The Human Rights Situation in Eritrea

HRCE's Elsa Chyrum in GenevaElsa Chyrum’s speech during a side-meeting at the HRC’s 18th Session, Room XXIII – Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland on 20 September 2011

After fighting for thirty years, in May 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) liberated Eritrea from the Ethiopian occupation. Two years after, an internationally supervised referendum was carried out and Eritrea became an independent state in May 1993.

Eritrea is a one-party state, and since independence has been ruled by a transitional government, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) which was formerly known as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, lead by President Isaias Afewerki. Up to this day, no opposition parties have been allowed and no election has ever been conducted.

For some five years after independence, Eritrea was showing some hope that it would not repeat the malaise many African countries have gone through. But it is now clear that this optimism was based on a very poor understanding of the authoritarian nature of the leader Isaias Afewerki who headed the liberation struggle for about 20 years with an iron fist and who has also been at the helm of power for 20 more years since independence.

The tragic border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia that flared up in May of 1998 was the excuse the government badly needed to extend its totalitarian grip over the whole Eritrean population so as to extend its lifespan indefinitely.
A group of higher officials, known as G-11 that included parliamentarians, ambassadors, cabinet ministers and generals, among them were Mahmud Sherifo (who was Vice-President of Eritrea) Haile Weldetensae (who was Minister of Trade and Industry); and Petros Solomon (who was Minister of Marine Resources of Eritrea) were arbitrarily arrested, on 18 September 2001, because they advocated for reform and demanded the implementation of the ratified constitution, which remains suspended to this date. Ever since, they have been languishing in prison without any due process. Tens of thousands more have been arbitrarily arrested and have disappeared since.
So, the story begins on the 18th of September 2001, when those arrested were taken to Embat’kala prison, and moved on to Era’Ero prison where the horror continues to this minute.
At first, the prisoners were kept in a former training centre in Embat’kala – a small town along the road to Massawa. Eventually however, all prisoners ended up in the purpose-built Era’ero prison. The 35 prisoners were initially guarded by 150 prison guards to discourage a rescue attempt that never transpired. Over the years, the guards were reduced down to 80 because of transfers and escapes.
How bad can a prison be when even the guards try to escape? It implies that even the guards themselves were prisoners.
In fact, the whole of Eritrea is a kind of prison for most of its people. There are few places, however as inhospitable as Era’ero – a purpose-built prison and hard to reach as its location is far from the capital, towns, villages and the main road. The temperature is so high and it is hard to imagine how prisoners can survive under that extreme heat without any kind of ventilation. It is a prison without adequate health support. The probability a prisoner will receive any kind of proper medical attention is remote.
At least 15 prisoners of the original 35 have died. Nobody knows for sure what became of their bodies.

Conditions are inhumane. All prisoners have numbers instead of names*. They are only allowed to wash once a week. They are handcuffed and kept in their cells for at least 23 hours a day. Food is limited to an unchanging diet of bread and lentil or chickpea soup with vegetables regardless of medical conditions.
Some prisoners have been driven to suicide and there are some who succeeded on third attempt.

There are prisons everywhere holding ordinary citizens whose basic human rights are non-existent. In fact, some of the prisons are even in a much worse condition where rape and torture are routine. These are typical prisons and that give a glimpse of a systematic process to break the will of the Eritrean people.

The worst manifestation of this reign of terror that the government has unleashed against its own people is the elaborate prison system it has come to erect within a short span of time. Besides the make-shift prisons embedded in every sizable military unit, there are hundreds of conventional prisons, underground dungeons, and metal shipping containers housing political and humanitarian prisoners, whose crimes are to be critical of the government, or to be of the ‘wrong’ religion, or refusing to join the military.

The private media was shut down on 18 September 2001. Eritrea is the only nation in Africa without the existence of independent media. It is also the nation with the highest number of journalists in prison. At least ten journalists working in the private media were arrested in September 2001 and still remain incarcerated without charge or trial. Their whereabouts are not known. Four have presumably died while in detention. These were the pioneers, editors, reporters and writers that had managed to ignite a flame of hope for a brighter future. The journalists, possibly alive and in prison, have no visitors. And the rest have escaped to the West. And even when it comes to its own state-owned media, the government has been very paranoid in regard to its journalists. It has imprisoned some, and many others have been fleeing to the neighboring countries in droves.

Since no media advocacy groups or human rights defenders are allowed to operate in the country, it is left up to the free world from outside to keep the plight of the journalists in the limelight and to put pressure on the government of Eritrea.

Torture: Torture in all its forms is the most defining characteristic of the prison system in Eritrea. Prisoners are housed in open-sky concentration camps, medieval-like underground dungeons, overcrowded sitting-room-only cells, narrow and low-roofed cubicles and metal shipping containers. Solitary confinement, brutal beatings, electric shocks, genital torture, rape and sex slavery are common. Deprivations of all kinds – sleep, food, water, clothes, medicine, company, visitation, legal procedures, etc. – are used routinely. There are now many terms for different ways of tying up and beating the prisoner: “helicopter”, “otto”, “Jesus Christ”, “ferro”, “torch”, etc.

Eritrea spends about 25% of its budget, the highest in the world, on the military. Out of Eritrea’s population of about 4 million, 300,000 are in active military service and many more in the reserve; again, the highest proportion anywhere in the world. The cities, towns and villages of Eritrea have been emptied of their most productive population.

One of the ugliest aspects of this endless military service is slave labour. Forced labour of students and other conscripts has been widely used under the pretext of development programmes. The conscripts are forced to work in government-owned projects such as farming, dam building, housing and road construction. And now, with numerous mining projects being developed, there is ample evidence that most of the manual labour in these projects is being provided by military conscripts and prisoners of conscience.

Female conscripts are sexually, emotionally and physically abused; and, on a more sustained level, they are made servants and sex-slaves of military commanders. If they refuse, they are subjected to heavy military duties, torture and severe punishment. Many have ended up with unwanted pregnancies and many others have been infected with HIV. For these reasons, to avoid military service, and without any plan for the future, Eritrean women have been dropping out from school at an alarming rate, getting married at an early age and producing children as early as possible.

Underage conscription into the army is a common practice in Eritrea. And as tens of thousands of soldiers are deserting the army at an alarming rate, the government is increasingly dipping into the underage population to make up for the depletion. Forced conscripts as young as 14 to 17 years old make up a sizable portion of the army and an alarming number of 11 to 14 year-olds are rendered servants of military authorities in various military training camps.

All high school students attend their last year in a huge military camp, primarily taking military training. All colleges have been practically turned into military boot camps. The only university in the nation has been closed after being declared not amenable to the designs of the totalitarian regime.

The worst outcome of the forced conscription and endless military service, with all the brutality it is known for, has been the mass exodus of the youth from the nation. It has been reported that tens of thousands of Eritreans have been fleeing in droves.

One of the cruelest steps that the totalitarian regime has taken to stop the flow of army deserters is to punish parents for the deeds of their adult sons and daughters. This punishment has taken two forms: if the parents cannot come up with the hefty fine for every deserter then they are detained indefinitely, harshly interrogated, and tortured.

Eritrea’s government has been conducting its domestic policy through nothing else but terror. No consultations, dialogues, petitions, elections or legal proceedings ever take place. If the government wants land, it grabs it without any compensation. If an enterprise suddenly becomes profitable, it monopolizes it either by bankrupting the businessmen or by blatantly taking over. If it wants new recruits for its army, it conducts vicious roundups. If it wants workers in its mines, it uses slave labour. If it wants to stop the desertion of army conscripts, it takes their parents hostage. If it does not like a particular religion, it renders it illegal and throws its members into prison. This is how the government “communicates” with its subjects; violence is in its very nature. No media advocacy groups and human rights defenders are allowed to operate in the country.

Fully realizing this, the people of Eritrea do not expect anything better from their government. However, in light of all the evidence presented here, we urge the UN Human Rights Council and member states of the United Nations to consider a full investigation into this state of affairs, to arrange a fact finding mission to Eritrea and to act upon its findings.

Elsa Chyrum
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea