In the midst of a steamy Washington summer, Eritrean Ambassador Girma Asmerom appeared to be in a state of cold but controlled fury over a border dispute with Ethiopia that
had seemed to be settled but has lingered for nearly three years.
In 2000, a boundary commission set up by the United Nations was mandated to arbitrate a final settlement of the dispute, and both sides agreed in a treaty signed at Algeciras, Spain, to abide by it. A final ruling two years later was immediately accepted by Eritrea. Ethiopia asked for more dialogue.
“It is obvious that final can only mean final and binding. Ethiopia should accept it without any further dialogue, and the international community should see to it that it does,” Mr. Girma said in a recent interview at the Eritrean Embassy. “No nation has the right to occupy the territory of another,” he declared, referring to border areas awarded to Eritrea but currently under Ethiopia’s control.
“If it continues to do so, what recourse is left to the other,” he asked rhetorically. The unstated answer is, obviously, force.
According to a U.S. official who requested anonymity before agreeing to an interview, the crux of the continuing dispute can be summed up in one word — Badme.
That remote outpost on the border between the two Horn of Africa countries was the spark that ignited a war that dragged on from 1998 to 2000. The war caused about 100,000 casualties.
Under the boundary commission’s final ruling, Badme was awarded to Eritrea. The U.S. official said it is clear that both sides want to put the war behind them, but Badme takes on a meaning larger than the place would otherwise deserve.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who got very little in a war that was so costly, loses face if he loses Badme, whose possession was the tripwire for the war.
For Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, the Badme award means regaining territory that was formerly under his control but was lost on the battlefield.
On Monday in New York, the U.N. Security Council deplored the lack of progress in resolving the border dispute and expressed deep concern. It suggested that council members could visit Badme to examine recent issues. The same suggestion had been made days earlier by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The issues referred to by the council include reported shooting incidents in the border area, restrictions on the movements of U.N. peacekeepers and ongoing food shortages in both countries.
Mr. Girma drew two analogies: “When [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon decided to remove Jewish settlements in Gaza, he acted despite the pressure of the settlers,” he said.
“When the international community decided to put pressure on Syria to remove its army … from Lebanon, which had been there 30 years, they quickly packed up and went home.”
The Eritrean government has asked the United States to take the lead by applying sanctions if Ethiopia does not accept the U.N. arbitration decision.
The bitterness of the two countries toward each other stems in part from the fact that the present rulers of Eritrea and Ethiopia come from roughly the same region of the Horn of Africa.
Mr. Isaias comes from north of the disputed boundary, and Mr. Meles comes from Tigre, an Ethiopian province just south of Eritrea.
The two ruling groups speak the same regional dialect, eat the same foods and share the same regional heritage as the center of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest existing state.
The Eritreans waged a 30-year guerrilla war for freedom from Ethiopia.
The Tigreans fought a similar but briefer guerrilla war against the communist government of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, and wound up replacing it as rulers of all Ethiopia. But they were forced to accept Eritrea as a separate entity, becoming a landlocked state without access to the Red Sea.