Published in Migros Magazin on July 11th 2017, in Switzerland. The interview was conducted in Dutch, translated to English by Annelies Djellal-Müller of GiveaHand.ch
Dear Migros Magazin,
Your recent article (11th July, 2017) which took the form of an interview with Hans-Ulrich Stauffer about his recent book on Eritrea must not be left without comment, which would otherwise allow the impression that it is an accurate assessment of that country’s political and human rights conditions. Many of his conclusions and opinions directly contradict the evidence confirmed by experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council which recently endorsed the report of its Commission of Inquiry. Mr. Stauffer often repeats views which echo the Eritrean government’s own propaganda. It is essential that his biased reporting be challenged with full and accurate explanations of what is actually causing large numbers of the people of Eritrea to flee their own homeland –up to 60,000 leave each year, despite an official shoot-to-kill policy at the borders designed to stop all emigration by citizens.
In the copy of the interview reproduced below, sections of his replies are followed by informed commentary which provides a careful and accurate appraisal of the true situation, and corrects the misleading assertions which are essentially repetition of Eritrean government propaganda. The commentary by Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) is indicated in red typeface.
Stauffer’s View of Eritrea
Switzerland offers shelter to thousands of Eritreans – is Eritrea the «African North Korea», as claimed by the media?
No, says Hans-Ulrich Stauffer, the expert on Africa about the isolationist policies of the Eritrean government, and the reasons of refugees (to come to Europe) and the lack of commitment in the Swiss capital of Berne.
Hans-Ulrich Stauffer, your latest book is on Eritrea. How did you come across the country?
In 1973, the Horn of Africa experienced a terrible famine which revealed the questionable nature of the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. At that time, I got in contact with the Eritrean liberation movement “Eritrean People’s Liberation Front”.
Why were so many people here moved by the liberation struggle in Eritrea?
Eritrea used to be an Italian colony before coming under British military rule. After that, there was the forced integration into Ethiopia and finally the liberation struggle. Ethiopia was initially supported by the USA, then by the Soviet Union, whereas Eritrea always relied on itself. This lonely liberation struggle against Ethiopia – at that time the African state with the strongest army – has led to a reputation (nimbus) which lasts until date. With time, a reduced mentality (a concept of self-reliance, propagated during the 2nd WW in order to keep up the moral of the Swiss population) has been established, combined with an avant-garde of the leading people.
Today, Eritrea is sometimes referred to as the “North Korea of Africa”.
This comparison is nonsense. Definitely, Eritrea is not a democratic country. In the course of the decade-long struggle for liberation, a strong leadership has evolved and keeps ruling Eritrea in an authoritarian manner. But Eritrea has access to information from all over the world at any time. On many houses, you can find satellite receivers and smartphones are everywhere. People in Eritrea are well aware of what is going on in the world.
HRCE: That Eritrea is not a democracy cannot simply be brushed over and side-lined in a conversation about a country ruled by a government accused of committing crimes against humanity and with a severe human rights crisis. Moreover, the fact that Eritrea is not a democracy did not emerge out of nothing. Mr Stauffer states that he was in contact with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) since the early ‘70s. It has become known to all now that the leadership of the EPLF formed a secret party within the movement which they then turned into the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) after the country’s independence in 1991 and have ruled and controlled the citizens ruthlessly ever since.
If Mr. Stauffer had been paying attention all these years, the EPLF always claimed to be fighting for democracy. After its formation, the PFDJ, the unelected and sole ruling party to this day, also claimed to be democratic and that Eritrea is a democracy. That Eritrea is de facto non-democratic should not be treated as natural or inconsequential in discussing and assessing the situation within the country, especially since the Eritrean people had hoped, and committed their very lives, to live democratically since the beginning of their independence struggle.
The presence of TV dishes and smartphones is no indication that there is freedom of press or expression. If the(small) portion of Eritrea population who do use the Internet must avoid certain websites for fear of their safety, and cannot freely speak their mind or express their discontent, it has little meaning and makes little change in their lives that they can get news of the outside world.
Is it correct that Eritrea wants to be autonomous from foreign countries – in a way that Mao once tried to achieve it for his country?
This idea was and still is part of EPLF’s and also the present government party’s ideology. The Eritrean leadership is convinced that it knows best what is good for its country; it refuses to be dictated by foreign experts. This does not make it (the Eritrean government) well-liked among international organizations, especially since Eritrea also doesn’t open up for global trade. There is not a single Chinese shop in Eritrea, for instance.
This is different in the rest of Africa.
This is the reason why in most parts of Africa, small and medium businesses have gone bankrupt. Considering it from this point of view, the stubborn mentality of the Eritrean leadership also proves to have positive sides.
HRCE: It is highly problematic that a leadership which has been in power for over 26 years can decide what is best for the country. An overstay in power has, throughout history, always indicated a disinterest in the concerns of the citizens of the country and thus a neglect of what the people really want for their country. The government of Eritrea continues to use ‘sovereignty’ as an excuse to avoid its obligations to respect the rights of Eritreans, despite having signed international treaties and conventions promising to do so.
In many African countries, a small corrupt elite is in power. Is this the case for Eritrea as well?
I have been there many times, and as far as I can judge it, there is hardly any drift between rich and poor. This does not mean that members of the government do not enjoy certain privileges. But there is no culture of private self-enrichment – there is no corruption.
HRCE: Mr Stauffer’s claim that there is no corruption in Eritrea is simply false, and is a dangerous perception to extoll. The sad reality is, as the government’s policies and practices push the economy in an ever-deeper crisis, corruption continues to grow rampant. Eritreans have to bribe officials at various levels in order to conduct ordinary affairs, a situation which can have dire consequences in a country where the gap between the rich and the poor is ever growing.
With foreign companies extracting the resources of the country and using the territory for military bases without the people having a say, the government controlling the population’s private income and savings, funds from organisations such as the EU going in the pockets of the government and remaining un-accounted for, Mr Stauffer’s assertion that Eritrea is corruption free only contributes to masking the financial malpractices which increase the Eritrean people’s suffering.
But “successful” visits to Eritrea by outsiders are generally not helpful or insightful. In fact, they generally are misleading and damaging with respect to understanding the reality of the people. Visitors are predictably handed the regime’s message, while not being permitted unfettered access to the citizenry outside of Asmara. (Even in Asmara, the average man on the street will not speak at all to a visitor, about conditions in the country.) Asmara in fact is the last place an outsider will learn what’s actually going on. In 2014, the Danes experienced this when their Immigration Service sent a small team there to investigate current conditions in Eritrea, and spoke to people not in a position to reveal the truth. They spoke with foreign embassy representatives there… who themselves would not know the real story. The Danes’ report was discredited and dismissed by the international community. Outside observation and accountability are simply not allowed in order to protect the regime. The UN Human Rights Commission of Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur have not been permitted entry to the country; and the International Red Cross is denied access to the 360+ jails and prisons, some underground and many having shipping containers used as human cages. The facts are learned from refugees who have managed to flee the abuse.
And no tribal and religious wars as well?
Whereas half of Eritrea’s population is Christian, the other half is Muslim. For a long time, the balance between them was very fragile. For the government, it is crucial that this balance can be maintained. That’s why neither missionaries sent by North American Evangelist denominations nor Saudi-sponsored imams are welcome.
HRCE: No one wants to see a tribal or religious war happen in Eritrea. But there has been no conflict in Eritrea between religious factions. The balance is not at all “fragile.” The government of Eritrea has used the virtually non-existent threat of religious wars as an excuse to eliminate freedom of religion altogether, allowing only a few religious denominations to function in a limited manner. For example, it prohibits prayer groups to gather freely, thus violating the freedom of assembly as well. The government has outlawed Christian evangelical sects because of their habit of meeting privately in groups, which is perceived as a threat to the regime, and hundreds of Pentecostals and others have been arrested, beaten and jailed indefinitely.
“We should speed up concerning our commitment into development policy.” Says Hans-Ulrich Stauffer.
You wrote in your book that Eritrea relies on biological (no fertilizer, thus positive!) agriculture.
This is less intention than necessity. There’s simply no money for fertilizers and pesticides. But food security is a top priority. For this reason, about 1,000 dams have been built over the past 20 years in order to ensure water supply. Agriculture, by the way, is not state-owned, but it remains in the hands of private farmers.
HRCE: The excuse of dam building has been one of the ongoing justifications for continuing the indefinite national service, in the name of developing the country and providing food security. There are a few problems with Mr Stauffer’s echoing of the Eritrean government’s propaganda. First of all, it cannot be assumed that a thousand dams (which needs to be independently verified if there are that many in the first place) translate in better agriculture: the storage of the naturally flowing streams can result in adverse consequences for the soil and the underground reserves, thus affecting areas much broader than where the dam is located. Secondly, food security for the population is not guaranteed by agriculture only, particularly due to two factors: a good portion of the Eritrean landscape is un-suitable for large-scale agriculture, and heavy dependence on local agriculture. To rely only on agriculture to feed the entire population of a country located in drought-prone region of the world is running an un-necessary risk.
Having said all that about the viability of depending on dam building and agriculture for food security, we must look at how agriculture can even be done effectively if the majority of the workforce is conscripted into the military. All the youth are conscripted into the indefinite national service which takes them taken away from their families and assigns them to jobs without them having any say. The families in rural areas who would have depended on the younger generation to continue the work in the farms are having to rely on the elderly doing the hard farm work for subsistence. There is no privately owned land in the country, as it all belongs to the government and whatever the farmers produce they must sell to the government. There might be privately owned agricultural firms, (it is not clear if Mr Stauffer means this by ‘private farmers’) but if the land and its produce is owned by the government, it is hard to see how agriculture is not in fact nationalised.
According to your description, Eritrea is almost a model country. Why is it that thousands of young people still flee every year?
A shoe cleaner told one of my friends that one of his friends had written to him that he was living in a 3 room flat being given 900 Francs to live, every month. For an Eritrean, such a narrative sound like paradise. This is especially the case for he isn’t in the position to estimate the monthly life expenses in Switzerland.
HRCE: Mr Stauffer clearly fails to objectively see the situation in Eritrea if he believes that the reason thousands of young people flee from Eritrea every year is to receive money from the Swiss or other European governments. Living rent-free and getting a monthly allowance is paradise in anyone’s eyes: Eritreans do not leave their homes and risk their lives and that of their loved ones simply because they have a warped understanding of how life in Europe is. What is evident to any young Eritrean is that they will be conscripted before they even finish high-school, they will be subject to numerous human rights violations, they could be made victims of torture or rape and other degrading abuses, and they will have no say in what they will study or do in the future. Mr Stauffer’s remark that Eritreans leave their country because they expect paradise to be on the other side is condescending, and, worse, misleading.
The professor should not rely on comments passed on from his shoe shiner’s friend, but rather consult and interview many Eritrean refugees in Switzerland and in other countries to get a realistic picture of the situation prevailing in Eritrea.
Andreas Glarner, (a member of the Swiss parliament and) a member of the (self-styled) Swiss People’s Party (very nationalist and right-winged) doesn’t see this any different. Are we actually luring Eritreans into coming to Switzerland?
This goes back to a decision taken by the Asylum Appeals Commission from 2005. This decision claims that desertion equals political persecution (this is only partly true, by the way. Desertion from the military service has explicitly been erased from the Swiss asylum law after a revision approved by the Swiss people on Sept 29th 2013). This news quickly reached Eritrea. There are human rights violations taking place in Eritrea, that’s true, and freedom of expression is limited. But there are other human rights such as the rights to food, education and health – and in this regard, Eritrea has achieved amazing things. Eritrea is among the best in Africa when it comes to the growth targets defined by the UN. Child and maternal mortality at birth have also been decreased significantly. Malaria and HIV rates are low; the economy is growing at an annual rate of eight per cent.
Nevertheless, many young men invest around 8,000 dollars in order to pay human trafficking organizations. They risk their lives to be able to flee to Switzerland.
There are far too few jobs in Eritrea for young people, at least in the cities.
In addition, it is the National Service …… an institution where young people are recruited and which may last for years and with uncertain outcome.
That is not correct. The military service is just an operational area of the National Service. There are also plenty of civilian activities, for instance the service at a hotel reception, or in a hospital. It is also no forced labour; you are paid a modest salary. The problem is that the duration of the national service is not clearly limited. But, let us remember the fact that Ethiopia still holds a part of Eritrea, despite the international court’s decision, and refuses to recognize the frontier. Tens of thousands of Eritreans are in military service because of this neither- war-nor-peace situation.
HRCE: Despite Eritrea claiming it made progress in the areas of food security, education and health, there continues to be a food rationing system imposed by the government and the worsening poverty situation making it difficult for large parts of the population to get the food they want or need. Education continues to be militarised (an issue that HRCE has written about on various occasions), and health service provision is severely limited due to lack of necessary equipment, supplies and trained personnel. Government officials leave the country to get treatment abroad and Eritreans with the means have to order their medicine from abroad. All of these factors and others such as hygiene conditions in hospitals and clinics will inevitably have an impact on child and maternal mortality, and the progress the PFDJ government claims has been made is yet to be independently and transparently verified.
Mr Stauffer’s assertion that Eritrea’s violations of human rights and freedom of expression can be counter-balanced by the purported advances in other areas further demonstrates the flawed understanding of the situation. As an academic, repeating figure such as ‘8% p.a. economic growth’ uncritically despite numerous indications to the contrary only serves to discredit his analysis. Eritrea does not report verifiable country economic data.
Why can the government not get to terms with that?
Because it does not really know what to do with all its people when they are no longer in national service. There are simply no jobs for them. Therefore, one needs to consider how jobs could be created in Eritrea. This would be the right approach for Switzerland as well.
Most of them (Eritrean refugees) depend on social welfare in Switzerland.
They are actually over 80 percent, and this is a horror. But I am actually not in a position to provide you with a profound assessment concerning this matter. But I do imagine that Switzerland is just a stop-over for many Eritreans. Actually, they are intending to proceed to the UK or to the US for most of them do speak English. In Switzerland, they encounter completely unfamiliar living conditions. They are often mentally stuck.
The way you describe it, there’s actually no good reason for granting Eritreans asylum.
I would not want to say that in this general manner. There are certainly Eritreans who have suffered at the hands of the regime, but I am convinced that it is not the case for many.
There are, however, two UN reports claiming that there are gross human rights violations happening in Eritrea.
There are contradictory reports too, for instance the statement given by the ambassadors of several Western European countries as well as the ambassador for the European Union, all of them residing in the Eritrean capital Asmara. The image of Eritrea is changing, in Switzerland as well. Today, the simple refusal to join the National Service is no longer sufficient to be granted an asylum status. An individual persecution must also be proven. I believe that this can be justified.
HRCE: It raises many questions about the objectivity of Mr Stauffer’s book when he keeps repeating almost verbatim what the Eritrean government says to justify the indefinite national service. HRCE recently wrote about the Eritrean president’s aide Yemane Gebreab and about his interview conducted in 2015 with Radio Deutchlandfunk; readers are invited to listen to it and other similar interviews on European media to find nearly the exact same words used by the president’s aide and Mr Stauffer, regarding national service. As he did with respect to to other key issues in the Eritrean crisis, Mr Stauffer shrugs off the indefinite conscription by trying to give examples of non-military jobs assigned to the youth when they do their national service. The problem is precisely the fact that they cannot choose their profession. The lack of jobs in Eritrea (by which the government, and we can safely assume Mr Stauffer here, means in the private sector) is not a phenomenon which happened overnight. It was the government’s policies and practices violating the right to work, the import-export business, and other limitation on the legal tender which led to the stunting of the private sector. Nothing more than a free and open economy made available in Eritrea would certainly lead to ample employment opportunities with suitable compensation. Young people are paying thousands of dollars to reach Europe safely because otherwise they live or risk living what amounts to a life in slavery. They certainly don’t risk their lives and money simply because there isn’t work in the cities.
Beside showing a misappreciation of the extent to which Eritreans suffer under the current government, Mr Stauffer fails to recognise that those very few who have not yet suffered under the regime but fled anyway did not need to wait for their turn to suffer to comprehend the future that lay in front of them if they stayed in the Eritrea.
There is a worrying trend of a growing number of voices in Europe trying to minimise the extent to which there are human rights violations happening in Eritrea. The tide of minimising the crimes being committed by the Eritrean government and the help it is receiving from Europe goes parallel with Europe’s growing concern over the number of migrants arriving from Africa, a large percentage of which is from Eritrea. Mr Stauffer is joining those voices, but despite this the UN, and very recently the EU, have strongly condemned the human rights violations in Eritrea. The national service is a gateway for the indefinite period in which an Eritrean’s life is put under the government’s control; just because the Swiss immigration policy has slightly changed doesn’t mean the gravity of the situation has diminished: again, as an academic, Mr Stauffer should be able to distinguish between the two.
The Federal Council is under pressure what the refugee issue is concerned. Why did he not become active respective of Eritreans?
Swiss officials have ended up in a dead-end road as far as Eritrea is concerned. While the Federal President Ms. Simonetta Somaruga had claimed that there would not be any negotiations with a dictatorship (she referred to Eritrea), she has travelled to Ethiopia at the same time. That was rather boorish of her. Now it is all about getting out of this dead-end again.
How can this be achieved as Eritrea still refuses to take back rejected asylum seekers?
We would need to pace up our commitment into development policy work. This is difficult, because the Eritreans are stubborn. The Eritrean side should also be prepared to make certain concessions and allow more scope.
HRCE: One must wonder why Eritrea will not accept returnees who have obviously asked for asylum elsewhere. One answer is this: Eritrea is known to not tolerate a single incident or actor with respect to any perceived (by the regime) fragment of political opposition. Violators are jailed under highly abusive conditions, often with beatings and other forms of torture. So, a returned asylum-seeker would not be tolerated, not be released into the population, and would have to be added to the prison population (or otherwise silenced) and thus be a further burden to the government.
How can this be achieved?
You cannot enter wanting to enforce ready-made concepts. The US, for example, demanded the privatization of all state-owned enterprises. This will not work at all. This can only be achieved in a dialogue at eye level. First of all, however, we should try to make relationships less tense. It would be helpful if a high-ranking Swiss delegation would bother to travel to Eritrea, preferably accompanied by at least one member of the Federal Council.
HRCE: The trouble with delegations going to Eritrea is that external visits are not allowed to independently verify the real conditions in Eritrea. Eritrea has a record of escorting reporters and delegations it rarely allows in the country, carefully staging what the external parties see. Given Eritrea’s repeated failures to deliver on its promises such as those it committed to in its two Universal Periodic Reviews, dialogue with Eritrea must first and foremost focus on changing the human rights situation in the country without delay.
Where do you see concrete opportunities for development aid?
In vocational training. Our dual education system has raised interest in Africa too.
So, should the Swiss delegation consist of Ms. Somaruga and Mr. Rudolf Strahm, a renowned specialist on dual vocational training?
That would be the ideal. Eritrea wants an educational system based on the Swiss model. The EU has now approved a development aid program worth 200 million euros for Eritrea. The focus here lies on the development of solar energy in rural areas, for instance when it comes to running water pumps. People able to set up and maintain these systems are needed. Switzerland could make a contribution here.
HRCE: Mr Stauffer finally suggests that the best way for Switzerland to help Eritrea is by providing vocational training. Whilst there is nothing wrong in vocational training per se, one of the biggest problems regarding education in Eritrea is that the government has steered all higher learning into skills training. This approach widens the gap between the Eritrean youth and their peers in other countries where higher learning is free and open. By placing those who finished high-school into programmes it chooses for them, the government is in effect eliminating the chance of having a people with the academic tools to critique its shortcomings towards them. Therefore, vocational training should be one of the options, not the only one, and countries and organisations who want to help improve the lives of Eritreans should demand a change in the practices that cause the humanitarian crisis we have today.
But I should add that getting Eritrea to stop the abuse, open up the country to outside observation and throw open the prison doors to release political and religious prisoners as many might hope, may be unrealistic in that the keepers of the keys certainly realise that doing so will ultimately cause they themselves, as perpetrators of crimes against humanity, to face justice. So, it seems that no matter what entreaties and offers are made that may help incrementally, it will be business as usual inside Eritrea.
Lawyer and Eritrea expert
Hans-Ulrich Stauffer (66) is an attorney-at-law, lecturer at the University of Basel and has been Honorary Consul of the Republic of Cape Verde for 27 years. He has been involved in development processes in Africa for more than four decades. In recent years, he has travelled extensively to Eritrea. His book “Eritrea – the second look” has been published by Rotpunktverlag. Stauffer lives with his partner and has two adult daughters.