How the Human Rights Crisis in Eritrea Reached This Point

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a devastating 30-year struggle. Human rights violations began almost immediately after independence, although many Eritreans were oblivious of the crimes committed in the early 90’s due to the euphoria that was still engulfing the new nation.

Nevertheless, Eritreans were looking forward to the establishment of a constitution which would guarantee rule of law and enshrine their human rights in a national document. Eritrea is a diverse country with various ethnic and religious groups who all fought together to gain their freedom from foreign occupation. The movement that led the fight in the latter years of the war for independence was the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).

Isaias Afwerki, who was the leader and co-founder of the EPLF in 1971, gained the presidency and transformed the EPLF into the PFDJ (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice). He was not elected, and the PFDJ was supposed to be a transitional government. Isaias Afwerki and the PFDJ promised to a constitution but, after a group of scholars and judicial experts concluded writing it in 1997, it was never implemented. Rule of law never materialised in Eritrea.

While the process of drafting the constitution was underway, Isaias Afwerki’s PFDJ implemented two crucial tools designed to control the population and remain in power – these plagues the population to this day. In 1994, it began the ‘compulsory national service’ programme, which sent the youth for military training to provide the nation with a standing army. However, although it seemed to work efficiently at first, it evolved quickly into a system of forced conscription into indefinite service of forced labour and modern-day slavery.

The second sinister instrument imposed on the country, which was criticised bravely and openly by a few who were made to quickly disappear, was the establishment of the ‘special court’. Begun with the pretence of ‘combatting corruption’, the special court was used from its inception to suppress political dissenters or anyone who showed, or was suspected of showing, opposition or revealing dissatisfaction or criticism toward the government. To this day, Eritreans live under the dreaded threat of being abducted, subjected to enforced disappearance, or arbitrarily detained indefinitely without due legal process, under sentences and retributive punishments enforced by these ‘special courts’. 

The constitution was ratified in 1997 but never implemented. The following year war broke out again with Ethiopia, this time over a border issue. While that is the main narrative of both countries, many

Eritrean observers have pointed out that hints, such as the dealings of the government owned Red Sea Corporation in the years prior to the border war, and the recalling of all the rounds of conscripts who were supposed to have finished their military duties to the military camp in April 1998 (shortly before the border war broke out), are indicators that the Eritrean government had something more than the border issue in mind when it engaged in a war that could have easily been avoided. Following the war, the Eritrean government, still led by Isaias Afwerki and the PFDJ, declared a perennial state of emergency and has ever since subjected the nation to unending autocratic rule and deprivation of liberties.

After violently putting down a university students’ protest in 2000, when the war had barely ended, the following year Isaias Afwerki arrested 11 members of the G15, a group of 15 high level officials and ministers who spoke out publicly for reform, transparency and accountability. That same day, September 18th 2001, all independent media was banned. In the following years the entire country was turned into an open prison where the human rights of its citizens are routinely and systematically violated.

In 2016, a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea officially confirmed to the international community what Eritreans knew and suffered every day, namely that gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity have continued to be committed in Eritrea since the early days of its independence. The Eritrean case has since been referred to the African Union to investigate the said crimes. Those Eritrean people who have managed to flee their country, who accounted for the second largest group of refugees reaching Europe in 2015, are active in decrying the violations of human rights and lack of rule of law in their home country.

What Is Happening in Eritrea?

The Eritrean people live in conditions of totalitarian control, deprivation and fear. Virtually all the population is conscripted into ‘national service’ (of which the military service is only a part), which is a system of control determining the fate of every conscript. All the Eritrean youth must begin this ‘national service’ by joining the military training before they finish their secondary education, and they are subsequently placed either into the military or into positions of forced labour. In either case, Eritreans receive nominal pay which isn’t enough for survival, they are forced to remain in the assigned positions and are prohibited from seeking alternative employment or leaving the country. The system has been widely recognised as nothing other than modern-day slavery.   

Alongside locking the labour force into perennial involuntary service, Isaias Afwerki’s PFDJ has also severely limited the private sector, for example by closing down the import and export of goods by private businesses. Furthermore, it started extracting the country’s natural resources with the cooperation of foreign mining companies, using Eritrean conscripts working under deplorable conditions, and the profits made from such endeavours remain unaccounted for (although in August 2017 a report showed that 22 tonnes of raw gold, amounting to $400 million in value, had been exported to Switzerland by the Eritrean government). Such mismanagement of the country’s natural and human resources, alongside the stifling of private enterprise, has made the country one of the poorest in the world and the population desperately near starvation. Isaias Afwerki’s government systematically uses food and water as a political tool; the population barely survives starvation by an imposed system of food distributed by coupons.

The violations by the Eritrean government run the whole gamut of human and social rights including:

  • Arbitrary and incommunicado detention, enforced disappearances, torture and deaths in custody
  • No freedoms of assembly, religion, unions and political associations
  • No freedoms of thought, expression and free press
  • No freedom of movement, with a shoot-to-kill policy at the border and guilty-by-association arrests
  • Indefinite servitude under ‘national service’, including military service and forced labour
  • Lack of appropriate healthcare provision and a militarised education from high-school
  • Extortion from refugees and asylum seekers through a 2% tax once they leave the country
  • Appropriation of natural resources, withholding of personal savings and other seizure of private assets
  • Withholding of food, water and other public service from ‘disobedient’ citizens

Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE), which lobbied for the establishment of the UN mandates for Special Rapporteur and the Commission of Inquiry, has also been advocating for respect for human rights, rule of law and justice, raising awareness about the situation in Eritrea, and assisting refugees. It is as part of our continuing mission to expose and denounce human rights violations in Eritrea, that we are co-hosting this event in the United Nations Headquarters and would like to invite you to join in the conversation and participate.

Side event on Eritrea’s Human Rights Crisis

Thursday, 26 October
Time: 13:15 – 14:30
United Nation HQ, New York
Conference Room – E


Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)