EU unable to defend decisions about funds to Eritrea: questions remain unanswered

“In 2019, the EU began to use the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to support the procurement of equipment for a road building project in which it accepts that national service labour (i.e. forced labour conscripts) may be used. How will the Commission independently monitor the human rights impact of its funding, including working conditions?” Member of the Parliament, Michèle Rivasi (Greens/EFA), asked this written question to the commission on November 4. As of yet, Rivasi did not receive a written reply. Despite the criticism, the EU keeps funding projects in Eritrea and seems unable to defend its decisions.

More unanswered questions
During a plenary session on November 28, Rivasi argued that control mechanisms need to be improved to make sure that EU funding does not contribute to human rights violations. She highlighted the road building project in Eritrea and repeated the question to the commissioner; how can we justify that the EU pays money to build roads in Eritrea using forced labour? The commissioner ignored this question and just argued that trust funds provide the possibility to combine the migration and development agenda.

The commissioner further said that “we should deploy more and engage more civil society organisations, they should be partners in monitoring, controlling, in holding accountable all the parts of the development cooperation project systems.” While civil society organisations have expressed concerns about the road building projects, these concerns remain ignored.

Issues with the road building project
Earlier this year, human rights groups, news agencies and politicians have raised concerns about the EU funding €20 million to a road construction project in Eritrea, because the EU accepted that the Eritrean road workers are conscripted in the indefinite national service. It is argued that the EU is therefore funding forced labour. On April 1st, 2019, an Eritrean Foundation issued a letter of summons to the EU to stop the project, funded under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. In April 2019, Member of the Parliament Marietje Schaake asked the Commission whether they were aware of this fact and how they planned to monitor this project. She did receive an answer: “If any concerns were to occur, they would immediately be raised with the Eritrean government through political dialogue.”

Relations with the Eritrean government
Political expert Yosief Ghebrehiwet highlights the abnormality of the Eritrean government and states that the EU should not treat the regime as any other. The idea that issues can be solved through ‘political dialogue’ includes the assumption that negotiation with the Eritrean regime is a possibility; this holds the belief that the EU deals with a ‘fair’ or ‘normal’ regime. According to Ghebrehiwet, this assumption can worsen the situation in Eritrea, as it contributes to the normalization of the regime. Funding from the EU can harm the Eritrean population if they fail to see the true objectives of the regime they are dealing with.

What now?
Rivasi further asked “How does the EU’s current engagement with Eritrea, as well as the support it offers, contribute to ending the use of forced conscripts in the education sector?” This question also remains unanswered.

In a debate as early as July 2017, then-European Parliamentarian Lars Adaktusson (EPP) argued that three measures are crucial: “aid to Eritrea has to be strictly conditional; the illegal diaspora tax has to be halted in all EU Member States; and Afwerki and his patrons should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.” The conditions, including clarity on conditionality or monitoring, have not yet been fulfilled.

The EU has the obligation to answer written questions, but often it takes the EU a long time to answer these written questions. Therefore, it is possible that Rivasi’s questions will be answered later. What is more concerning, is that the commissioner ignored the spoken question during the plenary debate instead of defending the decisions made.