Brussels — Eritrea was on the hot seat Thursday in Strasbourg and Brussels. Ten years after a massive crackdown on dissent in Asmara that included the arrests of 11 independent journalists, European institutions have signalled that they are weary of President Isaias Afeworki's repression.
Meeting in Strasbourg for its monthly plenary session, the European Parliament adopted a strongly worded resolution urging Eritrea to "lift the ban on the country's independent press and to immediately release independent journalists and all others who have been jailed simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression."
The most important political groups--the European People's Party, the Socialists and Democrats, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, the Greens, the Conservatives and Reformists and the United Left--had cosponsored the resolution, a clear sign of their exasperation at being constantly rebuffed by the Eritrean regime. The resolution denounces the "manifest lack of cooperation from the Eritrean authorities, despite repeated appeals by the European Union and international human rights organizations."
This initiative has been given more clout thanks to the statement published on the same day by the usually very diplomatic Catherine Ashton, vice president of the European Commission and the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy. "The EU," she said, "remains deeply concerned that the government of the state of Eritrea continues to violate its human rights obligations. The EU urges the government of the state of Eritrea to release these prisoners unconditionally and make public all information on the whereabouts of these prisoners."
The EU minister and members of the European Parliament highlighted the case of Dawit Isaac. This journalist, who holds dual Swedish and Eritrean citizenship, has been detained since September 23, 2001, and the Asmara authorities have stubbornly refused to provide information on his whereabouts.
In a speech devoted to the situation in Eritrea, the president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek of Poland, expressed his hope "that Dawit Isaak is alive. That he will be free. That he will rejoin his family. That we will not have to observe another anniversary as this one." His declaration is all the more significant since Poland is currently assuming the rotating Presidency of the European Union.
Will these resolutions and statements achieve their objectives? The EU is a major donor to Eritrea and, as it states in its official documents, it has been holding "political dialogue with its government on issues of common interest." This provides Brussels with some substantive leverage.
Referring to the Cotonou Agreement, which bases EU trade relations with its African partners on a human rights clause, the resolution calls on the Council of the European Union, the center of power in Brussels, "to more actively use the dialogue mechanisms in order to urgently find solutions that will lead to the liberation of political prisoners."
To sharpen its message and show that it is determined to bring changes, it also called on the council to "ensure that EU development assistance does not benefit the government of Eritrea but is targeted strictly at the needs of the Eritrean people."
CPJ Senior Advisor Jean-Paul Marthoz is a Belgian journalist and writer. He is a foreign affairs columnist for Le Soir and journalism professor at the Université catholique de Louvain.