Friday, January 13, 2012

Eritrea: Wanted Arab Spring 2.0 in Eritrea

By Mirjam van Reisen*
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

Despite great attention paid to the Arab Spring, a ghastly silence prevails about the largest African 'open air prison': Eritrea is so isolated from the outside world that many inhabitants haven't even heard about the revolutions in Libya or the uprising in Syria.

BRUSSELS (IDN) - The Arab Spring should not stop in Egypt, Yemen or Syria. An even more powerful movement, or an Arab Spring 2.0, is needed for one of the most brutally governed nations in Africa: Eritrea. The people there suffer from there regime more than the people in Libya, Tunisia or Egypt ever have.

Eritrea, with about 5 million inhabitants at the coast of the Red Sea, is in the hands of President Isaias Afewerki since April 1991. Leaving the country is almost impossible. The president has laid minefields at the borders. Guards shoot to kill the ones that dare to escape.

Eritrea is called the "North Korea of Africa". Daniel Bekele, director of Human Rights Watch Africa described it as an "open air prison" in 2011. Despite the huge risks some manage to get out: Eritrea is in the top-three of the world's countries most fled from per capita: about 3,000 Eritreans fleeing the country monthly, according to UNHCR. [1]

Children have to leave school to be enlisted in the army, for dozens of years. That is also the case for women, some of whom have to serve as sex slaves for the leaders. The army is so large, that there are hardly men left to sow or to harvest, causing a food shortage. And the country already has a shortage of manpower due to the war with Ethiopia. However, those who escape national service and manage to flee the country without permission are treated as traitors and imprisoned.

President Afewerki doesn't even bother to pretend to be democratic. The constitution has never entered into force. The country doesn't have a parliament that meets. Eritrea has only one political party (PFDJ), that doesn’t allow criticism. Ministers that asked the president in 2001 to allow somewhat more democracy were never seen again.

The government prosecutes journalists and people with an undesired religion, like Christians. Of the many political prisoners, Dawit Isaac is the most well-known. This Swedish-Eritrean author has been locked up since September 2001, when eight independent papers were forced to close. Human Rights Watch stated in 2011 at the 10th anniversary of the detention of Dawit Isaac: "President Isaias should end the inhumanity of prolonged secret, silent detention and allow family members and international monitors to see the prisoners." [2] According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Eritrea ranks second after Iran, with 28 journalists in detention. [3]

Why do people not protest? One reason is of course that the president and the army keep them under control. This control is so strict, that most inhabitants of Eritrea don't even know about the revolution in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi had to flee and was shot dead. President Afewerki is able to censor this news, to prevent people from getting ideas. To form a group to discuss such matters is of course illegal. The president of Eritrea only allows one movement for men, one for women and one for youth. He considers this to be a sufficient number of non-governmental organisations.

What can the West do to help the people against this dictator? Theoretically we could spawn him by offering food help or force him by threatening to stop subsidies. The country in the Horn of Africa must also suffer drought and hunger, like neighbouring countries. But no, Eritrea keeps its door closed for aid organisations. It also supports the extremist Muslim group Al-Shabaab that hunts down western aid workers in neighbouring countries.

And Eritrea is not interested in receiving EU subsidies, the government has written in a letter sent to the EU recently. [4] According to a blog by Daniel Berhane the Eritrean decision coincided with and "was announced only hours before a scheduled EU-Eritrean Human Rights Dialogue meeting." [5]

The EU had reserved dozens of millions of euros for Eritrea, but – I am happy to note – that this money was never paid out. I had written to EU Development Cooperation Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in October 2011 to pledge him not to transfer the funds to the dictator. The West shouldn't support dictatorships, I implored.

But then what? Can the United Nations do something? A little, I am afraid. The UN Security Council has placed more sanctions on Eritrea in December 2011, because the country continues to deliver arms and other support to Al-Shabaab. [6] But it remains to be seen whether arms and travel sanctions are of much concern to the dictator.

The least the EU should do is to support the Eritrean refugees. The millions of euros the EU now has set aside for Eritrea could be spent on supporting refugees in Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Egypt or Yemen. The camps there are overcrowded: the UN refugee agency UNHCR can hardly handle the situation. Because of the bad situation in the camps, many refugees travel further. They place their fate in the hands of people smugglers.

Some die during their journey in the desert, some drown in the Mediterranean. Others are robbed and extorted. According to interviews with refugees, confirmed in a recent CNN telecast, some refugees even robbed of their organs. Desperate and heart rendering appeals for help are regularly reaching the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER).

Children in the camps grow up to be a 'lost generation' depressed and full of hatred with no future. President Afewerki is well aware of the potential challenge the young generation living outside Eritrea will pose to his country, as they live in growing despair and anger. In an attempt to avert an Arab Spring he recently declared a general amnesty for all the young people who would return to Eritrea.

A purposeful task for the EU is to offer education for young refugees from Eritrea. The European Commission can pay for scholarships for bright Eritreans to go to African universities. If they are well educated and can one day return to a free Eritrea, they can help establish democracy. Because for sure president Isaias Afewerki, now 65, will die one day, offering an opportunity for change if there will be a trained generation knowing democratic values and able to practise them. Hopefully change can come sooner rather than later – thanks due to an Arab Spring 2.0.

*Mirjam van Reisen is professor International Social Responsibility at the Tilburg University, founding director of the Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA) in Brussels and member of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER). A short version of this article was published in Dutch newspaper TROUW on January 10, 2011. - IDN Viewpoints reflect opinions of respective writers, which are not necessarily shared by the InDepthNews editorial board.