To the Bitter End? Mediation in the Eritrean-Ethiopian Conflict

by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

Ethiopian and Eritrean border conflict.

Ethiopian and Eritrean border conflict.

A seemingly intractable state of conflict has endured between Eritrea and Ethiopia for decades. These tensions find their roots in the Eritrean War of Independence in 1961, and in 1998 the conflict culminated in the bloody and costly Eritrean-Ethiopian War. Although a peace agreement was struck between the two parties in 2000, the prospects for renewed conflict remain high. In order to better understand why the conflict has yet to be successfully resolved or managed, it will be necessary to examine the history of Eritrean-Ethiopian clashes while attempting to answer a number of relevant questions. Does the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict qualify as a protracted or intractable conflict according to prevalent academic definitions? Can a lasting resolution to the conflict be found and what form might that resolution take?

Pursuing answers to these questions is vital to the security of the broader East African region. As Michael Brecher and Jonathan Wilkenfeld note in their empirical study of protracted conflicts, crises and incidents are considerably more likely to escalate into open warfare the longer resentments simmer. If Eritrean-Ethiopian tensions meet the definition of a protracted conflict, then this can only add to the urgency of its resolution.

As indicated previously, the conflict between the two parties began with the Eritrean War of Independence in 1961. As European colonial rule came to an end in East Africa, it was proposed that Eritrea be annexed by Ethiopia while British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland would be united to form Somalia. Objecting to the Ethiopian annexation, a number of Eritrean rebel groups formed the umbrella Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and began what was at first a low-intensity guerrilla campaign intended to compel the withdrawal of Ethiopian military forces and the recognition of an independent Eritrea.

An old tank from the Ethiopia-Eritrea war lies abandoned near the Eritrean border (Photo: Mark Haldane).

An old tank from the Ethiopia-Eritrea war lies abandoned near the Eritrean border (Photo: Mark Haldane).

However, the secessionist struggle soon escalated. By the time a peace agreement was reached in 1991, after nearly 30 years of war, it is estimated that approximately 60,000 Eritreans and a similar number of Ethiopians were killed as a direct result of combat operations. In addition, 2.3 million people were displaced by the fighting. It was the collapse of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime in Ethiopia in 1991 that finally created an opportunity for an external actor to foster a resolution to the 30 year conflict with Eritrea. In May 1991, the United States began to facilitate peace talks between the Ethiopian authorities and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). A high-level delegation from the US followed up on these efforts when it arrived in Addis Ababa for a conference in July 1991. Primarily concerned with setting up a transitional government in Ethiopia, this delegation also convinced both sides of the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict to agree to a ceasefire and a timetable for an independence referendum in Eritrea (Ruth Iyob, “The Eritrean Struggle for Independence: Domination, Resistance, Nationalism 1941-1993“, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 175).

As per the July 1991 agreement, a provisional commission was formed to hold the referendum. The vote itself took place in April 1993, in which a reported 99.8% of ballots cast were in favour of Eritrean independence (cf.: Richard Dowden, “Eritrea’s referendum turns into a joyful party: Much of the country is in ruins, but Richard Dowden found the people in buoyant mood“, The Independent, 26.04.1993). However, soon after gaining its independence, Eritrea laid claim to the Badme district of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which the Ethiopian authorities were reluctant to cede. On 6 May 1998, Eritrea abandoned the bilateral talks and deployed a large force of mechanized infantry, mounting an attempt to seize Badme by force. The Ethiopian military soon deployed to counter the Eritrean advance, and the conflict escalated from there until a ceasefire was declared on 25 May 2000. The two states subsequently signed the Algiers Agreement on 12 December 2000.

This dispute, known as the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, has been referred to by Eritrean officials as a “total war”. This demonstrates the power disparity between the two parties. By the end of the war, Ethiopia fielded an army of 450,000 troops, comprising barely 2% of the total population, while Eritrea fielded an army of 350,000, accounting for one-third of all able-bodied adult males in the country. The fighting itself was largely characterised by trench warfare. Eritrean forces sought to establish fixed, defensible positions which the Ethiopians would either attempt to outmanoeuvre or overwhelm by sheer force of arms. Some authors have gone so far as to describe the Eritrean-Ethiopian War as a “World War I-style” conflict.

As previously mentioned, the Algiers Agreement saw an end to hostilities in 2000. Yet, once more the peace between these two states proved to be only temporary. As per the terms of the agreement, a judicial body was formed in The Hague, known as the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), which ruled that Eritrea had commenced hostilities but that Ethiopia must accept a demarcation line that would see Badme ceded to Eritrea. Ethiopia has rejected the EEBC’s findings on the status of Badme and continues to occupy the disputed territory as of this writing.

Eritrean soldiers march during the country's Independence Day in Asmara in May, 2007. One of Africa's smallest nations has one of the largest armies in the region. But this is due to national service that continues for many years, sometimes indefinitely for both men and women.

Eritrean soldiers march during the country’s Independence Day in Asmara in May, 2007. One of Africa’s smallest nations has one of the largest armies in the region. But this is due to national service that continues for many years, sometimes indefinitely for both men and women (see also Human Rights Watch, “Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea“, April 2009.

As this brief account of the conflict has demonstrated, the fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia meets Brecher and Wilkenfeld’s definition of a protracted conflict. It has a long duration, having begun in 1961 and continued with few interruptions. There is also a significant power disparity between the parties to the conflict; Ethiopia has demonstrated its capacity to hold onto Badme even against Eritrea’s mass mobilisation. Finally, there is a demonstrated frequency of high intensity clashes in the Eritrean-Ethiopian case, with at least 250,000 dead and many more displaced by the series of wars. Therefore, the ongoing tensions between these two states should be regarded as part of a protracted conflict

Given this status, conflict management efforts should be tailored accordingly. Where conflict is protracted, it is less likely that the parties to that conflict will be able to successfully resolve the conflict bilaterally and through traditional means. In such circumstances, alternative forms of conflict management are needed, such as mediation, which allows the parties to a conflict to retain their agency but also gain international guarantors for the process of negotiating a lasting resolution to the dispute.

Previously, third party arbitration has been the option of first resort in the pursuit of a resolution to hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Algiers Agreement to which both parties consented in 2000 was based almost entirely on a settlement proposal made jointly by the US and Rwanda roughly a week after the start of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War in May 1998. As in the original proposal, the Algiers Agreement designated a Boundary Commission as an arbitrator that would produce a decision binding for both parties. Ethiopia was also in the midst of a regime change and was hardly capable of agency in the negotiation process. Therefore, it would be more accurate to describe the 1991 talks that resulted in the Eritrean independence referendum as a hybrid mediation-arbitration.

Jacob Bercovitch and Scott Sigmund Gartner identify three fundamental mediation strategies: communication-facilitation, procedural, and directive (Jacob Bercovitch and Scott Sigmund Gartner, “International Conflict Mediation: New Approaches and Findings“, Routledge, 2009, p. 41). In the former two cases, the mediator adopts a decidedly more consultative approach, largely serving as an intermediary between the aggrieved parties while leaving the substance of any agreement to those directly engaged in the conflict. However, a directive strategy is a stronger form of intervention, in which the mediator may actively contribute to the search for common ground by proposing terms.

Dutch marines who are part of the peacekeeping mission UNMEE (2000-2008) take a look at the first discoveries of Ethiopian deminers.

Dutch marines who are part of the peacekeeping mission UNMEE (2000-2008) take a look at the first discoveries of Ethiopian deminers.

Given the active role of the US in negotiating settlements to the Eritrean War of Independence and the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, it may seem intuitive that it should continue as a mediator. However, it is doubtful that the US could exercise much influence over Eritrea at this stage; in August 2009, the US accused Eritrean authorities of supporting al-Shabaab. This accusation is vehemently denied by the Eritrean government. Under such conditions, it is doubtful that Eritrea would view the US as an impartial mediator.

With the US, African Union (AU), and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) vulnerable to accusations of bias in the conflict, it may seem that there are no viable actors to assume the role of an impartial mediator in the dispute. However, the European Union (EU) may be well-positioned to convince both parties to comply with the terms of the Algiers Agreement. While regional actors and the US have pursued sanctions against Eritrea, the EU designated €122 million (US$ 157 million) in aid for 2009-2013 to promote food security, rural development, and good governance in Eritrea. Furthermore, in 2011, the EU was Ethiopia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 17.9% of all foreign trade with the country.

However, the current approach of the EU toward the Horn of Africa is not helpful. As of 1 January 2012, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has been supported by a Special Representative for the Horn of Africa. The mandate of this EU Special Representative (EUSR) encompasses Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda, though both decisions of the Council of the European Union pertaining to this EUSR focus primarily on Somalia. In fact, the original impetus for appointing an EUSR for the Horn of Africa was the need to better coordinate activities between the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and the EU’s own presence in the country – namely the EU Training Mission Somalia (EUTM Somalia), the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR), and the EU Mission on Regional Maritime Capacity Building in the Horn of Africa (EUCAP NESTOR). The only reference to the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict in the EUSR’s mandate is the obligation to “follow political developments in the region […] including in relation to the Ethiopia-Eritrea border issue and implementation of the Algiers Agreement”.

A solution to this approach may be for the Commission to appoint an EU Special Envoy to Eritrea and Ethiopia as part of the European External Action Service, much like the current EU Special Envoy to Somalia. This Special Envoy would actively work to pursue a resolution to the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict through mediation, coordinating with the EUSR for the Horn of Africa in order to maximise the effectiveness of conflict management efforts in the region.

As has been demonstrated here, the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict qualifies as intractable, but there are opportunities to produce a lasting resolution. The Algiers Agreement is an existing basis, and an impartial third party could ensure the implementation of the terms reached in this agreement.

While US foreign policy toward the Horn of Africa has undermined its credibility as a potential mediator, the EU is uniquely positioned to pursue a directive strategy toward mediation. However, in order to ensure that EU mediation is successful and consistent, it is imperative that an EU Special Envoy to Eritrea and Ethiopia be appointed as soon as possible. As has been discussed here, the current mandate of the EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa attaches such extensive responsibility for Somalia that the supplementary efforts of a Special Envoy for Eritrea and Ethiopia is evidently much needed.

More Information
‘Africa’s North Korea’: Why do people flee Eritrea?“, Channel 4, 28.08.2015.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

This entry was posted in English, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Paul Pryce, Security Policy.

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