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  • Human Rights Research Center

Oppressed and Forgotten: The Plight of the Eritrean People

July 19, 2023


Large numbers of the Eritrean diaspora turned out in Geneva in June 2016, both for and against a UN report on rights abuses. [Image credit: Keystone via SwissInfo]

Neatly tucked away in the Horn of Africa, away from the spotlight of international media, lies the country of Eritrea. Eritrea has a rich and illustrious history, from the discovery of the world’s earliest human remains, to being the oldest home to seaport cities, such as Massawa (also called the “Pearl of the Red Sea” due to its Ottoman, Egyptian and Italian architecture). However, modern-day Eritrea has little for which to be celebrated. With a population of approximately four million citizens, Eritrea’s people are subjected to a daily struggle under an oppressive, totalitarian regime which ruthlessly lords over the country and has remained unchecked for more than three decades.


Following years of European rule that lasted from the 1880s to the 1950s, Eritrea was annexed by its neighbor Ethiopia in 1961. The annexation resulted in Eritrea losing its sovereignty and effectively becoming an Ethiopian province, thus starting a near 30-year-long civil war that ended in 1991 with Isaias Afwerki taking power. The Black Past records show that Isaias Afwerki, the current President of Eritrea, came to public attention after joining the war for independence in 1966. Afwerki served as a military leader of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) until the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPFL) was formed in 1973, at which point he became the Chairman of the Party’s Military Committee. In 1987, Afwerki was appointed as the General Secretary of the EPFL. Two years later, he was promoted to Secretary General of the Provisional Government of Eritrea. His ascent to this position effectively made him the leader of the country, and he successfully secured a solid footing in leading the country beyond the war.


In May 1991, EPLF fighters marched into Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and the 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia had ended. The Eritreans held a referendum with over 98% of the voters in favor of Eritrean independence. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea officially became an independent nation, and has since been ruled under the iron fist of EPLF leader Afwerki.


“The Erosion of the Rule of Law in Eritrea: Silencing Freedom of Expression” [Credit: Photo of book cover]

Even though Afwerki was never formally elected to lead the country, he has ruled as the President since 1993 with no legislature, no independent civil society organizations, no constitution, and no independent judiciary. He is the single source of power in Eritrea; his rule is arbitrary and unchecked. The country has never held a national legislative election or presidential election and it does not have a recognized opposition party, thus widely considered a one-party state. According to Amnesty International, President Afwerki has used his absolute power to detain, torture and allegedly murder perceived critics of the government, including clergymen, former political allies, journalists, and innocent citizens. Additionally, Human Rights Watch reports that Eritreans are forced to conscript in the army, and how the army has been used for genocide in “ethnic cleansing” missions.


Freedom of speech and journalism are essentially nonexistent in Eritrea. According to Reporters Without Borders, Eritrea’s journalism and media situation rank as the worst in Africa and among the worst in the world. An article on Eritrea by Reporters Without Borders also points out that independent media is banned, foreign media is prohibited, and only state-controlled media outlets operate in the country. Despite being a member of the United Nations, African Union, and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the country does not adhere to international media laws mandated by these organizations. Instead, the controversial Press Proclamation No 90/1996 is used to enforce restrictive media laws in the country and offers a veil of legality to the repressive actions of the government against the media and free speech.


Socially and economically, the regime has done very little to improve the lives of its people. In an article titled, “Eritrea's diaspora tax is funding violence and oppression,” author Amol Stefanos—an Eritrean immigrant, researcher, and consultant—paints a picture of a people in anguish, suffering within a depleted infrastructure and a failed state. Not only does the government do nothing for the betterment of its people, it also heavily imposes taxes on the little that the people earn. The tax laws also apply to Eritreans abroad who are required to pay 2% tax on their income to the government. Eritrean embassies and consulates are given free rein to impose this “diaspora tax”, and those who fail to abide by the tax laws may be denied consular services or be banned from visiting friends and family in Eritrea.


According to the latest United Nations OHCRC- Eritrea report, there is very little hope of any improvement for the situation in the impoverished African State. Further, leaving the country in pursuit of better opportunities is extremely difficult, as the government put in place local checkpoints to monitor and control movement of citizens within the country, as well as requiring a government-issued visa. Unsurprisingly, these visas are hard to obtain and are used as a tool to keep the citizens trapped within the country.


With countless human rights violations being carried out, Eritrea’s government has seemingly pulled away from participating in the international community, giving way to much debate about whether Eritrea’s isolation has been self-imposed or intentionally pushed by other countries. Yet, one scholar on Eritrea, Manickam Venkataraman, gives a plausible explanation which draws attention to the link between Eritrea’s foreign policy and the violation of human rights in the country.


Between May 1998 and June 2000, Eritrea was engaged in war with Ethiopia over a village called Badme, located on the Western border of the countries. For Eritrea, the war meant asserting its territorial sovereignty and identity which was threatened by Ethiopia at the time. This ferocious war was ended by the signing of the Algiers Peace Agreement in December 2000. However, the signing of the peace agreement did not achieve the desired outcome, which was to bring peace in the two countries. Rather, as noted by the Black Past, it made Eritrea one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes in the world with the largest number of reported human rights abuses. The militarism and repression of human rights in Eritrea is believed to be a way of securing the country’s national interests.


Eritrea still perceives Ethiopia as a threat. This fear is coupled with the fact that in the aftermath of the war much criticism was leveled against President Afwerki’s rule for not implementing the constitution and for failing to conduct national elections. The loudest criticism came from the Eritrean people, both at home and abroad; all criticism against the government was enthusiastically voiced through independent news sources. This increasingly made the government unpopular. In response, the government began suppressing all critics “in the name of national security”, thus justifying the continued human rights violations in the country. To avoid pressure from the international community to implement reforms, it appears Eritrea has isolated itself.


Trapped, oppressed, and impoverished by their leaders, and seemingly forgotten by the world, such is the plight of the people of Eritrea. The isolationist foreign policy of Eritrea has made the world forget about the atrocities being committed, and with little hope for change coming soon, the suffering continues.

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