address the problem primarily by engaging the leaders of the two countries in dialogue, he continued.  But, it was also re-examining its work on the southern border of the Temporary Security Zone to correct any mistakes that had been made in the drafting of the maps.  One such mistake had already been discovered, whereby the line was 500 metres from its correct position.  As a result of the correction, one village that had previously been on the Ethiopian side of the line would now fall on the Eritrean side.

It was estimated that some 300,000 Eritreans had been displaced from the Temporary Security Zone, Mr. Legwaila answered, in response to another question.  All told, about 750,000 people had been displaced in both Ethiopia and Eritrea. 

Asked how significant the differences between the political map and the operational map were, he said that the only significant difference was in the area of Irob.  Ethiopia had stated categorically that that area had been under its administration for a very long time.  It was only in that area where any sizable adjustment was made.  The differences in certain other areas amounted to no more than about 500 metres, and could be corrected without too many problems.

Asked when he believed the problems would be resolved, he said that soon -- for him -- meant soon.  It had taken one month from when problems were initially raised -- in December 2000 -- to produce the political map that both parties had agreed to.  He hope that it would take less than a month to resolve the current problems.

Asked about the other problems the Secretary-General raised in his report to the Security Council, Mr. Legwaila said that the Mission was still not permitted to fly directly from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Asmara, Eritrea.  Other limits had been placed on UNMEE’s freedom of movement, despite both parties’ commitment to ensuring freedom of movement as part of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities.  In order for UNMEE to do its job efficiently, it must be allowed unimpeded freedom of movement, he said.  He hoped the Security Council might appeal to the parties to provide that.

Regarding the 10 villages to which Eritrea claimed return would not be possible, under the operational map, he pointed out that the Temporary Security Zone was entirely within the territory of Eritrea.  Some of the places to which the Ethiopian forces had redeployed were disputed.  Others were acknowledged as

Eritrean, but merely occupied as redeployment points pending the border demarcation.  So, there were villages that remained under the control of Ethiopia, as part of the interim arrangements, which the Border Commission might ultimately assign to Eritrea.  Where it had proven possible to determine without doubt which of the two States had controlled a village before 6 May 1998, the political and operational maps reflected that.  However, anomalies would prevail, Mr. Legwaila said, until the Border Commission had completed its work. 

The current level of military deployment of UNMEE, including its military observers, was 4,255, he said in answer to a correspondent’s question.  The Mission's troops were occupying all the sensitive points in the area that would become the Temporary Security Zone.  In some cases, those points had been identified by Ethiopia.  UNMEE had been obliged to occupy certain points -- marked in yellow on a map provided to the Mission -- immediately after the Ethiopian forces withdrew, to provide the necessary assurance that would allow that redeployment.  That was why it had been necessary for the Force Commander to state that he had a “credible force” on the ground before redeployments could commence.

Asked how much work had been done on demarcating the border, Mr. Legwaila explained that the Border Commission -- charged by the two parties to undertake this -- had not yet commenced its work.  Its first meeting was scheduled for

25 March.  However, the Commission was not part of UNMEE, and he could not second guess its findings.

The principle responsibility for financing the Border Commission lay with the two parties, under the Agreement, he explained in response to another question.  The question of financing was one matter he had been discussing with the Security Council today.  However, the Secretary of the Commission was the United Nations Cartographer, and his activities must be financed by the Secretary-General.  And the international community, if it wanted peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, must take some responsibility and provide some money.  There was also a Trust Fund, but unfortunately it contained only $1.7 million at present, although some countries had made pledges to it. 

Mr. Legwaila said he could not comment on the objection by Ethiopia to one of the Border Commissioners appointed by Eritrea, as that was a legal matter.

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For information media. Not an official record.