Global Policy Forum

UNMEE Reiterates Optimism

Panafrican News Agency
March 14, 2001

Notwithstanding hitches in troop deployment to clear up a buffer zone, the head of the UN mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) Wednesday vouched that the peace process between the two countries would not fall apart. A press release issued Wednesday quoted Legwaila Joseph Legwaila as arguing that the UN was, after all, negotiating with "two disciplined leaders, two disciplined nations, and two disciplined armies."

While admitting that peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea would be hard coming after the bitterness and distrust whipped up by their border conflict, Legwaila said he was confident attendant problems would be resolved, and soon. He was briefing the press following a meeting with the Security Council. UNMEE's mandate was due to expire Thursday and the Council has been considering Secretary General Kofi Annan's recommendation that it be extended for six further months.

Legwaila said that over all cooperation between UNMEE and both host countries was very good. He also intimated that if UNMEE had been able to deploy 4,000 peacekeepers and some 200 military observers, as well as begun monitoring security in contested areas, it was thanks in large part to the quick response of donor countries.

Recent difficulties had prevented the Mission from formally declaring the establishment of a Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) meant to separate the parties. Alluding to his meeting with the Security Council, he said the international community wanted to see the TSZ established, insisting it was essential for the return of civilians who had been forced from their homes and their fields by the fighting.

He recalled that the parties themselves had come up with the idea and agreed to it last June, when they signed an Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities. That Agreement had been brokered by the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) before UNMEE was created, he pointed out, and the TSZ was no more than an interim measure that had nothing to do with future decisions on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Legwaila regretted that there were, unfortunately, still a great deal of bitterness and distrust between the parties, rendering the question of troop positions extremely sensitive. Matter. However, he hoped that operational issues would soon be resolved, which would allow UNMEE to be in the best possible position to assist the parties in addressing the challenges of the peace process.

A most pressing issue was the forthcoming influx of internally displaced people and refugees into the TSZ, he stressed. Because of that, he endorsed Kofi Annan's call for a generous response from donors to the UN consolidated appeals, launched recently. That aid, he pleaded, would alleviate the plight of those affected by years of severe drought and war. The long-term consolidation of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea would require the continued political will of their leaders, he insisted, and the continued support of the international community.

One key element was the final delimitation and demarcation of the border, entrusted by the parties to a Border Commission. Legwaila observed that the successful completion of the work of the Commission - and the successful conclusion of the UN Mission - were complementary in nature. In response to a question about the source of the problems preventing the establishment of the Zone, he explained that the main problem was one of maps. There had been a meeting of the Military Coordination Commission in Nairobi on 6 February, where both parties adopted a political map, with reservations, he said. Ethiopia's reservations concerned a mistake made on the redeployment map it had initially submitted to UNMEE, concerning Irob - an area Ethiopia insisted had previously been under its administration.

In the process of translating the political map, Ethiopia wanted UNMEE's Force Commander to adjust the operational map to account for that mistake and, after consultations with the parties, the commander had done so. Eritrea also had an initial reservation, he said, objecting to the drafted operational map - the translation, for operational purposes, of the political map. According to them, areas now fell behind the line of Ethiopian redeployment that were not behind that line on the original political map - most notably the Irob area. Eritrea, Legwaila said, was still insisting that only one map - the political map - be used, but UNMEE's military experts affirmed that it was not practical to re-deploy on the basis of a computer-generated version of the smaller scale political map. That was Eritrea's stated reason for freezing the redeployment of its forces, he added, noting that Ethiopia had completed its redeployment. Although Eritrea had re-deployed the bulk of its forces, it still had large numbers of troops within areas that were supposed to be part of the TSZ, Legwaila confirmed.

He said had as recently as last weekend discussed the problem with the parties, meeting the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia last Friday and, on Saturday, the Eritrean President. The UN Mission was trying to address the problem primarily by engaging the leaders of the two countries in dialogue, he continued. But, it was also checking its work on the southern boundary of the TSZ to correct any cartographic errors that had been made in the drafting of the maps.

Asked how significant the differences between the political map and the operational map were, he said that the only significant difference was in the area of Irob. It was the only area, he maintained, where any sizeable adjustment was made, adding that differences in other areas could be addressed without too many problems. Concerning other hitches, Legwaila said UNMEE was still not permitted to fly directly from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Asmara, Eritrea.

He said other limits had also been placed on UNMEE's freedom of movement, despite both parties' commitment to ensuring the Mission's freedom of movement as part of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities.

In order for UNMEE to do its job efficiently, it must be allowed unimpeded freedom of movement, he said, and hoped the Security Council might appeal to the parties to provide that.

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