September 17, 2015 What happened on 18 September 2001? Eritrea has its own day that lives in infamy – 18 September 2001. On that day, Eritrea lost all vestiges of being a free and democratic society –
September 17, 2015
What happened on 18 September 2001?
Eritrea has its own day that lives in infamy – 18 September 2001. On that day, Eritrea lost all vestiges of being a free and democratic society – and in effect became a totalitarian dictatorship and the personal fiefdom of Issiais Afeworki.
Recalling the events of 18 September, Aaron Berhane, the then-editor of Eritrea’s largest private newspaper, Setit in Asmara, said his thoughts “suddenly froze” when he heard the government radio station say, “starting today, September 18, 2001, the government has ordered all private presses to stop their publications.” Reporters Without Borders called the time that followed “a black week in the history of press freedom in Africa.”
Not only were private presses outlawed, eleven senior officials were thrown in jail for signing an open letter which criticised the president in the pages of Aaron Berhane’s newspaper. The global partnership of parliamentarian, the Inter Parliamentary Union have continued to press for news on their health and location as nothing has been seen or heard since they were arrested 14 years ago. Rumoured reports say that nine may have already died in prison.
Aaron Berhane escaped arrest and managed to flee to Canada but his colleagues and fellow editors were not so lucky. In a fascinating blog post, written for the Committee to Protect Journalists, he spoke about the days of arrest and recriminations that followed the banning of private presses: “Luckily, I was not at home on September 23, the night the security agents came to arrest me. But my colleagues were arrested that night. Four of them—Fessehaye Yohannes, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Saïd Abdelkader and Medhanie Haile—have already died in prison and we know nothing about where the rest are.”
On 18 September 2001, they shut down the printing presses. It’s our responsibility to keep the truth alive.
Foreign mining companies digging into Eritrea despite scandals
The national service programme in Eritrea is indefinite military service. Everyone who works, does so under obligation to the state and is a conscript. Foreign companies operating in Eritrea, such as Nevsun Resources Ltd, are hiring conscripts to work in their mines and therefore taking part in conditions amounting to slave labour. Whatever their protestations, Nevsun Resources, and other mining companies with interests in Eritrea, are fully aware of this situation
There are, at present, more than 14 foreign mining companies involved in the country. The first, and only active mine, is the Bisha Mine, which is run by Nevsun Resources. This is a Canadian mining company based in Vancouver. The Government of Eritrea has a 40 percent interest in the mine. It says it is looking to expand the mining industry in Eritrea, which was propped up this week by the issue of three operating licenses to another Canadian mining company, Sunridge.
In 2014, Human Rights Watch launched a report, “Hear no Evil,” with the unequivocal recommendation that companies should not operate in the country because, if a company operates and hires Eritrean citizens, it is – in effect – hiring slaves. Human Rights Watch also noted that “the failure of the Vancouver-based company Nevsun Resources to ensure that forced labour would not be used during construction of its Eritrea mine, and its limited ability to deal with forced labour allegations when they arose, highlighted the risk.”
This was a clear warning to the mining industry which was in its exploration stage. The warning was ignored.
This June, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report catalogued the many human rights abuses taking place in Eritrea which included the slave labour conditions to which Eritreans working in the Bisha mine are subjected. Sheila Keetharuth, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea, stated “forced labour was used, especially in the construction phase, for the simple reason that all construction [operations] are done under the government.” The UN’s report was based on real accounts from the Eritrean diaspora who worked in the mines.
Last year, three Eritreans filed a lawsuit against Nevsun for the imposition of harsh working conditions. The three men stated that they were working “unfairly long hours without enough salary, proper medical services, good shelter [or] enough food”.
Nevsun have denied these allegations saying that that, “we are committed to ensuring that the Bisha mine is managed in a safe and responsible manner that respects the interests of the local communities, workers, national governance, stakeholders, and the natural environment.” They reiterated this position when company representatives visited London in June and met surreptitiously with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They addressed highly contentious meetings under dubious circumstances and had a well publicised meeting at the House of Lords cancelled.
Although Nevsun denies the allegations, there is further evidence which proves that they continue to use conscripts in their mines. Foreign mining companies pursuing their business ambitions in the rogue state, such as Sunridge, and the British mining company Anidamo, seem unfazed by the prospect of using slave labour. Perhaps they should look at Nevsun’s falling stock price before dipping their toes further into these dangerous waters. If human rights abuses are not a strong enough repellent, the financial returns might prove to be.
Shameful response to Eritreans seeking refuge
As refugees and migrants come to Europe from the Middle East and Africa in search of asylum and a better life, tens of thousands demonstrated in London to show their support and declare that refugees are welcome in the UK. Eritreans in great numbers have made the difficult and dangerous journey, and alongside others fleeing conflict – in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – make up the majority of those now seeking safety in Europe. Would that the official response to them was equally supportive – and generous.
Last month, new statistics showed a worrying increase in the number of Eritreans being refused refugee status in the UK. The Refugee Council pointed to statistics, which show that “between April and June this year, just 34% of decisions on Eritrean asylum claims were grants of protection, compared to 73% in the first quarter of 2015”.
Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren said in response to these statistics: “The cynicism of the Home Office in denying protection to Eritreans fleeing a regime accused by the UN, only two months ago, of systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations is truly shameful.”
The reason for this fall in asylum recognition is the discredited Home Office guidance, itself based on the discredited Danish Immigration Service report. As one Eritrean in Birmingham put it to Channel 4 News “nothing has changed in Eritrea…if something has changed, it’s gone from bad to worse.”
· Aster Fissehatsion has been held incommunicado without charge or trial since September 2001 after being arrested in Eritrea together with 10 other political dissidents. For close to 14 years, her family has not seen or heard from her. Sign Amnesty International’s petition to demand her release – amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/demand-the-release-of-prisoner-of-conscience-aster-fissehatsion/
· Campaigners in Canada already have 130,000 people signed up to a petition telling Nevsun to “stop supporting slavery in Eritrea, or else close the Bisha mine.” Sign their petition – action.sumofus.org/a/nevsun-slavery/
Eritrea Focus is an association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), human rights organisations, exile and refugee groups and individuals concerned with the gross abuse of human rights in Eritrea.