European Union’s strategic retreat on Eritrea

Faced with a barrage of criticism that its Eritrean aid programme uses slave labour, the European Union has decided to take another approach.

The EU has announced that it is ending its road rehabilitation programme and instead shifting the funds to other sectors. [See below, answer given on behalf the European Commission]

This strategic retreat fails to tackle the root of the problem: that slave labour is endemic in Eritrea.

The EU knew, from the outset, that National Service conscripts would be used in the road building – labour the UN Human Rights Council described as a form of slavery [See below].

As the EU accepted when it drafted its own plans for the road rehabilitation scheme:

“The labour used by the construction companies will consist of three types of personnel: permanent Government professionals; those in national service; and those mobilised from the local community on a cash-for-work basis. As raised during recent high-level dialogue, the Government has indicated that reforms to the National Service will start to take place when jobs have been created, so allowing incremental demobilisation. The current economic realities preclude this. Hence, the National Service continues to provide employment in all aspects of civilian life, for which remuneration is given. This has recently been increased, but within the limits of what Government finances can provide. This will be a subject of heightened dialogue.”

In other words (except in peasant farming) National Service conscripts, will be used. The “heightened dialogue” has, to date, not seen a single conscript released. Some have been trapped in National Service for over 20 years, and subjected to terrible abuses.

The EU’s currently has nine projects in Eritrea worth over Euros 151 million. Although the European Commission now plans to shift its finances from roads to areas such as justice and economic growth (neither clearly specified) they will inevitably employ these National Service “slaves”.

The Eritrean government is clearly angry about the EU’s change of policy. Eritrean pro-government websites have responded defensively.

They have pointed to projects (like the Asmara-Massawa road) which were built without EU aid.

Answer given to the European Parliament by Ms Urpilainen on behalf of the European Commission

E-003753/2020 (15.9.2020)

Since December 2018, the EU has been engaging with Eritrea based on the so-called “dual track approach”. This focuses on strengthening the political dialogue with the country’s government, notably encouraging political and economic reforms and improvement of human rights, whilst pursuing development cooperation.

The EU-funded project ‘Reconnecting Eritrea and Ethiopia through rehabilitation of the main arterial roads in Eritrea’ is implemented by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). Reimbursement of costs of materials will happen in tranches, based on a methodology that is also used in EU-funded works contracts in development countries: UNOPS will assess and confirm the quality and quantity of the materials used by verifying reports issued by the Ministry of Public Works (MoPW) and measuring the number of kilometres completed to the agreed standards. UNOPS will receive, confirm and validate withdrawal requests based on the completeness of the documentation provided by the Red Sea Trading Corporation (RSTC – acting as the Central Procurement Authority for the Government of Eritrea), and make payments to RSTC. In case of non-compliance or lack of clarity, additional documentation may be requested. Site visits are to be organised at least every four months and/or as required. Progress reports will be submitted to UNOPS and the EU every four months.

UNOPS will reimburse the cost of materials by transferring funds to the RSTC into a dedicated project bank account used exclusively for the project. Both contractual arrangements between EU and UNOPS and UNOPS and RSTC include anti‑corruption provisions, as well as clauses allowing for the termination of contract on grounds of breach of contractual obligations.

Following the ‘no more roads’ approach, the recently approved EUTF[1] EUR 19.7 million for Eritrea has been allocated to new programmes to support the implementation of the Universal Periodic Review Recommendations, diaspora engagement, justice administration, and economic growth.

Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, 9 May 2016


“The commission concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that, within the context of military/national service programmes, Eritrean officials exercise powers attaching to the right of ownership over Eritrean citizens. It also determines that, despite the justifications for a military/national service programme advanced in 1995, the programmes today serve primarily to boost economic development, to profit State-endorsed enterprises and to maintain control over the Eritrean population in a manner inconsistent with international law. The commission therefore finds that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials have committed the crime of enslavement, a crime against humanity, in a persistent, widespread and systematic manner since no later than 2002.”


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