Two court cases have been launched to contest European Union aid for Eritrea that employs National Service conscripts. The cases – one in the Netherlands and one in Britain – challenge funding of road rehabilitation schemes, which the EU accepts uses the labour that is trapped in Eritrea’s notorious system of indefinite conscription. Some of the conscripts have been in ‘National Service’ for twenty years and more, with women subject to sexual abuse.
EU Ambassadors recently inspected the road rehabilitation project.
The legal challenges have been highlighted by several newspapers, including the New York Times, whose coverage appears below.
13 May 2020
Eritrea Focus v the Department for International Development: Eritrean Road Project Legal Challenge
Duncan Lewis’ Public Law Team, instructed by Eritrea Focus, are launching a legal challenge against the UK Government’s funding to the EU Trust Fund for Africa’s ‘Reconnecting Eritrea and Ethiopia through rehabilitation of the main arterial roads in Eritrea’ development project in Eritrea, which uses conscripts from the Eritrean National Service.
Toufique Hossain and Isabella Kirwan, two of the lawyers from Duncan Lewis representing Eritrea Focus, say, “according to UK law, the Eritrean National Service constitutes forced labour; a form of modern slavery, and the conditions conscripts are subjected to amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment. It is against UK domestic law, European law and international law for the UK Government to be supporting the use of forced labour on the road-building project in Eritrea. The UK Government support must therefore cease forthwith.”
The EU accepts the Road Rehabilitation Project uses National Service conscripts. The use of National Service conscripts in Eritrea has been described as “enslavement” and a “crime against humanity” by a UN Commission of Inquiry. The European Parliament denounced it as “forced labour” and “a form of slavery”. Despite this, EU funding for the Road Rehabilitation Project, with UK Government contributions, has continued unabated and indeed it has been increased.
They continue, “many of our clients have been forced to work on construction sites and development projects in Eritrea – this is something we see very often. It has become one of the most common ways for the Eritrean Government to use their conscripts. The Eritrean Government leadership is benefitting from the Aid, whilst making free use of forced labour.”
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Eritrea Focus is pleased to instruct Duncan Lewis Solicitors, one of the prominent law firms in London, to challenge the UK Government for its unethical and, in our view, unlawful financial contribution to the Road Rehabilitation Project in Eritrea. The Project is almost exclusively manned by National Service conscripts or slaves.
Under normal circumstances, Eritrea Focus would not have instigated such unprecedented action. It would have instead used its expertise and network of contacts in Governments, the City of London and financial institutions to plead for Direct Inward Investment and Aid to help improve the living conditions of the Eritrean people. However, we see that as a futile effort whilst the people are denied their basic human rights and a significant proportion of the population is in effect enslaved.
Eritrea Focus is based in the UK where the rule of law and fair play is one of the best, if not the best, in the world. The law is on our side and we have no doubt we will triumph in our endeavour to stop the UK Government from directly or indirectly funding the current Eritrean Government.
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Press contact: Lawyer: ToufiqueH@DuncanLewis.com; IsabellaK@DuncanLewis.com;
E-mail Eritrea Focus: firstname.lastname@example.org
Embargo: 13 May 2020, 15:00 CEST
Eritrean organisation summons the EU for use of forced labour
Amsterdam, 13 May – A case is being launched today in the court of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, that demands a halt to the European Union (EU) aid worth 80 million EUR being sent to Eritrea. The Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans has observed that the aid project financed by the EU aid relies on forced labour. The EU acknowledges this. This contradicts the most fundamental principles of international law and is unlawful towards the Foundation, which defends the fundamental rights of Eritreans in Eritrea and in the diaspora.
The Foundation issued a summons to the European Union in April 2019 and asked the EU to end the project, which looks to rehabilitate the roads between Eritrea and Ethiopia. However, the EU refused to stop the project, even as it recognises that forced labour was (and is) used in the context of this project. At the end of 2019, the EU announced that it would provide further funding to the project. The EU funding goes to Eritrean state companies, which use it to procure materials.
The Eritrean regime makes use of labourers in the Eritrean national service to construct the roads under the project. The circumstances under which the Eritrean population is forced to work in the national service have been described by the United Nations Human Rights Commission in detail: “Thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labour that effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years.”
This form of national service has been described as “enslavement” and a “crime against humanity” by the United Nations. The European Parliament has denounced it as “forced labour” and “a form of slavery”. The EU was asked by the European Parliament in January 2020 to “avoid situations where the EU could indirectly finance projects that violate human rights” with specific reference to the Eritrean road building project.
The EU claims that it has no responsibility for the forced labourers, as it “does not pay for labor under this project”, according to the European Commission. “The project only covers the procurement of material and equipment to support the rehabilitation of roads.”
The Foundation states that the support to a project which uses forced labour is clearly in contradiction to international law and asks the Amsterdam court that the project is stopped.
Press contact: +31 20 550 66 10
Twitter: www.twitter.com/EriFoundation1 #ChangeinEritrea
Pictures available, among which lawyer Emiel Jurjens and the Foundation: https://www.belgaimage.be/#/gallery/6932089
Projectfase 1– €20 million – Action document of the European Union
Projectfase 2- €60 million – Action document of the European Union
Eritrean organisation summons the EU due to use of forced labour
Embargo: 13 May, 15:00 CEST
1. Introduction and parties
The EU is providing financial support for a road construction project in Eritrea for which forced labour is used. It is a fundamental rule of international law that forced labour is prohibited and unacceptable in all cases. Nevertheless, the EU refuses to cease its financial support for this project, while acknowledging the use of forced labour in the context of its project. The Dutch Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans will therefore start a court case against the relevant EU organs in the week of 11 May 2020. The Foundation will ask the Court for (i) a declaratory injunction that the EU project is unlawful, and (ii) an injunction that the EU should cease its support for the project. The case is submitted to the Dutch court in Amsterdam.
2. Forced labour in Eritrea through ‘national conscription’
There have been countless reliable, independent reports of significant violations of human rights by the dictatorial regime in Eritrea. One of the main and most far-reaching human rights violations perpetrated by the regime is the so-called ‘national service’. This is a euphemism for a system wherein from an early age, Eritreans are forced via the school system and roundups to work for the regime against their will. The national service has no end date and takes away all freedom of choice. Work includes military conscription, but also civilian work, including construction work. Compensation consists of pocket money subject to deductions and is insufficient to cover basic needs. A small group of Eritrean officials benefits financially from this forced labour.
It is internationally recognized that the system of national service conscription qualifies as a very serious violation of the fundamental rights of the inhabitants by the Eritrean State. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry has concluded it undoubtedly qualifies as forced labour and may even qualify as enslavement, and the crime against humanity. The European Parliament has described the national service as a form of slavery and has urged the EU to ensure the funding does not benefit the Eritrean government. The International Labour Organisation classifies national service in Eritrea as unacceptable forced labour.
National service is the main reason for people in Eritrea to flee their country, falling into the hands of human smugglers and traffickers. EASO and UN reports, among others, show that peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia has not brought change or reform. Instead, it has led to intensification of giffas (raids) to round up young recruits.
3. Role of state-owned enterprises such as ‘Red Sea Trading Corporation’ and ‘Segen’
The “Red Sea Trading Corporation” (“RSTC”), which has a monopoly on import and export, as well as all large construction companies, are owned by the Eritrean regime. These companies all have de facto monopolies in Eritrea and make extensive use of forced labour from Eritreans who have been mobilised under the national service. Virtually non-existent labour costs mean high company profits, which flow into the pockets of the Eritrean regime via private accounts. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea identified the companies as one of the principal sources of income of the Eritrean state and stated that RSTC is the principal entity in the “clandestine business networks of the [Eritrean regime]”. The Eritrean budget is fully controlled by a single political party in Eritrea (PFDJ), without any scrutiny. There is little to no traceability of what is happening with project funding. This is, of course, problematic, as it is precisely for this type of funding that transparency is of paramount importance.
4. 2019: 20 million euro from EU to Eritrea
EU aid to Eritrea has a history of being cancelled and failing to be disbursed. However, in February 2019, the EU announced on that EUR 20 million would be provided directly to Eritrea through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (‘ETFA’). In December 2019, an additional EUR 60 million was announced. The EU will provide the money to the Eritrean regime’s proxy company, which will be used for the purchase of materials and equipment to repair parts of the road network. The procurement process is led by the RSTC (i.e. the Eritrean regime). The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) offers assistance. The RSTC leads the “governance and coordination structure” of the project, whereas major national construction companies (inc. Segen) carry out the work.
In the project document, the EU openly acknowledges that “The labour used by the construction companies will consist of [inter alia] those in national service (…)”. The EU accepts this unconditionally and sees the use of forced labour as inevitable. Internal EU documents show that discussion with the Eritrean government is not possible, as the Eritrean government is opposed to “conditionality”. This means the Eritrean regime did not accept any project for which a precondition would be that no forced labour is used for its execution, and the EU accepted the use of forced labour in the project. EU member states have, in vain, expressed concerns about this. The project plans show that, via UNOPS as intermediary, procurement profits will end up in the hands of the Eritrean regime. This means the EU is directly funding the regime. The EU has refused to do any due diligence, even though it is or should be well aware of the risks and violations.
5. Foundation actions towards the EU
The Foundation represents the interests of all Eritreans whose fundamental rights are directly or indirectly violated by the Eritrean regime. It believes that the provision of €20 million to the Eritrean regime in the context of a project in which the use of forced labour is openly acknowledged is unlawful. The Foundation took several steps to alert the EU to this. However, the EU has defended the project by saying, among other things, that national service provides adequate employment and payment, despite massive evidence to the contrary. The EU has indicated there is no need to change the project, despite being aware of the far-reaching human rights abuses.
6. Forced labour under the EU project: concrete case study
The Foundation provides concrete experiences of persons that work(ed) under national service conscription, and even in particular on construction projects. They speak of punishments including torture and imprisonment without trial, lack of choice, no access to phones, no family life, and the Eritrean regime’s strategies to hide the truth. The EU project contributes to the continued existence of this system and these human rights violations.
7. End of 2019: new tranche of EU financing to Eritrea
The EU ignored the criticism of the Foundation and announced it would provide an additional 60 million EUR for the road building project to the Eritrean regime. In the project documents, the EU again freely admits that it uses “two major state owned construction companies”, which use forced labour, for road work. The project documents state that monitoring of the project by the EU/UNOPS only concerns “the use of the supplied items and the progress of the works,” so the work conditions will not be monitored. The project documents furthermore show that the EU relies upon, and refers to, information provided by the Eritrean regime (which clearly qualifies as propaganda) without independent verification. From responses to media questions, it becomes apparent that neither the EU nor UNOPS, which both claim to be monitoring the project, know how many forced labourers work in the project or what the circumstances are.
8. Violation of fundamental international human rights norms
The use of forced labour is in clear violation of the prohibition on the use of forced labour set out in European and international law as jus cogens. Therefore, the EU is acting unlawfully against the Eritreans represented by the Foundation by supporting a project in which forced labour is used.
Even more strikingly, the EU and UNOPS have repeatedly claimed they will stop the project if ‘any human rights violations occur’ in the context of the project. Apparently neither the EU nor UNOPS think the practice of forced labour is itself a violation of human rights, nor a good enough reason to stop the project. Furthermore, the Foundation thinks it is clear the EU cannot reliably monitor the project as all information surrounding it is tightly controlled by the Eritrean regime. It is striking that the EU is currently reduced to defending the practice of forced labour in Eritrea, using the clearly biased and unfounded propaganda of the Eritrean regime as ‘evidence’. By investing in this project, the EU has normalized and given an acceptable face to a practice which has been universally condemned by the international community and is a clear violation of the most fundamental human rights norms in existence. The Foundation will therefore take all steps it sees fit to try and hold the EU accountable for its clearly unlawful acts.
Launching this court case is the first, but certainly not the last, of these steps.
Press contact: +31 20 550 66 10
Twitter: www.twitter.com/EriFoundation1 #ChangeinEritrea
Pictures available, among which lawyer Emiel Jurjens and the Foundation: https://www.belgaimage.be/#/gallery/6932089
Project phase 1– €20 million – Action document of the European Union
Project phase 2- €60 million – Action document of the European Union
Press Coverage: The New York Times article is copied in below, but they coverage so far can be found here:
BRUSSELS — A Netherlands-based group of Eritreans sued the European Union on Wednesday, demanding it cease financing a project in the east African dictatorship that uses forced labor, the lawyer representing the group said, the first test of an effort by individuals and organizations to hold the bloc accountable for the way it spends billions in Africa.
The lawsuit in the Netherlands, a member of the European Union that directly contributes to the funding for Eritrea and is home to a large number of Eritrean migrants, will soon be followed by similar legal action in Britain.
The Amsterdam-based group, Human Rights for Eritreans, accuses the European Union in the lawsuit of financing a project that uses forced labor in a country that is notorious for relying on it, of arranging the money through a deliberately opaque process, and of failing to provide meaningful oversight.
The suit filed focuses on a decision by the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, to pay for heavy construction equipment to open and pave a road that connects the Ethiopia-Eritrea border with the Eritrean port of Massawa, as part of a broader strategy to support peace between the two longtime foes.
An unknown number of workers operating the equipment are forced conscripts, stuck in Eritrea’s notorious mandatory, universal and open-ended drafting of its population — a practice decried by the European Union, and one that the United Nations said was “tantamount to slavery.”
The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment but has defended the funding by saying that the heavy equipment makes work for conscripts lighter, and that it can effectively scrutinize the project even though it is dependent on the Eritrean government for access to the construction site.
The European Union has so far spent 80 million euros, about $87 million, with €120 million more on the way, all part of a $6 billion pot called the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which was created in 2015 to pay for projects intended to curb the migration of Africans to Europe by creating jobs at home.
The fund’s component for the Horn of Africa “does not have documented criteria for selecting project proposals and the European Court of Auditors also highlights serious shortcomings in terms of risk and performance assessment,” said Michèle Rivasi, a French member of the European Parliament. “We have no information; the management of the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa needs to be more transparent.”
The fund is technically a separate entity from the main European Union budget, making it difficult to hold to account. Critics, including rights advocates, migration and legal experts and lawmakers, say the opacity is deliberate. The establishment of the fund was approved by European governments at the height of the migration crisis and is unusual, but not unique.
Emiel Jurjens, the Dutch lawyer lodging the lawsuit on behalf of the Eritrea Dutch group, said the European Commission was likely to argue that Dutch courts had no jurisdiction, and if successful, it could act with impunity. If the court challenges fail, he said, “it would create a bulletproof way for the commission to fund projects that are ethically hard to defend from a human-rights point of view.”
The European Parliament will vote on Thursday on a motion to freeze such spending in Eritrea, on the grounds that the European Commission does not have any genuine oversight of how the money is being spent.
Eritreans, who have historically been in the top nationalities of people seeking asylum in Europe, have long fled to the Netherlands, Britain and other European nations, as their country, the underdog winner of an independence war against Ethiopia in the 1990s, has become a hermetic dictatorship led by a former rebel, Isaias Afwerki, in the past two decades.
The lawsuit and the vote come after a January investigation by The New York Times into the European Union’s spending in Eritrea, and cite it in their supporting documentation. The commission has said that the project was monitored by the United Nations Office for Project Services and that European Union ambassadors were able to visit the construction site, but observers say there is no meaningful oversight.
The ambassadors who visited the site in February were escorted by Eritrean government officials, and independent access is prohibited.
The United Nations Office for Project Services does not have an office in Asmara. Asked the number of conscripts at the construction site and their working conditions, the European Commission sent The Times a link to the page on the Eritrean Information Ministry website, which outlined pay, leave and work conditions for conscripts that could not be verified.
The Eritrean government, having said it would consider abolishing conscription when peace with Ethiopia was achieved, has failed to do so, despite an agreement in 2018 that secured Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The E.U. is coming under scrutiny on a number of levels — both close to home at the level of the European Parliament, and further afield, with the filing of a lawsuit in the Netherlands. This can only be positive,” said Laetitia Bader, the Eritrea expert at Human Rights Watch.
Habte Hagos, a co-founder of the London-based group Eritrea Focus, the organization behind a British lawsuit, represented by Duncan Lewis Solicitors, left Eritrea for Britain as a young man. He expressed disbelief that the European Union was paying for a project that used conscripts, and even more so that his adopted country was contributing.
“I find it absolutely shocking for the European Union, given its commitments to human rights, to be involved in this place where people are enslaved for years on end,” he said. “In terms of the United Kingdom, a country that outlawed slavery a long time ago, it seems to me like double standards,” Mr. Hagos added.