Canada’s Subcommittee on International Human Rights – Eritrea Hearing (Part-II)

Reid_sub-committee
Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights, Scott Reid and Canada’s Non-Resident Ambassador to Eritrea, H.E. Dominique Rossetti, made a visit to Eritrea. Upon return, they witnessed before the committee what they have observed and as expected, the subcommittee was dumbfounded by the disparity and amount of exaggeration between what they have been hearing all along and what transcribed before them by their own Chairman and Diplomat regarding the situation of Human Rights in Eritrea. We always say, Come and See.

By TesfaNews,

The Canadian Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development met on March 12, 2015 presided by the Chair, Scott Reid on the agenda of “Human Rights Situation in Eritrea”.

Members of the Subcommittee present and speaking includes MPs such as Tyrone Benskin, Nina Grewal, Wayne Marston and David Sweet.

The two witnesses were the Chairman of the Subcommittee Scott Reid and H.E. Dominique Rossetti, Canadian Chargé d’affairs to Sudan and Non-Resident Ambassador to Chad and Eritrea.

(continued ….) 

= = = =

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. Now we’ll turn to the official opposition.

Mr. Benskin.

Tyrone Benskin (NDP):

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador and Mr. Reid, for your testimony.

As mentioned by my colleague Mr. Sweet, much of the information we’re hearing today is the first time we’re hearing it.  Both of your testimonies centred mostly around Bisha mine and those practices, but in your statement, Mr. Ambassador, you talked about the fact that there are no recognized opposition parties. I’d like to just explore that a bit in terms of both political activity and media activity within the country.

I guess as regards the political level, it’s clear that political activity, other than activity that supports the government, is not particularly supported. What about media and information? How does information get out to the general public in terms of what’s going on within the country?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

As I said, there is no free media. There is a little access to the Internet. I think their Internet has many technical problems, but yes, people can access the Internet. To be frank and honest, I just watch the TV a very little bit. It’s national TV, pro-government national TV.

I cannot say how they can access this information. It’s a very centralized, controlled, and coercive regime. The information is not flowing in this context. We can easily imagine how difficult it is for information to percolate to people in the country because of that.

Tyrone Benskin:

Correct me if I’m wrong, or perhaps comment on this. It seems to me that if you are connected to, in this case, Bisha mine, working within the confines of Bisha mine, there are certain advantages you may have. But at this point, if I understand you correctly, you’re not in a position to talk about, outside of the mining context or in the general public, the….

I guess what I’m trying to come to terms with is just the disparity between what we’re hearing about human rights issues in Eritrea and what seems to be, from your report, the things that in and of themselves seem to be very positive but seem to outright contradict what we’ve been hearing to date in terms of the human rights situation in Eritrea. I wonder if you’d care to comment on that.

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

Just to explain and to clarify to be sure of that, people can talk to each other. We were able to talk to people. It’s as I said. If we can make an analogy with Cuba, at a certain time, of course, you cannot communicate publicly. You cannot have, I would say, a platform or medium where you can express your views. That is the point.

In the area of the Bisha mine, people are free to speak to each other. There are no political police, I would say, or restrictions, as far as we know, and as far as what we saw. As we say, we were there for a short period of time. By the way, it was my second visit to the Bisha mine. I’ve been there twice, in fact, in November and in January. In the Bisha mine, I haven’t seen any restrictions but the normal restrictions that you have, as you know, in a society of people who are careful to say what they want to say.

Tyrone Benskin:

Okay.

Do I still have time?

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

Yes, you have. You have just a minute left.

Tyrone Benskin:

Your visit itself was very restricted to the Bisha mine, so there’s no way either to corroborate or to in fact contradict the messages we’re hearing that the human rights situation in Eritrea is difficult and problematic for the people who are there. It seems to me that you were confined to a certain area and, like you said in bringing up the analogy with Cuba, were only in a position to hear what people were willing to say under those circumstances.

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

We have been to the Bisha mine twice, but as I say, we have been to eastern Eritrea and western Eritrea, and we stopped to discuss issues like the economic situation, or military service, and all those things, and that was okay. We didn’t talk about the regime per se. We didn’t talk with people about detention, prisons, and torture, obviously.

We were able to discuss the nature of the service with many people, that’s for sure. Of course, the people indicated that in principle when you do your civil service, after that you can continue as a real employee to pursue a job. That’s the type of thing we discussed. As I said, when we discussed the labour code with the union, we had a very open discussion on these issues.

But as I say, we didn’t discuss the regime, we didn’t discuss freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and we didn’t discuss the detention and these types of things. For the rest of the things, what we discussed was fairly open, I would say.

Tyrone Benskin:

Thank you.

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

Mrs. Grewal, please.

Nina Grewal (Conservative):

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you, witnesses, for your time and your presentations.

As all of us know, Canada supports the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Eritrea, including an arms embargo to prevent continued conflict. In your opinion, has this arms embargo been effective and has it had a positive impact on Eritrea?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

Is the question addressed to me?

Nina Grewal:

Any one of you can answer this question. Mr. Reid could answer or you could answer.

Scott Reid:

I’m not in a position, actually, based on what I saw, to have any information on that topic.

Nina Grewal:

Sir, maybe you could answer that question.

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

May I ask you to reformulate the question? I’m not sure that I fully understand the question, because there are many things—

Nina Grewal:

Yes. My question is in regard to Canada’s support. All of us know about the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Eritrea, including an arms embargo to prevent continued conflict. In your opinion, has this arms embargo been effective there? Has it had a positive impact on Eritrea?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

On the first element, for sure Canada supports the sanctions against Eritrea imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 1907. That’s 100% sure. Now on the implementations of the sanctions Canada has implemented requirements giving effect to the sanctions. And third, on whether these affect Eritrea, I would say, probably yes.

Nina Grewal:

In many nations around the world, women are at a greater risk of human rights abuses than their male counterparts. I was concerned to learn that women in Eritrea are dropping out of school to get married and raise their families to escape the risk of sexual assault there, and which comes with Eritrea’s national service program. Have you seen any progress for women’s rights in Eritrea?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

Certainly, yes. It’s interesting because we had for women’s day a conference in Asmara on this issue, which I was invited to. There was a list of progress made on this issue. I would say definitely yes, and it’s part of, I would say, the egalitarian doctrine of the regime. Keeping in mind some specific restrictions that we can find in other countries, yes, there is progress on this gender issue.

Nina Grewal:

I also wanted to inquire about the religious conflict in the region. Statistics indicate that Eritrea’s population is split between Christianity and Islam. Have there been any issues between religious groups, and if not, is there potential for future conflict?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

I would say there are three main religious groups in Eritrea: the Orthodox, the Catholics, and the Muslims. As a controlled country, of course, the three are controlled but they can practise and are really part of the community. People mentioned several times that the community is very important. So you can see, as Mr. Reid said, mosques and churches in every place. Of that I’m sure. The point is that some others are suffering from restrictions, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who because of the military service and other reasons are suffering from restrictions at the moment. But the three pillars…. I would say that to a certain extent, keeping in mind what’s happened in Yemen and in other countries, the regime was able to control radical extremist groups and not allow them to come into Eritrea.

On this front they were able to avoid any penetration of radical groups in Eritrea.

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

You have 30 seconds.

Nina Grewal:

Let me try to finish this question.

Eritrea consists of nine different ethnic groups with over 80% of the population belonging to the Tigrinya or Tigre people. Are the other ethnic groups there more likely to be subjected to human rights abuses?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

If I understand your question, you are asking if there are some ethnic groups that are suffering bad treatment?

Nina Grewal:

Yes.

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

The only thing that I can say is that the Eritreans are very proud of their nine groups. Everywhere you can see that. As to whether there is special discrimination against some ethnic groups, it’s difficult for me to say that. I haven’t seen evidence of that. But as we say, I’ve been there for a short time in Eritrea but we don’t believe, based on discussions I had with international and local interlocutors, there is a real hard and deep discrimination against any one group in particular.

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

We’ll move now to the third party, Mr. Vaughan.

Adam Vaughan (Liberal):

Thank you.

Before I start, on behalf of my colleague Irwin Cotler, I’d like to remind members that I’ll be moving a motion on his behalf.

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

We’ll get that at the end of the meeting. That time is set aside.

Adam Vaughan:

Okay. I just wanted to make sure that it’s not lost in the shuffle here.

I have a couple of things.

Are there any other mining organizations operating in Eritrea that can be used as a comparison to see how Canadian organizations are behaving—to be measured against—or is the Bisha mine the only organization of its size or scope in the country?

That’s to the ambassador.

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

There is a Chinese company that I think is one of the major players. By the way, there is a new Canadian company that is to do business in Eritrea as well.

Yes, there are comparisons, but the Bisha mine, as far as I know, is the major one. I cannot say if the Chinese mine is equal or more important, but the Bisha mine certainly is the most evident at the moment.

Adam Vaughan:

In terms of the issue of subcontractors and compelled labour that relate to the military or national service, is there any evidence that the Bisha mine is unique in finding itself in a difficult spot vis-à-vis human rights, or are human rights organizations focused only on this one particular organization?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

To be frank and honest with you, I cannot discuss what the Chinese have done. However, I know that the Chinese were not, I would say, on the spot because of that. I don’t think there was any complaint coming from China on this issue.

It’s certainly not a good answer, but I cannot speak about them. What I can say is what the Bisha mine has done in terms of CSR and how visible the CSR is, keeping in mind as well that every year there are ambassadors from EU and others who visit the Bisha mine and consider it a model.

Adam Vaughan:

Have members of the diplomatic community compared notes on this? Have you talked to the Chinese or the EU representatives to see whether their investigations provide a comparison that we could evaluate this Canadian company against?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

The only thing I can say is that my EU colleague, including as well my U.S. colleague, mentioned that we should be proud of what the Bisha mine is doing in their area. That’s the only thing I can say.

On the Chinese, I have no idea, to be frank and honest with you, what they do and how they do it.

Adam Vaughan:

Okay. I think the—

Scott Reid:

I was just going to trying to catch….

I’m glad I caught your attention, Mr. Vaughan.

There is a report from Human Rights Watch, called “Hear No Evil Forced Labour and Corporate Responsibility in Eritrea’s Mining Sector”, published in January 2013, which does go into some of the other mines. You can look at that.

The obvious point is that the Bisha mine was the first one up and operating, and therefore any problems that have occurred there, chronologically could not have occurred at other places until a later date in time. Whether they’re as good or worse or any of those questions, we can’t say, but you can find some additional information there.

Adam Vaughan:

In terms of the office that was established to assess these sorts of situations—the corporate social responsibility office—how have they been helpful in terms of resources that they’ve been able to deploy, or assessments they’ve been able to provide to you?

That’s to the ambassador.

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

Could you please reformulate your question?

Adam Vaughan:

The extractive sector corporate social responsibility counsellor was established in 2009. The office is up and running.  Have they been involved in any investigation or any assessment of this organization to make sure they are in fact complying with rules and regulations?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

To be frank and honest with you, I don’t know.

But what I know, as I say, is that the appointment by Nevsun of a vice-president of CSR, and of employees as well in the field who are fully dedicated to CSR, is probably a signal….

Adam Vaughan:

Okay.

In light of the fact there are no free elections, there’s no established opposition party, and there’s no independent media, and the fact you were accompanied on this trip by officials of the mining company, how are we to assess what Eritrean’s think or what people not connected to the company, not connected to the government, think about the performance of this mine? How do we get independent verification that you’re being shown the full picture as opposed to a selective picture?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

It’s extremely difficult to have a full picture. To be frank and honest with you, I’ve been in many countries in Africa, including now Sudan and Chad, and it’s extremely difficult in any country to get a full picture. To know everything in Sudan, for example, is not easy. Many of these countries are characterized by opaqueness. It’s very opaque and it’s extremely difficult to capture that. It could be said for many countries in the region.

So now, if you talk to people, and we could talk to people, it’s difficult as well in a short time to get their testimony about the situation. You can imagine why it’s difficult for people to really talk about these things.

I was seeing people who were—how would you say it…? It’s certainly not North Korea, where dialogue with people is not possible, even if I have never been to North Korea.

I would talk about Cuba where the dynamic is similar. It’s difficult to know exactly what the situation is because you cannot address this very sensitive issue in a direct way. You can do it if you stay a long time and build up a climate of confidence with your interlocutors.

But when we discussed the economic situation, etc., you can really have a normal and open discussion with people.

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

It’s very difficult regarding the opposition.

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

I’m going to have jump in here, as we’re a minute and a half over.

Mr. Hillyer will have our last question for the government.

John Barlow (Conservative):

Thank you. I appreciate having a couple of seconds here.

To the ambassador, you mentioned the Chinese mine, but I was looking through the notes and I see that Canada’s imports of gold and silver from Eritrea have gone from $2.9 million to $161 million in just four years. Is that basically from this one operation, or are there other maybe smaller scale Canadian operations working in Eritrea as well? Or is this vast increase basically from this one mine?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

We didn’t really discuss that during my last visits, but as far as I know there were four companies: three Canadian and one share company, but in fact the Bisha mine is a share company. I just heard recently there is a new company that is to start business in Eritrea.

John Barlow:

Yes. I saw that Sunridge Gold, another Canadian company, is also going to be starting up in 2015.

A lot of these human rights violations seem to come up during the construction of this one mine. Has there been some investigation of Sunridge Gold as well during the construction process of their mine? Have any human rights violations been reported as part of that operation?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

As Mr. Reid said, the issue over the Bisha mine was in 2008. So 2008 is already seven years ago, and what is happening in British Columbia at the moment…the people refer to this period of time. So at the moment, I cannot say.  However, as Mr. Reid said, we don’t think there are any violations. I could imagine that the other Canadian companies are very aware of that.

John Barlow:

Lastly, you were talking about the 18 months of national service and that it could be military or forced labour. I think Scott may be able to shed some light on this as well. You said some people were released and some were not. I’m just wondering, how are they that chosen? Are some of the ones who are not released from the religious minorities? How does this work, or do know why some are kept in national service?

Scott Reid:

We ask this question over and over again. The ambassador and I were at the same meetings. He may have additional information, but in general we could not get a firm answer as to what the criteria are that cause some to be kept in and others to be released. The impression I got, and it’s only an impression, is that a significant majority are released at the end of the 18 months, but that is only an impression and it could be wrong.

I also get the impression that people who belong to the more nomadic, pastoralist populations for whom it would be a meaningful hardship for them to be away from their families are normally released quickly so they can return to their communities. I was told specifically that if a woman develops a relationship and wants to get married, she can be released. The negative side of that may be the basis for Mrs. Grewal’s concern about the treatment of women.

However, these are all, unfortunately, our speculations based upon the speculations of those whom we asked. People seemed sincere in their efforts to give us concrete answers, but they were unable to do so.

John Barlow:

Ambassador, have you any additional comments regarding national service?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

Just two elements.

The first one, I think, we mentioned, in fact. The military aspect of the national service is only six months and after that you need to be regularly trained. So the national service is not just military. That’s number one.

Number two, it’s interesting because we met the ministers, we met the presidential adviser, we met our honorary council, and their children have to do the national service as well. It’s interesting to see that they are not excluded from national service. But I would say that the more educated you are, the shorter your national service would be…. You don’t get an exemption, but you can have a more defined term.

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

You have 30 seconds.

John Barlow:

A quick one, then. In your notes as well, Ambassador, you mentioned that some employees of the mine—I’m not sure if this is with the national service—are paid quite well. Is that the case for everybody in the national service, whether military or labour? Are they paid a living wage?

H.E. Dominique Rossetti:

No, I talked about the employees at the the Bisha mine, like a truck driver. A truck driver has an important job to do because the stuff is coming from west to east, and so their salary is twice the salary of the minister.

Regarding the national service there is a difference. The salary is not really a salary; in French and English there is a difference. I know it’s difficult because in English it’s always a payment.

In French we call it une solde. So it’s a different issue. If you are in national service, you don’t have the full salary. If you become an employee, you have the full salary, a real salary.

Une solde is not the real salary. It’s like during conscription, as it is just enough to pay for your cigarettes and very few things. So that’s the nuance. It’s not a salary when you are under the national service. It only becomes so after, if you are employed by the company. So at the moment in the Bisha mine there are only employees, there is nobody under national service.

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

Thank you.

Mr. Barlow, I want to apologize to you. The sign in front of you had a different name.

John Barlow:

No problem.

Jim’s way better looking.

The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:

I’m not going to voice an opinion.

That concludes the testimony.

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. We appreciate your taking the time to be here, and Mr. Reid.

We’re going to suspend now so Mr. Reid can reassume the chair.

The Chair, Scott Reid:

Thanks, colleagues, for putting up with what is definitely an unusual way of handling testimony.

We have a couple of motions before us. Mr. Marston had one first, and then Mr. Vaughan, on behalf of Professor Cotler. Am I correct that both of these motions have been given the necessary 48 hours and all that sort of stuff?

Wayne Marston:

We’re in agreement. There are some wording changes that Mr. Sweet and I have agreed to. We’ve spoken to the clerk.

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