By Ruby Sandhu,
I have had to resort to publishing this piece and inquiry as a blog as no paper entertains any perspective other than the sensationalised unhealthy narrative maintained as against Eritrea.
My reference to Culture of Silence and Eritrea is premised on an inquiry further to a number of discussions and focus groups with the Eritrean diaspora based here in the UK, Europe, USA and Eritrea on the prevalent narrative as against Eritrea. This was after my experience and travel in Eritrea meeting with senior officials, diplomats, Eritreans, businessmen and our shared experience of the narrative in the western media as compared to the reality on the ground in Eritrea. And it is from those direct and candid discussions that I am presented with an overwhelming awareness of the distorted and unbalanced narrative as against Eritrea deliberately propagated by our western supposed free journalism, press and media.
My journey on Eritrea was initiated a couple years ago when I was retained by a client to evaluate the legitimacy of the Rehabilitation and Diaspora Tax (RDT) — see below. My preliminary and superficial research was premised on references to genuine human rights reports exacerbated by the mass media and sensationalised journalism. From this emotive and judgemental space I concluded and with a clinical approach to international law that Eritrea was indeed a despot lawless state and the North Korea of Africa. This was me providing advice not grounded in any contextual understanding or any genuine research on my part, in fact actions from my silo of expertise as a lawyer and couched activism.
I later continued the inquiry in my role as the Vice Chair of the SIHRG (Solicitor’s International Human Rights Group). I had within SIHRG set up a working group on Business Ethics incorporating an inquiry on the implementation of the United Nation’s Guiding Principles on the state duty to protect and the Corporate duty to respect human rights and the provision for access of remedy through the appropriate grievance mechanisms in Eritrea.
It was after travel to Eritrea on that specific inquiry and on a number of occasions on different mandates that I returned to the UK to consolidate my thoughts and research which culminated in me disseminating my paper titled Eritrea through the lens of nation building, business ethics and sustainability to much criticism, that I resigned as the Vice Chair of the Solicitor’s International Human Rights Group as I was accused of whitewashing human rights. This was unfair as my work was premised on the work of Business and Human Rights. There were a number of slurs and defamatory statements in the open media, certain MPs and MEPs refused to engage and I was turned in part like Eritrea into a pariah.
Subsequently, I was re-elected back as a committee member of SIHRG and the itinerant individual and non lawyers who had spearheaded this campaign and not read my report were removed. However, it provided me with an understanding of how emotive certain elements genuine and at worse subversive were on Eritrea.
Subversive in regard to the attacks and shutting down spaces for engagement in the West. This caused me concern as you cannot with one hand state your rights to freedom of expression in Eritrea and then ensure through lobbying that all other perspectives or voices are removed from discussion especially in my country which is a functioning democracy. Eritreans would mock our freedom of expression when Baroness Kinnock was able to silence other perspectives through her concerted successful effort to close down open discussions with a holistic approach to engaging with Eritrea.
An event that was organised at the House of Lords titled “Building bridges for a Sustainable Eritrea“. This detrimental and manipulative approach and unhealthy subversive stance on non engagement is perceived by many Eritreans as a personal emotive vendetta against Eritrea creating further fractions as instead of an evolved approach to engagement — this is disappointing when there is potential for an evolved and intelligent approach as instead of simply acting from a reactive space of activism.
Further concern as to how our MPs and MEPs had taken a one sided reactive and biased stance on the issue. On a simple search of the media, MPs and MEPs discussion, debates and resolutions there is a predominantly repetitive and one lens narrative and further to the Commission of Inquiry Report, which one should note was specifically for the mandate of carrying out investigations on human right violations. There are concerns as to the methodology applied, individuals appointed, concerns of bias and lack of impartiality and the individuals / refugees interviewed and without access to Eritrea. For us to engage with a sovereign state relying on COI is an irresponsible approach especially when we know that COI’s have been used as highly politicised instruments to target states on agendas other than genuine human rights concerns.
Eritreans are reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s response to Katherine Mayo’s book “Mother India” when they consider the Commission of Inquiry’s report and its mandate.
This book is cleverly and powerfully written. The carefully chosen quotations give it the false appearance of a truthful book. But the impression it leaves on my mind is that it is the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains. If Miss Mayo had confessed that she had come to India merely to open out and examine the drains of India, there would perhaps be little to complain about her compilation. But she declared her abominable and patently wrong conclusion with a certain amount of triumph: ‘the drains are India”.
It is the reference to the “the drains are India” on how the allegations by COI of systemic human rights violations are perceived by many Eritreans. COI does not take into account the unique characteristics of the Eritrean journey, context and history underlying concerns as to the inherent motive, potential bias of activism from prior work as instead of genuine inquiry and concerns on human rights and importantly the drains are not Eritrea.
That is not to say that there are not problems in Eritrea, I have not met one Eritrean who has intimated otherwise. Rather concern is also expressed on the need to focus on pressing issues of nation building whilst having to address the continued state of emergency with the failure of the international community to ensure that Ethiopia adheres to the Algiers Agreement and ruling of the Eritrean Ethiopian Boundary Commission’s decision. This constant fear of aggression by Ethiopia, backed by the USA is why there is national service. Given the choice of nation building and national service or the western dream and consumerism as relayed through various media portals including satellite dishes or sophisticated marketing managed by mafia traffickers — well many young naive hopeful Eritreans choose what is the easiest option and if they have to lie to get asylum — well why not.
During my travels in Eritrea what was extraordinary was the number of satellite dishes even in the poorest of places and even where people resided in straw huts.
Last year I had the opportunity to provide a lecture to over 500 students at the Asmara School of Science and was able to speak to a number of students afterwards. What was clear is yes these students felt disconnected, yes they were disenfranchised from their government, yes life was difficult and yes these students had access to satellite and internet and the western dream was a strong pull for many of their friends, family and neighbours who had already undertaken the treacherous journey.
The Government already overburdened having to deal with a state of emergency with the border issue, food security (impacts of climate change), illegal and unjust sanctions, the politicised Commission of Inquiry, hostile media and defamation, regional problems with its neighbours acted as inherent blocks to the Government’s nation building process and left little or no room for engagement with the youth.
This generation felt disconnected as theirs was a generation that had not fought in the trenches and when they looked at the lives of their parents and the sacrifices — well the western dream was too powerful pull to focus on nation building. Armed with good health, free education provided by the Government the generation felt ready to cross the divide. I was aware that here I was with my Applemac computer, iphone, my attire — why would the young not want my life — after all I was nothing more than a second generation immigrant myself and the sacrifices my generation of children made as latch key kids, babysitting siblings, helping more than usual from an early age with domestic chores whereas our English friends attended language, sports, music, extra study lessons, all this to support our educated parents goal of achieving the consumerist lifestyle which they did not have enough of in India and were drawn to in the western films that had already seeped into India. Given the choice, we too would have happily walked to the world of our friends that promised more than we were being offered – I could empathise. After all the grass is always greener on the other side.
I had asked them directly did they themselves know of any individuals who had left Eritrea – yes – all of them replied in unison — we all know someone and they laughed jovially — their body language was relaxed. Good grief I exclaimed were they aware of the risks that their friends and families were taking? Yes, of course one young student replied when another interrupted and said “we get calls from our friends and relatives and they say it’s not great here”. Recently, I went to see the play Calais at Barons Court Theatre and the experience was similar to what the students referred to of the stories they were being told of the holding places for these alleged asylum seekers. The student continued “we are told that they are cold, hungry and fear that they won’t get asylum”.
I then asked them solemnly did they understand the damage that their friends, relatives, fellow Eritreans were doing to their country by alleging fabricated stories on human rights violations, sometimes genuine but at the hands of traffickers and importantly on the back of genuine human rights violations. Their reaction was mixed. Yes, and No. Many were not aware of the impact of their actions and others could not see the bigger picture and the implications. Instead some even naively were reported to arrive in the UK on the pretext of human rights violations (suffered at the hands of traffickers) and visit the Eritrean Embassy to register and pay the rehabilitation and Diaspora Tax. Now these individuals in Europe who became aware of the prevalent narrative were caught as they were unable to come forward to confess which would mean deportation whereas the opportunity of staying meant that they were in a position to support their families in Eritrea. However the guilt would have been unimaginable.
Ruby Sandhu is the founder and principal consultant at RS Collaboration