Regional international organizations formed to keep the peace are loathe to adjusting borders, even if such changes maintain the peace. For example, when Kosovo President Hashim Thaci recently proposed “a correction” of its border with Serbia, active and retired diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic warned against the idea. Their reasoning is flawed.
In an interview with the Albanian service of the Voice of America, Thaci supported a joint Serbia-Kosovo agreement that would “redefined” their 250-mile long border. A “corrected border” may allow 55,000 ethnic Albanians currently living in Serbia’s Presevo Valley to join Kosovo. In return, 50,000 ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo north of the Ibar River in northern Mitrovica would be permitted to join Serbia.
Warning against such a redefinition of the Serbia-Kosovo border was the European Union. Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic are scheduled to meet in Brussels in September under the auspices of the EU. However, EU and US diplomats are already nixing any idea of a border alteration, even though it might ensure long-lasting peace between the former warring parties.
Former US special envoy to the Balkans, Daniel Serwer, told the VOA that adjusting borders was a bad idea. He believes that an alteration of the Serbian-Kosovo border would result in Kosovo Albanians pushing for a union with Albania. But Serwer was being disingenuous. He indicated his real worry was a push to change the Serbian border with Bosnia-Herzegovina to include the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina inside Serbia. And Serwer did not miss a chance to warn about border alterations leading to the union of South Ossetia with Russia. He said such border realignments would open a “Pandora’s box.” This is the same sort of status quo enthusiasm that has led to international organizations opposing aspirant nations attempting to secede from colonialist-minded countries.
Another regional international organization that joins the EU in generally opposing border changes in the African Union (AU). Until recently, Ethiopia and Eritrea both claimed ownership of the border town of Badme. In 2002, a joint border commission awarded Badme to Eritrea. The decision resulted in Ethiopia refusing to recognize the decision and a prolonged border conflict ensued between the two countries. In July, Ethiopia’s reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, traveled to Eritrea to meet with that internationally-sanctioned president, Isaias Afwerki. Ethiopia has agreed to withdraw its troops from the contested border region. However, as of the end of August, Ethiopian troops remain in the contested region. Part of the reluctance by Ethiopia to officially disengage from Badme may be due to the country hosting the headquarters of the AU. If Ethiopia goes along willingly with a border demarcation change, the status quo enthusiasts within the AU may fear a domino effect across the continent. This is the same mindset that prevails in Brussels and Washington. While border changes are always welcome by atlas publishers and cartographers, they are anathema to diplomats who constantly adhere to the party line of the “world order,” whatever it may constitute at any given time.
The Sudan-South Sudan border has been contentious ever since South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011. Both nations claim the areas of Abyei, Heglig, Jodha, Kafia Kingi, and Kaka. Because there are petroleum reserves in the disputed regions, Sudan took advantage of South Sudan’s civil war to militarily occupy Abyei and Heglig. Border discussions between the two sides are ongoing.
When internationally-monitored border disputes become resolved, a big loser is the international peacekeeping industry. Peacekeeping is handled by several international organizations, including the United Nations, AU, EU, NATO, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Arab League, and Organization of American States. In some cases, individual countries step up to provide peacekeepers, as was the case with Qatar’s troops monitoring the disputed Dumaira Mountains on the Eritrea-Djibouti border. The Qatari forces remained in the disputed border region until June 2017, when Djibouti, under Saudi Arabian pressure, expelled the Qatari peacekeepers. The Saudi dispute with Qatar resulted in the Saudis pushing to limit Qatar’s international profile, even as a neutral peacekeeper.
Nations that benefit financially from providing peacekeepers, mostly to the UN, are Fiji, Nepal, Philippines, and Bangladesh. Peacekeepers from these and other countries are found from Syria’s Golan Heights and south Lebanon to Kashmir and Cyprus. With nations like Fiji and Nepal earning revenue by seconding their troops to UN peacekeeping operations, “mission creep” often extends the life of some peacekeeping deployments. For example, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) has been in operation since 1964. However, the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) has been around since 1949. If the Cypriot and Kashmir situations were settled tomorrow, the UN, Fiji, Nepal, and various aid organizations would be saddled with the problem of how to compensate for a loss of mission and financial resources. No wonder professional diplomats are so keen on not resolving border conflicts. A peaceful resolution to border quarrels might result in unemployment for diplomats.
Maintaining the status quo regarding border disputes is also attractive to the private mercenary business. These firms earn more than $200 billion annually by providing “security services” to governments, private corporations, and international organizations like the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross. It is a lucrative business that finds the more trouble spots there are in the world, the better it is for their bottom lines. In what could be called the “misery industry,” there are profits to be made.
There are hundreds of border disputes around the world. These range from hot conflicts, such as the India-Pakistan front lines in Kashmir and lukewarm conflicts, – as seen in the South China Sea – to dormant conflicts, such as those that exist between the United States and Canada over Machias Seal Island, which saw tensions recently flare as hostility grew between the Trump administration and the Canadian government.
As seabed mother lodes of rare earth minerals and oil reserves are discovered, we can look forward to dormant claims for islands and marine territory becoming active, thus providing inroads for international peacekeeping interests. We have already seen a military scramble for islands in the South China Sea between littoral stakeholders, including China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia and non-regional players, like the United States, India, and Japan. Few would believe that Spain has a claim for the island of Kapingamarangi in Micronesia; Indonesia for Ashmore and Cartier Islands in the Timor Sea between Australia and East Timor; and Canada for Hans Island, a Danish-claimed spot of land located between Greenland and Canada’s Baffin Island.
Two vested interests threaten to keep as many border conflicts at a hair-trigger from armed skirmishes. The first is the bureaucracy that has been built up around international peacekeeping, one that has covered up egregious rapes of women and children in countries ranging from Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Bosnia and the Central African Republic. The second is private military contractors that are anxious to receive “outsourcing” contracts from organizations and countries to “maintain the peace.” If the international peacekeeping bureaucracy has enjoyed relative immunity from being held accountable for the abuses committed by their forces in world hot spots, the private military contractors are practically held free and clear of any responsibility. This was on display in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US firm Blackwater, which avoided being held criminally responsible for several civilian deaths.
If Blackwater founder Erik Prince has his way, the Trump administration will assign his teams of mercenaries, based in the United Arab Emirates, Somaliland, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Libya, a greater role in “peacekeeping” in battle zones like Afghanistan, Syria, northern Iraq, and South Sudan. War is now a commodity that has investors ready to trade shares in a virtual market that includes peacekeeping bureaucracies and private contractors. The privatization of war has always been a goal for the anti-government “libertarians” who have embedded themselves in the Trump White House. These ghoulish marketers of death and destruction have finally achieved their nirvana in the Trump administration.
Investigative journalist, author, and syndicated columnist. A member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the National Press Club. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).