Thu, 27 Apr 2000

Ethiopian humanitarian aid may promote war, not peace

By Bertrand Rosenthal

ADDIS ABABA (AFP): The international community, in launching a large-scale humanitarian campaign for famine-threatened Ethiopia, may inadvertently fuel the country's war effort against Eritrea, analysts say.

Ethiopia says the high-profile humanitarian operation has "the sole aim of putting pressure on us to stop the war" with Eritrea, in the words of government spokesman Haile Kiros Guessesse.

However some donor countries fear that this aid, far from promoting peace, might fuel the war, which is currently stalled.

Germany struck a cautionary note last week by questioning whether UN funds should be spent to help to feed Ethiopia's poor when it was spending meager resources on its border war with Eritrea.

Ethiopia responded by recalling its ambassador to Berlin home for consultations, and Germany's ambassador to Ethiopia was summoned to the foreign ministry.

It is feared that infrastructural improvements aimed at speeding up aid delivery will also oil Ethiopia's war machine.

The UN World Food Program (WFP) is to modernize the port of Djibouti and repair part of the road that leads to Ethiopia, but this route is also the main conduit for Ethiopia's imported war material.

The U.S. proposal to use the Eritrean port of Assab to transport food aid to Ethiopia had the same aim: to force the Ethiopians and the Eritreans to cooperate for humanitarian reasons and thereby engage in direct dialogue.

When WFP director Catherine Bertini was visiting Djibouti earlier this month, the cargo ship Vale, recently arrived from Rouen in France, was unloading 30,000 tons of wheat for the WFP, while 200 metres away, a Bulgarian vessel was delivering its cargo of ammunition.

But she refused to be drawn on the question, saying her concern was to save children's lives.

For the donor community, food aid is a path to peace.

Diplomats in the region say that U.S. and UN humanitarian efforts in the region presuppose that if Ethiopia is the beneficiary of massive international aid, it won't dare recommence hostilities in the stalled war with Eritrea.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday urged donor countries to dismiss concerns about the war which had led some countries to hold back donations.

"We cannot punish children for what the leaders of these countries have done," Annan said in Paris after a meeting with Bertini.

Fears that the two-year-old war might restart were raised at the end of March when a meeting between the warring neighbors under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Algiers was postponed.

Addis Ababa has refused to link the humanitarian question to the conflict with Asmara.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who accuses Eritrea of having invaded his country in May 1998, reaffirmed the right of a poor country to defend its sovereignty even in the face of famine.

If negotiations fail, Meles asserted that Ethiopia would not hesitate to return to war.

According to UN agencies, Ethiopia will receive at least a million tons of food aid this year to feed up to eight million people threatened by famine.

The United States has already promised 500,000 tons and the European Union has pledged 400,000 tons.