Francesco Martone, head, international department, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà
Speech for the Bologna Summit 2014: "Eritrean solutions for Eritrean problems"
30 August 2014
let me first of all thank you for the invitation to attend the second edition of the Bologna meeting. It is a great honor and pleasure for me to be here both on a personal basis and as a representative of the Left, Ecology and Freedom Party.
This is a further step towards a stricter exchange and collaboration between my party and you all, in the common quest for democracy and respect of human rights and justice in Eritrea.
I have been engaged on Eritrea since the time when I was a senator in Italy. I was a member of the human rights committee of the Senate then and very much engaged in migrant rights' issues, especially as regards detention camps and the Mediterranean. It was then that I got to meet with Don Mussie Zerai and other Eritrean youth and activists that told me about the root causes of migration and the exodus towards Europe.
Since then I was engaged in trying to highlight the co-responsibilities of Italian companies and political circles in backing up the Afeworki regime, and to try and contribute to develop a truly post-colonial approach to Italian policies towards its former colonies and Africa.
I learned about the hardship of those that struggled to create networks for democracy abroad, the fear and threats they had to resist, the courage that you all have step by step shown in coming out publicly, create linkages, start challenging the Afeworki regime openly. A good friend, daughter of one of your Independence hero, then prosecuted by the regime and left to die in a jail in Asmara, told me when you organized the first demonstration in front of the Eritrean embassy in Rome: “here we go, here they are now. This is a great step”. To me that used to take for granted that people could gather and take to the streets in my country that was somehow a novelty. But then I quickly realized how crucial that moment was for you all.
Since then my party started to actively engage on Eritrea, we invited a representative of the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC) at our National Congress this year and have been mobilizing our Members of Parliament on various occasions.
I wanted to start with a personal note to try and highlight the three elements that seem to be key to me to define what would be the responsibility and role of Italy in supporting democratic change and justice in Eritrea. When we think about the various levels of action, these can be divided in three, and all three are strictly intertwined.
The first one is here, in Italy, and is related to the obligation of the Italian government to ensure that Eritreans that make it to the Italian shores are given access to the right to seek asylum or refugee status, as well as for those that live here ,the right to be free from fear, to freely exert your citizen's right to freedom of expression, association, political action. It seems to me that there is a sort of tendency to “normalize” the official narrative around Eritrea. I was quite concerned in reading a recent report by the International Crisis group titled: “ Ending the exodus” that among other things almost gave the impression that many Eritreans leave the county just because they want to avoid the draft and then to send remittances back home. This assumption - if gone unchallenged - would in fact help assimilate Eritrean migrants to economic migrants and “depoliticize” the root causes of migration. Under this assumption Eritreans would hardly be eligible for asylum or refugee status.
Furthermore, the Italian government should make a clear effort to ensure that there is no undue interference of the Eritrean government into what Eritrean citizens do and say in my country. I do not want to go too much into the details here but I am sure all you you fully understand what I mean.
Then we have the second level, the in-between. The tragic route between Eritrea and Italy. The detention in camps in Libya, the inhumane treatment of migrants, fell prey of human traffickers, and then risking their very survival sailing through the Mediterranean. When I think of how to try and ensure justice and dignity to the Eritrean people I cannot avoid thinking of those that lost their lives, and their families, those that stay in Eritrea, and that are caught between grief, pain and fear. And those that were waiting for their relatives to join them in Europe. Many of these people have no name, they are “disappared” . Hence dignity in this case can be partly ensured by giving them a name, giving their families the right to mourn them.
Justice here is not a theoretical matter. It has to do with the root causes of migration and with the denial of the people's human right to mobility. Justice can be made when securitarian policies that criminalize migrants and refugees are canceled and substituted with programmes that protect people's lives, accompany them into a right to safe passage, and then access to procedures to seek refugee and asylum status are ensured.
In a word, the Italian government in its current role as chair of the European Council of Ministers should seek to fundamentally change the assumptions behind Frontex and Mare Nostrum . It must ensure that while these are deeply retrofitted to be anchored on a human-rights based approach and not on to securitarian paranoia or the priority to secure borders, the same are linked to a new asylum and migration policy incountry. It would be tragic that while saving a life on the sea, that same life then would be at risk if the person is forcibly returned to his country of origin.
Third, but not least, the very reason for so many people to escape from Eritrea, a brutal regime that leaves no other choice. A regime that is now shaken and on the verge of crumbling down. Eritrea has always been seen as a country in eternal transition, maybe in the hope that the events would lead to the end of Afeworki's rule, be it the long wave of Arab spring, some geopolitical turmoils, the turbulent scenario in the Horn of Africa. Or is health conditions. A transition to nowhere, unless the international community takes a courageous stance and finally decides to deal with the regime and the overall region ina comprehensive and coherent approach. My party believes that the Italian government in its presidency should call for a regional conference on the Horn of Africa, whereas Europe can play a key convening role, to address all the outstanding crises that somehow prop up the Afeworki regime. First and foremost, the solution to the long standing conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the “Badme question”, that require a strong initiative by the UN to achieve a final settlement.
Like in a domino game, once a piece falls the rest of the pieces might fall. But such a domino effect needs to be governed, accompanied by giving you, your movements, your platforms a proper role and recognition. As the title of this conference rightfully states: " Eritrean solutions to Eritrean problems".
You are the basis for the future of Eritrea. Experience shows that after the fall of a long standing regime, the risks of civil strife are real in the lack of “intermediate” bodies, and political actors that would “govern” the transition. Now for contingent reasons, this will be your task. In spite of this, and of the fact that this might be the crucial moment to head for change in Eritrea, the Italian government seems to be heading towards a different direction, A recent visit in Eritrea by the viceminister of Foreign Affairs, has given the impression that this government is more interested in propping up the Afeworki regime – an old trick that of preserving the status quo in the fear that a change might unleash unexpected consequences that might not fall into the national interests.
This is “realpolitik” playing, not “smart” politics. Smart politics would look into ways to empower the future actors of a new Eritrea, recognize their role in future state building, while at the same time ensuring that the current regime is put at a corner and forced to negotiate. How? By severing the channels that support the regime, be them investments or economic and trade relations. Stopping smuggling weapons, and support a concerted effort to punish government-backed human traffickers to begin with. And then actively work for an international conference, to develop a road-map to democratic transition, that might also include representatives of the current regime, but not Afeworki or its cronies. Not the kind of message that came from the first visit of an Italian government high ranking official after many years.
Breaking the isolation is not the best way to contribute to democratic change in this case. Constructive engagement requires a clear strategy. The strategy here, seems more to be that of stemming the flow of migrants to secure the Mediterranean borders rather than securing a path towards freedom ad democracy for you all. Point is that by doing so the Italian government is asking an arsonist to extinguish the fire he has put up.