Despite a normally watchful eye on the events of the African continent, the UN Security Council has been silent in recent days on a recent flare-up in tensions on the Horn. One of the few conflicts to earn the title “intractable”, Ethiopia and Eritrea have been mortal enemies since the latter gained its independence from the former in 1993. Following the split, the two fought a lengthy border war, which only ended with the Algiers Accords’ signature in 2000. Since then, the relative peace between the two has for the most part held with periodic upticks in aggressive rhetoric and increased border presence on either side.
That changed on Thursday, as Ethiopian forces launched an expedition across the disputed border. According to Addis Ababa, the ground incursion, 18 kilometers across the border, was in reprisal for Eritrea’s providing training and material support to groups that have attacked civilians in Ethiopia. A follow-up attack was launched on Saturday. It seems that Asmara isn’t buying Ethiopia’s reasoning, countering that the attacks on Eritrean military bases were in relation to the unresolved border issues the two face, not any internal issues Ethiopia may or may not be having.
No matter the reasoning, the idea of a renewed shooting war between the two should be enough to raise a greater level of concern than is currently being expressed by the international community. Such an outbreak in violence would have ripple effects across the region, threatening what little progress has been made in pushing back al-Shabab in Somalia since Kenyan and Ethiopian forces invaded in October. While the Ethiopian troops have pulled back from aiding the newly upgraded AMISOM mission, an influx of fighters rushing to back Eritrea would likely come through Somalia, leaving a trail of new weapons behind.
Eritrea has expressed its outrage at Ethiopia’s actions, and the seeming impunity it has been given by the world, demanding the Security Council condemn the Ethiopian attack. At Turtle Bay, the Eritrean Ambassador submitted a letter calling for action to the Security Council, distributed by United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative, Mark Lyall Grant, in his role as Council President for March. Inner City Press obtained a copy of the letter, which shows just how unlikely Eritrea believes Council intervention to be:
The people and Government of Eritrea shall not entertain and will not be entrapped by deceitful ploys that are aimed at derailing and eclipsing the fundamental issues. But how long will the UN Security Council continue to tolerate the flouting of the rule of law and the blatant violation of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of a Member State?
In the event, the Government of Eritrea urges, for the umpteenth time, the UN Security Council to shoulder its legal and moral responsibilities and to take appropriate measures to rectify acts of aggression against Eritrea’s sovereign territories and to ensure justice and the respect of the rule of law.
Despite this outreach, the UN Security Council has been silent on the matter, and is likely to remain so. This is likely for several reasons. First, the Council has found itself spurned by Eritrea in the past. Following the 2000 peace agreement, a UN peacekeeping force called the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) was set up to monitor the situation. After increasingly restrictive conditions from Eritrea, including the cutting of logistical routes, the UN Security Council begrudgingly sunset the mission in 2008. There is no love lost between the two, also, due to Security Council sanctions on Eritrea for supporting al-Shabab despite prevailing arms embargoes.
Second, the issue is unlikely to be pressed by any of the Permanent Members for swift action. In its role as the President, the UK has yet to call for any meetings on the matter, and has stated that its focus this month will be on the Middle East. Once the United States takes up the Presidency in April, it will likely focus the status of Sudan and South Sudan, which are personal projects of Ambassador Susan Rice. Further, the United States is a strong ally of Ethiopia for its role in countering the spread of terrorism in the Horn. That leaves France, which is spending its diplomatic clout on getting a stronger resolution on Syria out of Russia and China.
Of the non-permanent states, while the African Union has called for calm between Ethiopia and Eritrea, South Africa and Togo have yet to echo the call from the Security Council. Barring a strong push by the two sub-Sahara African non-permanent members, it’s unlikely a sense of urgency will permeate the situation.
So how low a priority is this situation to the Security Council? The only consultations, formal or informal, on the agenda for today is a previously scheduled discussion on the Council’s working methods. While the UN observer in me is pleased to see that they recognize a need for an update, it doesn’t lend a sense that a quick resolution is forthcoming. Eritrea has stayed its hand militarily for now; there have been no reprisals as of yet by the Eritrean army or proxies. It is uncertain whether that will remain true should another raid take place.