The End of a Hobbled Mission

When we last reported the status of the United Nations Mission to Ethiopia-Eritrea (UNMEE), we cited intelligence that the mission, facing the expiration of its mandate on July 31, could be transformed into a smaller observer contingent. Now it appears that even that option is off the table, and that the mission will be closed down entirely.

The U.N. Security Council voted on Wednesday to disband its peacekeeping mission to the volatile border between Eritrea and Ethiopia after Eritrea forced out most of the U.N. troops.
The mandate for the 1,700-strong force expires on Thursday. The council unanimously approved a resolution drafted by Belgium that calls for the mission to be terminated and all peacekeeping personnel to be withdrawn.

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On one hand, the disbanding of UNMEE–without even a compromise force to replace it–is unfortunate, as it leaves an already tense border region with no objective peacekeeping presence whatsoever. While Ethiopia and Eritrea are not technically at war, their armies, according to the International Crisis Group, are “less than a football pitch” apart in certain areas.

More realistically, though, sending peacekeepers home from Ethiopia-Eritrea simply makes official what had been a de facto termination of the mission since Eritrea decided to deprive it of necessary fuel supplies. The all-important “peace to keep” for UNMEE was little more than ostensible, as both sides — Eritrea through this denial of fuel, Ethiopia by continuing to place troops in an area that an international border commission awarded to Eritrea — have recklessly flouted UN authority and hampered the mission’s effectiveness.

UN peacekeepers cannot be expected to stand between two armies and prevent the return of full-scale war. If Ethiopia and Eritrea are serious about resolving their dispute, they will have to work out — and abide by — their own peace agreements. Leaving UNMEE there without a corresponding level of commitment from both sides only encourages the unreasonable expectation that peacekeepers alone will be able to defuse this crisis.