EU foreign chief defends aid for Eritrea amid human rights concerns

Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs. Photo by: Christian Creutz / European Union

BRUSSELS — The European Union’s top foreign representative last week defended its aid spending in Eritrea, in the face of opposition from human rights groups and some European lawmakers.

 “How can we convince people that the European Union is not helping, aiding and abetting the dictatorship?”

— Michèle Rivasi, Greens MEP

Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, said the bloc should be optimistic that its combination of development aid and diplomacy would lead to change in the country.

The EU reengaged with Eritrea after a 2018 peace accord with neighboring Ethiopia raised hopes it would reform its mandatory national service, which can last for decades; end arbitrary and indefinite detention; and allow for freedom of religion.

As part of its support, the EU is spending €80 million ($90 million) to finance road works which would allow landlocked Ethiopia to access Eritrea’s ports. Members of the European Parliament and human rights groups have criticized the project for using forced conscripts, however, with little scrutiny from the EU.

As Michèle Rivasi, a French Greens MEP, put it recently: “How can we convince people that the European Union is not helping, aiding and abetting the dictatorship?”

Asked by Devex last week whether the European Union has a Plan B if its strategy for reform doesn’t work, Borrell said that “in Eritrea, things have got better but not as much as they should have.” Nonetheless, he said, the EU should “keep going” with its dual-track development and diplomacy strategy, “to change structures and change the way in which the political system works.”

“I don’t think we can always be playing the Good Samaritan and handing out donations but not getting into the political evolution of a country,” Borrell said. “Eritrea is one of the main sources of migrants to Europe after all, so we are going to continue this work and expect success, although we know that this won’t necessarily happen tomorrow.”

But Daniela Kravetz, the United Nations special rapporteur on Eritrea, told Devex last week that she had “no idea” what Borrell was referring to when he spoke of progress in the country. She said she had observed no changes in the five benchmarks she identified in a May 2019 report, including promoting the rule of law and reforming the national service.

“The main issue driving Eritreans out of the country is not so much the lack of job opportunities or the poor condition of the roads,” Kravetz said. “It’s more the lack of choice regarding their future, and no prospects; just a sense of hopelessness regarding their future.”

Kravetz welcomed the EU’s development engagement with the Eritrean government, but said projects should address the cause of the hopelessness driving people to flee. “Construction of a road or even other infrastructure programs will not necessarily address that root cause,” she said.

Asked what progress Borrell was referring to, an EU spokesperson told Devex that since the bloc adopted its dual-track approach in late 2018, “there are more dialogue opportunities and more engagement on cooperation.” The spokesperson added, “it is clear that more progress is needed.”

Laetitia Bader, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that “engagement should not be an end in itself.”

“The key question is why has the EU chosen to accept the risk of indirectly supporting forced labor by engaging in a construction project — one of the most abusive sectors — and accepting that not even the most basic checks and balances are in place,” she added.

A representative from the commission's development department told MEPs last month that the EU-funded equipment is “reducing labor intensity” on the road project and giving it “access to information and ability to assess the work and the labor conditions.”

MEPs from the development and budgetary control committees are pushing for a fact-finding visit to Eritrea in the second half of 2020, though they are yet to receive authorization from the Eritrean government.

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.