Britain is helping fund a controversial road rehabilitation programme, linking Ethiopia with Eritrea’s ports, which uses men and women who are conscripts held in indefinite National Service.
As Human Rights Watch put it: “By a proclamation issued in 1995, all Eritreans are subject to 18 months of national service, including six months of military training. The Eritrean government disregards the proclamation’s time limits: most Eritreans, women included, aged 18 to 50, some younger or older, are forced into working for the government for years, even decades.”
This is effectively a form of modern slavery, with accompanying violence and sexual abuse.
UK aid is supporting the road rehabilitation programme through the European Union’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.
This has been challenged in the European Parliament; now it is being questioned in the British Parliament. Below are the questions and answers, which provide the rationale for the British aid and the scale of the use of National Service conscripts.
UK support for the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa project, to reconnect Eritrea and Ethiopia through the rehabilitation of the main roads, is conditional on the EU working with the UN to monitor the treatment of national service workers implementing the project. The project, run by the Eritrean state-owned company Segen Engineering, will employ approximately 300 civilian National Service workers who will receive technical and health and safety training.
We are not aware of any reports of sexual or gender-based violence connected with this project or within the construction industry as a whole. DFID works closely with the European Union on our joint agenda to safeguard against sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. We will continue to review these specific concerns relating to Eritrean national service, and work with the EU to put further measures in place where we judge these are required.
Following the historic agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia in July 2018, reconnecting the two countries and providing Ethiopia access to Eritrea’s ports is a priority. This will help to boost both countries’ economies, and generate job opportunities.
The UK welcomes reconciliation between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Our support for the project under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, to reconnect Eritrea and Ethiopia through the rehabilitation of the main roads, was conditional on the EU working with the UN to monitor the treatment of national service workers implementing the project. We are continuing to monitor this. We note increased engagement from Eritrea with the EU on human rights issues since the inception of the project, including two Article 8 dialogues and the visit to Asmara of the EU Special Representative on Human Rights.
The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia remains closed and we are concerned that both sides are yet to agree substantive arrangements on trade and border management given the impact this has on peace agreement. Like our partners in the EU we urge the two countries to ensure the agreement is fully implemented in order to bring stability and prosperity to their countries and the Horn of Africa region.