Stony silence from Eritrea as Ethiopia basks in Nobel glow

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center, receives Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki at Gondar Airport, last year. (AFP)
Updated 18 October 2019

Stony silence from Eritrea as Ethiopia basks in Nobel glow

  • Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was acknowledged for accepting Abiy Ahmed’s peace offer in the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s announcement
  • Afwerki has conspicuously failed to offer his congratulations to Abiy

ADDIS ABABA: While Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was praised for efforts to end years of bitter tension with Eritrea in his Nobel Peace Prize award last week, his Eritrean partner in the peace-making has conspicuously failed to offer his congratulations.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was acknowledged for accepting Abiy’s peace offer in the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s announcement, which held out hope of “positive change” in both countries. But he was not given a share of the prize and has made no public statement on the award.
That silence is consistent with the deeply isolated nation, where hopes that peace could spark domestic reform to end years of repression are fading.
Initially when Abiy and Isaias embarked on a whip-fast rapprochement last year, leading to the formal end of a 20-year-old stalemate between the countries, some analysts speculated that peace would contribute to a new era of openness.
Embassies reopened, flights were resumed and meetings held across the region, but progress has since stalled and the border between the two nations is once again closed.
Abiy, who has said he hopes his Nobel prize will inspire peace-building by other African leaders, was also lauded for an array of reforms at home, including releasing jailed dissidents and welcoming home exiled armed groups.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres credited Abiy as one of the main reasons why “winds of hope are blowing ever stronger across Africa.”
But little has changed in Eritrea, where a system of compulsory national service, which forces citizens into specific jobs at low pay and bars them from traveling abroad, has led to descriptions of the nation as an “open-air prison” akin to North Korea and forced thousands to flee.
Now prominent dissidents are worried that the situation is getting worse.
For Dawit, a former education official who fled Eritrea shortly before Abiy and Isaias first embraced on a tarmac in Asmara, the fact that little has changed is deeply disappointing.
“At least before there was hope. We thought maybe if there is peace, maybe if this changes, things will go the right way,” said Dawit, who wanted only his first name used for safety reasons.
“But now there is no hope. There’s nothing.”
Eritrea fought its way to independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, and Isaias is the only ruler the country has ever known.
For several years it enjoyed smooth relations with Ethiopia.
But in 1998 skirmishes erupted after Eritrean forces entered the area around Badme, claiming the town under borders drawn during Italian colonial rule.
Two years of fighting cost nearly 80,000 lives before the stalemate took hold in 2000.
The human rights situation in Eritrea quickly deteriorated as Isaias sought to stamp out criticism.
Eritreans continue to flee the country en masse and the country’s national service system remains in effect, forcing thousands of Eritreans into military training even before they finish secondary school.
One thing that has changed since the peace deal is Eritrea’s global standing.
The UN has lifted sanctions, and the European Union is funding a road-building project — though critics contend it relies on forced labor.
Asia Abdulkadir, a Nairobi-based Eritrean activist, said steps to bring Eritrea in from the cold alarm those who see Isaias’ isolation as “one of the things that might speed up” his exit.
Border tensions — particularly with the political party that controls Ethiopia’s Tigray region that borders Eritrea — remain as bitter as ever.
These “present a major obstacle to deepening the peace process, reducing the chances of a political opening in Eritrea,” said William Davison of the International Crisis Group think tank.
Recent months have also seen signs that the political space is shrinking.
In June, officials ordered the closure of Catholic-run health centers after church leaders published a letter expressing concern over the lack of reforms.
There are also reports of a new wave of attempts to nationalize private schools.
“The government clearly feels empowered to once again go after individuals or bodies, including the Catholic church, who have taken the risk to critique — however mildly — some of their policies and practices,” said Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch.
For those hoping for political change, the timeline is even more uncertain.
But Dawit, the exiled education official, said he believed the world would one day get a glimpse inside his country.
“A lot of bad things are happening in Eritrea,” he said. “One day it will come out and the world will say, ‘Wow, all of this was happening. Was it really happening?’”


Patten says China pursuing ‘Orwellian’ agenda in Hong Kong

Updated 12 min 34 sec ago

Patten says China pursuing ‘Orwellian’ agenda in Hong Kong

  • Chris Patten defended London’s announcement that it would grant residency and a path to citizenship for nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents
  • China shocked many of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people when it announced earlier this month that it will enact a national security law for the city

BEIJING: The last British governor of Hong Kong criticized the Chinese government on Friday over proposed national security legislation, calling it part of an “Orwellian” drive to eliminate opposition in violation of the agreement on handing the territory over to Beijing.
Chris Patten defended London’s announcement that it would grant residency and a path to citizenship for nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents if Beijing goes through with passage of the legislation.
The law is seen as potentially imposing severe restrictions on freedom of speech and opposition political activity in the former British colony that was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997. China has denounced the offer of citizenship as a violation of its sovereignty.
“If they’ve broken the (Sino-British) Joint Declaration, if they’ve thrown it overboard, how can they then use the joint declaration as though it stops us doing something that’s a sovereign right of ours?” said Patten, now chancellor of the University of Oxford, in an online talk with reporters.
The declaration is a bilateral treaty signed as part of the handover process. China has essentially declared it null and void, while Britain says Beijing is reneging on its commitments made in the document that was supposed to be remain in effect until 2047.
China shocked many of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people when it announced earlier this month that it will enact a national security law for the city, which was promised a high level of autonomy outside of foreign and defense affairs.
An earlier push to pass security legislation was shelved after massive Hong Kong street protests against it in 2003. However, Beijing appeared to lose patience after months of sometimes violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year that China said was an attempt to split the territory off from the rest of the country.
Patten said the security legislation is unnecessary because Hong Kong’s legal code already includes provisions to combat terrorism, financial crimes and other threats to security.
“What Beijing wants is something which deals with those rather worrying Orwellian crimes like sedition, whatever that may be,” Patten said.
China may also be seeking grounds to disqualify opposition candidates from running in September’s election for the local legislature by accusing them of being disloyal, he said.
Beijing has ignored promises that Hong Kong could democratize of its own accord after the handover, Patten said. The US should unite with other democratic countries to oppose underhanded tactics by Beijing, he said.
“It’s the Chinese Communist Party which attacks us, which hectors, which bullies, which tells companies which have roots in our countries, that unless they do what China wants, they won’t get any business in China,” Patten said. “That’s the way the Mafia behave, and the rest of the world shouldn’t put up with it, because if we do, liberal democracies are going to be screwed.”