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The tragedy of another senseless war

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The arms embargo on Eritrea and Ethiopia just imposed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council is a much needed measure that brings hope for an end to an irrational conflict between the two neighboring countries. The U.S.-initiated measure, later co-sponsored by Britain and the Netherlands, bars the sale or supply of weapons to both countries, and prohibits technical military assistance until they reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Unless both countries immediately stop the fighting, not only arms sales but also development assistance should cease to convince the warring fractions to come to their senses and stop the suffering of their countries’ hapless and powerless citizens.

The dispute between both countries is reportedly over a 1000-km frontier, which was never clearly marked when Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. The real reasons, however, are probably economic. The cost of the war for both of them, however, far exceeds what they may gain by a victory that can only be transitory.

Since fighting originally started on May of 1998, it is estimated that it has cost the lives of from 20,000 to 70,000 people. The fighting in 1998 and 1999 has resulted in as many people deaths as the United States suffered during the Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of Eritreans have been deported from their homes in Ethiopia, and it is estimated that 270,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. As a result of the war, famine threatens southeast Ethiopia, where a drought now means that 8 million people risk starvation. Whatever resources both governments have should be used to avoid mass starvation, not for purchasing arms.

The U.N. proposal calls for a total arms embargo on both Eritrea and Ethiopia, which would only be lifted when a final peace agreement is signed. The proposal also calls for all nations to not sell or supply arms or train personnel from either country. If approved, the resolution imposes a travel ban on Ethiopian senior government officials, which would be lifted once U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reports to the Security Council that the Ethiopian government has ceased its military offensive against the government of Eritrea.

The Organization of African Unity Secretary General Salim Ahmed Salim has called for an immediate stop of hostilities between both countries, and indicated that both sides had accepted two previous OAU resolutions supported by the U.N. as the basis for a peaceful end of the dispute. Every effort to stop the conflict, however, has failed so far. A respected U.N. envoy, Mohammed Sahnoun, has recently visited both capitals to try to reach an agreement before the beginning of the rainy season in late May. Both countries, however, seem unwilling to stop the fighting.

By enforcing an arms embargo and recommending the suspension of development assistance to both countries, the U.N. Security Council may obtain what senseless and cruel fighting could not: a stop to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens affected by the war.