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  • Writer's pictureGlobal Human Rights Taskforce

Silencing Voices: The Suppression of Human Rights in Eritrea

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

By: Global Human Rights Taskforce President & Special Rapporteur Joseph Bonner

Before becoming a member of the United Nations, Eritrea had a complex and tumultuous recent history. To fully understand its journey, it is essential to trace back to its colonial period. Eritrea was an Italian colony from the late 19th century until World War II when British forces occupied the region. The United Nations played a significant role in shaping Eritrea's fate in the years that followed. In 1952, the UN proposed a federal arrangement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which would grant Eritrea autonomy while remaining linked to Ethiopia. In 1955, a UN-sponsored Eritrean parliament voted to join Ethiopia, primarily driven by political factions promoting Ethiopian unity. However, this decision was met with resistance from Eritrean liberation movements, most notably the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). These movements commenced armed struggles against Ethiopian rule in the early 1960s. A brutal 30-year-long armed conflict ensued, leading to thousands of casualties and massive displacement. The conflict came to an end in 1991 when the EPLF, under the leadership of Isaias Afwerki, overthrew the Ethiopian government. Eritrea declared independence in 1993 through a UN-supervised referendum where the Eritrean population overwhelmingly voted for independence. However, despite gaining independence, tension remained between Eritrea and Ethiopia, primarily involving border disputes. In 1998, a full-blown war broke out between the two countries over their disputed border town, Badme. The conflict lasted until 2000 and led to tens of thousands of casualties on both sides. After a peace agreement was signed in Algiers in 2000, the UN established the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to monitor and help maintain the ceasefire. However, tensions continued to simmer, and Ethiopia refused to implement an international border commission's ruling, which awarded the disputed town of Badme to Eritrea. In 2002, the Eritrean government made a series of controversial decisions, including the expulsion of international aid agencies and the crackdown on political dissidents. Eritrea's human rights record faced severe criticism from international organizations. The tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia eased when, in 2018, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed initiated a flurry of reforms and declared a willingness to resolve the territorial dispute. As a result, both countries signed a peace agreement, ending the state of war, restoring diplomatic relations, and reopening border crossings. In 2018, Eritrea and Ethiopia's newfound peace also led to Eritrea renewing its ties with the international community, marking the country's gradual reintegration into the global community. This included becoming a member of the United Nations in 1993. However, despite the peace agreement, Eritrea continued to face criticism for its human rights record, including allegations of forced labor, arbitrary detentions, and limited freedom of expression.

A Reign of Fear: Exploring Eritrea's Persistent Human Rights Violations Under President Isaias Afwerki

More human rights violations in Eritrea began in 1993, shortly after the country gained independence from Ethiopia. Under the leadership of President Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean government has been accused of numerous human rights abuses, leading to an oppressive and authoritarian regime. 1. The lack of democracy and political repression in Eritrea has plagued the country since its independence in 1993. Despite promises of a referendum on the constitution, no national elections have been held, leaving the Eritrean people without a voice in choosing their leaders. Under the rule of President Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power for over 30 years, Eritrea operates under a one-party system, with the ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), effectively controlling all aspects of governance. This lack of political pluralism severely stifles any alternative voices or viewpoints. Opposition parties are banned and their members regularly face intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment. Independent media outlets are non-existent, as the government tightly controls all forms of press and actively suppresses any dissenting narratives. Journalists who dare to report on sensitive issues or criticize the government are often subjected to arbitrary arrests, torture, and even forced disappearances. Civil society organizations also face severe restrictions and persecution. NGOs are highly regulated, and their activities are tightly controlled by the government. Human rights activists, lawyers, and other advocates who attempt to raise awareness or address issues such as arbitrary detention, freedom of expression, and religious freedom face constant threats and reprisals. The brutal suppression of perceived dissent is a defining characteristic of the Eritrean government's approach. Arbitrary arrests and detention without trial, torture, and extrajudicial killings are widely reported. Eritrea has been criticized by numerous international human rights organizations for its alarming human rights record, including the United Nations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. This lack of democracy and political repression in Eritrea has led to a climate of fear and self-censorship among the population. Many Eritreans choose to flee the country, with estimates suggesting that hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighboring countries or embarked on dangerous journeys to Europe in search of better opportunities and freedom. Those who remain face a life of constant surveillance, limited freedoms, and political uncertainty under a regime that prioritizes control and suppression over democratic principles.

2. Forced conscription and indefinite national service are controversial policies that have been implemented by Eritrea since 1995. Initially introduced as an 18-month military service requirement, this system has devolved into a state of perpetual servitude for countless conscripts. The consequences of this policy have been severe, leading to widespread human rights violations and forcing many Eritreans to seek refuge in other countries. The Eritrean national service has been widely criticized for its similarities to modern-day slavery. Conscripts are subjected to harsh conditions that often involve physical abuse, torture, and sexual violence. What was originally designed as a short-term commitment has transformed into an interminable obligation, keeping individuals in a constant state of subjugation without any prospect of release. This indefinite national service not only infringes on the basic rights and freedoms of Eritreans but also undermines their overall well-being. The lack of personal autonomy and the oppressive environment created by the system strip individuals of their dignity and limit their opportunities for personal growth and development. The dire situation faced by those subjected to this forced conscription has resulted in a significant exodus of Eritrean citizens. Many brave the treacherous journey to flee the country in search of safety and freedom. Whether through perilous sea crossings, human trafficking networks, or other hazardous means, Eritreans risk their lives to escape the oppressive national service and build a better future elsewhere. The international community has widely condemned Eritrea's policy of indefinite national service and the associated human rights violations. Numerous reports from human rights organizations and testimonies from exiled Eritreans have shed light on the appalling conditions faced by those conscripted. Governments, regional bodies, and humanitarian organizations have taken action to support refugees and condemn Eritrea for its actions. Forced conscription and indefinite national service in Eritrea have resulted in severe human rights abuses. The system, initially intended to serve as a temporary requirement, has spiraled into a form of modern-day slavery. Eritreans endure unimaginable hardships, prompting many to flee their homeland in search of safety and freedom. The global community must continue to condemn these practices and advocate for change to protect the rights and dignity of Eritreans.

3. The issue of arbitrary arrests and detention in Eritrea is a grave concern that highlights the extent of human rights abuses in the country. The Eritrean government repeatedly violates international standards and disregards basic principles of justice and fairness. One of the primary reasons behind these arbitrary arrests is political and religious affiliations. The government targets individuals who are perceived as opposing their policies or challenging their authority. Dissidents, journalists, human rights activists, and members of opposition parties often find themselves behind bars for simply expressing their opinions. Furthermore, the government shows zero tolerance for any form of criticism, whether it be towards their policies, leadership, or actions. Anyone who dares to voice dissent against the regime is at risk of being arrested without any legal justification. This hostile environment effectively stifles freedom of speech and discourages citizens from speaking out. Attempting to flee the country is also considered a punishable offense. Individuals who seek to escape the dire economic and political situation in Eritrea, often referred to as "the North Korea of Africa," are met with harsh consequences. The government views this act as treason, and those who are caught are subjected to arrest and detention upon their return. This cruel measure essentially restricts the freedom of movement of its own citizens. The detainees, in many cases, are held incommunicado in undisclosed locations, commonly referred to as secret prisons. These prison facilities are notorious for their inhumane conditions and lack of basic necessities. Detainees are frequently denied access to medical care, proper sanitation, and adequate food. Reports of overcrowding, physical and psychological torture, and sexual abuse are rampant, highlighting the deeply disturbing nature of these secret prisons. Moreover, extrajudicial killings are not uncommon in these hidden detention centers. The Eritrean government brazenly defies the rule of law by engaging in unlawful executions without any semblance of a fair trial. These killings are often carried out under the guise of "eliminating threats" or "maintaining national security," further exemplifying the government's complete disregard for the value of human life and the basic principles of justice. It is crucial that the international community remains vigilant and exerts pressure on the Eritrean government to put an end to these systematic human rights abuses. The arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, torture, and extrajudicial killings must be condemned and addressed to ensure that the people of Eritrea can live with dignity, freedom, and respect for their fundamental rights. 4. The suppression of freedom of expression and media in Eritrea is a pervasive and deeply entrenched issue that has garnered international attention. The Eritrean government has established a highly repressive media environment, ensuring that its citizens are only exposed to state-sanctioned information and narratives. One of the most striking manifestations of this suppressive environment is the forced closure and control of independent media outlets. The government has systematically shut down various independent newspapers, radio stations, and online platforms, effectively silencing any dissenting voices and limiting the dissemination of alternative viewpoints. This aggressive crackdown on independent media has left Eritreans with very limited access to diverse sources of information. Furthermore, the government has targeted journalists, bloggers, and activists who dare to express critical opinions or report on government abuses. These individuals are subjected to arbitrary arrests, prolonged detentions without trial, and often face severe physical and psychological abuse while in custody. The fear of such repercussions has led many journalists and activists to self-censor or flee the country in fear for their lives. As a consequence of this extensive repression, Eritrea consistently ranks as one of the lowest countries in terms of press freedom. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House have repeatedly labeled Eritrea as having one of the most restrictive media environments globally. These rankings reflect the dire reality of stifled freedom of expression and limited access to independent and reliable information within the country. The suppression of freedom of expression and media in Eritrea has far-reaching implications for the country and its citizens. It hinders the democratic process, restricts public discourse, and perpetuates a culture of fear and silence. Without an independent media, the government is able to control the narrative and maintain its grip on power without any meaningful scrutiny or accountability. The international community has expressed concern over Eritrea's repressive media environment and has called for the government to respect and uphold freedom of expression. However, little progress has been made, and the situation remains dire for journalists, activists, and everyday citizens trying to exercise their right to freedom of speech.

5. The government maintains strict control over religious institutions and targets perceived religious groups that it believes may challenge its authority. Specifically, unregistered Christian denominations such as Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses have been subject to severe persecution, with members being subjected to arbitrary arrests, torture, and prolonged detention. Under the Eritrean government's policies, religious groups are required to register with the government in order to practice their faith legally. However, the process for obtaining registration is notoriously difficult, rendering many religious minority groups unable to meet the stringent requirements imposed by the government. As a result, these groups are forced to practice their faith underground, often facing harsh consequences for doing so. Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses, in particular, have borne the brunt of the government's crackdown on religious freedom. Their beliefs and practices are viewed as deviating from the traditional norms upheld by the government, which further exacerbates their vulnerability to persecution. Members of these denominations are frequently targeted by state security forces, who conduct arbitrary arrests without due process and without any legal basis. Once detained, individuals often face torture and ill-treatment, including physical and psychological abuse. Reports of detainees being held in inhumane conditions and subjected to cruel forms of punishment are distressingly common. Moreover, the length of detention is often prolonged, as individuals are held indefinitely without being informed of any charges against them or given access to a fair trial. The government's actions not only violate the fundamental right to freedom of religion and belief but also infringe upon several international human rights conventions and treaties. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as do the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, of which Eritrea is a signatory. The violation of religious freedom in Eritrea not only harms individuals' rights but also stifles diversity, dialogue, and the vibrant expression of faith. It creates an atmosphere of fear and repression, forcing individuals to practice their religion clandestinely, hiding their beliefs from the authorities and their communities. Addressing this issue requires international attention and pressure on the Eritrean government to respect and protect religious freedom. Advocacy groups, human rights organizations, and diplomatic entities must work together to raise awareness about the plight of religious minorities in Eritrea and exert pressure on the government to end its abuses. Only through sustained efforts can significant progress be made towards upholding and safeguarding religious freedom for all in Eritrea.

6. The Eritrean government imposes strict restrictions on the freedom of movement of its citizens within the country. Eritreans are required to obtain permits from the government for domestic travel, which severely limits their ability to move freely. This system of permits is often arbitrary and subject to the whims of local authorities, leading to widespread corruption and abuse of power. Furthermore, the Eritrean government has implemented a shoot-to-kill policy for individuals attempting to cross the heavily militarized border. This policy, aimed at preventing unauthorized migration and defections, has resulted in numerous deaths and a significant refugee crisis. This harsh approach to border controls not only violates the basic human rights of individuals seeking to leave the country but also contributes to a sense of fear and oppression within the Eritrean population. The shoot-to-kill policy and restrictions on freedom of movement have had dire consequences for Eritreans. Many individuals risk their lives attempting to flee the country, either through dangerous desert routes or by crossing the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea. These desperate journeys, often undertaken with smugglers or in overcrowded boats, put migrants at great risk of injury, exploitation, or death. The refugee crisis caused by the restrictive policies has led to a significant number of Eritreans seeking asylum in neighboring countries or undertaking long and perilous journeys to Europe in search of safety and opportunity. The severe restrictions on freedom of movement and the shoot-to-kill policy in Eritrea are not only a violation of basic human rights, but they also contribute to a climate of fear and repression. The lack of opportunities, coupled with the fear of persecution and the limited ability to move within the country, severely restricts the prospects for Eritreans to live a life of freedom and dignity. It is essential for the international community to address these issues and work towards promoting and protecting the rights of Eritrean citizens.

7. As a result of the Eritrean government's oppressive policies, the lack of economic and social rights has become a significant issue plaguing the country. The government's diversion of resources towards the military has not only hindered the development of essential infrastructure but has also led to the neglect of crucial sectors that directly impact the well-being of the population. One of the most alarming consequences of this diversion is the deteriorating economic situation faced by many Eritreans. Extreme poverty has become a widespread issue, with a significant portion of the population struggling to meet their basic needs. The lack of job opportunities and a weak economy, largely controlled by the government, have limited the chances for individuals to improve their financial conditions. Furthermore, access to essential services such as healthcare, education, and basic amenities remains severely restricted. The healthcare system in Eritrea is under-resourced and overburdened, making it challenging for individuals to receive adequate medical assistance, especially in remote areas. The limited funding allocated for education has resulted in a deficient educational system, depriving students of quality instruction and hindering their future prospects. The government's stranglehold on key industries, such as mining and manufacturing, exacerbates the lack of economic opportunities for the wider population. By monopolizing these sectors, the government maintains a tight grip on the country's resources and income, further widening the wealth gap and perpetuating socioeconomic inequality. This exploitation leaves limited room for private enterprise and stifles innovative initiatives that could stimulate the economy and create employment opportunities. Additionally, the lack of economic and social rights has led to a discouraging environment for foreign investment and economic growth. The government's oppressive regime negatively impacts investor confidence, deterring both domestic and international businesses from establishing operations in Eritrea. This lack of economic diversification and reliance on limited industries hinders the overall development of the country and perpetuates its economic decline. Ultimately, the lack of economic and social rights, resulting from the Eritrean government's oppressive policies and resource diversion towards the military, has created a bleak reality for many Eritreans. Tackling these issues requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both the need for improved governance and the allocation of resources towards sectors that directly benefit the population. These human rights violations in Eritrea have led to a widespread culture of fear, repression, and mass exodus as thousands of Eritreans flee the country every year, risking their lives to seek asylum abroad. International human rights organizations and observers continue to condemn and monitor the situation, calling for the Eritrean government to be held accountable for its actions.

The Consequences of Eritrean Human Rights Violations on Israel: Impacts on Security, Social Relations, and Politics

The Eritrean embassy in Israel, with the Israeli government's approval, recently organized an event to commemorate Eritrea's 30 years of independence. However, critics of the Afwerki government viewed this as a bold celebration of a dictator's regime, leading them to gather in large numbers outside the venue. Israel is home to around 25,000 African migrants, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea, who claim to have fled conflict or repression in their home countries. Moreover, the actions of Israel in disregarding the United Nations plan and implementing tactics to push African asylum seekers out reflect a concerning endorsement of human rights violations in Eritrea. By refusing to grant citizenship to 16,000 African asylum seekers as suggested by the United Nations, Israel has demonstrated a lack of commitment to upholding human rights. These individuals, who have fled their home countries due to persecution, violence, and economic hardships, now find themselves trapped in a state of uncertainty and vulnerability. Israel's decision to ignore the UN plan not only exacerbates the plight of these asylum seekers but also sends a message of indifference towards their human rights. Additionally, Israel's tactic of relocating African individuals to remote prisons is deeply concerning. Placing them in such isolated and inaccessible locations not only denies them basic societal integration but also denies them the opportunity to seek legal assistance and support. This isolation further perpetuates a system of dehumanization and oppression, disregarding their rights as individuals seeking refuge. Withholding parts of the wages of African asylum seekers until they agree to leave the country is a coercive and exploitative practice. This tactic puts pressure on individuals who are already vulnerable, forcing them to make difficult decisions under duress. By resorting to such methods, Israel is engaging in unethical practices that violate the principles of fairness and justice. Furthermore, the offer of cash incentives to relocate African asylum seekers elsewhere in Africa raises concerns about the motives behind Israel's actions. Rather than addressing the root causes of migration and providing meaningful support to those in need, this approach seems to be aimed at simply shifting the responsibility onto other countries. This undermines the value of human life and fails to address the systemic issues that drive individuals to leave their homes. Israel's disregard for the United Nations plan and the implementation of tactics to push African asylum seekers out not only perpetuates human rights violations but also showcases a troubling lack of compassion and respect for the dignities and rights of these individuals. It should be noted that under international law, Israel cannot forcibly repatriate individuals to a country where their life or freedom may be in danger.

Addressing Human Rights Violations in Eritrea: Recommendations for Legal Action

Upholding International Agreements: Legalities and Obligations of Eritrea's Government

Here are some legal human rights recommendations for addressing human rights violations in Eritrea, based on international human rights laws and UN articles that Eritrea has signed or ratified: 1. Freedom of expression: - Eritrea should guarantee freedom of expression and allow for a diverse and independent media landscape. - Compliance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Source: United Nations General Assembly. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Resolution 217 A(III). 2. Freedom of assembly and association: - Eritrea should ensure that individuals have the right to peacefully assemble and associate, without fear of harassment or persecution. - Compliance with Articles 20 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Source: United Nations General Assembly. (1966). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Resolution 2200A (XXI). 3. Abolishment of forced labor and slavery: - Eritrea should take concrete steps to eradicate forced labor, including the conscription of citizens into indefinite national service. - Compliance with Article 4 of the UDHR and Article 8 of the ICCPR. Source (UDHR): United Nations General Assembly. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Resolution 217 A(III). Source (ICCPR): United Nations General Assembly. (1966). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Resolution 2200A (XXI). 4. Women's rights: - Eritrea should promote gender equality and eliminate discrimination against women, including addressing widespread reports of sexual harassment and violence. - Compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Source: United Nations General Assembly. (1979). Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Resolution 34/180. 5. Prisoner rights: - Eritrea should ensure fair and humane treatment of prisoners, respecting their rights to due process, access to legal representation, and protection against torture and ill-treatment. - Compliance with various international instruments, including the UDHR, ICCPR, and United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT). Sources (UDHR and ICCPR): United Nations General Assembly. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Resolution 217 A(III); (1966). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Resolution 2200A (XXI). Source (UNCAT): United Nations General Assembly. (1984). United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Resolution 39/46.

Urgent Global Measures: Holding Eritrea Accountable for Human Rights Violations

1. Investigation and Fact-Finding Mission: The UN needs to establish an independent investigation team or fact-finding mission to assess the human rights situation in Eritrea. This should involve collecting evidence, documenting violations, and compiling a comprehensive report on the extent of human rights abuses. 2. Sanctions: The UN Security Council should impose targeted sanctions on individuals or entities responsible for human rights violations in Eritrea. This should include travel bans, asset freezes, and an arms embargo to limit the ability of the government to carry out abusive actions. 3. Dialogue and Engaging Regional Partners: Engaging with regional partners, such as the African Union (AU), should play a crucial role in addressing human rights abuses in Eritrea. The UN needs to encourage dialogues and consultations with the government of Eritrea, urging them to improve their human rights record and cooperate in resolving the issues. 4. Renewal of Mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea: The UN Human Rights Council must renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea. This rapporteur monitors and reports on the country's human rights situation, raising awareness and keeping the situation on the international agenda. 5. Referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC): If there is evidence of gross human rights violations and international crimes, the UN Security Council is required to refer the situation in Eritrea to the ICC. This would allow for prosecution of individuals responsible for crimes such as torture, extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearances.


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