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Eritrea And Ethiopia

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 23 February 1999

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3.7 p.m.

What steps they are taking to help secure a peaceful settlement of the territorial dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we have taken every opportunity, bilaterally and with the European Union and United Nations, to persuade the Governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea to accept and implement the Organisation of African Unity peace proposals presented on 7th November.

We are deeply saddened that fighting has resumed. We fully supported United Nations Security Council Resolution 1277 and the European Union Presidency statement of 12th February which called on both sides to stop fighting and resume the search for a peaceful settlement. We continue to urge both sides to stop fighting and to resume their search for a peaceful, negotiated settlement.

My Lords, does not the Minister consider that the Security Council could take further measures to enforce Security Council Resolution 1277? In particular, could it not implement the demand which was made then for an immediate halt to hostilities and the use of air strikes? Could not the voluntary arms embargo be replaced with a mandatory one? As Ethiopia has said that it will not negotiate until the Eritreans have withdrawn from the pocket of occupied territory, and as the Eritreans refuse to move their troops from this area, would not a possible solution be to install a neutral force, perhaps under OAU auspices, to administer the territory pending a solution?

My Lords, as the noble Lord has said, UNSCR 1277 condemns the use of force on both sides and demands an immediate ceasefire. It urges the member states to end the sale of arms to both countries. Her Majesty's Government argued in the Security Council for a binding embargo but, alas, there was no consensus and so a voluntary basis was agreed. In answer to a Parliamentary Question on 15th February my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd announced a UK arms embargo to Parliament. Her Majesty's Government have tried to do what they can on that front.

The noble Lord raised the possibility of a peacekeeping force from the OAU. It is important to remember that Ethiopia has accepted the OAU framework proposals. The Eritreans have not rejected them. They have not yet accepted them. We hope that they will. The problem is that the OAU does not yet have ready the mechanisms to become a peacekeeping force. It is developing a centre for conflict prevention and Her Majesty's Government are trying to help with that, both with expertise and with financing.

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister mentioned the OAU draft agreement. Can she confirm that this would provide for arbitration and demarcation of the frontier by United Nations personnel?

My Lords, in fact 11 points were put forward in the framework agreement to both sides on 7th November last year. It is worth noting that it built on the US Rwandan proposals which were put forward in June last year. The key requirement is that the Eritreans withdraw from the disputed area around Badume as a first step and allow the restoration of the Ethiopian civil administration in the area. The OAU central organ summit at Ouagadougou on 17th December endorsed the proposals of the high level delegation and so far, as I said, the Ethiopians have accepted them. The Eritreans, while they have not rejected them, have still to accept them. They raised some questions on them. Those questions were answered on 25th January. We very much hope that in due course the Eritreans, too, will accept this framework agreement.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether our missions in these two territories and possibly other EU missions could gather more information on who is supplying arms in the two territories? In that way we could build up a picture so that not only can we press for mandatory arms sanctions in this case but get a better picture of who is responsible for the arms trade in general in so many parts of Africa.

My Lords, I wish we could build up a rather better picture on that front. We are to some extent inhibited by the fact that our ambassador in Ethiopia also covers Eritrea. This means that there are some problems at the moment in getting information out of Eritrea. The Belgian Embassy in London informed us on both November that in August Belgium's Customs stopped a shipment of goods originating in Germany and destined for Eritrea. I am sorry to say that a British company was involved in organising that shipment. The matter is now before the Belgian courts. So we are trying to be as vigilant as we can. I hope that that example illustrates that there is European co-operation; and, where we can, we do swap the information that is relevant.

My Lords, pursuant to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, what reports, if any, has the Minister received to corroborate Eritrean claims that Ethiopia is using mercenaries? In addition to the one company which he mentioned, to the Government's knowledge are any British private military companies involved?

My Lords, I do not have any specific information on the possibility of British private companies being involved. I am sure that it would have been drawn to my attention if that were the case. However, I will write to the noble Lord if in any way my briefing was not entirely complete on that point. I will place a copy of the letter in the Library, knowing as I do the importance that all your Lordships attach to such an answer.

There are a number of different Eritrean worries about this conflict. There are worries about the role of Djibouti. There are worries, too, in Eritrea about the actions of the Sudanese Government in relation to the support they have given for an Eritrean Islamic Jihad. A number of different forces are at play in the area which make up a very complex picture.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a wonderful map archive section in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Will she take copies of any maps that were compiled by the British authorities during the period of our administration in Eritrea and place them in the Libraries of both Houses so that at least Members can see what we considered to be the boundary at that time? Will she also consider suggesting to the Security Council that reference be made to the International Court for an advisory opinion so that at least the parties would know, if they were prepared to submit to its judgment, what its likely decision would be?

My Lords, I am well aware of the FCO map room; and a splendid room it is. I often have recourse to it for maps in order to see present dispositions as well as the dispositions of the past. I shall certainly see what I can do to meet the noble Lord's request for any relevant maps from the past.

On the question of the territory that is disputed at the moment, I stress to the noble Lord that for the time being it is important that we go ahead on the basis of the framework agreement put forward by the Organisation of African Unity. Not only is that important body fully behind the proposals that were put forward in November last year, but they have been backed on three occasions by United Nations Security Council resolutions and on three occasions by declarations from the European Union. So I think the way forward on this is very clear, but I shall do what I can to help with the maps.