Economist -- WHAT better way to settle an ugly third-world border dispute than through arbitration? What better example of conflict resolution to press upon two rancorous rivals, Ethiopia and Eritrea, who in 1998-2000 fought a bitter border war that cost 70,000 lives? That is why, as part of the peace deal that ended the war at the urging of America, the European Union and the Africa Union, the two countries asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to fix their border. But the court awarded the most hotly disputed piece of turf, the town of Badme, to Eritrea—the smaller nation, with a repressive little regime and few foreign friends. Ethiopia has since refused to accept the court's ruling and none of its powerful foreign allies seems inclined to try to make it change its mind.
As a result, both impoverished countries are armed to the teeth and a costly UN peacekeeping mission is hunkered along the border. And every so often come rumblings of another war, as has happened this month when Eritrea banned the UN from overflying its territory, drawing accusations from Ethiopia that it was shifting troops to the border.
The UN Security Council was due to discuss the crisis on October 27th. It fears for the safety of the 3,300 UN peacekeepers who are deployed on the border and have no mandate, or desire, to intervene in fresh fighting between two of Africa's best-organised armies. The peacekeepers are mostly on the Eritrean side, and have therefore been unable to man almost half of their 40 observation posts since their helicopters were grounded. Some observers—including John Bolton, the American ambassador to the UN—are now asking what purpose the mission serves.
It is a reasonable question: if Eritrea and Ethiopia are intent on fighting and the UN cannot stop them, the blue helmets might as well leave. Yet to blame the UN for the crisis is to miss the point. The peacekeepers were never intended to enforce peace. Rather, they were charged with deterring cross-border scuffles and reporting them when they occurred—and this they have admirably done.
Real responsibility for making Ethiopia and Eritrea honour their agreement lies, first, with their governments and, second, with those powers who urged them to accept arbitration and witnessed their agreement in Algiers in 2000. After all, western countries should have a certain influence in Ethiopia: they give it about $800m a year in development aid, a figure that could double over the next two years. Yet instead of insisting that Ethiopia accept the loss of Badme, America and the EU seem intent on having the country as their friend. For America, Ethiopia is of minor strategic importance, as an ally against Islamist extremists in southern Ethiopia and Somalia. For Britain it represents a test case of Tony Blair's ambition to fight poverty in Africa; Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's leader, is a personal friend of Britain's prime minister, and was a member of Mr Blair's “Commission for Africa”.
Eritrea has no such posh pals. Most of the international sympathy it accrued during a bitter three-decade-long struggle for independence from Ethiopia—which it won in 1993—has since been squandered by its despotic leader, Issaias Afwerki. Last week, an agency that monitors the world's media said that only in North Korea were journalists less free. And yet, in the dispute over Badme, Eritrea is also right; and, as its tenacious independence struggle should suggest, it is unlikely to forget it. Eritrea probably does not want another war. Its economy is still shattered by the previous one, which its conscript army lost. But its bellicose leaders are not beyond sending skirmishers across the border to make their point—and that is precisely how the last conflict began.