Eritrean Law Society (ELS) News Swiss-Eritrea Links in Gold Mining

Swiss-Eritrea Links in Gold Mining

On 30 August 2017, the Swiss national TV aired a major report focusing on a huge amount of raw gold extracted from Eritrea, under extremely abusive practices of forced labour and slavery, ending up in Switzerland for the final process of refinery. It exposed one of the most disgraceful instances of corporate malpractice in history: According to the report, between 2011 and 2013, Switzerland has refined 22 tons gold, estimated at a price of nearly 400 million Swiss Francs. A Swiss politician by the name Cédric Wermuth hints that this deal might have generated to the Swiss gold market a gross revenue of Swiss Francs 924 million, which is roughly the equivalent of US Dollars 1 billion: The TV report indicates that the only Swiss company known to have been refining gold originating from Eritrea is the Neuchâtel-based Metalor. All other major refineries of gold in Switzerland said they had not accepted any gold from Eritrea. A person by the name Bruno Vogt from Zurich commented about the matter as follows: “Switzerland is by far the largest physical gold trading place in the world. The fact that a lot of gold is being channelled through Switzerland by African dictators is something that our parliamentarians have certainly known so far. Indignation is shown only when such stories are revealed by the media.” The Canadian company, Nevsun, involved in the extraction of gold in Eritrea, is currently fighting a major legal battle in the Supreme Court of British Colombia in Canada, for alleged involvement or complicity in gross human rights violations (including crimes against humanity) committed in the Bisha Mining from which the gold was extracted. The Swiss TV programme was made possible as a result of collaborative effort by ELS and other partners, who provided key information to the journalists and researchers of the TV programme from the very beginning. A complete translation of the transcription of the TV programme is available below. This version replaces the initial Google translation that was posted on our website on 1 September 2017. ELS thanks Yohannes Measho for the translation. The introduction is also updated on 2 September 2017. The translation follows: It is an exodus, a modern mass migration. The image from 2011 shows Eritrean refugees in the Mediterranean Sea on escape from the regime, from years of military service and compulsory labour. Many of them come to Switzerland and apply here for asylum. On the other hand, the country’s gold is transported smoothly by Lufthansa from Asmara to Frankfurt. In the beginning of 2011, the first gold bars begun to arrive at their final destination, Switzerland. Eritrea delivers such raw gold to Switzerland for refining. Each single load from the poor country is worth millions. Daniel Mekonnen and Abadi Gebremeskel have escaped from Eritrea. Both of them are outraged about the gold business between Switzerland and the Eritrean Regime. Daniel Mekonnen: “In the first instance, I did not believe the story but today I am still shocked and I hope that the Swiss government gives us some explanation how this could have happen.” The controversial Eritrean gold comes from the Bisha gold mine, located in the middle of the desert. Since 2010, the Canadian company Nevsun mines copper, zinc and especially gold, 40 of which per cent is owned by the Eritrean regime. In order to purify the extracted raw gold into bars, the mining company needs a refinery partner. And this partner has been found in Switzerland, the Eldorado of the gold industry. There is no other country, which melts as much gold as Switzerland. 22 tonnes of raw gold from Eritrea came into Switzerland. A deal worth several hundred million. In the top year, 2011, gold worth 215 million Swiss francs came to Switzerland. In 2012, gold worth 173 million Swiss francs. Afterwards, in 2013, the amount of gold reduced drastically to the value of 9 million Swiss francs. The gold from the Bisha mine is exploited (emptied). Between 2011 to 2013, Switzerland imported a total of 397 million Swiss francs in gold from Eritrea. During this period of time, about 10, 000 Eritreans asked for asylum in Switzerland. Member of Parliament, Yvonne Feri, from the Social Democratic Party, travelled to Eritrea herself. The whole story makes her angry. Yvonne Feri: “In my opinion, this is morally and ethically reprehensible. It’s a contradiction: On the one side people come here looking for refuge and protection, and on the other side we make money of exactly that regime.” Other politicians are also surprised by the revelations. Member of Parliament, Heinz Brand, from the Swiss People’s Party: “I find it scandalous that Switzerland is making such deals with this country. Especially as we have so many asylum seekers from Eritrea and recognize them as refugees and by doing so we express how precarious the situation is in that country. That’s a contradiction in itself.” Philipp Müller, Member of the Council of States, and member of FDP (liberal political party):” It’s like the old saying ‘First eat like a pig, morality comes later.’ And for me, the question is also whether our government knew about this or not. If the government knew, they certainly should intervene.” Journalist: “What would that mean if our government had known it?” Philipp Müeller: “If the government knows, then it must intervene!” So far, the government has not intervened. Who knew about the gold deal and when seems difficult to reconstruct on the fly. The Ministry of Justice and Police replies rather in general: “The Federal Council takes a stand for more transparency in the commodity trade.” The Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is internationally isolated and ostracised. Despite that, his regime was able to use Switzerland for gold business and earned millions. There is also a second, very dark side of the gold from Eritrea. There is a pending civil lawsuit in Canada that has been filed by former mineworkers, who claim: “The mine was constructed by forced labour, a modern form of slavery.” Abadi Gebremeskel fled to Switzerland. He is one of the plaintiffs before the Canadian court. He says he had worked in the mine himself and had seen terrible things. Abadi Gebremeskel: “Workers collapsed in the heat, that was almost normal. In summer, it was about 45 and 46 degrees Celsius. We had hardly any water and were constantly dehydrated. As you can see here in the picture, the building site was in the middle of the desert. There were many sand storms. There was sand everywhere, in our food, everywhere. It was incredibly hard. Some people didn’t survive it.” Gebremeskel was working for a construction company owned by the regime and which was stationed at Bisha mine. He says many workers were recruited from the national service. “Around 80 per cent of those working for the regime company came from the military service and were forced to work at Bisha. A few Eritreans had better positions and a better salary because they had connections to the military. The regime had placed moles amongst us to spy on us.” In the commercials it looks completely different: Bisha was a model project, according to Nevsun. The company vehemently denies allegations of degrading working conditions. Internal and external investigations could find no proof of the allegations. For the construction there had never been any forced labour of national service recruits. “The construction company is not and was not allowed to employ any workers from the national service according to Eritrean law and our contracts.” The Eritrean Regime has acquired a taste with the Bisha mine. The regime wants to mine other gold deposits in the country. And therefore it needs partners who are willing to refine Eritrean gold in the future. Journalist: “Is Switzerland going to accept gold from Eritrea to refine in the future?” Yvone Feri: “As long as the regime doesn’t change and stays the same, I’d clearly say no.” Heinz Brand: “In my opinion, clearly no.” Presenter: The gold from the Bisha mine. A major part of it has been refined and moulded into bars of gold in Switzerland. The Eritrean part of the million deal has ended up in the hands of the regime. Eritrea has never published any numbers of what happened to this enormous amount of money. The only Swiss gold refinery, known to have taken Eritrean gold, is Metalor in Neuchâtel. It writes to the “Rundschau” [the TV show] that there was only a brief business relationship with an Eritrean customer. Today, Eritrea is on the blacklist. All the other big refineries write that they had not accepted any gold from Eritrea.