15 February 2004

There was not a trace of the heads of U.N. peacekeeping missions and special representatives assembled in the U.N. building on Wednesday 4 February. Although their presence was announced in the briefings. There was no rush by reporters to interview any of them or seek their views on the areas they were supposedly handling. They must have had enough time on their hands to find out the difference between the tasks of one representative and another, especially in the same region.

It is known by now that Africa has at least 18 representatives with little to show except a special red Laissez-Passer. But take for example the case of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

A few days before that meeting, on 30 January, a statement announced that the Secretary General has been very concerned about the lack of progress in the implementation of the Algiers Agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. "In order to help move the process forward, the Secretary General offered his good offices to the two parties, and has appointed Lloyd Axworthy, former Foreign Minister of Canada, as his Special Envoy for Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Secretary General hopes that, in carrying out this important assignment, the Special Envoy will enjoy the full cooperation of all parties concerned." To give it added weight, the statement was issued under three coded numbers at the top: SG/SM/9139; SG/A/864 and AFR/822. It was followed the same day with a "press statement" by the rotating President of the Security Council Heraldo Munoz of Chile on his last day in the chair saying that "members of the Security Council" welcomed that appointment.

Three days later -- with a week-end break in between -- another "envoy" for Ethiopia and Eritrea signaled his existence. Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, the "Secretary General's Special Representative for Ethiopia and Eritrea," went down to Briefing Room 226 to say that differences between Eritrea and Ethiopia over their boundary demarcation have created tensions, but there are no indications of a resumption of the devastating two-year war between the two Horn of Africa countries. The head of the United Nations Mission (UNMEE) in that area said that UNMEE has been very successful since September 2000. It "was being stalemated, or spoiled by the failure to demarcate the border, which is the sole responsibility of the Boundary Commission working out of The Hague" in the Netherlands. Mr. Legwaila recalled that on 13 April 2002 the Boundary Commission appointed by the two sides reached a decision on the boundary, which the parties accepted immediately. Last September, however, Ethiopia "found something wrong with that decision," and informed the U.N. that it could not cooperate in the demarcation of the border "as is."

After admitting that the situation was particularly dangerous, he said: "At present, however, there are no indications that there will be a resumption of hostilities, UNMEE is closely watching the situation. We are monitoring the Temporary Security Zone. The forces of the two sides remain separated and remain respectful of the Temporary Security Zone, which it is our responsibility to manage." Nearly 4,200 soldiers of UNMEE were monitoring the Temporary Security Zone, the envoy said.

Now, Lagwaila Lagwaila is no pushover. One of the longest serving African diplomats at the U.N., he was a member of the Security Council that elected Kofi Annan as an African candidate. He was noted for persuading then U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright to illustrate the Macarena dance in the Council Chambers. He is also a man of experience in the field of "live and let live." Otherwise, as they say in his Lesotho, we will all be eaten by the same crocodiles.

That may be why he explained that while the "international community" was trying to break an impasse, the Secretary General "recently" appointed Mr. Axworthy "to deal with problems related to the border."

Clearly, there was a determination to locate a job for the outgoing Foreign Minister of Canada. He had been a valuable friend and active supporter and, now that Paul Martin took over the government from Jean Chretien, it was time -- as the French would say -- to send back the elevator. However, that did not pass smoothly. It needed ground preparation -- for two months -- and some packaging to make it look proper, appropriate, and -- indeed -- vital for peace in the region.

That wasn't easy. There was already a Special Rep with the rank of Under Secretary General, together with two Assistant Secretary Generals, a whole mission and over 4000 troops -- why an additional Under Secretary General? More serious was the political interpretation of the parties involved. Eritrea opposed the new appointment. Why would Kofi Annan appoint a "mediator" when a U.N. mandated boundary commission had already made its verdict? Why would he seek an alternative mechanism to demarcate the borders?

Eritreans, accustomed to fighting against great odds, were suspicious of the political motives behind the appointment. Some in New York, however, saw it merely as one of those roundabout ways used to appoint over 70 other envoys. Others, more wary of the special "ambush team" around Kofi Annan, interpreted the insistence to appoint the former Canadian Foreign Minister as a prelude to easing out a tough straight-talking senior Canadian from the U.N. Secretariat.