The Repression Avalanches

Eritrea and its Struggles

The Repression Avalanches

isaiascaption1In the wake of the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia, the repression imposed on Eritreans by the Isaias regime fully flowered. And the repression continues to this day, notwithstanding the end of the regime’s excuse for it. The excuse had been that Eritrea continued to be existentially threatened by Ethiopia, with which no peace agreement existed and which (the regime said) was ready to try to destroy Eritrea at any time. Relying on that excuse, the regime quashed all freedom and dissent, a vast gulag of underground prisons came to dot the landscape, torture chambers were filled, emigration was prohibited, foreign aid was generally rejected, religious dissidents were persecuted, foreign NGOs and media were barred from entering the country, and foreign tourism was highly restricted. But in 2018 Eritrea and Ethiopia made peace. Yet all those repressive measures today remain in place, as brutally as before.

Perhaps most severely, Eritrea maintains one of the largest armies 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 a 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. The regime has also taken pains to discredit the continuous, and continuously damning, reporting of the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (an exemplary statement by whom from October 2023 appears here).

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 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 which large numbers of civilians were being bombed and starved.  (The U.S. also supported that war.)  In November 2018 news reports alleged that one-third of the sorties against the Houthis were flying out of Eritrea.

In view of all of the foregoing, Eritrea came to be viewed by the great majority of nations as both internally and externally deadly. The regime’s response to that view was an ever greater paranoia and a self-imposed, nearly impenetrable isolation.  It rejected most foreign aid and banned all foreign NGOs.  It limited entrance to and closely restricted the movements of foreign visitors.  Almost no Western companies invested in the country.  One exception was the Canadian mining company Nevsun Resources, which 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 did not materially budge in its repressive behavior. Promises to shorten the length of national service and to increase net salaries for those serving did not materialize. Purges and imprisonment of dissidents 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 continued to exacerbate the country’s destitution, all as reported HERE in January 2017 by Human Rights Concern Eritrea.

Rapprochement with Ethiopia

In June 2018, Ethiopia’s new, reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed unilaterally announced that he would accept the United Nations’ 2000 determination of the boundary line between Ethiopia and Eritrea and hand over the disputed territories to Eritrea.  The announcement shocked and pleased much of the world, and it quickly led to a peace agreement, expressions of friendship, and the opening of airline, commercial and communications links between the two countries that had been bitterly antagonistic toward one another since the beginning of their brutal 1998 border war.  The border between Eritrea and Ethiopia at least temporarily opened — and tens of thousands of Eritreans quickly fled to Ethiopia. (The requirement for exit visas was re-imposed in December, but out-migration somehow continued, including through the use of smugglers.)  Additional peace overtures in the region followed, with Eritrea warming in its relations with Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti.

The continuing conflict had been the Eritrean regime’s pretext for many or most of its human rights abuses — indefinite national service (including in the military), the persecution of Protestant religions that objected to military service, widespread surveillance and censorship, the imprisonment and torture of political prisoners, and savage treatment of those who tried to escape the country.  In the year that followed the Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement, those abuses did not visibly abate, except for the relaxation of cross-border traffic.  But on October 12, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly elected Eritrea to be one of 47 members of the UN’s Human Rights Council, a remarkable development in light of Eritrea’s human rights still being monitored critically by a Special Rapporteur mandated by the HRC. On November 14, 2018, the United Nations Security Council terminated the mandate of its Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group; and it lifted its sanctions against Eritrea — the sanctions having been based on Eritrea’s international adventurism, not on its human rights record. In March 2019, Eritrea was awarded the chair of the Khartoum Process — the EU initiative to stop Africans from migrating to Europe.

The Eritrean regime thus appeared to be poised to enjoy renewed international investment, military assistance, and acquiescence to its human rights abuses, notwithstanding its continuing repression of its people.  Human rights advocates persisted in their critiques; but they hoped that in time peace would lead to freedom.

The War in Tigray

In early November 2020, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces allied in attacking Tigray, a rebellious and relatively prosperous Ethiopian province in northwest Ethiopia that bordered Eritrea. Until then, Tigrayans had long dominated Ethiopian politics – brutally and corruptly – and were seen by Ethiopians as having robbed them of wealth by Eritreans as having driven the 1998 border war against them. And so both groups of attacking forces – joined by forces from Amhara, an adjacent province in Ethiopia that likewise harbored deep resentments toward the Tigrayans – launched a merciless scorched earth campaign against Tigray, which many observers termed a genocide. Atrocities included massacres, mass rape and gang rape, destruction of health care facilities and historical religious institutions, forced starvation, and the cutting off of electricity and medical provision. Eritrean forces were credibly accused of the worst atrocities. At one point, Tigrayan forces went on the offensive in the provinces of Amhara and Afar, where they conducted their own campaign of atrocities. The U.S., the EU and the UN pressed mightily for a diplomatic solution, without avail. Finally, after hundreds of thousands had died – in combat, by massacre, by starvation, and by lack of medical care – the Tigrayans were effectively defeated. A cessation of hostilities agreement was signed in early November 2022 by Ethiopian and Tigrayan authorities, although not by Eritrean or Amhara ones. A year later, Eritrean and Amhara forces continued to occupy and to commit atrocities in parts of Tigray; Tigray remained oppressed by the federal Ethiopian government; and like parts of Amhara and Afar, it remained destitute. Meanwhile, additional ethnic conflagrations, including those between Amhara and federal forces, had surged, at least in part as an outgrowth of the war in Tigray. And since the spring of 2023, the World Food Program suspended food deliveries to all Ethiopians, due to the theft of the aid by regional and federal political and/or military authorities – who through late 2023 continued to refuse to give up their hold on food distribution mechanisms, even as their populations starved. Much of Ethiopia was a chaotic ruin. By some measures, the Ethiopian economy was on the brink of collapse. Thus Eritrea had won the war. It was welcomed diplomatically by the governments of neighboring countries. But it still stoked viral hatred toward the Tigrayans, and it openly called for even more retribution.

For a summary of the impact of the war on Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, click here.

Covid 19

Eritrea has been the only country in the world not to broadly distribute covid 19 vaccines during the pandemic that began in 2019. For a time, the government frequently published statistics about infections and deaths, but the numbers were low, and the integrity of the statistics was suspect.

Eritrea and Russia

Since the 1960s, Russia has been seen by much of Africa as its champion in its resistance (often armed) to perceived Western imperialism and U.S. hegemony. Although Russia had supported Ethiopia against Eritrea in the long war for Eritrean independence, Eritrea now views Russia as its longstanding ally. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Eritrea was the sole African country to vote against condemning that invasion in the UN’s General Assembly. As Russia expanded its footprint through alliances with governments across the

African continent through 2023, following the war in Tigray it claimed to draw ever closer to Eritrea in terms of military and diplomatic collaboration. (Russia had not sought to intervene diplomatically in that war.)

Eritrea and the United States

As for Eritrea’s relations with the United States, the U.S. State Department has described them as “strained.” Each country has maintained an embassy within the other country, but no ambassador. Eritrea has blamed 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 (lifted in 2018), and (until 2018) 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 adhered to the United Nations sanctions against Eritrea, but has imposed various 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, non-immigration travel from Eritrea to the U.S. on business, tourism, student and other visas (intended to force Eritrea to accept Eritreans that the U.S. seeks to deport); a ban on cultural and educational exchanges with Eritrea (to punish Eritrea for not acting to control trafficking in persons); and an arms embargo (for violating its citizens’ religious freedom). In January 2020, the U.S. imposed immigration visa restrictions on Eritrea and five other countries, in connection with expanding a travel ban that it had imposed, for security reasons, on nationals of eight countries in 2017. (Those visa restrictions do not restrict refugee admissions of or grants of asylum to Eritreans.) In May 2021, the U.S. placed visa restrictions on certain Eritreans in connection with their role in the Tigray war; and in November of that year, financial sanctions against various Eritrean leaders and institutions complicit in the war.

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.) In July 2020, the U.S. lifted the Somalia-related sanctions against Yemane.

American policies toward Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers have been in flux.  For years, the U.S. deported almost no Eritreans to Eritrea — including those who had failed their asylum claims — given the high probability that they would be abused or killed if they were returned to their country, and given that the Eritrean regime, not wanting to take them back, declined to issue travel documents for them.  But in September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced its desire to deport some 700 Eritreans, and it began detaining them for that purpose, while pressuring the Eritrean regime to receive them.  The America Team and other NGOs objected , noting that no other democracy was known to be concertedly returning Eritreans to Eritrea at that time.  In August 2019, some 43 members of the U.S. House of Representatives similarly objected.  Since the 2017 order, to The America Team’s knowledge, only a limited number of Eritreans have been removed to Eritrea. One of them — a man with no criminal record but whose asylum claim had been denied — was deported in June 2018; and the U.S. shortly afterwards reported that he died by suicide en route to Eritrea.

At the same time, U.S. immigration policies for people of all nationalities materially hardened in early 2017, under the Trump administration.  Refugee admissions dropped to a fraction of what they had been. The availability of asylum, especially for those (including Africans) crossing into the U.S. from the Mexican border, was also materially restricted. Beginning in January 2021, the newly elected Biden administration undertook — haltingly — to ameliorate many of the restrictions. Among other measures, by late 2023 the level of allowable refugee admissions was restored to its pre-Trump level.

Slave Labor Lawsuits

In recent years, a number of lawsuits in Western countries have targeted private and governmental entities for collaborating in Eritrea’s use of slave labor in large scale enterprises. In 2014, three Eritreans brought a civil action in Canada against the Canadian mining company Nevsun Resources (identified above on this page) for its alleged use of such labor, as supplied to it by the Eritrean government for constructing the company’s Bisha mine. In May 2020, Human Rights for Eritreans, an expatriate Eritrean organization in the Netherlands, brought an action against the European Union alleging that development funding provided by the latter to the Eritrean government was being used to build roads with the unwilling labor of Eritrean national service conscripts. Contemporaneously with the Dutch action, Eritrea Focus, an expatriate Eritrean human rights organization in the U.K., brought a similar action against the British government for funding the road-building. The Nevsun lawsuit ended in a confidential settlement. Then Dutch and British actions did not succeed, except for having drawn attention to the issues.

Expat Festivals in the West

For decades, Eritrean embassies in Western countries – with the support of the PFDJ (Eritrea’s sole political party) — have organized and promoted summer cultural festivals, fundraisers and informational events for Eritrean expatriates there. The goals of these events have been to maintain patriotic fervor among the expats, to disseminate Eritrean propaganda, and – perhaps most importantly – to raise funds for the regime. The events have often been well-attended – by those expats with loyalist beliefs, those wishing to curry favor with the regime (including to protect their families back home or to do business in Eritrea), and those simply wishing to socialize with other Eritrean expats. Expat oppositionists have long resented those events being held on the soil of the countries where they have sought and found refuge. They have also resented the harassment often levied by the embassies and the PFDJ on non-loyal expats (as described in this website under “Seeking Refuge and Asylum: Refuge in the West, and Elsewhere: Harassment, Intimidation, and Extortion of the 2% Tax”). In the summer of 2022 the oppositionists’ resentment boiled over, and some of the protests they staged at the festivals led to violence. In 2023, violence occurred at most of the festivals, resulting in a range of reactions on the part of host governments and populations: from greater sympathy for Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, to resentment that the loyalists and oppositionists had effectively imported their disagreements and the disturbances. During those two summers, festivals and/or oppositionist protests reportedly were held in at least 18 venues in Europe, four in the UK, one in Israel, three in Canada and three in the U.S. Violence erupted at least 13 times. Violent protests at regime events continued into 2024.