Monday, 18 October 2010

Border Focus: Eritrea and Djibouti

What is disputed?

At the centre of the dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti is a tiny strip of land at their border. The greater Horn of Africa region, however, has numerous border disputes.

What is the history of the dispute?

The accepted border is a result of a 1900 boundary agreement between colonial powers France (French Somaliland, now Djibouti) and Italy (Eritrea). They agreed that the international boundary starts at Cape Doumeira (Ras Doumeira) at the Red Sea and runs for 1.5km along the watershed devide of the peninsula. The 1900 protocol also specified that the Doumeira Island (Ile Doumeira), which lies just offshore, would not be assigned sovereignty and would remain demilitarised.

The border at Ras Doumeira was, however, never demarcated. The area itself is a hill, and it was simply agreed that the northern slopes of hill were Italian, the southern slopes, French. Upon independence, Eritrea and Djibouti accepted this arrangement.

The first major post-colonial dispute arose when, in April 1996, a Djibouti official accused Eritrea of shelling Ras Doumeira, and the two countries narrowly avoided going to war.
Problems arose again in 2008, when the Eritreans occupied the hilltop. The circumstances surrounding this event are somewhat disputed. Djiboutian sources report that in January, Eritrea requested to cross the border in order to get sand for a road, but instead occupied the territory, set up fortifications and dug trenches on both sides of the Djiboutian border. Djibouti also claimed that Eritrea had put out new maps showing Ras Doumeira as Eritrean territory.

Eritrean sources, however, note that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, met twice with Djiboutian officials, informing them that his country intended to build a demarcation on Ras Doumeira hill. It was not clear why Eritrea wanted to build such a demarcation, but it has been speculated that it might be connected to boundary disputes it has with other neighbours, including Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia. It might also reflect Eritrea's discomfort with the presence of American and French bases in Djibouti; the main American base, 'Seven Sea' is less than 10km south of the hill.

Both sides fortified the hill and manned it with military personnel, and clashes between the two sides broke out in June 2008. Despite the military might of Eritrea, Djibouti's backing by the majority of the international community, including former colonial master France, meant that it was able to withhold the Eritrean forces. Still, 35 people died in the clashes and dozens of others were wounded.

After Djibouti requested UN intervention, a UN fact-finding mission was sent to the region. It was welcomed by Djibouti, but blocked by Eritrea, who refused to meet with it or with any envoy of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In January 2009, the UN Security council adopted Resolution 1862, which demanded that Eritrea pulled its forces from the disputed area, and welcomed Djibouti's withdrawal of its forces to its positions before the dispute. A further resolution, 1907, imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea, admonishing the country for its lack of progress on resolving the border dispute with Djibouti, and for arming Somali insurgents such as Al-Shabaab.

Resolution options?

In June 2010, the two countries agreed to a Qatar-led mediation process, a move that was warmly welcomed by the African Union and the UN, although Ethiopia questioned Eritrea's sincerity.

The fact that Eritrea agreed to Qatar's mediation effort is a positive sign that it wants to reintegrate into the world community. Eritrean President Afewerki was instrumental in starting the talks, and 2010 has seen him striking more conciliatory tones towards neighbours.

In September 2010, Isaias welcomed UN special representative for Somalia to Asmara for talks, and voiced his full support for a peaceful solution to Somalia's problems. Eritrea has also tried to forge friendships with Qatar, Iran, Israel and Egypt.

Eritrea is on the brink of a potentially lucrative gold mining boom, and seems to be worried about being isolated. Ethiopia used to use Eritrean ports for Red Sea access, but in recent years has preferred Djibouti. The potential revenues from shipping could be another incentive to improve its global reputation.

For more information on this dispute, including consideration of the regional context, see the full Border Focus, here.

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