By Ruby Sandhu
Ruby’s work is focused on Business and Human Rights. She retired as a Partner to focus on her work as a non practising solicitor, consultant and accredited Mediator. In relation to Eritrea, her work has focused on Business Ethics, Responsible Corporate Citizenship and Stakeholder Engagement.
Q: what are your Perceptions of Eritrea?
The narrative on Eritrea is distorted and unbalanced, especially in the mainstream western media and at times premised on “fake news”. Only a few people, largely activists, are granted a platform to speak on Eritrea. Activists generally carry out good work but this can be damaging if it is used as an instrument for subversive political and geo-political agendas. Some activists have a genuine desire to defend human rights and ensure that they protect the rights of all the Eritrean people, while others seek unwholesome agendas including regime change through subversive means. Further, many of the human rights groups and activists that engage on Eritrea prioritise and focus only on civil and political rights over socio-economic or cultural rights. An example of the latter include the Government’s exemplary work in the area of the MDGs and now the SDGs. Civil Political rights are fundamental; however, in the context of such a war torn, poor and developing country, the real and immediate needs and priorities must be understood in order to understand Eritrea and importantly engage constructively.
Having read the international human rights reports and visiting the country, you advocate work on nation-building, business ethics and sustainability and importantly the universality of human rights, that is if we are to truly advocate and represent the human rights of the Eritrean people, otherwise she adds, we are viewing Eritrea through a western and arguably a post colonial mindset and repeating our mistakes.
There is allegedly heavy migration and trafficking from Eritrea, however many claiming to be from Eritrea are predominantly from other countries suffering egregious human rights violations including Ethiopia.
Q: International relations and foreign investment?
Sanctions are taking their toll on the Eritrean people and are not legally justified due to the lack of evidence of links with al-Shabaab.
The UK government’s involvement as penholder on a review of the UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) no doubt would create tension in relations as between Eritrea and the UK. However the UK government has its hands tied as it must follow the processes in place for the review of sanctions. The USA wants lack of evidence to be corroborated with a field trip by the SEMG. Suggestions that the SEMG should be allowed into the country are countered with the glaring fact, and as to process, that there is no evidence to warrant such an inspection. No doubt wider geopolitical considerations are at play for keeping the sanctions in place.
With respect to the border dispute, the international community has failed to ensure that Ethiopia respects the decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, this is really not acceptable on our part, especially when we espouse adherence to the Rule of Law.
Relations with the EU and other countries are developing, with the President accepting credentials from a number of countries. The key issues of sanctions, the border dispute and portrayal of the country in the media must be addressed for there to be real progress on engagement. The government’s attitude toward foreign investment is to move away from traditional investment routes involving the World Bank or institutional lending at high interest rates. Eritrea has a strong desire to be resilient and stand on her own two feet in contrast to other African countries that are seeing the negative impact of dependency and rehashed western economic developmental policies. This includes Ethiopia, which has been propped up by the USA and with disappointing results.
As to the USA we remain hopeful that the policy will change to provide the space for constructive engagement and especially since the departure of Susan Rice and now the potential for Trump administrations proposed non-interventionist international policy for Africa.
Q: What are your views on Civil society and/or the opposition?
There is fragmented opposition, and it is primarily emotive and subversive. There is a need for better, fact-based engagement instead of sensationalism.
There are very few NGOs operating in the country and many of them are focused on economic development. Eritrea is sensitive to the way in which political NGOs can be a front for other subversive activities.
Q: The Business environment?
Transparency International (TI) ranks the country near the bottom of its Corruption Perceptions Index, however this is due to the lack of information available and TI’s rating criteria, as instead of actual evidence of corruption. I have spoken to a number of individuals including Canadian, Australian, British, Swiss and Italian businesses operating in the country and all report of no experienced corruption.
There is no transparency surrounding mining revenues albeit Nevsun Resources Limited publish their revenues. The government counters criticism of this opacity by arguing that publishing such disclosures is a security risk especially in relation to its strained relations with Ethiopia, akin perhaps to our Government not disclosing specific details on its intelligence / military / defence funding budget for security reasons.
There are a number of western companies operating successfully in Eritrea. These include Nevsun, Danakali, Andiamo, Chinese companies and Italian companies as well as an Irish based NGO.
Nevsun has over 20 years of experience in the country, including 10 of which were in exploration. During this period high standards in mining were developed at the behest of and in conjunction with the Government of Eritrea. Nevsun has carried out a number of Human Rights Impact Assessments and Audits and has established a template for responsible mining and pursuant to the Eritrean Government’s agenda to ensure a sustainable mining industry.
A company that wishes to engage with the government must be direct and open about their agenda. Appreciate the context, issue fair and balanced reporting and on ground reality, visit the country and meet with various ministers and undertake the requisite due diligence.
Care must be taken with the term ‘forced labour’ and national service. Often readily used in the West, this can be misleading especially when so many Eritreans have successfully completed the service and refer to the experience as a character building / self actualising experience. However what is of concern is that the sanctions and the failure of the International community to enforce the EEBC decision has left Eritrea relying on its key national resource, its people, to defend itself against Ethiopian instigated incursions and skirmishes. Hence the “indefinite” nature of the National Service.
Nevsun has not experienced expropriation or change of contracts. Its project is a 60/40 equity share with the Eritrean government, a fairer distribution than seen in other African and developing countries and a sign that the government is looking after its resources and people as instead of illicit and corrupt practices prevalent in other countries.
The political situation is seemingly stable. A regime change could potentially cause instability especially if premised on subversive agendas.. There are rumours of a potential successor to President Afwerki.
Q: what’s your experience of the day-to-day reality in Eritrea?
The country is egalitarian; one does not see officials leading luxurious lifestyles.
Eritrea does not see itself as being like any other African country and the Eritreans are resilient and extremely well connected and with the diaspora.
In comparison to countries facing extremism, such as Yemen, for instance, it is peaceful and it has not experienced any form of religious extremism.
Eritreans have suffered greatly and sacrificed much through the “long struggle”, the fight for independence, border wars and the recent skirmishes with Ethiopia. Every single Eritrean has been impacted by the struggle. This creates a subliminal and unsaid national consciousness as amongst its people – a strong nationalistic identity – the Eritrean psyche,. This is something, we in the West fail to understand.
Reporting in the media and the ground reality could not be more diametrically opposed.
The UNDP has done good work through the MDGs, SDGs in terms of access to health, poverty reduction and the environment and the results are tangible.
Q: what are the Relations with Ethiopia?
U.S. foreign policy seeks to maintain regional stability by partnering with strategic countries such as with Ethiopia. Substantive funding has therefore been provided to Ethiopia. This has further polarised and damaged the potential of harmonising relations as between the two countries.
The system of national service is maintained to fulfil the need to defend its sovereign territory by placing soldiers at the border with Ethiopia. The West continues to fail to address the issue of enforcing the EEBC decision or removing the sanctions which is taking its toll on the Eritrean people and crippling Eritrea’s development as it would with any other nation.
There have been recent border skirmishes instigated by Ethiopia as a means of distraction from domestic political affairs. Both sides have suffered losses. Whether there is potential for a full blown conflict will depend very much on how we in the West follow through on our obligations to ensure that Ethiopia adheres to the EEBC and the removal of the sanctions and initiate backdoor diplomacy as between the two countries to harmonise relations as instead of utilising an out of date divisive foreign policy.
I have not visited the Colluli project, which is further South. As to concerns of the recent border skirmishes and impact on the Project – the key zones of contention are located closer to Asmara, including the Cassus Belli, the town of Badme.