Wednesday, September 14, 2016 at 2:00 PM
Hearing before the House Committee on foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations
“Eritrea: A Neglected Regional Threat”
Thank you Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Bass, and Members of the Subcommittee for giving me this opportunity to testify at this important hearing to evaluate US policy towards Eritrea. I am an independent risk management consultant and a subject matter expert in the Horn of Africa specializing in development finance.
I advise various UN agencies, international organizations, investors, and law firms on assessment of geopolitical, regulatory, and financial risks. As an Eritrean-American and a longtime advocate of human rights in Eritrea (for the last twenty five years), I work closely with Eritrean civil societies, political organizations, media outlets, and community leaders.
In 2000, I was a member of a group of Eritrean intellectuals and professionals (known as G-13) who met President Isaias Afeworki and urged him to introduce political and economic reform and to respect the rule of law. I am a board member of Awate Foundation, an Eritrean platform for information dissemination, opinion sharing and promoting peace and reconciliation.
My testimony is shaped by 25 years of closely following the activities of the Government of Eritrea–those still in power, and the once-powerful who have been exiled or made to disappear and are presumed jailed or dead–rather than 18 months of discovery shared by Ms. Bruton; and this is reflected in the difference in our conclusions and recommendations. I am here to give my testimony on “Eritrea: A Neglected Regional Threat” and I will try to explain how the unconditional engagement of Eritrea recommended by some will actually make the region even more dangerous. The Outcome of Unconditional Engagement To start with, the reason the Eritrean regime is as bad as it is—topping the list of every human rights organization (GO and NGO alike) for its abysmal record—is precisely because for 8 long years, the United States and Western Europe gave it unconditional support.
This is between 1991 and 1998 when the new government was given the benefit of doubt. The Clinton Administration provided military assistance, facilitated low-interest loans and grants, and contributed in capacity building and praised the autocratic system routinely, calling it part of the African Renaissance, a short-lived description praising the heads of states of Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo and Eritrea. And what was the outcome? Ethiopia is what you see in the headlines now.
The leaders of Uganda and Rwanda amended their constitution to extend their rule. Congo descended into civil war. And it is during that period of unconditional engagement that all the atrocities that the Eritrean regime is infamous for—arbitrary arrests, disappearances, banning religious organizations, exiling, severe restrictions on civil liberties—were germinated. Since the subject at hand is the threat the regime poses to the region, I will focus on Eritrea’s past and current relationships with its neighbors, international community, and specifically with the US. I will also show the nexus between this and how Eritrea treats its citizens—which is the subject of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights as well as another UN body instituted by its Human Rights Council, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (CoIE).
I also will address at some length the little-known role of Nevsun, the Canadian mining company, as it has finally disclosed that it has been funding the Atlantic Council’s campaign for the last 18 months to rehabilitate Eritrea’s image and is calling for unconditional US engagement in Eritrea – a policy that has been tried and failed. Eritrea’s Military Adventures Since its independence in 1991, the Eritrean regime has adopted a militarized approach to resolving disputes with its neighbors. It has waged war with Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and inserted itself in the Somalian civil war by establishing links with Al-Shabab, which pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda and is designated as a terrorist organization by the international community.
The latter is worth special attention if only because it is the most recent and because it sheds light on how the Eritrean regime responds better to the stick rather than the carrot. As recently as last year, some of its defenders—including Ms. Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council—were categorically denying that the regime provided ANY support to AlShabab. 1
Now, they are reluctantly conceding that it did—while minimizing the spoiler role it had in Somalia. More importantly, to this date, the Eritrean regime denies it ever had a role and would rather focus the world’s attention not on several years’ worth of reports of the United Nation’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea (SEMG) which concluded that there was substantial evidence that it did, but on new reports that there is no evidence that it still is providing support. What gets left unsaid is this: Eritrea’s overt involvement in Somalia has diminished only because it has come under scrutiny by the monitoring group and sanctioned by the International Community. Eritrea’s admission last year that it has Djibouti prisoners of war and is returning them followed years of denial that it has POWs and even now, it is saying “we gave you the living”, leaving the door open that it has dead POWs it hasn’t accounted for. The supporters of the Eritrean regime are also quick to use Ethiopia and the United States as convenient deflections to justify the catastrophic mistakes of the regime.
This is belied by the facts and here are some examples: Firstly, as an Eritrean American, I have talked to hundreds of Eritreans who have joined the large exodus of the young out of the country. Not one person blames Ethiopia or the United States for their decision to leave the country. They blame the regime’s indefinite military service and its gross human rights abuses. Secondly, let’s consider: after a decade of failed attempts to convince Eritrea to cooperate with the international community, especially on the war against terror, the UN Security Council, citing Eritrea’s refusal to resolve a border dispute with Djibouti and its spoiler role in Somalia, imposed sanctions and arms embargo on Eritrea. Now consider this: It was the Inter-Government Agency for Development (IGAD)—a regional organization grouping Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia–and the African Union (AU), the continental congress which historically opposed sanctions against a member state, who initiated the UN sanction. It was the AU, not Ethiopia single-handedly, which deemed Eritrea’s spoiler role in support of Al-Shabab and against the African Union Mission in Somalia (ANISOM), as a threat to regional peace and security and unanimously called on the Security Council to impose sanctions against Eritrea. This was remarkable because the last time the AU (formerly known as OAU) made similar request against its member state was in 1974 against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Subsequently, the US unilaterally imposed travel ban and asset freeze of Eritrean government officials, including Yemane Gebreab, Presidents Isaias’s advisor and spokesperson.
In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order putting Eritrea in the league of “human trafficking” nations and imposing a series of financial sanctions against it. The Eritrean regime and its supporters’ spin that all of this was the direct outcome of hostilities by Ethiopia and the United States is an insult to IGAD, an outrage against AMISOM, and an offense to the AU. It shows that, to this date, the regime has not taken responsibilities for its actions. A regime that never admits its catastrophic miscalculations and refuses to learn from them should not be rewarded with unconditional engagement, especially when the regime’s regional destabilization role is ongoing.
The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea (SEMG) has provided evidence that shows Eritrea’s continued involvement in destabilizing Somalia by threatening its international community-supported fragile government through financial support of a network of political agents and warlords with links to Al-Shabab. For the last three years, the Eritrean regime has been denying such links and refuses to cooperate with the SEMG, just as it refused to co-operate with the UN’s Rapporteur on Human Rights, just as it refuses to cooperate with the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights. Nonetheless, even now, Eritrea has not denied what it calls its political and diplomatic support for such groups as it considers them as part and parcel of the Somalian people and thus, it has asserted even after they pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, they should have a role in the future of Somalia. The regime’s destabilization effort is not restricted to Somalia. Last June, Djibouti accused Eritrea of fomenting destabilizing activities in the region through its support of an armed opposition group. According to the most recent SEMG report, Eritrea hosts several Ethiopian armed opposition groups who frequently cross the heavily-militarized border with Ethiopia and wage attacks against Ethiopia, which are invariably followed by Ethiopian military responses. Ethiopia also hosts armed Eritrean opposition groups who also wage attacks inside Eritrea. With Ethiopia’s refusal to abide by the international tribunal’s decision to demarcate the border and the ever-increasing military escalations, the region will remain a flash point. It is only a matter of time before these skirmishes flare up into a full-scale war. There is also another neglected threat that requires immediate attention: According to the 2013 SEMG report, before switching sides in the Yemen conflict, Eritrea was training Houthi rebel groups with the help of Iran. Given the toxic relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Eritrean regime’s joining of the Saudi Arabian alliance— grouping all of the Gulf States in the war against Houthi rebels—is likely to result in counter-moves by Ethiopia which has historically viewed the presence of Gulf Arab on its doorstep as an existential threat.
The Ethiopian Prime Minister has warned that Ethiopia may have to take disproportionate measures to eliminate this threat. This doesn’t just mean inviting Israel, Turkey to the region—which Ethiopia already has done—but military strikes. It would be one thing if Eritrea’s foreign policy was the outcome of the consensus opinion of Eritreans, it is not. Similar to its domestic policy, Eritrea’s foreign policy is concentrated under one man: President Isaias Afwerki. This is the same president that the former US Ambassador to Eritrea, Ronald McMullen, described as an unhinged dictator and Eritrea as being one bullet away from implosion. In January 2013, in an incident dubbed as “Forto 2013”, a group of high-ranking officers, inspired by the Arab Spring, seized the Eritrean TV station for eight hours and called for democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. They were persuaded by other senior officers to return to their barracks with a promise of addressing their concerns, but as they were retreating they were killed in a shootout with President Isaias’ security forces. Eritrea 2016 The true picture of Eritrea does not come from people who visit Asmara, nor—with all due respect—from the diplomatic community that is quarantined in the capital and not permitted to travel more than 25 kilometers. It doesn’t come from people who are given guided tours by government officials. Just as the US should not form opinions about the Horn of Africa based on input from one country, “Eritrea experts” shouldn’t form opinions about the country by speaking to government officials. The truest picture of Eritrea comes from the ordinary Eritreans. Now here, it is easy to dismiss the testimony of people like me who haven’t been to Eritrea recently.
It is standard practice in academic circles to put a premium on research, which is field-based. But what if people “in the field” are terrified to speak their minds? What if the field comes to you and you don’t have to go to the field? This is exactly what is happening in Eritrea: According to the authoritative United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), by mid-2015, there were 363,167 Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers all over the world2. UNHCR says that this was an increase of over 17,000 over a six-month period. Given the Eritrean census which is estimated to be around 3 million, this is astounding. On a per-capita basis, it is one of the highest, if not the highest in the world. Now, what accounts for this? To hear the explanations given by the Eritrean regime or its apologists, it is because of Ethiopia and the lack of border demarcation, the magnetic power of Europe, or as one explained, it is no different than Puerto Ricans moving to the United States. 3 It’s surreal to hear people trot out Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International when they want to highlight Ethiopia’s human rights record, yet to dismiss these same sources when they accurately describe Eritrea’s human rights record as even worse.
Two-thirds of the Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers are housed in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan, with a substantial number in Israel. Remember, these numbers, as extraordinarily high as they are, account only for those that are registered with UNHCR. In the case of Eritreans in Sudan, the numbers are estimated to be much higher, many of whom have never been registered, and of those who registered, tens of thousands have been in refugee camps, unable to return to their homes, for generations: that is long, long before the “border dispute” with Ethiopia. And what are the stories they tell? Well, we don’t have to guess: they told their horrifying stories in hundreds of pages compiled by the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (CoIE.) The atrocities were so horrific the Commission concluded that they amount to crimes against humanity. They concluded: “Eritrean officials have committed the acts of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, reprisals…inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder.”
A Unitary State In A Multi-Ethnic, Multi-Faith Society The façade of the unitary state made up of “one people, one heart” is just that; it is no different from what every tyrant has tried to show: that, elections or not, the people stand as one in support of their government and, in my absence, the country will implode. But absent any studies—no data but anecdotal chit-chat with government officials (who have a vested interest in saying so) and multinational mining companies like Nevsun (who have a vested interest in saying so)–what we know is that underneath the surface, the country has never been as polarized as it is right now: by religion and ethnicity. For a Westerner who doesn’t know the local language of Eritrea to make an assessment of “one people, one heart” or that all the people, regardless of their diversity, support the government is akin to a nonMuslim visiting Iraq during the Saddam era and reporting that the Sunnis and Shias are in perfect harmony.
To put it bluntly, the Government of Isaias Afwerki is no different than any other tyrant who finds security by creating a clique of people who are identical to him: by heritage, language, ethnicity and religion. And, like all tyrants before him, President Isaias Afwerki has been able to hide the nature of the extremely narrow support and power base he relies on by making all discussions of the subject a taboo. The power base was degraded to its present (and dangerous) stage following a series of purges that President Isaias has engineered over the last 25 years and the Eritrean regime derives its rule now by fear and terror, a policy that has exacerbated religious and ethnic tensions. Like the rest of Africa, Eritrea is a multi-ethnic and multi-faith country which is a product of a colonizing power. Africans, after the costly experiments of unitary states which resulted in civil wars, have settled on a formula: a federal system. In fact, almost 2/3 of Africa has a Federal type of arrangement for power-sharing and equitable distribution.
The Eritrean unitary state is where Africa was in the 1960s and at its current projectile, it is likely to face the same disastrous fate as it continues to deny the marginalization of ethnic groups, some to near extinction. Nevsun’s PR Campaign In this part of my testimony, I will try to show how the interests of mining companies operating in Eritrea, specifically Nevsun, have become intertwined with that of the Issias regime. Nevsun Resources, a Canadian mining company, and the Eritrean Government (through its mining concern ENAMCO) jointly own the Bisha Mining Share Company (BMSC). The subcontractors of the Bisha project—Bisha is a region in Western Eritrea whose population has been permanently displaced and lives in Sudanese refugee camps for generations–are Eritrean government-owned entities that depend on the forced labor of Eritrean conscripted youth who are forcefully deployed to work with the government-owned companies.
The two main subcontractors are Seghen (construction) and Horn (transportation). Since gold production started at Bisha in 2010, Nevsun, whose stock is traded at the New York and Toronto Exchanges, has failed to: Have its stock value appreciate above an average of $3.50 a share in the last four years, which is considerably low for a firm that is sitting in a $1.3 billion asset, but is expected due to the political and country risk of Eritrea, Be acquired by a larger mining firm, Diversify its single source revenue from Bisha, Impress investors and shareholders by glossy unaudited corporate responsibility and environmental reports, Shake off its reputation as an enabler of human rights abusing regime , Convince human right organization that it no longer uses salve labor, Comply with UNSEG’s request to disclose financial transaction records, Bring any meaningful economic betterment to the lives of Eritreans other than enriching the coffers the regime. So, Nevsun sought to rehabilitate Eritrea’s image instead, knowing that its efforts were hampered by Eritrea’s dismal human record. Nevsun quickly settled multiple lawsuits paying out close to $30 million, hired a public relations firm and a human rights attorney, courted the diplomatic community in Asmara – but all its efforts had failed. When all its overt attempts failed to make a dent, Nevsun turned to a more subtle approach of funding the Atlantic Council to rehabilitate its image and that of Eritrea and lobby on its behalf. Militarized Commerce Since it ended the gold production phase and moved to copper production, which requires more logistical support and infrastructure to export, Nevsun has relied on the Eritrean Ministry of Defense to provide it with slave labor for mining and security, and transportation services to move its production to the port of Massawa. Every year, the Eritrean government rounds up about 20,000 eleventh grade students (16 to 18 year olds) to finish senior high school in Sawa military camp after which most— excepting a tiny minority who get the grades to transfer to colleges–are conscripted. The overwhelming majority of the youth are sent to work for the ruling party’s companies which supply slave labor to Nevsun and other companies. For the past four years, in anticipation of the need to transport copper across Eritrea, the Eritrean military has been using forced labor to make substantial road improvement and maintenance necessary to handle the massive truck traffic moving over Eritrea’s often narrow and winding escarpment roads. The slave labor is extracted from conscripted Eritrean youth in programs overseen by the Ministry of Defense. The appointment of Sebhat Ephrem, Eritrea’s former Defense Minister who is now the Minister of Energy & Mining, underscores Eritrea’s crucial reliance on mining revenues. (The former minister of energy and mining, Ahmed Haj Ali, was arrested following the Forto incident of January 2013 allegedly for having a role in it. Like everyone who is made to disappear, he has not been brought to a court of law.)
With payment of close to half a billion dollars in the last four years to Eritrea, Nevsun has become a financial savior to the ruling party whose grip to power relies primarily on mining revenues from Nevsun. Nevsun has always denied the presence of military units in Bisha mines. However, according to WikiLeaks cable from Asmara, “Eritrea’s government gave Nevsun a security team of 2000 persons, permanently stationed in the Bisha area”. According to an international law expert, this mutually agreed upon engagement effectively renders Nevsun activities as engaging in militarized commerce and risks assuming the liability of these abuses by stating that, “Nevsun’s officers would not be immune to criminal prosecution or civil litigation in Canada or elsewhere for abuses committed by security forces overseas.” Modern Day Slavery A lawsuit filed against Nevsun alleges that Nevsun used salve labor to build the Bisha mine. The lawsuit, which was filed in Canada, where Nevsun has its corporate office, was apparently encouraged by the extensive report issued by Human Rights Watch on January 3, 2013. The report under the title 4, “Hear no Evil: Forced Labor and Corporate Responsibility in Eritrea’s Mining Sector,” stated that, “Nevsun’s experiences show that by developing projects in Eritrea, mining firms are walking into a potential minefield of human rights problems. Most notably they risk getting entangled in the Eritrean government’s uniquely abusive program of indefinite forced labor—the inaptly-named national service program.” Nevsun’s CEO, Cliff Davis, has denied the allegation of using slave labor though an entire generation of Eritreans whose labor was forcefully extracted under the guise of “national service” bear testimony to the injuries. In the past, whenever a lawsuit was filed against Nevsun, Mr. Davis was quick to state that his company will “vigorously defend itself” only to settle out of court few months later.
Nevsun has been adamantly denying accusation of violating human rights of Eritreans and damaging the country’s environment. However, deposition of former employees indicate that wells in the Bisha region are depleted of deep sweet water and wells now yield only salty water. Indigenous residents of the area who have been stranded in Sudanese camps for over four decades lament at the graves of their ancestors that were unearthed to make way for Bisha’s open-pit mines. Gift to Atlantic Council In replying to the questions of the French journalist and writer, Léonard Vincent, Nevsun admitted to offering monetary “contribution to the Atlantic Council last year because [it was] impressed by their ongoing constructive work on Eritrea.” Mr. Vincent has asked whether Nevsun Resources, the Canadian mining company, has sponsored Ms. Bronwyn Bruton’s Atlantic Council. Nevsun stated the following: “Nevsun made a contribution to the Atlantic Council last year because we were impressed by their ongoing constructive work on Eritrea. It is standard for a [for] profit company to make a gift to a research institute whose work relates to its business. ” In early 2015, Ms. Burton suddenly appeared as a fierce defender of the Eritrean regime whose image she has been attempting to polish while the world community is still debating at the UN whether to refer the same regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Until today, Ms. Burton has never disclosed that her work is funded by Nevsun. Meanwhile, way before the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (CoIE) completed its investigation, Ms. Burton has been extensively writing to cast doubts on the CoIE findings and attempting to promote the now too-exposed regime of Eritrea that rules with impunity, unelected, since the independence of Eritrea in 1991.
In her New York Times article, Ms. Burton appears to suggest that the report of CoIE has wildly exaggerated the abuses of the government (” it’s bad but not that bad” as the title had it) while at the same time saying that the CoIE barely scratched the surface and it is actually worse. Well, what is it? And what exactly is her basis for saying so: has she, for example, visited any of the Eritrean prisons or spoken to exiled Eritreans? Yet, at private events and rallies organized by the regime’s operative in the US to drum up support for Issias, Ms. Bruton makes no secret of her admiration of Issias while denouncing US policy in the Horn of Africa. Her photo and that of the VP of Nevsun, who often accompanies her to these rallies, is seen in the Facebook pages of regime supports as she has become the darling of Issias admirers. As my colleague at awate.com, Saleh Younis, wrote, for an Africa Expert, there is a formula. If the US has a bad relationship with an African country, you advise that the US reconsider its position; if the US has a good relationship with an African country, you also advise that the US reconsider its position. For example, the US has a bad relationship with Somalia. So Ms. Bruton wrote an essay entitled: “Somalia: A New Approach.” The keywords used in new approaches are “reboot”, “reset”, “rethink”, “reconsider.” For example, the US relationship with Kenya was deteriorating after Kenya’s election. J. Peter Pham just described Kerry’s visit to Kenya as “reset of the relationship.” In contrast, the US has a good relationship with Ethiopia. Following the formula, Ms. Bruton wrote an essay entitled: “US Policy Shift Needed In Ethiopia.” (The one that made the Eritrean government officials her fans.) In “US Policy Shift Needed In Ethiopia”, Ms. Bruton argued that the US should not be supporting a government that imprisons journalists and provides no political space to its opposition and does not have an independent civil society. Sounds good to me. But in its Eritrea equivalent (let’s call it: US Policy Shift Needed in Eritrea), she is recommending that the US engage Eritrea DESPITE the fact that its treatment of journalists and opposition is much worse than that of Ethiopia. There is no civil society period in Eritrea and elections, as she said knowingly after she was so charmed by the intelligence of Isaias Afwerki, “won’t happen any time soon.” When you consider the fact that there are now over a dozen mining companies in various stages of approval to prospect in Eritrea, and when you also consider the fact that many of these mining companies are Chinese which are not responsive to human rights concerns, it is clear that, engagement or no engagement with the regime, the enslavement of Eritrean youth will continue without interruption. The formula is simple and easy to predict: More mining companies, more youth enslaved, more exodus, more refugees, more asylum seekers emptying out the country. This being the case, why would the United States want to sully its considerable reputation by aligning with a government that relies on slave labor? Concluding remarks and Recommendations Eritrea is a mineral-rich country strategically located in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, where the US has vital strategic interests and legitimate concerns in its ongoing counterterrorism campaign. Hence, the US strategic interest should not depend on the fate of one ailing man, particularly when dealing with a regime that not only doesn’t share any of the values that the US enshrines but routinely mocks them. While recognizing that the Eritrean people’s challenges could only be solved by Eritreans, it is prudent for the US to be prepared to deal not with how to rehabilitate President Isaias Afwerki, who has no support in Eritrea and rules by fear, but with a post-Isaias Eritrea by taking the following steps aimed at shortening the sufferings of the Eritrean people and safeguarding US interests in the region:
1) To deny President Isaias the excuse to maintain a war footing, pressure Ethiopia to allow the demarcation of the border and to proceed at least in the 95% of the undisputed border areas,
2) To continue making human rights issues a precondition for US –Eritrea relations,
3) To continue supporting the current UN-sponsored sanctions against Eritrea, until the conditions for its lifting are met,
4) To support the UN Security Council members’ initiatives in order to refer the UN Human Rights’ Commission of Inquiry report to the International Criminal Court,
5) To provide humanitarian assistance to Eritrean refugees and to provide immigrant visas to help them come to the US and ask other countries to do the same,
6) To provide Temporary Protective Status for Eritrean refugees who are already in the US,
7) To support regional organizations’ and governments’ efforts in combatting human trafficking in the Horn of Africa.
8) To sanction mining companies like Nevsun that are engaged in militarized commerce and are using conscript labor force, by designating their production as conflict minerals. People who suffer under totalitarian regimes look up to the world community, especially the United States, for support; they become disappointed— disillusioned, when they discover misinformed consultants in a position to advise governments. Europe has taken the position that it deals with human rights violators all over Africa and it shouldn’t make that its litmus test on its engagement policy. But as its borders continue to be flooded by Eritreans escaping the police state of Eritrea, it will come to regret its decision. In any event, even the most extreme human rights violators in Africa do not enslave their youth, the way the Eritrean regime does. It is disheartening to see aggressive approaches to absolve a totalitarian regime by individuals who have no personal stake in the outcome and only are interested to promote their careers and personal advancement.
The liberal democratic force in Eritrea has a great potential to grow, but attempts to bury it in its infancy by using the ‘there-is-no-viable-opposition’ claim is a crime against the Eritrean people. I urge this august body not to repeat the mistake committed during the Clinton era, when the Eritrean dictator was hailed as a renaissance leader and provided with all sorts of support, a lifeline that has helped it grow to the monster that he has become. I urge this august body to take the right decision, decision inspired by American values. I urge you to remain a beacon of hope for the young democratic force, inspire them with the right decision, with the much-wronged Eritrean citizen in mind.
1. Bruton interview with Voice of America, Press Conference USA, http://www.voanews.com/audio/2734041.html