Mirjam van Reisen: Eritrea can be considered the North Korea of Africa

Mirjam van Reisen

The European Union (EU) should change its policy towards Eritrea, says Mirjam van Reisen, professor of International Social Responsibility at Tilburg University. The people are better of if the EU would spent its allocated subsidy for Eritrea on housing and education of the Eritrean refugees in Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Egypt or Yemen, adds Van Reisen, also founder and director of Brussels-based Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA).

“Eritrea clearly has no democracy. It doesn’t even have a parliament that meets. The constitution has never entered into force. The government has made a habit out of arbitrary detentions, persecution of people with unwanted religions and suppressing the free press," wrote van Reisen, a member of the coordinating committee of Social Watch, in a statement

Van Reisen’s statement reads as follows:

EU must help Eritrean refugees, not the dictator

Should the European Union help a merciless dictator or help its refugees? I think the answer is obvious.

We are talking about Eritrea here, the open air prison in the East of Africa. This small country of  about 6 million inhabitants at the shore of the Red Sea is ruled by the autocrat Isaias Afewerki since its independence in 1991. At the Africa-conference of the Evert Vermeer Stichting (EVS)in The Hague Saturday October 29th, I urged EU-commissioner Andris Piebalgs (Development ) to reconsider his policy about spending the remaining tens of millions euros of his budget for Eritrea.

Piebalgs has put democracy in a central place in the policy communication Agenda for Change he presented October 13th on increasing the impact of EU Development policy. The document states on its first pages prominently that:

-- “EU general budget support should be linked to the governance situation and political dialogue with the partner country”.


-- “Should a country loosen its commitment to human rights and democracy, the EU should strengthen its cooperation with the non-state actors and local authorities and use forms of aid that provide the poor with the support they need.’’

Now, Eritrea clearly has no democracy. It doesn’t even have a parliament that meets. The constitution has never entered into force. The government has made a habit out of arbitrary detentions, persecution of people with unwanted religions and suppressing the free press.

Eritrea can be considered the ‘North Korea of Africa’. President Isaias Afewerki is the head of state and head of the only political party, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). He doesn’t allow criticism. Ten ministers that asked for some democracy in September 2001, were never seen again.

Of its political prisoners, Dawit Isaac is a very prominent one. This Swedish-Eritrean author and journalist is locked up since September 2001 in a crackdown on the private press, that saw all 8 independent newspapers close down. Although never charged, he is apparently in the maximum-security prison in Embatkala, along with 112 other political prisoners, reportedly on the orders of President Issayas Afewerki. The prison is said to have one of the harshest regimes in the country. Rumour has it that he would be set free if the EU spends it subsidy on Eritrea, but that hasn’t been the case yet.

Most boys and girls are sent from school to the army. Officially they are to be enlisted for one year, but in practise they have to stay until their fifties or sixties. Women have to serve the army as well, some are used as sex slaves for the leaders.

Consequence of this huge army is that there are hardly any Eritrean men and women left for a functioning civil society or for starting a business. The Eritrean society has a shortage of workforce already, because of the long war with Ethiopia.

This small workforce explains also the current lack of farmers and food. Because to make the situation worse, experts say the country must have a famine because of the drought, like its neighbouring countries. But its ruler denies any problems. And as he doesn’t allow collecting data or aid organisations, we can only guess how many people die of famine.

Leaving the country is very dangerous. Minefields and a shoot-to-kill policy make Eritrea in fact an open air prison. Despite the risks Eritrea is in the worlds top-3 with the highest numbers of refugees per capita.

In the mean time the United Nations Security Council in December 2009 has imposed sanctions on Eritrea, because findings are that Eritrea had provided support to armed groups undermining peace and reconciliation in Somalia. Above all, it had not withdrawn its forces following clashes with Djibouti in June 2008. The Security Council introduced an arms embargo on Eritrea, in addition to travel restrictions on and a freeze on the assets of its political and military leaders.

The European Parliament in a resolution in September 2011 called for Eritrea to be suspended from the Cotonou Agreement, a comprehensive partnership agreement between developing countries and the European Union that includes economic aid. The EU was demanded to ensure that EU development assistance does not benefit the Government of Eritrea but is targeted strictly at the needs of the Eritrean people.

Despite this clear democracy deficit, the European Union had reserved 122 million euro (172 million dollar) in a multi-annual program for Eritrea. Of this sum of money tens of millions still seem available. So what has been implemented of this program in Eritrea? And how?

The question is: has this spending been illegal? Because if millions of EU-money has been spent on supporting a dictator, certainly some rules could be breached.

The crucial thing is: what to do with this money that is not spent on Eritrea yet? I think it should be spend in the people benefit, not the dictator.

The European Commission has an especially important role here, because it is not just another donor, although it implements 20 % of the collective EU aid effort. The Commission also acts as a coordinator, convener and policy maker of the aid by the 27 Member States of the European Union.

If the European Commission doesn’t spend this sum of money, it normally keeps the money in the pocket, as a saving. But I advise the EU strongly to reconsider this. The money must be used for a better goal, also in Europe’s own interest. Many Eritrean refugees seek their way across the Mediterranean or other routes into Europe, to live as illegal immigrants.

Therefore, I urge the EU to use its remaining Eritrea-budget for:

a) Housing of refugees in Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Egypt or Yemen. Now, the UNHCR cannot cope with the large numbers of refugees from Eritrea. Because of the bad conditions, many of the refugees travel further, giving their fate in the hands of people smugglers. Some die crossing the desert or the Mediterranean, some are kidnapped or extorted. Reports are that some people fall victim to organ harvesting, in which sources alledge the Eritrean government plays a role.

b) Education to the young refugees from Eritrea. The European Commission could also finance scholarships for bright Eritrean youngsters to attend African universities. In the camps children now grow up only to become another lost generation. But if they are educated and trained well, they might one day return to their home country and built an infrastructure for a democratic and functioning society.. Because for sure, president Isaias Afewerki one day will die, which is a chance for change.

It seems hard to image alternatives, like working with non-state actors inside Eritrea to help the poor people. Aid organisations have left the country one by one. There is almost no civil society or company outside the army. The ruler has ordered that only one civil organisation for men, one for women and one for youngsters is just about enough for the country.

Spending the money on the Eritrean government looks out of the question to me. For some reason Eritrea has managed to remain out of the focus of world attention, but the world will one day wake up and be outraged about the massive human rights violations in Eritrea. It is clear this situation cannot last.

To conclude, I propose that the European Commissions communication Agenda for Change, also means an agenda for change for Eritrea. That would really help the people leaving Eritrea, and even more the people living in Eritrea.

Source: EEPA