Testimony of the Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations before the Canadian Subcommittee on International Human Rights

Representatives of the majority of Canadian Eritrean Communities across Canada (CECCO) set the record straight once and for all before the subcommittee on International Human Rights at the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa
Representatives of the majority of Canadian Eritrean Communities across Canada (CECCO) set the record straight once and for all before the subcommittee on International Human Rights at the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa

By CECCO,

THE Chairman of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations, Mr. Lambros Kyriakakos, appear yesterday before the subcommittee on International Human Rights at the Canadian parliament in Ottawa to discuss the human rights situation in Eritrea.

The following is the full text of the statement: 

= = = =

Statement

By

Mr. Lambros Kyriakakos
Acting Chairperson of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian
Communities and Organizations

At

Subcommittee on International Human Rights
House of Commons
Ottawa, 03 June 2014

Chairman Reid and honourable members of the subcommittee, I am honoured to be present before this esteemed institution today.

My name is Lambros Kyriakakos. I am the acting Chairperson of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations (CECCO). As a proud Canadian of Eritrean descent, I have traveled all the way from Manitoba to share my submissions with you. I also wish to take this time to acknowledge the important work of this committee.


A little over 2 weeks ago, Canadian communities from coast to coast took the time to celebrate the Independence Day of their ancestral homeland, including my very own in Winnipeg.

As in many parts of the world, Eritrea is a country whose freedom was born at a very high cost. For Canadians of Eritrean descent, watching and participating in the development of Eritrea is of paramount importance.

The issue of human rights has been a priority to Eritreans long before Eritrea gained its independence and we continue to equitably address the issue. With your permission I would like to submit the following written testimony for the record.

CECCO is an organization that represents 7 major community groups across Canada; most of which have existed for the past 30 years and serve approximately 30,000 Canadians of Eritrean origin. We are a national body that represents Eritrean Canadian communities and organizations.

Our primary purpose is to represent our communities’ collective voice, foster good relations between Eritrea and Canada, between the people of both countries, promote cultural exchange and trade relations.

1)  Occupation  of  Eritrea’s  Sovereign  Territory

I would like to begin by saying that any discussion about human rights in Eritrea is inseparable from the acknowledgement of the long standing and continued occupation of Eritrea’s territory by Ethiopia in violation and disregard of international law. I start with this point for the main reason that up until now the discussion about human rights in Eritrea has focused on the effects of a national security crisis and not its causes.

When we speak of the impact that national security has had on national military service, migration, and expression rights it is a helpful exercise to look at the causal effect that geopolitics in the Horn of Africa has had on limiting Eritrea’s development.

This is not a novel idea that we can lay much claim to but those of well respected Canadians who have had time to deliberate on peace in the Horn of Africa. These are the conclusions of another parliamentary committee, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, of 2003 to 2005.

In testimony to that committee by the Former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the then United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Eritrea & Ethiopia, the Honourable Lloyd Axworthy’s words still echo in the minds of our community members, when he stated that,

“the lack  of  resolution  of  the  conflict  is  such  a  large  and powerful  force  that  impedes  any  efforts,  whether  it’s human  rights  improvement  or  poverty reduction or agricultural  reform.  It’s  like  that  big  800 pound  gorilla that’s  sitting  there,  and  you  just  can’t  get  around  it. Until the  conflict  itself  is  resolved,  any  efforts  in  these  other areas  I  think  would  be  severely  impeded.”

This was said March 24, 2005 in front of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade here in Ottawa.

I come before you today, to implore you to act on those words from nearly a decade ago, and as the conclusion and resolution of the same committee to call on “the Government of Canada to increase the pressure on the Government of Ethiopia to accept, in full, the recommendations of the Eritrea – Ethiopia Boundary Commission, including the decision on the town of Badme.”

Hence it is a call to pressure Ethiopia to withdraw its forces from sovereign Eritrean territories and to allow for peaceful development between the two brotherly nations.

Ethiopia’s act of non‐compliance with international law and its treaty obligations poses a continued threat to peace and security in the region. It sets a very dangerous precedent AND REMAINS A CONSTANT THREAT TO ERITREA’S INDEPENDENCE, FREEDOM AND HUMAN RIGHTS.

A similar call to action was recently made by the International Crisis Group, a commonly cited think tank funded by the Canadian government and headed by former Canadian Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour, according to them, the international community erred seriously after the Eritrea‐Ethiopia war of 1998 in not putting greater pressure on Ethiopia to implement the legally sanctioned international Boundary Commission’s finding that granted the disputed land to Eritrea.

It is a widely held belief among Eritreans, that the continued occupation of sovereign Eritrean territory is a violation of the human rights of the Eritrean population, specifically the residents that are until today unable to return to their land.

These facts are important because Eritrea’s human rights situation is largely affected, by the fact that our government and our American and European partners are behind Ethiopia, no matter what it does, and have not acted in good faith to guarantee the peace in the Horn of Africa.

The no­‐war-no-peace situation between these two countries is an impediment to development in all areas of the country’s objectives. Once you begin to strip away the biggest obstacle to development, you are able to have a frank conversation about human rights in Eritrea.

This is, in the minds of many Canadians of Eritrean descent, a dangerous source of instability for human rights in Africa.

Understanding Eritrea’s relationship with Ethiopia is fundamental to an understanding of what lies behind the themes this subcommittee has decided to investigate. Failing to consider the totality of the context that precipitated the current situation risks being one sided and taking a side on the conflict.

2)  Impact  of the Government  of  Canada’s Decisions  on  Canadians of  Eritrean  Origin

We have also appeared before you today to discuss what impacts, decisions made by the Government of Canada are having on Canadians of Eritrean descent.  As Professor Richard Reid from the University of London put it, when referring to the UN sanction on Eritrea, that were later adopted by the Government of Canada,

“the  punishment  imposed  [On  Eritrea]  is  deeply unhelpful  and  unimaginative.”

In our view, the Canadian government’s adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1907 and its subsequent silence on our rights to exercise our dual citizenship effectively has generated a great deal of negative media hype and false perception of who we are as Eritrean-Canadians. We are a hardworking and peaceful community who have contributed to making Canada a truly multicultural society.

At the same time, we are proud of our Eritrean heritage and many of us maintain strong cultural and economic links with our ancestral homeland. Because of it, we’ve witnessed what can best be described as inaccurate and imbalanced and at worst vexatious and frivolous representations by the media; namely the National Post and the Winnipeg Free Press about the ties we maintain with our country of origin.

With  headlines  like  “Eritrea raising  money  in  Canada, financing  terrorists  to  attack Canada”  and  “Protest  links  seminar to  Eritrean  terrorists”,  we  have  had  to  bear  the  brunt  of criticism in  a  misinformed narrative  about  our  communities.

The impacts on our rights have been important and almost immediate. For example, some municipalities have begun refusing our organization the privilege to fly the Eritrean flag, a ‘non­‐political’ symbol belonging to all Eritrean Canadians, during our annual national independence day citing that there were sanctions on Eritrea. Consider also a more serious issue like the vacuum that exists today in our ability to remit taxes to the Eritrean state. We have members who hold business licenses in Eritrea, others who wish to claim inheritances or own property that cannot do so because the government of Canada has not acknowledged our right to do so and the major banks have, as a result of the confusion, decided not to take any risks surrounding the transfer of funds. The confusion and controversy has been, by and large, the work of a small but determined group of political activists now living in Canada who see no harm in using our communities as a springboard for importing their political fights with the Eritrean government into Canada.

These are not individuals who participate in our events or help in delivering our social programs. They are content in trying to weaken our communities if it will help sway public opinion in Canada about regime change in Eritrea. Our message to them has always been clear, “Stop playing politics with our communities.”

They have tried to attack every part of our community mandate, including the cultural and the musical events, we have held peacefully for the last 30 years. Before the media, they are self-described as journalists and human rights activists but to the vast majority of Canadians of Eritrean descent who know them, they are the same group who will resort to vandalism, intimidation, and sometimes violence to get their point across.

With regards to the Diaspora tax, Canadians of Eritrean descent maintain strong links with Eritrea but we are being prevented from effectively exercising our dual citizenship rights, by paying the 2% rehabilitation tax we voluntary remit to Eritrea each year. This tax is what allows us to contribute to the development of the country and allows us to benefit from access to important services and property rights in Eritrea.

While the Canadians government has not directly prevented our members from paying the tax, our calls for the Government to expressly pronounce itself on the legality of the tax have gone unanswered and the lack of clarity surrounding this issue has caused the banks to make it difficult for Eritreans to exercise their dual citizenship more effectively. We wish to submit into the record a legal memo we have drafted, in consultation with our legal officer, on the legal status of the 2% rehabilitation tax under Canadian and international tax law, in the hopes it may provide some research material to this subcommittee. It may also be worth mentioning that recently, a Swedish parliamentary committee similar to this one recognized the right of their citizens to remit the 2% rehabilitation tax to Eritrea. The decision itself supports much of the research we have conducted.

If there is a procedure whereby we could request a legal statement or a technical interpretation on the part of this committee that would elaborate on the legality of the tax similar to the one conducted by the Swedish parliament, we would gladly welcome it.

3)  Human  Smuggling

Lastly, we would also like to draw your attention to the tragic case of human smuggling in our region. Eritrea has called for a United Nations lead investigation on human trafficking in the Horn of Africa. We urge Canada to take the lead in calling for an independent United Nations investigation of human trafficking in the Horn of Africa, the Sahara and the Sinai. Canada has ratified the additional protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons and the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

Furthermore, internationally, Canada supports the prosecution of human trafficking as a crime against humanity under the auspices of the International Criminal Court. In accordance with this, we believe human trafficking needs to be seriously addressed in the region and the perpetrators brought to justice under international law.

4)  Conclusion

In  conclusion,  we  want  to  state  that  we  value  both  our  Canadian and  Eritrean  identities.  We  are  a  hard  working  and  peaceful people  who  have  contributed  to  making  Canada  a truly multicultural  society  and  will  continue  to  do  so. We  have  a  growing  concern  over  what  can  only  be  described  as  an assault  against  our  peaceful  community  and  a  smear  campaign against  the  Eritrean  community  and  Eritrea,  mainly  orchestrated by  politically  motivated  individuals  and  their  supporters.

We  are concerned that the Government of Canada  appears to engage such individuals while it has neglected to engage  the absolute majority of the Eritrean community.

We, the representatives of  the  majority of Canadian Eritrean communities across Canada, are  here  to  categorically  state  that:

We  have  never  been  threatened  or  harassed  to  pay  the  2% rehabilitation tax  to  the  Eritrean  consulate.  And  those  of  us  that do  contribute  to  the  tax  do  it  with  our  own  free  will in recognition of  the  sacrifice  required  to  rehabilitate  a  war torn  nation. To date, no  allegations  of  intimidation  or  harassment  have resulted  in  any charges  by  the  Crown.

Our objectives today,  are  three fold:

First,  to  urge  you  to  add  pressure  to  the  Ethiopian  Government  to comply  with  the  decision  of  the  Eritrea  Ethiopia  Boundary Commission  and  withdraw  its  forces  from  sovereign Eritrean territory,  as  the  continued  occupation  of  Eritrea’s  territory  is  a violation  of  the  human  rights  of  the  Eritrean  population  in  itself.

Second,  we  come  to  seek  protection  for  our  rights  as  Canadians  of Eritrean  origin, because  the  ill  perceived  interpretation  of  UNSC Resolution  1907  and the Canadian government’s  adoption  of  the resolution, encroaches  on  the  rights  as  Canadians  with  dual citizenship.  To  protect  our  rights  that  is  guaranteed  by  Canadian Charter  of  Rights.

Third,  we  came  to  call  on  Canada  to  take  the  lead  in  calling  for  an independent  United  Nations  investigation  of  human  trafficking  in the  Horn  of  Africa,  the  Sahara  and  the Sinai.

And  finally,  we  request  that  you  consult  CECCO  in  the  process  of creating  a  more  fertile  ground  for  the  improvement  of  Eritrean Canadian  relations  and  human  rights  issues  in the Horn  of  Africa.

Consultation  with  CECCO  will  pave  the  way  for  a  balanced perspective  on  Eritrea  and  related  human  rights  issues.  And  it  will enhance  communication  between  the  Canadian government  and its  Canadian-Eritrean  community  in  Canada.

Thank  You.