With the release of the 2012 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices yesterday, it seems the U.S. State Department has finally realised its hypocrisy in condemning Eritrea for imposing tax on the Eritrean diaspora to fund wars in Africa, while aiding the IRS to impose tax on the American diaspora so that the US can also fund wars in Africa, and the Middle East, and Central Asia, and …
Unfortunately, State’s response has not been to levy similar criticisms against the IRS or to stop cooperating with it, but instead to tone down their criticisms of Eritrea. While the 2010 and 2011 reports are virtually identical in the wording they use to condemn Eritrea’s diaspora tax, the 2012 report shows subtle shifts in language, providing classic examples of “framing techniques” that a writer can use to address roughly the same set of underlying facts while leading the reader to take sharply different attitudes towards those facts.
The actual text
|There were also reports of security forces arresting persons whose foreign family members did not pay their extraterritorial income tax of 2 percent of foreign earned income …
|Other diaspora Eritreans whom the regime deemed insufficiently loyal—either through lack of tax payments or other support—asserted that their families in Eritrea were subjected to government harassment …
|Increasingly, children of any age were denied exit visas either on the grounds that they were approaching the age of eligibility for national service or because their foreign-based parents had not paid the 2 percent income tax required of all citizens residing abroad.
|Some parents avoided seeking exit permits for children approaching the age of eligibility for national service due to concern that they would be denied permission to travel, although other adolescents were granted exit permits. Diaspora members who visited the country reported being required to pay a 2-percent tax on foreign earned income before being given exit visas.
|In general citizens had the right to return. However, citizens residing abroad had to show proof that they paid the 2 percent tax on foreign earned income to be eligible for some government services, including exit visas for future departures from the country.
|In general citizens had the right to return. However, citizens residing abroad had to show proof that they paid the 2-percent tax on foreign earned income to be eligible for some government services, including passport renewals.
Let’s be clear from the start: these changes in language do not reflect actual improvements in the human rights situation in Eritrea between 2011 and 2013. Human Rights Watch’s Eritrea chapter of its 2013 World Report is just as harsh in its criticisms of Eritrea as the 2012 World Report. Swedish newspapers in 2013 continue to refer to the Eritrean government’s treatment of its diaspora as “systematic oppression”. And the situation for Eritreans in Canada improved not due to any new-found respect for human rights on the part of the Eritrean government, but only because Ottawa stood up and told them to cut it out.
“Reports” vs. “assertions”
First and foremost, the “reports” of harassment in the 2011 text have been downgraded to mere “assertions” in the 2012 text. “Reports” makes it seem like a factual, well-verified phenomenon; indeed, this is why the State Department calls these texts “Human Rights Reports” rather than” Assertions About Human Rights”.
At risk of sounding like a 4th-grader trying to pad out a book report (there’s that word again!), let me quote the dictionary, which defines a “report” as “an account or statement describing in detail an event, situation, or the like, usually as the result of observation, inquiry, etc.” In contrast, “assertion” reduces the whole thing to a he-said she-said: maybe it’s true, or maybe those diaspora whiners are lying because they fled the country to avoid taxes and don’t want to pay their “fair share”.
Second, notice the change of agency in the inability to obtain exit visas: in the 2011 Report, parents of children are the victims of the bureaucracy which refuses to let them out; in the 2012 Report, it’s allegedly the parents themselves who are deciding not to apply for exit visas. And the non-payment of the tax itself is no longer reported as grounds for denial of an exit visa; instead, it’s reported as grounds for denial of passport renewal.
In other words, the 2012 Report is much less clear about the link between failure to pay the diaspora tax and the loss of freedom of movement. Mention of “exit visas” brings to mind the Soviet Union and other such unsavory regimes, whereas “passport renewals” sound like a bureaucratic function of fee-for-service on which restrictions might be “legitimately” placed for any number of reasons, the way the U.S. itself has proposed doing — even though passports are just as much an instrument of political control as exit visas, and the U.S. itself has used them as such.
The description of the tax itself
And finally, the “extraterritorial income tax” or the “tax on citizens residing abroad” is now described as a “tax on foreign earned income”, a phrase clearly taken from U.S. tax law without understanding its meaning (since “earned income” like wages is supposed to be contrasted with “unearned income” like bank interest or social assistance payments — but in fact the Eritrean diaspora tax applies to both categories of income).
Edit: as Shadow Raider points out in a comment, the Eritrean diaspora tax is far less broad than U.S. citizenship-based taxation, and only applies to certain categories of what U.S. tax law would classify as “unearned income”: specifically, it does not apply to items I mentioned like bank interest or social assistance payments. It does apply to rental payments.
It also applies to self-employment income, parts of which may be considered either “earned” or “unearned” in U.S. tax law — for example, the dividing line between what counts as “salary” and what counts as “distributions” from an LLC is a frequent topic of U.S. tax planning. I can claim no familiarity with how Eritrean tax law makes the distinction, though I imagine that arguing with an armed “diaspora tax auditor” about the dividing line will produce less-than-ideal results.
The former descriptions — just like “exit visa” — are well-recognisable to any reasonable reader as dictatorial anti-emigrant practises which have been abandoned by all liberalising countries, including the successors of the Soviet Union, the Philippines as it cast off the baggage of the Marcos era, Vietnam during doi moi, and most recently Burma. The latter is a bloodless, bureaucratic phrase which obfuscates rather than informs — it hides the fact that the tax is being imposed on people who do not live in the country which is imposing the tax.
What remains the same?
On the other hand, the complaints that “[t]he government considered persons of Eritrean descent to be citizens and did not recognize their possible citizenship in other nations” and that “[the government did not grant consular access to detained dual citizens” both remain intact from the 2011 report. However, for Eritreans actually in Eritrea, this is nothing more than a straightforward application of the Master Nationality Rule — unfortunate but entirely expected as a matter of international law, and similar to the practises of most countries. And of course, both the Eritrean and U.S. governments are equally guilty of ignoring the fact that members of their respective diasporas have “possible citizenship in other nations”. Apparently whoever decided to tone down the tax criticisms in this year’s report didn’t notice this other bit of ongoing hypocrisy.