EU aid to repressive Eritrea indefensible

The UN Human Right Council Special rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea will present her latest report this week.

In June, the report from the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea stated that the situation was so grave in the country that they believed crimes against humanity were being committed. No good news is expected this week.

All good forces are needed to help ease the situation for the Eritrean people. Therefore, it is a great disappointment for us to see the attitude from the European Union in connection with its latest aid-programme.

Core values

Human Rights are said to be core values of the EU, but their reply to our questions was most disheartening.

Before Christmas, EU decided to give Eritrea $228 million (200m Euros) in development aid. The amount was considerably more than the earlier programme of $133 million (120 million Euros). And it was done at a time when the consequences of the human rights situation in Eritrea was clearly visible in Europe.

During 2015, refugees from Eritrea were one of the bigger groups reaching Europe.

Mass exodus

The mass exodus of Eritreans was due to the deplorable situation in the country, where the regime holds thousands of political prisoners. Another strong driving force is the unlimited mandatory national service.

Nominally, the service is 18 months. In reality, it lasts for years, even decades, on less than subsistence pay. There are innumerable reports of physical and sexual abuse during the service. The evidence has been shown both by the special United Nations Commission of Inquiry for Eritrea, Amnesty International and others.

At a time when the influx of refugees has caused great political strain in the EU, one would have thought that human rights in Eritrea would be central in discussing more aid to that very country.

Special conditions

It is natural to expect that special conditions for human rights are included in the agreement.

Reporters without Borders wrote to inquire from the European Commission.

The Directorate General of the International Cooperation and Development replied: “The Cotonou Partnership Agreement, which Eritrea is a signatory to, remains the framework agreement for our cooperation and political dialogue [- -]. A political dialogue as stipulated in art.8 of the Cotonou agreement takes place on a regular basis between the EU and Eritrea.”

That was stating the obvious. The Cotonou Agreement is the framework for EU aid. Of course its guidelines should be followed. The reply implied that no special heed was taken and that the discussions with Eritrea followed standard procedure.

Deserve more

The people of Eritrea definitely deserve more than standard procedure.

Furthermore, we note with sadness that the EU failed to protect the freedom of expression in those discussions.

Eritrea is ranked below even North Korea with regard to freedom of expression by both Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

That should be of direct concern to the EU as one of its own citizens risks dying in the hands of the Eritrean regime: Swedish-Eritrean journalist and playwright, Mr Dawit Isaak. He is the only EU-citizen and journalist who has been adopted as a prisoner of conscience by the Amnesty International.

Many journalists

Sadly, he is but one of many journalists detained since the Eritrean regime closed all independent media in 2001. Some of his imprisoned colleagues have died already. The journalists are held without sentence or charge. They are isolated.

Mr Isaak has not seen his wife or children since 2001. Nor is he allowed to see a lawyer or an EU diplomat. The EU should stand up for him, if not for all the political prisoners.

We asked the European Commission if his case was mentioned in the discussions about the multimillion aid to Eritrea. Their reply: “Not specifically but the EU regularly discusses human rights concerns with Eritrea—“

A bit further down in the text, Commission spokesperson points to a statement given more than a year before the development aid decision; “On Dawit Isaak, note that the EU issued a statement on his case and that of the other political prisoners on 18 September 2014”

Most unflattering

Referring to a statement given a year before does not imply making any great efforts. There is a point – most unflattering for the EU – to be made here. Mr Isaak is African-European. We believe that his case would have been treated with much more dedication if he were a white, well-known journalist writing for a major European newspaper.

Eritrea has refused to cooperate with, and denied entry to the UN Special Rapporteur and Commission of Inquiry. Instead, Eritrea was engaged in undermining the work of the Special Rapporteur and the Commission.

Under such circumstances, it appears as if the EU was rewarding the Eritrean government’s actions. The EU seems content with issuing regular, similar statements, paying little attention to whether Asmara was making efforts to heed these statements and calls for respect of human rights.

The regime

As the years pass, Mr Isaak’s family keeps waiting for him in Gothenburg, Sweden. His three children have been forced to grow up without their father.

There should be no time to lose for the EU. To hand out 200 million Euro to the regime responsible for this without even mentioning his name is outrageous, not to say heartless.

And it is even worse as he is not alone.

Mussie Hadgu is an Eritrean journalist in exile and Björn Tunbäck is a member of Reporters without Borders/Sweden