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Is the EU attempting to protect the Eritrean dictatorship?

EU plans to try and stop the flow of refugees from Eritrea are causing officials to downplay a UN report into potential crimes against humanity by the regime.

The European Union appears set on defending one of Africa’s most notorious dictatorships. A UN investigation into whether Eritrea’s regime’s human rights abuses are so severe that they constitute crimes against humanity is due to be released on 8 June but senior EU officials are already attempting to downplay its findings.

“This is deeply disturbing,” says Marie-Christine Vergiat, Left Front French MEP who is a member of the European Parliament’s Human Rights Committee. “We have been warning the Commission for months about the situation in the Horn of Africa and especially in Eritrea – without any results.”

The tiny nation of Eritrea – situated between Ethiopia and the Red Sea – is haemorrhaging people. As many as 5,000 a month cross borders, evading guards with orders to shoot to kill. They flee a regime that traps them in permanent servitude: a system of indefinite conscription that can last for decades.

Eritreans and Sudanese make up the majority of the African refugees, drowning in the Mediterranean and arriving in “the Jungle” in Calais. European officials are determined to halt the exodus by almost any means.

Plans for the EU to co-operate with the Eritrean authorities to halt the refugee flight are described in official documents as: “Assistance to develop or implement human trafficking regulations.” They include sharing intelligence and police reports with the regime.

The UN Commission of Inquiry report into Eritrea’s gross abuses threatens to derail these plans. Collaboration with President Isaias Afwerki’s regime would be difficult, if not impossible, if they were officially designated as a regime that commits “crimes against humanity”. 

The EU’s development principles are founded on respect for human rights. As its basic understanding with Africa and the Caribbean, the Cotonou agreement, put it: “respect for human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law, and good governance is part and parcel of long term development”. It would be hard to flout such a clearly-stated undertaking.

Yet senior EU officials have spent the last week preparing for such an eventuality.   They have been quietly suggesting that since the UN Commissioners were not allowed to visit Eritrea (despite repeated requests) their work was unfortunately “anecdotal” and cannot be relied on.

In making this claim the EU is marching in step with the Eritrean government, which has attacked the UN report before it is published.

The Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement accusing the Commission of Inquiry of showing a “total disregard for the basic principles of fundamental rules of procedure and established norms of fair play” and suggesting that its credibility has been undermined. The statement fails to mention that it was the government’s own actions that kept the Commission out of Eritrea.

Documents leaked from the Eritrean capital provide an insight into the scale of the official campaign against the UN Commission. The government’s plan is to collect 300,000 signatures protesting against the work of the Commission.

News of this development has been revealed by a whistleblower in the Eritrean capital, who goes by the name of “Samuel”.

A seven-page letter in Tigrinya from the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs details the operation. Every Eritrean foreign embassy is required to fulfil an allocated “quota” of signatures against the Commission’s report.

For Eritreans in the diaspora this is not a mere request. Living – as many of them do – in countries like Sudan, they are open to real pressure to comply with this request for support. Refusal would leave the exiles open to accusations of being unpatriotic, resulting in a denial of assistance from any Eritrean embassy – including passports, visas or any other form of official documentation or permission.

Thousands of Eritreans across the diaspora are being officially encouraged to travel to Geneva. “Spontaneous” protests are planned against the Commission’s findings, even before they have been made public.

Human rights campaigners are critical of the shared objectives of the EU and the Eritrean government. “Nobody should undermine the work of the UN Commission of Inquiry.  European civil servants shouldn’t comment on – even less minimise a UN report – especially prior to publication.”

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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