This is a transcript of a radio interview on the Dutch radio station, NPO radio 1 – NOS Met het Oog op Morgen
Dutch Foundation sues the European Union over funding forced labour in Eritrea
Presenter: A group Eritreans in the Netherlands is very concerned. The European Union is said to fund forced labour in Eritrea through an aid project. According to them, roads are built under inhuman circumstances. Tomorrow, a court case will commence against the EU in Amsterdam. We are speaking to Ms. Belay, who originates from Eritrea, Emiel Jurjens from Kennedy van der Laan lawyers, and member of the European Parliament Jeroen Lanaers (CDA).
Presenter: Good evening, Ms. Belay, you decided to go to court together with a group of Eritreans living in the Netherlands – why?
Ms. Belay: Yes, because the aid that is given will only support the forced labour, slavery, in Eritrea and the Eritrean people would be suppressed even more than they are now. The work would be done by the military service conscripts, without a salary and without any human rights for the people working in the project.
Presenter: Yes, so roads are constructed by the EU and this work is partly done by people working in the national service. This national service, it is unclear how many years this may continue for. It is compulsory for everyone over 18; what are conditions like for those in national service?
Ms. Belay: It is truly brutal. There are no medical checks. Everyone has to participate: men and women. You don’t have any rights, no freedom of expression, no rights to basic needs, people are being abused, killed even if they do not comply. They disappear. People have been stuck in it for decades without any hope of being released and without a salary. People with children – women – cannot support their family; they are just put to work.
Presenter: And you argue that this cannot be done with money from the EU. Mr. Jurjens, what kind of proof is there that this money supports forced labour?
Emiel Jurjens: Well that is fairly simple, the EU has published a plan for this project, and in this project plan they note that they make use of people in the national service to build these roads. We now know, because this has been researched by my clients, ‘Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans’, how this process has evolved, that there have been discussions between the EU and the Eritrean government. The EU said that they did not want people in the national service to work in this project. The Eritrean government responded, as is shown in EU documents, saying: ‘this is how our country works’. Just as some background, everyone employed by companies in Eritrea, including all state companies, all work within the national service system. So the Eritrean government said, ‘we just won’t comply with your conditions,’ and the EU has accepted this. So the proof is convincing.
Presenter: Ok, so we move to Jeroen Lenaers. You are a European Parliament member [a Dutch Christian Democrat.] This is money from the Trust Fund for Africa. What kind of fund is that?
Jeroen Lenaers: This is an emergency trust fund which has been set up in the context of the migration crisis around 2015. The purpose was for the African Union and the European Union to work together to, on the one hand, eliminate the root causes of migration, and on the other hand to improve the stability of various regions in Africa, including the Horn of Africa. So the idea is to create economic growth to improve the economic resilience of the local population and to improve migration management and public governance. In the last years, 4 billion was approved for projects to achieve these goals.
Presenter: Eritrea is a country that produces many refugees: 10% of the population has left already. In a country where such things happen, as Ms. Belay says, why does funding continue? What is the dilemma in this?
Jeroen Lenaers: Yes, the dilemma is, and it is important to underline that I think that the EU and the Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans agree on this, the goals are to improve human rights in Eritrea and hopefully to end the system of indefinite national service. The question is how to reach this. The EU and the Dutch government said that what has happened in the past, sanctions and isolation of Eritrea, did not lead to solutions to this issue. So let’s try to do this together. In the context of the historical peace between Eritrea in Ethiopia in 2018, they thought that if we build roads – roads that lead from Ethiopia to the harbour Massawa in Eritrea – then you improve the economic dependence of Ethiopia and Eritrea, you protect the peace, and you create economic opportunities in in both countries. And through this you can sit at the table to discuss human rights.
Presenter: Yes, these are the intentions, good intentions. But Ms. Belay says that while you strive to improve human rights, you finance human rights abuses.
Jeroen Lenaers: Yes, questions have been asked in the European Parliament about this specific policy and also in the Dutch parliament. We have been told, at least, that these people will be paid. But the point remains that it concerns people that have been put to work through the national service. The difficulty with this is, as the lawyer Mr. Jurrens correctly stated, is that national service is part of all aspects of Eritrean society. For example, today we heard that Eritrea has asked the EU for help when it comes to tackling the Corona crisis. In the Eritrean healthcare system, many people are working under the national service. So, is this a reason not to help Eritrea? Or do we do this, and hope to create the circumstances, through this aid, to keep a seat at the table and to discuss the human rights there?
Presenter: Back to Emiel Jurjens: challenging the EU through a Dutch judge, can this be successful?
Emiel Jurjens: Yes certainly, otherwise we would not have brought this case. What is interesting about this is that the funding has been arranged in such a way that the EU could put forward arguments, both in front of the national judge and the EU judge, that the judge is not competent to hear the case. This would mean there would be no way to hold the EU to account, even though this case concerns a violation of jus cogens, the most serious violation of human rights norms that exists. You have to be able to address this somewhere. Therefore, the Foundation thinks that there are good arguments to bring this case in the Netherlands. If this is not the case, there is also a problem, because this means the EU cannot be held to account and it can freely support the national service in this way.
Presenter: Ms Belay, as Mr. Lenaers explained, people from the national service are put to work in all sectors in Eritrea. Does this mean you cannot give any aid to Eritrea?
Ms. Belay: Well, all aid is welcome, because the country is… there is nothing there. Basic needs are not being met. But there must be checks on this. The finances of the European Union must also have benchmarks to test whether the people that work there can take care of their families, and whether they are paid, if they are not dying due to bad conditions of work and with empty bellies. Without these checks… we are not against the road building in general, it is welcome, but who does this and what conditionality is placed on the aid?