Eritrea – ‘No Peace, No War’

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The Eritrean diaspora remains crucial for the survival of political opposition, as human rights abuses continue and many are choosing to flee the country 

In Eritrea, President Isaias Afwerki heads a one-party state through the only legal political grouping, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ); constitutional decrees have never been implemented, press freedom is some of the world’s worst and all independent political activity is banned. A recent report by UK-based the Guardian explores the current situation.

Afwerki came to power as the leader of the  ruling Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1991 following a 30-year independence struggle with Ethiopia. During the conflict, ideological differences amongst the political and military leaders  led to a civil war within the country; by 1980 the EPLF had driven the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) into Sudan. Since independence the EPLF have remained the sole party, although renaming themselves the PFDJ in 1994.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict flared again in 1998 in the border village of Badme; during this period many Eritrean officials accused Afwerki of mishandling the war. These dissenters, known as the G-15, were rounded up in September 2001 and remain imprisoned. A peace treaty was signed in May 2000 although today repression and divisions linger in the the country.

Er-map

Earlier in March this year a four month United Nations (UN) investigation concluded that there had been”very clear patterns” of violations and abuses. According to Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea Mike Smith, the investigations involved testimonies from over 500 members of the Eritrean diaspora, reported the UN News Service.

One particular measure justified by the regime as necessary due to the “existential threat” from Ethiopia, is compulsory national service of indefinite duration from the age of 17. The “no war, no peace” situation with Ethiopia that has become a “pretext for almost all the states actions that generate and perpetuate human rights violations…the entire society has been militarised, the Constitution has never been implemented and there is no rule of law” said Smith.

According to another recent report by the Guardian, citing the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR),  Canadian company, Nevsun Resources have been accused of using  conscription labour since 1998 on the only active mine in the country, the Bisha copper and gold mine.

Three Eritreans had filed a lawsuit against the company in December 2014 but Nevsun denied all allegations; CEO Cliff Davis said that “we are confident that the allegations are unfounded…we are committed to ensuring that the Bisha Mine is managed in a safe and responsible manner”. The Eritrean government also responded saying that the report was “devoid of all merit”.

The Eritrean economy has become increasingly dependent on mining revenues; such revenues provide financing for a regime hindered by international sanctions, which were implemented after a report accused Afwerki of training and funding the al-Shabaab militant group, although these allegations were denied.

Canadian company Sunridge Gold is due to start gold output on a mine in Asmara this year, and Australian Danakali is expected to announce potash production at its Colluli mine. The African Development Bank (AfDB), in light of recent investments revised forecast economic growth to 2.1%, up from 1.3% in 2013.

Soviet military equipment abandoned by retreating Ethiopian troops in 1991 can still be seen along many roads in northern Eritrea. This tank is just east of Keren.

The Mail & Guardian Online reported the story of Daniel Mekonnen, an exiled lawyer and activist who has been repeatedly targeted by the Eritrean regime after he founded the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR). Mekonnen referred the regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC), prompting wide-ranging threats that forced him to be placed under temporary police protection.

Victoria Bernal, an academic who has charted the Eritrean diaspora’s history commented that the internet has emerged as a crucial space for the diaspora to engage with the country.  Initially during the 1998-200 war with Ethiopia, to promote nationalist sentiment, today the internet is used to mobilise communities abroad and for remittances.

Recently Eritrean has also made international headlines as many tens of thousands are embarking on a journey through Sudan and Libya, or Egypt and Israel, in attempts to reach European soil; with an estimated 5000 leaving every month according to the Guardian. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) commented that they were dealing with 357,406 Eritrean refugees as of 2014, making that the second largest group after Syrians attempting to enter Europe.

Annette Weber, a Senior Fellow of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), commented in a recent report that in this context, “reintegrating the country in regional structures could build trust and neutralise the Eritrean narrative of Ethiopian aggression and international conspiracy”.

Weber explains that fleeing conscription is “tantamount to treason”, and “because it is more or less impossible to leave the country legally, a dense network of organised traffickers has arisen… A string of beneficiaries, including members of the border police and the Eritrean and Sudanese armed forces, members of nomadic groups in eastern Sudan and the Sinai, and trans-African trafficking networks, profit enormously from Eritrean asylum seekers, whose journey and ransom cost upwards of $10,000”.

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin

ERITREA: Horrific Rights Abuses
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.52, Issue.6, Pp.20610A–20611A

ERITREA: UN Monitoring Group Report
P
olitical, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.51, Issue.11, Pp.20369C–20370C

ERITREA – ETHIOPIA: Rising Tensions
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.49, Issue,3, Pp.19187C–19188B

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