Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Eritrean government using consulate in Toronto to impose tax to bankroll military, UN charges - thestar.com
The Eritrean government has been using its Toronto consulate to force expatriates to pay taxes that help bankroll its military, according a United Nations report released this week.
The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea said in its report to the Security Council that the Eritrean consulate in Toronto has been using coercive tactics to impose a 2 per cent income tax on its diasporic communities to help finance the military, a fundraising practice the group says “arguably” violates an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations in 2009.
Sharing its borders with Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan, Eritrea has been embroiled in conflict since declaring independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Though one of the poorest countries on the planet, it has become one of the most militarized in Africa, gaining notoriety for its support of Al Shabab, a Somali-based Islamic group and Al Qaeda affiliate.
The UN Monitoring Group said it found no evidence that Eritrea had directly supported Al Shabab in the past year, but added that the tiny country continues to violate UN Security Council resolutions — its use of forcible “extraterritorial” tax collection to finance its military as one example.
One man who said he fled Eritrea for Toronto in 2001 told the Star he first faced trouble with the city’s Eritrean consulate in 2004 when he arrived at the office seeking help to bring his wife and child to Canada.
The man, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said the consulate demanded that he pay the 2 per cent income tax for every year since he arrived in 2001 in order to receive the help he needed to reunite with his family.
On welfare at the time, he would have had to pay $5 from every monthly welfare cheque and at first refused, he said. But “instead of losing my wife and son,” he said he changed his mind. His family arrived in Canada in 2005.
“It’s just criminal,” he said. “What are consulates supposed to do? We expect them to do legal things, not illegal things like this.”
Last January, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird wrote a letter to Eritrea’s minister of foreign affairs, Osman Saleh Mohammed, expressing concern that the Eritrean consulate in Toronto was using coercive methods to collect the tax.
In the letter obtained by the Star, Baird said “using consular premises would contravene the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the use of coercive methods could be criminal.”
Months earlier, a Toronto-based Eritrean consular official denied in a National Post article that the consulate employed coercive tactics, instead noting that the country had imposed a “voluntary” 2 per cent income tax to help reconstruct the country’s roads, hospitals and schools.
But UN and RCMP reports and testimony from the Eritrean-Canadian community indicate otherwise.
An RCMP assessment included in the UN report found that a “refusal to pay the tax often results in denial of service or threats against, or harassment of, family members still residing in Eritrea, or possible arrest of the individual should they travel to Eritrea without paying the taxes alleged to be owing.”
In 2011, governments in both the United Kingdom and Germany demanded that Eritrea stop collecting diasporic taxes on the grounds that the practice might contravene the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Though pressure to outlaw the tax is mounting elsewhere around the world, the Canadian government has yet to act.
Aaron Berhane, a journalist who fled Eritrea for Canada in 2001, said the Toronto consulate has been exploiting the Eritrean community for “two decades” and called for the consulate to be shut down.
“I don’t understand why the Canadian government has been patient for such a long period of time,” he said. “As long as the Eritrean consulate is open, it will use different tactic(s) to threaten and extort Eritrean Canadians.”
Rick Roth, Baird’s press secretary, told the Star in an email Tuesday that the ministry planned to review the UN report before making any further public comments, but added that “Canadian security organizations will act to prevent intimidation.”