The village of Badme and the disputed border

Tuesday, 07 April 2009 08:21
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by Marco Leofrigio
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What is a border ? What does a ‘disputed border’ mean? What happens to the people who live along ‘a disputed border’ ? We’ll try to give an answer to all these questions. One of Geography’s branches is Topography, a discipline which developed to study the land and to produce specific cartographic big scale maps aimed at analyzing territorial phenomena.The first definition of 'border' was related to the concept of ‘natural border’, easily identifiable with a mountain chain or a river. Later the concept of nationalism, in the XIX century, changed the natural border definition into ‘national border’ introducing a great change in the politics of geography with various and tragic consequences and elements of uncertainty and conflict/dispute.

National borders are in fact an artificial human creation aimed at defining where the sovereignty of each state in the world starts and where it ends. It differs from the notion of 'frontier' as the border is a strictly bilateral issue, the frontier is only a unilateral concern. In the 1990s Kenichi Ohmae, a famous Japanese corporate strategist, wrote a book imagining ‘a borderless world’ , but reality, twenty years later, has not changed: border re still crucial. The force of globalisation does not render international boundaries redundant, as Bill Clinton said in 2001.

Borders and territorial disputes are problems which continue to generate strains between states in various part of the world, notwithstanding the considerable efforts made by the world community in the post-war era to create international or regional channels for a peaceful resolution of border and territorial disputes.

Only in the period 1816-1980 the world has experienced 770 territorial changes and between 1950 and 1997, as much as 157 cases of territorial claims of political significance, involving much more than simple boundary demarcation problems, emerged in many geographical areas. Defining the meaning of an ‘unresolved or current territorial dispute’ is a very difficult task, as it is hard sometimes to find a legal definition of the concept of ‘dispute’ between two or more nations. The study of the concept of 'border' must be carried out at interdisciplinary level, from multiple angles that go beyond geography: anthropological, historical, sociological, diplomatic, economical, geomorphological and other.

The issue of defining a border implies an accurate and cooperative recognition of the land under dispute, with the support of high technological tools, a comprehensive group of experts whith various expertise such as civil engineers, geodesists, surveyors, photogrammetrists and, of course, cartographers. Such a fundamental and laborious committment is not ruled by specific international laws. The treaties signed by the States are the only legal instruments that can establish, each time, the criteria at the basis of the definition of the common boundaries. Due to the high number of disputes regarding maritime boundaries (around 50 per cent of total disputes refer to this sector), a specific law was stated at Montego Bay in 1982 with the aim of dealing only with boundaries projects in seas and oceans.

Fixing a common border is a very complex job that can be summarized in the following three fundamental phases:

a) delimitation, that is the legal process by which two sovereign nations establish and describe in writing the location of their common boundary;

b) demarcation, a field operation by which the position of the boundary on the ground is marked; it represents ‘the visible border’; selected positions are marked on the ground with border monuments (markers) visible on both sides of the line, and it is integrated by control stations; the type of monument suitable for the demarcation will depend on the nature of the terrain, for example along the 8891 km of the Canada/USA border there are over 8000 boundary monuments;

c) delineation, that consists of reports, aerial and satellite photographs, other kinds of illustrations, maps and tables showing the geographic positions of boundary monuments and survey control stations.

The majority of boundaries is represented by hidrographic (32%) and orographic (24%) features, because they are, normally, the easiest to recur to and to define. Many countries have selected natural features as their international boundaries. The borders between Germany and Poland, drawn after 1945, run along the Oder-Neisse river as well as the boundaries between Spain and Portugal, that are represented by rivers and mountains that naturally divide the two nations.

What happens when there is a border dispute over its delineation? If the nations involved are not able to find a negotiating solution we are in front of a very serious geopolitical problem which can turn into an armed conflicts.

A clear example of a disputed border is the case of the village of Badme, along the Eritreo-Ethiopian border. The border, between the two nations is approximately 900 km long, and contains some of the driest, hottest and most hostile territory in the world. Much of the border is defined by rivers and most of it is largely uninhabited. In terms of natural resources, the disputed area has virtually no value at all. In the years 1900,1902,1908 a series of treaties on the border were signed between the then Reign of Italy, which had colonised Eritrea, and the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II, but the boundaries laid down in these treaties were never implemented by actual demarcation. The matter still represents a serious problem at present time.

Eritrea was ruled as a province of Ethiopia from 1962 to 1993 until the end of Menghistu regime, after which the country regain its independence. Unfortunately, no one paid too much attention was paid to the details of the 'divorce settlement', in particular as regards the villages along the border such as Badme, Zalambessa, Bure. As a tragic consequence across the 900 km border war broke out in May 1998 and carried on until December 2000 thanks to the Algeri’s agreements and the following United Nations resolution n.1640. Afterwards, the UN established an Independent Borders Commission with the aim to solve the problem. There is a section of the border that follows a straight line in a north-easterly direction. The border on either side of this section follows two separate rivers so the interruption is clearly part of the negotiated border.

The Eritreo-Ethiopian Border Commission (EEBC) has been working for two years looking for a viable solution for this ‘cartography labyrinth’. The main problem was due to the differences in terms of map’s scale and treaty signatures between the maps proposed by Ethiopia and Eritrea. In fact, the Commission recurred also to the consultancy of the Italian Geographic Military Institute in order to study and compare the large number of maps (up to 281 maps). In 2002 the EEBC published a 135 pages long final report, which included details about the Commission's decision on boundaries, but none of the maps included in the report shows where Badme village actually lied. Later, in March 2003 the EEBC declared that Badme would be under Eritrea's jurisdiction.

The history of Badme is quite complicated. After many years within the Etiopian territory, during the war, in the years 1998-2000, Badme returned under the Eritrean jurisdiction. At the end of this bloody war Badme was again conquered by the Etiopian army. Nowadays, the village apparently belongs to the Etiopian administration but a formal solution is not in sight, because Addis Abeba still does not agree with the Border Commission. The geography and the absence of a clear demarcation represents a real nightmare for the innocent population of Badme, a small village that represented the starting point of the war and that still today is suffering damages of all kinds at all levels.


Photo:by trokilinochchi licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric L. Beauregard/Released


Last modified on Wednesday, 11 July 2012 14:48
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