Can you give me some background information about EEPA: when was it established, what are its main objectives are, what are its focus regions and/or countries?

Dr Mirjam van ReisenA: EEPA was established when external policy was becoming increasingly important and relevant, but mainly the domain of professional lobbyists. I think the reason is that the EU is quite a complicated set up. My idea was that if politics were left to the professional experts alone and the general public was excluded this would undermine the credibility of the European Union. EEPA explicitly aims to bring the European Union closer to stakeholder groups, so that they are empowered to influence the European Union. EEPA provides expertise and helps in strategizing, but the advocacy is done by the stakeholders themselves. EEPA bridges groups in Member States or in other places in the world with the EU institutions.

When and how were you acquainted to Eritrea? And why are you helping the Eritrean human rights and democratization cause?

A: Thanks for that question. I have known many Eritreans who lived outside Eritrea during the war before independence and were politically involved to support the EPLF and ELF. I also made many friends who fought in the EPLF and I was, as many others, impressed with the organization and philosophy of the EPLF at that time. I was among those who rejoiced when Eritrea became independent. Many of my friends chose to live in independent Eritrea to build the country and bring prosperity for all its people. I worked with the Eritrean ambassadors at the time to help give a positive profile to Eritrea in the EU.

However, through my many friends I began to witness the increasing fear, the silencing of free speech, the concern about suspected assassination and the many people put in prison. I have tried to help countless Eritrean refugees who came to Europe. There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that all these people love their country and would be in Eritrea if circumstances allowed them to live a life in dignity.

I have been silent for a long time. It is not my place as a European to speak out for Eritreans. But now that so many Eritreans have began to raise their concerns, and express their anger towards their government, I have a responsibility as a European citizen to speak out in order to make sure that the EU responds to address the concerns of Eritrean citizens. I don’t see it as my role to influence Eritrean politics. But I do see it as my responsibility to ensure that EU policy makers hear and respond to the issues that the Eritrean people want the international community to address.

What is your understanding of the current political situation in Eritrea and Eritrean diaspora initiatives?

A: Eritrea reminds me most of East Germany, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, where people would risk their lives to escape. What is also similar to the situation between East and West Germany is the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The split between the countries is very artificial. Most of my friends have family on both sides of the border. We need Meles to play the role of Chancellor Kohl, who in 1989 set everything (including important outstanding border issues) aside to overcome the artificial separation, which made the East German regime crumble. The comparison stops there. Eritrea should remain an independent state, and I do believe that the Ethiopian unwillingness to settle the border issues on the various sides of its borders, is an extremely unhelpful factor that provides Afewerki with a mistaken excuse to continue on a path of militarization and war.

I think the Eritrean diaspora is trying to get a grip on the situation that has arisen. I think Eritrea can be proud to have an external community that is so committed to its mother country. I also think that Eritreans inside the country and in diaspora are moving ahead of its government and want peace in the region. This is important. It was the crucial factor for opening up East Germany. Once the people have decided they have enough of it, no regime will be able to hold on to power.

A good example of this is how the people of the small country of Nepal in Asia got rid of the tyranny rule of their king. I know that country well; its people are very traditional. The king was not just a symbol of power, unity and independence (against China and India!) but he was also venerated as a God. This king thought he was invincible. It is true that communication in the Himalayas is very difficult and political organizing is very complicated. But in 2007 the women of Nepal decided the rule of the king undermined stability, peace and livelihoods, and finally they took to the streets. They found that the soldiers, their own sons and daughters, supported their courage, and would not follow orders to shoot on the crowds. The King could only resign. The country now has a fragile democracy but one that is accountable to its people. It is a remarkable example of how tyranny can be overcome without bloodshed. This can happen in Eritrea too. I believe the Eritrean diaspora is looking for ways to help this happen.

Can you explain the background of the Brussels Conference of November 2009?

A: The European Commission is probably the only donor that has been propping up the Eritrea regime, and seems to be out of line to the policies of the European Member States and the international Community. We realize that the policy came from a desire to exploit all diplomatic avenues and I believe all avenues for peaceful transition must be tried. However, the sad reality is that diplomacy with the Eritrean regime is not working. Former Commissioner Michel who passionately propagated this policy of diplomacy has given a very frank account in the European Parliament of how he was disappointed, where he now sits as an elected member.

With regards to the international community the largest possible range of policy instruments need to be employed to deal with an extreme problem. The crucial factor for success is whether or not these policies are employed in a full knowledge and understanding of the situation , or emerge from naivety. The Brussels conference provided a forum to have exchanges that allow an informed use of policy instruments and eliminate approaches that emerge from naivety.

How did you select the reference group and the Eritrean invitees who participated in the conference?

A: I did not really select a reference group. I just was working with a range of relevant people that could contribute to the preparation of the conference. There are many people outside that group that I also consult and meet with and who give me advice.

The value for EEPA of the reference groups is that it constitutes a very diverse group of ex-fighters, political activists, people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds, etc, so that it allows EEPA to see if we have a good understanding of certain issues. You could compare it to a ‘focus group’, which allows us to see if we are on or off track. Its importance should not be overblown and is really only just relevant to our own very modest work. There are so very many other people who are not part of the reference group who are making much more and very impressive contributions to organizing for a different Eritrea. I speak to them and they know how much I appreciate their work, that has real relevance in political organizing and preparing political alternatives as well as civil society organizing and preparing alternatives for the people of Eritrea. It is these formations that should be scrutinized and commended for the good work they are doing.

Some Eritreans complained that the conference was not inclusive; especially they are concerned that the umbrella organization EDA was not invited. How do you see this?

A: This is essentially an internal issue to EDA, I would say. EDA could have had many representatives in the conference. Why did none of the members represent EDA? This is the question to ask the EDA.

As for EEPA, we focused the participation to the conference on those interested to pursue a dialogue on policy options for the international community. I have stated earlier that it is important in such a discussion that people are not hamstringed by links to the Eritrean or Ethiopian government. It is also more helpful if people are not simultaneously involved in pursuing violent solutions because they follow a path that is quite different from the instruments available through non violent international cooperation. The latter was the objective of our conference.

Maybe I should explain my position on strategies. In the case of the racist regime in South Africa I did support the armed struggle by the ANC. The white regime was kept in power by a white military apparatus that was part of the problem. In the case of Nepal, I supported the agreement between political parties and civil society organizations to move ahead on a strategy of non-violent action that would allow democracy to be restored. In Eritrea, the people in the national service are victim of the situation and I would deplore any situation in which they were threatened by outside violence. I think that these people are already under much stress and hardship. The problem here is a political problem that concerns the elite of the regime and therefore they should be targeted. I therefore very much welcome the sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council, as this is exactly what it is setting out as a strategy.

Do you think the reaction to the conference was fair? If yes, why? If no, why?

A: I am really pleased that the conference came under scrutiny and attracted attention. The question whether or not reactions were fair is not the point. I think almost all of us share a desire for exchange, free speech, dialogue. Such debate might be heated at times, but I don’t feel this should be a threat to anyone of us.

How do you see the letter written by the Chairman of EDA, Mr. Tewelde Gebreselassie, to the EU?

A: I felt sad that Tewelde did not contact me before he sent the letter so that the facts in the letter could have been right. There were many factual mistakes. For instance the conference was really not organized by the EU. It was also not financed by them. It was our independent initiative and we worked hard to get EU officials to attend the conference.

But other than that, our aim was to get Eritrean voices heard. The EDA letter gave voice to certain concerns. Every Eritrean with concerns on EU related issues should write to president Barosso. I welcome that! It will help to bring the cause of Eritreans higher on the political agenda of the EU, and that can only be good!

What is your impression about the Brussels Conference and what is the way forward?

A: I was amazed that the Declaration was adopted without any opposition or abstention. The participants included many Eritreans, all from different backgrounds, but also ethnic groups (and we should not forget to discuss their problems!), religious backgrounds, and Ethiopians from different backgrounds and Somali people. The US and EU officials were also still present and could have blocked consensus. This showed to me that there is a joint understanding of the problems in Eritrea. That is really important. But there also is a joint understanding of the way forward and the priorities in this. Resolving the border issue between Ethiopia and Eritrea was agreed as priority number one. No-one in the room disagreed with that prioritization.

I heard that your husband, Simon Stocker, is one of the first foreigners (may be the first) to write about the Eritrean struggle for liberation many years back. Is it true? If so, when was this and how did he come to know about the Eritrean struggle?

A: My husband is older than me, and I did not know him at that time. But you are right, that he was indeed working for the UK organization War on Want and he was very much involved in supporting the liberation struggles all over Africa, including in Eritrea. He was also very much involved in the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe. I believe that he does not regret any of the support at the time. I think he believes the historical context is very important. At this point he tries to understand why the liberation processes have created dictatorial regimes. I think many of us who supported the liberation and anti-colonialism share these questions.

Do you have any comments on the interview you gave to, for example, if you were told it will be used as an interview as there some unclear points in there?

A: That is a nice question. To tell you the truth, I was not told the questions were asked to be published and so, in terms of journalist ethic, it was not a very professional conduct in the strict sense of understanding of journalism. Had they asked me for an interview, I would have given them just the same responses.

As a matter of fact, I did suspect that the emails would end up on the internet, one way or another, and I am happy with the information they published. If they had asked me for an official interview I would have given them just the same replies. I think it would be better if they asked for interviews in a professional way. But I am completely comfortable with what I said in the responses to their questions.

I want to thank you for the interview and for the exchange. I am also happy to respond to any comments or questions that any of your readers may have!