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15th Aug 2020

EU sued for funding 'forced labour' Eritrea highway

  • The EU is financing highway construction in Eritrea (Photo: European Union)

The European Union is being sued for financing road work projects in Eritrea, a country where forced labour is used, amid calls by Green MEPs to suspend the funding.

Some €80m of EU trust funds have been channeled into equipment and materials to renovate a highway for a regime that forces people to work against their will in conditions described as tantamount to slavery.

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The workers are part of Eritrea's mandatory national service programme, which rounds up young people for the totalitarian dictatorship under rebel-leader-turned-president, Isaias Afwerki.

On Wednesday (13 May), the Dutch-based Foundation for Human Rights in Eritrea sent the European Commission a detailed 33-page writ of summons, in a case that will now be heard at the district court in Amsterdam.

The foundation will ask for a declaratory injunction that the EU project is unlawful, and an injunction that the EU should cease its support for the project.

The Amsterdam court will file the papers on 17 June, at which point the EU will have around six weeks to respond.

The European Commission told EUobserver that the scheme remains in line with EU standards, on projects and sound financial management.

Meanwhile, thousands of Eritreans are said to have fled, with many seeking asylum in Europe because of the regime's national service. Close to 114,000 Eritrean asylum applications have been filed in the EU since 2015.

Party politics

The lawsuit comes amid accusations that the two largest European Parliament political groups are scuppering demands to cease financing it.

"I pulled a string and by pulling that string I realised that the Commission is an accomplice to something that is inexcusable," Michele Rivasi, a French Green MEP told EUobserver.

Rivasi is the lead MEP on a European Parliament report on how European Development Funds are spent.

Her report, to be voted on Thursday by the plenary, is part of a so-called 'discharge' whereby the European Parliament accepts or rejects EU budget lines.

Rivasi says both the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) and the Socialists & Democrats are pressing ahead to block her amendments that seek to stop EU's involvement with the Eritrean highway.

"It is very political," she said, noting she had previously received cross-party backing support on not granting the discharge at the level of the committee on development.

She pointed out that the European Commission had also, during a hearing at the development committee in February, apologised for its mishandling of the project.

The EPP and Socialists have since revolted due to political party loyalties, said Rivasi.

She says the socialists now refuse because they don't want to embarrass Jutta Urpilainen, the European Commissioner for development, who is herself from their parliamentary group.

"They have a commissioner who is a socialist and the socialists support the commissioner," she said, noting plans are in place to send an MEP delegation to Eritrea in November.

National Service

The highway in question aims to connect Ethiopia to Eritrea's Massawa port and follows a 2018 peace declaration between the former warring neighbours.

The national service was initially set up as emergency response to the threat of war with Ethiopia but still remains intact.

For its part, the European Commission contracted the project out to the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and claims the new road will boost economic growth and jobs.

It says the project and its activities is closely monitored.

"This regular follow up has been ensured by the EU Delegation through several field missions," it told EUobserver, noting it also holds meetings with the UNOPS and the Red Sea Trading Corporation.

The Red Sea Trading Corporation is Eritrea's government procurement agency.

But Human Rights Watch says on-the-ground monitoring is impossible.

"The kind of type of monitoring which would be required to be able to ensure that EU money is not going indirectly or directly to ongoing human rights abuses is not feasible at the moment in Eritrea," said Laetitia Bader, an expert on Eritrea at Human Rights Watch.

She pointed out that a similar case of human rights abuse and forced labour in Eritrea surfaced in 2013 in a mineral mine partly owned by a Canadian firm.

Canada's Supreme Court in March has since ruled that the Canadian mining company can be sued in Canada for alleged abuses abroad.

The judgement is a precedent, which could have bearings on the most recent lawsuit filed against the European Union.

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