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Uncomfortable Aid:: INGOs in Eritrea

  • Tangaza University College
Uncomfortable Aid: INGOs in Eritrea
Makeda Saba
Chapter in: Mobile Africa:
Human Trafficking and the Digital Divide
From the book Series:
Connected and Mobile: Migration and Human Trafficking in
Cite as: Saba, M. (2019). Uncomfortable aid: INGOs in Eritrea. In:
Van Reisen, M., Mawere, M., Stokmans, M., & Gebre-Egziabher, K.
A. (eds), Mobile Africa: Human Trafficking and the Digital Divide.
Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa Research & Publishing CIG, pp. 631
672. Chapter URL: … Book URL: …
Table of Contents
Preface by Chief Fortune Charumbira ii
Acknowledgement ix
A Word on the Review Process x
Acronyms xi
Preamble xiii
Part I. Theoretical Perspectives 1
Chapter 1: Black Holes in the Global Digital Landscape: The Fuelling
of Human Trafficking on the African Continent.............................................3
By Mirjam Van Reisen, Munyaradzi Mawere, Mia Stokmans, Primrose Nakazibwe,
Gertjan Van Stam & Antony Otieno Ong’ayo
Chapter 2: Network Gatekeepers in Human Trafficking: Profiting
from the Misery of Eritreans in the Digital Era.............................................33
By Mirjam Van Reisen, Klara Smits, Mia Stokmans & Munyaradzi Mawere
Chapter 3: Bound Together in the Digital Era: Poverty, Migration
and Human Trafficking......................................................................................63
By Munyaradzi Mawere
Chapter 4: Tortured on Camera: The Use of ICTs in
Trafficking for Ransom......................................................................................91
By Amber Van Esseveld
Part II. Traumatising Trajectories 113
Chapter 5: ‘Sons of Isaias’: Slavery and Indefinite
National Service in Eritrea...............................................................................115
By Mirjam Van Reisen, Makeda Saba & Klara Smits
Chapter 6: Journeys of Youth in Digital Africa:
Pulled by Connectivity......................................................................................159
By Rick Schoenmaeckers
Chapter 7: Not a People’s Peace: Eritrean Refugees Fleeing
from the Horn of African to Kenya..............................................................187
By Sophie Kamala Kuria & Merhawi Tesfatsion Araya
Chapter 8: Israel’s ‘Voluntary’ Return Policy to Expel Refugees:
The Illusion of Choice.....................................................................................209
By Yael Agur Orgal, Gilad Liberman & Sigal Kook Avivi
Chapter 9: The Plight of Refugees in Agadez in Niger:
From Crossroad to Dead End.........................................................................239
By Morgane Wirtz
Chapter 10: Lawless Libya: Unprotected Refugees
Kept Powerless and Silent................................................................................261
By Mirjam Van Reisen, Klara Smits & Morgane Wirtz
Chapter 11: The Voices of African Migrants in Europe:
Isaka’s Resilience...............................................................................................295
By Robert M. Press
Chapter 12: Desperate Journeys:
The Need for Trauma Support for Refugees.................................................323
By Selam Kidane & Mia Stokmans
Chapter 13: Identifying Survivors of Torture:
“I Never Told What Happened to Me in the Sinai”......................................353
By Sigal Rozen
Part III. Psychological Impact of Ongoing Trauma 393
Chapter 14: Refugee Parenting in Ethiopia and the Netherlands:
Being an Eritrean Parent Outside the Country..............................................395
By Bénédicte Mouton, Rick Schoenmaeckers & Mirjam Van Reisen
Chapter 15: Journeys of Trust and Hope: Unaccompanied Minors
from Eritrea in Ethiopia and the Netherlands.............................................425
By Rick Schoenmaeckers, Taha Al-Qasim & Carlotta Zanzottera
Chapter 16: Refugees’ Right to Family Unity in Belgium and the
Netherlands: ‘Life is Nothing without Family’............................................449
By Mirjam Van Reisen, Eva Berends, Lucie Delecolle, Jakob Hagenberg,
Marco Paron Trivellato & Naomi Stocker
Part IV. Problem Framing 495
Chapter 17: The Representation of Human Trafficking in Documentaries:
Vulnerable Victims and Shadowy Villains....................................................497
By Nataliia Vdovychenko
Chapter 18: Language Dominance in the Framing of Problems
and Solutions: The Language of Mobility.....................................................527
By Munyaradzi Mawere, Mirjam Van Reisen & Gertjan Van Stam
Part V. Extra-territorialisation of Migration and International
Responsibilities 557
Chapter 19: The Shaping of the EU’s Migration Policy:
The Tragedy of Lampedusa as a Turning Point.............................................559
By Klara Smits & Ioanna Karagianni
Chapter 20: Sudan and the EU: Uneasy Bedfellows...................................593
By Maddy Crowther & Martin Plaut
Chapter 21: Uncomfortable Aid: INGOs in Eritrea...................................631
By Makeda Saba
Chapter 22: Complicity in Torture: The Accountability of the EU
for Human Rights Abuses against Refugees and Migrants in Libya...........673
By Wegi Sereke & Daniel Mekonnen
Chapter 23: Playing Cat and Mouse: How Europe Evades
Responsibility for its Role in Human Rights Abuses
against Migrants and Refugees........................................................................697
By Annick Pijnenburg & Conny Rijken
About the Authors 727
Chapter 21
Uncomfortable Aid: INGOs in Eritrea
Makeda Saba
Any international organisation working in Eritrea must safeguard
against operating as an extension of the government, which has been
accused of ongoing crimes
against humanity (UN
Human Rights Council,
2016) and appears to have no
intention of revising its
policies to address human
rights issues (UN Human
Right Council, 2018;
Keetharuth, 2018; UN
Human Rights Council,
2019). The Government of
Eritrea’s attitude towards
independent civil society
organisations including
national and international
organisations (NGOs and
INGOs), national religious
organisations, community-
based organisations, and
international bilateral and
international donors is
marked by suspicion and antagonism. This was clearly expressed by
Dr Nerayo Teklemichael, head of the Eritrean Relief and
Rehabilitation Agency, the government agency set up to supervise the
INGOs in Eritrea operate in a highly
restricted space under the direct
supervision and control of the government.
Three NGOs still work in Eritrea in the
development sector, including in
education. As the legal basis for their
work is uncertain, they depend on the
personal favour of key persons in power.
As the government has integrated
education with the Warsay Yikaalo
National Development Programme and
indefinite National Service, which
involves forced labour, these NGOs are
propping up a system that uses slave
labour and a government that oppresses
its people and has been accused by the
Commission of Inquiry on Human
Rights in Eritrea of ongoing crimes
against humanity.
activities of NGOs: “it is naïve to believe that NGOs always carry out
their activities with integrity. Some have a hidden agenda and engage
in activities which the government and the people do not want”
(Adgoi, 1994). According to the Eritrean government, all civil society
organisations must be mobilised and organised by the government
and aligned with national priorities and strategies (Bertelsmann
Stiftung, 2018).
This centralised approach started during the liberation struggle in the
1970s. At that time, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF),
now in government as the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice
(PFDJ), mobilised the population to support the struggle. The mass
mobilisation strategy was in line with Leninist thinking that
revolutions cannot be expected to happen spontaneously, they must
be planned and have a theoretical framework, and that it is the role
of the elites to plan and implement such revolutions (Lenin, 1987). In
the case of Eritrea, the EPLF, and subsequently the PFDJ, assumed
the role of planning and implementing the revolution, based on the
assumption that the party works in the interest of the people.
Post liberation (1991), the Government of Eritrea has continued with
the control of mass organisations. Therefore:
[Associations] and interest groups acting independently of the PFDJ are
prohibited. The party claims that the Eritrean people are a single mass sharing the
same interest and that it’s the only organisation representing the interest of all social
groups… (Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2018)
Therefore, the only types of civil society organisations that are
acceptable in Eritrea are the mass movement organisations
established by the PFDJ, such as the National Confederation of
Eritrean Workers (NCEW); National Union of Eritrean Women
(NUEW); and National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students
(NUEYS). Operating as extensions of the government, these groups
implement government priorities in their sectors, as opposed to
representing the interests of their constituencies in the process of
policy formulation.
This policy of the government has led to the severe restriction of civil
society organisations and a cycle of expulsion of INGOs, which
started as early as 1992, with the expulsion of SOS Sweden Children’s
Village, and culminated in 2011, when Oxfam GB, Vita, Lutheran
World Federation, and Norwegian Church Aid were asked to close
their programmes. Currently, there are three INGOs working in
Eritrea: Finn Church Aid (FCA), the Norwegian Refugee Council
(NRC) and Vita. These INGOs are working in education, livelihoods
and capacity building. They operate in a context where the
Government of Eritrea keeps strict control over all aspects of life,
severely constraining all political and civil rights, and where serious
human rights abuses are taking place, including ongoing crimes
against humanity (UN Human Rights Council, 2016).
According to Van Reisen and Estefanos (2017), such policies are
guided by the deliberate impoverishment of the people, as a strategy
to curb any potential opposition. This strategy juxtaposes the state
against the people of Eritrea, raising questions about the assumption
that the civil space is organised by the PFDJ for the wellbeing of the
Eritrean people. The question then is, are the three INGOs working
in Eritrea entrenching authoritarian rule? Specifically, how do the
INGOs in Eritrea understand their accountability in the restricted
context of Eritrea? Is it possible to be accountable to both the
Eritrean government and its people? How is the responsibility to ‘do
no harm’ to the people of Eritrea upheld? And, finally, what is the
legitimacy of the INGOs in working with the Government of Eritrea,
if this government is a threat to the wellbeing of the Eritrean people?
The accountability of INGOs is governed by the interaction of moral
and ethical responsibilities and national and international frameworks
for human rights and humanitarian law (ICRC, 2004), as well as codes
of conduct and guidelines such as the Humanitarian Charter
(OHCHR & UNDP, 2004; Sphere Project, 2018; see also OHCHR,
n.d.). As INGOs are guided by their own mission and principles,
which explicitly state accountability towards the people served by
their actions, the dilemma is stark. If the Government of Eritrea is
unable or unwilling to serve the interests of the Eritrean people, what
is the raison d’être for the three INGOs to be present in the country
and can they escape government control to serve the interests of the
Eritrean people? The main research question investigated in this
chapter is, therefore: Are the three INGOs currently working in Eritrea able
to uphold their duty to the people of Eritrea to ‘do no harm’?
Theoretical framework
This chapter analyses the ethical/human rights accountability of
INGOs working in Eritrea through the deontological lens of human
rights duty bearers (Breakey, 2015), who are required to ‘do no harm’
(Anderson, 1999a). The accountability model applied (Breakey 2015),
states that human rights duties arise as a result of:
A duty bearer’s specificity: A duty bearer’s responsibility
covers a specific time and is specific to the particular duty
Relationship tracking: This links the duty bearer’s
responsibility to a given situation or relationship. When a duty
bearer has caused a situation, especially any sort of harm, the
duty bearer is morally responsible for the outcome. When the
duty bearer has an existing relationship with one of the right
holders, it is even more appropriate for the duty bearer to bear
rights-based duties (Breakey, 2015).
The Humanitarian Charter was developed as a result of the efforts of
the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent
(IFRCRC) and various NGOs to improve the quality of their
response during emergencies, as well as their accountability to the
people they serve. It incorporates both human rights and
humanitarian law (i.e., its scope is not limited to conflict). The charter
requires NGOs to act:
… in accordance with the principles of humanitarian action set out in this Charter
and with the specific guidance in the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross
and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in
Disaster Relief. (Sphere Project, 2018, p. 31)
The IFRCRC’s code of conduct, which is part of the Humanitarian
Charter, requires NGOs to work impartially and independently from
governments and not to become, either knowingly or through
negligence, tools and extensions of governments (IFRCRC, 2002).
The key principles of the Charter (Sphere Project, 2018; OCHA,
2012) are:
Humanity: Human suffering must be addressed wherever it
is found.
Neutrality: Those who provide aid must not take sides in
conflicts or engage in hostilities of a political, racial, religious
or ideological nature.
Impartiality: Aid is to be provided on the basis of need
alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases, irrespective of
nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political
Independence: Those who provide aid must be autonomous
from the political, economic, military or other objectives with
regard to areas where assistance is being provided.
Both the FCA and NRC are signatories to the IFRCRC code of
conduct, which is now part of the Humanitarian Charter (Sphere
Project, 2018) In addition, for FCA, the ACT Alliance Code of
Conduct incorporates the spirit of the Charter through the following
Acting in ways that respect, empower and protect the dignity, uniqueness, and
the intrinsic worth and human rights of every woman, man, girl and boy;
Working with communities and individuals on the basis of need and human
rights without any form of discrimination, ensuring that the capacities and
capabilities of communities are considered at all times, and especially targeting
those who are discriminated against and those who are most vulnerable;
Speaking out and acting against those conditions, structures and systems which
increase vulnerability and perpetuate poverty, injustice, humanitarian rights
violations and the destruction of the environment;
Working in ways that respect, strengthen and enable local and national-level
Not using humanitarian or development assistance to further a particular
religious or political partisan standpoint;
Upholding the highest professional, ethical and moral standards of
accountability, recognizing our accountability to those with whom we work, to
those who support us, to each other, and ultimately to God;
Meeting the highest standards of truthfulness and integrity in all of our work;
Endeavouring not to act as instruments of government foreign policy.
(ACT Alliance, 2011)
Although Vita is not a signatory to the Humanitarian Charter, from
its reports and its mission statement it is clear that Vita aspires to the
same principles (Vita, 2017). And, given that, in addition to being a
statement of shared beliefs, the Humanitarian Charter is as statement
of recognition of established legal rights i.e., human rights and
humanitarian law (Sphere Project, 2018) despite the fact that Vita is
not a signatory, the Charter provides a basis for measuring the ethical
and human rights duty of the organisation.
According to Breakey’s (2015) accountability model, the three
INGOs, presently working in Eritrea have an overarching duty based
on ethical and human rights standards to the people of Eritrea, and
specifically to their beneficiaries, to ‘do no harm’. They have a duty
to ensure that their actions do not cause harm, for example, by
strengthening the restrictive environment by entrenching
authoritarian rule, which is preventing the people of Eritrea from
exercising choice and restricting their freedom and opportunities,
where opportunities are understood as contributing to the
development of capabilities (i.e., what a person can do by accessing
the means available to them) (Sen, 2004).
The study was conducted as a desk review of available data and
information (such as documentaries, documents, and codes of
conduct for INGOs), including the author’s direct observations and
experience in governance in Eritrea. For reasons of security, the
author has published this chapter under a pseudonym.
Policy framework for government control
President Isaias Afwerki has been in power since 1991 and has never
been endorsed by elections. The Government of Eritrea has no
democratic institutions. The National Assembly has not met since
2002 and, hence, there is no parliamentary oversight. In addition, the
President is not subject to any inner party (i.e., PFDJ) review or
elections the last PFDJ congress was in 1994 (Bertelsmann Stiftung,
2018). National budgets are not published and there is no rule of law
or independent judiciary. Political parties are banned and the 1997
Constitution remains unimplemented. Government institutions
report directly to the President and a group of trusted PFDJ senior
officials appointed by the President, who report directly to him
(Human Rights Concern Eritrea, 2018).
It was hoped that the peace process with Ethiopia would mean a
change in the current situation, especially government control over
the countries’ labour force. However, since the Government of
Eritrea signed the peace agreement in June 2018, there has been no
indication that it intends to reform its development model and
associated policies, or restart the democratisation process and re-
open political, social, and economic space. Despite this fact, the
Eritrea-Ethiopia border posts of Om Hajer (The Citizen, 2019),
Zalembessa and Burre have been opened (, 2018).
Restrictions on international cooperation
Soon after independence from Ethiopia in 1991 the then Provisional
Government of Eritrea started restricting political and civil society
space through the following actions: the banning of political parties;
closure of existing civil society organisations; introduction of
Proclamation No. 60 of 1994 (Schröeder, 2004); introduction of a
Proclamation for the Administration of NGOs; and constraints on
religious bodies through Proclamation No. 73 of 1995, A
Proclamation to Legally Standardise and Articulate Religious
Institutions (Schröeder, 2004; UN Human Rights Council, 2015,
Annex 3), which requires religious groups to register with the
government and limits them to pastoral work. (Human Rights
Concern Eritrea, 2018).
The NGO Proclamation No. 60 of 1994 governs the administration
of NGOs and was a precursor to Proclamation No. 145 of 2005, A
Proclamation to Determine the Administration of Non-
Governmental Organisations (UN Human Rights Council, 2015,
Annex 3). Prior to the enactment of the 1994 Proclamation, the
Eritrean government had already started to impose restrictions on
civil society organisations that were not mass movement
organisations (i.e., the NCEW, NUEW or NUEYS).
In 1994, following the enactment of Proclamation No 60/1994, Dr
Nerayo Teklemichael, who was at the time the head of the
government’s Eritrea Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (which later
became Eritrean Relief and Rehabilitation Commission), introduced
the 1994 NGO Proclamation. He explained that the purpose of the
proclamation was to restrict the activities of NGOs and ensure the
government’s control of the sector. According to Dr Nerayo:
…. [the proclamation] is mainly designed to make NGOs, be they international or
local, realise that ERRA [Eritrea Relief and Rehabilitation Agency] is there to
supervise their work. [Supervising the work] of NGOs is important because
NGO activities anywhere, without outside control might create a situation where the
inhabitants of a certain village or province secure relief aid while those in other
localities get none. … [I]n some countries NGOs perform tasks which under normal
circumstances, should be undertaken by national governments like the
implementation of health, educational, agricultural and other projects. (Adgoi,
By 1997, despite the fact that Eritrea was a newly-formed state with
many humanitarian and post-conflict needs, local NGOs were closed,
and INGOs either left the country or were expelled. All NGO
property was confiscated. National organisations closed included
national religious organisations and churches, such as Kalehiwet
Church of Eritrea (Human Rights Concern Eritrea, 2018).
The government’s view that civil society has no role to play in the
development of the country, except as an extension of the
government, was confirmed during a joint evaluation of Swedish,
Norwegian and Danish projects:
Regarding NGOs (both foreign and local) the GoE [Government of Eritrea] does
not see a major role for NGOs in Eritrea’s development efforts in its aid policy.
Increasing bilateral donor support through NGOs and their subsequent increase in
numbers has played an important role in restricting NGOs activities in 2005 by the
GoE. (Michael, Ooichen, Slob & Jerve, 2008)
As a result of government policies, both local NGOs and INGOs
experience difficulties in terms of their operations in Eritrea.
Humanitarian assistance
Following the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war (19982000), more than
one million Eritreans (i.e., approximately one-third of the population)
were internally displaced (State of Eritrea, 2004). Humanitarian
assistance was needed, and the government welcomed international
and independent NGOs.
National and international NGOs, the UN and other agencies
contributed to a swift emergency response, not only during the post-
border war emergency, but also during the drought that followed in
2002 and 2005. All of this received very little recognition from the
government, which portrayed itself in the local media as the only actor
responsible for the response.
The hope was that this pragmatic opening of space for civil society
actors would herald a new approach not only towards civil society,
but also in the area of human, civil and political rights. It was hoped
that the 1997 Constitution would be implemented, political parties
established, electoral laws enacted, and, finally, at the end of 2001,
that there would be a general election, which never happened.
2001 crackdown and international response
In 2000 and 2001, there was public demand for accountability and
more open public participation and consultation on how the country
should be managed (Human Rights Concern Eritrea, 2018). In 2001,
these demands were championed by Cabinet members (now referred
to as the G15) as well as students. However, these ‘dissenters’ were
arrested by the government. More than 5,000 university students were
arrested and taken to Wi’a and Gelalo, two notorious military prisons,
where they were tortured and made to do forced labour, leading to
the death of many (Van Reisen & Estefanos, 2017).
The draconian action taken by the Eritrean government in response
to dissent by the students and members of the G15 resulted in a
formal protest by the European Union (EU). Subsequently, in 2001,
the Italian Ambassador, Mr Antonio Bandini, who was the EU Senior
Ambassador to Eritrea, was expelled from Eritrea. EU countries
responded by withdrawing their ambassadors and expelling the
Eritrean Ambassador to Italy. According to the EU, relations with
Eritrea had been seriously undermined by the Eritrean government’s
actions and normalisation of EU-Eritrea relations would require
Eritrea to improve its human rights situation (Plaut, 2016, p. 87). For
some donors: “The deterioration of the political, social and economic
environment of Eritrea, which started in 2001, had set the stage for
scaling down or outright discontinuation of overall bilateral aid to
Eritrea” (Michael et al., 2008).
The 2001 government crackdown against political dissidents, the
closure of the independent press and the expulsion of the Italian
Ambassador to Eritrea provoked a tense relationship between the
Eritrean government and the international diplomatic community
(i.e., donors) (Michael et al., 2008). Unfortunately, although there has
been no improvement of the human rights situation in Eritrea, since
2001, many EU countries have normalised diplomatic relations with
the country (Plaut, 2016).
From 2002, the Government of Eritrea has pursued a policy of
shrinking civil space through the expulsion, de-registration and
restriction of the movement of NGOs. The latter is achieved through
intense National Service roundups; the enforcement of the
requirement for travel permits not only for nationals, but also for
internationals; checkpoints; and the denial of fuel, even if fuel is
allocated through fuel coupons (author’s observation and
In the US State Department’s Country Report on Human Right Practices
Eritrea, the Department states that: “In May the government cut off
fuel supplies to international NGOs. Similar restrictions were placed
on UN agencies in April. These restrictions have prevented NGOs
from visiting project sites, implementing new projects or carrying out
resettlements” (US Department of State, 2008). The movement of
staff of NGOs and INGOs was also restricted, which impeded the
monitoring of projects, and entry and exit visas were denied for key
staff. In addition, offices were raided by the military and key staff
members were harassed and arrested. Finally, in 2011, the remaining
INGOs were asked to close their projects by end of 2011, forcing a
closure of operations. Lutheran World Federation, Norwegian
Church Aid and Oxfam GB closed their operations and had their
assets confiscated (US Department of State, 2011).
In addition, in 2002/2003, Danish Church Aid/Demining Group and
Halo Trust were expelled, and, by 2005, the World Food
Programme’s operations were closed following a programming
dispute regarding the shift from food aid to cash for work, and the
government confiscated the World Food Programme’s warehouses
and food supplies from the European Commission and Mercy Corps
(Plaut, 2006). These actions were followed by the confiscation of the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
warehouses and 44 UN vehicles that had been assigned to various
projects with the government, as well as NGOs (36 of the vehicles
had been assigned to the United Nations Development Programme
[UNDP]-funded Mine Action Capacity Building project, as observed
by the author).
In 2002, the UN Secretary General and UNDP Eritrea attempted to
stop or delay the expulsion of mine clearers from Eritrea, but their
requests were ignored (Africa Intelligence, 2002). A delegation
headed by the UNDP Resident Representative and Humanitarian
Coordinator in Eritrea and the Head of the UN Mine Action Service
met with President Afwerki in his Asmara office. They asked the
President to give the mine clearance experts more time to hand over
their activities to Eritrean counterparts, but the President refused.
Following the expulsion of Danish Church Aid/Demining Group,
the Danish government closed its embassy and terminated its bilateral
relationship with Eritrea, which had been in place since 1993 (Michael
et al., 2008).
At the time, of the closure of the World Food Programme’s
operations in Eritrea, according to WikiLeaks, the total amount of
food aid confiscated by the Eritrean government was 90,000 tonnes.
Some of it was supplied to the army, but the bulk expired in a
The GSE [Government of the State of Eritrea] extended its control over the economy
by recently confiscating grain from many private wholesalers and traders, although
grain was seized, much of it disappeared into the black market. The GSE has also
forced farmers to sell their harvest to government traders at deeply discounted prices.
Again, government policy forced much food supply into the black market.
(WikiLeaks, 2008)
An attempt to distribute expired corn-soya blend in 2006 was
protested against by health personnel. Regardless of their protest,
expired material was distributed under duress and many children were
poisoned and had severe diarrhoea (Hagdu, 2009).
By July 2005, the Government of Eritrea requested the United States
Agency for International Development (USAID) to terminate its
development programme in Eritrea. USAID said that this was:
…at a time when it was estimated that due to the ongoing drought and the impact
of the recent border war, there were a 2 million Eritreans (population estimate 3.5
million) at risk of food insecurity and requiring an 352,900 metric tons of food aid.
(USAID, 2005a)
No reason was given for the request. At the time, US Ambassador,
Scott De Lisi, stated that: “The government has told us they are
uncomfortable with the activities of USAID” (BBC, 2005).
Continued closing of space for INGOs
Following the enactment of Proclamation No. 145/2005 on the
administration of NGOs (UN Human Right Council, 2015)
restrictions escalated. Independent, national NGOs that had been
established since 2000 were deregistered. Although some, such as
Haben, appealed their deregistration, their appeals were not
successful. At this time, some of the INGOs that objected to the
operational restrictions imposed by Proclamation No. 145/2005 left
Eritrea. Others applied for registration, but were rejected. A total of
two-thirds of the NGOs working in Eritrea ceased operations; of the
37 NGOs present in the country at that time, only 13 remained (Hoa-, 2007). By 2006, a further 9 INGOs (6 Italian and
3 from other countries) were denied registration and expelled. Their
equipment and supplies were confiscated (Hagdu, 2009; Sudan
Tribune, 2006).
The remaining four INGOs Lutheran World Federation,
Norwegian Church Aid, Oxfam GB, and Vita (Hoa-
Some were not able to renew their NGO registration, others were asked to leave
and others still were asked to complete their projects by a specific time, irrespective
of the status of the project (US Department of State, 2008). During the year the
government demanded that departing NGOs hand over paperwork and documents
to government officials. After the forced closure of several NGOs in 2005 and
2006, the government required that all NGO property be turned over to it,
including such items as computers, printers and vehicles.
644, 2007) adapted, hoping that they could continue
to work in the country (author’s observation and experience).
Irrespective of the provisions of Proclamation No. 145/2005
restricting the work of NGOs to humanitarian work, with the tacit
consent of the government, the remaining INGOs started carrying
out development work on water and sanitation, nutrition, food
security and livelihoods. The projects implemented retained elements
of humanitarian response, but were increasingly focused on
Despite these efforts, in 2011, the Eritrean Ministry of Labour and
Human Welfare, requested that the four INGOs complete all projects
by 31 December 2011. This directive was irrespective of the fact that
Lutheran World Federation, Norwegian Church Aid, Oxfam GB, and
Vita were implementing multi-year projects and that there were also
a number of multi-year projects in the pipeline awaiting final approval
(US State Department, 2011; author’s observation and experience).
The government’s decision to close INGO projects by 31 December
2011 was made without consulting the relevant line ministries or the
NGOs it was a clear ‘get out notice’. Consequently, during 2011,
Lutheran World Federation, Norwegian Church Aid and Oxfam GB
closed their operations in Eritrea. However, Vita remained and
struggled with the uncertainty till 2013. At this time, Vita signed a
tripartite agreement with the Irish Agriculture Research Agency,
Teagasc, and the National Agricultural Research Institute, an agency
within the Ministry of Agriculture of Eritrea. At the end of 2011, Vita
was the only INGO operating in Eritrea.
Vita did not close its operations. The Vita audit reports of 2010 and
2011, contrary to their claims regarding transparency (Vita, 2014), do
not mention the request by the Ministry of Labour and Human
Welfare for INGOs to close all projects by the end of 2011, nor do
they mention the closure of Lutheran World Federation, Norwegian
Church Aid and Oxfam GB (Vita, 2010; 2011). In the 2010 annual
audit report, Vita mentions that in response to regulatory changes in
both Eritrea and Ethiopia they implemented administrative changes
(i.e., the appointment of National Directors). In the report, Vita also
refers to the impact of the Eritrean government’s control on projects:
… [The government’s stringent] control on NGO work has impacted Refugee Trust
Ireland (RTI now Vita) Limited’s ability to deliver change on the ground and in
2011 Vita (RTI) Limited will have to be flexible to changing circumstances and
possible risk… (Vita, 2010)
The process of restricting and closing the space for all independent
national civil society organisations, including for national religious
organisations, continues to this day. The government has closed the
Catholic School, Medhanie Alem Minor Theology School, the
Orthodox School at Enda Mariam, and the primary health care
centres operated by the Catholic Church. It has also attempted to
close Al Diia Muslim School. All of these actions have been
accompanied by threats and acts of intimidation, including arrests and
disappearances, and has led to the death of school leaders (UN
Human Rights Council, 2018; Human Rights Concern Eritrea, 2019).
Ongoing crimes against humanity
There is no freedom of speech in Eritrea, with the government
silencing and imprisoning its opponents. For example, in early
September 2018, former Minister of Finance Berhane Abrehe, in a
recorded message to the Eritrean people, emphasised the fact that the
National Assembly (i.e., parliament) has not met since 2002 (Abrehe,
2018; Tefala, 2018). He reminded President Isaias Afwerki that
although many of the members of the National Assembly are in exile,
have been arrested and are even dead, it is still the legitimate legislative
body of the country and must be called into session. In addition, he
challenged the President to a national televised debate as to the status
of the country, pointing out that for Eritrea to move forward it is
necessary for President Isaias to resign.
The Eritrean government’s response was to arrest the former
Minister on 17 September 2018 and, like so many others before him,
his whereabouts are currently unknown (Keetharuth, 2018). This is a
clear message that in 2018, just like in 2001, there is no freedom of
speech in Eritrea and no capacity or willingness on the part of the
government to engage constructively with dissent or to discontinue
the one-party, one-man rule. The situation of the country is well
summarised by Ms Sheila Keetharuth in the latest UN Human Rights
Council press release:
[During] the past 17 years, the Government of Eritrea has maintained tight
control over the country, stifling any form of public debate and participation. I have
received reports that the former Minister of Finance, who recently wrote two books
on the current state of affairs in the country, including the rule of law, has been
arrested in Asmara during the morning of 17 September 2018. If confirmed, this
arrest on the eve of the anniversary of the 2001 clampdown would add to the
apprehension that improvements in Eritrea’s external relations are not mirrored
inside, especially regarding respect for fundamental rights and freedoms….
[Comprehensive] reforms at the domestic level are required on the path towards a
free, just and democratic society, with citizens enjoying all their human rights…
(Keetharuth, 2018)
Therefore, the conditions that have given rise to human rights
violations in Eritrea and that are linked to the impoverishment of the
population (Van Reisen & Estefanos, 2017), through a process of
reduction of opportunity and of choice, as well as means (i.e.,
capabilities), remain. It is argued, therefore, that FCA, NRC and Vita
which are currently operating in Eritrea under such conditions are
not able to maintain a position of impartiality and independence from
the Government of Eritrea (The Sphere Project, 2018).
INGO engagement in Eritrea
Any INGO working in Eritrea must safeguard against operating as an
extension of the Government, which has been accused of crimes
against humanity (UN Human Right Council, 2018; Keetharuth,
2018; UN Human Rights Council, 2019). However, presently, there
is no evidence that FCA, NRC and Vita can function independently
in Eritrea, due to the legal framework for NGOs in Eritrea and the
practices of the Eritrean government. This section presents the
findings of this study in terms of the ability of the three remaining
INGOs operating in Eritrea to do so independently, for the benefit
of the Eritrean people, without entrenching the authoritarian regime.
Article 7 (1) of Proclamation No. 145/2005 (Government of State of
Eritrea, 2005) restricts the work of NGOs in Eritrea to humanitarian
responses: “The activities of every NGO shall be limited to relief and
rehabilitation work”. However, as already stated, FCA, NRC, and
Vita are working in education and sustainable livelihoods, which are
development areas. Although Article 7 (2) allows NGOs to apply to
the Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare in writing for a change
in programme, there is no evidence that FAC, NRC, and Vita have
actually been provided with any formal authorisation to work in
development-oriented programmes. However, this is overlooked by
the government. There seems to be a state of ambiguity that
everybody is willing to live with.
Article 7 (4) goes on to provide that NGOs wishing to engage in
development need the support of the relevant line ministry. However,
this is subject to approval by the Ministry of Labour and Human
Welfare and, the line ministries are not consulted by the government
(i.e., the President) when decisions, such as the one taken in 2011 that
led to the closure of the Lutheran World Federation, Norwegian
Church Aid and Oxfam GB programmes, are taken.
Post 2004, the government shifted its focus from recovery and
reconstruction and reintegration to development (State of Eritrea,
2004), therefore, also shifting the focus of the work of the remaining
INGOs, but without amending Proclamation 145/2005, thereby
establishing a shadowy system for the sector and ensuring that
ongoing NGO operations are dependent on the good will of the
government and not the rule of law. This system also allows the
government to expel organisations at will, as it has done in 1997,
2002, 2003, 2005, and more recently in 2011. As nothing has changed,
any INGO working in development must do so under the supervision
of the government and their programmes are subject to the
benevolence of the top leadership of the government, which has
historically been whimsical and arbitrary, therefore undermining the
independence of these INGOs (Hagdu, 2009; US Department of
State, 2005; 2011). In addition, by having to partner with the
government to implement development programmes, the INGOs
operating in Eritrea severely compromise their independence and risk
working only to the governments’ objectives (US Department of
State, 2011).
According to Proclamation No. 145/2005, NGOs in Eritrea are
obliged to work with the concerned government entitles (Article 6)
and INGOs must have a component for institutional capacity
building and training (Article 9). In this way, the three NGOs working
in Eritrea are enhancing the capacity of the Government of Eritrea, a
one-man, one-party government charged with ongoing crimes against
humanity (UN Human Rights Council, 2016). There is no evidence
that the three NGOs have considered the possibility that their work
in Eritrea is sustaining the continuation of such human rights abuses.
Nor is there any evidence that they have taken precautions to avoid
harming the Eritrean people.
As well as strengthening the government’s capacity, the three INGOs
operating in Eritrea also strengthen the government economically.
NGOs are required to open foreign currency and nakfa accounts for
their projects and transfer funds from the foreign account to the
nakfa account as the project progresses. Such transfers are made at
the government-controlled rate, which does not reflect the economic
reality of the country. The Foreign Currency Oversight Board, which
is charged with the management of foreign currency accounts, is
comprised of the Ministry of Finance, Bank of Eritrea, Commercial
Bank of Eritrea, and PFDJ Economic Affairs Department. However,
the Board has not met since 2009 (UN Security Council, 2011).
Instead, the management and oversight of foreign currencies in
Eritrea is carried out by the PFDJ Economic Affairs Director, Hagos
Gebrehiwot (also known as Kisha), including funds deposited by
INGOs into foreign currency accounts:
According to several former Eritrean Government officials involved in finance and
intelligence operations, Mr. Gebrehiwot is the overall financial coordinator of all hard
currency operations relating to Eritrea’s procurement activities, including support to
armed groups in the region. (UN Security Council, 2011, p. 99)
The PFDJ’s control of economic space in Eritrea involves a much
higher proportion of hard currency transactions than the formal
sector. Hard currency transactions are almost all entirely managed off
shore through the PFDJ’s network of companies, individuals and
bank accounts. In many cases, affiliation with the PFDJ or Eritrea is
not made known. The impact of this is to render both the Ministry of
Finance and the Central Bank of Eritrea (i.e., the Treasury), two
essential state institutions, irrelevant to the economy of the country
(Human Rights Concern Eritrea, 2018).
It can be concluded from this that the INGOs working in Eritrea are
indirectly funding illicit and illegal activities. In such a situation, FCA,
NRC and Vita cannot guarantee that their presence and their work
avoids complicity with crimes against humanity by increasing the
power of the PFDJ, which is in full and sole control of the policies
perpetuating these crimes.
Requirement to work only with government
FCA claims that it is a rights-based organisation guided by
international humanitarian standards and principles and that it
actively: “defends [the] space that civil society actors need for their
work and supports actors in strengthening their capacities” (FCA,
2017b; see also FCA, n.d.). Vita (n.d.) recognises that Eritrea is a
country where it is not able to engage the government on issues of
governance and human rights. Accordingly, Vita undertakes that it:
… will take cognisance of in-country human rights issues in programme countries
and will take appropriate precautions and mitigating actions where external factors
relating to human rights and governance impose critical risks to programme delivery,
staff safety, impact and sustainability. (Vita, 2016)
NRC, like FCA, is committed to the international humanitarian
standards and principles (NRC, n.d.) and simply states that: The
Norwegian Refugee Council is an independent humanitarian
organisation helping people forced to flee”. However, how this
independence is realised is unclear, because in Eritrea the government
has ordered that any INGO working in the country can only work
with government entities (see Proclamation No145/2005, State of
Eritrea, 2005)
In Eritrea, the government is not just developing key policies that
must be considered, nor is it a simple regulator, it demands that it be
the main partner and intermediary between NGOs and the Eritrean
people (State of Eritrea, 2005; author’s observation and experience).
In addition, the ability of NGOs to conduct wide and independent
assessments to develop their own strategies and priorities is severely
limited by travel restrictions, as well as the fact that it is not possible
to conduct such assessments independently. Finally, as already
mentioned in this chapter, the government is historically suspicious
of autonomous NGOs, considering them tools of foreign domination
and undercover spy operations that need to be brought under its
FCA, NRC and Vita have accepted these restrictions in their bid to
work in Eritrea. Consequently, like the mass movement organisations
(NCEW, NUEW, and NUEYS), they are operating as extensions of
the Government of Eritrea. This undermines any claims they may
have of benefiting the people of Eritrea or ‘doing no harm’.
Complicity with forced labour
According to FCA, the objective of its programme is to improve the
facilities at Mai Nefhi Technical College and Hamemalo Agricultural
College (TesfaNews, 2015; Madote, 2016). Such efforts directly link
the FCA’s programme to Eritrea’s militarised education system,
which is designed to develop human resources for deployment to the
National Service/Warsay Yikaalo National Development
Programme, as recently confirmed by the Minister of Local
Government (Eritrea Profile, 2019). This programme has been
labelled by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in
Eritrea as forced labour tantamount to slavery (UN Human Rights
Council, 2015). This is also confirmed by Eritrean students,
interviewed by the author, who have laboured under this system, who
consistently say that the situation in Eritrea is modern-day slavery
(NTN various interviews with author, face-to-face, Kenya, 24 May
10 June 2018). Hence, through its programme, the FCA can be said
to be maintaining, and perhaps even contributing to, the system of
forced labour and slavery in Eritrea.
Putting local staff in danger
The extensive network of spies and informants of the PFDJ means
that there are people who inform and report on activities of
international organisations and their employees. This way of
controlling NGOs is well a documented practice in Eritrea, as
reported by the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea:
“The Commission collected a body of testimony that indicates the
existence of a complex and multi-layered system to conduct
surveillance of and spying on the Eritrean population, both within
and outside the country” (UN Human Rights Council, 2015, para.
Eritrean citizens, particularly those working for international
organisations, are subjected to comprehensive surveillance that is
based on a distributed intelligence system up to a neighbourhood
level, with informants reporting to the power structure of the regime,
the PFDJ. A former NGO worker told the Commission that NGOs
are under constant surveillance. He said:
[The] Government was spying on what we do. The executive committee usually has
meetings with them. One of the university students, he was part of the national
security, he sometimes came to the association […] I was under their surveillance.
When we had the general assembly, we reported to them, if they had questions, we
answered them professionally. They knew in detail what projects we were doing. I
usually did not mention any political opinion. I even tried to act as if I was
sympathetic of the Government because everywhere there are spies. […] Everywhere
there are spies. In Eritrea you do not really trust anyone next to you. (UN Human
Rights Council, 2015, para. 345)
Foreigners, including diplomats and journalists, are also under a high
level of scrutiny. A former UN staff member recalled:
[At] a sensitive meeting with a certain diplomat, I was told that we should meet on
the terrace as the office security may be compromised. The diplomat informed me that
he had just attended a meeting with the Government where certain things he had said
confidentially and in the privacy of his office to other diplomatic members of his office,
had been repeated to him precisely. (Anon., personal communication with
author, Asmara, 2005)
The government’s prevailing attitude is that NGOs have hidden
agendas, therefore, Eritreans working for NGOs and other
international organisations are working as spies for foreigners.
(Adgoi, 1994). For this reason, the activities of INGOs attract
scrutiny and their Eritrean employees become the target of attention
from the national security apparatus.
Consequently, NGO staff are harassed, threatened and routinely
arrested. Such arrests often happen when they are on leave or
immediately after an NGO had been asked to leave the country or
has left. This process is designed to instil fear in local staff. Exposing
national staff to such risks is contrary to the principle of ‘do no harm’
(Hagdu, 2009; US Department of State, 2008).
Government suspicion extends to national staff working with
embassies and the UN. From 2001 to 2010, the Eritrean Government
arrested 48 employees of the US Embassy. Some have never been
released, others were detained in horrible conditions for years or
months and then released. No charges have been brought against
them. Ali Alamin and Kiflom Gebremichael (both translators), Fitwi
Gezae (webmaster), and Biniam Girmay (facility management
assistant) were all arrested in 2001 and are still held to date without
charges (Awate, 2018).
The arrest of US Embassy staff in 2001, at the height of the then
political crisis, served as a warning to all Eritreans employed by
international organisations, including the UN and other embassies,
that they were on a watch list and targets of the national security
apparatus. There is no evidence that FCA, NRC, and Vita have
considered such issues or that they have conducted any due diligence
assessment to ensure that they are able to protect their local staff from
such risks (Anderson, 1999a; 1999b).
Promoting the government’s agenda
The three INGOs working in Eritrea have unwittingly become
promoters of the Eritrean government’s political agenda. FCA’s
development project is in higher education and it has signed a
memorandum of understanding with the National Commission of
Higher Education, an entity established in 2006 (now known as the
National Higher Education Research Institute) to manage and
coordinate the higher education sector, which reports directly to the
Office of the President.
The highly-political nature of the relationship that the FCA has
entered into with the government is highlighted by the fact that under
present arrangements, it reports to the head of the PFDJ’s Political
Affairs, Yemane Gebreab (observed by the author in Asmara, August
2016) and Dr Haile Mihtsun, head of the Medical Board, which is
responsible for approving Eritrean citizens travel for medical
treatment, and head of the National Higher Education Research
Institute, which is responsible for coordination of the higher
education sector. According to information received, Dr Mihtsun,
despite the availability of funds, halted the Italian-funded programme
that facilitated the hiring of international qualified staff (i.e., including
diaspora Eritreans) by colleges of higher education (GF, personal
communication, Facebook Messenger, 14 June 2018), a clear
indication that their relationship depends on the benevolence of the
government elites and that there is no interest on the part of the
government in developing an open and transparent higher education
sector. Both Yemane Gebreab and Dr Haile Mihtsun are trusted
political fixers for President Isaias Afwerki. In the case of Dr
Mihtsun, he has recently been identified by witnesses as the doctor
responsible for visiting political prisoners (i.e., G15). Therefore, he is
closely connected with the ongoing detention of political dissidents
without trial and the associated human rights violations (Human
Rights Concern Eritrea, 2018).
Hence, it can be concluded that FCA is operating directly under the
instruction and supervision of the Office of the President and the
President’s inner circle, for whom the key nation building project is
the horizontal integration of National Service with the Warsay
Yikaalo National Development Programme and education, a policy
directly responsible for the indefinite National Service and the
institutionalisation of forced labour in Eritrea.
The 2003 education reform replaced Asmara University with
unaccredited colleges in various parts of the country that were not
ready to receive students, as their physical infrastructure and academic
resources were inadequate (Riggan, 2016). The reform integrated
education with National Service and the Warsay Yikaalo
Development Programme all policies that are directly responsible
for the indefinite National Service by Eritrean youth. The formation
of the National Higher Education Research Institute was not part of
the 2003 education reform strategy. Much like the Warsay Yikaalo
National Development Programme, it is an initiative of President
Isaias Afwerki, who has centralised all aspects of the governance of
Eritrea within his office, bypassing all government institutions. In
education, as in other sectors (i.e., finance), the President operates
parallel systems (Van Reisen & Estefanos, 2017; UN Security
Council, 2011).
The NRC is implementing a vocational training programme targeting
students who for various reasons, including the government’s policy
of not re-admitting students who have dropped out, are not in school.
According to the NRC, graduates from the vocational training project
are assisted to establish cooperatives and find employment within the
private sector (NRC, 2017). However, this strategy of the NRC
overlooks the fact that there is no legal framework in Eritrea to
establish cooperatives and that to establish a business Eritreans are
required to have a licence, which is only available to those who have
completed National Service. Therefore, graduates will have the
following options:
join the National Service, which could be indefinite
pay an official or other person to obtain a licence irrespective
of the fact that they have not completed National Service
join the informal economy
The higher education programme presently implemented by the
Eritrean government, which starts from grade 12, is designed to
ensure that there are a large number of youth available for National
Service and the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme,
and to contain and destroy any independent student movement in
Eritrea, as evidenced by the closure of Asmara University (Kibreab,
2014). Therefore, collaboration with the education system promotes
the government’s political agenda. Specifically, it serves to obscure
the terrible state of education in the country, without any way of
improving it and the fact that the whole system is providing labour
for National Service and the Warsay Yikaalo National Development
Programme. It is important to note that, at this stage, despite the
peace process with Ethiopia, there is no plan to delink the education
system from National Service and the Warsay Yikaalo National
Development Programme (Chapter 5, ‘Sons of Isaias’: Slavery and
Indefinite National Service in Eritrea, by Mirjam Van Reisen, Makeda Saba
& Klara Smits).
Legitimising the government
As NGOs, FCA, Vita and NRC are ethically required ‘to do no harm’.
International norms and their own codes of conduct also require that
they work independently of the government and in the interest of the
people. However, they are working within a context that does not
tolerate such independence, legally or in practice (see Proclamation
No.145/2005, State of Eritrea, 2005). Therefore, like the Eritrean
mass movement organisations (NCEW, NUEW, and NUEYS), they
are operating as an extension of the Eritrean Government.
Vita, in particular, has given the government a political platform in
the EU, as explained in this blog post on Shedelli:
It seems that Vita has given Isaias Afewerki the pleasure of acquiring his own
diplomatic Trojan horse. Far from its mission of helping poor farmers improve their
livelihoods, it is actually endangering their lives. By playing the role of lobby group
and enabling one of the top advisers of the criminal regime to appear at a conference
at the EU, it is helping the regime gain diplomatic ground that will allow it to
continue to commit more crimes against its own people. (Yohannes, 2016)
The education system that these three INGOs are supporting has
become a major mechanism for the recruitment of Eritreans into the
National Service and Warsay Yikaalo National Development
Programme (Kibreab, 2014). It is also the education system that in
2017 was the principle source of public protest, as a result of the
government’s efforts to implement restrictions on religious bodies
and bring faith-based schools directly under government control.
Journalist Brummelman reported last year on the protests associated
with the education reform:
However, it is not just Muslims, but also Christians that participate in the protest.
“Muslims and Christians are united. They want the government to stop meddling in
their education. That is why people took to the streets,” according to the spokesperson
in Asmara, who himself is not a Muslim. And, he adds, it is not just about the
restriction of religious freedom. “This regime restricts all possible freedom of its
citizens. That is why so many people flee Eritrea. This has to stop. That is why we
pray for this government to disappear.”
The banned Eritrean opposition, which is operating without any political space and
with great fear for their life, has asked the international community to pay attention
to the repression in Eritrea. “Foreign countries must send observers to find out what
is happening here,” according to an opposition member speaking over the phone from
the Eritrean capital of Asmara to a journalist. (Brummelman, 2017a).
Although this unrest has died down, resistance is likely to continue.
The same source in Asmara states:
Of course, I am afraid. So many people are afraid. We are under great risk.
However, new protests will emerge. Maybe they will be small in the beginning, in
different places. And maybe they will grow into something big. That is why it is so
important for the world to know what is going on here (Brummelman, 2017b).
Vita is one of the International NGOs that was asked to close its
programme by the end of 2011. However, Vita found a way to stay,
building an alliance with Irish research and marketing institutes for
potato farming, and signing a memorandum of understanding with
the National Agricultural Research Institute of Eritrea (Vita, 2012).
Vita has established a strong link with the Irish government (one of
its main donors) and Irish potato farming institutions. Such links are
instrumental in the initiative taken by Member of the European
Parliament, Brian Hayes, to organise an event on the ‘Future
development of Eritrea’, at the time of the Irish Presidency of the
EU, in 2016. The conference provided the Eritrean government with
a valuable platform in the EU Parliament for political messaging
(Yohannes, 2018; Chyrum, 2016). The EU meeting was attended by
high-level political representatives of President Isaias Afwerki,
Yemane Gebremeskel (Minister of Information) and Saleh Osman
(Minister of Foreign Affairs). Prior to the conference and to his visit
to the Vita project in Eritrea, in March 2016, Member of the
European Parliament Hayes stated in a YouTube video that: “[We]
need to ensure that human rights are defended in the circumstances
where there is such corruption in Eritrea ... [there] must be
conditionality ... [in] terms of human rights” (Hayes, 2016b,
transcribed by author).
No such conditionality or defence of human rights in Eritrea was in
evidence at the conference on the ‘Future development of Eritrea’.
At the conference, there was no engagement with Eritrea on human
rights or on its National Service or the Warsay Yikaalo National
Development Programme. The meeting provided the Eritrean
government with an international platform to assert, with no
challenge, that thanks to the policies it is implementing, Eritrea is
progressing, therefore, standing in contradiction to the findings of the
UN Special Inquiry on Eritrea and the UN Commission for Human
Rights (Hayes, 2016a).
In addition, during the 37th session of the Human Rights Council in
March 2018, the Eritrean government hosted a side event with the
participation of representatives from Nevsun Resources Ltd, a
Canadian mining company, and Danakali Ltd, an Australian mining
company. The objective of the event was to dispel the findings of the
UN Commission that the mining sector in Eritrea, in contravention
of international law, is using forced labour (Eritrea Profile, 2018;
TesfaNews, 2018).
Vita’s Chief Executive Officer, John Weakliam, was at the meeting as
part of the government and mining industry-led panel, legitimising
the position of the Government of Eritrea that mining companies
have not used, and do not use, forced labour (TesfaNews, 2018).
However, it is common knowledge that mining companies contract
national construction companies, which are owned by different
sectors of the government (such as the PFDJ and military) and they
all use National Service personnel and, therefore, forced labour.
(Eritrea Focus, 2018; UN Human Rights Council, 2015; 2016; UN
Security Council, 2011; 2017; Human Rights Watch, 2013).
Commenting on the event, the Director of Legal Advocacy at the
Australian Human Rights Law Centre, Keren Adams, was of the view
that, given the Eritrean government’s poor human rights record, the
promotion of its record by the Australian company (Danakali Pty Ltd)
was deeply concerning:
Eritrea’s record has come under consistent criticism at the United Nations… [An]
estimated 5,000 refugees flee the country’s repressive policies every month. In these
circumstances, for an Australian company to participate in a staged public relation
exercised for the Eritrean Government is staggering. (Human Rights Law
Centre, 2019)
If the participation of Danakali Pty Ltd in such event was ‘staggering’,
how much worse is the participation of Vita, which, as an INGO, is
supposed to ‘do no harm’ and maintain a position of: humanity,
neutrality, impartiality and independence? Vita’s actions have
legitimised the Government of Eritrea and helped it to restore its
reputation abroad.
To assist with public relations exercises that present the Eritrean
totalitarian government in the best possible light, Nevsun has hired
Ruby Sandhu, a former partner of Brooks Consultancy LLP;
of RS Collaboration;
and Bronwyn Bruton, Deputy Director of the
Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council (Christophe, 2017; Vincent &
Plaut, 2019). Ms Sandhu was initially hired as Nevsun’s Business and
Human Rights Consultant (Nevsun, 2015) and has since repeatedly
intervened, through social media, to ridicule and diminish the findings
of the UN Commission of Inquiry as to Human Rights in Eritrea.
The most recent effort is a Twitter post of 16 March 2019 in support
of the Eritrean government’s denial of any human right crisis in
Eritrea during the UN Human Right Councils Enhanced Interactive
Dialogue on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea (Sandhu, 2019;
UN Human Right Council, 2019). Similarly, Ms Bronwyn Bruton,
through her articles (Bruton, 2016), interviews (Castiel, 2015; Saba,
2019), workshops and representations to the US government
(Christophe, 2017; House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans,
2016), has also worked to present the Government of Eritrea in a
positive light. In each case, Ms Bruton accepts that there are human
right abuses and then proceeds to defend the status quo. This defence
overlooks the fact that there is no independent economic sector, due
to the policies that the government has implemented as well as its
efforts to control the economic sector through its policy of indefinite
National Service (Human Rights Concern Eritrea, 2018; UN Security
Council, 2011).
Irrespective of these efforts, the issue of the use of forced labour by
Nevsun Resources Limited is presently a matter of dispute in the
Canadian courts (Alsharif, 2016; Anderson, 2019; CBC News, 2016;
Geoffrey, 2018; Kassam, 2017; Plaut, 2018, 2019). The presentation
of a rosy picture of Eritrea overlooks the concerns of the World Bank
and the EU that Nevsun mislead investors, that the government has
a history of taking over profitable businesses and that the potential:
“…environmental impact and the effect of mining on the local
communities will be significant” (Mines and Communities, 2012).
This picture also overlooks the fact that as there is no published
budget for the country, there is no transparency or accountability of
the government, and revenue from the mining sector is not accounted
for (UN Security Council, 2015).
The three remaining INGOs working in Eritrea, FCA, NRC and Vita,
are working in a country run by a totalitarian regime, headed by
President Isaias Afwerki. This regime has been found by the UN
Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea to have
committed crimes against humanity, which are ongoing (Keetharuth,
2018; UN Human Rights Council, 2015, 2016). As a result of this, and
the government’s policy of indefinite National Service, Eritrea has
become the ninth largest producer of refugees (UNHCR, 2017).
FCA, NRC and Vita, through their interventions in agriculture,
vocational training and education, state that they intend to prevent
the exodus of Eritreans. But, in reality such interventions are not
addressing the Government’s human rights record and policy
framework responsible for the impoverishment of Eritreans, as well
as the exodus resulting from indefinite National Service and forced
labour (Van Reisen & Estefanos, 2017; Melicherová, 2019).
The presence of INGOs in Eritrea is currently merely a political
expedient. Although, FCA, NRC and Vita may have good intentions,
given the restrictive context of the country, its history of contempt
for civil, political, and religious freedom, and the finding of crimes
against humanity by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human
Rights in Eritrea (UN Human Rights Council, 2016) it is argued that
their presence in the country is misguided, harmful and contrary to
the principle of ‘do no harm’ and the Humanitarian Charter (Sphere
Project, 2018). It is also contrary to human rights and humanitarian
law, as well as the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red
Crescent Code of Conduct and these INGOs’ own codes of conduct
and guidelines (FCA, 2017a; IFRCRC, 2002; Act Alliance, 2011).
Since the start of the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace process in June 2018,
Eritrea has restored regional diplomatic relationships. Despite the
Eritrean government’s human rights record and the mass exodus of
refugees, border posts have been reopened. However, there has been
no indication that the military will be demobilised, National Service
will be limited to the statutory 18 months, the constitutional
government will be restored, the government’s policy of integrating
of National Service, the Warsay Yikaalo National Development
Programme and education will be rescinded, the ban on opposition
political parties will be lifted, or political and religious prisoners will
be released. Nor has there been any indication that the PFDJ will hold
a National Congress, internal elections, or a review of the state of the
nation, as well as of PFDJ.
The presence of INGOs in Eritrea is politically convenient, as it
creates an image of engagement and openness and promotes the
government’s political goals. However, tight constraints on INGOs
remain and there is no indication of an opening of space for national
The three INGOs operating in Eritrea are overlooking these
restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and association, the
banning of any national civil society that is not directly controlled by
the government, and the repeated expulsion of INGOs. Their
presence legitimises the Government of Eritrea and its restrictions on
civil society.
By providing legitimacy by acting as ‘civil society’ and ‘independent
donors’, while in reality working under direct instructions of the
government, FCA, Vita and NRC are reducing the scope for national
According to Eritrean Ambassador to the UN, Mr Gerhartu, the Eritrean
government is busy creating a proliferation of mass movement like organisation
(Gerhartu, personal communication, Geneva, 2017).
civil society to fight for space in Eritrea and ignoring the call by
Eritrean citizens for international observers to monitor the human
rights situation in the country (Plaut, 2017). FCA, Vita and NRC have
failed to take into consideration the risk to Eritrean citizens as a result
of their presence and the implementation of their projects. In this
totalitarian environment, FCA, Vita and to a lesser extent NRC, in
addition to acting as an extension of the government whose
legitimacy is questionable, are providing it with legitimacy and an
international platform for its political messages. Hence, it is
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regime in Eritrea and enabling it to pursue its policy of forced labour,
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Full-text available
Eritrean refugees crisscross between countries in the Horn of Africa and North Africa in search of a safe place. Along their journeys, they are looted, threatened, intimidated, violated, and held for ransom. This book revisits the human trafficking crisis that first emerged in the Sinai at the end of 2008 and examines the expansion of human trafficking of Eritrean refugees and other forms of exploitation beyond the Sinai. It focuses on the modus operandi of these practices and on identifying their key facilitators and beneficiaries. The book locates the origin of these practices within Eritrea; it reveals how a deliberate policy of impoverishment and human rights abuses has driven the people out of the country, and how individuals within Eritrea, and particularly within the ruling party, benefit from the smuggling and trafficking of Eritrean refugees. The use of information communication technologies (ICTs) is identified as key to the new modus operandi of this criminal business and is found to further facilitate widespread collective trauma amongst Eritreans, who witness the abuse of their family members and fellow nationals through digital networks. An entire section in this book is dedicated to assessing the extent and effects of individual and collective trauma caused by Sinai trafficking and to examining potential approaches to healing. Other sections discuss the vulnerabilities of Eritrean minors and women, and the connections between human trafficking, terrorism and organ trafficking. The last section of the book raises the question of accountability. It examines and evaluates international responses to this forgotten crisis, and discusses the need for policies that tackle the problem where it emerges: in Eritrea.
An explanation of how Eritrea came to be such a totalitarian state, after fighting for its freedom from Ethiopia for thirty years. The History, Economy and Current Affairs of Eritrea.
Can human rights impose positive duties to act, as well as negative duties constraining action? At first glance there seem to be strong reasons for wishing human rights could impose positive duties – such reasons include the promotion of welfare rights and the positive protection of liberty rights (e.g. police protection against assault). However, any attempt to construct rights-based positive duties threatens to dissolve hallmark features of rights. In this article the duty-properties possessed by uncontroversial rights-based negative duties are comprehensively analysed. Drawing on this analysis, a range of key properties is developed, including ‘regime-level right-holder universality’ and ‘many-to-one directedness’, as well as a ‘centres of pressure’ vision of rights, by which it is argued that positive duties can accord with the keystone commitments of rights-based moral theories. In so doing, a conceptual space for rights-based positive duties is defended.
Berhane Abrehe message to Eritrean people and Isaias Afeworki
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Code of good practice for ACT Alliance. ACT Alliance
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