Eritreans Sue E.U. Over Use of Forced Labor Back Home.

Eritreans Sue E.U. Over Use of Forced Labor Back Home

An Amsterdam-based group has filed a lawsuit against the European Union for funding an infrastructure project in Eritrea built by conscripts.

The port city of Massawa, Eritrea, in 2018. The European Commission helped pay for the construction of a road to connect the Ethiopia-Eritrea border with Massawa, as part of a broader strategy to support peace between the two longtime foes.Credit…Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

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BRUSSELS — (nytimes)–A Netherlands-based group of Eritreans sued the European Union on Wednesday, demanding it cease financing a project in the east African dictatorship that uses forced labor, the lawyer representing the group said, the first test of an effort by individuals and organizations to hold the bloc accountable for the way it spends billions in Africa.

The lawsuit in the Netherlands, a member of the European Union that directly contributes to the funding for Eritrea and is home to a large number of Eritrean migrants, will soon be followed by similar legal action in Britain.

The Amsterdam-based group, Human Rights for Eritreans, accuses the European Union in the lawsuit of financing a project that uses forced labor in a country that is notorious for relying on it, of arranging the money through a deliberately opaque process, and of failing to provide meaningful oversight.

The suit filed focuses on a decision by the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, to pay for heavy construction equipment to open and pave a road that connects the Ethiopia-Eritrea border with the Eritrean port of Massawa, as part of a broader strategy to support peace between the two longtime foes.

An unknown number of workers operating the equipment are forced conscripts, stuck in Eritrea’s notorious mandatory, universal and open-ended drafting of its population — a practice decried by the European Union, and one that the United Nations said was “tantamount to slavery.”

Commenting on the lawsuit, the European Commission said that its actions are guided by “democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.”

The commission has previously defended the funding by saying that the heavy equipment makes work for conscripts lighter, and that it can effectively scrutinize the project even though it is dependent on the Eritrean government for access to the construction site.