Ruling may vindicate conscripts of forced labour, as EU cautioned against facilitating the vice

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In a positive development, on 28th February 2020, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that Nevsun Resources Ltd, a Canadian mining company that owned 60% of the Bisha mineral mine in Eritrea, could be sued in Canada for alleged abuses abroad. As previously reported on the Monitor, the lawsuit against the company was brought by three Eritreans who claimed they were forced to work at the Bisha mine as part of their national service, and were forced to provide labour in harsh and dangerous conditions for years, in addition to being subjected to a variety of punishments. In January 2019, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed a ruling by a Canadian court which had dismissed a case by the company to block the case from being heard in Canadian courts.

In Eritrea, much of the population is forced to work for the government under the country’s national service system, which legally lasts 18 months but in reality can last indefinitely. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea described the practice as “enslavement”.

In a separate development which raises similar issues as the above, the European Commission intends to provide a fund to Eritrea for a new development project which will focus largely on the construction sector. The fund however raises concerns that it may place the European Commission in a position that facilitates the abusive system of forced labour for many conscripts under the Eritrean national service system who are assigned to work in state-owned construction companies where they face particularly abusive and harsh conditions.In a statement issued on 20th February 2020, Human Rights Watch said in part:

“Measures should be put in place to ensure that EU funding and other activities do not contribute to the abusive system of forced labour in Eritrea... [the EU] should not rely on the Eritrean government to monitor its projects or take any government commitments at face value; independent safeguards are needed… Eritreans deserve to be free and to have their basic rights respected”.