As we head towards the restaurant, Lea Brilmayer eyes the clouds over Asmara with a sceptical air. People in the Horn of Africa develop a particular attitude to rain - not so much a potential spoiler to the day as the stuff of life itself - and she has clearly acquired some of those peasant instincts. “It’s been raining, but not enough. The reservoirs haven’t filled up the way they should, which means trouble down the line.”

When a professor of law starts fretting about harvests, it’s clear an invisible line of client identification has been crossed. Back in the US, Brilmayer may be best known as the first holder of the Howard M. Holtzmann chair in international law at Yale, but she has another role in life. As the legal representative to the government of the Red Sea nation of Eritrea, she’s come to share every Eritrean citizen’s anxiety over another year of drought.

We’ve agreed to lunch at Castello. It’s not the best restaurant in town, but it has a cool, dappled courtyard, boasts at least a partial view of Africa’s most elegant capital, and possesses a touch of old Italy that keeps it popular. Vitello arrosto and gluey lasagne are permanently on the menu and bilingual waiters politely inquire “E per dopo?” (”what next?”).

We take a table outside, where the scent of jasmine masks a faint aroma of cat spray, and Brilmayer orders in Tigrinya. Her mastery of the language does not go much further than what I have just heard, she says. “I started taking lessons but realised it was a hard language to learn. I thought I could either spend two hours a day studying or two hours learning Tigrinya. I preferred to study.”

By “studying” Brilmayer means the exhaustive, forensic investigation involved in preparing the cases she and her legal team present to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which allows states to resolve disputes peacefully by submitting them to a commission of international legal experts. More than four years after the end of Eritrea’s border war with Ethiopia, the lawyers are still hard at work, defending their respective governments against accusations of atrocities, highlighting violations of the Geneva Conventions, demanding compensation for lost farmland and blown-up buildings.

She does the work pro bono, although it’s a phrase she dislikes because it implies “doing something out of the goodness of your heart”. She works for free not through altruism, she claims, but because one of Africa’s poorest states would not be able to afford the $600-an-hour fees she would usually charge. “People shouldn’t have to have money to get justice. And in my own case, everyone should do something at least once in their life just because they think it’s right.”

The waiter brings us a metal plate covered with what looks like a carpet’s grey rubber lining. This is injera, the fermented pancake peculiar to both Ethiopia and Eritrea. He up-ends three small bowls, containing fish stew (zigni), shredded lettuce, and strips of beef (zil zil) on the injera. We eat with our hands, using torn-off patches of injera to scoop up the food. She’s a lot neater at this than I am, suggesting plenty of practice. It’s not surprising: Brilmayer spends all her holidays in Asmara, housed in a tiny, government-owned villa.

If, on first meeting Brilmayer, the phrase “what’s a lawyer like you doing in a place like this?” springs to the lips, it quickly fades. Few things in her life have followed a conventional pattern. Born into a Wasp family, she was a brilliant maths student when the outside world - and an attractive Irish banjo player - exerted its pull. “I dropped out of college to join an Irish folk band, The All-Oakland Ceilidh Band, travelling along the West Coast. I played the concertina, a little ragtime piano. I was busy being a hippy, living communally, playing on the streets of San Francisco.”

After three years, the Bohemian lifestyle palled and Brilmayer went back to college, but instead of mathematics, she switched to law at Berkeley. “I thought if you had a law degree people couldn’t push you around.” Graduating “someplace near the bottom of my class”, she decided to specialise in jurisdictional law, usually regarded as one of the drier areas of the discipline. “I had a wonderful teacher who made the subject seem fascinating. I guess after you’ve done mathematical logic, nothing can seem boring.”

The reality has been more interesting. She has testified on gay marriage before a Senate sub-committee, been an expert witness in litigation over aircraft crashes and faulty heart valves, and briefly worked for feisty US pornographer Larry Flynt when he was sued for defamation. She resigned when he sent an obscene letter to the only female justice on the Supreme Court.

She has written two legal textbooks, two books on the philosophy of international law and one on the theory of the conflict of laws. She is also an inspirational teacher. The 54-year-old woman before me is an older version of the decidedly glamorous blonde whose photograph graces the backs of her books, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Hitchcock ice maiden.

Her interest in interstate jurisdiction led her to international law and a much-cited article on what defined a secessionist movement, work that shifted her attention in 1993 to the Horn of Africa, where Eritrea had recently won independence following a bitter 30-year war of liberation against Ethiopia.

”I invited a former student along and we spent a week in Ethiopia, then four weeks in Eritrea. We went around talking to mayors, university professors, women’s associations, asking them whether they had any legal problems.” In a brand-new state, where former guerrilla fighters were now grappling with the challenges of civilian administration, legal conundrums abounded. She was soon researching constitutional law for the Eritrean experts drafting a democratic constitution.

That multiparty constitution has never been implemented. In 1998, after a clash at a frontier village called Badme, Eritrea and Ethiopia went back to war. Their mutual border has yet to be demarcated and the nagging uncertainty over Ethiopia’s intentions has been used by President Isaias Afewerki to justify a permanent state of emergency. Young people are rounded up to do military service, ministers who criticised his policies have been jailed, the independent media closed.

Western politicians and aid workers who once trumpeted Eritrea’s virtues now shun it. Brilmayer has no patience with their laments, which she regards as the disillusionment of needy idealists who projected utopian visions on to the reality of an African nation struggling to establish its very sovereignty.

Her own anger surfaces when the border comes up. It is the fury of an advocate who won her case only to see her client sent down. Her team spent 16 months arguing Eritrea’s case before a commission in The Hague. Both states had agreed the ruling would be “final and binding”. But when the commission made clear in 2002 that symbolic Badme was in Eritrea, Ethiopia balked. Its forces, which occupy the contested area, have not allowed the concrete posts marking the border to be erected.

On November 25 last year, Ethiopia grudgingly accepted the ruling. But cynics view Ethiopia’s latest declarations, which demand “give and take” and “adjustments” in implementation, as the latest in a series of attempts to sidestep the ruling and renegotiate the frontier from scratch.

Brilmayer is horrified by the precedent being set. “It’s astonishing to me that the international community doesn’t understand what is at stake for international litigation. The only reason a dissatisfied party agrees to abide by a decision is because of the community belief that this is the way civilised people have to behave. If Ethiopia’s failure to implement is tolerated, it’s never going to be possible in future to put an end to war by going to judicial procedure. Kashmir is an example of where the inability to solve a boundary dispute by arbitration could lead to nuclear war.”

The injera is finished and we rinse our hands. Rain spots have started appearing on the tablecloth, so we move indoors, where Brilmayer waves away a papaya fruit salad. Instead, we order two satisfyingly strong espressos.

Soon Brilmayer must return to her office, where a handful of Yale students help her with legwork, their costs covered by foundation grants. It seems an appropriate arrangement for an Eritrean administration that relied during its guerrilla days on volunteer enthusiasm. “There’s no doubt about it. We are the most cost-effective law operation the world has ever seen,” Brilmayer laughs.

There are times, she confesses, when the difficulties of operating in a run-down African city threaten to overwhelm her. In her office bathroom, the tub is always kept full, because water shortages are routine. “If I was working for a fancy Wall Street firm I’d have an army of para-legals and computer technicians making life easy. Here you’re dealing with language problems, people who can’t type in English, power cuts and computer breakdowns.”

Once, just when the team was about to print out a key memorial for presentation in The Hague, she discovered the electricity company had scheduled a three-day power outage. “I rang the presidential adviser and threatened to throw myself out of the window. He arranged to have maintenance work on the entire country’s grid delayed while we did our printing. We only just made it.”

Her dual role means she hasn’t had a holiday for years. She misses her writing terribly. But could she walk away with the frontier still unresolved? Over lunch, I noticed that when she talks about the Eritrean government, Brilmayer uses the collective “we”. And as we leave, she is once more sizing up the storm clouds.

Castello, Asmara

1 x zil zil

1 x zigni

2 x injera with salad

1 x Dongollo mineral water

1 x Asmara beer

2 x espresso

148 nakfa (£5.75)

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