What does the Security Council think about Ethiopia / Eritrea?

With Ethiopia having launched an attack on camps inside Eritrea last week, and apparently another over the weekend (though the Ethiopian government denies that), UN Dispatch is wondering how come the Security Council seems to be turning a blind eye. Their answer is that the Council has been silent – and is likely to remain so – 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.

While this week’s fighting has been about training camps, all this is of course taking place against the larger backdrop of a border conflict that’s been left unresolved since the end of war between the two countries back in 2000. For some background on the impasse, it’s worth looking back at this International Crisis Group report from 2008, which argued that the two countries were at “serious risk of a new war”, and that

Ethiopia and Eritrea have had no incentive to resolve the frozen border conflict. Indeed, both regimes have used it as an excuse to enhance their domestic power at the expense of democracy and economic growth, thus reducing the attractiveness to them of diplomatic compromise. They support the other’s domestic rebels, and each is convinced that the fall of the other’s regime is imminent and the only real solution to the border dispute.

At the same time, the key international actors have allowed this situation to remain frozen because of overriding concerns, such as Washington’s concentration on its counter-terrorism priorities. However, the significance of the bilateral dispute has been magnified by its impact on the region, especially the conflict in Somalia, where insurgents backed by Eritrea battle Ethiopian troops that support the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

ICG’s take on what an endgame could look like, if the international community were to engage more seriously:

The basic goals remain to get Ethiopia to accept the border, Eritrea to accept the need for dialogue and the international community to provide the carrots and sticks needed to press the parties, including financing for trans-border development. Overcoming so many contrary predilections, even in the Security Council and major capitals, but especially in Addis Ababa and Asmara, will be hard.

But there are some objective considerations that might attract both sides to the process recommended [in the report]. Eritrea wants to consolidate its independence, prefers physical border demarcation to virtual demarcation, seeks Ethiopian withdrawal from Badme in particular and desires better relations with the West. Building a reconfigured progress on the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission’s conclusions about the border should give it enough to be open to a wide-ranging dialogue. Prospective access to Eritrean ports and essentially an end to internal armed insurgencies should be meaningful incentives for Ethiopia.