Political space in Eritrea and beyond or: ethical dilemmas in antagonistic settings

With the publication of my latest article on Eritrean issues, a piece of research I commented on in an earlier blog that reflected on it being rejected as a paper to be presented at the 2016 International Conference on Eritrean Studies in Asmara, it seems timely to reflect on the conference where I did present an earlier version of the published article. Under the title: Eritrea at Silver Jubilee: Stocktaking on the nation-building experience of a ‘newly’ independent African country it solicited papers on Eritrea’s independence trajectory for a conference in May 2016 based on the assumption that in fact Eritrea at this moment in time had the worst government in its entire history. Thus it seemed clear from the outset that this conference was meant to be a forum that discussed the slide into oppression and potentially had an advocacy function – not least due to being held in Geneva, the city where a few weeks later the second report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI) that would pronounce Eritrea guilty of having committed crimes against humanity was to be launched.

I, in retrospect rather naïvely, thought this conference provided the perfect opportunity to put into practice one of my ambitions in relation to Eritrean Studies: to contribute to bridging some of the divide between those who unquestioning support a government that has a lot to answer for in relation to curtailing freedoms of any kind, and those who vehemently oppose it and in doing so make use of questionable propaganda and intimidation tactics that are in essence similar to such deplorable tactics used by the Eritrean government and its supporters.

I thus submitted an abstract to the Geneva conference and did not expect to hear back, as in my submission I had also questioned the dictum in the call for papers that already knew the answer to 25 years of stocktaking: namely that Eritrea’s trajectory was one of disaster. But then it came, the invitation to Geneva, and with it a programme that on the face of it seemed full of interesting contributions.

The final programme included valued colleagues and friends, even if we might have ended up on different sides of the deep divide within Eritrean Studies. Throughout the two-day event debates and discussions were topical and civilized, something not often the case in Eritrean Studies circles. Social parts of the event were in addition joyful and amicable, and for any outsider the group that sat together at the dinner table in a Geneva restaurant would have looked like old friends having a good time. It in many ways not only looked but also felt like that, which made it even harder for me at an emotional level to accept that some of the people I shared food, wine and laughter with at night showed a ruthless determination to demolish any nuanced analysis of Eritrea with all rhetorical means at their disposal.

During the formal conference proceedings it became quickly obvious that the event was made up of a group of carefully-selected, broadly like-minded people with a clear agenda on one side, plus myself on the other. The conference was a small event of never more than around 30 people at any one time, opened by a Swiss parliamentarian who basically repeated the major allegations of the COI report. No mention was made of how deeply methodologically flawed the report is, but its too often unsubstantiated claims were taken for granted and set the tone for things to come – a quite worrying sign for a conference that claimed to be based on academic rigour.

I was asked very last minute to join a general discussion panel of three on day one. I was the dissenting voice, not only questioning the general assumption behind the conference but also in favour of for example renewed EU engagement with Eritrea that had been heavily critiqued by said Swiss parliamentarian, and the abolition of UN sanctions as the rationale on which those were imposed did not exist any longer, according to the UN’s own findings. The way the panel worked and was moderated by the conference convenor diluted what I had to say and misinterpreted it in multiple ways without leaving me room to object – and I increasingly realized that I was part of a stage-managed process whose purpose was geared towards some of the other invited listeners, few of whom were actually introduced.

A telling encounter came in one of the breaks on day two, when somebody who had not heard my presentation introduced herself as working for the COI-team. She asked if the COI-team had not interviewed me. But when I answered I had never been contacted by the COI-team and would have been surprised if that had indeed been the case – as the COI-team did only interview people who were part of a known group of human rights advocates in line with its message, and did actively not engage with those known to have divergent views. When she saw her mistake she even blushed slightly.

Thus here I was at an event where I was officially introduced as a valuable participant in order to ‘present a range of opinions’, but to invited listeners it was made clear in a subtle manner that in fact the ‘truth’ about Eritrea as a vicious dictatorship was there for all to be seen, even though I might not have fully grasped it yet. Very skilfully staged and I only have my own naïvety to blame if I expected something else one could say, but it is not as easy as that. I do value much of the work that some of my fellow presenters spoke to, and of course there are multiple serious human rights issues that need addressing in Eritrea. I also like most of them as people. I thus found myself in an increasingly paranoid place, being instrumentialized by a group of people with whom I otherwise share common interests and analysis, up to a point at least. It almost felt like in Eritrea itself, when in conversations with government officials one can be told off as knowing nothing in the same breath as one can be commended on one’s engagement with and good work on Eritrea. But while such conversations might be the norm with government officials or others in power anywhere in the world, here I was among a group of people who in many ways were my peers.

I thus left the Geneva event with very mixed feelings. When I embraced a former Eritrean colleague who now lives in enforced exile and we departed with the words ‘maybe next time in Asmara’, I felt the sadness of the whole situation descend upon me. ‘Next time in Asmara’ would, realistically, only come about with regime change. I have over the years known too many people who for one reason or another cannot return to Eritrea while longing to do so, among whom very few would actually see in regime change per se a solution to their predicament. I have never been an advocate for regime change as brought about by outside forces with little accountability, not least because I have come to know and highly respect many Eritreans who carry out their mandate in government ministries or as party functionaries with courage and dedication. Now I wondered whether I had in fact been instrumentialized for such an agenda, at least partly and indirectly? Had attending the conference put me on the wrong side of the fence once and for all, made me an accomplice in an ‘opposition agenda’ I had little sympathy for? Most importantly, as ultimately I see my main ethical responsibility towards those whose life stories populate my research, and who engage with me because I refuse to take sides but ‘write what your research tells you’ as one of them put it, what would those who participated in my research say if that would happen? Would they feel betrayed in that I had indirectly used our encounters to foster a political agenda?

I needed not to have worried too much about being suddenly embraced by facets of the opposition. Shortly after the Geneva conference, I received a phone-call from a Swiss journalist with a genuine interest in Eritrea who wanted to understand what was happening from all sides. I was recommended to him as a quasi ‘government spokesperson’ – a phrase we both laughed off in a subsequent background conversation about Eritrea, and that – apart from myself – nobody would probably object more to than the Eritrean government itself. And, I should add, those who organised the Geneva conference did at least accept the presentation of my paper – unlike the Asmara conference roughly two months later, whose organisers felt to speak about personal aspirations and political space in Eritrea was too sensitive a topic and rejected it. ‘Next time in Asmara’ then, for perhaps a follow-up conference that proves the statement on the call for papers for the Geneva conference wrong, that a conference with an open and critical stance can only be held outside Eritrea? Wishful thinking? For the time being, certainly, but I am not prepared yet to give up hope.

I write this on World Press Freedom Day and the day before an event in London to honour detained Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, who has been awarded the 2017 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. His destiny can serve as a reminder of what is wrong in Eritrea, as well as a call for engagement with the complexity of Eritrean history and politics.

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