Eritrea Ethiopia Claims Commission Finds Eritrean Liability for Start of Conflict

by Chris Borgen

The Eritrea Ethiopia Claims Commission has issued its final set of awards, including the award concerning liability for starting the 1998-2000 border war between these countries. See press reports from the BBC and CNN.

Eritrea had successfully split off from Ethiopia in the 1990’s after a protracted insurgency. However, tensions still existed and, in particular, there were issues concerning the delimitation of the boundaries of the two states.

The 1998-2000 border war claimed 70,000-80,000 lives. In its wake, and as part of the peace settlement, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission was formed to set the proper boundary between the two states and the Claims Commission was established to resolve the various damage claims arising out of the conflict. The Claims Commission is under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (see also the PICT summary), which provides states with rosters of potential arbitrators.

Of the various awards made public on December 19th, the judgment on the jus ad bellum claims–the claims related to the outbreak of the conflict–are especially noteworthy.

According to the award,

Ethiopia contended that Eritrea planned and carried out [a series of attacks beginning in May 1998] against Ethiopia in violation of its obligations under international law, including notably the requirement of Article 2, paragraph 4 of the Charter of the United Nations that all members refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.

Eritrea had four main responses:

(a) the fighting had started on territory that was unlawfully occupied by Ethiopia;
(b) that an Ethipioan armed militia started the fighting with a series of incursions into Eritrea;
(c) Ethiopia declared war on Eritrea (not vice versa); and
(d) Eritrea’s actions were in self-defense.

The Commission denies the legal validity of the first claim—that force can be used to satisfy border diputes. Particulalry since such disputes are so common, weakening this principle “would create a large and dangerous hole in a fundamental rule of international law.”

The analysis of the second response—that Ertirean actions were in response to Ethipian armed militias—provides an interesting analysis of the right of self-defense in the UN Charter. The Commission writes:

As the text of Article 51 of the Charter makes clear, the predicate for a valid claim of self-defense under the Charter is that the party resorting to force has been subjected to an armed attack. Localized border encounters between small infantry units, even those involving loss of life, do not consoitute an armed attack for the purposes of the Charter.

This question of how large a military engagement must be before it is an “armed attack” sets a threshold requirement of Article 51. It may be an extension of the idea that any act of self-defense should be proportional to the attack and that some skirmishes are of such a minimal security threat as to not require any response beyond the fighting of the skirmish itself. I am curious to see if this is a point on which other commentators will focus. (The Commission also noted that Eritrea never invoked Article 51 or notified the Security Council of its acts as self-defense until the Commission hearing.)

The Commission then walked through the facts leading up to the Eritrean incursion into Ethiopia and reiterated that any of Eritrea’s arguments based on the doctrine of self-defense failed for lack of an initial armed attack by Ethiopia.

Concerning the alleged Ethiopian declaration of war, the Commission notes a resolution by the Ethiopian Council of Ministers and Parliament that condemned the armed incursions and demanding an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Eritrean forces. However, the Commission explains,

This resolution was not, as Eritrea had asserted, a declaration of war. In international law, the essence of a declaration of war is an explicit affirmation of the existence of a state of war between the belligerents.

While Ethiopia demanded the removal or forces and claimed a right of self defense, the parties also kept up diplomatic and economic relations, after the resolution which would not have been expected if this resolution was an actual declaration of war.

Based on these arguments, the Commission found Eritrea liable for the armed attack on and immediately following May 12, 1998. The Commsission did not find adequate evidence to support th claim that the attack was premeditated.

The proceedings will now move to a damages phase to set the amount of compensation to be paid by Eritrea.

This award comes at a time of great danger in Ethiopian-Eritrean relations. The International Crisis Group writes:

The fragile peace maintained by Ethiopia and Eritrea since they signed a comprehensive agreement at Algiers in December 2000 is fraying dangerously. With a costly two-year war now followed by nearly five years of stalemate, patience on both sides of the border has worn thin, and there are worrying signs that the countdown to renewed conflict may have begun. Neither side appears eager for war, but to dismiss the tensions as mere sabre-rattling could mean missing the last chance to preserve peace in the Horn of Africa. The two parties need help urgently from the Algiers Group – the African Union (AU), European Union (EU), UN and U.S. – who witnessed the original accords. Its members need to work together urgently to forge a “3-Ds” parallel process of de-escalation, border demarcation and bilateral dialogue, using both intensive diplomacy and the credible threat (and employment as necessary) of punitive measures….

At the heart of the problem is the ruling of the independent Boundary Commission established to delimit and demarcate the contested border. Both sides agreed in advance that its decision would be final and binding, but the ruling produced a stalemate that has brought them back to the brink of war. The primary bone of contention is the small, dusty border settlement of Badme, where the 1998-2000 war started. Having initially welcomed the boundary decision, Ethiopia reversed itself upon learning (after closer examination of the less than clear documentation) that this town – against the expectations of both sides – had been awarded to Eritrea.

The coming weeks and months will require a delicate interplay of dispute resolution measures, such as the work of the Claims Commission and the Border Commission, and hard diplomacy to prevent the outbreak of further violence in the Horn of Africa.

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