In the wake of the border war with Ethiopia, the repression imposed on Eritreans by the Isaias regime fully flowered, and it continues to this day. Using the ongoing tensions with Ethiopia as an excuse, that regime has quashed all freedom and dissent, a vast gulag of underground prisons dots the landscape, torture chambers are filled, emigration is prohibited, foreign aid is generally rejected, religious dissidents are persecuted, and foreign tourism is highly restricted. In recent years Reporters Without Borders has frequently ranked Eritrea last among the world’s nations with respect to freedom of the press.
Perhaps most severely, Eritrea maintains the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa, and to support it a form of national military service tantamount to slavery has been imposed on the population. Young women, forced to serve, are often sexually abused by their commanders, and young men must often serve until they reach their 50s. The conscripts are physically mistreated and brutally punished for any perceived disloyalty; they serve without material pay; they are often forced to labor for state-owned enterprises and for members of the political and military elites; their families are deprived of bread-winners; agricultural production goes wanting; and the country sinks ever deeper into malnutrition and destitution.
As a consequence of those pervasive and egregious human rights violations, in 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Council empowered a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the abuses — something that that body had done only a few times previously, including with respect to North Korea. The Commission of Inquiry issued its extraordinary, extensive, and damning report in June 2015. A year later, in June 2016, the Commission issued its second report, which fortified the findings of the first, and recommended that members of the Eritrean regime be investigated by and tried before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Both reports were so scathing and so widely publicized that the regime has taken pains to attempt to discredit them, although so far without effect.
But over the years, the regime’s aggression has been directed not only internally: just as it had early-on turned against the Eritrean people, it had taken to turning against its neighbors as well. Shortly after independence, skirmishes with Yemen and Djibouti arose, as did hostile interventions in Sudan. Eritrean troops also participated in the overthrow of the Mobutu regime in the Democratic Republic of Congo. More clashes with Djibouti arose. Years later the regime was seen to be supporting Islamist rebels in Somalia, for which the United Nations Security Council in 2009 imposed on Eritrea an arms embargo and other sanctions, including a ban on international travel on the part of its leadership. The Security Council renewed and expanded those sanctions in 2011. As of October 2014 the Security Council’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea found that Eritrea continued to be in violation of the resolutions underlying the 2009 sanctions, including by supporting armed anti-Ethiopian groups in various countries in the region. In October 2015, the Monitoring Group alleged that Eritrea was aiding the Saudi Arabian-led war against Houthi insurgents in Yemen. In October 2016 the Monitoring Group reiterated its concerns that the Eritrean regime might, in multiple ways, be arming groups that could destabilize the region and could be violating the arms embargo; and it noted the regime’s unwillingness to communicate with or to grant in-country access to the Monitoring Group. In November 2016 the Security Council renewed the arms embargo, partly because of the regime’s refusal to participate in the monitoring effort. It renewed the embargo again in November 2017.
Also as of November 2017, Eritrea’s most troubling strategic activities in the region included a recent diplomatic alliance with Egypt against Ethiopia relative to a dam that Ethiopia was building in the headwaters of the Nile River; and the leasing of Eritrean coastal land to the United Arab Emirates’ air force, plus the supplying of Eritrean ground troops, for the UAE’s participation in the horrific war against the Houthi insurgents in Yemen.
In view of all of the foregoing, Eritrea has come to be viewed by the great majority of nations as both internally and externally deadly. The regime’s response to that view has been an ever greater paranoia and a self-imposed, nearly impenetrable isolation. It has rejected most foreign aid and banned all foreign NGOs. It limits entrance to and closely restricts the movements of foreign visitors. Almost no Western companies have invested in the country. One exception is the Canadian mining company Nevsun, which has gained notoriety for allegedly using government-furnished slave labor and sharing its profits with the regime. Nevsun was identified in the Monitoring Group’s October 2016 report as possibly facilitating the regime’s violation of the Security Council’s arms embargo and its proscription against arming destabilizing groups.
Through all of this, and despite the intense attention brought by the various United Nations’ investigations, the regime has not materially budged in its repressive behavior. Promises to shorten the length of national service and to increase net salaries for those serving have not materialized. Purges and imprisonment of dissidents have continued. As of February 2017, prisons were so overfull that reportedly prisoners had to serve time in shifts — going home for a few days each week, then returning to their confinement. The government persistently denied and failed to respond effectively to a new drought in 2015-2017 that amplified malnutrition for large portions of the population, and that reportedly brought famine and cholera to certain areas. And government policies in such areas as currency controls, commercial monopolization, rationing, transportation and infrastructure have continued to exacerbate the country’s destitution, all as reported HERE in January 2017 by Human Rights Concern Eritrea.
Eritrea and the United States
As for Eritrea’s relations with the United States, the U.S. State Department describes them as “strained.” Each country maintains an embassy within the other country, but no ambassador. Eritrea blames the United States for engineering its isolation, for the widespread criticisms of Eritrea by the world press and human rights organizations, for the United Nations sanctions, and for the refusal by Ethiopia to abide by the terms of the 1998-2000 border war settlement. The U.S., for its part, not only adheres to the United Nations sanctions against Eritrea, but since 2017 has imposed three sets of sanctions of its own (in each case while contemporaneously sanctioning other countries for similar behavior): a ban on equipment sales to or interactions with Eritrea’s navy (because of the navy’s having purchased military equipment from North Korea); a ban on in-bound travel from Eritrea to the U.S. on business and tourist visas (intended to force Eritrea to accept Eritreans that the U.S. seeks to deport); and a ban on cultural and educational exchanges with Eritrea (to punish Eritrea for trafficking in persons).
In addition, a senior Eritrean political figure and diplomat, Yemene Gebreab, was barred by the U.S. government in 2010 from engaging in a variety of commercial and property activities in the U.S., due to his interference In Somalia. He has also been received with a more general hostility in the U.S.: physically chased by Eritrean American protesters in the streets of New York in 2011; blocked by the State Department from participating in a panel sponsored by a prominent American think-tank in Washington, D.C. in 2016; and escorted by local police from a meeting of expatriate Eritrean loyalists at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia in 2017. (Also in 2017, he was badly beaten on the streets in Rome, Italy.)