The Canadian Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development met on March 12, 2015 presided by the Chair, Scott Reid on the agenda of “Human Rights Situation in Eritrea”.
Members of the Subcommittee present and speaking includes MPs such as Tyrone Benskin, Nina Grewal, Wayne Marston and David Sweet.
The two witnesses were the Chairman of the Subcommittee Scott Reid and H.E. Dominique Rossetti, Canadian Chargé d’affairs to Sudan and Non-Resident Ambassador to Chad and Eritrea.
Let the hearing began …
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The Chair, Scott Reid (Conservative):
We are the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. Today is March 12, 2015, and this is our 60th meeting.
We are here today to continue our study of the human rights situation in Eritrea.
Appearing by video conference from Khartoum is Dominique Rossetti, Canada’s non-resident ambassador to Eritrea, who also represents Canada in Chad and Sudan.
Members of the committee have discussed this already. The ambassador accompanied me on my trip to Eritrea. He’ll be giving testimony. I have some narrower testimony to give as well, and to accommodate the fact that this is procedurally a little unusual, I am going to turn over occupancy of the chair to our vice-chair, who will facilitate the meeting. Apparently this is the most correct procedural way of handling this.
With that said, Mr. Marston, I invite you to take the chair, and I will go to the other end of the table to serve as a witness when my time comes.
The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston (NDP):
Good day, ambassador. I welcome you to begin your testimony. We normally keep it to about a 10-minute period, which leaves room for some questions from members afterwards. Please proceed, sir.
H.E. Dominique Rossetti:
Thank you very much.
I would like first to thank the subcommittee for inviting me to testify on the human rights situation in Eritrea, and on my latest visits to Asmara, in Eritrea.
I would like to begin by underlining that the human rights situation in Eritrea remains a serious concern for Canada. As one of the most closed countries in the world, Eritrea remains resistant to external actors, which makes access and obtaining information a challenge. However, human rights violations in Eritrea have been widely reported and documented over the years, by the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, among others.
Most commonly cited human rights transgressions include mandatory, and, in some cases indefinite, military conscription; forced labour; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of journalists and civil servants; lack of freedom of expression, conscience, and movement; and repression of religious belief and expression. Further, Eritrea lacks a functioning legislature, independent judiciary, and independent press. Non-governmental organizations are highly restricted, and as a result are very few in number.
Eritrea has not held democratic elections since its independence in 1993. Elections slated for 2001 were postponed indefinitely. There is little to no democratic space for diverging views, and there are no recognized opposition parties. Widespread human rights abuses occur in spite of Eritrea’s 1997 constitution, which includes provisions for democratic rights and freedoms.
ln light of the dire situation on the ground, including the economic situation, it is no surprise that many Eritreans risk their lives to escape the country. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that some 4,000 Eritreans flee the country each month, and that as of mid-2014 more than 313,000—more than 5% of the population—have fled.
Despite this grim overall picture, there are some interesting developments. However, due to the closed nature of the country, they are almost impossible to glean without first-person access.
I first visited Eritrea in May 2014. I presented my credentials to President Afwerki, in October 2014, seven years after my Canadian predecessor based in Nairobi did.
The visit with MP Scott Reid, in January 2015, was my third visit to the country. During our January visit, we were accompanied by Mr. Todd Romaine, vice-president, corporate social responsibility, Nevsun Resources Ltd. The visit coincided with Lloyd Lipsett’s monitoring visit. Mr. Lipsett, president of LKL International Consulting lnc., was hired by Nevsun as an independent consultant to conduct the human rights impact assessment of the Bisha mine. His report was well received locally and internationally, and it is my understanding that several of the recommendations have been implemented by Nevsun. I note that he has testified before your committee.
Despite limited time, we had a chance to see a variety of sites and talk to a wide spectrum of interlocutors, with no apparent restriction. Obviously with the time we had, we were only able to scratch the surface. During my visits in the capital Asmara, there was no readily apparent military presence and very few police. While we know that national security is omnipresent in Eritrean society, it was not overt. There were no checkpoints when I entered or when I left the Eritrean capital, as is the norm in some other African capitals I have visited in the past. There are a variety of places of worship, visible and active, in close proximity to each other.
During our recent visit, compulsory national service was a recurring issue and was discussed with national and international interlocutors. The national service is not only a military but also a civil service. For example, the majority of the employees working at the Asmara Palace Hotel, where we stayed, if not all of them, are doing their civil service there.
The argument of “no war, no peace” with Ethiopia is often made by the Government of Eritrea to justify extended national service. According to Eritrean law, national service should last no longer than 18 months, yet it is often extended indefinitely, which is very problematic from a human rights perspective. We understand from Eritrean government contacts that efforts may be made to adhere more closely to the law, and to respect the 18-month time limit. We shall see.
As working conditions in Eritrea have been central in past and recent allegations in the mining industry, we discussed Eritrea’s labour code, proclaimed in 2001, on several occasions, in particular with the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers. We met with the NCEW’s general secretary and head of foreign relations, which provides workers with training and conducts collective agreements within enterprises.
The code includes an interpretation of “forced labour”. According to the document, compulsory national service, normal civic obligations, communal services, and services rendered during an emergency may not be regarded as forced labour. In 2014, during Eritrea’s universal periodic review, UPR, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Canada called on Eritrea to “Immediately end the practice of indefinitely extending military service, a system which amounts to forced labour”.
Regarding corporate social responsibility, CSR, Nevsun claims to be making significant efforts in collaboration with the Eritrean authorities. Given the business model of co-ownership between Nevsun and the government, the Eritrean authorities mentioned during our discussions that they believe this business approach could serve as a model for other similar projects.
In general, the Government of Eritrea applies an egalitarian approach to worker remuneration. I have been told, however, that government authorities have apparently agreed to allow Nevsun’s truck drivers, for example, as an illustration, to receive salaries that would be twice that of a government minister.
They also agreed more recently that the company can intervene in CSR outside the operating area, or what we can call “out of the fence”, which is another area of significant progress. In this regard, we visited a soon-to-be-renovated irrigation canal. As I did during my previous visit to the Bisha mine in November 2014, we had a brief “induction” session, on values and code of conduct essentially. We met the community liaison officers, we aIso visited two communities, and we did a tour of the copper-zinc plant and mining pit.
While I am not an expert in the matter, worker safety rules appear to conform to international standards. We have been told by Nevsun that the Bisha mine is now close to 1,300 days LTI-free. Just to remind you, LTI stands for “lost time due to injury”, which is any injury that prevents any person, staff or contractor, from reporting to work on the next shift or next day.
During the visit, we also met with UN experts and representatives. They confirmed Eritrea’s positive results against the millennium development goals, especially in health and education. According to UN interlocutors, there is universal access to health services in almost all villages. We have been told that community mobilization is also very easy in Eritrea, but this was not independently confirmed to me.
Despite the ample criticism that Eritrea shoulders vis-à-vis its civil and political rights record, it is evident from the large number of schools and hospitals that have been constructed that the regime does direct some effort toward the delivery of services to its population. While Transparency International has ranked Eritrea at the bottom of its corruption index, our several interlocutors have told us that corruption is relatively low, especially as compared to some other countries in Africa that I visited.
Eritrean officials have told me that any disclosed information, especially of a financial nature, would “serve their enemies”—that’s a quote—so they systematically refuse to provide data. For this reason, it is difficult to really judge where Eritrea sits on many data indexes.
ln closing, I would like to say that despite difficulties we have had with Eritrea over the past years, the Government of Eritrea’s representatives were hospitable and accessible during our visit. We had substantial discussions with three presidential assistants, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Saleh, and the Minister of Finance, which we may consider as an indication of goodwill and desire to dialogue.
The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:
Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. Now we’ll turn to Mr. Reid.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
My remarks will be confined to the subject I travelled to Eritrea to investigate, the only subject relating to Eritrea on which I think I have a depth of knowledge as great as that of our ambassador.
The subject is the Bisha mine at which, it has been alleged before this subcommittee, forced labour may have been used in 2008 by a subcontractor, the state-owned Segen Construction Company, in the building of mine facilities.
If forced labour were indeed used, it would have happened in the following manner. Upon reaching adulthood, all Eritrean nationals are required to perform 18 months of what is called national service. This is partly military service and partly labour on state-run projects or for state-owned enterprises. Pay is nominal and the person is subject to the form of discipline that is typical for military conscripts in any state, including a lack of choice as to employment or place of residence.
At the end of 18 months, most Eritreans are released from national service. Those who are not released continue to be paid nominally and to be subject to military discipline. If any of those who remain in national service were to be used as labour at any foreign-owned mine site, then those workers would in effect be the victims of a regime of forced labour, which is prohibited under article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This is exactly what has been asserted by the litigants in a case that is now before the British Columbia courts. This ostensible situation is summarized by Human Rights Watch as follows:
Some national service conscripts are assigned to state-owned construction companies who exercise a complete monopoly in the field. International mining firms operating in the country face intense government pressure to engage these contractors to develop some of their project infrastructure. If they do so, they run a pronounced risk of at least indirect involvement in the use—and harsh mistreatment—of forced laborers.
When Nevsun began building its Bisha mine in Eritrea in 2008 it failed to conduct human rights due diligence activity and had only limited human rights safeguards in place. At the government’s insistence the Bisha project engaged Segen Construction Company as a local contractor.
Human Rights Watch reports that when it drew the allegations of forced labour to the attention of Nevsun, the company:
Nevsun has professed itself powerless to compel its contractor to cooperate. When Nevsun sought to interview Segen workers in an effort to reassure itself that the company was not complicit in abuse Segen refused to allow it. When Nevsun repeatedly sought to investigate the living conditions of Segen workers at their camp near the mine site Segen barred them from entering. When the Bisha project attempted to carry out new construction work in early 2012 without re-engaging Segen the Eritrean government ordered it to stop. Segen was brought back on.
These circumstances may be responsible for Dimitri Lascaris, co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the British Columbia litigation, to state:
In my view, the mere act of doing business with a government that is as reprehensible as Eritrea’s is morally repugnant. No ethical corporation would seek to profit from a relationship with such a repressive regime.
Regrettably, my own three-day visit to the Bisha mine site does not put me in a position of being able to shed any additional light on what may have taken place in 2008. As the subcommittee knows, the matter is before the courts.
I can comment with greater confidence on whether or not such abuses could happen today at Bisha. If the answer to this question were yes, then Mr. Lascaris’s suggestions regarding the morality of doing business in Eritrea today would be justified, but if sufficient safeguards have now been put in place so that the kinds of abuses that may have taken place in 2008 could not occur today, then Canadian business activity in Eritrea’s mining sector should be regarded as being up to world standards. All other mining activity in the country, as long as it follows this model, should be regarded as being entirely moral.
The importance of this question extends beyond the Bisha mine site. Bisha was the first mine in Eritrea, but it will not be the last. Several mines operated by Canadian, Chinese, and Australian firms are planned and more will follow.
I can’t comment on any of these other projects, but my impression is that it is highly unlikely that forced labour is being used at present, or will be used in the future, by state-owned subcontractors at the Bisha mine, for five reasons.
First, and perhaps most important, the state of Eritrea has adopted a 40% ownership stake in the Bisha mining corporation, or BMC. This 60:40 profit division means that the state has a strong financial incentive to ensure a fully capitalized mine capable of expansion that is in full compliance with international standards.
If Nevsun faces negative publicity back in Canada, and in consequence is unable to raise capital, then the mining activity back in Eritrea, including the development of the smaller nearby mineral deposits that could keep the mines or processing facilities operating for many years, will dry out. This would lead to an immediate and substantial hit on revenues flowing to the government.
From the point of view of foreigners, internal operations of the Eritrean government, including internal financial operations, are opaque. We can’t know what is going on within the government. We can’t know, for example, whether the people who run the Segen Construction Company have a financial stake in using conscripted labour to keep their costs low. We can know that the much larger revenue stream that comes from maximizing the profits from the mine itself will outweigh by many multiples the marginal revenue enhancements theoretically produced via these conscripts at Segen. In short, the state now has a strong financial incentive to ensure that Segen conducts its activities at Bisha in conformity with international standards.
Second, Nevsun has attempted to exceed the required standards for reporting by retaining the services of Lloyd Lipsett, an international human rights lawyer based in Montreal, who travels regularly to Bisha to conduct on-site audits known as human rights impact assessments. In order to conform to his profession’s ethical standards, he must conduct these assessments in conformity with the established set of internationally recognized standards. Mr. Lipsett testified before this committee on June 5, 2014, and his written reports are also available for consideration.
I also had the opportunity to watch on site how he conducts his work, and I can confirm that a number of issues relating to the ongoing monitoring of Segen’s activities have now been resolved, including access to Segen’s barracks and cafeteria, which we visited, and the ability to conduct one-on-one confidential interviews with Segen employees. Should the situation worsen, or access start to be denied, Mr. Lipsett would be able to report this immediately, and indeed he would be under a professional obligation to do so.
Third, even in the absence of Mr. Lipsett’s periodic visits, some basic oversight can be maintained by Nevsun itself. The Segen labourers are employed on site at the Bisha refining plant, and hence work in easy view of Nevsun management. Nevsun can therefore insist on the use of safety equipment, such as hard hats, goggles, and steel-toe boots.
I should mention that much of the resistance to using this kind of equipment appears to me to come not from Segen management, but from the employees themselves, who find it uncomfortable. Having experienced the weather at the mine site, which is very warm, I have some sympathy for their desire not to wear more heavy equipment than they need to.
Fourth, there are some practical considerations that make the use of conscripted labour less economical than an outside observer might guess. Bisha is located in an area populated by pastoralists—herdsmen, essentially—with no alternative source of monetary income. For unskilled or casual labour, local villages are the obvious source of labourers, who will be happy to work for very modest wages paid in cash, as nobody has a bank account. Local villagers at the mine site are bused home each night, saving Segen the cost of room and board. With the availability of such a low-cost source of free labour, by which I mean non-indentured labour, indentured or forced labour drawn from the local population is simply not competitive.
The alternative might be indentured labourers drawn from other parts of the country, but these workers would have to be housed and fed, which costs money, and in addition would face language barriers that would produce considerable workplace inefficiencies as Eritrea has 11 different language groups.
Fifth, perhaps as a consequence of the first of the five factors I noted above, the finance ministry and the economy ministry seem to have been trying to develop methods of keeping a close eye on Segen’s activities. I visited two of the five villages surrounding the mine in company with the ambassador and Lloyd Lipsett. In each village, the Bisha mining corporation maintains an employment office staffed by a resident of the village who keeps track of BMC job opportunities. To be clear, these are not Segen job opportunities, and the person is a Bisha mining corporation employee, not a Segen employee. This individual keeps a list of local residents who would like to work for BMC. There is a long list, and we investigated one of these lists.
While I was in Eritrea, Todd Romaine, the vice-president for social responsibility from Nevsun, received a phone call from one of the ministries informing him that the government would like to set up a system of reporting under which the BMC village representative would take on the additional responsibility of collecting any information from villagers about abuses occurring at Segen’s operations at the mine site.
This essentially allows an entirely alternative route for anonymous complaints from villagers employed at Segen, which would then flow through BMC. I thought it was quite a clever mechanism.
Taken together, these seem to be a robust set of safeguards and might serve as a useful model for other Canadian-owned mining operations elsewhere in Eritrea.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
The Vice-Chair, Wayne Marston:
Thank you, Mr. Reid. To the members of the committee, we will have six-minute rounds beginning with Mr. Sweet.
David Sweet (Conservative):
Thank you very much, Chair.
Thank you very much to both of our witnesses, Mr. Ambassador and Mr Reid, our usual chairman.
Mr. Reid, thank you very much for the five points you outlined. It was very observant of you to see these different mechanisms that weren’t standard issue in regard to accountability regimes for human rights, but nevertheless good opportunities to oversee what’s going on in a place like Eritrea.
Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for travelling with Mr. Reid. I’m aware of the situation in Eritrea, the human rights situation, the poverty, etc., but I’m surprised at one of the things you mentioned, which is that, according to UN interlocutors, there is universal access to health services in almost all villages, as well as some of the other positive things you said.
You have worked a long time in different countries in Africa. Can you briefly juxtapose your experience in Eritrea versus other countries? Is it far below the living standard of other countries in Africa? Is it far above? Is it merging to pretty well equal to most countries?
Can you give me an idea, as far as the surrounding neighbourhood is concerned, what you observed when you there, not only in Bisha mine but in the villages as well?
H.E. Dominique Rossetti:
Your question is interesting because when we met with the UN representatives, some of them were Africans from neighbouring countries. They don’t have this full access in their own countries coming.. So I would just cite that.
Based on my almost 15 years of experience in Africa, this is a good success, providing people with access to a health system. To answer your question, yes. It’s above the standards in the neighbouring countries and other countries in Africa, specifically the countries I have visited.
You were at a place where there were a number of buildings of worship. As well, Mr. Reid mentioned 12 different dialects. And everybody seems to be operating relatively peacefully, although under a very autocratic regime that doesn’t really allow any kind of outside intrusion from media or any kind of monitoring.
But these were positive aspects that we haven’t heard from previous witnesses.
H.E. Dominique Rossetti:
Is your question, why don’t they advertise these successes?
No. I was more interested again in the state compared to other neighbouring countries in Africa, in the sense that most of the testimony we heard was that there were very flagrant human rights abuses, that poverty was endemic, that there was little economic development—and the inference, from what I remember from lots of testimony, was that the majority of it was siphoned off to the government.
However, what I heard in your testimony and Mr. Reid’s testimony was a different story, albeit the regime is still very insular and not welcoming to any kind of outside media.
H.E. Dominique Rossetti:
Yes. What we can say, just to mention facts, is that we saw many new schools. There are some health facilities, keeping in mind the minimum of resources, for sure, as you can imagine with the economic situation. They are not big budget, but we can just say that they are visible.
We visited eastern and western Eritrea. We saw many schools, many of them new or in good shape. It’s more sort of a fact than an appreciation.
But I can imagine that they do not have a high budget dedicated to them because of the economic situation. That’s the only deduction I can make. But the facts are that we saw many schools and new schools. That is something I would say is remarkable.
Your curriculum vitae, your resumé, is quite robust, in particular in Africa. That’s why I’m asking you these kinds of questions. Frankly, we haven’t had the opportunity before to have someone of your expertise with the surrounding area who has been able to view that and get the access that you mentioned. It sounds like it was pretty well unfettered, whether you were in the village or whether you were in the Bisha mine. That’s why I’m asking you that nature of question.
Did you know Mr. Lipsett before this visit, this human rights lawyer that Mr. Reid spoke about who’s doing the analysis at the Bisha mine site?
H.E. Dominique Rossetti:
No, it was my first time.
Perhaps I can just add something about the schools and dispensaries. The difference with other countries I’ve been in is that many of the schools and dispensaries were financed by the international assistance. In this case, it’s basically coming from their own financial resources. I just wanted to add that.
Coming back to Mr. Lipsett, yes, this was the first time I met with him. He’s a knowledgeable interlocutor with wide experience.