Conference Opening Notes
We meet at a critical moment. The needs of our nation have seldom been more urgent. As we are all aware, the conditions our people live in are truly intolerable.
- The inhuman treatment of those rotting in prisons;
- our young people trapped in the slave-like conditions of indefinite ‘national service’;
- our women subjected to the whims and abuse of officers;
- our religious groups persecuted, infiltrated and controlled;
- our diaspora spied upon and manipulated, abused and divided.
Even ordinary families, scraping a living on the land, know the pain of shortages and deprivation.
I will not dwell on these facts – they are what draw us together today and motivate our actions.
We know that the regime, which was trapped in isolation, has freed itself from these constrains. The reasons are not hard to find: they have nothing to do with improvements in its record. The chronic conditions under which people exist forced many tens of thousands to flee to sanctuary in Sudan and Ethiopia. From there they often made the terrible journey across the Sahara and then across the sea before arriving on Europe’s often unwelcoming shores – if they were lucky. Many paid with their lives.
Their arrival was, in some months, the largest influx of refugees. European leaders, faced with millions fleeing the Syrian civil war, panicked. The strategy they adopted led to them to reach out to African states to try and halt the refugees at almost any cost. It mattered little how dictatorial the regime was. And so, the new ‘engagement’ strategy with Eritrea was born.
At about the same time, the Yemeni civil war exploded across the Red Sea. The Saudis and the UAE, determined to halt the Houthi allies – Iran – looked abroad for support. Eritrea was an obvious potential partner. Once President Isaias ditched his Iranian allies the way was clear for Saudi and UAE bases in Assab, and for flows of finance into the corrupt coffers of the regime in Asmara.
These two events set the scene for the Eritrean government’s re-emergence on the world state.
Look at the consequences:
- Limited military sanctions were dropped by the UN Security Council;
- Eritrea emerged as a respected partner, engaging with EU leaders as equals, with the Khartoum process, designed to reduce migration flows;
- Ultimately, the way was cleared for the re-engagement with Addis Ababa, via Prime Minister Abiy’s acceptance of the border agreement and the ending of the no-war, no-peace stalemate with Eritrea.
None of this required anything from President Isaias. There has not been a hint of reform from the regime, which is smug in the belief that it is powerful, invulnerable and – above all – in the right. The suffering of the people of Eritrea are simply an irrelevance to the political and military elite surrounding the president.
But this is only one side of the balance sheet.
The opposition to this tyranny has not been inactive. As we meet today, we know we have laid the foundations upon which a new Eritrea can be built. This Eritrea will be very different from what we see before us today. It will be founded on the vision of the martyrs, who laid down their lives for a free and democratic nation; for a people enjoying the freedoms enshrined in the UN Charter and in which human rights are respected.
That vision is closer than it has been for a generation. Today we see:
- A growing unity in the opposition, with parties in discussion and the Yiakl movement showing how young people can forge a new future;
- Divisions of religion and ethnicity are being acknowledged, but respected and our different traditions cherished;
- Links established with forces inside Eritrea, with those who share our belief in a free and democratic people;
- New ties with friends and allies in the activist community in the United States, Canada, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries who are keen to assist in this fight for justice for our people.
Let me point to just two examples of the latter.
Firstly, the cases that are now being mounted in the Netherlands and Britain to challenge the legality of the shameful road building projects that the EU acknowledges employs national service men and women in slave-like conditions.
Secondly, a new and imaginative campaign which is being launched by Freedom United, a movement that fights modern slavery and human trafficking, reaching some 200 million people in 195 countries. The campaign will call for the divestment from all projects in Eritrea that employs forced labour in any form. We are delighted to be allied with and partnering both these initiatives.
As you know, this is the second conference in a series of three.
Our first conference, held in London in April 2019, asked what the key issues were that a free and democratic government would have to face, once the current regime comes to an end.
This conference begins to lay out an answer: with expert groups having drafted papers encompassing issues from how we can work together, to the changes needed to reconstruct our economy. I would stress that the papers are – at this stage – the property of their authors. Eritrea Focus thanks them for their hard work and welcomes their contributions, but the papers are still in draft form; they are work in progress.
That work will take place in the weeks ahead of us. During televised lectures and workshops, the papers will be discussed, criticised and debated. We call on everyone to engage in a frank, open and comradely debate in a friendly and collaborative atmosphere.
Once this week is over, the many points that have been raised will be taken away and considered. Further work will take place before the third conference – hopefully not a virtual one – when the final blueprint will be presented for the Eritrean nation to consider.
In the meantime, we will continue to work, to lobby and to find ways of fighting the Eritrean regime. Our aims are simple: a free and democratic Eritrea and we will settle for nothing less. Our people deserve it; our martyrs fought for it. Now it is up to us to deliver it. But of one thing we are confident: the tide of history is moving in our direction and while the forces of opposition grow more confident and more united, the regime is more fragile and more vulnerable by the day.
As Dr Martin Luther King put it so eloquently: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”