Cablegate: Presidential Advisor Provides Insight Into Gse Views On
DE RUEHAE #0620/01 1971036
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 161036Z JUL 07
FM AMEMBASSY ASMARA
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RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON 1383
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SUBJECT: PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR PROVIDES INSIGHT INTO GSE VIEWS ON
1. (U) In an interview posted on www.shaebia.org on July 9,
Yemane Ghebremeskel, Director of the Office of President,
offered the position of the Government of the State of
Eritrea (GSE) on a wide range of topics -- from religious
freedom and human rights to international relations and
Somalia. (Full text follows below.) Mr. Stefano Pettini, an
Italian journalist and purported friend of Eritrea
conducted the interview. Items of note in the interview
include GhebremeskelQs denial that the GSE has violated its
citizensQ religious freedoms, noting that any targeted
individuals were members of QfringeQ religions and his
claim that Eritrea maintains an open atmosphere for members
of the press. Ghebremeskel further described the 2001
arrest of the G-11 (members of the government who had
publicly dissented against GSE policies) as the arrest of
individuals who had committed treason. He explained that
Eritrea has a legal right to arrest and punish its citizens
who have been repatriated as these individuals had left
illegally and broken Eritean law.
2. (SBU) Comment: Ghebremeskel has long been viewed as the
voice of President Isaias and one can properly assume that
his views reflect those of the President. In typical
Eritrean fashion, Ghebremeskel, if perhaps not outright
lying in many responses, has either evaded the question or
spun the truth to its limit. Also typical of the
Eritrean government party line, he finds the U.S. and
others largely to blame for EritreaQs woes. The
Shaebia website is the official website for the only
political party in Eritrea, the PeopleQs Front for
Democracy and Justice. End Comment.
3. (U) Begin text (Note: text is exactly as posted and has
not been edited for translation mistakes):
Interview with Mr. Yemane Ghebremeskel
Jul 9, 2007, 8:00am
Mr. Stefano Pettini, an Italian writer and who follow up
very closely the social and political situation in Eritrea,
interviewed Mr. Yemane Ghebremeskel, Director of the Office
of the President of Eritrea, regarding the social,
political and economic situation in the country, excerpts
Q: Eritrea is accused of hindering the relations with
foreign press by preventing the journalists to exercise
their job freely or refusing entry visas to the country.
What is the official position of the Government?
A: The accusation is groundless. First off all, we do not
have a policy of preventing entry or of refusing visas to
foreign journalists. We have several resident journalists
here. Agence France Presse has a resident journalist;
Reuters have a bureau; and there are resident reporters for
Al-Sharq Al Awsat (Middle East daily paper), Deustche
Welle etc. So there are a number of journalists who are
accredited to the country and have residence visas and work
permits. Secondly, our Embassies routinely issue
permissions whenever there are requests for foreigners who
want to come here for short business visits: interviews,
reports etc. There are no restrictions in terms of entry
visas, or on what they want to do. The allegation is thus
at variance with the truth.
Q. According to Reporters Sans Frontier, Eritrea finds
itself in the bottom rung of countries that allow free
press, which is considered virtually absent in the country.
How do you explain this?
A. Let me first underline that this outfit is not a neutral
and credible association. In fact, it is substantially
funded by dubious US institutions that funnel money to
specific organizations that advance certain policy
objectives of the US Administration. I do not think we
need a bill of health from bodies of dubious credibility.
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The second issue is our so-called international ranking.
Let us be realistic. I don't believe that there is free
press without any curtailment all the time anywhere in
times of war and conflict. This is true in Europe and the
United States. In the second Gulf War against Iraq, for
instance, the US invented the term: "embedded journalism".
Journalists were not covering the war without any
hindrance. They were put in the middle of a military
convoy to report what was recounted to them by the
Previously, in the first Gulf War, the Americans introduced
the "pool system" to censure and regulate what was
reported. Look at the situation in Somalia these days.
There is a virtual blackout of news. Why? US bombers have
pulverized villages in Somalia. But there are no images on
our TV screens; journalists have been barred from there.
To accuse or single out Eritrea for taking legitimate
measures in a situation of conflict is for me hypocrisy and
In regard to the absence of a "free press", we have had a
limited experience in the past. A Press Law was enacted in
1996. The government had in fact no intention of
preventing the free press from growing. After all,
monopoly, whether in economics or politics, has its own
drawbacks, and, in this vein, a free press is essential for
a healthy society. Thus in terms of generic principles and
abstract theories, there is no controversy. The question
is what are the rules of the game? How does this play out
in real life? What is the normative practice in war times?
The press law of 1996 had its own defects which came to the
surface in 2000/2001 related to internal subversive
developments. The press law clearly stipulated that
foreign funding was not allowed. But the accountability
procedures were not strictly monitored and implemented. As
it happened, most of these "private papers" were largely
funded by Western countries to promote certain agendas in
contravention of the Press Law itself. Furthermore, the
Press Law had no adequate provisions for libel suits
There were no standards for accreditation, or code of
ethics to ensure minimum quality standards. As it
happened, they were easily manipulated, infiltrated and
paid by foreign services to serve ulterior purposes. In
those circumstances, the matter was discussed at the
National Assembly and the press law was suspended pending a
Q. Eritrea is also accused to be repressive towards the
freedom of faith and has been responsible for mass arrests
of believers who only ask to pray in a free way. What is
the response of the Government in the case?
A. When you talk about mass arrest of believers, I am
puzzled at the hyperbole. What is mass arrest? Who were the
"mass people" allegedly detained from time to time? The
truth is people have never been denied or prevented from
their right to pray freely because this is a very pious
society; a society of ancient religions. We have all kinds
of faiths in this country. We have Christianity and Islam.
We have even a Synagogue in this town. If you look at
Asmara, one of its peculiarities is that its sky line is
doted with Mosques and Churches. We have Mosques and
Churches adjacent to each other. As I said earlier, this
is a very pious and religious society. So we are talking
about strong traditions; entrenched believes; very
religious people. The government cannot interfere in
people's religious believes. And in Constitutional terms,
the country is a secular State. So there are no legal or
practical problems in regard to the freedom of faith.
But, we had problems with a handful of "new faiths"; of a
few fringe groups that are alien to the society at large.
We have to be clear about the distinction. The Jehovah
Witnesses, for example, refused to participate in the
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national referendum to determine Eritrea's independence.
Their argument was that "they do not recognize a temporal
State or Government". They maintained that "they do not
recognize a Government on earth as they are accountable to
Jehovah only". They also objected to the mandatory
national service when it was enacted in 1994. The
Government's reaction was measured. And this was to refuse
issuing or renewing business licenses to their members.
Because they cannot have it both ways: refuse to recognize
the Government but at the same time ask legal services from
the same Government.
Other small groups have also emerged in the past seven,
eight years. Most of these groups were beneficiaries of
secret or undeclared foreign funds. Most of them went
against the national fabric: to oppose the national service
or to penetrate and sow division within the traditional
faiths. The Government subsequently requested all these
faiths to register officially, with honest declaration of
the origin of their funds etc. The periodic arrests, which
are distorted and exaggerated, occur when members of these
fringe groups assemble illegally.
Q: Ethiopia is considered the bulwark of Christianity
against the expansion of Islam and a reference in the fight
against terrorism in the Horn of Africa. What is the
position of the Government of Eritrea on these two matters?
A. In the first place, when you compare Eritrea and
Ethiopia in terms of religious diversity and the relative
size of the different faiths, the picture is more or less
the same. In Eritrea, the population is more or less
equally divided between Christians and Moslems. In
Ethiopia too, the percentages are close. In Sudan, there
are Christians and Muslims. So, to portray Ethiopia as a
bulwark of Christianity or as an "island of Christianity"
in the Horn of Africa is factually wrong and inaccurate.
But more fundamentally, the relative percentages are
irrelevant. If the State is a secular State in the
circumstances of religious diversity, there will be no
grounds for religious strife. Coexistence and harmony
between the different faiths and religions can be
cultivated and maintained. In Eritrea's case, Christians
and Muslims have coexisted in harmony for more than 13
centuries now. We have had no communal, religious
motivated, civil fighting in our long history. We fought
together against common enemies. Religion has been and
remains a private matter.
So, the manner in which the question is framed is not
proper in the first place. Because, the different
religions can co-exist in a secular environment. In
addition, in purely statistical terms, Ethiopia is not "an
island of Christianity in the Horn". As I said earlier, the
composition of the two religions is more or less the same
in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
On the issue of terrorism, unfortunately, there is a wrong
or misguided trend of amalgamating terrorism with Islam.
Islamic communities are not inherently inclined, nor do
they possess a peculiar propensity, for terrorism or
terrorist acts. In brief, terrorism cannot be equated with
Islam. Why did terrorism emerge? How did it emerge? What
was the role of certain powers at particular historical
junctures? If you are talking about Afghan Arabs, it is
well known that the US supported them at a given point in
time in the context of the Cold War. The historical,
social and political reasons that fostered terrorism is a
complex matter. It cannot be reduced to a mechanical
Christian/Moslem divide. Similarly, the simplistic
propaganda that depicts Ethiopia as "the bulwark of
Christianity" and the "epicentre for the war against
terrorism" is a myth fabricated by Ethiopia, and perhaps
the US, to serve other ulterior purposes.
Q. The Government of Eritrea is explicitly accused of
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supporting the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia, above
all against Ethiopia supplying them with men and weapons.
How do you comment to this assertion?
A. Eritrea's position on the Somali problem is very clear.
We have stated this openly in various forums: in IGAD, at
the UN General Assembly last September, and in other
platforms. For us, the question is not a matter of
political preference between the Union of Islamic Courts
and the Transitional Federal Government. Eritrea has had
historical links with Somalia spanning for over 50 years.
This is across the entire political spectrum. All Somalis
supported Eritrea's liberation struggle. This is one
Second, when after 1991 Somalia was drifting and embroiled
in internal conflict, Eritrea was involved in various
initiatives to help stem the dangerous trend. Between 1992
and 1994, we were working with Ethiopia. The overriding
objective was to promote internal political reconciliation
within Somalia. But Ethiopia drifted to its traditional
policy of dividing and weakening Somalia along ethnic
lines. This was manifested in the Sodere Conference,
convened in Ethiopia sometime around 1997.
Ethiopia's policy ever since has been to divide Somalia
into four/five mini States: Somaliland, Punt Land, Benadir
Land, etc. This policy emanates from Ethiopia's perceived
threat; remember Ethiopia and Somalia went to war twice in
the past forty years (1963 and 1977). Eritrea does not
support this policy because it is a recipe for continuous
regional instability. If there are territorial disputes
(over the Ogaden etc.), the solution rests on resolving
them on the basis of the sanctity of colonial boundaries.
Eritrea strongly opposed Ethiopia's recent invasion of
Somalia. This is illegal by all standards. Ethiopia's
Prime Minister gave three contradictory explanations in the
space of three days when he launched the invasion. The
first explanation was that Ethiopia was responding to a
threat from the Union of Islamic Courts. But as you know,
the UN Charter does not condone pre-emptive invasion.
Then, the next day, perhaps realizing the flawed argument,
the Prime Minister said he was sending troops in response
to an invitation by the TFG. These two explanations are
contradictory. The TFG was originally formed to act as a
catalyst to bring about national reconciliation. Does it
have legal powers to invite a foreign power to crush
internal opposition? The third explanation the Prime
Minister gave when his troops were approaching Mogadishu,
dropped subsequently, was that the objective of the
invasion was to "sufficiently downgrade" the UIC so that it
would come to the negotiating table. This is pure
interference and illegal in terms of international law.
Ethiopia's invasion cannot be justified by any stretch of
imagination. If the Security Council has not condemned
Ethiopia, it is because of US protection; pure and simple.
And the various accusations against Eritrea arise from the
desire to balance Ethiopia's invasion and to fabricate a
plausible pretext. The persistent propaganda from the US
State Department revolves around portraying the situation
as a proxy war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Before the
invasion, there were persistent allegations, originating
from the State Department, asserting that there were 2000
Eritrean soldiers in Somalia. This allegation vanished in
thin air after the invasion because they knew it was false
from the beginning. The UIC was demonized and portrayed as
the Taliban of the Horn. All these propaganda are
factually false and deliberate creations to justify the
invasion of Somalia.
Q. How do you explain the deterioration of the diplomatic
relations which from time to time brought to an attitude of
closure and of isolation of the country?
A. Eritrea is not isolated. We have diplomatic ties with
literally all countries. We have more than 20 foreign
resident embassies in the country. True, we may have
problems with certain countries. But that has to do with
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their policies. Obviously, if some governments want us to
compromise our sovereignty and territorial integrity, this
is not a price that we are prepared to pay in order to have
or maintain diplomatic ties with them. There is a red line
that we are not prepared to cross. Other wise, we have
good ties with many European countries although we may have
had one or two problems with Italy for certain reasons. We
have good ties with many of our neighbours and the other
African, Asian, and Latin America countries.
So, in general, our diplomatic relations is in good shape.
Our main problem, currently, is with the United States.
This is simply because US policy in this region is not
balanced. The United States is primarily responsible for
the border problem. The Boundary Commission decision would
have been long implemented without the obstruction of
Washington. All the notion about Special Envoys
Axworthy; Fulford, etc - is the creation of Washington.
Recently, they were talking about a Contact Group. The
strategy is to create complications and obstruct peace in
this region. This cannot be acceptable to us.
Q. President Isaias has been accused by some observers of
having imposed authoritarian rule beginning with the arrest
of senior government members who are till now under
detention without specific charges. What are the reasons
behind this attitude?
A. This is a smear campaign propagated by certain powers
that do not have the welfare of Eritrea at heart. The
detention of these personalities is not controversial.
Irrespective of one's position in Government, if one
commits an offence against the national security of the
country, he or she cannot be immune from detention. And in
this case, the detentions have their own history. The
persons in question have committed acts of treason. The
liaison they attempted to create with Ethiopia at the
height of the invasion is known even to the Facilitators.
These are known facts. The whole population knows these
facts. Any government facing this kind of situation could
not have reacted differently. The substance of their
crimes is not controversial. They cannot be camouflaged by
Q. Why is the Government of Eritrea showing an increasing
hostility towards Italy? First, Ambassador Antonio Bandini
was expelled. Then the Carabinieri were expelled some
years later. The First Secretary of the Embassy, Ludovico
Serra, was also expelled last year following the episode of
the demolition of Villa Melotti. How do you explain this
string of acts?
A. The Government of Eritrea has no hostility towards
Italy. The relationship between the two countries goes
back to more than one hundred years. We have deep cultural
affinities, economic interests and population movements
from the colonial times. Eritrea's interest in fact lies
in fostering and consolidating the historical relationship.
So the term "increasing hostility towards Italy" is not
correct. But that does not mean that we do not have
problems from time to time. These may not even be problems
between the two countries or two governments. They may be
due to individual acts of some people.
You ask me about Ambassador Bandini. This is an old case.
The Ambassador meddled many times in internal issues of
national security. He was asked to leave the country.
This is normal and in accordance with art. No. 9 of Vienna
Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
The case of the Carabinieri is a separate matter. First of
all, the Government has never requested the expulsion of
the Carabinieri, but only to wind down their job of
policing in the Capital which was not their competence. The
Carabinieri were not here as an Italian contingent on the
basis of a bilateral arrangement with Eritrea. They were
here as part of United Nations Mission to Ethiopia and
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Eritrea (UNMEE); they could have been Indians, Chinese,
Germans, whatever. Their nationality had nothing to do with
the act. The problem was the nature of their job here as
military police of UNMEE. When UNMEE was deployed, we
agreed on a Protocol of Rules of Engagement. There is no
provision in that Protocol for policing activities in the
capital. Policing activities in the country cannot, indeed,
be delegated to UNMEE. This is the jurisdiction of the
Government. If some UNMEE military officers are not
showing up at their post in the TSZ, there should be
another mechanism for monitoring that. Otherwise, we
cannot have a Police contingent in Asmara for an undefined
task. This was outside the agreement and was explained at
the time. It has nothing to do with Italy. In other
words, the decision of re-entry was of the Carabinieri and
only their. And at the moment of their departure, the
Government had no hesitation to collaborate when a request
came from Italian Embassy to find solution to the
embarrassing logistic faults created by the Carabinieri.
In the case of the First Secretary Ludovico Serra, let me
emphasize one fundamental issue. Whether a house is legally
owned by a foreigner or an Eritrean citizen, the law has
provisions for appropriation, or demolition as the case may
be, by Government for development purposes with appropriate
procedures and guarantees of compensation. Villa Melotti
cannot be handled with exception outside the law.
Unfortunately the First Secretary went out of his way to
personally block the municipal act. This is an insult and
constitutes disrespect of the laws of the country. We
expect senior Italian Embassy staff assigned here to
cultivate ties between the two countries; not to aggravate
them without reason. What does his attitude tell you?
Q. The phenomenon of clandestine immigration of Eritrean
citizens in Italy is increasing. How does the Government
of Eritrea see this new tendency?
A. The issue might be somewhat exaggerated. But even if
true, I believe this is a very temporary phenomenon induced
by the situation of "no war, no peace". Naturally, some
cannot withstand the pressures and tension of a looming
war. It is not the first time in our history. During the
years of liberation, thousands of young people were joining
the struggle; but few others opted for exile abroad. It is
probably clandestine, because we have mandatory national
service and those who leave are eligible. But these are
very temporary problems. Once we have peace, I would
expect a reversal of the situation. That is what happened
in 1991 after liberation. More than 100.0000 refugees
returned in the first few years from the Sudan through
spontaneous and organized repatriation. Thousands more of
our compatriots returned from all over the world and
invested in their homeland.
Even during these presumably difficult times, the overall
trend is not characterized by a one-way street towards
migration. If you look at annual local tourism statistics,
between 70,000 to 80,000 Eritreans, including repeat
travellers, come home for short visits back home. Indeed,
the increased migration you cited is not more than a few
hundred a year and does not compare in anyway with the
reverse annual flow - for temporary stay or repatriation
of our citizens from the Diaspora.
Q. Recently, the problem of some Eritrean citizens under
detention in Libya and Malta who risk to be repatriated to
their homeland with consequent possible reprisal against
them has come to the fore. What is the position of the
Government on this problem?
A. Again, let us not blow the issues out of proportion. We
are probably talking about the case of few individuals.
Leaving numbers aside, the question is essentially a legal
one. If a person evades the mandatory national service,
and leaves the country illegally, he or she will be
accountable for the felony they have committed: evasion of
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national service and illegal migration. There are laws and
regulations in respect to these offences and the Government
has to enforce them accordingly. This is normal and
uncontroversial. The distortions arise when so-called
advocacy groups - such as Amnesty International - want to
twist the arm of Government and impose conditions outside
the law for what they call "refouled asylum seekers".
These people are not bona fide asylums seekers in the first
place. They have no credible grounds of persecution. They
cannot be treated differently and enjoy a waiver from the
mandatory national service. This would be discriminatory
and contrary to fundamental principles of equity and
equality of all citizens before the law.
Q. Although Eritrea is considered to be one of the poorest
nations of the world, various NGOs complain of encountering
increasing difficulties to work in the country and accuse
the Government for the expulsion of some of them because
they are seen as unwelcome witnesses. How does the
Government of Eritrea see humanitarian and international
A. In the first place, the label of "one of the poorest
nations" requires real qualification. Eritrea is a very
young nation which has emerged from a 30-year war of
national liberation. After a respite of 7 years, it was
again forced into another bout of conflict by Ethiopia. So
if standard GDP and other economic indicators are low, it
is not surprising. I would rather focus on the
industriousness of the people, the prudent macro-economic
policies of the Government and the considerable endowments
of the country to gauge its real potential in a conducive
environment of peace. There are various sectors, including
tourism, agriculture, mining and fisheries that have huge
potential. Before Ethiopia's invasion in 1998, the country
was growing at an annual rate of 7-9%. Once irreversible
peace is guaranteed, the country will grow at a rapid pace
and steadily to ensure a good standard of living for its
own population. Thus, I do not share this gloomy depiction
of Eritrea both in terms of its potential and future.
Eritrea is not indeed an inherently or structurally poor
nation doomed to live on handouts from NGOs or benevolent
organizations for an indefinite period of time.
Second, on the question of NGOs, there is some distortion.
The government has explained its position comprehensively
several times before. NGOs were very supportive of the
liberation struggle and have useful function during
critical phases. About twelve NGOs are operating now.
As far as humanitarian assistance and development
cooperation are concerned, we recognize the abnormality of
our situation and we have no inhibitions in seeking
assistance. But at the same time, we do not want this
assistance to create a situation of chronic dependency. In
regard to NGOs, there are transparent regulations regarding
overhead costs, modalities of implementation and
prioritization of programmes. We do not want to see a
proliferation of NGOs engaged in small, disjoint,
programmes that will waste resources and that will not,
also, be sustainable. There are additional regulations
concerning consultancy work and local capacity building; in
the sense that priority is always given to local capacity
building. Differences of approach on all these issues are
the reasons why development cooperation encounters problems
at times and why some NGOs cannot qualify for registration.
In the case of NGOs in particular, there are lower ceilings
for annual budgets (two million US$) that they must be able
to mobilize to be operational. The underlying rationale
for the ceiling is to ensure implementation of meaningful
programmes and to avoid, small, one-off, projects that have
no sustainability and that may breed dependency.
Q. What is the attitude of the Government specifically
towards the Italian NGOs?
A. Some are operational. Others which did not satisfy the
requirements could not register. At any rate, Italian NGOs
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are not seen in any discriminatory way from other NGOs. On
the contrary, the desire is to allow Italian NGOs to
operate if and when they are closer to the threshold.
Q. In many occasions the Government of Eritrea has stated
that the poverty in Eritrea has its origins in external
political responsibilities. What are the basic facts of
A. Without the declaration of war by Ethiopia in 1998 and
what happened afterwards, Eritrea's economic growth today
would have been significantly different from the present
reality. The reasons why Ethiopia has been encouraged and
allowed to reject the arbitration Award and maintain a
tense situation further lies in external, geopolitical
interests and considerations. The negative factors that are
inhibiting or hampering rapid economic development and
growth are all rooted on hostile acts of regional and
international actors. These are the main problems.
Otherwise, in the context of conducive, peaceful and stable
regional environment, Eritrea's potential is really huge.
We have sectors with comparative advantage that can be
exploited and that can contribute to a very dynamic and
Q. How do you think can it be possible for the Government
to achieve the goal of food security in spite of the
economic and manpower shortages in the country?
A. I do not agree with your assertions. If by manpower
shortages, you are alluding to the national military
service, this is not true. The fact is most of them are
involved, during periods of relative peace, in productive
economic activities. So, manpower is not a constraint. In
terms of economic inputs for food security, the investment
required over a three year period is not enormous. We are
basically talking about better water management or
harvesting, diversion of canals and construction of small
dams. We are not talking about investment in the range of
billions of dollars. Hence, it is doable.
We are not talking about abstract theories or ambitious,
elusive, programmes. Perhaps, the rains were exceptionally
good last year. But it is the combination of good rains and
intensive programmes of food security that have ensured a
really good harvest.