The recently released United Nations Human Rights Council report
on Eritrea paints a damning picture of
"widespread and gross human rights abuse", including routine use of
torture, extra-judicial executons and arbitrary arrest and detention.
A UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, was appointed in
November 2012 and described the situation there as "desperately bleak".
Following her assessment the UN Human Rights Council set up a
Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, which has now
delivered its report.
The Human Rights Council is not a body whose views can be easily
dismissed. It has shown itself to be independent and committed to its
to challenge and castigate even great powerswhen
they fall short of its norms. It cannot be credibly tarred with the
brush of imperialism or bowing to a Western agenda. The organization
recruited the panel of independent investigators to assess
the situation in Eritrea after mounting evidence of a serious human
rights situation there. The Eritrean government has rejected the
conclusions of the Commission. The panel was refused
admission into the country by the Eritrean government, but gathered
much of its evidence from the testimony of Eritreans living in exile,
many of whom expressed fear of reprisals by the Eritrean government.
The evidence of serious abuses is overwhelming,
not only from the Commission's report but also from multiple other
where one looks the picture is nightmarish - extra-judicial executions,
torture, forced labor, arbitrary arrest, absence of a functional
judiciary, religious persecution, pervasive spying and surveillance,
severe restricions on freedom of movement - the list from the
Commission of Inquiry goes on and on. The country is a one-party
state, an anachronism in today's political climate and a throwback to
the dark days of Africa before the political emancipation of the 1980s
and 90s. There have been no national elections since the country gained
its independence in 1993, and President Isaias Aferwerki came to power.
It maintains a massive army by forced, prolonged conscription in order
to fight its foes, principally Ethipia but also neighbours Djibouti,
Sudan and Yemen. In the past it has been accused of initiating armed
conflict with all these countries. UN Security Council resolution 1907
of 2009 imposed an arms embargo and travel restrictions on Eritrea,
still in force, for its militaristic stance in the region. The
resolution was approved by 13 Security Council members, with one
abstention (China) and one against (Libya), and with the full support
of the African Union.
Security Council resolutions 2002 and 2023 (13 in
favour, 2 abstentions) in 2011 reinforced the sanctions regime. Eritrea
was shown to be supporting armed opposition groups in neighbouring
countries. Amongst many other intrigues, the current Eritrean regime is
accused of harboring as many as twenty thousand fighters from the
Ethiopian Tigray People's Democratic Movement, TPDM, for use against
its enemy in Addis Ababa and also for its own domestic protection. For
long a highly militarized society, in 1991 the Eritrean
Peoples Liberation Front, EPLF, at the time fighting for Eritrean
independence from Ethiopia, succeeded in combination with Ethiopian
opposition groups in overthrowing the government of its much larger
neighbour and principal foe, Ethiopia.
The Commission of Inquiry found many credible reports of torture in the
numerous detention centers scattered about the country.
There are no independent media outlets within the country (Reporters
without Borders ranks it dead last in the world in media freedom), and
one-party regime faces as many as seven
opposition groups in exile.
The country's huge military forces
are maintained by prolonged
conscription af the adult population and forced labour with "ludicrous"
pay, a situation the Commission likens to slavery. Many flee to avoid
being drafted into the military. Of the migrants fleeing Africa for
across the Mediterranean by way of North Africa, Eritreans make up the
largest single national group. Estimates put the number at 3 - 4,000
per month. Astonishing for
a small country (6 million) relatively far from the final destination.
UNHCR, responsible for refugees worldwide, reports
a large, and increasing, arrival of Eritrean refugees, not only
crossing the Mediterranean to Europe from North Africa (with a high
fatal accident rate), but also in Eritrea's neighbours Ethiopia and
Sudan. According to its November, 2014, release, 37,000 Eritreans had
sought refuge in Europe in the year up to that point. (Supporters of
Eritrean government argue, with some credibility, that the European
policy of favoring asylum requests from Eritrea over other African
countries - in some European countries approval is almost guaranteed
encourages migration from Eritrea and encourages other African asylum
seekers to claim Eritrean citizenship.)
At the center of this potentially expolosive cauldron is 69-year-old
Isaias Aferwerki, former
guerrilla revolutionary indoctrinated in the China of Mao, and
President since 1993. The EPLF
resistance movement he led to victory against the Ethiopians has
become the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, the
ruling, single party.
Who can exert an influence? The regime has remained impervious to
Security Council displeasure. Who are Eritrea's friends? It doesn't
appear to have many. It has
attempted to use big power rivalry to its advantage, but the response
seems to have been lukewarm. In 2014 to the great displeasure of
Ukraine an Eritrean delegation visited the
after Moscow absorbed the region amid tensions with the West. Eritrea
has also sought to use its
strategic locaton, in the horn of Africa, across the Red Sea from Saudi
Arabia and its vital oil reserves, as a bargaining chip to win favour
from big powers. Russia and China, however, abstained from or
supported the UN Security Council votes against Eritrea.
The government of Eritrea, a small country of 6 million, appears to
not only its own population, but its much larger neighbours in the
region, by means of prolonged
conscription of a large proportion of its population. Presenting on
external, disinterested examination as the classic case of a successful
movement that has slipped into the clutches of totalitarianism, Eritrea
appears a sure contender for the title of most repressive nation in