The British government’s policy towards Eritrea appears to be somewhat confused. On the one hand David Cameron’s government wishes to press Eritrea to implement human rights reforms, on the other hand it is cosying up to the Eritrean authorities and attempting to smooth the way for British investments in the country.
This contradiction is highlighted in the letter to Glenys Kinnock – an old friend of Eritrea (as well as a sharp critic of the Eritrean government) from the Minister of State in the House of Lords, Baroness Warsi.
So it talks about a roundtable meeting held in February 2012 ‘attended by members of the Eritrean government and UK companies.’
This was, the letter says ‘an opportunity for UK companies to learn about investment opportunities in Eritrea.’
The letter continues, a little uneasily: ‘Discussions drew a link between an improvement in human rights with the potential achievement of Eritrean investment and development objectives. UK participants made clear that Eritrea’s poor record on human rights was a deterrent to investment, which needed to be addressed.’
High powered meeting
The meeting was considerably more high-powered than the letter suggests.
On the one side of the table was the Africa Minister, Henry Bellingham and the Development Minister, Andrew Mitchell.
On the other two key members of the Eritrean government, Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, and Yemane Ghebreab, senior political adviser to President Isiasa Afewerki.
There were no fewer than 22 British companies present, and ‘discussion centred on potential investment opportunities in the extractive industries, infrastructure development, agriculture and financial services.’
While Osman Saleh must have found the issue of human rights a little uncomfortable, he was probably fairly bored by it.
Mr Bellingham had raised exactly the same issues with him, during his previous visit to the Foreign Office in September 2011.
Had there been any improvement in Eritrean human rights in the intervening five months?
The men – all of whom were finally released – had been accused of espionage for operating on a pirate protection vessel that landed at the Eritrean port of Massawa ‘for a crucial fuel resupply and equipment repair,’ according to the company.
The British government repeatedly calls for improvements to Eritrean human rights, yet does next to nothing to bring it about.
The policy is reminiscent of the stand taken by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who refused to countenance sanctions to end apartheid in South Africa.
Sharing tea and biscuits around a table in the Foreign Office with British companies keen to invest in Eritrea is unlikely to be the toughest arm-twisting Eritrea’s Foreign Minister has ever endured.