July 28, 2015

The Scariest Country in Africa?

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 mandate, unafraid to challenge and castigate even great powers when 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.

EritreaThe evidence of serious abuses is overwhelming, not only from the Commission's report but also from multiple other sources. Virtually every 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 country's 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 the one-party regime faces as many as seven separate  opposition groups in exile.

Eritrean fightersThe 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 Europe 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 the 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, formerIsaias Aferwerki 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 Crimea 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 be terrorizing 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 liberation movement that has slipped into the clutches of totalitarianism, Eritrea appears a sure contender for the title of most repressive nation in Africa.