Yemeane Ghebreab speaks on Eritrea Limiting National Service to 18 months
Yemane Ghebreab, Presidential Adviser and Head of Political Affairs for the ruling PFDJ, gave an extensive presentation at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue on the topic of Eritrea’s political situation and its policy in the Horn of Africa.
The following is a transcript of what he said on National Service:
YEMANE GHEBREAB: Thank you.
The National Service is a very important national policy and project. As I said, Eritrea is a small nation. It lives in a very difficult neighborhood. We have to defend ourselves. We don't want to set up a big army to defend ourselves. We can not afford it in any case. And we would like to spend the money for other purposes - for purposes of national development.
And so the policy we have undertaken is to say that we're going to have a small standing army and this will be supported by National Service recruits as well as self defense units. These self defense units are people who do their ordinary jobs but can be called as reservists if their is any emergency. This is our policy.
As I said it goes back to our liberation struggle. That's how we were able to outfight much bigger enemies.
When it started in 1994, it was explicitly stated that it was going to be for 18 months. And until 1998 - when the Ethiopians invaded our country - that's how it was implemented. But then the war started we have to defend ourselves. We are smaller nation than Ethiopia, with the support, again, of big powers. So we had to maintain larger numbers of people, under arms, for longer periods.
We have been reforming and bringing change to that National Service program. But now, after reviewing our situation and the situation in our region as a whole, we have decided to go back to 18 months. The implementation of that policy will start on the current bunch of National Service recruits finish their National Service in 14 months time.
But we face lots of challenges. For us, people will be released in 14 months time. We expect something like 10,000 people will be released in that time. And the challenge for us is to be able to find jobs, skills, training, and business opportunities for them when they are released. This a challenge for us, we are working on it as I said and we are asking for cooperation from European Union countries.
A lot has been said about National service. A lot of campaign has been done. Some people have called it slavery; others have said its forced labor. A lot things have been said. But we have been discussing these issues with European countries. We've been discussing it with Switzerland, with the Netherlands, with Norway, with the UK, with Denmark - countries which host fairly large Eritrean communities. And they've been able to come and visit and talk to the people who have returned to the country. And they have been able to ascertain the facts. And the true picture is now finally beginning to emerge.
For Eritrea the policy is all the Eritreans that have left the country - even illegally - even those deserted from National Service - from their own units in their military. For us, we welcome them back. They will not be punished. They can come back to the country anytime. They don't have to come permanently to the country, they can come and visit. In fact, thousands
GEORG LENNKH (Moderator): Which they do.
YEMANE: Yeah, which they do.
Thousands of them come every summer to visit the country.
After realizing this, Denmark issued a report first. And now the United Kingdom has also done the same thing. This was issued just recently at the end of last month. And its very clear, there are new guidelines from the UK government now.
And they say, "National Service no longer constitutes persecution or degradation or inhuman treatment. Hence people who flee to seek protection will not be granted refugee status in the UK. National Service does not constitute forced labor. National Service is not indefinite. It is between 18 months and 4 years."
And there are many other points there.
Audio of Yemane's entire presentation is found here
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