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Frequently Asked Questions on the Eritrea - Ethiopia Conflict

Last Updated: February 19, 1999
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1. Why is there a war between Eritrea and Ethiopia?

The war is the result of a large-scale Eritrean military invasion of Ethiopian territory. Eritrea has recently announced claims on these territories that were being peacefully administered by Ethiopia. But international law forbids the use of force to change the status quo. A country which has territorial claims on areas peacefully administered by another country must not resort to force; it has to bring the issue to international mediation. The Eritrean invasion which took place on May 12, 1998, violated this fundamental tenet of international law. After the invasion the Eritrean government stated that it had "brought under its control large swathes of territory."

Eritrea claims that Ethiopia provoked the invasion because of a clash on May 6, 1998 between Ethiopian police and Eritrean army units in Badime. However, Badime and its environs were under peaceful Ethiopian-administration at the time; as established by an OAU fact-finding mission. Eritrea has not been able to provide a logical explaination for why it sent armed Eritrean units into Badime on May 6 in the first place.

There are also contributing economic tensions which helped precipitate this war as explained below

2. Is there any international peace plan being advocated by the international community?

Yes. The US-Rwanda peace plan was developed after three-week diplomatic efforts and consultations with both sides. The OAU has endorsed the US-Rwanda plan as the basis for its efforts in securing peace, and the UN has also backed the plan.

Ethiopia has fully accepted the plan while Eritrea has rejected it. Furthermore, the President of Eritrea has stated that his troops would never withdraw from the territories they occupied as recommended in the US-Rwanda peace plan: "not even if the sun doesn't rise."

The US-Rwanda plan has now been superceded by the OAU peace plan which was released on November 8, 1998. The UN Security Council declared on Nov 13, 1998, that the peace plan was "fair and balanced"

Ethiopia has formally accepted this plan, while Eritrea intially rejected the plan outright and described it as a "non-starter." But later, after pressure from the international community, Eritrea changed its tactic and announced that it was awaiting "clarification" of numerous points in the peace plan. The OAU responded to all of Eritrea's requests and stated that it is now up to Eritrea to decide whether it will accept the peace plan or not. The UN Security Council has also issued Resolution 1226, strongly urging Eritrea to accept the OAU peace plan without delay."

Unfortunately, Eritrea continues its refusal to accept the peace plan, and has gone out of its way to vilify the mediators who have shuttled back and forth between Addis Abeba and Asmara. So far, Eritrea has verbally slandered the US assistant Secretary of State Ms Susan Rice, the vice-president of Rwanda, the President of Djbouti Hassan Gouled, and the former US national security advisor Mr. Anthony Lake.

3. Is the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia well-defined?

The border is well-defined where it coincides with rivers. Elsewhere, the border is not clearly defined and requires delimitation and demarcation. This is because the relevant Ethio-Italian treaties are vague, and were never fully implemented. For example, the treaty of 1902 called for a joint Italian-Ethiopian delegation to delimit the frontier in the Badime region. This never took place due to the expansionist intentions of Fascist Italy which culminated in the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

However, the areas under peaceful de-facto Eritrean or Ethiopian administration along the border areas were well known to each side in May 1998 and were accepted by both sides prior to final demarcation of the border.

4. Why does the Eritrean government claim that the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia is one of the most well-known in the region, passing through geographical coordinates? Is this true?

This is false. There is not a single geographic coordinate mentioned in the border treaties that established the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, or in any other legal document relevant to the border issue. The Eritrean government has not been able to back up its statement by releasing these coordinates that it claims exist. There is not a single foreign government or international organization which has endorsed Eritrea's territorial claims. The reasons for this are:

    (a) Until May 12, Eritrea (either as independent country, province, or colony) never exercised de facto sovereignty in the disputed areas.

    (b) There is no legal document which establishes de jure Eritrean sovereignty in the disputed areas.

5. What is the basis of Eritrea's claim to the disputed territory?

Eritrea claims the major disputed territory (Badime region) on the basis of Italian maps created during 1907 to1935. Notice the difference between a unilateral map and a bilateral treaty. The unilateral Italian maps conflict with the Treaty of 1902 (the relevant border treaty for the Badime area). For example, these expansionist Italian maps violate the 1902 treaty by advancing the Eritrea border to the junction of the Tekezze and Tomsa rivers. According to the treaty, the border was supposed to be located at the junction of the Setit and Maieteb rivers. This very point was actively disputed between Ethiopia and Eritrea at the time of Mussolini's Fascist military buildup in Eritrea. Ethiopia repeatedly attempted to peacefully resolve the border dispute (involving the Badime stretch of the border and other border areas as well). Mussolini, however, refused to resolve these border issues, and instead used them as a pretext to invade Ethiopia in September 1935.

The Eritrean government has attempted to justify this unilateral Italian violation of the treaty by claiming that the OAU resolution of 1964 gives borders established by "Europeans" or "colonial powers" legal primacy over any other borders in Africa.

This argument has no basis because Ethiopia was a member of the League of Nations (precursor to the UN). Ethiopia's rights under international law were no less than that of Italy, France, or than any other member state of the League of Nations.

The fact that Ethiopia is an African nation does not mean it had no right to defend its borders against European colonial encroachment. Mussolini had no right to violate the treaties between Italy and Ethiopia, and this was established before the League of nations in 1935 when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.

Finally, the OAU resolution states that "countries should keep the borders they had on independence." It does not say "European", or "colonial" borders (contrary to the assertion of supporters of the Eritrean government). The fact is that the OAU charter requires Eritrea to keep the borders it had in 1993 when it achieved independence. Eritrea has violated this OAU resolution by printing maps in 1996 that extend its territory into Djibouti, by claiming the Hanish islands (Yemen) in 1995, and by invading Ethiopian territory in 1998.

Note: The Eritrean government is in possession of earlier Italian maps and documents (prior to 1935) which clearly depict the border issue and the Italian colonial government's attempts to unilaterally advance the border deeper into Ethiopia. However, Eritrea is not publicizing these documents because they would badly damage Eritrea's case. Instead Eritrea has so far released only one Mussolini-era map from 1935 and demanded that Ethiopia accept this map as the supreme legal document for the border dispute.

6. What is the basis of Ethiopia's claim to the disputed territory?


    (1) The Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902. Ethiopia's map of 1997, which delineates its territorial claims along the Eritrean border, is a far more honest representation of the Treaty of 1902 than is Eritrea's Mussolini-era map of 1935. The fact that the Mussolini map violates the Treaty of 1902 can be established by examining the detailed Italian military maps which were prepared for the invasion of Ethiopia. The maps show that the Italians advanced the borderline roughly 100 kms deeper into Ethiopia, beyond the junction of the Maieteb and Setit rivers - the boundary specified in the Treaty. (It should be noted that although they changed the maps, they never actually physically occupoied the region)

    (2) De facto exercise of sovereignty from 1902 until 1998. This has not been seriously contested by Eritrea. Eritrea's refusal to withdraw its troops is due in part, to the sure knowledge that previous administration will be an important factor in determining the final border demarcation. The article Alitiena- Before the Invasion provides a description of the Alitiena area before Eritrea invaded it in May 1998. Also see the article The Grave Danger of Illusions About Eritrea byMr. Wray Witten for a description of the Badime area.

    (3) The OAU resolution which advises Eritrea to "keep the borders it had on achieving national independence."

7. It has been mentioned in the press that economic issues are at the heart of this conflict. What are these issues and why did they create friction between Ethiopia and Eritrea?

The economic problems between Eritrea and Ethiopia can be classified into three groups:

    (1) Currency problems: First, Eritrea vigorously requested that Ethiopia allow the new Eritrean currency to circulate inside Ethiopia. Ethiopia refused this illogical request. Second, Eritrea demanded that Ethiopia convert Eritrea's stock of old Birr into US Dollars. Ethiopia quite rightly refused this demand. The old Birr notes had no inherent value as Eritrea had already translated the value of the old Birr notes into its new Eritrean currency on a one-to-one basis. Eritrea intended to export its current account deficit to Ethiopia by means of this currency fraud, and receive in return roughly 200 Million dollars in hard currency.

    (Eritrea's current account deficit was 22 percent of GDP in 1996 according to data obtained by the US Embassy Commercial Section)

    (2) Trade Problems: Eritrea's largest trading partner is Ethiopia, accounting for 67 percent of Eritrean exports. Despite the end of the common currency arrangement between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1997, Eritrea desired to continue having preferential access to the Ethiopian market. Ethiopia, of course required that Eritrea simply conduct its trade with Ethiopia using hard currency. This is how trade is normally conducted between countries and all of Ethiopia's trading partners (eg. Kenya, Japan, Sudan) have this type of commercial link with Ethiopia. The Eritrean president at declared this "unacceptable" however, some Eritrean companies were starting to adjust to the use of Letter of Credit (foreign exchange) for trade with Ethiopia.

    (3) Divergent economic strategies: Eritrea has consistently viewed itself as the centerpiece of economic activity in the Horn of Africa. As such, they have based their economic strategies on the assumption that Eritrean companies would have preferential access to the Ethiopian market. The names of companies controlled by the EPLF (Eritrea's sole legal party) and operating in Ethiopia give some indication of their intentions (eg. Horn International Bank, Transhorn Africa Transport). They also planned that Eritrea would be an export-based manufacturing and financial service center for the region (i.e. Ethiopia). However, Eritrea's plans conflicted with Ethiopia's intention to develop its own manufacturing capacity and to process its own raw materials rather than simply export them to Eritrea.

8. Why has Ethiopia deported some Eritreans back to their country? Is there such as thing as an "ethnic Eritrean?"

There is no such thing as an "ethnic Eritrean." This phrase had never been used by Eritreans or Ethiopians until the Eritrean government invented it two months ago. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia are diverse multi-ethnic nations with common ethnic groups. In fact most Eritreans share their ethnicity with Ethiopians. As one observer has noted, "No two countries in Africa are more alike in terms of language and culture than are Ethiopia and Eritrea."

The Eritrean government has manufactured this term "ethnic Eritrean" in order to further its media campaign and falsely portray the expulsion of Eritreans from Ethiopia as "ethnic cleansing."

The Eritrean population in Ethiopia is estimated at over 500,000. This includes 130,000 Eritreans who registered and voted in the 1993 referendum for Eritrean independence.

As of late August 1998, more than 95 percent of the Eritrean population in Ethiopia continued to reside peacefully in Ethiopia. Those who were expelled were all members or supporters of the Eritrean governmental party (EPLF). The EPLF is the sole legal party in Eritrea (Eritrea is a one-party state). Those who were not involved with the EPLF were not expelled.

During the air raids in early June 1998, over 50 Ethiopian civilians (including many children) were deliberately massacred, and other undefended civilian locations in Adigrat (including the pharmaceutical factory) were attacked by the Eritrean government. By contrast, the Ethiopian air force confined its attacks to the heavily defended Asmara military airbase.

As a result of the Eritrean attacks on civilian targets, the Ethiopian government decided to take measures to ensure its security. The necessity of these measures were confirmed when Eritrean president boasted to the London Times on June 12 (Eritrea threatens to strike at the heart of Ethiopia) that there were "a number of ways" and that "it is not difficult to create a sense of insecurity anywhere."

9. Eritrea claims the cluster-bombing of the Ayder school at Mekele was an accident. Does the evidence support the Eritrean claim?"

No. Many foreign correspondents were either eye-witnesses to the bombing or visited the bomb site shortly afterward. The CNN and Reuters correspondents were in Mekele at the time, and reported that the attacking Eritrean plane had made two separate passes over the school. The first bomb killed many of the children playing outside, while the second bomb killed those who came to their rescue. The casing of the cluster bomb is currently stored at the school as evidence.

Eritrea claims that the real target was the Mekele airport. However, the airport is located five miles from the school. It is impossible for the Eritrean pilot to have mistakenly identified the Ayder school (located near the densely populated Mekele city center) for an airport runway.

That Eritrea's intentions were deliberate was confirmed several days later when an Eritrean air force commander (Habtezion Hadgu) was quoted by the AP as saying ``This is tit for tat -- one to 100, that's the exchange rate."

The contrast between the conduct of the Ethiopian air force (which confined its attacks to the heavily defended Asmara military airbase) and Eritrea's preference for attacking civilian targets, was confirmed one-week later when Adigrat was bombed. The Eritrean government claimed that medicines made by a pharmaceutical plant in Adigrat could be used by the Ethiopian army and therefore it was a legitimate target. It then asserted that the entire town of Adigrat was also a legitimate target because it "had become the main re-supply base for the Ethiopian army." Note: Adigrat was crowded with 30,000 refugees fleeing the Eritrean military invasion, and was the main relief center for this part of Northern Ethiopia. The Eritrean attack killed four civilians and set on fire the relief food storage warehouse. (Click here for an article and news references describing the Adigrat bombing.

10. What is the military balance between Ethiopia and Eritrea?

Although Ethiopia is much larger than Eritrea, it demobilized most of its army and drastically cut military spending after 1991. Eritrea by contrast instituted mandatory military conscription, and began a program to build an army far out of balance with its defence requirements. According to the AFP (Feb 4, 1999) Eritrea's army numbers 270,000 while Ethiopia's is 320,000.

Ironically Ethiopia helped Eritrea in 1996 during its crisis with Yemen by loaning it four helicopters (never to be returned) and by allowing Eritrea to purchase some of the remaining Ethiopian Navy ships (16 ships were anchored at Djibouti until 1997)

In addition, Ethiopia was training the entire Eritrean Air Force at Ethiopia's main Air Force base (Debre Zeit). It is these very pilots who have now returned to drop bombs on Ethiopian civilians.

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