The human rights situation in Eritrea is dire. The participants of a recent meeting of parliament's subcommittee on human rights stressed that there are basically no opposition political parties, independent media or civil society organisations permitted to operate.
Sheila Keetharuth, the UN special rapporteur on Eritrea, spoke of a wide range of human rights violations, such as "indefinite national service, arbitrary arrests and detention, extrajudicial killings, torture, inhumane prison conditions, restricted freedom of movement and expression, assembly, and religious belief; sexual and gender-based violence, and violations of children's rights."
"There are basically no opposition political parties, independent media or civil society organisations permitted to operate [in Eritrea]"
What does this mean for EU relations with Eritrea? This country, which some politicians refer to as 'Africa's North Korea' is a one party state run by the dictator Isaias Afwerki. There have been no national elections since independence in 1993 and regional elections scheduled to take place in 2009 have not yet been held.
Nevertheless the EU maintains intensive development programs in Eritrea, in the areas of agriculture, construction of solar pumps and measures to enable conservation of ground and water. We are talking about initiatives totalling €60m, executed together with the Eritrean government.
I agree with these measures but if we can cooperate in these issues, why can't we force the regime to accept UN investigations on human rights? Keetharuth confirmed to the subcommittee that Eritrea is still denying access. This is why she is asking the EU and the international community to strengthen their efforts to break this blockade.
One of the most virulent human rights abuses is indefinite national service, which can last 10 years or more. It is one of the primary reasons thousands of Eritreans are fleeing the country, despite the risks encountered in escaping and an uncertain future abroad.
Every citizen aged between 18 and 40 has a duty to perform 'active national service', which is in theory limited to 18 months. However, due to the Ethiopian-Eritrean war in 2002, the government extended the duration indefinitely.
Another contributory factor to people leaving the country is the ongoing practice of arbitrary arrests and detentions. Even though some journalists seem to be released, it is still unclear what happened to all the other political prisoners.
Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, former Eritrean ambassador to the EU, stressed to us that sanctions are not working and agreed on the need to engage in dialogue but on different terms. However, to again quote the UN special rapporteur, the EU needs to strengthen efforts to "prevent a repeat of the Lampedusa situation and ensure protection of those fleeing from Eritrea".
Eritreans are not fleeing for no reason, but due to an authoritarian regime committing gross human rights violations, which need to be stopped. As long as we are unable to stop these violations, we have to open the gates for refugees coming from this country searching for a secure place.