From 31 October to 1 November 2019, African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) partners and representatives of at least 10 countries, met in Asmara, Eritrea for a conference to promote Africa’s Agenda for Children 2040 (Agenda 2040) as well as to disseminate the result of the study ‘Mapping Children on the Move within Africa’ (Children on the Move).
The choice of Eritrea as the venue for such an important human and child rights conference is questionable, and we suggest inappropriate. Eritrea has refused to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea or any other UN Special Rapporteur to enter the country in accordance with their mandates. And, to date the Government of Eritrea has refused to comply with the African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) communications: 250/02 Liesbeth Zegyeld and Mussie Ephrem/Eritrea; 275/03 Article 19/Eritrea; 428/12 Dawit Isaak-v-Republic of Eritrea.
In 2015 the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights found that the Government of Eritrea was responsible for: “… [systemic], widespread and gross human rights violations.”. And, in 2016 the Commission stated that it had:” ….
grounds to believe that crimes against humanity, namely, enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, other inhuman acts, persecution, rape, murder, have been committed in Eritrea since 1991.”
The Commission added that: “…. without substantial legal and institutional reform, Eritrea is not in a position to provide accountability for these crimes and violations. It therefore recommends that the Security Council refers the situation in Eritrea to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for consideration……”.
Finally, in 2016, the Commission recommended that: “…. the African Union establish an accountability mechanism, under the aegis of the African Union and supported by the international community, to investigate, prosecute and try individuals reasonably believed to have committed crimes against humanity.” .
In October 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Eritrea congratulated the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments on the peace process, but also affirmed that, irrespective of the peace process, the human rights situation in Eritrea remains grim and crimes against humanity continue to be perpetuated. 
In the 2019 report the Special Rapporteur for Eritrea notes that the human rights violations resulting in crimes against humanity are continuing and highlights the fact that: “Some of those in prison were arrested young. One case is that of Ciham Ali Abdu, a national of both Eritrea and the United States of America, who was born in the United States and now has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over six year. She was 15 years old when she was arrested for trying to leave Eritrea without an exit visa in December 2012. Her father, the former information minister Ali Abdu Ahmed, fled the country in late 2012. Ciham, who is now 22 years old, remains in prison at an unknown location, without charge or trial.” In the report the Rapporteur also notes that the Government is continuing the practice of arresting men, women and children for practicing their faith.
In 2019, in accordance with the directions of the Human Right Council (Resolution 38/15), the Special Rapporteur for Eritrea developed 5-time bound benchmarks to measure the Eritrean Government’s progress in: “… [improving the situation of human rights…”. These benchmarks are:
- Benchmark 1: improvement in the promotion of the rule of law and strengthening of national justice and law enforcement institutions;
- Benchmark 2: a demonstrated commitment to introducing reforms to the national/military service;
- Benchmark 3: extended efforts to guarantee freedom or religion, association, expression and the press, and extended efforts to end religion and ethnic discrimination.
- Benchmark 4: a demonstrated commitment to addressing all forms of gender-based violence and to promoting the rights of women and gender equality;
- Benchmark 5: strengthen cooperation with specialised United Nations human rights bodies, international agencies and the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights.
To date, there is no indication that the Eritrean Government has taken any action or intends to take any action, to implement any of the reforms that ensure the human rights situation in Eritrea would improve. This year, the Government has closed 22 Catholic Health Facilities, this was followed with the closure of Faiths Based Schools and the continuing arrest of Eritreans, including children, and those practicing non prescribed faiths. These are all actions that are contrary to the rights and best interests of children.
Government Propaganda: Significantly, at this conference, H.E Luul Gebreab, the Minister of Labour and Human Welfare in her introductory remarks presented the Government’s official idealised version of the experiences of children in Eritrea. The Minister reported that: “The Government has also submitted its 4th report to the CRC and a comprehensive initial report to the ACERWC.”. She further proclaimed: “Eritrea’s profound commitment to Children’s Rights” and asserted that “no country can really achieve sustainable development without nurturing and developing the potential of its children.” Behind these admirable sentiments is the fact that the Eritrean government continues to ignore recommendations to improve its human rights situation. And, specifically continues to ignore the recommendations made by the ACERW in 2017.
Eritrea’s 1997 Constitution, that guarantees children rights such as “freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, belief and religion, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly”, has not been implemented and rights that it guaranteedare as unattainable for children as they are for adults, as the Reports of the UN Inquiry into Human Rights in Eritrea (2015; 2016) makes abundantly clear. Therefore, the reality experienced by children in Eritrea is very different from that which is described by the Government in many crucial areas.
Child Labour: According to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), Eritrea as a State party, is required to ensure that:” In all actions concerning the child undertaken by any person or authority, the best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration.”.
Africa’s Agenda for Children 2040 (Agenda 2040) requires the State to ensure that: “Every child is protected against violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse” (Agenda 2040 -Aspiration 7). The aspiration is that by 2040 Eritrean laws guarantee its citizens, including children and adolescents, full freedom and dignity and that policies such as National Service that result in forced labour and servitude of the population including children are reformed. And that slavery, servitude and forced labour are prohibited by law.
The reality in Eritrea is that children are exposed to multiple harms and human right violations a result of the Government’s policies. In 2015 the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea found that according to the Eritrean Government’s development policies: “ [school] children in 9th grade and above are mobilised under the Maetot programme established in 1994 by the Ministry of Education. They are obliged to work during their summer holidays in various development projects. Furthermore, most of the 12th grade students who are studying at the Warsai Yikaalo Secondary School in Sawa are obliged to work in agricultural fields during their last year of high school studies.”. 
The work carried out by the children: “…[is] not driven by poverty or aiming at providing support to the family members, ………………[children] are compelled to work under the threat of being denied their studies. The work carried out by children and projects undertaken under
the Maetot programme do not fall under the scope of minor community projects, which should only meet the needs of and benefit the local community.”
Since 2015, the labour situation of children in Eritrea has not improved. Each year the Bureau of International Labour Affairs reports that: “Eritrea has made no advancement in its efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour.” In 2018 the Bureau reported that:”…[government] officials were complicit in the use of forced child labour in agriculture and military training……[Eritrea] is receiving this assessment because it continues to force students in grade 12, some of whom are under the age of 18, to participate in military training elements of the government’s compulsory national service program, as well as forced agricultural labour.”
Militarisation of Education: Aspiration 9 of Africa’s Agenda for Children required the Eritrean Government to ensure that:
“Every child is free from the impact of armed conflict”. Despite the fact that according to Article 8 Proclamation No 82 of 1995 (The National Service Proclamation), National Service obligations apply to citizens from 18 years of age, the implementation of an education policy that requires students to complete grade 12 at the Sawa Military Training Centre and that many of the students are not 18 years old means that children are deliberately linked to the military contrary to their best interests as well as the requirement of Aspiration 9 of the Agenda 2040.
The Eritrean Government has adopted a policy of integration of National Service with Education and National Development, thus extending National Service beyond the statutory period of 18 months to indefinitely therefore, forcibly recruiting children, who are required to complete high school at the Sawa Military Training facility with the military.
The situation is eloquently described by Kibreab: “Present day Eritrea is among the most militarised countries in the world. Even the education system is militarised. After ENS [Eritrean National Service] became open ended and consequently militarisation affected all aspects of life in the country, the unpopularity of the ENS among citizens within and/or approaching the age of
conscription increased dramatically. This was reflected on the one hand, in the large number of people fleeing the country, and on the other, hiding within the country to avoid
conscription.” Kibreab also remarks that: “Currently, the main mechanism of conscription is through the Warsai School at Sawa in which all secondary school students at the end of
11th grade are automatically transferred to Sawa to complete 12th grade under military discipline in combination with military training.”
At the Sawa Training Military Camp, prior to starting their grade 12 academic studies, students are required to undertake three months of military training. This training is followed by six months of academic work (less than a normal academic year). The students undertake their studies under highly militarised and brutal conditions. So much so that many of the students are affected by a psychological disorder known as Conversion Disorder, a condition where students present with neurological symptoms such as numbness, paralysis or fits but where no neurological explanation can be found. A situation that is not unlike Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
According to a study that was done in Sawa and shared on twitter as part of the #EndHighSchoolInSawa campaign : “Conversion Disorder (ለውጥ) is a highly prevalent disorder among female recruits/students in Sawa Military Camp/High School”.
The study also found that: “… [students] who reported [Conversion Disorder] from Warsay Yikaalo Secondary School [SAWA Military Training School] have significant psychiatric comorbidity with anxiety, depression and trauma.” According to the study: “…. the main cause of [Conversion Disorder] is the failure to cope with the situation in Sawa.”
At the completion of the academic year, grade 12 students at the Sawa Military Training facility, are expected to sit for the matriculation exam. However, before they can graduate, students are required to undertake a further three months of military training after which, depending on the results that they achieved, they are deployed to either a National Service destination or one of the vocational training or higher education colleges.
Students who do not pass the matriculation exams are deployed to army units or various government departments or party owned companies to work in: construction; agriculture; national development projects; police, public offices, etc. They have no say on where they work, what they do and when to leave: their education is stunted. Those who pass can only hope to
continue studying in militarised colleges around the country. They are assigned their programmes of study and have no say in choosing which area of study they enter. The entire education system is geared to produce unquestioning labourers. Many programmes of studies are systematically
denied or not available, with virtually no opportunities for humanities or arts. All are subjected to indefinite National Service.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry into Eritrea’s Human Rights: “……. [Eritrea’s] current system of conscription results in the drafting of minors, including children below the age of 15.”
In the 2015 and subsequent reports, the Commission found that:  “The recruitment of children between the age of 15 and 18 years is common, given that it is not the age but the school grade is the decisive factor for enrolment in the 12th grade… “. This is a situation made worse by the fact that the Government has targeted schools for National Service round-ups without any concern as to the age of the conscripts: “In 2006, soldiers rounded up students for the 19th round [SAWA] directly from the classroom” And: “The roundups are also concluded at schools, with armed soldiers searching school buildings and indiscriminately rounding up students, often without checking the age.” 
During roundups, It is common for: “…[soldiers] to initially arrest any young persons who look tall and strong and in good physical condition for nationals service, without taking into account the fact that the children can prove they are going to school.”
Imprisonment of children and underage Adolescents: Sexual Abuse and Torture
According to Eritrea’s Report to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC): “Eritrean laws protect any citizen from abuse, torture, corporal punishment or forced labour and enslavement. This applies to all persons, including par excellence children, who are given special protection due to their particular vulnerable conditions.”
However, like the 1997 Constitution these laws remain unimplemented and unenforced and it is common practice for children and underage recruits to pass through military, security and police detention centres before being taken for military training. In these detention centres they are physically and mentally tortured. Young women (often under-age) become victims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse and exploitation both by the detention personnel and the military officers. It is noteworthy that children and underage young people are being held in detention together with adults. The same is true in the training camps. In particular, it is frequently reported that female minors are being raped and sexually exploited both in the detention centres and training camps.
The ACERWC in its 2017 Concluding Recommendations to the State of Eritrea notes that” …[repots] of sexual harassment and rape happen particularly in military training camps and educational institutions or during interrogations….”
Trafficking and Smuggling of Children: At the ACERWC conference held in Asmara on 31 October 2019. H. E. Luul Gebreab, the Minister of Labour and Human Welfare affirmed the
Eritrean Government’s commitment to: “…. prevent the victimization of children; to protect them from the scourges of human trafficking and smuggling, and to bring to justice the criminal networks involved in the reprehensible acts….” She adds: “In this vein, Eritrea is working in earnest to address these issues at the national level as well as within the AU Horn of Africa Initiative under the framework of the Khartoum Process and the UN System.”
Since 2011, UN reports have implicated Eritrean Government officials in the practice of human trafficking. The UN Commission of Inquiry as to Human Rights in Eritrea reports that: “An Eritrean source, who claims to have long been engaged in people smuggling activities on behalf of General Teklai Kifle “Manjus’…….” And: “The well documented exodus of young Eritreans to escape poverty of obligatory ‘national service’ represents yet another opportunity for corruption and illicit revenue. People smuggling is so pervasive that it could not be possible without the complicity of Government and party officials, especially military officers working in the western border zone, which is headed by General Teklai Kifle ‘Manjus’…”. Suffice it to say that from the time the reports first appeared in 2011 to date no Government official, including General Manjus has been held to account for their involvement in human trafficking.
Despite the Eritrean Government’s engagement with the Khartoum Process, according to the US State Department 2018 Trafficking in Person Report: “The Government of Eritrea does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.” The State Department further states that: “The government did not report any trafficking investigations, prosecutions, or the identification and protection of any victims.” Also, the Government of Eritrea had not reported: “…
any complicit officials accountable for trafficking crimes despite many credible reports of such complicity.”
Therefore, it must be concluded that Eritrean children on the move remain at great risk of being trafficked from the State as much as from other smugglers and traffickers.
Refugee and Escaping Children: According to Eritrea’s own Report to the African Committee of Experts: “Major rights are guaranteed by the laws of the land to refugees and asylum-seeking children ….” And, “The Government of the State of Eritrea has invested a relatively
big budget in the repatriation and reintegration of (returnee) children suffering from the effects of armed conflict.”
However, children continue to be forcibly conscripted into the National Service and many continue to escape from Eritrea to neighbouring countries. In the 2019 report on Eritrea the UN Special Rapporteur reports that: “Between September and
December 2018, an estimated 45,000 Eritreans refugees crossed into Ethiopia……The vast majority of refugees during that period were women and children…”
Many of those attempting to escape fall into the hands of the Eritrean security forces and border guards. These children and underage young people are then imprisoned, tortured, harassed, sexually abused and exploited, before being taken to the camps for military training.
Such treatment is also experienced by children who are being repatriated from refugee camps in Ethiopia via the International Red Cross. There are many cases where children have been imprisoned and taken to military training camps after being repatriated to be re-united with their families. Those underage young people who are being deported and handed over to the Eritrean authorities by the Sudanese security forces also share the same treatment.
The UN Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in Eritrea found that: “The majority of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries cite the indefinite national service among the main factors pushing them to leave Eritrea. In particular young people, including increasing numbers of minors, leave the country before being conscripted for military training.”
Conclusion: Eritrea is one of the most serious violators of children’s rights, and has demonstrated its unwillingness to reform and abandon the policies of National Service, National Development and Education that are responsible for the violation of children’s rights. Therefore, it is an inappropriate location for a conference on “Children on the Move” and the “Agenda 2040”.
Such a conference validates the Eritrean Government and undermines the efforts of Eritrean and International Human Rights organisations to hold the Government to account. Irrespective of the UPR, the ACERWC and ACHPR processes and the many UN and international reports, the Eritrean Government is persisting with the implementation of policies that result in human rights violations.
We request that in the future, ACERWC refrain from taking actions that validate the Eritrean Government’s behaviour. We also request that the Committee continue its efforts to hold the Eritrean Government accountable for the full implementation of: (i) Agenda 2040; as well as (ii) the Committee’s 2017 recommendations made after reviewing the Government’s report.
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)
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