The Day the House of Lords lost Its Aura of Propriety

UK House of Lords
It felt as though we were hearing voices in our heads, that the voices were really mere phantom voices.

By Seble Ephrem,

Why would anyone in their right mind want to travel to Eritrea either to visit friends and family or as a tourist, and, much less want to buy property or set up business there? It can only be someone who has no access to the daily mainstream media outpouring of relentless descriptions of horror stories of oppression, forced labour, systemic abuses, imprisonment, disappearances, torture, rape, killings. A tiny country where there is no rule-of-law, no multiparty, no freedom of religion, no written constitution – in short, the North Korea of Africa! If I did not know and visit the country frequently, I would quite easily, have been put off from travelling there for fear of ending up in one of the horrific situations that is presented, just as I would not dare consider travelling to North Korea.

Paradoxically, thousands, mostly Eritreans, do travel undauntedly for a variety of reasons and lengths of stay throughout the year. The four major air carriers that fly to Asmara (and another one that is currently in negotiation), certainly do not record loss of business.

These people along with their children travel in the certainty of their own safety while in Eritrea, of the existing peace and tranquility, of a country that is trying to get on quietly, gradually and consistently with its national plans to build a stable, sustainably developed Eritrea for generations to come. A few astute business-minded individuals including large corporations have invested in the country and are witnessing mutually advantageous returns.

The geopolitical and strategic interests of the international community, however, are very different in their design and plan for the region and Eritrea in particular. In fact historically, they never found Eritrean economic and political independence to be palatable, nor does it look like they have learnt to accept the fact it is now a sovereign state, a statehood acquired through the extraordinary sacrifices made by the people of Eritrea pushing on 60 years. So the onslaught by the Establishment (the UN, shall we say), continues its efforts to thwart, misrepresent, bully, debilitate, belittle, intimidate, and punish harshly when it refuses to tow the line. More recently legitimate sounding tools and ploys to ostracize Eritrea via social media and other corporation-led mass media have been unleashed.

Eritrea simply wants to be left free from interference to enjoy the rebuilding of the nation based on its core values and principles of respect, integrity, equity and sustainability. All requiring hard work, as it rises from the ashes that it was reduced to at the time of independence.

Troubled by the ongoing unhelpful confrontations, which sometimes can be due to misinformed perspectives (just to allow some benefit of the doubt), a few concerned individuals felt it was time for Eritreans to be heard and understood within their context and thereby establish constructive engagement between and among all those with various views, concerns and/or interests in Eritrea.

It was felt that the 42 MPs who had tabled Early Day Motion (EDM 544) on 24.11.2014 led by Jeremy Corbyn to “condemn human rights abuses and compulsory military service in Eritrea”, were an example of those holding misinformed perspectives on Eritrea. British citizens of Eritrean heritage felt it was important for the MPs to be informed of the facts, the challenges that Eritrea faces from the international community and the underlying implications on the nation’s economy and regional stability.

A series of seminars have been running in London involving Solicitors International for Human Rights Group (SIHRG), Universal Peace Federation (UPF) on the one hand and Nevsun Resources SC, Andiamo Plc representing corporate business with interests in Eritrea. Topics covered included Business and Corporate Social Responsibility (May 2014); Business Ethics, Nation Building, and Sustainability (Dec 2014); Business Ethics, Migration & Human Trafficking (Jun 2015).

The latest of these seminars was meticulously arranged for maximum impact and engagement with the widest circle of society. Hence the decision to hold it at the House of Lords where a part of their work is to encourage people to engage and build strong relationships with Parliament through a range of outreach activities, meeting and connecting with new audiences and groups in the community.

With this in mind, a panel discussion titled “Building Bridges for a Sustainable Future” was planned to take place at the House of Lords, on 18th June 2015, Committee Room 4A, 17:30-19:30 with Baroness Oona King as Chair. Official invitations were sent out with RSVP.

The panellists were to address their experiences of living and working in Eritrea and outside. The speakers lined up were:

Todd Romaine, VP for CSR at Nevsun Resources Ltd to discuss his company’s experience on Corporate Social Resonsibility (CSR) initiatives including strategy, governance and dialogue with stakeholders and officials from the Government of Eritrea.

Lloyd Lipsett , international human rights lawyer with 15 years’ experience working with companies, civil society, CSR and governance in the extractive sector.

Professor Asmarom Legesse, renowned sociologist and anthropologist to discuss the title premised.

Seble Ephem, member of the Eritrean diaspora and Chairperson of the Eritrean Relief Association (UK) will present the role and experiences of the Eritrean diaspora around the world.

A few days prior to the event, Baroness Oona King cancelled the meeting on grounds she did not have sufficient knowledge on the subject. Lord Nicholas Rea agreed to chair the meeting and another lot of invitations were sent out, with no change to the venue or times. Lord Rea met with Prof. Asmarom and spent an entire afternoon updating himself with the Eritrean narrative.

On the 18th of June information was circulated that the meeting at the House of Lords was cancelled. There was no explanation given as to the reason or any apology received. The only reliable information that came out was that Baroness Glenys Kinnock had barred the meeting from taking place.

The United Kingdom Parliament had, effectively, gagged British citizens from their democratic right to freedom of assembly and expression. These were British citizens whose crime was to endeavour and build constructive engagement among the UK government, and the people and government of their country of heritage, Eritrea. It was a civic society initiative. Initially it felt as though we were hearing voices in our heads, that the voices were really mere phantom voices. It was unbelievable that the government of the United Kingdom would break its own laws and guiding principles. Such uncivil treatment, uncouth manners coming from a body that purports high standards of fairness, of justice, of propriety, was unexpected as it was bizarre.

Unwilling to let go, another venue was located in central London and hired for the afternoon of the same day, 18th June. Then half an hour before the appointed time, the administrators of the venue, notified us that they had decided to cancel the agreement to let the venue to the Eritrean community. Again there was no apology or reasons for the reversal of arrangements from the management of the private venue.

By this time the panel speakers had had enough of the day’s unethical proceedings and decided not to take any further maltreatment as was their experience so far and they withdrew. A few members of the Eritrean community, however, felt so strongly and with typical Eritrean determination, pressed for a meeting to debrief and discuss possible ways forward. The quieter end of the lovely art-deco Coronet Pub on the Holloway Road became the meeting point for the group that was by this time numerically reduced.

Professor Asmarom, his utter disappointment visible in his facial expressions, was still willing to meet and share his thoughts with them. Over cups of tea, biscuits and bottled water a short Q&A session took place at the pub where people voiced their disbelief and frustration.

If the idea was to debilitate the Eritrean love of country or sow seeds of division or to instill fear in their minds, the so called “experts” on Eritrea failed miserably and showed their total lack of understanding of the strong bond that exists among the Eritrean people when dark forces loom against their nation. The unfolding events of this day, rather than discouraging them, they were fired up, and pledged to work to take the matter further with higher authorities of the land.

More than 7000 Eritreans from many European countries landed in Geneva on the 22nd of June to demonstrate against the UN Commission of Inquiry mandate and report and handed petitions signed by thousands others who could not personally travel to Geneva.

Then on 26th June a group was formed in London known as ‘FenQl Eritrean Civic Society‘. They have occupied Richmond Terrace, SW1 which is just outside of the Downing Street gates on Whitehall, London. Today is their 31st day/night sit-in peaceful action surrounded by Eritrean & British flags and strong messages on placards highlighting the injustice perpetrated towards Eritrea.

In the absence of any explanation coming from the UK government, other than the revealing fact of the uncoordinated work between the House of Lords, where Baroness Kinnock, seems to hold sway, and the FCO which maintains dialogue and engagement, and as long as the question to the reason(s) for the unethical behaviour of Parliament towards British Eritrean tax payers remains unanswered, the door is open to educated speculation based on past trends.

The author, Thomas Keneally predicted long ago “…if you guys [Eritreans] succeed [using your principle of self-reliance], you’ll be an embarrassment to Africa. Who wants a set up like yours? It isn’t viable. It upsets the world picture….” and then “These guys [Eritreans] are astounding! And you know what? The world hates’ em for it! The world hooked into the idea of “helpless Africans!”

The panel discussion aimed at “building bridges” was an opportunity missed in the handling of UK citizens with Eritrean heritage. While the Eritrean community activism and attempts for positive engagement will continue, the 18th June 2015 will be remembered as the day the House of Lords lost all moral high ground. Building trust within hearts and minds will be harder and future teaching or preaching of democracy, freedom of expression, of association, of the rule-of-law, of human rights or press may come across as hypocritical. Parliament has not demonstrated goodwill or constitutional behaviour towards its citizens of Eritrean heritage.

Debriefing the eventful day in traditional British style - the pub
Debriefing the eventful day in traditional British style – the pub