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UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines: Factual Findings or Recycled Defamation?

UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines:
Factual Findings or Recycled Defamation?

Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Asmara, 17 December 2015

I.    Background and Overview

In April 2009, the UNHCR issued a 35-page booklet entitled “UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs for Asylum-Seekers from Eritrea”.  UNHCR further published the second Guidelines on 20 April 2011.  This 37-page document was essentially a replica of the first publication in terms of format, language and substantive contents albeit few, insignificant and inconsequential, updates.

UNHCR’s purported purpose in issuing these guidelines was to “assist decision-makers, including UNHCR staff, Governments and private practitioners in assessing the protection needs of Eritrean asylum-seekers”. The organization flaunted these guidelines as “authoritative legal interpretations of the refugee criteria in respect of specific groups on the basis of objectively assessed social, political, economic, security, human rights and humanitarian conditions in the country of origin concerned”. It further asserted that “the guidelines are researched strictly and are written based on factual evidence provided by UNHCR’s global network of field offices and information from independent country specialists, researchers and other sources which is rigorously reviewed for reliability”.

As we will demonstrate in subsequent sections, nothing can be farther from the truth.
First off, UNHCR “Guidelines on Eritrea” do not emanate from a” rigorous and independent fact-finding work” conducted by the agency in Eritrea and elsewhere abroad.  This is borne out by the following salient facts:

  • Both reports epitomize sloppy, cut-and-paste, desk “research”, characterized as they were, by wholesale regurgitation of prevalent, negative literature on Eritrea from biased and politically motivated entities. This is indeed amplified by a cursory scrutiny of the footnotes and references. The two booklets contain 473 references. The bulk of these footnotes are, however, iterative attributions to i) US State Department of State, Country Report on Human Rights; ii) Amnesty International; iii) Human Rights Watch; iv) Reporters Without Borders; and, v)  a couple of notorious Eritrean quisling publications.

  • A largely recycled document from suspect entities can hardly qualify for “factual evidences collected and rigorously validated by the UNHCR” or provided by other “independent country specialists”.

  • UNHCR’s lopsided methodology of information collection and validation is extremely hard to explain.  Along with other UN agencies including the UNDP, UNICEF, and the WHO, UNHCR has a duly accredited and fully functioning UN office in Eritrea headed by a Resident Representative. But there are no indications whatsoever that the “findings” the booklets enumerate largely quoting the usual, Eritrea-bashing sources cited above, have been validated or reviewed by the UNHCR Office in Asmara for purposes of “rigorous factual accuracy and reliability”. If anything, the UNHCR Office in Asmara and UNHCR’s global network of field offices are conspicuous in the booklets for their almost total absence as credible sources of information and/or validation for UNHCR’s “findings and conclusions”.

Secondly, most of the “findings” are replete with presumptuous caveats and qualifications such as “reportedly”, “allegedly”, etc. In view of the gravity of the subject matter and its ramifications for the country in question, UNHCR’s approach accentuates an appalling lack of responsibility and professionalism. This contrasts starkly with, and undermines, UNHCR’s proclaimed standards of “objectivity, accuracy and reliability”.

Thirdly, the UNHCR is guilty of a breach of trust to the host nation.  Common sense, normative decency and agreed ground rules dictate that the UNHCR communicate its findings, however unsavory, to the host nation.  The UNHCR is also duty-bound to request policy clarifications from the host nation instead of second-guessing them and/or seeking third party interpretation; particularly when the latter are not disinterested entities and/or when they harbor hostile political agendas.  In the case of these booklets, however, the whole exercise was shrouded in secrecy in as far as Eritrea is concerned. The UNHCR did not, in fact, communicate its findings formally to the GOE while circulating them to other entities.

The UNHCR tries to justify this wayward approach under the lame excuse that “access to independently verifiable information on the situation in Eritrea is difficult to obtain given the Eritrean Government’s control over virtually every aspect of life in the country, the lack of independent media and the curtailment of NGOs activities”.

In Eritrea as elsewhere, the statutory mandate of NGOs is to carry out humanitarian/development work.  Why the UNHCR conflates the development work of NGOs with anti-government, alternative media is difficult to comprehend.  Furthermore, there are a plethora of UN agencies in Eritrea that produce comprehensive annual/periodic reports on the country.  Eritrea’s development partners (the European Union, Africa Development Fund etc.) also produce periodic reports that focus on their specific projects but that also include the underlying political, economic, security and social realities in the country. More importantly, not visiting the country for any reason, does not give UNHCR any moral ground or responsibility to scavenge on unaccounted, fabricated information on the country’s situation.

In view of these facts, UNHCR’s preference to rely solely and fully on narratives peddled by Eritrea’s known detractors cannot be shrugged off as oversight or poor judgment.  It may indeed belie an underlying agenda that may have been imposed on it by its principal funders.

II.    Response to UNHCR’s major “findings” on Eligibility Guidelines (April 2009)

1.   “Presidential and legislative elections, planned for 1997 and 2001 respectively, have been postponed indefinitely.  The Constitution, which was approved by referendum in 1997, remains unimplemented”.

This account is inaccurate and highlights the author’s detachment from primary sources of information.  Presidential and legislative elections were not planned or contemplated for 1997 and 2001. As a matter of fact, legislative elections for the National Assembly had taken place at the end of 1997 after the adoption of the new Constitution. Furthermore, the new Constitution was adopted not by referendum but by an 862-member Constituent Assembly.  The Constitution drafting process took about two years as it was preceded by civic education and extensive discussions throughout the country as well as in the Diaspora to ensure maximum participation of all segments and stakeholders in the society.

The Constitution was a home grown, indigenous process that emanated from the values and convictions of the PFDJ and the GOE.  It was not imposed externally by Eritrea’s development partners as a quid pro quo for financial assistance or some other lucrative inducement.  Moreover, the Eritrean society is also known for its rich and written body of customary laws, some even going back to the 15th century. Thus, Constitution drafting process was not a late-date, externally-driven alien concept, imposed on the country to address challenges and opportunities of modernism.

The political trajectory contemplated in those days was to enact subsequent laws on the formation of political parties and election rules.  Those were not completed at the time.  The Election Commission was formed in anticipation of these laws. This natural political process of nation building in the broadest sense of the term was interrupted by the border war with Ethiopia that erupted in May 1998. The second war with Ethiopia was large-scale and ferocious that lasted for two years involving three large-scale offensives at intermittent intervals.

The costly war with Ethiopia as well as dire conditions of perennial belligerency that ensued in its aftermath have adversely affected the tempo and pace of the political process of national building. Elections (except local and regional level elections) and related political processes were consequently kept on hold as priorities changed and the country had to grapple, first and foremost, with existential issues of preserving its sovereignty and territorial integrity.  In the event, speculative and presumptuous narratives that gloss over or disregard overriding external environmental contexts that shaped policy cannot be taken seriously.

2.    “The country as a whole has been effectively on a military footing since its independence. With estimated personnel of 200,000-320,000, Eritrea has one of the largest armies in Africa, and the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa.  It spends approximately 6.3% of its GDP on the military, placing it ninth globally in per capita military expenditure (US Central Intelligence Agency).  An estimated 35% of its population is reported to be in active military service… President Afwerki reportedly uses the border demarcation dispute with Ethiopia as justification to maintain Eritrea on a war footing”.

This is again another case of cut-and-paste work laced with stunning hyperbole and presumptions.  But what is the real situation?

The first act that the Government of Eritrea took after independence in 1991 was to embark on a massive demobilization of about 100,000 EPLF liberation fighters. This was the army that had to face Ethiopia’s (during the Mengistu’s reign) huge - the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa - and well-equipped army of occupation (Ethiopian POWs at the end of the war alone were more than 105,000). But immediately after independence, all freedom fighters who were assigned to the Civil Service were ordered to surrender their weapons. This was followed by an extensive demobilization programme to reduce the size of the Eritrean Defense Forces to about 35,000. The demobilization programme was carried out entirely through the Government’s own resources (at a time of formidable challenges of national rehabilitation and reconstruction and considerable financial constrains after three decades of war) as development partners were not forthcoming with prompt financial assistance.

The GOE pursued large-scale demobilization and reduced Eritrea’s defense forces to around 35,000 because it did not contemplate a resumption of hostilities with Ethiopia.  Indeed in those times, the post-Mengistu EPRDF government in Ethiopia and Independent Eritrea were earnestly working to cultivate a new framework of regional/bilateral ties that optimizes collective cooperation and integration while respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  To this end, Ethiopia and Eritrea exerted concerted efforts to revitalize IGAD as the most appropriate regional institution to prevent and resolve potential Intra-State conflicts as well as to lay the groundwork and create an effective situation for incremental regional economic cooperation and integration.

Eritrea introduced the National Service Programme, through Proclamation No. 82, in 1994 against the backdrop of massive demobilization and vigorous efforts for a robust framework of regional security and development cooperation.  The National Service in some ways was essentially seen as a contingent security architecture which would allow the young nation to maintain a very small regular army with the latitude to mobilize the necessary force if and when it is faced with existential threats.  In normal times, the National Service is limited to 18 months by law; 12 months of which are generally spent on civilian/public works assignments.

This normative configuration is affected today due to Ethiopia’s continued occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories and its pronounced plans of destabilization against the country.  Eritrea has been forced to prolong the duration of the National Service from its statutory 18 months to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.  The war and its sequel of continued hostilities between the two countries is the result of Ethiopia’s flagrant violation of international law; fundamental provisions of the UN Charter and the Algiers Peace Agreement signed between the two countries.  Eritrea harbours no territorial ambitions or schemes of “regime change” or political destabilization of its neighbor.  In the absence of appropriate measures by the UN Security Council against Ethiopia, explicitly stipulated in the Algiers Agreement,  Eritrea has no option but to take necessary measures of self-defense that are proportionate to the threat it faces.

Sadly, the UNHCR’s report glosses over all these facts to churn out inaccurate and hypothetical figures on the size of Eritrea’s Armed Forces and its annual military expenditure quoting dubious sources who may have their own sinister agendas against the country.  The UNHCR has failed to validate these figures.  It does not, also, try to put it in perspective through comparison with the size of Ethiopia’s army or its military expenditure.

The figures that the UNHCR quote are grossly inaccurate.  In as far as the size of Eritrea’s army is concerned, the CIA computation fails to take into account the various demobilization programmes that the Government of Eritrea has undertaken after 2001.  So while the number of those who can be mobilized during war may remain substantial, the army is not as blotted as it is portrayed in the distorted CIA report. The following facts amply corroborate the discourse above:-

•    From 2001 until 2005, for instance, the GOE demobilized over 105,000 soldiers from the National Service.  A Commission for Demobilization was in fact established in 2001 pursuant to Proclamation No 113/2001 (A Proclamation to Establish a National Commission for the Demobilization and Reintegration Programme – DRP). The project, which was funded by the UN, the EU, USAID and other development partners envisaged full demobilization of the army in three phases. The demobilization process was implemented successfully and in accordance with the envisaged schedule from 2001 until 2004.  But subsequent phases were terminated when Ethiopia rejected the EEBC decision through a formal letter of its late Prime Minister to the UN (in September 2003) and the latter shirked its responsibilities to take appropriate action.

•    In spite of this major obstacle, large scale demobilization practices have and continue to occur almost continuously on various grounds; especially for women and other segments of society.

•    The majority of National Service members are routinely assigned to civilian functions in the Civil Service or other public sectors.  In terms of financial expenditure, the figures that the UNHCR quotes from secondary sources are false.

The last sentence of the UNHCR report that claims “President Afwerki reportedly uses the border demarcation dispute with Ethiopia as justification to maintain Eritrea on a war footing “ is offensive to say the least.  We will revert to this presumptuous and erroneous claim in subsequent parts of this response.   We wish to point out here that the illegal occupation of sovereign Eritrean territory is not a fig leaf of imagination or fabrication by Eritrea’s Head of State.  In the border war that took place from 1998 to 2000, Eritrea was forced to pay the precious lives of 20,000 of its best sons and daughters.  Coming in the heels of the long war that claimed 65,000 lives, this is indeed a heavy price to pay for a small nation like Eritrea.

The United States declared “war on terror” and marshaled all the powers of the State in 2001 after the terrorist attacks in the twin towers.  Horrible as this incident was, the loss of life was about 3,500 in a nation of 250 million. Lives are lives and it may sound indecent to compare figures. But Eritrea has every right of self-defense – and to resort to a credible defensive posture – as it has lost 20,000 in the last border war and as Ethiopia maintains its belligerent stance and continues with its endless saber rattling.  The fact is Ethiopia’s Prime Minister continues to issue almost monthly threats of imminent and large-scale military action while intermittent acts of destabilization and subversion against Eritrea continue without let up.

3.    “In April 2002, an independent Boundary Commission established under the terms of the Algiers Agreement issued its recommendations for the demarcation of the border in favour of Eritrea’s territorial claims.  Ethiopia has not implemented these recommendations….”.

The Boundary Commission did not issue “recommendations” but a “final and binding” arbitral Award on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both countries.  This occurred after two long years of legal litigation.  Both sides reverted to arbitral litigation in accordance with fundamental articles of the UN Charter and the Algiers Peace Agreement signed by both sides in Algiers on 12 December 2000.  The Algiers Agreement was brokered by the United States, the European Union, the OAU and the United Nations as guarantors and witnesses. Key provisions of the Algiers Agreement are the following:

  • Article 1-1: The parties shall permanently terminate military hostilities between themselves.  Each party shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the other.

  • Article 4-1: Consistent with the provisions of the Framework Agreement and the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities, the parties reaffirm the principle of respect for the borders existing at independence as stated in resolution AHG/Res. 16(1) adopted by the OAU Summit in Cairo in 1964, and, in this regard, that they shall be determined on the basis of pertinent colonial treaties and applicable international law.

  • Article 4-2: The parties agree that a neutral Boundary Commission composed of five members shall be established with a mandate to delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902, and 1908) and applicable international law. The Commission shall not have the power to make decisions ex aequo et bono.

  • Article 4 - 15: The parties agree that the delimitation and demarcation determinations of the Commission shall be final and binding.  Each party shall respect the border so determined, as well as the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the other party.

The arbitral award by the EEBC delimited and demarcated the boundary between the two countries in 2002 and 2007 respectively.  This was duly endorsed by the UN Security Council.  The Maps with the coordinates of the delimited and demarcated boundary have consequently been deposited at the Cartographic Unit of the UN. As such, there is no “unresolved border dispute” between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s refusal to withdraw from sovereign Eritrean territories contravenes international law, the Algiers Peace Treaty and the subsequent arbitral ruling of the EEBC. It is an issue of pure and simple illegal occupation.

Ethiopia’s refusal to respect its treaty obligations and, its breach of the Algiers Agreement constitute therefore flagrant acts of aggression with serious consequences for regional peace and security.  The UN Security Council has, indeed, obligations to take necessary punitive measures against Ethiopia both on account of Article 14 of the Algiers Peace Agreement and Articles 39 to 42 of the UN Charter.  That this has not happened to-date is due to US lopsided position in support of its regional “anchor State”.  US diplomatic clout at the UN Security Council and its unwarranted support of Ethiopia’s violation of international law cannot, clearly, diminish the gravity of the act. For the UNHCR to ignore all these facts and describe the reality with such sloppiness is difficult to fathom.

4.   “There is growing scarcity of basic staples such as bread, sugar, and fuel, and despite Government programmes designed to ensure food security, two thirds of the population are still reliant on food aid….”

Agricultural challenges in Eritrea as well as in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa including the Horn of Africa Region are huge indeed.  In Eritrea, rainfall is erratic and most of agricultural cultivation remains archaic and traditional.  These are the reasons why the government of Eritrea has put food security as one of its policy priorities for the last ten years.  Eritrea is in fact pursuing a two-track approach to achieve national and household food security in a sustainable and irreversible manner within a specified time line.  Effective implementation of these broad policy objectives consists of:

i)    building the requisite water and irrigation infrastructures to achieve adequate harvests each year that can meet domestic demand irrespective of the fluctuations and vagaries of rainfall in an ecologically fragile environment; and

ii)    bolstering individual farm-household income through the phased Integrated Agricultural Scheme.  This package aims to supplement and ensure sustainable farm-household income through diversification and provision (grants/low-credit arrangements) of  1 cow, 25 chicken, 2 bee-hives, 20 trees – 10 fruit trees, 5 for animal feeds, and 5 as source of energy through regular pruning, and a small 1000 to 2500 sq. m. plot of land)

All these programmes remain work in progress.  Still the country has already achieved tangible results in the past years.  In the immediate years after Independence, 75% of the population was literally dependent on food assistance. The World Food Programme had permanent headquarters in Eritrea and it was distributing around 250,000 tons of food aid annually throughout the country. Through purposeful efforts, the acute dependency on food handouts from the WFP and other donors was reversed. WFP closed shop in 1996. UNHCR’s assertion, in its 2009 report, that two thirds of the population is reliant on food assistance is thus outdated and grossly incorrect.

Fuel and sugar are imported items.  As such, shortages in fuel supply can occur from time to time due to logistical glitches or financial constraints. Shortage of sugar or other daily staple consumer items is however rare, if not totally non-existent.

The thirty-year war of liberation, the border conflict that erupted in 1998 merely seven years after independence and continued belligerence by Ethiopia thereafter have adversely affected Eritrea’s economy and the pace of its development drive.  But all these obstacles notwithstanding, the country has registered notable achievements on key social indicators.  This is illustrated by the Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) conducted in 2010 (an updated survey will be completed this year):-

•    Life expectancy rose from 46 in 1991 to 63 (male/female in 2010)
•    Adult literacy increased from 30% to 67%
•    Student population rose from 200,000 to 600,000
•    Household access to clean and adequate water increased by 65% and access to electricity by 38%
•    1100 villages were supplied with access to adequate safe water
•    Maternal mortality rate decreased from 998/100000 to 250/1000000
•    Child mortality rate fell from 135/1000000 to 63/100000
•    Residential buildings constructed to about 128,000 families

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