Interview with Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Limit national service
60 years of war, permanent mobilization and extensive isolation by some western countries paralyzed the country Eritrea. But since the peace agreement with Ethiopia from the summer of 2018, there are great hopes. On the verge of a private visit to Münster, our colleague Ulrich Coppel spoke to the Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh.
By: Ulrich Coppel
In Germany, “fighting the causes of flight” has become a household word. What are the causes of flight for the people who are leaving Eritrea for Europe?
Osman Saleh: Many people in Africa, and not just from Eritrea, have the idea that Germany and Europe are countries where milk and honey flow. In this context, almost all of the Eritrean refugees claim the “National Service” as a reason for flight. This is true in Germany and other countries due to the “eligibility guidelines” of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which highlighted Eritrea 2009 in particular.
The UNHCR guidelines provide for the automatic granting of asylum and “refugee status” to Eritreans without a valid and credible reason in so-called “subsidiary protection”. However, it is true that many of the refugees did not come from Eritrea, but from neighboring countries, especially from Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. And these people also specify Eritrea as their country of origin when they arrive in Europe.
They do so because they hope for better chances of granting their asylum applications than if they reveal their actual different origins. The “eligibility guidelines” thus trigger the migration of Eritreans and people from other countries of the region who find it convenient to pretend to be Eritreans.
What is the “National Service”?
Saleh: Following independence from Ethiopia in 1994, Eritrea introduced National Service through Proclamation No. 82 in the context of massive demobilization. It essentially generates a reserve contingent that allowed the young nation to give up a large professional army in peacetime. So similar to the military or civil service that existed previously in Germany and in many other countries. In normal times, the National Service is legally limited to 18 months. Of these, twelve months are usually spent on civilian and public works. But in 1998 Eritrea was again attacked by Ethiopia.
In defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, Eritrea was forced to extend the duration of the National Service. A second demobilization program, which began after the signing of the peace agreement, was suspended in the medium term after Ethiopia remained aggressive and continued to conduct hostile attacks in the border areas.
This despite the fact that the border dispute was resolved by the mediation of the UNO in the so-called “Treaty of Algiers” or “peace agreement”. The arbitral award was final and binding on both sides under this contract. However, in the absence of appropriate action by the UN Security Council and virtually all Western countries against Ethiopia, which are expressly foreseen in the Algiers Agreement, Eritrea had no choice but to defend itself.
Is there a chance after the peace agreement with Ethiopia to limit the national service to the legal 18 months?
Saleh: Now that the international sanctions have fallen against our country and Ethiopia has accepted the decision of the International Boundary Commission, that is one of our main tasks! But there are obvious prerequisites for this: tens of thousands of people who have been national services for many years can not simply be said: “Thank you – Goodbye”. Believe me, nothing bothers us every day more than the orderly transition from a state of permanent mobilization to normalcy. But, as I said, that’s not a new thing.
We have already carried out demobilization programs several times! The first act the Eritrean government undertook after the end of the liberation war in 1991 was the massive demobilization of 65,000 EPLF freedom fighters, reducing Eritrean’s defense forces to around 35,000. This also as a visible outward sign that Eritrea really wanted peace! Once again, this happened in 2001 with all National Service accomplices up to and including the 13th round of recruiting after the second war with Ethiopia. At the time, this process was supported by the World Bank and the EU.
How has Eritrea evolved since the recent peace agreement?
Saleh: Since the peace agreement last summer, the external threat situation has clearly relaxed. Compared to all our neighbors, little Eritrea is the most stable country with organized structures. We can build on that. Job creation will be crucial to maintain this stability. This requires, in addition to our own resources, international investors, and we promote it. We hope that Germany will support us in our quest for a solid and sustainable partnership.
Germany calls for concrete improvements in the human rights situation, the development of democratic structures and the creation of legal security in Eritrea.
Saleh: It is important for me to make it clear that all these points are just as important to us, and that we are much better in direct comparison with our neighbors, given the opportunities we have. As one of very few countries in Africa, Eritrea has achieved the World Health Organization (WHO) “Millennium Development Goals”, for example two-thirds of maternal and child mortality since the year 2000-2015.
Despite the same climatic conditions as our neighbors, we have no bottlenecks in the supply of food and clean drinking water. That’s because we built large dams. There is compulsory education, free education to graduation. Everyone has access to free medical care. Are not these human rights? I too take the respect for human rights very seriously, but I ask for fairness towards Eritrea. Can not we work on improvements with Germany as a partner without preconditions?
How can that work?
Saleh: We want to fully put into effect our constitution, which has been around for a long time but has not been fully implemented because of the war situation. We want to get people involved in civilian work, and we want to achieve democratic elections in the future. But we can only achieve all of this if the economic situation in our country improves, that is, through us, in partnership with international investors, large-scale civilian jobs are created. I am absolutely sure that then many of the Diaspora Eritreans would like to return to their homeland. And that brings us back to the beginning: Since globalization, the world has become a village: Are not we all in the same boat?