An Unholy Trinity: Eritrea, Nevsun Resources and the Atlantic Council

By the Strathink Editorial Team

“This is about giant corporations who figured out that by spending, hey, a few tens of millions of dollars, if they can influence outcomes here in Washington, they can make billions of dollars.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Last week the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa held a hearing on Eritrea to consider ways in which the United States might better engage a country known globally as Africa’s North Korea. In his opening statement, Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) raised three questions that he hoped would be answered by witness testimony:

  1. Can the U.S. form a relationship with a government it holds under sanction?
  2. Does the dire situation under which Eritrea’s people live under require an alteration of U.S. policy?
  3. What would a change in U.S. policy mean for the international effort to hold the Eritrean government accountable for its blatant human rights violation?

And in view of the Atlantic Council’s Deputy Director of the Africa Center, Bronwyn Bruton’s, testimony on behalf of the Government of Eritrea, Strathink would like to add a fourth question:

How much influence does Canada’s Nevsun Mining’s significant financial contribution to the Atlantic Council have on Bronwyn Bruton’s testimony to the U.S. Congress?

Think Tanks for Sale

Two recent articles in the New York Times raise questions about the unseemly relationship between think tanks and their corporate donors. According to the Times, “Think tanks are seen as independent, but their scholars often push donors’ agendas, amplifying a culture of corporate influence in Washington.” From driving research agendas—and conclusions—to influencing policymakers, corporations are poring money into think tanks in a quid pro quo arrangement of influence peddling.

There is more than one door for a corporation to buying influence than donating money. The Brookings Institution named a high-level executive from one of its big corporate donors, Kofi Bonner, a senior fellow of the Institution. Kofi Bonner, in charge of the Lennar Corporation’s massive San Francisco redevelopment project, grabbed the opportunity to have the prestigious Brookings Institution “engage with national media to develop stories that highlight Lennar’s innovative approach.” And as a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, Bonner has an enviable academic and research credential to promote his corporation’s interests.

Another article in the Times exposes the double roles played by think tank scholars. “Acting as independent arbiters to shape who had simultaneously worked as registered lobbyists, members of corporate boards or outside consultants in litigation and regulatory disputes, with only intermittent disclosure of their dual roles.”

The Atlantic Council’s Corporate Program

The Atlantic Council, which has seen its annual revenue grow to $21 million from $2 million in the last decade, offers access to United States and foreign government officials in exchange for contributions. Individual donors, like FedEx, have also helped fund specific reports that align with their agendas.

New York Times

The Atlantic Council’s corporate program clearly spells out the advantages of donating money to the organization. In its brochure, the Atlantic Council spells out its advantage to corporations needing access to decision makers. “Companies enjoy priority access to the Councils hundreds of private and public events, meetings, conference calls and working dinners with world leaders and key decision makers held in the United States and abroad…Countries are invited to contribute to Council research, participate in Council task forces and strategy sessions, partner with the Council to publish reports and issue briefs, and explore their areas of interest.

FedEx took full advantage of the benefits of donating money to the organization and teamed up with the Atlantic Council to build support for a free trade agreement that would increase its revenue. The Atlantic Council, with money donated by FedEx, cooked up a study to “emphasize the positive impact that a comprehensive agreement would have on American and European small businesses.” In the end, the Atlantic Council released a report on the study with “conclusions mirror[ing] arguments FedEx had been aggressively pushing on Capitol Hill, including recommending a reduction in trans-Atlantic tariffs and allowing more duty-free shipments.”

Nevsun Mining and the Atlantic Council

 On the Atlantic Council’s website, Nevsun Resources is listed on the honor roll of contributors in the $100,000-249,000 range. Awate, an Eritrean organization opposed to the government of Isayas Afewerki, quotes Nevsun VP for Corporate Responsibility Todd Romaine, when asked a question by journalist Vincent Leonard about its donation to the Atlantic Council:

“Nevsun made a contribution to the Atlantic Council last year because we were impressed by their ongoing constructive work on Eritrea. It is standard for a profit company to make a gift to a research institute whose work relates to its business. The contribution was an unrestricted gift, which means that it was a no-strings attached contribution to be used in whatever way the Atlantic Council saw fit. The Atlantic Council was and is not required to report to us on the use of funds, so we do not actually know how the funding was used. (…) Signature: Todd Romaine VP, CSR Nevsun Resources Ltd.”

 So here is the story so far. The Atlantic Council’s Deputy Director of the Africa Center is invited to provide expert witness testimony to the United States Congress on its relationship to Eritrea. She is employed by the Atlantic Council, a think tank that receives money from a Canadian firm that co-owns a mine with the Government of Eritrea. This mine—the Bisha mine—is the only stream of revenue for Nevsun Resources.

The Government of Eritrea has been cited by the United Nations for committing “crimes against humanity.” One of these crimes is “slave labor” of young people conscripted into the military for an indefinite period. Nevsun Resources exploits the free labor of these military conscripts in its mining operation. The expert testimony provided by the Atlantic Council’s Bronwyn Bruton disputes many of the human rights violations cited by the United Nations and the United States. Bronwyn Bruton’s support of the Eritrean Government runs counter to the rest of the world. Previously she was an expert on Somalia who defended the Islamic Courts and blamed the rise of al-Shabab on the United States.


The Hearing

 It was painful to watch the Congressional hearing—on so many levels. Congressman Smith opened the hearing with a statement outlining the abuses carried out by Isayas Afewerki and his government on the Eritrean people. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield eloquently expressed the paradox of Eritrea’s underdog mythology:

Eritrea is one of the poorest countries on Earth. It is located in a volatile and strategic neighborhood on the Red Sea. But if Eritrea likes to portray itself as David and the United States as Goliath, I would argue that its wounds are largely self-inflicted and its slingshot hurls stones at its own people. Up to five thousand of them make this clear every month, risking their lives rather than remaining in the country.

 She clearly answered Congressman Smith’s first and second question about altering the current status of U.S.-Eritrea relations concluding, “For all these reasons, we have made it clear that turning a new page in the United States-Eritrea relationship first requires significant improvements in human rights.”

Secretary Thomas-Greenfied was followed by testimony from Father Athanasius Habtu Ghebre-Ab. Father Athanasius is a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and also an ordained priest in the Eritrean Orthodox Church. The Eritrean-American priest focused his testimony on Eritrea’s denial of religious freedom. Father Athanius offers five recommendations to bring about peace and stability in Eritrea: 1) ratification of the 1997 Eritrean constitution; 2) ending indefinite national services; 3) the release of prisoners of conscience; 4) implementation of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission riling; and 5) the end of Ethiopia and Eritrea hosting armed oppositions in their respective countries.

Dr. Khalid Bashir, a Board Member of Awate, provided a clear and detailed roadmap outlining the relationship between Nevsun Resources, the Government of Eritrea and Bronwyn Bruton. He describes Ms. Bruton, often accompanied by Nevsun Resources VP for Corporate Responsibility Todd Romaine, drumming up support for the Eritrean President at a number of rallies and functions.

What an awkward situation for the Atlantic Council’s Bronwyn Bruton to sit at the table next to Father Athanius and Dr. Bashir.

The Atlantic Council’s Testimony Was Bought and Paid for in Blood

 Bruton’s defense of Isayas Afewerki in front of the U.S. Congress paid for with the money amassed through the slave labor of some of the 20,000 11th graders conscripted into indefinite national service is simply unconscionable. How can Bronwyn Bruton be an honest broker in the face of Nevsun Resources’ sizeable donation to the Atlantic Council?

She can’t and neither can the Atlantic Council.

Diminishing resources for non-profits, foundations, advocacy groups and think tanks has made fundraising difficult across the board. There are more non-profits competing for fewer resources. However, when does a non-profit cross the line of philanthropy? We think that the Atlantic Council, in its brazen distortion of the Eritrean reality and U.S. national interests, has stepped over this line. The U.S. government should have second thoughts in accepting a recommendation, or even an opinion, from a so-called think tank that has sold its integrity for a corporate donation.























2 Responses to “An Unholy Trinity: Eritrea, Nevsun Resources and the Atlantic Council”

  1. Gebre says:

    Eritrea is a hell on Earth. I was in Germany 5 months ago and I met two youngsters (age 20-25) from Eritrea. They reached Germany through Sahara via Libiya. They do not want to think about the journey they pass through, simply they said that the journey was equivalent to what they heard of hell! I asked them why they choose to face such horrible journey while they can accept some pressure and live in their country? They clearly responded “living in Eritrea is almost with known end: death or prison, while crossing the desert is with unknown end; either you reach Euro or other possibilities including death. So chose the unknown fate with God and we made it but a lot of things happened and we will not forget the psychological trauma we passed through”.
    Then I said where is UN??? What are they talking in every meeting??? are they worrying about business and crises that affects the most rich??? Some times… Why USA is paying a lot of things to change the regime in Syria while Isayas is doing more misery to his people who gave him their children for more than 30 years?


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