Death of a peace operation

by | Jul 31, 2008

So, farewell then the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), born after the two countries ended a massive war in 2000 and gently put down by a sorrowful Security Council on Wednesday.  It won’t really be missed, as it wasn’t one of the coolest missions out there.  It was one of the last old school, peacekeeping-equals-troops-stuck-between-two-states-that-had-a-big-war operations left in Africa, an anomaly in the age of peacebuilding-as-changing-the-DNA-of-the-country.

And closing it down was the only option, as the Eritreans had cut off its fuel supplies through their territory last December, forcing a troop withdrawal this February.  The remarkable thing about UNMEE is that it stayed in place so long, as the Eritreans began to bugger about with it in December 2005 and never really let up.  Their excuse was that Ethiopia has refused to comply with international rulings on the delineation of the border with the UN was meant to monitor, so why bother?

Eritrea had a point.  But its behavior towards UNMEE has been an important part of the trend towards greater resistance to UN missions that I blogged about earlier in July.  One UN staffer responded to my post, which argued that Darfur is now a textbook for anti-UN spoilers, by pointing out that “the Eritreans provided the Sudanese with a wonderful case study in how to ‘red team’ a UN mission through de facto withdrawal of consent by removing critical mission enablers [that’d be the helicopters, etc.] and not honoring Status of Forces Agreements”. 

So Eritrea has earned its place in the roster of UN failures (a sign that the UN will probably be back there sooner or later, as in the DR Congo, Central African Republic and maybe Somalia).  The Eritreans are trying to be reassuring that this doesn’t mean war with Ethiopia straight away, but given that they managed to pick a fight with tiny Djibouti recently, I wouldn’t get too relaxed.  Last month, I suggested in an op-ed for ECFR that the way out of this impasse is to enlarge the context by several orders of magnitude, addressing East Africa’ problems en bloc:

There is a need for an international drive for a regional security conference that could hammer out a credible framework for resolving border disputes, guaranteeing peace agreements and rehabilitating rebel groups. The African Union and UN should take a political lead. The U.S. (which sees East Africa as a front against terror) and China (which buys its raw materials) must join in. The EU could play a role in coordinating conditional financial support to back up the deal-making.

All rather grandiose, and observant readers may wonder how this proposal squares with my recent warning against “piling international institution on international institution in Africa”.  My answer would be that such a conference, involving horizontal negotiations between African governments, may be the best Plan B when trying to impose security frameworks from New York stops working.


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