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Eritrea: Domestic Villain, Regional Scapegoat

Eritrea is a human rights nightmare. International action may be making it worse.
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Free Eritrea Democracy protests in San Francisco. Photograph by Steve Rhodes.

“I still very much love my country, but it's the harsh conditions and lack of basic human rights which has compelled me to seek asylum”, said Weynay Ghebresilasie, Eritrea’s flag-bearer at the 2012 Olympic Games and one of the four Eritrean athletes now claiming asylum in the UK.

For a decade, Eritrean authorities have arrested citizens seen to be a political threat to the regime, and the country’s four Olympic defectors are amongst a reported 14,000 Eritrean refugees seeking asylum from President Isaias Afewerki’s rule.

Following the end of the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2000, human rights have been eroded in the country. Dozens have been arbitrarily detained and held for years without charge, it is reported that torture in detention is widespread, and its press is the most censored in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Just yesterday, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) announced that 4 Eritrean journalists had died in prison after suffering ill treatment.

The government in Eritrea has come under pressure from activists, the African Union and the broader international community to release political prisoners and improve human rights. However, these calls are being undermined by one-sided criticism of Eritrea’s role as a regional actor which weaken human rights critiques and may even contribute to the worsening of domestic abuses.

Eritrean abuses

In 2001, 15 members of the ruling party – including high-level ministers – signed an open letter to Isaias calling for political reform. Shortly after, 11 of the 15 (known as G-15) were arrested and detained without charge along with 10 journalists. Nearly 11 years later, little is known about the prisoners’ condition or whereabouts save for some unconfirmed accounts from those who have managed to flee the country.

A defector who claimed to be a former prison guard reported in 2010 that at least 7 of the 21 political prisoners had died due to lack of medical care, high temperatures and insufficient food rations. In his account, he talked of the harsh conditions in Eritrea’s secret prisons, where shackled inmates are often kept in solitary cells and subject to regular bouts of torture and molestation.

Despite appeals to the Eritrean government for the release of the political prisoners by the European Union, the country being described as “a giant prison” by Human Rights Watch (HRW), and last month’s report by the UN Human Rights Council, Isaias denies knowledge of their existence and has ignored proceedings brought against Eritrea by groups such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Sadly, this case is just one example of the state of affairs in Eritrea where the ruling party, ironically named the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), has clamped down on freedom of expression over the past decade. Estimations have suggested that there are now between 5,000-10,000 people languishing in Eritrea’s prisons for political reasons.

Since 2001, scores of government officials, journalists and businessmen have been jailed allegedly for criticising governmental policy, for practicing “unregistered” religions and even for listening to Ethiopian music. Although the 1997 constitution includes articles confirming the 'Fundamental Rights, Freedoms and Duties' for its people, these have not been implemented and Isaias’s power remains unconstrained. As neither a functioning legislature nor independent judicial body are in place to formally charge those who are detained, many Eritreans are imprisoned indefinitely without trial or sentence.

Furthermore, a September 2011 report by HRW highlighted forced labour, religious persecution, restrictions on the freedom of movement, and abuses within the system of National Service. Under the guidelines of the National Service it is obligatory for 18-year-olds to complete 18 months of training and service in the armed forces. However, national service stints are often extended indefinitely, with some serving for a decade before demobilisation – three of Olympian Ghebresilasie’s brothers are still in the military. It is alleged that many spend their time as forced labour for the commercial enterprises and farms owned by the PDFJ, and that sexual abuse of female recruits is widespread. Those trying to evade or abscond from National Service are rounded up, beaten and sometimes killed by the authorities.

Accusations and attacks

Eritrea is nestled along the Red Sea in the troubled Horn of Africa region. Despite the many violent crimes, both domestic and regional, committed by state and non-state actors in the region, Eritrea has been singled out for pariah status by the international community.

Eritrea has, for example, been accused of providing weaponry, supplies and financial support to Somalia’s militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, for which, in 2009, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the regime. Asmara rejected the claims and some independent analysts criticised the UN Monitoring Group, which provided the basis for sanctions, as biased and politicised and based on Ethiopian-gathered evidence. One example of bias given is the Monitoring Group's criticism of Eritrea taxing Eritrean citizens who live overseas, a practice also carried out by the US government on American citizens abroad.

There has also been speculation regarding Eritrea’s possible involvement a plot to bomb the July 2011 summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa. The plot was allegedly carried out by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a banned separatist group operating in Ethiopia. Eritrea does have historic links to the OLF and other Ethiopian opposition groups as allies during the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war. However, previous ties do not mean Eritrea planned the attack on around 30 African heads of state and most of the evidence gathered linking Asmara to the foiled attack comes from Ethiopian security forces hostile to Eritrea. Furthermore, the Ethiopian government may have a history of inventing bomb attacks and blaming the Oromo separatists and Eritrea. A US embassy cable, released by wikileaks, from September 2006 suggests that another supposedly failed terrorist attack in Addis Ababa, which was blamed on OLF and Eritrea, may in fact have been carried out by Ethiopian security forces.

The Eritrean government are also accused of having trained and funded the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) militants who carried out attacks in northern Ethiopia at the start of this year, although no evidence has been presented directly linking Asmara to the killings and the ARDUF have a history of attacks on foreigners and hostility towards both Addis Ababa and Asmara.

A paranoid president?

To explain many of Eritrea’s supposed regional crimes, the international community often points towards the paranoia of Isaias and the PFDJ elite. For example, the UN report into the foiled 2011 Addis Ababa bomb plot referred to Eritrea as “no longer proportional or rational” in its actions. Whilst this may seem patronising, there may be some truth in these claims as Isaias has demonstrated some paranoid tendencies. In a 2009 interview with Reuters, for instance, the Eritrean president said "It is not a question of human rights, religious rights. It is part of a fight, of a powerful opposition, and this powerful opposition has not succeeded in achieving anything," in response to criticisms of Eritrea’s domestic rights situation.

It is clear that Isaias may view criticism of domestic and regional policies as a conspiracy against Eritrea. And he would have some evidence to support this view. Besides the at least partially unfair casting of Eritrea as a pariah, Eritrea continues to be accused of being the destabilising factor in relations with Ethiopia despite it being Addis Ababa not Asmara that rejected the post-war Independent Boundary Commission judgement, which ruled in Eritrea’s favour.

Indeed, international actors expressly link their criticisms of domestic and regional policy. HRW, for example, attacked Isaias’ visit to the UN in New York at which he criticised the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea and the UN Security Council, arguing that “Isaias complains that the council had not given Eritrea an opportunity to refute the evidence against it and to receive a fair hearing. He has not accorded such rights to the people of Eritrea for the past 10 years".

The partially unfair criticisms of Eritrea regionally and the linking of these criticisms to those on domestic rights abuses could lead to further clampdown on dissent from an increasingly worried regime and certainly leads to Eritrea not taking HRW, certain organs of the UN, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and other international entities’ calls for improved domestic human rights seriously.

And you can see why. In its report recommendations, HRW appeals to Eritrea’s “foreign partners” to work towards apprehending and investigating officials suspected of torture and other crimes, as well as continuing to press Eritrea to allow independent monitors and commissioners into the country’s detention facilities. These are the same “foreign partners” that Eritrea believes take Ethiopia’s side in their disputes and unjustly vilify the Red Sea state.

Focus on the domestic

When international bodies have focused solely on Eritrea’s domestic policies, they have had some, although still limited, success in improving human rights in the country. For example, in March 2010, Eritrea agreed to comply with the Convention against Torture as well as to improve human rights practices by agreeing to half of the recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council in November 2009.

Moreover, now may be the ideal moment to decouple critiques of regional and domestic policies. It appears that the Eritrean government is on a charm offensive to improve relations with the African Union and re-enter the regional body the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). And international actors concerned with stability in Somalia may recognise that engagement with Eritrea could be crucial as the African Union force seeks to mount an assault on the port city of Kismayo and Somalia exits its long drawn out phase of transitional government.

Ending Eritrea’s regional pariah status could provide an opportunity for the international community to focus primarily on its domestic policies, using reintegration of Eritrea into the regional and international community, along with pressuring Ethiopia into accepting the International Boundary Commission’s findings, as a carrot for reform. If the international community continues to prioritise regional over domestic criticisms and elides the two, the abuses in Eritrea may get worse.

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Comments

It's sad that you chose to take the Reporters Without Borders report at face value. This report, along with many others stemming from biased international human rights organizations with a political agenda (Amnesty International, etc.), bases much of it's data on "defectors." Who are these so-called defectors? Where do they come from? What are their politics? What determines their credibility? RWB simply says they're credible and expects us to believe them because they merely said it. Readers of these reports need to take into account the fact the defectors have political agendas (which isn't a problem) and often lie in order to meet their political goals (a big problem). They also lie, making damaging claims against the government of Eritrea, in order to gain asylum in the so-called West and avoid deportation back to Eritrea. And when they lie, they make sure to lie big, increasing their chances of making it to their destination country. What the US is essentially doing is concentrating anti-regime citizens outside of Eritrea to draw diaspora support for future intervention in Eritrea. Much like what was done with Iraqi citizens during Saddam's regime.Also, why does this article not mention the government's position? Where is the government's response? Poor journalism, if you ask me....

dear Simon I will not spend my time  replying your nonsens. if the real journalists are in prison and the only source of information out of our country is Hadas eritrea how are we gona check if those so colled defektors are lying or not. we were there and we know what we have seen not what we hear ok so stop blaming others go ask the gov. if what is written by RWB and Amnesty is baseless lie.

I am wondering if the author of this article has ever visited eritrea or solicited the majority eritrea thoughts of their government.

A rare and honest piece.  It speaks to my sentiments.  The key to peace in the Horn of Africa is to resolve the Eritrean/Ethiopian  impasse.  Ethiopia needs to abide by the international verdict on the border.  This would have a ripple effect for peace in the region.  And the dictatorship in Asmara would no longer be able to use the border issue as a cover for its internal crimes.
Thank You!
 
 

"And the dictatorship in Asmara would no longer be able to use the border issue as a cover for its internal crimes."Really? that is laughably idiotic! You made it look like a child's play.It is like saying , hey my neighbor has built his fences a bit inside my backyard. He has to push it back or I will bit up my kid.

Yes, exactly. Let's babysit Eritrea properly so she can behave and babysit her kids well. Is that the conclusion? Let her loot Ethiopia as she used to do pre-1998 - otherwise, she will behave badly. Amazing! Check those out for some insights . . .babysitting is not gonna solve anything . . .http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vg-PHUI0bWcandhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztgsNcspUik 

I'm a U.S. citizen (non-Eritrean) who visited Eritrea for three months last Summer. I can say the country is indeed an oligarchy through and through and while their human rights abuses are grosely exagerated by the media, they can certainly improve that aspect. That being said, the Government of Eritrea delivers for its people in terms of progress, which is why it enjoys popular support from its diaspora. Statistically speaking, Eritrea trounces its neighbors in all the important social, economic and health indicators. For example, Eritrea's life expectancy is at 66 years of age [1] (the highest in mainland sub-sarah Africa). In comparison, it's much touted southern neighbor of Ethiopia is just 54[1]. On the education front, you get an even bigger gap between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In 21 years of independence,  Eritrea has nearly thrippled its litarcy rates to 70%[2], while Ethiopia has a 30% literacy rate[3]. Even on the economic front, Eritrea has had one of the fastest-growing economies in the world for several years now but for whatever reasons, these are brushed aside as if it's not taking place. Despite these sharp contrasts in sastistics between Eritrea and its neighbors, it becoming apparently clear that no matter how much Eritrea improves, Ethiopia will continue to be showered with compliments and rosey articles, while Eritrea, a nation that is leading sub-sahara Africa on improving the lives of its citizens, is bombarded with demonizing and redicolous articles. I believe Eritrea gets a lot of bad press because that's what Washington would like the international community to believe. Since Ethiopia is their puppet and is at odds with Eritrea, they would like the world to think this is a country on fire, when in reality, this country is a leader of progress (the numbers don't lie!). Yes, it's a dictatorship, but ask yourselves this: did Ethiopia's former dicator ever receive such bad press to the levels of Eritrea? No. It's obsured what they write about this country, when it was Ethiopia who gunned down and killed193 civilians[4] and wounded 763[4] more in the capital for the world to see. No such henious crime has ever taken place in Eritrea, yet reading the articles they write about this country, one would imagine a genocide is taking place. There is no balance in the media in regards to the Horn of Africa. As far as the media is concnered, Ethiopia can do no wrong and Eritrea, by default, is wrong (a former U.S. official actually said this in 2002).Eritrea has free education, free healthcare system and supplies its most vulenerable citizens with free housing. No such complete social justice exists in the Horn of Africa. Personally, I think this is a boneheaded move by the government. I don think this is sustainable and will limit growth in job creation and infrustrcutre development, but you in terms of rational thinking, these are fundemental human rights, too. 1]http://gamapserver.who.int/gho/interactive_charts/mbd/life_expectancy/atlas.html2] http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/eritrea_statistics.html (can't find the government source, in collaberation with UNICEF, that said Eritrea's literacy rates improved to 70% in 2012)3]http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/ethiopia_statistics.html4]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6064638.stm

I read Ron perkins commentary and struck by its blindness to the facts.While commenting on eritrea why should most of your time is spent on talking about Ethiopia?Dont you think Eritreans should have their say about their government AS THEY ARE on the recieving end?

 First of all, you are not American. You are realy Eritrean, have been Recruited by PFDJ, just to produce such kinds of ugly propoganda.So  a different thing is expected from you. 

Amazingly, when Eritrea refused to accept food aid donations from the UN, so many criticisms, false allegations, and attacks including from some of its own filled the air and the president who once was viewed as a Democratic hero was quickly labeled a dictator simply because President Isaias Afwerki argued that African nations that accept money from the World Bank or food from the UN are “crippled societies.” But the president’s message was simple and it was intended to plead with the accusers to leave him and his nation alone and that the government and the people can solve the food shortage (if any) and can take care of themselves. Speaking against all the allegations and false accusations, Girma Asmerom Tesfay -the Eritrean ambassador to Europe when pressed by one of the BBC reporters categorically denied the allegations and defended Eritrea “Those allegations (the food shortages and people are starving in Eritrea), are totally untrue” The ambassador added by saying that: As a nation the government are accountable for their own people. He continues by assuring that two years down the road those who are accusing us now are going to bite their tongue and our economy will be sufficient enough to feed our people”.
More to the story, sharp resistances and criticisms are quickly emerging from other African young natives insisting that the aid program did nothing to improve the living of the poor. They accused donation agencies taking ($9 dollars out of $10 for their own use. The natives pressed more by stating that the donation agencies are simply perpetuating the problem to ensure that they all have jobs and that the billions of dollars in donations continue to flow. They have been giving this aid for decades, but nothing gotten better. “And reparations is not just about financial compensation, it has to be about a fundamental restructuring of African society. It must be based on true sovereignty not flag and anthem independence, which is what we’ve got today” (a quote given by Esther Stanford Xosei, who is a part of the Pan-African Reparations Coalition in Europe while being interviewed by Press TV’s Africa Today program in London.
Well, was the statement that is given by the Eritrean ambassador to Europe true or false? Please check this statement. “According to World Bank’s data Eritrea’s GDP has tripled since 2004. That is Eritrea’s GDP has expanded dramatically since it stopped taking Food Aid. Eritrea has also doubled its GDP between 2008 and 2011”. What good news for Eritrea!!
Well, after watching this clip this is what came to my mind. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” (Famous Chinese Proverb). Taking hand me downs is not a long term solution. As Xosei put it, change must come from a fundamental restructuring of African society. Furthermore, some of the important things that bring solutions to eradicate poverty are to allow more time and effort to invest in educating and encouraging the public to be more self-reliant and self-efficient. With all that said, I am very proud to say that the newly erected nation of Eritrea is a role model for others to follow her footstep. God bless Eritrea and may God bless the hard working citizens of Eritrea.