Lines not mapped are drawn in blood

July 30, 2004

Border disputes in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere continue to take lives and unsettle the world. Chris Bunting reports on efforts to settle disagreements peacefully

The village of Badme does not seem much to fight over. It is no more than a few hundred huts beside a dirt track in an arid semi-desert.

Its inhabitants scrape a living cultivating sorghum and keeping goats. It has no strategic importance. It dominates no great river, it holds no high ground. Yet between 1998 and 2000, more than 80,000 people were killed in a bloody border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that focused largely on which country had rights to this hamlet.

Along the 1,000km front, the slaughter resembled that of the Somme, but enacted in searing heat reaching 45C (113F). A border that no one had thought to mark properly on a map, let alone on the ground, when Eritrea split peacefully from Ethiopia in 1993, was delineated by two rows of dusty trenches and a no-man's land strewn with the decomposing bodies of conscripts killed as they tried to overwhelm enemy machine guns in "human waves".

Badme underlines clearly the importance that the drawing of national boundaries retains in international politics. Many of the conflicts that have defined our unsettled world - Israel-Palestine, Kashmir and the Balkan clashes, for instance - revolve, at least in part, around border disagreements.

Such disagreements are not confined to land. On the sea, national boundaries are in chaos - only one-third of potential maritime borders have been agreed. With offshore oil and mineral resources increasingly coveted, disputes over marine boundaries are no longer a concern only to fishermen.

The tiny Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are believed by some to hold an oil and gas bonanza. This has encouraged China to maintain its historic claim to the whole of the archipelago and, therefore, to most of the sea, even though many of the islands are hundreds of miles closer to other claimants. Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim a stake.

There is little immediate threat of armed conflict because a deal was reached in 2002, but Ian Townsend-Gault, an associate professor of law at the University of British Columbia, says the lack of clear agreement on boundaries in the area could be enough in itself to cause catastrophe. The reefs in the South China Sea support 25 per cent of the world's phytoplankton and, through fishing, "500 million people in this area rely on that resource to live". The legal vacuum allows oil tankers to pollute the sea, and countries are building all over the islands to bolster their claims, he says. "That means the coral is dying. And when 500 million people lose their source of food, we'll know about it," Townsend-Gault warns.

The problems of Eritrea and the South China Sea were just two of a plethora of border issues on the agenda at a workshop on negotiating borders at Durham University's International Boundaries Research Unit two weeks ago.

The unit, set up in 1989, has established itself as one of the world's most important border research units and is a leader in practical training for those sorting out border issues.

The 33 participants at the workshop included government officials, diplomats and military personnel from the Palestinian Authority, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Mozambique, Malaysia, China, Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, Surinam, Oman, Chile, Jamaica, Barbados, the United Arab Emirates, the US, the UK and the United Nations.

Martin Pratt, director of research at the IBRU, says officials in many states lack expertise in border issues because they have never encountered disputesbefore. "That is where we come in," he says. "There is great demand for these courses from across the world, and what we try to do is find leading international authorities and bring them together with our participants."

The emphasis is on practical training. After two days of classes on subjects including the legal principles of territorial negotiation, preparing for a negotiation and the detail of drafting an agreement, participants took part in a full-day mock negotiation. They were split into teams and asked to negotiate a border between "New Tasmania" and "Van Diemen's Land", following the imaginary dissolution of Australia.

Everybody from the UK High Commissioner from Trinidad and Tobago to relatively junior naval map-makers got to work with compass and ruler, scheming with their teams about how best to protect their national interest. By midday, as the teams began to confront each other over the negotiating table, voices were being raised.

One exasperated participant shouted: "You have absolutely no claim on that land. You have never claimed it in your history!"

Her opposite number replied, unperturbed: "Until now!"

In a previous year, Pratt confided, two of the teams had finished their negotiation at war. This year, however, negotiations between team members had turned, by mid-afternoon, from cunning ruses to get one over on their "opponents" to what could be offered to the other party to win agreement on crucial points. Eventually, the island's new claimant was prevailed upon to forsake his daring expansionism in return for some fishing rights.

Zeinah Salahi, a legal adviser on the Palestinian Authority's negotiating team on border issues, commented: "The truth is that the negotiation here was a lot more amicable than the reality of negotiations I am normally involved in. You don't have people whose families have been killed or houses demolished here. It is much easier when you don't have those kind of people to consider.

"In reality, it is difficult to look at some of the issues in as disinterested a way as we can in a mock negotiation, but the fundamental truth is that I believe negotiation is the only way."

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