Eritrea's foreign minister denies rights abuses, blames Ethiopia for clashes
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It is rare for government officials from the country known as "Africa's North Korea" to talk to European media. But Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh spoke to RFI's Anthony Lattier and Brenna Daldorph about recent clashes on Eritrea's border with Ethiopia and journalists and opposition figures who were arrested and disappeared more than 15 years ago.
On Sunday 12 June fighting broke out on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia near the town of Tsorona.
Saleh confirmed that the incident did occur, though he did not know the death count.
"I don’t know the number," he said. "I am outside the country, I didn’t ask the number of victims."
Clashes caused by 'Ethiopian aggression'
For him, the incident amounted to Ethiopian aggression.
"The Ethiopian prime minister [Menes Zenawai] addressed his parliament that Ethiopia was going to attack Eritrea any time," Saleh claimed, although, according to other reports, Ethiopia had said it had the capacity to attack Eritrea but would not do so.
Saleh denied Eritrea was preparing for war.
“Eritrea is going for peace only”, he said. “Ethiopia is the one that started the war.”
Ethiopian authorities have blamed Eritrea for starting the fighting.
While recognising that organisations like the African Union and United Nations stood as "witnesses and guarantors" to the conflict, Saleh criticised international bodies.
"There is not any impartiality, any professionalism or any objectivity," Saleh said. "I don’t have any belief [in] the international bodies to counsel problems. The United States is the one spoiling all this."
Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a long civil war. Another brutal border war between 1998 and 2000 led to the deaths of an estimated 80,000 people. Many components of the 2000 peace deal have never been implemented.
Reports of hundreds of Eritreans leaving denied
Hundreds of young people flee Eritrea every month, according to a report released by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea on 8 June 2016, many of them bound for Europe.
In 2015 47,025 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe, most after hiring smugglers to ferry them across the Mediterranean in unsafe boats.
Saleh condemned the UN special commission that carried out the report.
"This is unacceptable, they are out of their mandate," he said. "They have never been to Eritrea".
In fact, the Eritrean government did not grant visas to the members of the commission.
"We will not give them because they are not legitimate to get what you call visas," Saleh said. "It is because it is a politically motivated panel. We don’t have something to hide but we don’t want them because they should be formed according to standards."
Saleh further blamed Europe for enticing young people by granting them political asylum.
"Europe has attracted Eritreans by giving them protection," he said, going on to claim that many refugees who arrive in Europe pretend to be Eritrean to get asylum.
"There are not hundreds leaving Eritrea [every month]," Saleh said. "The number is completely ballooned by so many Somalis and Ethiopians and others who left their countries for Europe by saying they were Eritreans."
Yet RFI reported last week on scenes of widespread grief in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, after posters were hung up announcing the deaths of numerous young Eritreans who drowned at sea while seeking passage to Europe.
People kept longer than 18 months in forced national service
The recent UN report accused Eritrea of "crimes against humanity". One allegation is that 400,000 people are "enslaved" while completing forced national service.
So is there a link between these findings and the flight of so many Eritreans across the border?
"This 'crimes against humanity' is not acceptable," Saleh said. "They say that there is an indefinite national service but this isn’t true. People say it in order to get asylum."
He did, however, confirm that people were kept for "longer than 18 months" in the national service "to defend their country" against a perceived constant threat from Ethiopia.
Fifteen journalists, activists arrested in 2001 are 'all alive'
Again according to the UN report, "individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured or disappeared or executed" in Eritrea.
"We don’t have any detention centres in Eritrea," Saleh said. "We have prisons but the UN commission has never seen them."
However, when asked about the fate of 15 journalists, pro-reform activists and military figures who were arrested in 2001 and subsequently disappeared, Saleh said they were in prison.
"All of them are alive," he said. "The government is looking for their safety. They are in good hands, in prison. They are political prisoners and the government is dealing with them."
When asked again to confirm that former minister of foreign affairs Petros Solomon and journalist Dawit Isaak were alive, he said they were. Saleh said that these 15 men who disappeared 15 years ago would be tried "when the government decides".
Seeking international aid, investment
Saleh admitted that some refugees did leave Eritrea in search of employment. He blamed the international community for stifling Eritrea’s economy with an arms embargo and "indirect" economic sanctions that he said included bans on allowing the Eritrean diaspora to pay taxes to the country and preventing Eritrea from buying machinery.
In 2009 the UN imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea and enforced a travel ban on a number of its leaders. According to Business & Sanctions Consulting Netherlands, there is also a ban on provision of certain services, inspection of and prior information requirement on certain cargos as well as freezing of funds and economic resources. Cargo bound for Eritrea is routinely inspected to verify that no military equipment is being imported.
Eritrea remains isolated from the international community.
Saleh says that a solution to the migration issue would be giving Eritrea aid, which it would use to "fulfil its own projects" coupled with increased international investment.
Saleh says that he thought that food security would be achieved independently by the country in the next two or three years.
Twenty-five years after achieving its independence, Eritrea is far on its path to development, according to Saleh.
However, international commentators and human rights activists worry about ongoing human rights abuses in this closed country and the continuous flood of Eritreans seeking better lives elsewhere.