For more than 20 years following its founding in 1983, Grassroots International worked with both Eritrean government ministries and nongovernmental organizations, supporting alternative development, health-care initiatives and empowerment projects for women and youth. That program was closed in January 2005 to protest the suppression of democracy in Eritrea under its current president, Isaias Afwerki.
The Eritreans won their independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year war that pitted them against successive U.S.- and Soviet-backed regimes. Afwerki led the victorious Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and presided over the drafting of a new constitution that provided a road map for a transition to popular democracy. However, the president balked at implementing the constitution after ratification in 1997 and has refused to permit national elections since then.
Eritrea went back to war with Ethiopia in 1998 over unresolved borders and other issues and remains on a war-footing today, while U.N. peacekeepers patrol the tense frontier. In recent days, tensions along the border have continued to escalate. Afwerki has used this conflict as a rationale for arresting critics, prohibiting other political parties, shutting down the independent press and suppressing all forms of public debate.
With all avenues for nonviolent change closed, Eritreans living abroad have taken the initiative to promote human rights and democratic values through Web-based communications, publications and educational seminars and events. One of the most promising of the new groups springing up in the Eritrean diaspora is the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR). Established in December 2003 by a group of Eritrean students and refugees living in South Africa, EMDHR is a newly flourishing, autonomous, and ethnically diverse civic movement of Eritrean youth. The movement strives for the advancement of human rights and democratic principles as established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and uses community education techniques to increase understanding and advocacy for the respect of human rights and the rule of law.
After traveling to South Africa twice in 2005 to assess EMDHR’s programs and organizational capacity, Grassroots International awarded a modest grant to this group of Eritrean human rights activists to promote democracy in their East African homeland, now languishing under a repressive dictatorship that has kept the country on a war-footing for more than seven years and squelched all dissent. The grant to EMDHR is intended to seed its work on the development and testing of a manual for protesting human and democratic rights violations.