There must be no compromise with Eritrea's tyrannical Afewerki regime
Proposals for financial aid to Eritrea to help stem the refugee tide must be rejected and robust action against the regime continued
On the streets of Asmara the dream of freedom that accompanied Eritrean independence in 1993 was swiftly shattered. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Human rights violations, relentless cruelty, tyranny and oppression are, tragically, everyday experiences for Eritreans.
It is horrifying. It is also so far away from what so many Eritreans heroically fought for, and what campaigners outside that country were supporting, in the struggle for liberation.
Twenty-seven years ago, in March 1988, I travelled to Eritrea with a War on Want team to look at water projects and to assess other ways of developing partnership and support with Eritreans. I have been there twice since in delegations from the European parliament.
In 1988, in the midst of conflict, incessant Ethiopian air attacks meant we could only travel at night, and the devastating effects of the then 27-year war between Eritrea and Ethiopia were painfully plain.
At the hospital in Orotta, on the night after the battle of Afebet, we saw men and women fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) army with the most terrible battlefield injuries, and we also witnessed the bravery, skill and inventiveness of the people of Eritrea.
This, and other experiences at that time, made me even more determined to continue to show practical solidarity with the Eritreans who were demonstrating the indomitable spirit, which had, for years, enabled them to fight poverty, famine, and armed Ethiopian aggression.
When I returned to Britain, I wrote a book in which I expressed great admiration for the people, for organisations like the National Union of Eritrean women… and for the EPLF leader, Isaias Afewerki.
When Eritrea finally achieved independence in 1993, we rejoiced at what we, and countless Eritreans, thought was the beginning of a future of freedom.
We were so wrong.
Twenty-two years later, Eritrea is now being described as Africa’s North Korea – and the cruelty that is inflicted on Eritrean people by the Afewerki regime justifies that description. The national assembly hasn’t met since 2002; the 1997 constitution has never been implemented; there is no independent judiciary; extra-judicial executions, torture, arbitrary detentions of journalists, teachers, and members of religious groups are common; Eritreans are not allowed to move, speak, assemble or organise freely; indefinite compulsory military conscription and forced labour prevails.
The recent UN commission report calls such conditions “slavery” and said that “some of the gross and widespread human rights abuses which are being committed in Eritrea, under the authority of the government, often constitute crimes against humanity”.
A member of that UN commission of inquiry said: “We seldom see human rights violations of the scope and scale as we see in Eritrea today.”
The list of atrocities goes on. Women face discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence and are denied access to justice. Few, if any, detainees are brought to trial. “Disappearances” are commonplace.
According to Human Rights Watch, prisoners are held in crowded underground cells or in shipping containers with no space to lie down.
The regime in Eritrea is, in short, a secretive, reclusive, authoritarian tyranny, which is ruthlessly controlled by president Afewerki.
His rule of terror is a complete betrayal of the cause of liberation and self-determination for which so many Eritreans fought and died.
Nothing can obscure the fact that Eritreans are being terrorised and trapped into what amounts to enslavement
That is why such large numbers of Eritreans are prepared to risk everything – including the “shoot to kill” system operated in border areas – to escape their country to seek a better life for themselves and their families.
The scale of that exodus is huge: in 2014, almost as many men, women and children fled from Eritrea (a country of 6 million people, which is not at war), as fled in that year from Syria (a country of 18 million people, torn apart by four years of war).
Clearly, a very large proportion of the people who cross land and sea in the desperate effort to reach Europe are Eritreans.
And they are unquestionably refugees under every definition of that pitiful status.
What is needed is decisive action, and a clear and unequivocal policy on maintaining and fully enforcing UN sanctions against the Eritrean regime.
The UN commission urges us to offer protection to Eritrean asylum seekers.
Knowing that, in Britain and the EU we must surely uphold the principle of providing refuge to people who have a genuine and justified fear of persecution, and are fleeing from what manifestly constitutes crimes against humanity.
There can be no good reason to say that giving refuge will simply encourage more to take awful risks. Living in Eritrea is an awful risk, thinking about leaving is an awful risk, doing it is an awful risk.
It isn’t the prospect of refuge that makes people flee, it is the dread of staying that makes them abandon their homeland.
Eritrea is isolated politically, regionally and internationally and UN sanctions are firmly in place.
We are hearing now, however, some suggestions that substantial financial aid should be given to Eritrea as part of efforts being made to stem the exodus of refugees.
Such a course, if it was ever taken, would be disasterous, not least because – on the basis of all the evidence about the regime – any EU aid offered to Eritrea would be seen as an endorsement of the government and used to entrench a repressive regime, not to help those in need. It would almost certainly breach the EU’s commitment that states “human rights is at the forefront of EU development co-operation”.
Nothing can obscure the fact that Eritreans are being terrorised and trapped into what amounts to enslavement by a regime that imposes tyranny, cruelty and oppression.
Nothing should diminish the reality that Eritrean victims of that persecution deserve our solidarity, and need to be supported by all of us who believe that conciliation and concession to regimes such as exists in Eritrea will surely fail.
No such softening should ever be contemplated. Our own freedom compels us to fulfil our duty to those who are not free, and never will be until the vileness that imprisons Eritrea is ended.
- This is an edited version of a speech given by Baroness Kinnock at a recent meeting held at the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation