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The Necessity for the Implementation of the EEBC decision for the Protection of Human Rights in Eritrea

Red shows Ethiopia's occupation of Eritrean territory, green shows land Ethiopia originally claimed - (Image credit: Merhawie)

The Necessity for the Implementation of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) decision for the Protection of Human Rights in Eritrea

This article sets out to highlight the root and primary cause of “disproportionate migration” from Eritrea; which is often wrongly attributed to “indefinite National Service”. What this rather simplistic narrative ignores is the overarching context; indeed it focuses on the symptom and not the underlying ailment. The Government of Eritrea states that National Service has been prolonged due to continued belligerency and the failure of the international community to enforce Ethiopia’s implementation of the EEBC’s (Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission) decision. As such, this reality requires our priority and attention, if we are to be genuine in our engagement and protection of the human rights of all the Eritrean people. Removing the threat of war will also allow for the indigenous wisdom and nation building aspirations of the Eritrean people to prosper and flourish.

The Refugee

It was the heart breaking image of the young, drowned, three year old Alan Kurdi that brought into our western homes the plight of the refugees fleeing wars and human rights violations. The recent Grenfell disaster added further pain to the migrants. Meanwhile H.E Ambassador Estifanos Habtemariam, the Eritrean ambassador to the UK visited the scene to engage with and provide comfort and support to the bereaved families. And before that the Lampedusa tragedy when many of us first learned about Eritrea. Our distorted press coverage ramped up the flawed news coverage to an incessant crescendo of manipulative narratives. The coverage was deliberately employed to tug on our heart strings at a time when many a Eritreans were grieving their loved ones and our press editors were battling for the most sensationalised of story. Eritrea was and is harshly depicted as a despotic / failed state with some erroneously labelling the country as the “North Korea of Africa”. This hearsay activism is activism without context and understanding of the ground reality, history, culture to instead provide activism which is from a manipulative, prescriptive and distorted lens. It is this second hand subversive activism which must be stopped.

The Predominant Narrative

To date the only narrative that has gained traction in the Western press on Eritrea is that of the NGOs, the politicised actions of the Human Rights Council in its deployment of the Commission of Inquiry, and the Activists. All of whom have never visited Eritrea in the last ten years or more. The distorted narrative pervades, as it is reliant on the stories and the testimonies of the “asylum seekers” and economic migrants who may be tempted to invent stories to obtain refugee status. Our processes require stringent analysis for an objective portrayal of the country to ascertain genuine asylum cases as instead of allegations used to justify systemic violations by the Government of Eritrea. Still, no-one should lose their life in attempts genuine or not to flee or leave their country. In a world of have and have nots our Western life predicated on consumerism is a large pull factor and particularly when sold in billion dollar marketing campaigns and utilised by human traffickers themselves as part of their global racket. In an ideal, just and fair world, practices such as corruption, off shore tax havens, GDP hikes reliant on unsustainable economic growth and at the exhaustion of natural resources and the ensuing and devastating environmental problems predicated on a western economic model which saw the impact of the global credit crisis has created further polarisation as between the ones who have and the ones who do not have or best referred to as the North South divide. So we in the West at the behest of unsustainable modernity do not serve the best example of a viable economic model or template for developing nations.

Sustainable Country Practices

When the Eritrean Government focuses on practices that are geared towards non corruption, ethical governance, collective national identity, sustainability and preservation of its natural resources; when it ensures that foreign companies are not taking advantage of governance gaps then surely it should be lauded even if the measures are perceived as somewhat protectionist and premised on limited capacity. Individuals, corporations, organisation refer or testify to the absence of corruption in Eritrea. A senior Executive from Nevsun Resources Limited in a recent and open public engagement asserted to an incredulous audience that as a mining company operating in Eritrea since the 1990s, they had no known or direct experience or cases of corruption and added that such behaviour would be considered intolerable by the Government of Eritrea and would mean immediate termination of contracts. Further evidence of the collective conscience and fabric of the society was provided in an interview by the UN Resident and Humanitarian Co-ordinator to Eritrea, Christine Umutoni who referred to the “honest, resilient and nation building character, commitment and aspirations of the Eritreans”. And she provided by way of example UN funds totally accounted for in local projects in Eritrea, something she states is not the norm in other African countries.

What is not disseminated is that after Eritrea gained her independence the economy was growing at a rate of 7% annually, unfortunately the unprovoked Ethiopian attack that triggered the Border War in 1998-2000 stunted considerably the economic development of the country. For a fascinating and insightful understanding of Eritrea’s economic journey one should access the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers, Voice of Workers thirty years anniversary, 1979-2009 to understand the history, vision and work ethic of the Eritreans and their collective identity built through their historical opposition of fascism and colonialism.

Genuine Human Rights Protection v Subversive Activism

Therefore what is of concern is that no genuine activism has taken up as priority the root cause of the alleged exodus from Eritrea - that is the international community’s failure to address Ethiopia’s unwillingness to implement the decision of our highly respected International Lawyer and Academic, Sir Elli Lauterpacht, who presided over the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission. Please refer to my paper on the Algiers Agreement publicly available. Human Rights Activists have funding and mandates and none would have allowed the pursuit of such an inquiry and that is sadly the state of activism today. The funders and press require a certain narrative either for our readership or subversive agendas and so we the public remain ignorant and misinformed.

Any engagement with Eritrea should focus as a priority on the non negotiable implementation of the EEBC and constructive engagement on sustainable nation and capacity building including addressing due process for violations. I respect the voice of the NGOs and Activists when they are genuine, and premised on facts and to provide insight into due process; when they do not emanate from subversive intent or agendas. However I express concern when facts are manipulated and distorted; when they are prompted by desperate attempts at character assassinations to ensure that all other voices are silenced. And further concern in the unethical complicity of our Western Editors and Press that feed uncorroborated, rehashed and sensationalised pieces in order to keep up their readership of their tabloids. It would be best to have no western press at all than a media that is subversive and unethical and cloaked under a democratic system. However there are rare exceptions. Certain journalists including BBC Mary Harper who visited Eritrea in 2016, did provide her experience of the ground reality which she stated was diametrically opposite to the views provided in the distorted western media.

National Service

Activists such as Gaim Kibreab in his book the National Service refer to the national service as being a driver for the youth exodus however he has never engaged on the issue as a primary duty of his activism. The requirement for the Government’s deployment of Eritreans in National Service and specifically for the protection of the border from Ethiopian aggression is a result of the non implementation of the EEBC decision and the “no war no peace” environment. Along with the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation efforts from the thirty year liberation struggle; the impact of the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia and the unjustified international sanctions, which have had an impact on foreign investment. The key undercurrent and resounding explanation for Eritreans leaving is “the indefinite nature of the national service” albeit there has been a limit to 18 months by the Government of Eritrea. Concern has been to the likelihood of its implementation for the reasons stated and of national security. For a developing nation like Eritrea; with Ethiopia as its neighbour, landlocked and with the USA as Ethiopia’s strategic ally - Eritrea’s self reliance and burgeoning natural resources, two ports and strategic geopolitical location - is a reminder of how vulnerable Eritrea is to subversive attacks usually initiated against such countries by “instrumentalising” human rights to justify violations of a sovereign nation state. The recent and continued incursions by Ethiopia referred to as “skirmishes” at the border are a reminder. Eritrea, unlike its neighbour refuses to adopt the Western trajectory of unsustainable reliance on foreign aid and therefore Eritrea has utilised the largest resource it has, that is its human capital. This capital has been garnered to defend its long border with Ethiopia, for the country’s food security and nation building efforts, which include: the building of dams, sustainable agricultural practices, attaining the lowest HIV prevalence in Africa, attainment of the MDGs and work on the SDGs, reduction in maternity deaths, vaccination for all children and increase in life expectancy from 46 to 66 years, considerable infrastructure development of roads and electricity to villages and an increase in international companies operating in Eritrea, albeit criticised for not being fast enough. These are laudable achievements and for the respect and protection of the human rights of the Eritrean people.

The Allegations of Forced Labour

The National Service is referred to in the COI Report and with respect to allegations of forced labour.

The Forced Labour Convention No.29 provides that states should criminalise and prosecute forced labour abuses and the recent 2014 Forced Labour Protocol provides that effective measures should be taken to prevent forced labour and provide victims with protection and access to remedies including compensation. The Protocol’s main provisions and as referred to by the ILO are Prevention at Article 2 through education, strengthening labour inspection and local laws, protection from abuses during the recruitment process, supporting due diligence by the public and private sectors and addressing the root causes and factors that heighten the risks of forced labour. Further at Articles 3 and 4(2) the effective measures for the identification, release, protection, recovery and rehabilitation of victims. The Forced Labour (Supplementary Measures) Recommendation 2014 (N0.2013) provides non binding practical guidance on prevention, protection of victims and ensuring their access to justice and remedies.

However there are the exceptions to Article 2(2) of the Forced Labour Convention No. 29 that describes several limited exceptions to the “forced labour” definition. According to this provision of the Convention the following five situations do not constitute forced labour:

◾Work exacted under compulsory military service for the necessity of national defence, provided that the work imposed on conscripts is of purely military character.

◾Normal civic obligations of a fully self-governing country, such as compulsory jury service, or the duty to assist a person in danger.

◾Prison labour as a consequence of a conviction in a court of law, provided it is carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority and the convicted persons is not hired to or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations.

◾Work exacted in cases of emergency, such as war, calamity or threatened calamity (e.g. fire, flood, famine, earthquake) or any circumstance that would endanger the lives

◾Minor communal services performed by the members of a community in the direct interest of that community, provided that the community or its direct representatives are consulted regarding the need for such services.

The Government of Eritrea and the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers (NCEW), categorically refute the allegations of forced labour and invoke the caveats / exemptions provided in the Convention and further request that “the Eritrean socio political situation demand[s] continuous open and genuine engagement especially as the nature of the extended national service is intrinsically linked to the issue of ‘no war no peace’”. However the European Union and members of the Convention on Forced Labour refuse to acknowledge the national security threat of Ethiopia and its failure to accept and implement the decision of the EEBC.

Importantly the NCEW provided a substantive response to the COI and reiterated its zero tolerance to forced labour and through its collaborations with partners to ensure that the Eritrean Labour Proclamation and the ILO provisions on Forced Labour are continued to be complied with. The NCEW further refuted COI’s allegations of forced labour at the Bisha mine as baseless referring to the number of delegations who had visited the mine and witnessed first hand the operations. And COIs reference to no freedom of association was also refuted by the NCEW referring to the Eritrean Labour Proclamation 118/2001 Article 89-93, that instituted the NCEW and base unions and the set up of federations. Specific reference to provisions of due process were cited including, an example, where the courts had granted 149 workers of the Elabered Agroindustrial Estate redress further to their complaint to the NCEW on violation of their worker rights. Recently in July 2017, the NCEW further to discussions with the Bisha mine have created a union branch at the Bisha mine to better represent worker rights. The Bisha mine and as intended by the Government of Eritrea has set a model precedent and template for mining operations in Eritrea. Nevsun Resources Limited instituted a Human Rights Impact Assessment as is now implicitly required by the Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention, which is an example of how the Government of Eritrea intends its natural resources to be exploited, that is, sustainably and responsibly and for the purposes of nation building for the Eritrean people.

The NCEW referred to the COI Report as “..compellingly methodically and substantively a gross misrepresentation of the real conditions in Eritrea. As workers we believe that there is no-one else who knows more about us than ourselves”.

The work of the National Council of Eritrean Workers (NCEW)

The NCEW is a voluntary organisation open to all workers composed of five Federations and 168 base unions with a membership of over 30,000 workers. Social justice is the lynchpin of the NCEWs in its aim of creating a prosperous nation. The NCEW is a member of the OATUU (Organisation of African Trade Union Unity), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Global Union Federations (GUF) to name but a few. The NCEW has an extraordinary history and were responsible in supporting the 30 year long struggle and today in their literature refer to concern on the “neo-liberal arrangement” and “power capture privilege by the elite businesses” at the expense of the working people and that these are therefore obstacles to the effective actualisation of the Decent Work Agenda, something we in the West are struggling with. The NCEW have worked tirelessly on the MDGs, workers rights and the eradication of poverty. And importantly recognise the responsibility of the protection of the environment and for its preservation for future generations and in a condition favourable to habitation by humans and creatures alike. The NCEW has been campaigning for environmental protection with successful forestation and reforestation programs, construction of terraces and embankments as part of the greening campaign.

Reference is made to the “…Maekel Regional Administration work, initiated in 2010 the reforestation program in which 3100 workers participated and in 13 days constructed 156 kilometres of terraces where 7,800 seedlings of various trees were planted”.

Mr Tekeste Baire, NCEW General Secretary, at the helm has continued to provide a platform for more engagement internationally and as a result the NCEW has successfully implemented training centres such as the one in Massawa, collaborated with the Ministry of Education to ensure that students obtain the necessary technical skills for employment, gender empowerment programs and training, assisting mentally impaired children to be productive citizens, micro credit programs to women in collaboration with SUKE, of Switzerland and EHD of Germany. Further the NCEW has provided comprehensive research on the Eritrean Workers movement, distributed bicycles to address worker transportation issues and importantly facilitated tripartite labour relations as well as pursue international collaborations especially with the International Trade Unions Confederation which paid the NCEW a working visit in 2015 and commended the information that was collated and provided to ITUC to understand the ground reality in Eritrea.

On the 23rd-25th February 2015 in Asmara At the Organisation of African Trade Unions Unity (OATUU) President Afwerki referred to “the roles of workers in Africa had weakened because of the policies of domination which the great powers pursue, and in order to bring about positive changes that benefit the African and the world population, the trade unions and other civic organisations need[ed] to strengthen their organisations..”.

In December 2015, the Minister of Economic Cooperation for Germany H.E Dr Gerd Muller held a Round Table discussion in the NCEW conference hall with 30 youth representatives from non state organisations including the National Service to better understand the ground reality.

Recently at a two day conference in March 2017 the International Trade Union Solidarity Conference was organised in Asmara with support from the UNDP with the theme “International Solidarity Forum - Promoting Decent Work Agenda”. The agenda was to seek greater expression of Trade unions and the protection of human rights and to end forced labour in Africa and to support the resilient spirit of the Eritreans workers. Visits were made by delegations and participants to the Zaer textile factory and the Bisha mine. The NCEW cited its “..aim is to achieve genuine and enduring peace security and progress for the Eritreans and NCEWs commitment to TU, solidarity and internationalism”. The Government of Eritrea supported the NCEW conference with the Minister of Foreign Affairs H.E Mr Osman Saleh, referring to the “growing injustices on workers, peoples and economies” and supported the role that the Trade Unions have in the actualisation of social justice and the defeat of corporate and political oppression. That Eritrea’s focus was on social justice and that this had become difficult since the Border War. Further Mr Yemane Ghebreab, Head of Political Affairs of the PFDJ referred to the importance of “the world’s and African organisations and trade unions strive to emancipate themselves from the servitude of foreign forces, to possess a clean and influential Government that works for the interests of the people and the region, and aspire for the attainment of equitable incomes of workers, sustainable and uninterrupted development and social justice”. Further reference was made to the “fragmentation and disintegration of nations and the break up of the social fabric of societies as witnessed in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia which provided fertile breeding ground for extremists”.

Eritrea is of our time. She stands resilient and defiant. An antithesis to our unsustainable GDPs, outdated cartesian logic and she retains a collective identity which we in the Western world have lost through our individualisation and need to consume. Our support in her flourishing helps assist peace and ensuing prosperity in the region.

Ruby Sandhu. Lawyer, Facilitator and Mediator.

Ruby has worked on a number of mandates with respect to Eritrea, funded independently, by NGOs, iNGOs and MNCs.


1. Christine N Umutoni, UN Resident Representative in Eritrea

2. The Algiers Peace Agreement by Ruby Sandhu 

3. Presentation by Mary Harper, BBC Africa Editor @ Birkbeck University


◾Meeting Notes with NCEW General Secretary, Tekeste Behre. Asmara 2017.

◾HE Mr Estifanos Habtemariam, Ambassador of the State of Eritrea 26th Independence Day Anniversary Speech May 21st 2017, London.

◾NCEW, Voice of Workers Publication March 2015, March 2017.

◾NCEW, Voice of Workers Publication, Special Edition. March 2016.

◾Resolution from the International Trade Union Solidarity Conference organised from 23-25 March 2016 in Asmara, Eritrea by the NCEW, the African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

◾Government of Eritrea Statement to the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) on Forced Labour Convention, 1939 (No.29) Ratification: 2000.

◾NCEW, Voice of Workers Publication, Celebrating 30 Years 1979-2009, March 2009.

◾Background to the Eritrean Worker’s Movement, March 2017.

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