Thursday, December 06, 2007
The sustainable border conflict
If this is accurate reporting of what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, there should be no wonder that the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea seems to be heading nowhere good. It is not the drawing of the border that needs to be sustainable. Rather, it is the ways the parties relate to one another about the correct border that needs to be sustainable.
In 1998-2000 the two countries fought a war that took 70,000 lives over this border. They ended the war with an agreement to submit their dispute to final and binding arbitration. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, part of Permanent Court of Arbitration, established the legal description of the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but the two countries did not permit the boundary to be demarcated.
Rice's statement as reported by Reuters is likely to be heard by Eritrea as further evidence that the US is backing Ethiopia's desire to re-open the whole question of where the boundary is or ought to be. Constantly re-opening settled questions is a sure recipe for sustained conflict.
Imagine you were having a boundary dispute with your neighbor. Thorough surveys of the legal descriptions of your property establish that your neighbor has built a fence, or a garage, or an extension of his own home, across the boundary between your property and his. There is nothing unsustainable about establishing where the boundary legally is. But once you and your neighbor know where the line lies, you will be in a position to work out what the consequence of his -- or your -- trespass should be.
The undemarcated boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia will have consequences for the people who live and work on each side thereof. The time for talks about how sustainable relationships can be established around the border is after its demarcation, once all those involved can see exactly where they stand with respect to the border.
Sadly, Ethiopia and Eritrea have opted to allow the border not to be demarcated, and have each moved large numbers of troops into the border region. There was a much better way to resolve this dispute.