In this interview, Her Excellency Hanna Simon, Ambassador of the Republic of Eritrea to France talks to Pambazuka News correspondent, Sarraounia Mangou Tete, in Paris on wide-ranging issues, key among which include the sanctions imposed on this young horn of Africa nation by Western imperialist powers.
Your Excellency Ambassador Hanna Simon, thank you very much for granting this interview to Pambazuka News. To start with, Eritrea continues to be under a regime of sanctions led by Western imperialist powers. How are these sanctions impacting on the country and what measures are being taken by the Eritrean government to address the consequences of these sanctions while maintaining your uncompromising stance on the independence and sovereignty of Eritrea?
Ambassador Hanna Simon:
First of all, I would like to thank you for having taken this initiative for the interview. So, with the issue that you have raised, it is true, it is been more than eight years that we have been under sanctions. These sanctions have no reason to be there and we have been proving that. The main reason given was that we are allegedly supporting Al- Shabaab, but nobody could prove that. The issue of the conflict with Djibouti was also raised and this matter was under the mediation of Qatar. So, there was no reason to continue these sanctions. But what we see now is that, from time to time, new issues are brought up, new issues, which were not in the sanctions initially, and they are serving as a pretext to continue the sanctions against the country. So, those sanctions are politically motivated and we should understand that this is not only about Eritrea; we should understand what means of pressure are put upon African countries.
PN: So, what measures are you then taking to have these sanctions lifted? Is the Eritrean government engaging the African Union on this matter?
AHS: What we have been doing is to try to fight this at the United Nations Security Council level. We have been fighting for more than eight years now and also trying to campaign against these sanctions, which is what I have done here [Paris] before the last decision was taken to prolong these sanctions. We hope that countries will be wise enough to think about it and to see to it that these sanctions are lifted, as they have no reason to be there. And as you have asked earlier, of course these sanctions have an impact on the country because we are tied, not allowed to move or do anything and we are also stripped of our right to defend ourselves because of the arms embargo upon us. We are living under the threat of war by Ethiopia and also of occupation by Ethiopia, on one part of our territory. So, these sanctions should be dropped and African countries should help because we have to safeguard the unity of Africa. Today it is Eritrea that is under sanctions, but tomorrow it will be another African country.
PN: And do you think the African Union is doing enough to have these sanctions lifted?
AHS: Well, we have a representation at the African Union (AU) and we are doing what is necessary there on our part and the AU has to play its part and until now, personally, I cannot say that the AU is playing its part. You know that anybody can have his/her own analysis of the situation, but for me, the AU has to act as an African organisation, which gives equal chances to every member or to each member of the Union. So, on my part, I do not see much done from the part of the AU, but still, the campaign is continuing.
PN: And how is the population affected by the weight of these sanctions?
AHS: Sanctions are never good, because even though we try to focus our people to work for self-sufficiency, sanctions do affect the population a lot and not only the population. Because whenever you have diplomatic relations with any country, or contacts with any country when ambassadors or embassies work, this issue of sanctions is always raised and it has become an obstacle everywhere. So, I do think that we are really hampered by these sanctions in our diplomatic relations with other countries. And the saddest thing is that, this regime of sanctions is sort of favouring one party because we had been attacked by Ethiopia, we had been at war for two years. And then again, there was this Algiers Agreement, which had to be implemented, and on the other side there was a decision of the Border Commission, which assigned the borders of the two countries, but Ethiopia is not implementing this Agreement.
But, instead of the international community applying pressure on Ethiopia to implement this agreement, they are punishing the victim. This is what is happening. So, we need countries to understand that and first of all, that Ethiopia should withdraw from Eritrean territory according to the Algiers Agreement and the Border Commission decision. So far, we do not see any progress in that area .The situation is such that we have to work while watching our backs. We are trying to develop our economy and we are doing fine I can say. We are trying to improve the life of the population, we have improved salary scales, and we have tried to implement many projects. The fact that we have reached the Millennium Development Goals in the social welfare sector is proof that we are doing fine and we are sure that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will have the same results.
PN: My next question is on European governments and media who have been indexing, criminalising and demonising Eritrea and accusing your country for causing what they present as “refugee crisis in Europe”, but President Isaiah Afeworki retorted with resounding remarks which were directed at the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Francois Holland. Still, we know that, in the past and even as we are talking now, similar pressure put on African countries by Western governments and media has resulted in African governments yielding to European pressure and issuing travel documents that would enable the European Union (EU) to deport African immigrants and refugees or accepting financial incentives to take deportees even if they are not their nationals. Within this context, should Africans be concerned that an EU-Eritrea coerced cooperation is likely to result in the deportation of African immigrants and refugees? Or should Africans be reassured that Eritrea will maintain a firm stand and its determination not to help European countries in enforcing their racist anti-refugees and anti-immigrant policies at the expense of not only Eritrean nationals but indeed all Africans? What can you tell our readers?
AHS: In fact you know that this refugee issue has been blown out of proportion by the European media and what I understand is that migration has for centuries always been a characteristic of human beings worldwide. Whenever you have an opportunity, you go where you believe you can have access to a better life, and this is not new. But what makes it appear new is the attitude of European governments towards migration. They have attached political reasons to countries and this is what African countries must know: that today it’s Eritrea and tomorrow it can be another African country. And for me, the French media, if I can talk about French media, they are not doing their job. Most of them have completely forgotten their journalistic ethics and they are not working for real issues and for real analysis. They just want to say things that they want to say, they have a pre–judgement, they have their own conclusions and whenever they speak about an issue they just speak without even knowing. We see that the “experts” they bring to speak about African issues or African problems, they are not experts at all; they are people who have looked into the internet about those issues and have never set foot in Africa, but have the audacity to speak about countries they do not know. So, this is the media in Europe and in France. Some television stations try to do better, but finally they say that Eritrea is a so-called “closed country”. But how should we let in journalists who come to you with a conclusion and then put in the mouth of the people whatever they want to say? So, this is my experience with the media.
And on the migration issue, the governments of Africa should stand united and have to have serious talks with Europe or with countries on bilateral levels. Migration is an issue that has always existed and will not be resolved by the way they are trying to resolve it, that is, giving incentives to go back. They (immigrants) will go and then when the money is spent, they will try to go back to Europe because they think that the situation here is better than in their country. So in general, the world should work seriously to ensure that Africa is developed; because if Africa is not developed, the issue of immigration will continue and will not stop. So really, a serious discussion or serious measures are needed and not a development cooperation that takes back all the money and does not give anything to Africa.
PN: And there is a tendency of the European countries to want to arm-twist African countries into accepting deported immigrants from Europe into their countries in Africa, and in the case of Eritrea do you foresee your country coerced into accepting these immigrants in exchange for sanctions to be lifted?
AHS: Well, you know coercion has always existed and these sanctions have been renewed and renewed every now and then with new pretexts. It gives you an idea about where they want to go, and this is a political issue and not really a concern about what is happening in Somalia or in Djibouti for instance. This is an instrument to put pressure on specific countries and this is being done everywhere and especially against Eritrea. We want to be independent, really independent and rich countries have to let us work towards this will to be independent. And what we see is also their double standards. Who creates or exaggerates the issue of migration? If a country gives special treatment to a specific nationality, isn’t this an encouragement for our people to migrate? For us, this is part of human trafficking and that is what we see. They can say that their action is a humanitarian gesture but we say “no”. If they give special treatment and this is what we see for Eritreans, if they give special treatment to Eritreans, why is this so? The answer is because they want to stick a political angle to it to insinuate political persecution, discrimination or something like that, and that is not true because they (Western countries) have an agenda. You cannot tell me that someone who comes from a remote area of Eritrea, coming up and saying, “I am a political refugee, I am a political migrant. This conception of political migrant comes up later. You know that there are stories sold (and at one time they sold at 50 Euros per story), where the migrant says, “ I have been tortured, I have been destabilised, my parents have been killed…” and so on and so forth. These are stories running in Europe that people say in order to have refugee status. So, what is happening here is also an encouragement to immigration and Europe should be serious on this issue.
PN: Your Excellency, it is on record that Eritrea has accused neighbouring Ethiopia of pandering to the whims of Western countries aimed at destabilising Eritrea and among other unresolved matters, the border conflict is yet to be fully settled. In this context, what measures, actions and initiatives has the Eritrean government undertaken within the AU and elsewhere in order to address this problem?
AHS: Well, it is clear that the Ethiopian government, a minority government is surviving, thanks to the assistance of Western countries and that is why nobody puts pressure on Ethiopia to leave our territory and it has always been like this. Ethiopia has most of the time been an ally of the West and it is continuing to be so and for us, Ethiopia is trying to have hegemony in the Horn of Africa and this is the main cause of the troubles in the Horn of Africa.
We, however, do not want to go to war, as war is not an option for us. We have had enough. What we are trying to do is to convince those Western countries to put pressure on Ethiopia. We are also trying to discuss this issue at the AU level, but it may be difficult for the AU because its headquarters is in Ethiopia and this is a difficult situation. But personally, I wish that the AU headquarters could be moved out of Ethiopia and probably we may have some peace in the Horn of Africa. So, campaigning is going on, trying to convince and I hope that with time and with insistence and resilience we will succeed.
PN: Your Excellency, it is on record that during the independence struggle the Eritrean Liberation Movement was having the most progressive policy regarding women empowerment and gender equity. But after their liberation wars, most liberation movements in Africa and all over the world have not always respected the promises made to women. What can you then tell our readers about the situation in today’s Eritrea? Are women equal to men in terms of the respect of their rights, the defense and promotion of their interests, their access to resources, to land and to economic and financial opportunities, their presence in leadership positions, their family authority, etc.? What then can you tell our readers about the situation in terms of women empowerment today in Eritrea?
AHS: As you have justly said, we had and do have a very progressive policy towards women. During the struggle (for independence), the participation of women was at the level of 30 percent and at every level, we try to maintain that and this was built up step by step because the background was not there, because the society was very “backward” and would rather give opportunities for education to men while women would be married at an early age. So, the women were only there to serve the men. From that point on, they joined the struggle bit by bit and the number of women increased and we had 30 percent during the struggle. We are very proud of that and as a continuation, what I must stress also is that Women advancement in Eritrea was in all fields such as in the combatting forces, in medicine, in the garage, in the information sector and everywhere in every field we had 30 percent participation of women.
From that point on, we did not want to loose what we had acquired. There is today a very strong National Union of Eritrean Women and it is doing very well. After independence, of course there were lots of obstacles that still remained. For example, education was one of the biggest obstacles to women empowerment that still existed during the liberation struggle. So, today, we are trying to provide more opportunities for education to women until we attain equality level in this field. There is currently the implementation of a policy of “positive discrimination” meaning that in every electoral process, 30 percent of seats are reserved for women and in addition, women can also participate in the other general seats. Presently, we have four women ministers which is quite a big number and even in government offices, women participation is doing fine and the government is striving to maintain this 30 percent participation threshold for women at every level. As I mentioned earlier, we have a lot of obstacles but the government’s key focus is on women education, schools have been opened for women, boys and girls and we oblige families to send their children to schools and things are changing. There are also some backward issues such as early marriages for girls, women circumcision, the place of girls in the family, etc. These will take time to improve but progress is being made and the government has not forgotten its promise to uplift the status of women in our society.
What I would also like to stress upon is that even in developed countries such as France, French women would tell you that equality is not there yet. These are countries, which have addressed gender equality for so many years, but they still cannot say they have equality. For the same job for instance, the salaries are not the same and there is discrimination against women. May be some Scandinavian countries are doing fine as they have managed to attain parity levels. We in Eritrea have also made important progress for women empowerment.
PN: And I imagine that as a woman ambassador of Eritrea in France, this partly attests to the progress made by the Eritrean government to empower women in your country. What’s your comment on this?
AHS: (Laughter)…Well, if you put it this way, yes, the government has tried to symbolise me as representative of women and has made efforts to empower women in the diplomatic field. But let me stress one point and this is that, when Western countries want to demean a country, they use all sorts of weapons and one of these is human rights and particularly the rights of women. When they tell us that women are raped en-masse in Eritrea, we will not accept this accusation because Eritrea is not a country where the rights of women are violated, this is just nonsense. We have gone through a 30-year struggle, we have gone through 25 years of independence and it is ridiculous for them to say that women are raped in Eritrea. Of course rape exists everywhere but the level of women raped is no different from any other country. Even here in France, there are a lot of rapes against women, a lot of killings and a lot of domestic violence and I am sure we are better off in these areas than many developed countries.
PN: Western countries have painted themselves as the champions in defending human rights, but when it comes to the human rights of Africans they are perceived to have double standards.
AHS: Yes, the issue of human rights is really ridiculous. For example, when you have to feed your people, when you have to educate your people and to give opportunities to your people, and when you try whatever possible to give access to your people, they cannot come around with an issue of human rights, no. But, human rights has just become an instrument to put pressure, especially on African countries, and this is really ridiculous because when you look at who is accused of human rights (violations) it is all African countries. If Western countries want to speak about human rights, they should also address the issue vis-à-vis their colonisation of Africa, vis-à-vis what they are doing now, they should let Africa develop itself, they should be sincere and help Africa develop if they really speak about human rights and when we attain their level of development, then we can speak from an equal footing.
PN: In other words they are taking away the sovereign rights of African countries to self-determination?
AHS: Yes, yes you can say that. I mean you know it is been more than 70 years that the Western world has not seen the face of war. There had been some war spots in some areas. But they cannot claim to have suffered from war. Those generations who today are 40, 50 or 70 years now do not know anything about war in these Western countries and so, they do not know anything about what is happening here in Africa, they do not know anything about the challenges that African countries are facing to maintain their dignity and the efforts made by African countries to provide decent lives for their populations. Because this is what we as Africans want for our people. We need to be recognised as independent countries trying to support the development of our population without any interference by foreign forces. We know that Africa is rich and Africa should unite in order to control its resources. That is the appeal I can make.
PN: Your Excellency, in the last few months, some African countries have taken concrete measures to advance the project of African integration by waiving the visa obligation to Africans visiting their countries. What about Eritrea? Can African tourists and travellers wishing to visit your beautiful country expect to be welcomed in Eritrea and granted a visa upon arrival anytime soon?
AHS: Actually on paper, this thinking is already there and I attended a meeting in Rwanda in 2016 where the AU was saying that we will have one passport for Africa and has started to give this passport to ministers. This is a good move. We in Eritrea have been trying to work towards that. With Kenya for instance, we did not require any visa; with Sudan, we did not need to apply for any visa. But at a certain point and for some reasons that we do not understand, with Kenya, we do not have that arrangement now and this is out of our control. With Sudan, in these past weeks they have closed their borders. Maybe they have their reasons, but we would like to work for one Africa, to be able to move from one country to another freely; but to reach this goal, we will have to defy many, many challenges.
PN: Your Excellency, what may be your concluding remarks for our readers?
AHS: I would just like to call upon Africans to keep united because its only through a united Africa that we can survive. This is the last appeal that I wish to make.
PN: There is the talk in high circles that the 21st century will be African. Can this be achieved without the unity that you are talking about?
AHS: Of course if the will is there among all African governments this will be achieved and if many countries pursue this objective, there is no reason why Africa cannot claim the 21st century.
PN: But will the continuing Western interference in African affairs not be an obstacle towards achieving Africa’s 21st century objectives?
AHS: Well, Western interference has always existed; we have to work towards genuine independence where we should decide our issues ourselves. So, this interference by the West should stop and it will stop only if we, Africans, so decide. People in Western countries do not understand that the fact that they have good standards of living is mainly because of the resources coming from Africa. They need to understand that a poor distribution of resources can lead to very bad situations. If countries globally do not work for genuine peace and stability the risks will be enormous.
PN: And do you think that Africa should pull out of the so-called “international community” and particularly when viewed against the backdrop of the fact that a lot of the conflicts that are brought to the United Nations Security Council are from Africa, yet Africa does not even have veto power in this organisation and we are just there to rubber stamp decisions taken by the veto–wielding powers at the UN. Isn’t it about time that Africa withdraws from these organisations whose agendas are driven by others?
AHS: You know that when you retract from an organisation, you also lose the muscle that you need to fight. This is an experience that we had at AU level. At one time we had stopped our participation and then we tried to come back. If you are not somewhere, nobody will discuss on your behalf. We faced the same problem with the Inter-Governmental Authority For Development (IGAD), and now IGAD is monopolised by Ethiopia. Its chairmanship has been hijacked by Ethiopia. We want our rights respected as member of IGAD. Nobody can strip us of this right; but Ethiopia is monopolising the organisation and is creating lots of problems just to keep Eritrea out of IGAD and it is instrumentalising IGAD.
So, retracting from the organisation or withdrawing from international organisations is not a solution. The solution will be to use whatever instrument you have. Even if it is a small instrument, you can use it to advance your cause. The important thing is that we must consolidate the African Union. There is talk now about the AU is trying to finance itself and this is an important step forward. As long as we do not finance ourselves, we will continue to have difficulties and the AU will be unable to achieve most of the aspirations of the African people. We do not need financing by others because it will come with pressure on African countries. So we must consolidate the AU and most particularly financially and we should keep our membership, especially at the United Nations because it is an instrument that we can use
PN: And finally how do you see the role of the African diaspora in the context of perceptions that the AU does not recognise the role that the diaspora can play in African issues and that the continental body often ignores the expertise of its diaspora in various fields in favour of Western “experts”?
AHS: I believe that the diaspora can play an important role in Africa and the continent can even gain the brain-drain; but we must create conditions to attract the diaspora. In the meantime, the diaspora’s contribution is very important. I have seen this with the Eritrean diaspora through remittances, which are a source of revenue for countries. Africa must maintain its relations with its diaspora as it can play various roles in parliaments, in administrations, etc. Look for example the role that the Jewish diaspora plays. Jews everywhere participate in influencing and helping in the development of their country and Africa should strive to encourage its diaspora to help in the development of their countries.
The truth is that there is nobody who likes to stay out of his country. Even at old age, people would like to go back to their countries. But the continent should strive to achieve socio-developmental levels that are attractive to their diaspora in terms of social benefits and a conducive environment that allows for access to employment and education opportunities. Eritrea for instance has always had a diaspora policy even during the struggle for independence and it is thanks to the moral, political and financial support of the Eritrean diaspora that the struggle succeeded. They have been a major contributor to our country’s national development.
PN: And from the wider context of African diaspora does Eritrea have a policy to attract competencies from various parts of Africa?
AHS: We do have expertise drawn from various parts and not only Africa. We have experts coming through United Nations Development Programme projects, etc. We also have a lack of teachers and lecturers at universities and we always advertise for teachers as well as in other fields. We try to attract Eritreans as I mentioned earlier and I think that this can work for Africa. You know, open markets/ labour markets for Africans so that whoever is compatible with the demand can come and work,
Thank you very much Your Excellency Ambassador Hanna Simon for this interview with Pambazuka News.