Eritrea: A View from Copenhagen

News Opinions
the UK “hearing” in the name of Human Rights on Eritrea will not be a repeat of the shabby work of the 1940s
Is history repeating itself? Let’s hope that what is currently cooking at the UK “hearing” in the name of Human Rights on Eritrea will not be a repeat of the shabby work of the 1940s that was dressed up as a consultation with the Eritrean people on the future of their country, and presented to the UN General Assembly.

By Astier M. Almedom,

IN COPENHAGEN, media debates on what is and isn’t true about Eritrea have spilled over into 2015. The conversation is internal, almost always conducted in Danish. It reveals both genuine ignorance, some degree of arrogance, and deliberate spinning of facts and figures – a reminder of the celebrated Danish writer’s, Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the hypothetical “Gentleman Weavers” who were awarded the title by a fictitious Emperor who decided “the show must go on” despite the fact that his new clothes were never there, and he was exposed in public. (Interested readers may want to look up the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, by HC Andersen.)

Looking at the Danish public’s most recent background knowledge of Eritrea, one or two clues stand out. There was, for example, a special report presented at COP15 – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) held in Copenhagen five years ago, December 7-18, 2009. The special report was about the remarkable efforts of the Eritrean Ministry of Water, Land and Environment to mitigate the harmful impact of climate change on coastal and rural communities by introducing a variety of forward-looking adaptation projects. The independent journalist who had entered her report at the competition for the Earth Journalism Awards was the winner. As she explained, her truthful story was the winner. The details of the story and the then Danish Minster of Development’s remarks can be found here.

The mainstream Danish and international media did not pick up her story. Good news doesn’t sell, as the media adage goes. Five days after the closing of COP15, the UN Security Council issued sanctions on Eritrea, based on unchecked and for the most part unsubstantiated accusations against the country and its people. Bad news sells, whether it is fabricated or not. As a result, many journalists are tempted to make up stories, embroidered with half-truths.

Eritrean communities in the diaspora around the world were most disheartened. Those residing in Europe (inclusive of the UK) expressed their outrage on the heavily biased, one-sided, unjust UN sanctions by demonstrating outside the UN Headquarters in Geneva. A record number of 5000 participated in the rally on February 22, 2010, in an exemplary – peaceful and orderly – manner as witnessed by the Geneva police themselves, and onlookers including those who watched from their UN office windows. One of my American students gave a spontaneously vivid eye-witness account as the event unfolded. She had not seen anything like it ever before – it was a highlight of her internship with the UN.

Eritreans in other continents (Australia, New Zealand, and North America) also demonstrated on the same day. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights turned deaf ears, as did governments of dominant countries and non-governmental organisations that often claim to support “Civil Society”. They were not moved by the level of community organization and sacrifice shown by humble, law-abiding, self-respecting European citizens and residents of Eritrean origin. Instead, the “international community” continued to pursue a political agenda that gave the Ethiopian government, the aggressor, blanket exemption from accountability for its violations of agreements with Eritrea – as demonstrated by the on-going Ethiopian military occupation of Eritrean territory on the border – and towards its own people, as seen, for example, in the 2005 general elections where followers of opposition parties were killed and maimed.

By the time the next elections were held in Ethiopia in 2010, mainstream media reports including the BBC’s had established a habit of “going easy” on Ethiopian aggressions, giving mixed accounts. EU official concerns over election fraud and violence were downplayed, and the campaign to demonize Eritrea on the basis of false accusations levelled by the Ethiopian leadership and its foreign advocates continued.

On December 5, 2011, the UN Security Council passed yet another resolution to reinforce sanctions against Eritrea and its people, this time mentioning also a 2% diaspora income tax allegedly imposed by the Eritrean government, when in fact it was the civil society organizations, Eritrean communities in the diaspora themselves who had voluntarily offered it as a symbolic gesture of their support for nation building in the first place. It was eventually formalised and applied as a requirement for those who wish to conduct business in Eritrea. Obviously, it helps to regulate and keep in check nefarious activities of some unscrupulous adventurers who appear to be crying out for their “human rights” to rob the country and its people. Clearly, demands for rights without responsibilities make mockery of the very notion of humanity.

Concerted external efforts to divide and destroy the Eritrean people and nation, setting leaders against each other, snatching youth and children away with false promises may gain some mileage. This is not uncommon in newly independent nations as history books testify, including those of the United States. For instance, the legendary Minutemen of Massachusetts had the support of civil society, their communities, that enabled them to free their people from the heavy yoke of the British Empire.  The people and their liberators were one, with a shared vision. In Eritrea, the expression is Hade Libi, One Heart. However, the 21st century is one where the aged and powerful countries relentlessly target emerging nations, aiming not only at political and economic control, but also at violating civil society by proxy, ironically in the name of “human rights”. It is like the priesthood violating women and children in the name of Christianity.

At a time when the UN Security Council was plotting to do more harm to a fledgling, inspired, and inspiring nation, Eritrean children representing all parts of the country were “aiming for the stars”, going for the Guiness World Book of Records for the longest painting by children – a meaningful project on a topic that remains of special interest to all reasonable American, British and Danish civil societies – the publics in western countries. Indeed an interest shared by civil societies and their responsible and responsive governments, globally.

Alarmingly, as explained by an independent French journalist, a pattern is now emerging to indicate “symptoms of preparation for aggression” drummed up by false accusations and biased reports against Eritrea – the country and its people who continue to work hard towards sustainable development in earnest. It should be noted that the UN has many branches, largely uncoordinated. The UNDP and UNICEF have continued to work actively with Eritrea’s health and social development programs. They are not restricted by other, politically motivated parts of the UN. Ideally, the UN Security Council and High Commissioner for Human Rights would be expected to demonstrate that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, and strive for balance. Unfortunately, the system is ageing disgracefully, standing in the way of progress towards justice and peace.

The Eritrean people know full well that powerfully divisive external powers have exploited the “no peace, no war” state of relations between two previously amicable neighbouring countries. The true cause of the so-called “border war” was economic, not territorial. Specifically, Ethiopia was advised by unaccountable individual British and American “political advisors” to kill the new Eritrean
currency, the Nakfa. A handful of them targeted Eritrean families, civil society, in their low-level war mongering activities. The same self-serving advisors penned outlandish arguments to the effect that Eritrea, rising from the ashes, had to be made to pay for Ethiopian debt to the Bretton Wood Institutions – debt accumulated from military expenses incurred during the 30 year war with Eritrea.

These particular “advisors” unleashed the most cruel chain of events in living memory that subjected civilians in both countries to relentless human suffering and gross injustices. Their low-level and low-intensity psychological warfare initiated and sustained the most malicious propaganda campaign against the Eritrean people and their determination to build their nation. The people’s demands for justice for the people of Eritrea kept falling on deaf ears and history appeared to be repeating itself.

Meanwhile, the government and people of Denmark have not been neglectful of their moral and humanitarian duties. Not at all. In March 2012, taking the opportunity presented by Denmark’s six-month presidency of the EU, an important meeting was held in Copenhagen to discuss the roles, activities and aspirations of civil society, internationally. At the meeting, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Mr Maina Kiai told his audience that the 2009 Non-Governmental Organization law in Ethiopia limited to 10% the amount of foreign resources an Ethiopian Civil Society Organization (also known as Non-governmental Organization – NGO) may receive; while the government itself received well up to 60% of its budget from foreign sources. More recent accounts by a credible Ethiopian politician indicate that the late Ethiopian Prime Minister may have amassed personal wealth to a staggering tune of USD 8 Billion, placing his family among the world’s most well-endowed.

The UN Security Council has not been at all dutiful, as it chose to turn a blind eye to the legacy of the late Ethiopian leader, and his predecessor’s gross crimes against humanity. Instead, it chose to continue to persecute Eritrea and its people, totally ignoring the exposure and admission of fabricated accusations.

In March 2012, “the Canton of Geneva passed a new law severely restricting the right to peaceful assembly, instituting fines up to USD 110,000 for any violations of stringent rules, including failing to obey police orders to disperse.” (Statement by Mr Maina Kiai, CSO EU Presidency Conference, “Experiences and Challenges for Civil Society”, 14 March 2012, p. 3).

Now, Geneva is not exactly a city that masses of people would stop by in order to demonstrate, to express their grievances in a peaceful manner. It is one of the most expensive cities to visit. Clearly, Eritrean communities in the diaspora were more of the exception than the rule, when they dutifully gathered up in their thousands to do what is right. They were not met with UN Human Rights authorities aspiring also to do right.

Those who want to express their grievances through peaceful public demonstrations against the heavy-handed and one-sided unjust sanctions imposed on Eritrea will no longer be making trips to Geneva. Geneva will be coming to them with its own agenda in accordance with the UN Human Rights consultations with Eritrean in the UK scheduled for this month.

As the Danish people continue to discuss their own affairs in Danish and thus in private, relatively speaking, Eritreans of all political persuasions are also fully capable of discussing and sorting out their differences in peaceful and orderly ways – for the ultimate goal of building their young nation without foreign political interventions. However, the dice will most likely be loaded; and the spin-Doctors will be most likely to spin out of control. Still, we must hope that the UK “hearing” will not be a repeat of the shabby work of the 1940s that was dressed up as a consultation with the Eritrean people on the future of their country, and presented to the UN General Assembly by those resembling Hans Christian Andersen’s Gentlemen Weavers.