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.

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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.”