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Why More Sanctions? Q+A - Semere Kesete, Former Student Union President at the now closed Asmara University

The UN Security Council appears inclined to impose additional targeted sanctions on Eritrea amid accusations that like Al Shabab in Somalia, the PFDJ regime might be hiding information on famine in the country. Additional sanctions banning or restricting revenues from mining would reaffirm international fear that the regime would spend the money on illegal weapons to “destabilize” the Horn Region instead of feeding its people.

Semere Kesete knows PFDJ’s brutalities first hand having been imprisoned and tortured from July 2001-July 2002 for championing academic freedom and human rights as student leader and for condemning forced labor. He escaped from jail with the help of a prison guard and now lives as a refugee in the US. With a law degree - LL’B - from Asmara University, Semere is now a master’s degree holder in Social Justice and Human Rights from Arizona State University.

I recently got hold of Semere for discussion on the sanctions. Here are his responses to my questions beginning with his take on chances of additional UN measures against the Eritrean Government.

Semere Kesete: I think it is advisable to look at the past records to predict what lies ahead. If you carefully analyze all Eritrea’s diplomatic efforts, you would find a regular pattern. In most cases, Eritrea loses the diplomatic battle. In most cases, it couldn’t score a diplomatic success. The African Union’s vote in Sirte, Libya in 2008 is a clear example of the Eritrean Government’s diplomatic failure. Even Libya, supposedly best friend of the regime in Eritrea at the time, couldn’t show the volition to support Eritrea’s anti-sanction case. What we can expect from the current UN Security Council debate therefore not going to be different. There are indications that the Council will give full credence to East African government’s concerns and pass IGAD’s sanctions motions as they are.

Michael : As you pointed out, the government’s diplomatic blunders have a lot to do with the sanctions. Do you think Eritrea’s position at the UN has been harmed by its diplomatic row with the UK over its mistreatment of the four British nationals?

Semere: A country’s diplomatic strength is a cumulative of its general diplomatic policies and actions. Yet, even a single event could be important. The UK is a permanent member of the Security Council and has great diplomatic influence. In our case, Eritrea doesn’t have good diplomatic image. I don’t even believe that the government values diplomacy as one of the main elements of national power. That is why, at present, there are no career Eritrean diplomats representing the nation who could truly represent the interest of the Eritrean people. As a result, Eritrea is suffering from lack of diplomatic skills. Eritrea has suffered territorially, legally, politically, and economically. In many instances, despite Eritrea’s hard facts and truth, it suffers severely because of the government’s clumsy and untalented diplomatic maneuvers. This is because whenever the country faces diplomatic issues, the government’s approach is inward looking aimed at deceiving the public inside Eritrea instead of crafting a careful and statesman-like diplomatic strategy to challenge the problem.

Through an inward looking strategy, there is no way you can reach out the level of diplomacy that one country needs in its troubling time. At present, because of the sanction, the government is damaged heavily and the effect is far reaching. The government is trying its best to mitigate the diplomatic suffocation that it is in. Still it is deploying and applying the same logic that is known for its negative results.

Coming to the recent incident with the UK, the government was indeed harmed because its handling of the matter was not in line with rule of law. The way the matter ended was not a case of good diplomacy. Even the most diplomatic country is not expected to ‘pardon’ foreigners accused of such serious crimes against the state. Clearly, the Eritrean government mishandled the matter miserably.

Michael: The UN Monitoring Group has been investigating new Eritrean weapons purchases.  What weapons is Eritrea banned from buying under the sanctions resolutions and how worried should President Isaias Afewerki be in view of his worsening relations with Ethiopia?

Semere: There is no exact list of weapons that Eritrea is banned from purchasing. The embargo includes anything that has to do with arms, arm-related materials of any type, weapons, military or paramilitary equipment, military vehicles, military spare parts, military uniforms, military shoes etc. That is why governments take embargos seriously and Eritrea’s case cannot be an exception. The regime in Eritrea clearly understands this. But Isayas may want to pretend that he is not worried.

However, this issue should not be taken as his issue alone. He knows, as we do, that the true state of defense of the country has been weakened. Evidently, national power does not depend on military equipment alone. More than anything else, it is dependent on the resolve of the people. The current exodus of the Eritrean youth explains the prevailing state of reduced capacity of the country. But I don’t expect Ethiopia will want to go to war with Eritrea.

As G.K.N. Trevaskis observed after World War Two, Ethiopia’s “temptation to subject Eritrea firmly under her own control will always be great. Should she try to do so, she will risk Eritrean discontent and eventual revolt, which, with foreign sympathy and support, might well disrupt both Eritrea and Ethiopia herself.” In fairness, the current government of Ethiopia could be considered most prudent in this regard.

Michael: Can the UN monitoring group force Nevsun and the other Western mining companies to disclose their contractual and financial agreements with the Eritrean government under 1907 UNSC sanctions resolution?

Semere: The UN Monitoring Group only deals with subjects of international law. Companies are not direct subjects of international law, even though this position is changing. If the UN wants disclosure, it has to oblige the home country of the company. The Government of Eritrea will not reveal the truth unless such a revelation serves the government. Some home countries may have ethical standards that compel their corporations to reveal the human rights implications of their investments abroad.

Michael: Labor relations and conditions of employment at these mining companies in Eritrea are said to be very abusive and exploitative.  How do you think are mining workers affected by the existing labor practice, which is seen by many as amounting to slave labor?

Semere: This is the most serious issue in Eritrea. The Eritrean government has been running the nation completely disregarding the rule of law. No area of life is legally governed. One of the areas that need to be governed by law is labor. When it comes to labor, Eritrea has two sets of laws: one governs civil servants and the other governs employees of private employers. There is one exception. Governmental entities that engage in commercial activities are governed by the Labor Proclamation. Thus government employees working in the mining activities should be governed by the Labor Proclamation. In addition, Eritrea is a party to several labor conventions including those of the International Labor Organization. The Labor Proclamation governs many matters including hiring and firing employees. In general the Labor Proclamation is based on the principle of freedom of contract. Thus both the employee and the employer enter into an agreement based on their free will. Wages are supposed to be left for agreement between the parties.  

However, given that there is no rule of law in Eritrea, workers have not been benefiting from the protection of law. As a consequence, employees don’t have the power to negotiate or have a say on their wages and working conditions. The worst part is that the whole young population is conscripted to a never-ending national service where they are forced to work not for the nation’s interest but for the benefit of wealthy party and government members. And this is pure contemporary slavery.

The most disturbing situation is the mining companies are using this manpower through subcontracting their projects to the local construction companies owned by PFDJ. The conscripts are not appropriately remunerated although they are working in projects which are highly important for the mining companies. And it is this very reason that has made the Government of Eritrea to offer the mining companies the mining operation in Eritrea at extremely cheap operational costs. In addition, from past experiences, we know the government demands somewhat fair wages from the companies and then it forces Eritrean employees to accept exploitative wages. The difference, which is significant, goes to the government.

Thus, the conscripts working in the mining projects are nothing but enslaved, with no negotiation or collective bargaining powers. No one can justify this never-ending and unremunerated work except in terms of slavery. The mining companies cannot be free from this and they cannot justify their operations otherwise.

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