Thursday, May 27, 2010

Speech at Eritrea Independence Day celebration

I congratulate the people of Eritrea most warmly on this 19th Anniversary of their independence, for which they had fought so long and hard. Throughout the seventies I was chairman of the Eritrea Support Group, which campaigned for Eritrea’s independence in Parliament and the media, repeatedly tried to persuade Ministers to support the self-determination of the Eritrean people. We pointed out that self-determination is a right under international law, not only by virtue of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, but also the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in which common Article 1 states:

“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine heir political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”.

Ministers would always reply with the mantra

“ we believe that a federal solution would be best for the people of Eritrea”, and I used to ask how they dared to presume to speak thus on behalf of a people who had endured great hardship and loss of life in their attempt at self-determination.

In 1981 I visited Eritrea at the end of the Ethiopian sixth offensive. I travelled via Port Sudan through the desert and then up the ‘Freedom Road’ which was blasted out of the rock up into the highlands, where I stayed at the Nacfa Hilton, a cave behind the front line where at dawn we saw the Antonov bombers dropping their loads on the ruins of Nacfa, where the only building left standing was the tower of the mosque. The corpses of the Ethiopian conscripts killed in a hopeless attack on the cliffs protecting Nacfa were still lying where they had fallen, testifying to the futility of the Derg’s colonialism. The next time I was in Eritrea was as one of the monitors of the independence referendum in April 1993, an event that nobody who was there could ever forget. Not only was there a 99.9% turnout in favour of independence, but also spontaneous expression of the joy people felt at heir achievement. The future was bright, and it looked as though Eritrea with its talented and hardworking people would become a beacon of democracy and prosperity in the Horn of Africa.

But the dream was shattered when Ethiopia launched a fresh war of aggression on the pretence of a dispute over the border between the two countries. After tens of thousands of lives had been lost on both sides, and hundreds of millions of $ had been spent on sophisticated weapons, it was agreed to refer the demarcation to a commission headed by the distinguished British jurist, Eli Lauterpacht, who was a schoolmate of mine 64 years ago. My third visit to Eritrea was at the end of the war in January 2000, when I toured what had been the front line, where I saw the remains of burnt out Ethiopian tanks and heard of the sufferings of people displaced by the fighting, and also of the thousands of Eritreans who had been in Ethiopia at the start of the war and were imprisoned as ‘enemy aliens’. 68,000 Eritreans were deported by the Ethiopians at the end of the war.

Both countries had agreed to accept Judge Lauterpacht’s decision as final, but when the details were published, President Meles found one excuse after another for disputing the findings. Ever since then a swathe of territory all along the border has been denied to agriculture or any other development, and Eritrea has been forced to maintain huge armed forces as a precaution against further military attacks by its bullying neighbour. Eritrea’s trade with Ethiopia has vanished, and the main ports of Massawa and Assab, which are convenient for goods destined for northern Ethiopia, have lost that business. One of the main tasks of the proposed Eritrea-Britain friendship association might be to persuade our new coalition Government, and the EU, to exert far greater pressure on Meles to accept the Lauterpacht award without further equivocation, and to enter into discussions with Eritrea that would enable both countries to reduce their armed forces and demilitarise the frontier.

Speaking of the coalition, the agreement between the two parties was a triumph of compromise, but it doesn’t mean that ordinary members on either side have to abandon principles to which they have devoted a lifetime. We have to be able to criticise elements of the agreement as candid friends, as I intend to do in the Lords debate next week. And similarly, as friends of Eritrea over a period of not just a few days, but of some 40 years, we must have the right to say what we think the government of Eritrea needs to do to cement the relationship between our peoples.

You are all probably familiar with the Foreign Office’s repeated expressions of concern about the lack of accountability and the rule of law in Eritrea, and the violations of legal rights supposedly guaranteed under Eritrean law including particularly, the prohibition of arbitrary and indefinite detention. These matters were raised in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of human rights last year, but consider also the many criticisms by the European Commission, the US State Department, the UN Special Procedures. Eritrea could improve its relations with the rest of the world out of all recognition at a stroke if it addressed these matters, starting with the release of the 11 high ranking officials detained incommunicado and without charge in September 2001. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights have both called for their release, and if any of them are still alive after nearly ten years in the harsh conditions of an Eritrean prison, I hope that when it is established, the proposed Eritrea-UK Friendship Forum will also call for their immediate release.

To end on a happier note, the Forum could be a means of boosting Eritrea’s progress towards meeting the challenging targets of the 2015 Millenium Development Goals. Your Excellency attended the press conference held in the Moses Room at the House of Lords to launch the report of the All-Party Group on Pneumococcal Disease Prevention, of which I’m joint Chairman; and since then Eritrea has signed up to the global plan to vaccinate all children against this disease, which kills a million children a year. I’m delighted to see that Eritrea has already reduced infant mortality by over 40% between 1990 and 2004[1], and with the adoption of this new preventive measure, which was powerfully endorsed by the World Health Assembly last week, there’s every chance of attaining the two thirds reduction of infant mortality by 2015. In spite of the heavy burdens on their economy created by their menacing neighbour, the Eritrean people are making good progress with the other MDGs too. But above all, I hope the Forum will provide citizens of our two countries with a platform on which to speak honestly about how to better the lives of our peoples.


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