Expected Council Action
The Council is expecting a report from the Secretary-General (due 25 February) on the border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea. Eritrea did not comply with the Council’s demand in resolution 1862 that it withdraw its forces from the disputed area by 18 February and engage in dialogue. It seems likely that the Council will take up the issue again in March.
Key Recent Developments
On 11 September the Council received the report from the fact-finding mission dispatched to the region in response to Eritrea’s refusal to withdraw its troops as requested by the Council’s presidential statement of 12 June. (For more background information, please see our Update Report on Djibouti/Eritrea of 23 June 2008.) The mission was refused entry into Eritrea and visited only Ethiopia and Djibouti. As a result, it was unable to give a full account of the situation. Eritrea also rejected similar missions proposed by the Arab League and the AU, as well as other proposals for dialogue. The mission reported that Eritrea, unlike Djibouti, had not withdrawn its troops from the contested area. It recommended that the Secretary-General use his good offices to establish a dialogue between the two countries.
On 23 October the Council held an open meeting to hear a statement by Djibouti’s President, Ismail Omar Guelleh, who called on the Council to take urgent and effective action. In response, Eritrea denied taking any land from Djibouti, called the conflict “a manufactured problem”, and pointed instead to Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrean territories.
Eritrea continued to reject any attempts at solving the conflict and sent several letters to the Council denying the existence of any dispute with Djibouti. On 24 October an Eritrean letter accused the US of orchestrating the Djibouti/Eritrea conflict as a “diversionary scheme”. A 4 November letter appealed to the Council to address Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrean territories. On 10 November, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki criticised the Council for considering action against Eritrea but declining to take the same steps against Ethiopia. He accused the Council of double standards. Djibouti refuted Eritrea’s version in a letter on 4 December.
On 14 January, resolution 1862 demanded that Eritrea withdraw its forces to the positions of the status quo ante no later than five weeks from the date of the resolution. It called on Eritrea to acknowledge the border dispute and engage in dialogue with Djibouti. The Council also decided to review the situation based on a report by the Secretary-General.
Eritrea immediately rejected the Council’s demand. In a statement from its foreign ministry on 15 January, it called the resolution ill-considered and unbalanced and repeated that it had not occupied any land belonging to Djibouti. President Guelleh on 24 January said in an interview that Djibouti would not be pushed into war with Eritrea and would pursue all legal means to solve the conflict.
The key issue for the Council is how to persuade Eritrea to withdraw its forces and engage in a dialogue with Djibouti to solve the conflict peacefully. Based on Eritrea’s actions and statements so far, it seems unlikely that it will respond to any ratcheting up of Council demands.
A related issue is whether a change in approach might lead to a more flexible Eritrean attitude. Council members will be reluctant to give the appearance of rewarding intransigence. However, the issue is also to some extent seen as complicated because the former US administration under George W. Bush, was seen as a strong ally of Ethiopia and did not allow the Council to pressure it for its intransigence on border issues with Eritrea.
Another issue is whether to see the problems as compartmentalised or as part of a wider regional dimension. Eritrea seems intent on using the Djibouti crisis as leverage to get the Council to address the unresolved issue of Ethiopian behaviour.
A further issue is how and when to engage regional organisations more effectively on the problem. There were preliminary reports that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who on 2 February became chair of the AU, had offered to mediate between Ethiopia and Eritrea on the border dispute.
A final issue, if efforts to open a dialogue on reasonable terms prove impossible, is whether stronger measures, such as sanctions, would be considered. A related issue is the Council’s credibility if, as happened in Somalia for over a decade, sanctions were easily circumvented. By contrast, doing nothing also raises the credibility issue.
- requesting the Secretary-General to continue his good offices efforts, thus buying some more time;
- deciding to adopt a more regional approach by signaling willingness to address all other relevant issues and create space for private discussions to explore possible modalities; and
- deciding to adopt targeted sanctions on Eritrea subject to a new deadline if it continues to reject the Council’s demands.
There is agreement in the Council that Djibouti is the aggrieved party and that Eritrea must withdraw from the contested area and engage in dialogue. There seems to be little sympathy for Eritrea’s position. Its previous actions that led to withdrawal of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea are raised by some members as examples of related irresponsible behaviour. Many Council members recognise Eritrea’s legitimate concerns over the unresolved Ethiopia/Eritrea border issue, and that a long-term solution may require a comprehensive approach, but are unwilling to be seen to be rewarding aggressive action.
At press time, Council members were waiting to see what the Secretary-General’s report would conclude and also how the policy of the new US administration would unfold. France, as the lead country, may want to propose action in March. Libya is another key player with its new AU chairmanship and it will also have the presidency of the Council in March.
The possibility of sanctions has apparently been raised informally. Most seem to favour a cautious approach that would avoid imposing sanctions at this stage. At the same time there is awareness that the Council needs some strategy in response to Eritrea’s refusal to comply with the demands in resolution 1862 to avoid losing credibility.
Selected Security Council Resolution
Selected Security Council Presidential Statement