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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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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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