Sunday, October 14, 2012
Has Eritrea stopped collecting its 2% tax in Canada?
Many Eritreans who have taken refuge in Canada have complained for years that the Eritrean government has continued to try and force them to contribute to the government funds through its 2 percent ‘Diaspora tax’ and a national defence levy to the government in Asmara in addition to any taxes paid in Canada in order to be allowed to access any services from the Eritrean authorities. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the UN Monitoring Group that monitors compliance with the arms embargo on Eritrea have both detailed numerous examples of those who refuse to pay suffering threats and harassment. Refusal can mean reprisals against family members still in Eritrea and refusals or delays by the consulate in providing services for Eritrean citizens.
The UN Security Council passed a resolution last year condemning Eritrea for resorting to “extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea” and for using the “diaspora tax” to procure arms for rebel groups in the Horn of Africa and destabilize other countries.
The Canadian government warned Eritrea in January that such conduct was a violation of diplomatic protocols and “could be criminal.” The government repeated its concerns in a July 27 letter to the Government of Eritrea. Eritrea’s original response was that the UN investigators were biased and politically motivated, that the allegations of extortion were a “malicious lie” and the diaspora taxes were collected to help the country rebuild after a long war with Ethiopia and protect the nation from “imminent military threats”.
However it subsequently changed its mind after the Canadian Foreign Ministry sent a strongly worded diplomatic note earlier this month making it clear Canada would not renew the accreditation of Consul Semere Ghebremariam O. Micael unless Eritrea agreed in writing that the consulate “effectively cease to collect the 2% ‘recovery and rehabilitation’ tax and the donation for national defence.” The note added that if Mr. O. Micael continued “to carry out tax solicitation and tax collection activities in spite of Canada’s express disapproval and view that such activities are incompatible with the normal performance of consular functions, it will expect a notification from the Ministry stating that such person has been recalled from Canada.” Two days later the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded in a “note verbale” that it had “complied in full” with Canada’s demands, and that the head of the Toronto consulate “has been accordingly instructed.”
While this appeared to be a volte face by Eritrea which had previously insisted on its right to collect such ‘taxes’, the Consul himself may have different ideas. He was quoted last week as saying the Eritrean Government would continue to collect tax from Eritrean citizens living in Canada despite the demand of the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that this should stop. The Consul, the only Eritrean diplomat in Canada, was quoted as saying “We have to tax our people, it is our right.” He told a Canadian newspaper that “I am not going to collect the tax in my office. That’s all. That’s what the Canadian government was asking and they got the response.” He added “It doesn’t mean we stop collecting. Now instead of paying to my office [people] will pay it through the bank.”
Mr. Micael said the taxes were longstanding Eritrean law and payment was mandatory. “If they are going to get a service, they have to pay but I am not the one. I just won’t collect it. But they have to pay. Every Eritrean is paying it, so if they are Eritrean they have to pay it on their own way, you know. Instead of paying to the consulate they will send it to Eritrea.” Mr. Micael denied the money was used for military purposes, even though payment forms specify that it is for national defence. He said that national defence could cover numerous other things including schools and roads.
Human rights sources in Canada said all this suggested the consulate was making light of the government request and was “basically trying to pull a fast one on the government of Canada.” A human rights lawyer also said that Eritrea had failed to address the other concern about the ‘diaspora tax’; “the problem isn’t just the tax but the way they use the money, which historically has been to fund terrorist groups.” A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the Ministry had made its “position on the matter to the Eritreans clear, and we expect that to be respected. The government of Eritrea should not test our resolve on this matter.”
Eritrean critics of the Consulate’s activities said the closure of Eritrean diplomatic activities in Canada should be based on “the character and track record of the Asmara regime which has so far refused to abide by international and regional treaties, standards and accepted norms and continues to play a spoiler role in the Horn of Africa and beyond”. They argue that by closing the diplomatic mission, Canada would be sending a message to the Asmara regime that the brutalization of its citizens is unacceptable and that human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law are rights of the Eritrean people. “The closure of the Eritrean diplomatic mission and the expulsion of its representatives from Canada are long overdue,” concludes an open letter addressed to Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird on September 22nd.
Canada is not alone in questioning the way Eritrea has been forcing Eritreans living abroad to contribute this 2% tax to Asmara by refusing to provide consular and other services. Earlier in the year the Dutch authorities began to question the way those who tried to resist payment were “threatened, intimidated and had necessary consular services refused.” Last month, Foreign Minister, Uri Rosenthal, summoned the Eritrean chargé d’affaires to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain why the embassy was collecting taxes and raising funds from Dutch nationals of Eritrean origin and Eritrean nationals living in the Netherlands. Mr Rosenthal expressed his concern at alleged incidences of extortion and intimidation, saying that such practices are unacceptable. An investigation is currently under way into possible incidents in the Netherlands. –MFA