Canada lifts sanctions against Eritrea, human rights abuses continue

Canada’s lifting of sanctions against Eritrea amid glaring human rights abuses and collusion with Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen reveals how international sanctions act as hollow instruments of coercion.

By Lital Khaikin
Published in Volume 1, Issue 2 of The Sparkplug
July 2020

An empowered Eritrean military. Photo via Irish Sun.

Open for business

Receiving little public attention, Canada officially repealed its sanctions1 against Eritrea effective June 1, 2020. The UN began repealing its sanctions back in 2018, in response2 to the peace agreement signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia that same year, that broke through decades of hostility since Eritrea’s independence in 1993, and established “bilateral economic and trade cooperation” between the two countries. The repeal of sanctions has been described3 as “hope for the Horn of Africa”, but more than being a reflection of any humanitarian progress in Eritrea, it has proven to be primarily beneficial for business interests and market access to the country. 

Especially after the 2018 rapprochement, Eritrea has been encouraging international investment through mining, infrastructure projects and the expansion of its trading ports on the Red Sea. As much as the rhetoric around these projects celebrates the country’s “economic development”, and as dubious as Canada’s history of international sanctions is, this supposed progress deserves a more critical look.

Following recent years of scandals over forced labour under sub-contractors employed by foreign companies in Eritrea, several western-owned mining projects have been sold off, predominantly to Chinese companies.

After coming under scrutiny for the use of slavery, Australian company Chalice Gold Mines sold its Koka gold mining project in 2013 to the Shanghai Sfeco Group, which now owns majority shares. Vancouver’s Sunridge Gold sold its shares in the Asmara Project, which mines copper, to Sichuan Road & Bridge Mining Investment Development Corp. in 2015, when the Canadian company hit the headlines for its own complicity4 in Eritrea’s slave labour.

The Canadian company Nevsun also conveniently sold its Bisha copper mine to Zijin in December 2018, after allegations of forced labour5 used by Nevsun’s sub-contractor, Segen Construction, were raised by Eritrean refugees. Back in 2008, Nevsun’s former Vice Chairman John Clarke expressed his optimism6 about his mining project in Eritrea, “I’m very bullish about what Eritrea has to offer as events unfold”.

As February 2020 unfolded, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled7 that there are grounds for Nevsun to be sued by Eritreans for employing slave labour in violation of international law—though the company naturally disputes this accountability, claiming it is bound only by Canadian law.

The Supreme Court established8 that the case was pursuing Nevsun’s liability “because it was complicit in the Eritrean authorities’ alleged internationally wrongful acts”, and found that “the respondents would have to establish that the National Service Program is a system of forced labour that constitutes a crime against humanity”. In other words, the Canadian company could still get off easy because it was technically the Eritrean government and military doing the dirty work for Nevsun, and that’s just how the foreign sovereign state does its business.

Human Rights Watch has reported9 how this forced labour has long been part of Eritrea’s indefinite “national service”, under which all Eritreans are conscripted to work for the government — including for agricultural and mining projects. Eritrea’s conscription is known to use child labour in agriculture and military training through a compulsory summer program known as Maetot. Critique of the Maetot program has been refuted by Eritrea’s Ministry of Information through an article that refers to the forced labour10 as “a youth participatory approach”.

“As a matter of fact,” writes Mela Ghebremedhin, clarifying the contributions of the child laborers on the Ministry of Information website, “through matot, thousands of km have been covered in terracing hills and mountains, thousands of trees have been planted and schools and hospitals have been restored.”

Eritrea’s form of conscription poses severe questions not only around recent mining acquisitions, but also the continued exploration and development of mining projects, and the construction of new infrastructure that heralds this “hopeful” era of progress. 

The United Nations, for example, recently praised the Colluli project, the world’s largest deposit of potash. The deposit straddles the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, within 230 km of the port of Massawa. Colluli is jointly owned by the Eritrean government and Australian mining company Danakali — which is itself run by former BHP Billiton executive Niels Wage — and is expected11 to start producing by 2022. According to the UN, the proximity of this significant source of potash to markets in Europe, which rely on synthetically produced sulphate of potash, would be advantageous to meeting the 2030 Sustainability Goals while potentially making up 50% of Eritrean exports by 2030. Nothing has been said about Eritrea’s potential over-reliance on mineral exports as such projects intensify.

Eritrea’s role as a strategic port to both Europe and the Middle East has increased private investment from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia since the lifting of international sanctions —  carrying on as normal, with evidence pointing to violations12 of the international arms embargo prior to 2018. In February 2020, Bloomberg reported13 on the contracting of Dubai-based company DP World Ltd. to upgrade Eritrea’s ports in Assab and Massawa, both of which operate free trade zones — “as regional peace brings increased business to its shores”.

Formerly publicly traded, DP World became privately owned by majority shareholder Port and Free Zone World in February 2020. Echoing the words of Nevsun’s John Clarke, DP World’s CEO Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem has described himself14 as “very bullish about Africa”.

Though Eritrea has to date refused to participate15 in the African Continental Free Trade Area, it has been increasingly cooperating with private interests from Saudi Arabia in particular, which been courting Eritrea and the Horn of Africa states through its Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Collaboration with Eritrea is critical for the Saudis not only for shipping oil, but as a western flank for the war in Yemen. Eritrea has already played host to Emirati fighter jets from its Assab air base16, and has been leasing its Assab port under a 30 year deal to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — for a war in which Canada is in turn embroiled by supplying the Saudis17 with military equipment. 

Eritrea’s growing collaboration with the Saudi regime is consistent with the autocratic governance and legacy of human rights abuses that is shared by the two countries. But perhaps the celebration of Eritrea’s supposed progress has been shaped by western liberals’ uncritical affinity for any political party or organization that assumes the label “democratic”?

In a most cynical show, Afwerki’s ruling party, called the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, is the only legal party in Eritrea and has consolidated power since 1993. And while international investors have celebrated Eritrea opening for business and the influx of global capital, nothing has really changed around the regime’s violation of basic freedoms and human rights — which, in addition to slavery, includes the jailing, disappearance and torture of writers and other political prisoners.

Reflecting a fairly representative view of Eritrea from the side of international investors, Danakali Executive Chairman Seamus Cornelius was quoted18 by Mining Technology in 2019: “The speed of the reversal and the magnitude of the interest now being shown by enterprises and governments across the world in Eritrea,” he stated, referring to the repeal of UN sanctions, “gives me comfort that my view that the previous environment was completely artificial and unjustified is actually true.” 

The price of dissent

Despite the repeal of sanctions, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Eritrea Daniela Kravetz recently stated19 that, since 2018, there has been “no concrete evidence of progress”. As of July 17, the UN Human Rights Council extended the mandate20 on Eritrea for another year, requesting for Eritrea to grant “access to the country and committing to making progress on the proposed benchmarks”.

Leading up to the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council (June 30 – July 17, 2020), twenty-four international human rights organizations submitted a letter21 outlining the lack of progress on Eritrea’s human rights situation, despite the country’s being party to the UN Human Rights Commission since 2018.

Eritrea is also bound to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Yet, Afwerki’s government has been described as non-cooperative by consistently rejecting the UN Special Rapporteur’s findings of “ongoing grave violations” of human rights. In addition to disparaging the forced and indefinite conscription and labour, and continued religious persecution of Christians and Muslims practicing without a permit, the extension of the UN’s mandate was influenced by the continued detainment of journalists, and complete lack of freedom of press.

As of the 2001 purge of intellectuals and writers, Eritrea’s media has been under the strict control and censorship of the Ministry of Information, which currently oversees the Men’esey, Shebab and Agizo magazines.

One of the most well-known cases of detained journalists has been that of Dawit Isaak, an Eritrean-Swedish playwright. The Eritrean government arrested Dawit on September 23, 2001 for allegedly violating Eritrean security, while he was working with a children’s theatre in Asmara — refusing to acknowledge the playwright’s Swedish citizenship.

For almost two decades, Dawit has been detained without trial. Though Eritrean authorities previously claimed that Isaak was alive, there was no certainty until a confirmation this past July 6 by his daughter. Yet any campaigning in favour of Dawit’s release has been construed by the Eritrean regime as a political attack22, supposedly prolonging Dawit’s incarceration. Activists and human rights organizations have repeatedly called for Dawit’s unconditional release, but for all these years, there has been no real accountability on the part of the Eritrean government holding an international citizen hostage.

Another famous case is that of Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu, a poet and radio presenter who previously worked with Radio Bana. The radio station was accused of disloyalty and around 30 journalists arrested in 2009. Celebrated as one of the few female Eritrean journalists, Mebrahtu was incarcerated between 2009-2015 at both the Adi Abeito and May Srwa prisons — notorious for torturing detainees23. For those six years, she was held in solitary confinement.

Despite the stark reality of their hardships, the international community has been more than willing to deport Eritrean migrants. In another challenging victory won in May 2020, Eritrean migrants were granted the ability to sue the EU24 for deportations, where immigration authorities and other officials have exploited the language barrier to force detained Eritrean migrants on “repatriation” flights25 to Asmara. Repatriated Eritreans face additional persecution upon return, as they would be punished by the government for leaving the country as “traitors” — a government that has a longer legacy of indefinite incarceration, torture and assassination than can be presented here.

Much like the United States, Canada has politicized sanctions to advance its own foreign policy interests. On one hand, Canada repeals sanctions on one of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world, which is being celebrated across the western world as “hope” — and on the other, Canada has maintained its sanctions against Venezuela and the country’s elected President Nicolás Maduro to fulfill the ambition of the Lima Group to install the unelected, investor-friendly Juan Guaidó. This call for regime-change has of course been done under the banner26 of “respect for human rights” and “the rule of law” — going so far as to support an illegitimate National Emergency Government led by Guaidó. Amid the unchanged reality in Eritrea, and the apparent “artificial and unjustified” reasons there were sanctions in the first place, what claims can seriously be made about “respect for human rights” and the “rule of law”?

Despite grotesque human rights violations, and the weight of the uncertainties and losses borne, the memories of Eritrea’s dissidents and free thinkers live on. Their words and ideas created spaces outside of the reaches of any government, and far outside of Eritrea’s borders, which continue to inspire resistance and ripple forward with hope — perhaps, the real “hope for the Horn of Africa”.