(La Presse, 20 June, 2015) In Eritrea, one of the worst dictatorships in the world remains in power through terror, mass surveillance, widespread torture, arbitrary detention and forced labor. These violations “of a scope and magnitude rarely seen elsewhere” might constitute “crimes against humanity,” concludes a recent report by the UN commission investigating human rights in that country the Horn of Africa.
The UN report, which describes nearly 500 pages the serious violations of human rights committed by the totalitarian regime, also concludes that a Canadian mine was built in part through the forced labor of hundreds of workers conscripts by the Eritrean government.
These men and women have worked against their will without good pay or adequate protective equipment to the construction site of the gold and copper mine of Bisha, 60% owned by Nevsun Resources Ltd. of Vancouver, and 40% by the corporation Eritrean National Mining Corp.
“The Commission has gathered evidence of forced labor in the context of development and operation of the Bisha mine, located 150 km [the capital] Asmara. This is so far the only operating mine in Eritrea. ”
– Extract from the report of the Inquiry Commission, made public on 8 June by the High Commissioner for UN Human Rights.
Under the pretext of defending the state integrity, the regime imposes on all citizens a “national service” a year. In reality, Eritreans forcibly recruited at the age of 18 and find themselves serve indefinitely in inhumane conditions.
This servo drives each month thousands of Eritreans risk their life to old tubs launched in the Mediterranean Sea toward Europe. “The indefinite national service and its terrible conditions – including arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labor, lack of leave and pay ridiculous […] make it an institution that practices similar slavery are routine, “slice the report.
From the beginning of the work at the site of the Bisha mine in September 2008, the regime imposed its own construction company, Segen, to perform the infrastructure work. Nevsun did not have the choice of contractor. Now the Segen workers were regularly mistreated conscripts by their superiors. “Typically, they punished us by focusing the night, to not waste our work during the day, said one witness to UN investigators. Most of the time, they punished us for not obeying orders while working. ”
Nevsun denies that forced labor occurred at the mine site. It claims to have attempted to contact the Inquiry repeatedly, hoping to get a meeting with investigators, without success. “We have also submitted an independent study on human rights at the Bisha mine, which includes more than 150 interviews conducted within the country but, strangely, the Commission – which has never visited Eritrea – chose do not use this in their assessment, “the company wrote to us via email.
The Commission replies that it took into account the study provided by Nevsun in preparing its report. “However, this submission did not contain any relevant information on the possible use of conscripts during the construction phase (2008-2011) of Mine infrastructure,” explained a spokesperson, in writing. “That was before the period covered by the report submitted by Nevsun (July 2013-January 2014). ”
Since the Commission had no mandate to assess the responsibility of Nevsun in forced labor conscripts, she has not seen fit to meet company executives.
Moreover, the entry into the Eritrean ground was denied to investigators of the Commission by the regime, which they also refused any cooperation. The investigators collected over 700 testimonies of Eritreans refugees out of this closed country where criticism of the dictatorship is severely punished.
CONDITIONS OF SLAVERY
Amanuel Woldegiorgis (fictitious name) was conscripted at the Bisha mine. “I do not want to work there, but I have been forced,” he said in a telephone interview. Assigned to the construction of a road, he maneuvered heavy machinery for Segen company. Ten hours a day, almost without pay.
“I was only ordinary shoes and a simple uniform. I had no helmet, no gloves, no goggles, no. ”
– A worker conscripted to Bisha mine
The conscripts were often punished by being deprived of food, or forced to work overtime. “In the camp, we were 600 conscripts, with only 10 toilets to share. We never had enough food. We were always hungry.”Mr. Woldegiorgis, now a refugee in Europe, is satisfied were literally treated like a slave.
Canadian mine workers “have never approached us, they never asked us questions,” he said. In the UN report, former conscript says, “before sending us to Bisha, [our superiors] told us not to reveal our identity as soldiers. We wore civilian clothes and work uniforms. ”
Foreigners living in comfortable houses – built by conscripts – and were entitled to all the paraphernalia of regulatory certainty, according to a witness quoted in the report. “They had shoes designed for mine workers, protect electric shocks. But the young soldiers had no equipment. Some had plastic shoes. It was expected that we risked our lives. ”
PROSECUTION IN CANADA
Last November, three former conscripts forced to work at the Bisha mine filed a lawsuit against Nevsun before the Supreme Court of British Columbia. They argue that the Canadian company has shown complicity in torture, forced labor and slavery committed in Eritrea.
In its defense, Nevsun denies that subcontractors have made use of forced labor or other forms of abuse at the site of the Bisha mine. The company argues that “Eritrea is not a rogue state” and has a functional justice system, including a “Labour Code, which prohibits forced labor.”
In its report, the UN Commission of Inquiry concluded instead that “there is no rule of law in Eritrea,” a country whose justice system is completely controlled by the regime.
Asked to respond to the UN report concluding that the use of forced labor on the site of a Canadian mine, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade wrote that “the Government of Canada expects that all Canadian companies doing business abroad respect human rights and all the laws that are applicable, and their activities are managed in a manner consistent with internationally accepted standards on responsible corporate behavior “.
Nevsun judge for his part that his presence in Eritrea has a positive impact by creating jobs for thousands of people. The company will pay 14 billion US to the Eritrean treasure in the next 10 years in taxes, royalties and other fees.
“We believe that Canadians can be proud of the work we have accomplished in Eritrea. Nevsun has been a positive social and economic force for Eritreans. ”
– The CEO of the mine, Cliff Davis, before the Human Rights subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, 1 st November 2012
The Liberal MP Irwin Cotler has hardly shown impressed by this statement. “How you feel, has he asked to work in a country that has been described as the North Korea of ??Africa in relation to violations of human rights? ”
“All I can say, Mr. Davis said, is that we only control what is in our power to control. As a company, we do a lot of good for this country and we do a lot of good to the people of Eritrea. “