Human rights crisis in Eritrea as war looms
War between Eritrea and Ethiopia lasted for nearly 30 years, finally ending in 2000. By that time, between 385,000 and 600,000 people had been killed. Now, the two countries stand on the brink of war once again, an eventuality that will exacerbate the already dire human rights situation in Eritrea, as well as contribute to the growing humanitarian crisis in the region.
In 1991, when Eritrea gained independence, they retained control of the coastline, leaving Ethiopia without direct access to the sea. Currently, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is asserting his nation's demand for control over one of the Red Sea ports, currently under Eritrea's jurisdiction. President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea has firmly stated that his country has no intention of relinquishing control of any port. As no reasonable compromise appears imminent, the prospect of war looms on the horizon.
The people in the region are already facing hardships, and the escalation of war would only exacerbate their suffering. To the west of Ethiopia's border, South Sudan is experiencing one of the most severe humanitarian crises in history. Internally, Ethiopia is grappling with conflict as two regions, Oromia and Amhara, hover on the brink of rebellion. Additionally, a potential war could provide the Eritrean government with the opportunity to tighten its grip on civil liberties, expanding the size and control of the military. Such developments would inevitably lead to a further deterioration of human rights.
Eritrea has a population of 3.6 million, with a per capita GDP of about US$700 per year. The US Department of State characterizes Eritrea as a "highly centralized, totalitarian regime under the control of President Isaias Afwerki." The country grapples with long-standing problems, including a dictatorial single-party system, ineffective governance, a lack of commitment to structural reforms, poor management of public finances, limited progress in private sector development, and underdeveloped legal and regulatory systems. These factors contribute to a fragile rule of law and ineffective enforcement of property rights in Eritrea. As a result, the country's economic freedom is ranked 45th out of 46 countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa region by Freedom House.
A significant portion of the country’s economy is dominated by the government. Centralized control leads to stringent government controls over the private sector and hindering overall development. Non-tariff barriers make effective tariff rates much higher, raising the price of imports. This elevated cost has dual adverse effects on the economy. Firstly, it discourages entrepreneurs from starting businesses reliant on imported inputs or components. Secondly, it results in higher prices for essential products, including food, affecting consumers negatively.
Despite the official unemployment rate being modest at 6.6 percent, the scarcity of large private enterprises makes private-sector employment challenging to secure. Only public sector workers are guaranteed a minimum wage, but this wage falls below the poverty line. As a result, approximately 70 percent of the entire population in the country lives below the poverty line.
The country is politically characterized as a one-party state, having not held elections in over 30 years since gaining independence, with President Isaias Afwerki in power throughout. Although a constitution was drafted in 1997, the government has refrained from implementing it. The press is not free and the legislature has not met since 2010. According to Freedom House, the political freedom score for the country is 1/40, and civil liberties received a score of 2/60, resulting in a classification of "not free." Politicians who challenged the leadership have faced disappearances, and numerous journalists have been arrested or even killed. The severity of the press freedom situation is underscored by Reporters Without Borders, which scored Eritrea 174/180 for its lack of press freedom.
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Freedom of religion is another area where Eritrea is failing. The government officially recognizes only four religions -- the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea -- with Christians constituting approximately half of the population. Basic rights are denied to other religious groups, with some Jehovah’s Witnesses having their citizenship stripped. However, even adherents of the officially recognized religions are not immune to persecution. Instances include the imprisonment of several Catholic priests who advocated for peace in the Tigray region. Last year, hundreds of Christians were arrested during religious services without clear reasons provided. In 2023, Orthodox monks faced arrests, and a Pentecostal preacher died while in detention. According to a UN human rights report, "as of April 2023, an estimated 400 Christians and 27 Jehovah’s Witnesses (18 men and 9 women) remained arbitrarily imprisoned."
The Eritrean military is marred by severe human rights abuses. Conscription is arbitrary and lacks a fixed period of service. Accusations include the conscription of children, subjecting soldiers to physical abuse, and utilizing them as forced labor. Even reservists as old as 50 and 60 years old have been forced into service, and families of draft evaders have faced punitive measures.
Widespread instances of sexual violence and extrajudicial executions have been attributed to the military. Furthermore, the army has obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to areas in need and impeded UN special rapporteurs from reporting on the country's human rights situation. This paints a troubling picture of the systematic violations occurring within the Eritrean military.
Forced conscription is driving young people to flee the country. This emigration poses a challenge for Eritrea's future recovery, even if the government were to consider allowing elections. The shortage of young people and the resulting decline in the size of the workforce would hinder the country’s ability to rebuild the economy.
Simultaneously, the prospect of war with Ethiopia looms, threatening to escalate into a humanitarian crisis. In such a scenario, the repression of human rights is likely to intensify, further exacerbating the already dire situation in the region.
Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.
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