Though far from the television screens of most Americans, some of the fighting in Ethiopia and Eritrea resembles a war with which they might be familiar. At its peak, hundreds of kilometers of trenches snaked their way around the border region of the two neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa, raising frequent comparisons to World War One. And like World War One, the toll of the trench warfare on conscripts has been exacting. Though no one knows for sure, 70,000 people are estimated to have been killed. There have also been as many as 700,000 displaced or made refugees from the war, which at one point cost these desperately impoverished countries $1 million a day to sustain.
For most of the 20th century, Eritrea, the smaller of the two countries, was a province of Ethiopia. After a long struggle, it gained independence in 1993. But the precise borders were never demarcated. One desolate region in particular, Badme, was a persistent point of contention. In May 1998, Eritrean fighters skirmished with the local Ethiopian-aligned forces there. Ethiopia’s response was swift and both countries sent massive numbers of troops and artillery to the border region. Soon, 300,000 soldiers were staring at each other along an 800 kilometer trench line.
In May 2000, then-United States National security advisor Anthony Lake helped oversee international and regional efforts to end the conflict. In June 2000, both sides signed the Algiers Peace Agreement, ceasing hostilities. The Security Council then authorized the deployment of over 4,000 peacekeepers to the newly formed United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to patrol the border region.
As part of the Algiers agreement, the two sides agreed to let a neutral commission determine the official boundaries. Two years later, the commission, in collaboration with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague awarded Badme to Eritrea. Other disputed territories went to Ethiopia and the two sides agreed to abide by the verdict. Ethiopia began withdrawing troops from the frontier and UNMEE began to scale back its presence. However, all was not well. In 2004, Ethiopia disputed the boundary ruling and deployed tens of thousands of troops to the border region, including Badme. A frustrated Eritrea expelled UNMEE troops from certain counties and restricted UN helicopter flights. A seemingly intractable stalemate persists to this day.
In May 2006, with its movements restricted, UNMEE was forced to downsize. Today, there are only 1,700 UNMEE troops patrolling the region, and one of their most important tasks is locating and disposing of the estimated 3 million landmines that dot the border region.
The Security Council has threatened both sides with sanctions, but the situation remains volatile. At this point, the main goal of international diplomacy is to force both sides to agree to the terms of the Algiers Agreement, including the border demarcations authorized by the Court of Permanent Arbitration. This is no easy task, but the alternative is an unstable stalemate that could once again flare into brutal warfare.