Human rights violations and Tigray conflict cause EU to withdraw Eritrea funding and reconsider ‘dual-track approach’

The use of conscripted labour in EU projects and Eritrea’s engagement in committing human rights violations in the Tigray Region have prompted the European Commission (EC) to “de-commit more than €100 million from eight upcoming Eritrean development projects. A letter written by Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships, revealed that nine projects worth €141.3 million were initially approved for implementation through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) but due to concerns over Eritrea’s stance on human rights, only one project, valued at  €19 million, was disbursed. This recent move has highlighted the friction within the EU’s “dual-track” approach to Eritrea which attempts to mix development assistance and political dialogue.

The EC has faced mounting criticism from human rights activists and European Parliament members for funding multi-million euro projects in Eritrea when Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki continues to commit human rights violations in Eritrea and Tigray and uses forced conscripts to build roads in the EUTF funded projects. Last year, an Eritrean organisation started a court case against the EU over the road building projects, which was only withdrawn when the EU announced a ‘no more roads’ approach and vouched assessment of its dual track approach. European commissioners initially defended the dual-track policy stating that the EC’s aim was “to change structures and change the way in which the [Eritrean] political system works.” Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated that he did not think that the EC “can always be playing the Good Samaritan and handing out donations but not getting into the political evolution of a country.” However, the decision to withdraw funds indicates a renouncement of this philosophy. Urpilainen has proposed that unspent Eritrean funds go to other priorities in the Horn of Africa (HoA). Michèle Rivasi, French Greens Member of the European Parliament (MEP), said that “the money meant for Eritrea will now serve much more valuable humanitarian purposes […] [as it] makes much more sense than building a highway for a dictator — Eritrean President [Isaias] Afwerki — who does not hesitate to order the army to attack civilians and to raze the Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray to the ground.”

The decision to “de-commit” funds “reflects the lack of interest expressed by the Government of Eritrea on EUTF-funded projects and, more generally, on development co-operation with the EU”, according to Urpilainen. The attempts to engage with President Isaias under the dual-track philosophy “has unfortunately failed to bring about greatly needed rights reforms” according to Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Trying to fund projects without proper monitoring mechanisms and due diligence in a context marred by pervasive forced labor, the EU risked to contribute to the government’s abuses,” Bader stated. “Engagement with Eritrea should not endanger the rights of the country’s population” Bader added. 

The redistributed funds will instead be spent on other HoA projects, which includes €20 million allotted for helping displaced people and migrants across the Tigray Region, €18 million dispersed for refugees in Sudan fleeing Tigray, €62 million to assist Sudan’s democratic transition and €20 million to help combat famine in South Sudan. The EC will present its new proposal to the EUTF’s operational committee by the end of this month.