British Politician Calls on Ethiopia to Withdraw its Forces From Sovereign Eritrean Territory
Eric Lubbock (Lord Avebury)
During a House of Lords debate on Eritrea and Ethiopia last Tuesday, Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat politician from the UK, called on the Ethiopian regime, which he describes as a "bullying neighbor", to vacate from sovereign Eritrean territory.
The following is transcript of Avebury's speech:
Lord Avebury (LD): My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lord Chidgey on securing this short debate that links Eritrea and Ethiopia, and on his masterly summary of the human rights violations in Eritrea and the consequent exodus of large numbers of refugees.
The two countries were linked in a forced marriage when the UN organised a bogus test of public opinion in Eritrea and imposed a federal union of the two countries in 1952, followed 10 years later by Emperor Haile Selassie’s annexation of Eritrea. There followed a 30-year war of liberation to restore Eritrea’s independence.
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In the 1970s, I was chairman of the Eritrea Support Group, which campaigned in Parliament and the media for Eritrea’s freedom and tried to persuade Ministers to support the self-determination of the Eritrean people, sanctioned by international law. Ministers would always reply with the mantra, “We believe that a federal solution would be best for the people of Eritrea”. I tried to ask them how they dared to usurp the right of the people themselves to exercise the most fundamental right of all peoples, emphasised by its position as Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In 1981, I visited Eritrea at the end of the Ethiopian sixth offensive. I travelled by Port Sudan through the desert and then along the Freedom Road, which was blasted out of the rock, up into the highlands, where I stayed at the Nacfa Hilton, a cave behind the front line. At dawn we saw the Antonov bombers dropping their loads on the ruins of Nacfa, in which the only building standing was the tower of the mosque. The corpses of Ethiopian conscripts killed in a hopeless attack on the cliffs protecting Nacfa were still lying where they had fallen, testifying to the futility of the Dergs’ colonialism.
In 1993, after the Eritreans gained their freedom, they held a referendum, in which there was a 99.3% turnout, in favour of independence, an event that no one who was there could ever forget. There was a spontaneous outburst of joy, with singing and dancing in the streets, and it seemed as if Eritrea, with its talented and hard-working people, would become a beacon of democracy and prosperity in the Horn of Africa. However, that dream was shattered when Ethiopia launched a fresh war of aggression on the pretence of a dispute over the border between the two countries.
After tens of thousands of lives had been lost on both sides and hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent on sophisticated weapons, it was agreed to refer the demarcation of the boundary to a commission headed by the distinguished British jurist Sir Elihu Lauterpacht, who was a schoolmate of mine 66 years ago. Both countries had agreed to accept the commission’s decision as final, but when the details were published in April 2002, Ethiopia found one excuse after another to dispute the findings. Ostensibly, its main reason was that the commission had awarded the small town of Badme to Eritrea, but as it had no significant value there must have been other reasons. The suspicion is that the long-term objective of Ethiopia is to re-annex its former dependency and, meanwhile, to weaken it by threatened aggression along the border and working to intensify sanctions on false charges of supplying weapons to the al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia.
The Ethiopians unlawfully occupied territory all along the border that should have been demilitarised under the settlement, and Eritrea has been forced to maintain large armed forces as a precaution against further military attacks by its bullying neighbour. That was its justification for the much criticised imposition of indefinite military service, which was mentioned by my noble friend. The Eritrean ambassador told us that from last November conscription was limited to 18 months and that conscripts would not be required, as before, to perform civilian work such as road building, earning no more than $30 a month. Thousands of young people are fleeing the country every month, and Eritreans are the most numerous of those attempting the risky crossing from north Africa to Europe in which so many lose their lives. There is hope now that the flood of Eritrean asylum seekers will abate and that the colony will receive a boost from the extra labour in the private agricultural sector from the release of the indefinitely conscripted young people in the system.
The permanent existence of a state of “no war, no peace” is a major reason for the plethora of human rights violations by Eritrea, which have been mentioned by both my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock. These include the arrest and disappearance of 21 opponents of the Government in 1991, arbitrary arrests and severe restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. These are undoubtedly seen by the regime as necessary protections against their unscrupulous and determined enemy. That is not to defend such practices but to make an observation. Does the Minister not agree that, if the threat of aggression were lifted, violations of human rights would diminish and the flow of refugees would be further reduced? Trade between the two countries and access by Ethiopia to the ports of Assab and Massawa would boost economic activity throughout the region and lower unemployment locally and internationally, thus reducing the incentive to emigrate.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, has no enemies in the region and therefore has no reason for the severe restrictions on freedom of expression that it imposes. Human Rights Watch said last week that 22 journalists, bloggers and publishers were charged with criminal offences in the past year, Six independent publications were intimidated and closed, with dozens of staff forced into exile. Three owners of publications also fled abroad to escape false charges that led to sentences of three years in prison in absentia. Six members of Zone 9, a bloggers’ collective, were charged under the counterterrorism laws and have been in custody for 274 days, sending a chilling message to online activists. Can the Government not make representations to Prime Minister Desalegn to relax the stringent controls on freedom of expression so that Ethiopians can have a genuine election in May?
Above all, I call on the Government, and through them the EU, to launch a new diplomatic effort for peace in the region—for Ethiopians of all political parties to accept the Lauterpacht settlement unequivocally and to withdraw their forces from Eritrean territory.
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