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Volume 762: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the UN Commission of Inquiry Report that found that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea, and of the impact of such crimes on the exodus of refugees from that country.

My Lords, we are concerned by the commission’s findings that widespread human rights violations are being committed in Eritrea and that these may constitute crimes against humanity. We have made clear to the Government of Eritrea that they must honour their international obligations and that improved respect for human rights is required to stem the flow of irregular migration.

My Lords, does the noble Earl see the connection between crimes against humanity, which include rape, torture and extra-judicial killings, and the 300,000 Eritreans who have fled that country? We see pictures every day on our TV screens of people taking to the high seas and even facing execution by beheading by ISIS as they try to escape via Libya. Given that connection, must we not tackle this problem at the root and ensure that regimes such as that of Afwerki in Eritrea are hauled before the International Criminal Court and held to account for their actions? Will the noble Earl tell us, therefore, why we have agreed a package—via the EU—of £300 million in aid to Eritrea which requires nothing to be done about these human rights violations?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. We certainly agree that a comprehensive plan is needed to tackle migration. That means greater engagement with source countries to address why migrants leave in the first place, through development aid addressing human rights abuses and tackling conflict. We have stepped up bilateral engagement with Eritrea to that end. We have also made it clear to the Government of Eritrea that they must honour their international obligations and that improved respect for human rights is needed to stem the flow of irregular migration. We keep the human rights situation in Eritrea under close scrutiny and will discuss the commission’s conclusions at the UN Human Rights Council on 23 June.

My Lords, when I first visited Eritrea in 1988 during the 30-year Ethiopian-Eritrean war, people suffered terribly, as they do now. Twenty-four years after independence, the dictator Isaias Afwerki rules, and at last the UN has said, as I am sure the Minister knows, that he has a regime that runs through terror, not through law. Having presumably read the UN report, does the Minister not agree that the Eritrean tyranny is on a par with that of North Korea and should be treated accordingly by the United Kingdom and by the international community?

The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, having visited that country, is certainly very aware of the terrible things that have happened there. We are deeply concerned by the commission’s report published on 8 June. We are reviewing its findings carefully and will discuss next steps with international partners at the UN Human Rights Council on 23 June. At this stage, the commission has not concluded that crimes against humanity are taking place; it has called for further investigation into whether this is the case. One problem is that the commission was not allowed into Eritrea in the first place.

My Lords, there have been consistent reports of gun-running from Eritrea to Somalia, Sudan and other such places and destabilisation of some of the surrounding countries. What discussions have Her Majesty’s Government, or their European colleagues, had with the African Union about the extent to which Eritrea is actively destabilising the region?

A number of meetings have been arranged between the African Union and the EU under the Khartoum process, which the noble Lord will be aware of. There will be a further meeting later in the autumn when more of these matters will be discussed.

My Lords, now that the Prime Minister has said on 3 June that,

“we need to break the link between getting on a boat and achieving residence in Europe”,—[Official Report, Commons, 03/06/15; col. 583.]

and has called for arrangements to be made for the possibility of returning illegal immigrants to Africa, will Her Majesty’s Government start negotiations in the Security Council to get a United Nations mandate to establish in Africa—preferably somewhere in Libya—a holding area to which people can be returned and where they can be decently treated and properly assessed as to what should happen to them next?

My noble friend is quite right that people should be decently treated. From what has been happening, it is obvious that they are not being decently treated. I will pass his question on the UN Security Council to the department. As I have said, we have to cut the link in Eritrea. The Eritreans have said that they will keep their national service only for 18 months. Also, all the young men—up to 200 a day—are leaving Eritrea, so the workforce is disappearing.

My Lords, picking up on that point, there is evidence that national service conscripts are being deployed as labour in foreign-owned mines. Will the Minister support an ILO investigation and intervention on such claims of forced labour?

As the noble Lord is aware, Eritrea is very much a closed country. I was not aware of the forced labour incidents. I will of course pass this on to the department and, if there is any more information that I can give him, I will write to him.

My Lords, what has become of the last lot of Christians unfortunately intercepted by ISIL on their way to the Mediterranean?

My Lords, as I understand it, ISIL has intercepted a group of Christian Eritreans. Her Majesty’s Government are aware of reports of these nationals, 86 in number, who were abducted in Libya on 3 June by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. We have no further information at this time of what is happening. We have seen appalling acts of terror inside Libya, including the targeting of others because of their faith. At the moment, there is no further information, but we will be watching closely.