On the eve of the EU-Africa summit taking place in Lisbon on 8-9 December, Reporters Without Borders today called on the EU presidency to declare Eritrean leader Issaias Afeworki and his aides persona non grata throughout the Europe Union because of serious violations of human rights and press freedom since 2001.
President Issaias, who is due to attend the summit, is not subject to an EU visa ban, unlike his Belarusian and Zimbabwean counterparts, Alexandre Lukashenko and Robert Mugabe. There has been controversy about Mugabe’s attendance at the Lisbon summit.
“After years of impunity, the contempt shown by the Eritrean authorities for the agreements they have signed with the EU must finally be punished,” Reporters Without Borders said. “One cannot carry on making a issue about Mugabe’s presence or absence and yet ignore the question of Eritrea.”
The organisation added: “This summit offers an opportunity for Europe to finally shed its indifference and announce that its tolerance has reached the limit. Solidarity with political prisoners requires that those responsible for the tragedy taking place behind closed doors in Eritrea since 2001 should at the very least be barred from European territory.”
Reporters Without Borders wrote to the European parliament’s 785 members on 26 November sending them detailed documentation on the press freedom situation in Eritrea and asking them to support its call for President Issaias and members of his government to be declared persona non grata.
The president and his immediate aides, including spokesman Yemane Ghebremeskel, close adviser Naizghi Kiflu and acting information minister Ali Abdu, and the army’s generals are the chief architects and perpetrators of the crackdown launched on 18 September 2001, when the leading privately-owned media were suddenly closed, their executives and editors were rounded up and thrown in prison, and for several weeks the political police waged a manhunt in the capital of Africa’s youngest country.
Hundreds of government opponents, including around 15 journalists, have been held in secret locations ever since then. They have not been properly charged, they have not been tried and they have had no contact with the outside world. Four of the journalists have already died in one of the many prison camps around the country. The few Eritreans who have managed to escape or have been released say conditions in these prisons are appalling.
At the start of May, the EU granted Eritrea 122 million euros in financial aid under the 10th European Development Fund for the period 2008-13. The EDF is the financial arm of the Cotonou Agreement, which is meant to link the 27 EU countries with 78 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) for 20 years.
A press release at the time said this aid was primarily intended to fund reinforcement of administrative capacity, infrastructure and food aid. In return, the EU asked the Eritrean government to “adopt a constructive approach to the crises in the region and to progress on human rights and press freedom.”
But President Issaias contemptuously dismissed critical questions from journalists about human rights at a news conference in Brussels with Louis Michel, the European commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, on 4 May, the day the accord was signed. Michel nonetheless said he was “very, very honoured” to receive Issaias at the European Commission.
In response, Reporters Without Borders urged the EU to adopt targeted sanctions against President Issaias on 23 May, saying its new policy was “inconsistent and dangerous” as it gave him “the chance to celebrate his victory, strengthen his grip and continue to renege on his promises with impunity.”
In June, the organisation wrote to European parliament members urging them to request visas for a visit to Eritrea to evaluate the situation of basic freedoms there. The ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly tried to send a delegation to Asmara but gave up in October because the Eritrean authorities refused to cooperate.
Article 9 of the Cotonou Agreement says: “Respect for human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law, which underpin the ACP-EU partnership, shall underpin the domestic and international policies of the parties and constitute the essential elements of this agreement.”
“Appropriate measures” can be taken under article 96 if “a party considers that the other party has failed to fulfil an obligation stemming from respect for human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law.”