By Reinhardt Jacobsen
As border clashes between Eritrea and Ethiopia continued into the second day on June 13, observers recalled UN Secretary-General’s remarks in January 2008 that he was “worried about the growing militarization, on both side(s) of the boarder, which could lead to a war”.
That concern is shared by civil society organisations in the two countries. They are warning that the border clahses that triggered in the Tsorona area on the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea “can easily escalate into full-blown war”.
While calling for an end to fighting, the civil society organisations are urging the African Union to step in with its peace and Security Council; and the European Union and the United States to step in as witnesses to a peace process.
EEPA – Europe External Policy Advisors – has associated itself with the call. EEPA’s founding director Prof. Mirjam van Reisen, who is a specialist on the Horn of Africa, said: “Ethiopia and Eritrea have confirmed military clashes in the border area near Tsorona, one of the disputed villages in the border between the two countries where clashes are common for years. It remains to be seen now if there is only an isolated incident.”
These reports of clashes come days after the UN Commission of Inquiry presented its conclusions that “crimes against humanity” are widespread in Eritrea and ongoing, van Reisen told IDN. The UN Commission of Inquiry advised the UN Human Rights Council to refer the matter to the UN Security Council.
Clashes in the border areas do not come as a surprise, added van Reisen. In recent months, both sides have been building up their military presence and the situation on the border has been tense. In fact troop movements are reported to have been taking place on both sides in the Tsorona region.
Van Reisen warned that the possibility of a war comes as a dire prospect. Every month around 5,000 people are fleeing Eritrea. The refugee exodus is haemorrhaging the country. Young people undertake hazardous journeys, risk deportations in the Sudan and face torture, extortion and death in Libya. Only recently, hundreds of Eritreans died in the Mediterranean and many announced the loss of loved ones on social media.
“Now the prospect of war may aggravate the dire situation of all those committed to national service in Eritrea. In the last war of 1998 between Eritrea and Ethiopie more than 100,000 people were killed,” van Reisen said.
The Eritrean pro-justice movement Freedom Friday or Arbi Harnet has denounced the war-talk: “War is really not in the interest of Eritrea whatsoever and we would like to mobilise our people inside and outside Eritrea to stand up to DIA and protest this war and stop destructive agenda before it results in more deaths.”
Also other messages on social media are demanding “No to War”. And this against the backdrop that the UN Commission of Inquiry presents a dark picture of the situation in Eritrea. It estimates that between 300,000 and 400,000 people are living in slavery, and finds that the indefinite national service is “a crime against humanity”.
The report states that “Crimes against humanity have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner in Eritrean detention facilities, military training camps and other locations across the country over the past 25 years.”
The report adds “that the types of gross human rights violations in Eritrea documented by the Commission … are not committed on the streets of Asmara, but rather behind the walls of detention facilities and in military training camps. Torture and rape are not normally perpetrated in the open”.
The report states further that “the façade of calm and normality that is apparent to the occasional visitor to the country, and others confined to sections of the capital, belies the consistent patterns of serious human rights violations”.
The prospect of war will certainly disrupt the facade of calm, not only in Eritrea but in the entire Horn region, added van Reisen sharing the UN Chief’s apprehension eight years ago.
The UN Chief’s concern has been recorded by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which serves as registry for the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission established pursuant to the Agreement of December 12, 2000 between the Government of the State of Eritrea and the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
The Commission has a mandate “to delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) and applicable international law.”
According to The Hague Justice Portal, the Decision on Delimitation of the Border between Eritrea and Ethiopia was delivered by the Commission on April 13, 2002. Having completed the task of delimitation, the Commission moved on to effecting the actual demarcation of that boundary on the ground.
From November 2002 to late 2003, the Commission met several times with delegates of the parties, and the observers from the United Nations and the African Union, to discuss matters related to the ongoing demarcation process.
However, no progress was made due to the irreconcilable demands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In March 2006, the demarcation activities which had been halted in 2003, due to circumstances beyond the Commission’s control, resumed.
“The last meeting was held in September 2007, but no agreement has yet been reached towards the emplacement of pillars on the ground,” says The Hague Justice Portal, adding: “In January 2008, the UN Secretary general declared that he was worried about the growing militarization, on both side(s) of the boarder, which could lead to a war.”