Last night, British Members of Parliament debated Human Rights in Eritrea during an adjournment debate led by Matthew Pennycook MP. In the opening of his speech, Matthew Pennycook MP outlined the sad truth about Eritrea, saying:
“Ruthless repression is the norm for those living under the rule of this isolated, hermetic and authoritarian regime. It is a far cry from what so many Eritreans fought for, heroically and for decades, and from the hopes of those who supported the struggle for liberation. Instead of democracy and the rule of law, Eritreans are ruled by a culture of fear and absolute obedience: fear that they or their classmates will be sent to carry out national service in a remote location for an unknown number of years; fear that a trusted co-worker who yesterday openly expressed an opinion may not turn up at work tomorrow; fear that a friend arrested arbitrarily will be incarcerated in a vastly overcrowded metal container or a simple hole dug in the desert ground, with little prospect of release; and fear that a disappeared family member might never be seen again.”
Matthew Pennycook MP went on to outline three issues which he wanted to address in the debate.
“The first is the Ethiopian-Eritrean border dispute. The unresolved border tension remains a source of regional instability. It is also a very real grievance in Eritrea and one that is used by the regime to justify keeping the country on a permanent emergency military footing. Will the Minister therefore outline what recent steps the UK Government have taken, bilaterally, with key regional and international partners, and through the UN system, to help overcome the current stalemate and ensure the Algiers agreement is adhered to by both sides?
“The second issue relates to sanctions. As the Minister knows, a UN and EU arms embargo is in force on Eritrea. In addition, there is also a travel ban and an asset freeze imposed on listed individuals deemed a threat to peace and the national reconciliation process. In the past, the UN has toughened sanctions on the regime by requiring foreign companies involved in Eritrea’s mining industry to ensure that funds from the sector are not used to destabilise the region.
“The third and final issue is EU development aid. The EU has responded to the flood of Eritreans fleeing their homeland by offering hundreds of millions in development aid in return for assurances from the Eritrean Government that they will address the social and economic exclusion that it is adamant are the root causes of irregular migration and human trafficking. In doing so Europe has, at best, given the impression that it believes that a lack of economic opportunity is the root cause of the population outflow, rather than repression. At worst, it risks the perception that the European Union would be content to see human rights abuses continue in the country, if only the regime would stem the growing tide of Eritreans heading toward this continent. Money will not alter the simple fact that repression, rather than economic prospects, is the main driver of migration from Eritrea.”
This debate was of such importance as it forced the government to respond. The Minister for Europe, David Lidington, responded on several issues.
The general human rights situation
The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s most recent human rights report listed Eritrea as a priority country and made it clear that its Government fell short of their international human rights commitments. I could give the House a very long list, but because of the time constraints I will confine myself to saying that we have concerns, for example, about allegations of widespread arbitrary detention, shortcomings in the rule of law, and a lack of respect for fundamental human freedoms.
“We are troubled also by the United Nations commission of inquiry’s findings that widespread human rights violations had been committed in Eritrea. It is unfortunate that the commission has so far been unable to visit Eritrea to see the situation first-hand. In July this year at the UN Human Rights Council, the United Kingdom supported an extension of the commission’s mandate so that it could further investigate these allegations. We have made it clear to the Government of Eritrea that they must co-operate with the UN commission, including allowing its members to visit Eritrea to see matters for themselves, and that they must co-operate also with other UN human rights bodies.
“At the UN Human Rights Council and in our bilateral discussions, the British Government have set out very clearly to the Eritrean authorities the other steps we believe the country needs to take to improve its human rights record. They include expecting the Government of Eritrea to commit to doing something as apparently straightforward as implementing its own constitution, to release all those who have been arbitrarily detained, and to hold responsible the people who ought to be accountable for various violations and abuses of human rights. We shall continue to press those matters on the Eritrean authorities bilaterally and through our multinational work in Europe and elsewhere.”
Indefinite National Service
The Minister: “A key part of that [government] action should be to amend Eritrea’s system of indefinite national service. A system without a clear end date drives many young people to leave the country, and this needs to change. I welcome the fact that earlier this year the Eritrean Government made a public pledge to limit national service to 18 months, but Ministers here have been very clear when talking to the Government in Asmara that it is not enough for Eritrean officials or Ministers simply to make that pledge in Europe—the commitment needs to be publicised widely within Eritrea itself, and it should apply to all conscripts and not just those who have been enlisted recently.”
The Minister: “The hon. Gentleman [Mr Pennycook] asked about increased development assistance to Eritrea, including through the EU’s European development fund 11. That fund is still under discussion, and I completely understand the reasons behind the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. At the same time, however, we face the reality that Eritrea is one of the poorest countries anywhere in the world, and there is scope to help to improve and save the lives of Eritrean people. For example, Eritrea has begun to make some progress towards the health outcomes embodied in the millennium development goals. We should bear that in mind when we consider the pros and cons of a particular aid measure.
“Aid does not mean providing funding to the Government of Eritrea. Greater EU assistance could, for example, be provided through United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organisations. I give a commitment that any further Department for International Development assistance will be carefully assessed against Eritrea’s commitment to its partnership principles, including on civil and political rights.”
The Minister: “Despite all the problems in Eritrea, the mining companies provide one of the few sources of employment for people. It may be a matter of weighing up our wish to penalise the Government against the fact that we might inadvertently penalise people who are themselves suffering.”
Matthew Pennycook MP: “There are documented instances of forced labour at more than one mine, with compulsory military conscription being used. It is not a process whereby an international mining company goes in there legitimately. These sites are the sites of some of the abuses that I have talked about.”
The Minister promised to write to Matthew Pennycook MP with more detail but reported that “Nevsun, the leading international mining company in Eritrea, has a firm policy of refusing to accept on to its workforce people who have been conscripted in the way he describes. Undoubtedly, the Eritrean Government have tried to use conscripted labour in mines at various times.”
The Minister: “The hon. Member for Glasgow North [Patrick Grady MP] asked about the Home Office’s approach to asylum policy. In this country we have a proud history of granting protection to those who need it. All asylum claims are carefully considered on their individual merits in accordance with our international obligations, particularly the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. The Home Office’s country guidance on handling Eritrean asylum claims was updated in September this year. It recognises that there are indeed persistent human rights challenges in Eritrea but stresses also the need to consider each claim on its individual merits. We take those international responsibilities seriously, and we grant protection to Eritreans in genuine need.”
The Minister: “The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich [Matthew Pennycook MP] raised a number of specific questions, and I will try to provide him with answers. He asked about the imposition of the expatriate tax. The levy of a tax on nationals living in a foreign country is not in itself illegal—in fact, many countries do it—but the UN resolution made it clear that using coercive measures to try to collect such a tax would be illegal. We have made it clear to the Eritrean embassy in London that coercive measures will not be accepted in the United Kingdom. We urge any such cases to be reported to the relevant police force without delay, so that an investigation can be made and action taken.”
The Minister: “I agree that that needs to be resolved and that the responsibility for that lies with the two countries concerned. We will continue to encourage, bilaterally and through the European Union, Eritrea and Ethiopia alike to talk to each other and engage through the various appropriate international forums to overcome the current stalemate. We hope that progress can be made towards demarcation, in accordance with the decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission.”