Ethiopia Attacks Eritrea: Things to Understand


Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

13 June 2016

On Sunday, the Ethiopian government launched an attack against Eritrea on the Tsorona Central Front. According to a BBC report, “witnesses report hearing heavy gunfire and seeing Ethiopian troops and tanks heading towards Eritrean border.” The region, located along the tense border between the two countries, was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia war. Full details of yesterday’s attack are still being confirmed and its specific motives or ultimate aims remain unclear. While on Sunday, the Eritrean government confirmed the incident in a press release, claiming that Ethiopia had launched an attack, Mary Harper of the BBC tweeted that the “[Ethiopian] info minister said he wasn’t aware of fighting with [Eritrea].” Then in a puzzling turnaround, on Monday, the Ethiopia claimed that the incident was “a serious offensive, not just a simple skirmish” and in response to an Eritrean attack.

Last month, Eritrea celebrated its 25th year of independence, while last week the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, which has been broadly discredited and widely challenged, declared that “widespread” human rights abuses have been committed in Eritrea over the past 25 years and should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as crimes against humanity.

For Ethiopia, the incident comes at a time of considerable internal dissension and crises. The country is burdened by a massive food crisis, leaving millions at risk of famine and requiring urgent aid, while just days ago dozens of Ethiopian soldiers were involved in a bloody battle with Somali militants at an African Union base in central Somalia (casualty figures are still unknown). Moreover, the Ethiopian government continues to face large and widespread anti-government protests and dissent over political and economic inclusion. The Ethiopian government’s heavy-handed response, involving brutal suppression and harsh crackdowns characterized by a spate of rights violations, has been strongly condemned by an array of international human rights organizations.

It is important to note that Sunday’s attack is not an isolated incident. Since the end of the destructive 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands, the Ethiopian government has made regular incursions into and attacks against Eritrea. Furthermore, it has made persistent calls for the overthrow of the Eritrea government and, through belligerent, threatening statements via government-owned media outlets, proclaimed its intentions to carry out “military action to oust the regime in Eritrea.” Just this year, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn said Ethiopia was ready to take “proportionate military action against Eritrea” for Eritrea’s alleged “continuous acts of provocation and destabilisation of Ethiopia.” The Ethiopian government is also the principal supporter of the RSADO, an international terrorist organization targeting Eritrea. Notably, beyond Eritrea, Ethiopia has also engaged in frequent military incursions into other neighboring countries, including Kenya and South Sudan, while it has maintained a long, violent military presence in Somalia.

Even while the exact details surrounding Sunday’s attack are yet to fully emerge, it is difficult to overlook the problematic role of the international community in the ongoing tensions plaguing the region. In 2000, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia signed the Algiers Agreement to solve the border dispute between the two countries. Subsequently, in 2001, the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), composed of five prominent and highly respected lawyers was established to make its “final and binding delimitation and demarcation decisions.” The Commission presented its “final and binding delimitation decision” on 13 April 2002, with the flashpoint of the 1998-2000 war, the small, rural border town of Badme, being awarded to Eritrea.

However, while the decision has been accepted by Eritrea, and although the entire process was guaranteed by the UN and the OAU/AU and witnessed by the US, EU, Algeria, and Nigeria, Ethiopia has completely failed to shoulder its legal obligations and responsibility for demarcating the border.

Problematically, rather than condemn Ethiopia’s illegal military occupation and repeated aggressive actions or call for the immediate, unconditional implementation of the EEBC decision, the international community, principally led by the US, has encouraged Ethiopia’s violations by offering it vast diplomatic, military, and economic support. Such a misguided approach is based upon the belief, dating back to the immediate post-World War 2 period but rearticulated more recently in terms of regional “anchor states” designations, that Western geostrategic interests and foreign policy aims can be better protected and served by Ethiopia, Eritrea’s former colonial occupier. Unfortunately, however, this misguided policy approach has largely failed to achieve its objectives (to even a minor degree), and instead only served to destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region through contributing to unnecessary rivalry, conflict, and insecurity.

The people of the region deserve better.


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