Address at open meeting on Eritrea

Published under: Solberg's Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Oslo, 8 April 2014

- Norway is well placed to keep an open and honest dialogue with Asmara on the direction of the country. We continue to believe that we can play a constructive although limited role and we think that we by continuing a dialogue are serving the interests of the Eritrean people, said State Secretary Hans Brattskar in his address at the meeting.

  • Thank you so much for inviting me to this open meeting on Eritrea.
  • The meeting is a confirmation of the strong interest and engagement for Eritrea in Norway. And I am pleased to have this opportunity speak on the relations between Norway and Eritrea.
  • I would like to begin with the relationship between our two peoples. Recent history tell us a lot about the people-to-people contact between Norwegians and Eritreans. A relationship that has survived the persistent hardship of the Eritrean people over the last decade.
  • Based on our long maritime traditions, the Norwegian Government helped establish an Ethiopian Navy in the 1950’s. From 1955 until 1966 hundreds of Norwegian officers and their families came to Massawa and the Norwegian colony in Embatcalla to establish an Ethiopian Navy.
  • The Norwegians based in Massawa saw the beginning of the struggle to free Eritrea. They became witnesses to the Ethiopian misrule in Eritrea, and many of them established friendly relations with Eritreans. They shared their stories when they returned home, and over time Norwegian public opinion on the Ethiopian-Eritrean issue changed substantially.
  • Later some of these individuals joined humanitarian organizations and gained influence when Norwegian civil society was forcefully engaged in the Eritrean issue.
  • Eritrean-Norwegian solidarity organizations and movements mushroomed during the 1970s and 80s. Associations and unions all over Norway competed to be the staunchest supporters of Eritrea.
  • In 1977 Norwegian Church Aid took the lead when the Eritrean Relief Desk, ERD, was established in Khartoum to provide humanitarian assistance to liberated areas of Eritrea. This became one of the world`s largest humanitarian operations ever.
  • The ERD, as well as solidarity organizations in Norway, were supported by many highly engaged individuals. There are still a great number of Eritrean “ambassadors” in Norway.
  • The humanitarian organizations eventually paved the way for a more official engagement.
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Norway became gradually more involved in the search for peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea towards the end of the 1980`s. Initiatives were taken through the so called Eritrea Group in the MFA where also civil society participated actively. The work done by this group became the basis for the initiative taken in cooperation with former US President, Jimmy Carter.
  • Norway took the lead on the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict in the UN Security Council during our membership years of 2001-2002. This engagement paved the way for closer contact with the parties on the Horn of Africa.  
  • It is unfortunate that political developments in Eritrea after independence has made it difficult to maintain popular support for continued engagement on Eritrea here in Norway. Restrictions were imposed on civil society organizations making it impossible for them to carry out their work as they wanted and many organizations therefore left Eritrea. This changed much of the foundation for Eritrean-Norwegian relations, particularly since these organizations constituted much of the basis for the solidarity with the Eritrean people.
  • When Norwegian Church Aid was asked to leave in 2011, another wall in these relations collapsed. The Embassy in Asmara was closed last year and the contact between Oslo and Asmara has been reduced to a minimum.
  • There is today no development cooperation between Norway and Eritrea, but this meeting and the meeting in the Parliament earlier this year demonstrates the still strong ties between Norwegians and Eritreans.
  • Today, the main focus of Norway’s official engagement in Eritrea is the human rights situation, humanitarian issues, and Eritrea’s role in the region.
  • The human rights and political situation in Eritrea is very worrisome. We have on many occasions voiced our deep concern for the human rights situation in the country. We have done so at the UN and in bilateral meetings with Eritrean officials, and we will continue to do so.
  • We have expressed our concern on the continuing excessive militarization of Eritrean society and its reported effect on the daily lives of the Eritrean population. As reported by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea basic tenets of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms are still not respected in Eritrea.
  • Furthermore, we have highlighted the lack of freedom of expression in Eritrea, and we have urged the authorities to unconditionally release all those imprisoned, suspected of holding dissenting opinions, including human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists.
  • We have urged Eritrea to immediately respect international standards of law in the treatment of prisoners including providing prisoners with adequate food, water, and medical assistance and ending overcrowding; allow independent monitors’ access to all known and secret Eritrean detention facilities; notify family members of the whereabouts of detainees; and restore visiting rights and access to legal representation.
  • Finally, we have called for the end of indefinite national service and the beginning of a phased demobilization for those serving for more than the statutory 18 months, and to allow substitute service for conscientious objectors.
  • We have also - with interest and hope - noted recent signs of cooperation with the UN and the OHCHR. We urge the Eritrean Government to cooperate with the international community for the benefit of the human rights of the Eritrean people.
  • The grave situation in Eritrea has created an exodus and a refugee crisis that we see reflected also in Norway. Eritreans was the largest group of asylum seekers to Norway in 2013. 3260 persons or 27 % of all asylum seekers in Norway last year, were from Eritrea.
  • The stories from the Sinai, Lampedusa and Eritrea’s neighboring countries are deeply disturbing and heart breaking and they add to the instability on the Horn of Africa.   
  • We see protection and re-integration of refugees and internally displaced persons as a precondition for stability and development in countries in crisis, but this will require greater use of regional solutions.
  • Refugees and internally displaced persons are the most important target groups for Norway’s humanitarian assistance. Wars and conflicts displace millions of people. At the same time, the reasons for such flight are becoming increasingly complex, as we see in Eritrea.
  • Protection is a key task for some of our most important humanitarian partners, primarily the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations that have a mandate to protect, such as the ICRC and UNICEF. We also work closely with IOM, NRC and with organizations represented here today.
  • The refugee crisis on the Horn of Africa, where Eritrea and Somalia constitute two epicenters will continue to be a priority for this government.
  • Before I conclude, I would like to say a few words on why we will continue the dialogue with Asmara, and on the regional role of Eritrea.
  • The situation inside Eritrea and Eritrea’s relationship with its neighbors negatively affects the stability of the Horn of Africa. But it’s important to remember that Eritrea sometimes has played a more positive role. Norway did for example cooperate with Eritrea in the peace process for East Sudan.
  • As we see in South Sudan, a crisis in one country affects and can involve other countries in the region. Politics on the Horn of Africa is interlinked and entwined across borders. Eritrea is not a member of IGAD, or active in AU, but the country plays an important role in the politics of the Horn of Africa. Norway’s development work on the Horn of Africa would also benefit from better relations between the countries in the region. Therefore, we need to talk with Asmara about South Sudan and Somalia.        
  • During the last six months, several delegations from Norway have visited Asmara.  We have talked with the government about the human rights situation and on political developments in the region. We believe it is necessary to maintain dialogue in order to have at least some influence on developments in Eritrea.
  • Any improvements for Eritreans must be safeguarded in a national and regional arrangement. Our relationship with Ethiopia continues to be important and people in Norway continue to feel solidarity with the Eritrean people. This meeting, and the recent debate in Parliament serve to prove that.
  • Norway is well placed to keep an open and honest dialogue with Asmara on the direction of the country. We continue to believe that we can play a constructive although limited role and we think that we by continuing a dialogue are serving the interests of the Eritrean people.