Europe Finances Roads Reconstruction but Eritrea still Uses Forced Labor

European Parliament

Special for Africa ExPress
Makeda Saba
Somewhere inside Eritrea, 5 March 2020

On 18 February 2020 during the EU parliamentary session, the EU Committee on Development (DEVE), questioned the EU’s decision to fund the Eritrean Government for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of roads connecting Eritrea and Ethiopia.

European Parliament

There are two projects with the title – ‘Reconnecting Eritrea and Ethiopia through the main roads’. They are to be implemented in two phases: (i) Phase 1 – EUR 20 million – approved 31 January 2019 (TO5 -EUTF – HOA-ER-66); (ii) Phase 2 – EUR 60 million approved 31 December 2019; (TO5 -EUTF-HOA-ER-86). A total of EUR 80 million. The approval of the second phase (EUR 60 million) happened despite the objections raised by human rights activists including the Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans.

Both projects state that the EU’s overall objective is to: “…… [rehabilitate the main arterial roads] in Eritrea in order to help the peace and economic reintegration between Eritrea and Ethiopia”. They also state that: “…. [providing] Ethiopia access to Eritrea’s ports is a key priority.”  (TO5 -EUTF – HOA-ER-66; TO5 -EUTF-HOA-ER-86).


According to the EU, their intervention in road rehabilitation and construction in Eritrea will also address the following:


EU Trust Fund


Valetta Action Plan- UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)
1)      Greater economic and employment opportunities 1)      Development benefits of migration and addressing root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement

1.      Enhance employment opportunities and revenue generating activities

2.      Link relief, rehabilitation and development tin peripheral and most vulnerable areas

1)      SDG 1- End Poverty
2)      Strengthening resilience of communities and in particular the most vulnerable, as well refugees and displaced people 2)      SDG 2 – End hunger achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
3)    SDG 8 – Promote sustained inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment
4)      SDG 9 – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
5)      SDG 16 – Peace justice and strong institutions

The fiche for the projects state that:  the EU is funding the procurement of road construction equipment and materials through the Red Sea Trading Corporation (RSTC). Such procurement is to be undertaken with the assistance of UNOPS. The projects are to be implemented by the Government of Eritrea, who   will work through People Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) owned companies as well as through the deployment of National Service Conscripts and Community Mobilisation.

National Service and Community Mobilisation as carried out by the Eritrean Government are all modes of deploying human resources that the UN Human Rights Commission of Inquiry as to Human Rights in Eritrea (2015) found to constitute forced labour. “ (A/HRC/29/CRP.1; 2015)[i] The projects justify the use of forced labour and therefore, the lack of any attempt to take steps to reform the National Service by advancing the Eritrean Government’s own excuse that the current economic realities of the country preclude starting any reform of the National Service.

Eritrea: Forced labour

The existing dire economic realities of the country and, the fact that Eritrea has become an open-air prison, are a direct consequence of ruling party’s, the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), own policies. And, specifically its insistence on the continued implementation of failed policies such as : (i) National Service and its indefinite extension through – forcing students to complete grade 12 at the Sawa Military Camp, the Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme, the People’s Army; (ii) the takeover of all economic sectors by PFDJ owned entities, displacing and weakening the independent private sector.

Since signing the Declaration of Peace with Ethiopia (09 July 2020), the Eritrean Government is skilfully changing its narrative, on the issue of National Service, to suit the situation. For more than twenty years it has maintained that National Service was necessary because of the Ethiopian threat. Now, it justifies the continuation of indefinite National Service alternatively on the basis of economic constraints and the existential threat posed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) an entity that President Isaias is determined to destroy irrespective of who is damaged in the process.

On 1 April 2019, the Foundation for Human Rights for Eritrea, a Netherland based Eritrean organisation, concerned that the EU is financing activities in Eritrea for which forced labour is used and that, such action is in clear violation of human rights and the EU’s adherence to international and legal obligations, started legal action against the EU.[ii]  This action has contributed to raising the awareness of the international media and human rights organisations as well as of the EU Committee on Development (DEVE). Therefore, contributing to the questioning of the EU funding of the road rehabilitation projects in Eritrea during the EU Parliamentary session of 18 February 2020.

At that Parliamentary session, Human Rights Watch (HRW) [iii]  referred to the EU’s 2016 [iv]and 2017[v] resolutions, whereby the human rights situation in Eritrea was deemed to be one of extreme repression. And, specifically HRW aptly reminded the EU that: “…. [national service] is not only used as a form of ‘employment’ in an unquestionably, dire economic context, but as the main instrument of repression that the government uses to control almost every single aspect of its citizens’ lives.”[vi]

It is remarkable that the EU, who has on numerous occasions described the human rights situation in Eritrea as dire, is now directly supporting a road rehabilitation and construction project that will be implemented through the use of forced labour. A mode of operation that the UN Human Rights Commission of Inquiry has found to be linked to: “…. systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations “. The Commission also found that: “Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity.” (A/HRC/29/CRP.1; 2015) [vii]

By 2016, the same UN Commission states that: “… [crimes against] humanity namely, enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder, have been committed in Eritrea since 1991.”. In addition, the Commission recommends that: “…. [the African Union] establish an accountability mechanism, ………to investigate, prosecute and try individuals reasonably believed to have committed crimes against humanity.” [A/HRC/32/47][viii]

Both the 2015 and the 2016 UN Commission of Inquiry as to Human Rights in Eritrea reports and, the subsequent UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Eritrea reports, identify National Service with all its extensions (i.e. Completion of Grade 12 at the Sawa Military Camp; Warsay Yikaalo National Development Programme, People’s Army) as the key reason for Eritreans fleeing their country. Despite this and, as already mentioned the EU’s own misgivings as to human rights situation in Eritrea, the first major EU funding, following the signing of the Eritrea /Ethiopia – Joint Declaration of Peace is to, fund projects that rely on deployment of National Service Conscripts and by implication forced labour.

It is also remarkable that, the  procurement of equipment and materials for the road projects is to be carried out by the Red Sea Trading Corporation (RSTC), identified by the EU as a central procurement authority of the Government of Eritrea and that, in the process of implementation of the projects the RSTC’s  capacity will be strengthened.

Contrary to the EU’s assertion, the RSTC is not the central procurement agency of the Government of Eritrea. It is a fully owned company of the ruling party, the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). During the liberation struggle, the RSTC was section 09 of the Economic Department of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) now PFDJ. Presently, the company has the monopoly over import /export activities in Eritrea.

The RSTC, whose capacity development is funded by the EU road projects, is an entity that the Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG), has identified as being part of the Eritrean Government’s controlled informal economy that, transacts mostly in hard currency and is predominantly located offshore through what has been described as: “…… [a labyrinthine] multinational network of companies, individuals, and bank accounts…… “.  In addition, the RSTC is recognise as an entity that:” …. [routinely] engages in ‘grey’ or illicit activities.” (SMEG; S/2011/433) [ix]

Since independence, the PFDJ, has systematically destroyed any separation between itself and the State of Eritrea, has never published a budget and continues to maintain a fungible and informal economy that relies on: “…[hard currency] transactions through an obscure, non-transparent network of business entities that are owned by the State and managed by senior officials of the Government, PFDJ and the military…...”(SMEG; S/2015/802E)[x].It, has created a situation whereby, the finance department of the party is acting as the National Treasury and the Red Sea Trading Corporation as the National Procurement Agency. (SMEG; S/2011/433) [xi]

Concerned as to the mode of engagement of the EU with the Eritrean Government and, the possibility of direct funding of the Government, the Somali Eritrean Monitoring Group (SEMG) approached the European Commission to seek assurances. The Group received:” ……[the] highest assurance that the European institutions were implementing strict monitoring and auditing procedures to ensure that aid was provided only to the people and that no direct support was provided to Government.” (SMEG; S/2015/802).[xii]The EU, reassured the SMEG that bulk of EU funds was distributed to support social and economic development, including good governance. .[xiii]

Neither of the EU road rehabilitation and construction projects (TO5 -EUTF – HOA-ER-66; TO5 -EUTF-HOA-ER-86) are in line with the reassurances given by the EU to the SEMG. And, neither project address the issue of forced labour a key source of human right abuse and a key driver of Eritrean Exodus.

The projects referred to by the EU in their reassurances to the SMEG, were part of the 11th European Development Fund – National Indicative Programme 2014-2020 (NIP). This programme allocated Euro 200 million for Eritrea as follows: (a) Euro175 million for Sustainable Energy; (b) Euro 25 million Governance supporting measures.

The development of the NIP was monitored by the EU Parliament’s Committee on Development (DEVE) who, has recommended that the Programme not be adopted pending further discussions. The recommendation was made because of concerns as to the: “…. [the scale ] and seriousness of the human rights violations committed by the Eritrean regime, the lack of reliability of this regime as a development cooperation partner, the pervasive corruption and the virtually total absence of transparency in public financial management in the country, and the risk of misusing EDF funds for migration management ; ……[the Committee on Development] called on the EDF Committees not to adopt the NIP pending further discussion…” (P8_TA(2016)009) [xiv] Irrespective of these concerns, NIP was signed on 28 January 2016.The document makes no reference to the findings of the UN Human Rights Commission of Inquiry  as to Human Rights in Eritrea and the reports of the Human Right Special Rapporteur  on Eritrea.

NIP 2014-2020, was the first EU/Eritrea cooperation agreement to be signed since November 2011, when the Eritrean Government suspended EU cooperation programmes. According to the EU statement at the time (15 November 2011),[xv] the Government of Eritrea justified the suspension as part of a process of reviewing and finalizing:” …. (the country’s) five-year National Development Plan before engaging in cooperation with the EU as a partner….”.

The programmes cancelled were: (i) EUR 37 million in support of agriculture; (ii) EUR 5 million in support of Community Courts; (iii) EUR 3.4 million in support of training of public servants; (iv) EUR 5 million in support of national heritage; (v) EUR 68.3 million that had not been contracted.  A total of EUR 118.7 million.

The Eritrean Government’s, unilateral suspension of EU funded programmes in 2011, was not an isolated case. It was, and is, part of a pattern of behaviour recurring at regular intervals since independence. Some examples of this patterns the closure of National and international NGO’s (1997; 2005; 2011); the expulsion of diplomats [xvi]. Preventing a British Diplomat from leaving the country and arresting a national working for the British Council because, of a dispute over the Council’s plan to install a satellite internet link connecting all of its offices. Because of the dispute, the Council ceased operations in Eritrea in 2011[xvii]. The Eritrean Government has also closed USAID[xviii] and WFP[xix] and last year it closed the Catholic Church Health Facilities[xx] and, Catholic and Muslims Schools. At the same time, it has continued to arrest dissenters such as former Minister of Finance Abrehe Kidane Berhane as well as Pentecostal Christians and Orthodox Monks.[xxi]

Following the signing of the Declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia: “…the EU member states encouraged the EU to pursue a dual track approach……” [xxii]. Track one is focused on: (i) Resumption of political dialogue with Government; (ii) Reforms of National Service and Human Rights; (iii) Addressing economic and regional issues of mutual interest. And, Track two is focused on: (i) Reinforcing the peace agreement with Ethiopia; (ii) Regional Economic integration; (iii)Creation of conducive environment to facilitate internal reforms.

During the EU Parliamentary session of 18 of February 2020, the European Commission Representative, Sandra Kramer, explained that road construction is a priority of the Eritrean Government and that, EU support for the purchase of equipment and material is in fact reducing the hazard of the work. Therefore, suggesting that the EU has a positive impact on the work conditions of the National Service conscripts, because the equipment purchased with their funding would make the work safer and reduce the labour. These assertions completely overlook the fact that in Eritrea, the National Service is the source of human rights abuses and is an instrument of repression of Eritreans.

The EU dual track and health and safety approach to engagement with Eritrea, is not novel. It has been tried before and has failed miserably because, the Eritrean Government has no intention of admitting its failures or changing its approach. [xxiii]

The dual track and, the health and safety approach was tried by UNDP with the Mine Action Capacity Building Programme 2000-2005. The programme made a concerted effort to mitigate the labour situation of the Eritrean deminers, who were National Service conscripts, assigned to the Eritrean Demining Authority (EDA) and the Eritrean Demining Organisation (EDO).

The Mine Action Capacity Building programme provided highest quality equipment; ensured international level health and safety standard for the deminers; and provided food and medical support for the demining teams. There was dialogue at all levels of the Eritrean Government. This was all done in the hope of effecting longer term change such as demobilisation. Irrespective of the efforts made, in 2005 the deminers were ordered to report to their military units, materials and equipment were seized and the programme was eventually closed. The Eritrean Government took such action, despite the fact that much of Eritrea is impacted by landmines.

In pursuit of the two-track approach, the European Development Fund (EDF) Committee, on 13 March 2019, unanimously approved the transfer of EUR 180 million from the EDF 11- National Indicative Programme -2014-2020 (NIP) to EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF)[xxiv].  The NIP funds had remained unallocated. The EU justification for the transfer of funds from the NIP programme EUTF is that:” The dual track approach requires swift and nimble cooperation arrangements, such as those provided by the EUTF, to deliver within short timeframes. Standard EDF programming procedures are not designed to deliver effectively on the dual approach.”.

However, it is also the case that such transfer removes the fund from the oversight normally exercised by the EU Parliament and specifically the supervision of the EU Committee on Development (DEVE) who, even in the case of the NIP had expressed concerns and who even while conceding on the NIP  called on the EU Commission to: “…[ensure that the funding allocated does not benefit  the Eritrean Government but is strictly assigned to meeting the needs of the Eritrean people for development, democracy, human rights, good governance and security and freedom speech…” [xxv]

The concern as to the oversight of the EUTF instruments is highlighted by Oxfam in its 2017 report – “An Emergency for Whom? The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa: migratory routes and development aid in Africa”, In the report, the EUTF is described as:” … [a fungible] instrument.”  where: “… [no project] can be directly connected to a specific source of funding.”.[xxvi]  The report also expresses concern that the aggregation of the various rules that apply to EU funding sources creates a situation of lack of transparency and accountability. A situation that is further aggravated by the fact that neither the European Parliament nor the Committee on Development (DEVE) has any role in providing input and meaningfully supervise how EU resources are spent. On this issue the situation has not improved. According to Oxfam’s, 2020 report “The EU Trust Fund for Africa: Trapped between aid policy and migration politics”[xxvii], while communication about the EUTF for Africa has improved and the fund remains a flexible tool, the monitoring and oversight concerns remain.

Hence, in the case of Eritrea, the combination of the dual track approach and the EUTF funding mechanism provide the necessary tools for the EU member states to prioritise political concerns as to migration and EU relevance in the Horn of Africa, while at the same time assuring minimal to no oversight by the EU Parliament and Committee on Development (DEVE). A fungible arrangement overlooking the role of the Eritrean Government in the repression of its own people.

During their recent testimony to the EU Parliament, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned the EU that: “…. [any] engagement with the Eritrean risk bringing the European Commission into a minefield of human rights issues…” [xxviii]. In fact, in their letter of Summons to the EU, Foundation Human Rights for Eritrea, points out that; pursuant to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU is required to respect human right (Article 51(1)). And, that according to Article 21 of the European Union External Human Rights Commitment (TUE), the EU is required to ensure that that all of its international action comply with fundamental human rights principles accepted in international law. Finally, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, prohibits the use of forced labour (Article 5(2). Therefore, the construction and rehabilitation of roads in Eritrea is contrary to EU legal and regulatory framework.

The situation is best summarised by Mr. Emiel Jurjens, human rights attorney-at-law at Kennedy Van der Laan (Amsterdam) [xxix]: “Financing projects which make use of forced labour is a clear violation of human rights. The EU must stop these activities immediately and fundamentally rethink its approach to Eritrea, taking into account all evidence which points towards serious human rights violations in the country…”

Makeda Saba



[iii]HRW- Statement to the European Parliament’s Committee on Development on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea-













[xvi] Ambassador Antonio Bandini (2001); the Italian First Secretary Ludovico Serra (2006).



[xix] Plaut, M. 2016 – Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State – C. Hurst & Co; London


[xxi] HRW- Statement to the European Parliament; February 18,2020;

[xxii] EU under fire in its own parliament re financing forced labour in outlaw State Eritrea-

[xxiii] EU under fire in its own parliament re financing forced labour in outlaw State Eritrea-

[xxiv] Formalised on 16 April 2019

[xxv] EU Resolution: P8_TA(2016)009 –



[xxviii] HRW- Statement to the European Parliament’s Committee on Development on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea-

[xxix] Foundation Human Rights for Eritrea Summons EU to Stop Supporting Use of Forced Labour in Eritrean Project –


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