The legality of the road building project in Eritrea funded by European Union (EU) under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa has been questioned on the territory of the European institutions over the past week. On 14 February, the European Commission Directorate General on International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO) held a Round Table meeting with several NGOs and on 18 February, the Committee on Development (DEVE) of the European Parliament dedicated a part of its agenda to the EU development aid in Eritrea. During both events representatives of the European Commission, civil society as well as members of the parliament were presenting their points of view. The Eritrean road rehabilitation project, in particular the increase of funding with an additional 60 million euros, gained attention after the New York Times published its article on the link between the EU development aid and forced labour of national conscripts in Eritrea.
Representatives from civil society organisations have raised concerns that the EU is relying on information from the Eritrean regime, which has proved to be untrustworthy in front of their own citizens as well as the international community in the past. According to project’s Action Fiche, the construction companies will use labour of “those in national service; and those mobilised from the local community on a cash-for-work basis”. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea affirmed that national service uses forced labour in “slavery-like” conditions and such treatment may amount to crimes against humanity. Laetitia Bader from Human Rights Watch (HRW), further indicated that according to HRW’s research, the Eritrean national service is “the main instrument of repression that the government uses to control almost every single aspect of its citizens’ lives”.
The Commission was urged to adopt benchmarks with specific indicators that would allow the EU measure any meaningful progress in human rights situation in Eritrea. Michele Rivasi, member of the European Parliament, highlighted that not only has there been no progress in the human rights situation in Eritrea, but regression can be witnessed in several cases, such as confiscation of Catholic Health Facilities. In addition, roundups of Eritrean youth for the national service through so-called Giffas have increased. Rivasi called for a joint mission to Eritrea in order to visit the work sites and talk to construction workers.
Delegates from the European Commission informed Parliament and civil society that their overarching goal follows a new dual-track approach which on one side focuses on political dialogue and on the other engages in cooperation with Eritrea through supporting the peace process with neighboring Ethiopia. The Commission rejected accusations of contributing, directly or indirectly, to forced labour through the road rehabilitation project which uses the conscripts from the indefinite Eritrean national service. They argue that the project finances ‘only’ the procurement of material and heavy machinery which is carefully procured by the Red Sea Trading Corporation, a construction company owned by Eritrean government officials, and that the project is monitored by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). However, civil society argues, the monitoring is conducted with strong input from government as there are no means of independent verification.