Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Eritrea and Ethiopia

7.27 p.m.

Lord Avebury rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they will take to help solve the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the House and to your Lordships who are to take part in this debate for the opportunity to raise a conflict which has claimed more lives than any other in the world. Some 15,000 people have been killed so far in the Eritrea/Ethiopia war; that is, up to 1st August of this year. Some authorities put the numbers much higher. A journalist says that each side is mobilising an army of a quarter of a million men and that tens of thousands of people have been killed in fighting that has used First World War tactics. He is probably not exaggerating the capacity of Ethiopia to put men into the field but Eritrea, with a twentieth of the population of its neighbour, probably could not raise an army of that size.

Amnesty International says that up to the end of January this year 53,000 Eritreans had been expelled from Ethiopia since the fighting began. Further deportations, including 635 only last month, have brought the total up to 65,000. As an added twist, the Ethiopians charged the deportees in the latest batch between six and 18 dollars for "transportation and baggage handling". However, the expulsions do not seem to have been organised in the deliberately cruel manner of earlier ones when families were deliberately split up, with children being kicked out of Ethiopia at different times, sometimes months apart, from their parents.

On the other side, the ICRC says that it helped 22,000 Ethiopians who were living in Eritrea to return home and that many others went back under their own steam. There was no systematic policy of ill-treatment of Ethiopians by the Eritrean Government or their security forces. The UNHCR says that 300,000 people have been internally displaced by the conflict in Eritrea and 272,000 in Ethiopia.

What are these colossal upheavals and losses of life all about? When Eritrea gained independence in 1991, the borders between Eritrea and Ethiopia were not clearly defined, although the two states had agreed that the colonial boundaries between the Italian colony and Ethiopia should be retained in accordance with Organisation for African Unity principles. However, each side encroached on the other and the problem continued to smoulder until 1997 when a border commission was established following the alleged occupation of an Eritrean town by Ethiopian

30 Nov 1999 : Column 790

forces. The border commission met several times but reached no conclusions. Then on 6th May 1998 fighting broke out after the Eritreans occupied the thinly inhabited area known as the Badme triangle, which they claimed, even though it had been administered by Ethiopia.

Such local border disputes cannot be the whole reason for the war, any more than the Archduke Ferdinand's assassination caused the First World War. Many Ethiopians still resent Eritrea's independence, its military superiority in the war of liberation and its desire to have its own currency. As a landlocked country, the Ethiopians disliked their dependence on the Eritrean port of Assab. Indeed, Ethiopia's real agenda may have been revealed when last week its Minister of Defence said that Ethiopia had the capacity to,


    "break the backbone of the invading army and restore its territorial integrity".

If the Ethiopians had been concerned only to restore their correct borders with Eritrea, by now they would have accepted the proposals made by the OAU which I know that Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have done their best to support.

In summary, the OAU framework agreement of June 1998 recommended that there should be an immediate cessation of hostilities; redeployment of armed forces to the positions they held before the fighting started, supervised by OAU military observers in all contested areas of the border; demilitarisation of the border; delineation of the border by UN cartographic experts; investigation of the circumstances which led to the hostilities; and the cessation of action by either party against each other's nationals.

The Eritreans, who have been put at a disadvantage by the expulsion of their ambassador to the OAU from Addis Ababa, at first quibbled a little about the framework agreement by submitting a number of questions for clarification. However, they accepted the replies and signed up to the agreement after both parties were urged to do so by the UN Security Council in February 1999.

At the Algiers summit of the OAU, the parties signed up to the modalities for the implementation of that agreement, agreeing to put an end not only to all military activities, but also to,


    "all forms of expression likely to sustain and exacerbate the climate of hostility".

That has not been honoured. Both sides have continued to hurl insults at each other. Furthermore, the formal cessation of hostilities, which was to be the first step in the sequence of implementation, has not yet occurred. Notwithstanding the firm statement issued on 11th August by the chairman and secretary-general of the OAU that interpretation of the framework agreement--the modalities and the technical arrangements--fell within the exclusive competence of the OAU, the Ethiopians submitted a long list of questions about the technical arrangements. To take just one example, they asked

30 Nov 1999 : Column 791

why the modalities called for the immediate redeployment of troops to the positions they held before 6th May 1998 while the arrangements said that this would occur 50 days after D-Day. They received a response saying that the experts had advised that it would take that long to deploy OAU military observers. However, the Ethiopians have continued to quibble and prevaricate ever since they received a very detailed explanation from the OAU in mid-August. They have argued that further dialogue is necessary to,


    "close the loopholes and eliminate the inconsistencies between the Technical Arrangements and the Framework Agreement".

Thus they have challenged the OAU's sole right of interpretation and, in effect, have threatened to start the whole process of conflict resolution, laboriously undertaken by the OAU, again from square one.

A note of the current position of the Ethiopians sent to me by their ambassador states why they are dissatisfied with the explanations given by the OAU. They want the TA document to repeat words already included in the framework agreement which they interpret as being critical of Eritrea but which have nothing to do with the solution. They want Eritrea to withdraw from all occupied areas before the cessation of hostilities, even though paragraph 4 of the modalities, which they themselves signed on 14th July, states plainly:


    "The redeployment of troops shall commence immediately after the cessation of hostilities".

In practice, that means as soon as the OAU observers can get there. The Ethiopians say that the TA document has to specify the areas from which Eritrea must withdraw, again ignoring the modalities' requirement that OAU military observers should supervise the redeployment of both Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. The TA document provides for a neutral commission to decide as a matter of fact what were the positions occupied by the respective forces prior to 6th May 1998. That is fair, considering that in any case the resumption of those positions is without prejudice to the ultimate determination of the boundary by the UN cartographers.

Mr Ahmed Ouyahia, the OAU special envoy on the Horn of Africa, has worked hard to bring Ethiopia into conformity with formulas so carefully and systematically developed. But when his last round of shuttling between the capitals of Asmara and Addis Ababa was completed at the end of last month, there was no announcement. Again, at about that time the rainy season was coming to an end and the de facto ceasefire which had operated since the Algiers summit began to look increasingly fragile. Tension is rising and there is even a danger that Djibouti would be drawn in if fighting started again. On 11th November the president of the UN Security Council urged Ethiopia and Eritrea to exercise maximum restraint. However, there are reports that Ethiopia is getting ready to launch a new offensive. As someone I was

30 Nov 1999 : Column 792

talking to this morning who has just returned from Addis put it,


    "They want to destroy Eritrea. The media is completely dominated by warmongering and reconciliation is not discussed at any level. Isaias is compared to Hitler. It is common knowledge that troops and heavy armaments are being moved up to the front line".

Can the Minister tell the House whether the UN Security Council has access to satellite intelligence of troop movements on either side and, if so, would it consider asking for that intelligence to be published so that the world can judge who is the aggressor and who will start the fighting again? If the Security Council does not have access to that data, would Britain suggest to the other member states of the council that an approach be made to satellite-owning member states to see if they would be prepared to make available the images and analyses both in this case and in any others where large military operations may be apprehended?

As I see it, the problem has been that up to now the Security Council has treated the two parties as being equally responsible for the failure to resolve this conflict. If an even greater catastrophe is to be prevented in the Horn of Africa than has already occurred, it needs to identify Addis Ababa as the one responsible. The Eritreans have no motive for prolonging a war they cannot win. They have signed up to the spirit and letter of all three OAU documents. On the other hand, Ethiopia wants to defeat Eritrea on the battlefield and has turned a deaf ear to pleas from the OAU.

No doubt it was considered that Ethiopia was more likely to be persuaded into compliance if it was not blamed for the failure to implement the agreements that it had signed. However, surely there must come a point where the aggressor is identified and measures taken against it. The Security Council determined in its resolution of 10th February that the situation constitutes a threat to peace and security, but it has not taken the further step of deciding, in the words of Chapter 7,


    "what measures shall be taken ... to maintain or restore international peace and security".

Before deciding what measures should be taken, I propose that the Security Council should ask President Bouteflika whether it may see copies of the special envoy's reports on his efforts to persuade the two parties to agree to the OAU package. If he says that Eritrea did agree to the OAU proposals but that Ethiopia is backtracking not only on the technical arrangements but also on the modalities, then the Security Council should not express its next resolution in terms of an equal demand on both states but should welcome Eritrea's co-operation and require Ethiopia to accept the OAU package as well. Have the Government seen Mr Ouyahia's reports, and will they try to get them into the public domain? Will the Government ensure that the obstacles to peace are clearly identified in a Security Council resolution and, if one party turns out to be mainly responsible, that that party is identified?

30 Nov 1999 : Column 793

It is a pity that the Security Council did not act immediately in May 1998 to prevent fresh arms supplies pouring into the region. The EU decided on an arms embargo last year, but western Europe was never the main supplier to the region. At the end of last year Eritrea acquired six MiG 29s and Ethiopia eight Sukhoi 27s. In each case there was reported to be a package of support in terms of training for pilots and technicians. Since the de facto cease-fire in June, both sides have been re-arming. One authority on the region says that, between them, the two countries are spending an estimated 600 million dollars a year on foreign weapons, a shocking diversion of resources from the development needs of a desperately poor region. In Ethiopia, humanitarian agencies are asking for extra money to help the internally displaced and those affected by the severe drought. The number of people in need of food aid in Ethiopia has been revised from the previous estimate of 5.6 million to 6.8 million for November and 4.6 million for December, according to USAID's famine early warning system.

The United Nations ought to be more joined up and say that countries which cannot afford to feed their people should not be spending billions of dollars on weapons. Will the Government propose a mandatory UN arms embargo on the Horn of Africa as a whole, plus Yemen, which has broken the existing embargo on Sudan and could well be dealing with other countries in the region?

After Mengistu was overthrown and Eritrea gained its independence by force of arms, it looked as though a new era of peace and co-operation between previous enemies was beginning. The UK and the EU were ready to help with development aid and technical help in promoting good governance, democracy and human rights, and Ethiopia was receiving steadily increasing amounts of development assistance. Now all that is being jeopardised by the conflict and the refusal of Addis Ababa to listen to the advice being offered by the OAU and the UN with the support of the whole world. The loss of life, the immense suffering of the wounded and the displaced, the sacrifice of economic potential and the criminal waste of resources on military hardware have already threatened the future of the people of both countries. If the fighting is resumed, the catastrophe will have repercussions far beyond the region. Britain, as a friend and ally of both states concerned, must do everything to prevent this tragedy.

7.42 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I listened with particular interest to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, having studied with an Eritrean who kindly invited me to his country's festival of independence. I am not surprised that the war is so atrocious. The Eritreans are a united people, dedicated to their nation; it is very much a team co-operative society. I am sure that they will put a great deal of effort into the war and there will be great difficulties there. Eritrea has also inherited factories for making weapons from previous colonists, and that may have consequences for the current conflict.

30 Nov 1999 : Column 794

Perhaps noble Lords will permit me to say a few words on those who are homeless and have sought asylum in this country from the conflicts in Eritrea, Ethiopia and similar areas. There is a chronic shortage of beds for the homeless, a problem which has been worsening for some time. Asylum seekers are not seen as the intended client group of the homelessness agencies. Consequently, it is far harder for asylum seekers to find accommodation.

As a result, vulnerable young people, who often speak little or no English and who may well be recovering from the effect of family members being murdered, or of family members being lost and of not knowing whether they are alive or dead, or having the home in which they grew up razed, stay in direct access emergency accommodation for months on end.

Such accommodation is designed to be a clearing-house, a place to stay for a maximum of three weeks while suitable, more permanent accommodation is sought. It is cramped; there is a curfew; residents are asked to leave during the day and are not allowed to spend more than 30 minutes alone in their room before lights out. Some of the other residents may have emotional problems which make them difficult to live with. However, those who have escaped are grateful for any help and do not complain. I am sure that your Lordships are most concerned that young people who have suffered appallingly in their own countries continue to suffer in this country when we could be of help.

I have just one question for the Minister. Would it be possible for the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to work together to discover which asylum seekers are the most vulnerable and target them for increased support? The voluntary agencies exist which could provide accommodation and the language and counselling support that are required. However, they lack the resources to deliver such support. The trauma of those escaping Kosovo was recognised by the Government and appropriate help was provided for them. Why should not those who are equally traumatised, especially those who are young and non-English speaking, who escape from other conflicts also receive appropriate help?

7.46 p.m.

Lord Rea: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for asking this Unstarred Question, because it allows me to make the speech which I tried to compress into a supplementary question on the previous occasion when the noble Lord raised this subject during a Starred Question on 28th October. As I mentioned then, I was privileged to be part of a parliamentary delegation to Ethiopia in July this year which took place at the invitation of the Ethiopian Government and was led by John Austin, MP. We were taken to see some of the most attractive and impressive geographical and cultural centres in the country, in the process passing through highland areas where we witnessed the industrious nature of the people in basic agricultural activities, as well as their extreme poverty. The Ethiopian Government realise

30 Nov 1999 : Column 795

that the population in the highland areas is too high in relation to their current productive possibilities and the uncertain climate, and are encouraging resettlement; and they are not using the coercive methods of the previous regime. We observed grain distribution points in two places, organised through the World Food Programme, necessary because of the inadequate rainfall last year. That should avert a recurrence of the famine conditions of 1985.

Ethiopia is a very beautiful country with a long and important history. But it is in need of massive development assistance. What is encouraging is the recognition of that need by the present government and their willingness to co-operate with the numerous agencies, both private and public, which are involved. The tragedy of the current conflict is that that urgent development is being delayed by the diversion of resources to military expenditure and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in or near the border with Eritrea, as was described graphically by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

The same is obviously the case in Eritrea. It is a pity that our delegation was not taken anywhere near the war zone. Ostensibly, that was out of consideration for our safety, but as there were no hostilities at the time we were rather surprised, since we had come to Ethiopia, in part, to learn about the effects of the conflict. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed out, there is remarkably little information available to us in any part of the world through the media. It would be extremely interesting to know about the satellite surveillance which the noble Lord suggested is going on. We understood that the casualties in the battle to retake the land around the town of Badme had been very heavy indeed, a figure of 15,000 to 20,000 dead was thought probable. That agrees with the figure given by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. If indeed that was the case, there must be many families in Ethiopia who are bereaved. There will be political pressure on the government to justify those losses and possibly to seek revenge for them.

In our discussions with government ministers and representatives, including a short meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr Meles Zenawi, the conflict with Eritrea was, of course, at the top of the agenda. The Algerian summit meeting of the OAU had just taken place and both sides had accepted the framework agreement described by the noble Lord. At that point, Eritrea was seeking clarification on the modalities of the agreement. It was suggested to us that this was because the Eritreans did not really accept the agreement, that as an aggressor state it was not really interested in peace.

However, the Eritreans shortly afterwards did agree unconditionally to those modalities, despite their initial reservations. From then onwards, it has been the Ethiopians who have found reasons to delay their acceptance, this time because of the technical arrangements for bringing the modalities into force. That was described in more detail by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. In particular, they object to the mention of an interim "peacekeeping force" and have

30 Nov 1999 : Column 796

a new requirement for a detailed description of the territory that will be vacated by each side, before agreeing to a cease-fire. In the meantime, both sides appear to be mobilising their military strength, although details are unknown to us. It would be interesting to know what information Her Majesty's Government have on that. However, skirmishes continue along the frontier, although there have apparently been no major confrontations since February.

At the time of our visit there appeared to be an officially sanctioned campaign to brand Eritrea as "an aggressor state", with the implication that it was therefore not to be trusted. There was an atmosphere of what I can only describe as "belligerent indignation". I have a newspaper quotation from the Ethiopian Herald, a government newspaper, of 21st July. It states:


    "The Eritrean leaders are not concerned by what tomorrow might bring. They behave and continue to behave like a group of hoodlums who do not care about consequences that their actions might bring about but instead chose to be blinded by their tremendous ego that is costing the lives of a whole generation of Eritreans. This is the trademark of fascist leaders that will go on performing in their evil ways until judgement day and until total darkness takes over".

I do not believe that that attitude is likely to engender the even-handed approach needed in peace negotiations. It must be said--and I heard these opinions being expressed, as the noble Lord mentioned--that many people in Ethiopia are still unhappy that Eritrea was granted its independence in 1991. They may be putting pressure on the government to take a hard line and risk escalating the conflict.

In a publication that we were given as background reading material, entitled Peace under Assault (a report of a meeting in Addis Ababa in December 1998) Sarah Vaughan of the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, who is also attached to the University of Addis Ababa, said:


    "When EPRDF assumed responsibility for the establishment of a Transitional Government in 1991, it also acquired responsibility for dealing with negative Ethiopian public reaction to the 'loss' of Eritrea, which after decades of highly effective Ethiopian government calls for 'unity above all', ranged from extremes of well articulated rage, to quiet despondency in many quarters".

Eritrea is being accused by Ethiopia of arming Somalian warlords such as General Aideed and supporting the OLF, the Oromo Liberation Front, thus justifying Ethiopian incursions deep into Somalia. This, of course, is denied by Eritrea. I would be very interested to know whether Her Majesty's Government have any confirmation of those activities.

The OAU agreement is ready on the table to be enacted. Ethiopia has a few difficulties with the technical arrangements. On the face of it, there should be no insuperable obstacles in the way of declaring a cease-fire. Ethiopia would gain far more by agreeing to the technical arrangements on the table and achieving a cease-fire than it is likely to gain by insisting on the removal of the features to which it objects.

On the other hand, the same applies to Eritrea. If a genuine cease-fire could be achieved, the Eritreans might forgo a peacekeeping force as such, if the

30 Nov 1999 : Column 797

international military observers to which they have agreed and who are part of the framework agreement, are given sufficient powers.

There is still a window of opportunity, but there are forces building--and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury on this--which do not want a cease-fire. They are playing with fire, of course, by not having a cease-fire. If the war enters a new destructive phase, the development of both countries will be put back for decades, quite apart from the human suffering which will ensue. The only winners will be the arms manufacturers who are already making a tidy profit from the existing state of tension.

The British Government can still play a major role alone, or through the EU or in the Security Council in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, by putting pressure on both parties to come to an agreement. I suggest that perhaps more pressure now needs to be put on Ethiopia than has been the case in the past.

7.56 p.m.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, should be thanked for raising this matter. This war has gone on long enough and, as so often with vehemently held points of principle, participants believe that solutions lie on the battlefield. However, equitable peace, through negotiation, is the only practical remedy.

The situation is nevertheless grave, with its territorial origins exacerbated by the expulsion of nationals and virulent propaganda campaigns. Please allow me briefly to review subsequent key events, as they have a bearing on my thesis.

A number of mediation attempts have been made, with Secretary-General Annan initiating direct contacts with the leadership of both sides and offering good offices. The joint facilitation efforts by the United States and Rwanda initially appeared promising, but it soon became clear that their recommendations requiring Eritrea to withdraw to the position held prior to May 1998 in Badme and its environs were acceptable to Ethiopia but not to Eritrea. Following the OAU's summit on 10th June which called on the parties to accept and implement the US/Rwandan recommendations, the OAU took the lead on mediation efforts.

The Security Council adopted a resolution in which it expressed its strong support for the OAU effort and called on the parties to co-operate. The council asked the Secretary-General to make available his good offices in support of a peaceful resolution, requesting him to provide technical support in the eventual delimitation and demarcation of the common border. A trust fund was established for that purpose.

The OAU high level delegation then presented its framework agreement, again essentially based on the US/Rwandan recommendations. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has outlined the detail adequately, so there is no need to elaborate.

30 Nov 1999 : Column 798

It is worthy of reiteration, however, that a further Security Council resolution strongly supported the OAU framework agreement and called for Eritrea's acceptance of it. Following US Envoy Anthony Lake's recommendation, Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun was charged as the Secretary-General's special envoy and made his first trip to the two capitals. His mission was complicated by the eruption of major fighting on the Badme front, increasing to a second front around Tsorona. Forty thousand casualties were reported on the Badme front alone.

Ambassador Sahnoun made a second mission to the region in April and May, during which time the gap between the two sides blocking the implementation of the OAU framework agreement narrowed. UN departments stepped up contingency planning in anticipation of the implementation of the framework agreement to ensure a rapid response to assist the OAU, together with a document of technical arrangements calling for the establishment of a neutral commission.

While on the one hand I believe that we are well on the way to a settlement, the other continues to send conflicting messages. What can the UK Government do at this time? Beyond supporting the process, poor donor response to the UN Country Team Appeals to meet emergency requirements, especially non-food items, is worrying and should be addressed. Shelter, blankets and medical support, especially for the displaced who live in camps, are needed. Over 500,000 Eritreans and 400,000 Ethiopians who are either internally displaced or deportees have been affected. The commission's responsibility would be the determination of the precise areas from which the two sides are to redeploy. It should be noted that Norway contributed some 500,000 US dollars to the trust fund in support of the delimitation and demarcation of the Ethiopian/Eritrean border.

This brings me full circle to current events. With regret, in recent weeks the two sides have resumed hostile propaganda. In his meetings with the Foreign Ministers during the recent General Assembly, Secretary-General Annan appealed for maximum restraint on the military front as well as in public posturing.

The World Food Programme already has emergency food aid programmes in both countries, with the European Union also offering additional food aid support. While donors have responded positively to the programmes, the response to emergency appeals for drought-affected populations and support for war-affected populations has been poor, especially in Eritrea. The humanitarian situation in parts of Ethiopia has been exacerbated by severe drought which has led to the emergence of a major food crisis, with almost 5 million people affected. UNDP reports that levels of malnutrition are high. Livestock prices have fallen and families have been forced to move from their homes in search of food.

The humanitarian community is also concerned about reports of new landmines laid in disputed areas along the border which will prevent the early return of

30 Nov 1999 : Column 799

displaced people to their places of origin. According to government figures, there are over 150,000 new landmines in the Badme region and other areas will be equally affected. This will be detrimental to the rehabilitation of these areas, especially agricultural activities.

The United Nations has supported the OAU mediation efforts, and rightly so. I do not believe that at this stage the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that the UN should consider taking the lead from OAU has merit, believing that any out-manoeuvring would have a detrimental effect. I am satisfied that Ambassador Sahnoun is aware of and reacting to any issues that require personal intervention, and recent trips point to that.

I agree with the noble Lord, however, that the Algerian presidency of the OAU should consider a new shuttling round between capitals to clarify points of detail or iron out any procedural bottlenecks. The OAU is in any event in the process of clarifying some remaining points in the technical arrangements to secure Ethiopia's acceptance. I sense peace. I ask the Minister, who is within the sphere of influence, to encourage the participants to patch up remaining differences and enter an era of regional stability and prosperity.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has been a dedicated supporter of the need to achieve peace in the Horn of Africa. As the noble Lord, Lord Rea, pointed out, it is only a month ago almost to the day that he last asked a Question in your Lordships' House about the situation in Ethiopia and Eritrea and what HMG would do about it. To paraphrase it, the answer then was, very little. I fear that this evening the Minister will be forced to give the same answer. This is not a criticism of Her Majesty's Government, for unless we are prepared to recommend that the UN unleash its full power--obviously, we shall not act unilaterally--it is difficult to see what else can be done.

The Government are aware of the situation, which is that two countries, newly separated, are competing for the ownership of a piece of land that is really of no use to either of them; at least that is the ostensible reason. Until the contestants can be convinced that it is of no use it is difficult to see how the problem can be resolved.

In his speech the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, appeared to be marginally in favour of the position held by Eritrea. No doubt in common with all noble Lords who speak in the debate this evening, I have received a letter from the Ethiopian Ambassador in London, who puts the matter a little differently. Therefore, it may be wise for me to refrain from referring to the causes and conduct of the conflict.

Last week your Lordships debated, once formally in a Question which I asked and once in a debate over Chechnya, the Government's ethical foreign policy. Ethically, the Government must disapprove of what is

30 Nov 1999 : Column 800

going on and work to resolve it. But the question then and now is how far they are prepared to go and to what extent they are prepared to commit the country. "Overstretch" is a word that we apply not only to the country's defence policies; it is most relevant to the whole economic and political situation.

The precise wording of the noble Lord's Question is to ask what steps Her Majesty's Government will take to help solve the conflict. In the circumstances I cannot see how the Minister can give any answer other than the one that she has given; namely, that the Government continue to urge both sides to refrain from a return to military action and to accept the OAU peace proposals. That is exactly the same answer as her noble friend Lady Symons gave the noble Lord when he asked an almost identical Question in February.

But there are specific things that can be done to underwrite that answer. One step that the Government can take--to be fair, I am sure that they are taking it, for the Minister in another place said so at the time--is to implement most rigorously United Nations Security Council Resolution 1227 of February of this year which discouraged sales of arms to both sides. The Government can encourage the United Nations to go further and ban all arms sales, for the February resolution was not mandatory. The world being as it is and Russia being what it is, even a mandatory resolution will not stop Ethiopia and Eritrea from getting arms but it will go some way to help. In this context I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness can inform the House whether Her Majesty's Government know of any occasion when licences have been granted to British companies to export arms to either country. As I have said, the UNSCR is not mandatory.

The coup in Sierra Leone, the bloodshed in the Republic of Congo and the former Zaire and the continuing border conflict in the Horn of Africa between the two former allies, Ethiopia and Eritrea, have delivered a blow to the much-trumpeted vision of Africa's fin de siecle renaissance of democracies and free market economies. This conflict is a particular blow since both Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea and Melas Zenawi have been widely hailed as Africa's new men who would guide the continent out of its cycle of corruption and poverty.

In pursuit of their declared policy the Government can encourage the United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity to establish an African-based and African-controlled peacekeeping force which could be deployed in any area of tension, and the Ethiopian-Eritrean border is not the only one, while political solutions are being sought.

If the United Nations cannot solve this problem, do the Government agree with our ambassador at the United Nations, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, that conflicts in Africa could emerge as real threats to world peace which the United Nations will be powerless to prevent as it is not equipped to tackle the real problems in Africa?

The United Nations and the OAU are the only bodies which can do it. The phrase "white man's burden" is many decades out of date and this country

30 Nov 1999 : Column 801

cannot be expected to punch more than its weight in the world, to quote the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, on defence. Britain and France already appear to be playing a large part. The countries have agreed, to quote the Foreign Secretary and M Vedrine,


    "to strengthen their co-operation in Africa ... based on a common vision of promoting positive change and respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Africa".

Her Majesty's Government could ensure that the Government are represented in Eritrea. At present our ambassador is in Addis Ababa. When the two countries are in conflict it must be a little difficult for the diplomat to adhere strictly to Her Majesty's Government's policy in both countries.

Britain has a special relationship with Eritrea, for Her Majesty's Government administered it for more than a decade following the liberation of the country from the Italians in 1941. That being the case, why is the planned expenditure aid to Ethiopia set to increase three times from 1998 to 2002 while that to Eritrea falls to a quarter over the same period? It would be unwise to take sides in this conflict but this seems a perverse judgment on the needs of the two states, both of which have least-developed status. Perhaps I have that wrong. I hope that the noble Baroness may be able to help.

Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is so persistent in asking this Question because no one else is doing so. Certainly it is a conflict that has had little oxygen of publicity of late. Could the reality therefore be that compared with Kosovo or East Timor, and perhaps Chechnya, this is a war that has become unfashionable to the sensibilities of the international community?

I can assure the Minister of our support from these Benches of the broad trend of the Government's policy. I hope and pray that the Government's efforts will bring peace, and even more importantly prosperity, indivisible from peace, to this sad region.

8.13 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I join those who congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on asking this Question. It is obvious to all who participated that it is timely.

The difficulties which face both Ethiopia and Eritrea are well known to all in this House. The Government are deeply saddened that the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who for 17 years fought together against the terrible tyranny of the Derg regime, continue to find themselves in a state of war.

As noble Lords are aware, this dispute arose when Ethiopian and Eritrean forces clashed near the Ethiopian border town of Badume between 6th and 12th May 1998. Ethiopia accused Eritrea of invading its territory; Eritrea defended its actions by claiming that it was responding to earlier Ethiopian incursions into Eritrea. It is a common story in terms of how things are seen.

30 Nov 1999 : Column 802

A mediation team led by Susan Rice, the United States Assistant Secretary of State, and including Vice-President Kagame of Rwanda engaged in an initial round of shuttle diplomacy in an effort to find a peaceful solution to the dispute. Many noble Lords mentioned this. They presented peace proposals to both sides on 31st May 1998. Those called for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Badume, restoration of the status quo ante, demilitarisation and demarcation of the border according to colonial boundaries. Ethiopia accepted these proposals, while Eritrea made it clear that she would not consider withdrawing from Badume. We deeply regret that Eritrea did not take that opportunity swiftly to end the conflict. It was an opportunity missed.

Sadly, the level of military engagement escalated on 5th June 1998. The Ethiopians launched air attacks on the airport in Asmara and the Eritreans retaliated by attacking the Ethiopian town of Mekele. These raids caused civilian casualties and deaths on both sides of the border.

At its summit on 8th to 10th June 1998, the Organisation of African Unity endorsed the US/Rwandan proposals as the basis for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. I welcome the support by all speakers tonight of those efforts. The heads of state of Burkina Faso, Djibouti and Zimbabwe were asked to mediate. They visited the region from 17th to 19th June. I think that there is general agreement that they were the most effective interlocutors at that stage.

After several rounds of discussion in Ouagadougou on 7th and 8th November 1998, the mediators presented a Framework Peace Agreement to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and the President of Eritrea. This was based largely on the original US/Rwandan proposals. Ethiopia issued a statement on 9th November accepting the framework agreement. Eritrea did not accept it and sought clarification on a number of points. That history--it has been highlighted by a number of noble Lords--is important when one tries to understand what has happened in the region.

On 5th February of this year, an Ethiopian government press statement announced that the Eritrean air force had bombed the northern Ethiopian town of Adigrat. Ethiopia launched a full offensive at Badume on 6th February. The United Nations responded to the resumption of fighting with Security Council Resolution 1227 of 10th February. The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, mentioned it. It condemned the use of force by both sides, demanded an immediate cease-fire and urged member states to end the sale of arms to both countries. This in effect called for a voluntary arms embargo. We had pushed for a full and binding UN arms embargo, but there was little international support. As your Lordships know, it is a matter which caused anxiety. Consequently we decided to implement a full bilateral arms embargo against both countries and informed Parliament of this on 15th February. We also pushed for a mandatory European Union-wide arms embargo against both countries, which came into effect on 15th March. We remain concerned at the continuing flow of

30 Nov 1999 : Column 803

sophisticated weaponry to both sides. That is particularly regrettable as these are two of the world's poorest countries.

I turn to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rea. What do we know about Eritrea supporting Ethiopian opposition groups in Somalia? Ethiopia and a number of Somali faction leaders have accused Eritrea of supplying weapons and financial support to the Oromo Liberation Front, an armed group opposed to the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia has responded by sending forces into Somalia to attack Oromo bases. We deplore any and all breaches of the UN arms embargo against Somalia and we have told both governments that deliberate use of Somalia to further their military aims is not acceptable and must cease.

Perhaps I may answer the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, who asked about the UN arms embargo. It is regrettable that the bilateral arms embargo currently in place is not a binding UN arms embargo. Many countries have not followed the example set by the UK and the EU in implementing their own binding embargo. There are persistent rumours of arms shipments to both sides. That remains a matter of concern to us all.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page