The UN has requested the African Red Sea state of Eritrea to take its armed forces out of a neutral buffer zone on its border with Ethiopia. Eritrea has moved troops and tanks into a buffer zone that the UN has policed since the border war of 1998-2000. Kjell Magne Bondevik, the special humanitarian envoy for the Horn of Africa, expressed the UN’s concerns in meetings with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and his government.
The two countries signed the Algiers Agreement in June 2000 to officially end the border war. Several thousands had died on both sides. The agreement called for the establishment of an independent commission to decide the border question. A month later, the UN deployed a peacekeeping force called UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to monitor the ceasefire. UNMEE consisted of 4,000 military personnel from 40 countries. UNMEE separated the armed forces of the two countries with a demilitarised security zone and briefly contributed to stability in the area and the return of the refugees displaced by the conflict.
The land known as Eritrea (from the Greek word for Red Sea) was created by the Italians. They colonised lands bequeathed to the Egyptians by the old Ottoman Empire. Italy had a strategic goal: to establish a presence on the world’s busiest shipping lane after the creation of the Suez Canal. They declared Eritrea an Italian colony in 1890. It remained in their hands until the British took it in World War II. After the war, the UN decided Eritrea would be federated with Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was restored to his throne of Ethiopia that he lost after the Italians invaded the country from their base in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. He wanted Eritrea to give Ethiopia access to the Red Sea. Selassie proclaimed a new constitution in 1955 which proclaimed Ethiopian ownership of Eritrea. His government slowly but surely broke the terms of the UN Resolution, reducing Eritrea to status of an occupied country.
In July 1960 a group of Eritrean students and intellectuals held a met in Cairo and formed the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). A year later, the Eritrean World War II hero Hamis Idris Awate (pictured) fired the first shots for the Eritrean independence movement attacking the Ethiopian army and police. It was to be the start of a brutal 30 year battle. In the 1960s, the ELF was primarily a lowlands Muslim movement. Selassie was ousted in a coup by the Derg junta in 1974 and they launched bloody reprisals against Eritrean attacks. The Christian highlanders had now joined the independence movement as they became increasingly disillusioned with Ethiopian massacres of civilian populations. The Derg strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam succeeded in stopping independence only because Ethiopia was now armed by the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, the Soviets ceased supplying Mengistu and the war turned in Eritrea’s favour. When Mengistu was overthrown in 1991 the parties met in Washington and quickly moved to end the war.
Eritrea was formally pronounced an independent country after an almost unanimous referendum. On May 28, 1993, the United Nations formally admitted Eritrea to its membership. Initially relations with Ethiopia’s new rulers were good. But the peace agreement had not properly established the border and in 1998 the two countries’ armies clashed in the disputed town of Badme. The fighting spread and led to massive internal displacement in both countries as civilians fled the war zone. The war lasted two years and ended in unsatisfactory stalemate. UNMEE came in to monitor an uneasy peace.
Eritrea’s president Isaias Afewerki addressed the stalemate when he wrote the “Eleven Letters” to the Secretary-General and Security Council of the UN between 2003 and 2005. They claimed Ethiopia had rejected the boundary commission’s recommendations on the border between the countries and the UN failed to do its duty to “enforce its own resolutions and to uphold the rule of law”.
Afewerki has been president of Eritrea since full independence. He joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1966 and received military training in China. He went on to become deputy divisional commander. In 1970 he co-founded the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and in 1987 he was elected secretary-general of the organisation. He promised to call elections on several occasions but always found reasons to defer.
Eritrea is now a one-party state, with the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice the only party allowed to operate. There is no independent media or in the country and Reporters Without Borders have described the country as a “black hole” for news. Only North Korea has a worse record for freedom of expression. In Eritrea journalists exist only to provide government propaganda. Harassment, psychological pressure, intimidation and round-the-clock surveillance are common for anyone foolhardy enough to ignore the rules. While his well-equipped army wages war on Ethiopia, Afewerki's people are ravaged by poverty and drought. The UN has expressed its grave fears about the humanitarian consequences of Eritrea's violation of the security zone.