Friday

23rd Oct 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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Opinion

EU's new Africa strategy misses the mark

The EU's new Africa strategy promises relentless support for "a comprehensive continent-to-continent free trade area" - and ignores the risks posed by trade liberalisation where labour, fiscal and social regulation is immensely diverse and sometimes weak.

Feature

Promises and doubts: Africa's free-trade adventure

The EU is hoping that a continent-wide free trade agreement in Africa will help lift millions out of poverty and help solve issues of security and migration. But its message of values and equal partnership do not resonate with everyone.

News in Brief

  1. UK scientists fear Brexit blow to joint EU research
  2. Greek migrant camp lockdown extended
  3. Lukashenko and 14 others in EU crosshairs
  4. EU imposes sanctions over 2015 Bundestag cyberattack
  5. Italy reignites Mont Blanc border dispute with France
  6. Commission to press Croatia on migrant 'abuse' at border
  7. Belarus opposition awarded 2020 Sakharov Prize
  8. Belgium's foreign minister in intensive care for Covid-19

Column

A 'geopolitical' EU Commission. Great idea - but when?

Safeguarding Europe's position starts with recognising the unpleasant reality that Europe's power is waning. Behind the facade of European cooperation, national self-interest still predominates and that has never been any different.

Rightwing MEPs bend to Saudi will after Khashoggi death

Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed two years ago on 2 October. Since then, mainly centre-right, conservative and far-right MEPs have voted down any moves to restrict, limit or ban the sales of weapons to the Saudi regime.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersUN Secretary General to meet with Nordic Council on COVID-19
  3. UNESDAWell-designed Deposit Return Schemes can help reach Single-Use Plastics Directive targets
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council meets Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaja
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to invest DKK 250 million in green digitalised business sector
  6. UNESDAReducing packaging waste – a huge opportunity for circularity

Latest News

  1. South Caucasus death toll much worse than feared
  2. Polish court effectively bans legal abortions
  3. MEPs urge EU to be ready to dump disputed energy treaty
  4. EU commission on defensive over 'revolving doors'
  5. Why German presidency is wrong on rule of law
  6. Nato and EU silent on Turkey, despite Armenia's appeal
  7. EU tells UK to decide on Brexit as deal 'within reach'
  8. EU farming deal attacked by Green groups

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us