Asmarino Fundraising: Because There Is So Much More to Be Done!

Combating human rights violations in Eritrea

(Opening remarks prepared for an Eritrean Seminar, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 18 September 2011)                    
                                      by David Matas

Many people here are neither Eritrean nor from the Horn of Africa.  They do not speak the Tigrinya language.  They know little of Eritrean culture.  Eritrea is a new country not much in the news.

Most people in Winnipeg I suspect would have difficulty locating Eritrea on a map, naming its capital (Asmara), identifying its flag, naming its President (Isaias Afwerki), recognizing its governing party (People's Front for Democracy and Justice), or stating its date of independence (formally 1993). Many places have human rights violations, including Canada.  Why should we be concerned about Eritrea?  

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, by the Treaty of Munich in September 1938, agreed with Hitler, Mussolini and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier to give part of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland) to Germany.  Czechoslovakia had no say in the matter. In the House of Commons the same month, Chamberlain justified his appeasement of Hitler, saying about Hitler's claims that Czechoslovakia was mistreating its ethnic German minority, that it was a "quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing."  That is a description which could, for all too many people in Manitoba, easily fit Eritrea and the quarrels amongst its peoples.

Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler in a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom Neville Chamberlain and many of his British colleagues knew nothing led less than twelve months later to World War II, over 400,000 British deaths, a global conflagration and the Holocaust.  If we know nothing about Eritrea, we better learn and learn fast.  The abuses Eritrea wreaks on its citizens run the risk of affecting us all.

Human rights oppression is a spreading indelible stain.  It never stops with today's victims. Unless today's victims are defended, we run the risk of becoming tomorrow's victims.  

Violators divide to conquer.  They attack the most vulnerable, counting on the indifference of those who could help by playing on the difference between the victims and the outsiders.  We must combat that indifference by convincing outsiders of their unity with the victims.

Regrettably, in combating human rights violations, we have a wealth of choices. In choosing which violations to combat, first priority should go to the worst violations.  We need to help victims in those countries who cannot help themselves.  

In Canada, there are all too many victimized individuals and communities.  We owe them our solidarity and our help.  Yet, at least these victims have media access.  They can go to court and get judgments from independent tribunals.  They can raise their concerns during elections.  They will not be jailed, tortured or made to disappear simply because they report on or protest their victimization.

None of that is true in Eritrea.  If you become a human rights activist in Eritrea, you run a grave risk of becoming a human rights victim yourself.  Outsiders must help Eritreans because only outsiders can do so from the vantage of safety.

Protesting the violations of brutal regimes abroad may seem forlorn; the regimes may seem so firmly entrenched that nothing will budge them. Yet, the experience with South African apartheid, the Communist Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the national security states of Latin America and more recently the tyrannies in Egypt and Tunisia shows the contrary. The very inflexibility of these regimes means that they are brittle.  Press against their violations bit by bit and eventually the regimes shatter.

In any case, our primary audience when we protest violations is not the perpetrators but the victims.  Whether our protests move the violators they surely move the victims.  For many victims, the worst part of their victimization is their despair at being unnoticed and abandoned.  By standing with the victims, we say we know what is happening and we object; our very protests are for the victims remedies in themselves.

We must be there because they are here.  Both the victims and the perpetrators have come to Canada, the victims as refugees, the perpetrators as spies and fundraisers and agitators.  If we want to help the refugees in our midst, we should attempt to remove the root causes which led them to flee, the human rights violations back in their home country.  We should make whole the welcome we give refugees here by combating their victimization in their home country.

Human rights belong to individuals, not states.  Leave human rights to states and human rights will wither.  Individuals must assert human rights to keep those rights alive.

Crimes against humanity are crimes against us all.  When crimes against humanity are committed, we are all victims.  We must not be silent in the face of our own victimization, when part of our human family suffers from grave abuses.

We who are neither Tigrinyan, nor Eritrean, nor African must protest human rights violations in Eritrea not in spite of the fact that we are neither Tigrinyan, nor Eritrean, nor African but because we are neither Tigrinyan, nor Eritrean, nor African.  By leaping across the geographical, cultural and linguistic divide we affirm our fundamental unity, our solidarity with all humanity, our common human bond.
David Matas is an international human rights law, immigration and refugee lawyer in Winnipeg.

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