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Restoring Human Rights and Democracy in Eritrea

May 2007

The Horn of Africa has become the source of much disturbing news. Mogadishu has become Africa’s Baghdad. There is genocide in Darfur, there are bombings in Ethiopia, and there is unremitting repression in Eritrea.

Many independent observers trace the cause of these interlocking crises—or at least the intensity with which each now rages–to the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict. Yet the international community does little more to solve this festering problem than to give lip service to the need for a negotiated solution before saying no such solution is in sight. Then they act as if they’ve done their part and can walk away with a clear conscience. But this is not only morally unacceptable—it is short-sighted politics. By ignoring this issue, they allow the many conflicts affected by it to get steadily worse, and they leave the entire region at risk of more repression and wider war.

For the last seven years, both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments have acted as if they were obsessed with becoming the leading regional power—and could only do so by bringing the other down. Is it any wonder that the result has been unending confrontation and conflict? And is there anything we, the citizens of these out-of-control rivals, can do to break this cycle?

All Eritreans are alarmed by the external threats to our country’s peace and stability. But we continue to face internal problems that are badly affecting every household even as they erode our ability to deal with outside threats, real or perceived. For how long shall this be allowed to continue? Are we really engaged on our country’s internal and external developments as we should be? And what responsibilities shall we take as citizens that may help resolve the disturbing situations of both our country and our region?

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend

The border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia is at the center of all kinds of troubles the Horn of Africa is experiencing, as the two parties seek to weaken each other by widening the arena of struggle. Both countries fought a bitter war between 1998 and 2000. The shooting ended in 2000 when they signed a cessation of hostilities agreement that called for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission, UNMEE, to monitor the contested border. An international boundary commission, EEBC, established in accordance with the Algiers Peace Agreement, provided a binding decision in April 2002.

Eritrea accepted the decision of the boundary commission and called for immediate demarcation. Ethiopia, however, keeps on expressing reservations towards the ruling, though it says it accepts it “in principle”, and demands dialogue prior to demarcation. The international community appears unable or unwilling to pressure Ethiopia to allow the demarcation process, and thus the issue of border demarcation remains suspended.

What is more upsetting than the issue of the yet-to-be-demarcated Eritrea-Ethiopia border is the determination of the two governments to make use of every opportunity to destroy one another. In the contest to become the leading regional power, each pursues a destructive policy toward the other, supporting all sorts of opposition groups, regardless of how contrary they are to the country’s values and ostensible development objectives, under the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And they do so without the legitimate consent of their own people. As is now obvious, this seven-year bitter rivalry is poisoning the whole region. And its impact is leading the peoples of the Horn ever closer to a regional catastrophe. Thus, finding ways to end this conflict must be a serious concern for all the peoples of the Horn and to the international community.

Need to Re-examine the Immediate Issues at Stake?

While the two governments are busy inflicting harm on each other and the international community is mainly worrying about regional instability, we the peoples of these countries pay the price, yet we are consistently overlooked by all parties involved, as if we were just mindless pawns on their chessboards. On the one hand, we endure an anxious state of mind due to the many threats to peace and stability across our region; at the same time we face an atmosphere dominated by fear and repression and are not even able to talk publicly among ourselves about these problems and what to do about them.

For the last seven years, the continued violations of our basic liberties have challenged our very existence and repeatedly undermined our Eritrean values and identity. At the same time, our desire to live in harmony with our neighbors has been either ignored or denounced as treason, as if patriotism itself was based on hatred of others. These two fundamental issues are severely affecting our inherent human desire to live in peace and dignity in our own homeland. But do we deserve to face this hardship after all the sacrifices Eritreans have made to create a peaceful nation for all its citizens?

Of course, the whole situation appears so bewildering that it is not easy to make a decision on which issue we shall make a priority, and, hence, on which national or regional project we should collectively pursue in order to transform the situation to one that is more hopeful. There are arguments to be made to place our main efforts behind defending the status quo—and supporters of the government do so at every opportunity in the name of nationalism. In this view, our agony is the price we have to pay to protect Eritrea’s sovereignty and independence. Some who appear to have a martyr complex argue that we are an unlucky people and must therefore live without peace and dignity in this world—that it is our fate to suffer and to wish it otherwise is to be unpatriotic. And some believe it is God’s will for us to face the suffering. But how far could this be true—and how long will we buy into this “perpetual victim” identity?

Can it be possible for us to successfully protect our sovereignty and independence when we are suppressing each other’s freedoms and dignity? How can we so easily overlook our rights to be free of coerced loyalty and forced labor? Why accept being a refugee now, after all those years of bitter struggle? How can we tolerate the arbitrary incarceration of our parents just because their children are missing? Can we simply ignore our rights to freely move in and out of our own homeland, to freely exercise our religion and culture and to freely exchange ideas and information? How can it be true in a “free” Eritrea that our fellow citizens get tortured till their arms or legs are amputated; or are shot to death when they leave their own country of birth? How can it be true, after such bitter years of struggle for the dignity of the human person, that today our fellow citizens have to endure an indefinite incarceration without any charge placed against them? And how can we so easily ignore our own fellow citizen’s sufferings? Isn’t it justice and truth that we value most?

There is an old saying that “Everything starts at home”.

If we are not treating each other with respect and dignity, then who else do we expect to respect us – our values, our aspirations and our interests? And should we fail to do so and instead opt to employ tactics of alienation and violent methods of coercion within ourselves, how can we become role models of peace, democracy and development to our own children as well as to our regional neighbors with whom we desire to live in harmony? How can we overlook the fact that respecting each other is one of our deeply ingrained cultural heritages and an essential part of what it means to be an Eritrean?

These issues are real. Their effects on every Eritrean household are dreadful. The suffering gets worse and the frustrations grow with each passing day. We may hide from being part of the solution, but we cannot keep ourselves from facing the problem, for it is with us all the time. Perhaps it is neither fate nor God’s will that the suffering persists. And perhaps it is high time for us to take a higher responsibility – to constructively engage ourselves, to take our destiny in our own hands, as we did throughout the decades-long fight for independence, and to critically re-examine the issues at stake and then make responsible decisions to act upon them. I, for one, am convinced of this—and I know I am not alone, though far too many of us seem content to keep on murmuring about the problems, making unnecessary excuses, blaming one another or foreign governments or the international community, and most painfully, this would mean living in continued fear and frustrations as if to prove the cynics right by doing nothing to change things ourselves.

Can our Past provide a Lesson?

Fifty-five years ago, Eritrea was supposed to gain its independence like most African countries that had previously been ruled by Western colonial powers. However, the conflicting interests of some global powers complicated Eritrea’s destiny to such an extent that the United Nations adopted an arrangement under which Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. A large segment of the Eritrean population was so optimistic—or so naïve–that it accepted the UN decision and attempted to live with it. But in 1962, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, without the consent of the Eritrean people, unilaterally dissolved the federal constitution and its parliament and declared Eritrea to be the fourteenth province of Ethiopia.

The Emperor’s trampling of the federal constitution stripped all Eritreans of their dignity and undermined their basic identity. This was the legal and moral justification for the launch of a national struggle to regain their rights to human dignity, self-determination, liberty and freedom. History records that Eritreans from all walks of life rallied around this cause in solidarity, with most directly engaged in or otherwise supporting a bitter and protracted fight that ended in 1991 when Eritrea was fully liberated under the banner of the dominant armed political movement at that point, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).

After the end of the liberation war, Eritrea entered a new stage and started a peaceful transition to transform itself into a prosperous, sovereign and democratic state. In 1993, Eritrea became an internationally recognized independent state after its citizens voted for national sovereignty in a referendum conducted under UN supervision and monitored by many countries, including Ethiopia. The name of the independence movement was changed to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). The PFDJ established itself as a Provisional Government of Eritrea to lead a transition that was forecast to be four years long. To overcome the formidable challenges of nation building and reconstruction, Eritreans worked together to rebuild the shattered infrastructure while implementing self-reliant development policies, as they drafted the nation’s Constitution, which was ratified in May 1997. However, the results, while impressive, were not free from imperfections and setbacks including both undemocratic practices within the new state and a series of armed confrontations with our neighbors. These in turn became excuses for continually postponing the end of the so-called transition.

The ratification of an Eritrea-Ethiopia cessation of hostilities agreement in June 2000, followed six months later by the signing of a comprehensive Algiers Peace Agreement, formally ended the border war with Ethiopia—the largest and most destructive of these post-independence conflicts—and created favorable conditions for Eritrea to end the transition period and to enter a new stage of national development. In fact, many of our wisest citizens—our mothers and fathers, Eritrean intellectuals, national leaders, members of the Eritrean National Assembly and many ordinary citizens—identified this period as the most important one in our history to take a giant step forward by implementing the Eritrean Constitution. Accordingly, the National Assembly decided that national elections would be held in December 2001 and appointed a committee to draft an electoral law and guidelines for party formation. On 29 January 2001, however, President Isaias Afwerki unilaterally intervened in the affairs of the committee and forced it to stop its activities, without the consent of the National Assembly or the Eritrean public.

Worried about this unwarranted intervention of the President, many concerned citizens including 15 of our national leaders and members of the National Assembly, openly called for the implementation of the Constitution and increased democratization and transparency in our political affairs. But beginning in September 2001, a clique led by the president unleashed violent attacks against all forms of peaceful dissent and arbitrarily incarcerated 11 of our national leaders and many others who supported their call for increased democracy, including elders, journalists and others. This cabal also shut down our fledgling independent press and declared that it was not the right time for us to be governed by our own Constitution. Faced with this assault on our rights, both the National Assembly and the judiciary turned out to be unhelpful and were, for all practical purposes, virtually non-existent. Instead, fear and suspicion took control of our lives and basic freedoms evaporated over night. Since then, all avenues for the implementation of the Eritrean Constitution and for democratic dialogue and transparency in our affairs have been completely blocked.

Perhaps there is an analogy in our past from which we could draw a lesson. What Emperior Haile Selassie did to Eritrea’s 1952 constitution and its parliament some 45 years ago has great similarities to President Isaias’s efforts to render our new Constitution ineffective, to make the Eritrean National Assembly dysfunctional and to block any kind of peaceful dissent. In doing so, his actions, like the Emperor’s before him, have truly challenged our Eritrean unity, dignity and identity.

Given the trust we laid upon the leadership of the PFDJ upon winning our independence, it was not our expectation that the movement would usurp its position to carry out such offenses against us, the citizens upon whom the struggle was based and to whom the PFDJ continually gave lip service to serving. We did not have enough leverage to overcome this unforeseen challenge, and thus we remain today bewildered and frozen. And not only does the way our forefathers and mothers reacted to the Emperor’s blatant aggression mirror that of today, but once again the peoples of our neighboring countries (caught in conflicts with our leaders) and the international community (caught up in its preoccupation with the so-called war on terror) were not there to provide us their support. What followed to this day has been an unmitigated disaster for the people of Eritrea, from the blatant suppression of our basic freedoms to forced labor and exploitation, poverty, increased youth outflow, disrespect to our nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and threats to our region’s peace and security.

Now, standing at this challenging historical moment and considering our country’s past experience, we ask ourselves: to which national issue should we give the highest priority, and thus address it collectively and in solidarity? Eritrea’s past experience may be helpful to avoid giving priority to issues that mistakenly address the symptom, rather than the real problem. In this regard, could it be appropriate to give highest regard to the enforcement of Eritrean Constitution? Would enforcing the Constitution as a supreme legal document of the land and installing a freely elected constitutional government in Eritrea help protect all citizens’ fundamental human freedoms, ensure Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and safeguard national and regional peace and security? Most importantly, if we rally around the issue of Eritrean Constitution in solidarity, would this help us regain our already endangered Eritrean symbolism – our unity, dignity and identity? These are the things we need to debate among ourselves.

Government’s Claim & its Flaws

In the last seven years, Eritrea’s government has tried to gain legitimacy from the Eritrean public by proclaiming its national political objective as the one which strives to safeguard the nation’s peace, security and sovereignty. Yet a large and growing segment of the population either remains detached from the proclaimed goals and policies or only seems to participate out of fear of reprisals.

Most of us are skeptical about the government’s priorities, policies and practices. We would like to know if it is really prudent for us to safeguard our country’s peace and security by actively pursuing an emotional, unwise and destructive policy. But we also ask is investing money and energy in some opposition groups, who do not even recognize our sovereignty, really helpful to achieve peace and stability in our region? What tangible economic, political or social improvements have been registered by employing such tactics?

Why is it necessary to replace Eritrea’s civilian sector with a militaristic and secretive administration system under the guise of national development? During the last seven years, military units and the security apparatus have been used to impose coercive sanctions and instill fear to ordinary citizens, instead of defending the nation from aggression and outside forces, as are their mandates. In this case, these institutions lose their authenticity and the respect of their population, which we see reflected by the growing culture of lawlessness, corruption and injustice within the military as well as in lately militarized civilian sectors. Thus, how is it possible to justify the continued conscription of the youth under this unjust military rule? Is it to deprive them of their right to live a productive life while serving their country in ways other than bearing arms against one another and against their neighbors? How can we defend the idea of abolishing our existing civilian educational systems and establishing new military camps to serve as our nation’s ultimate source of academic knowledge and innovation?

How about the BIG issue which is tormenting every sector of our society – protection of the dignity and liberty of the human person? Why do Eritreans have to remain for years denied their right to freely choose their own leaders? And how can it be acceptable for Eritrea to be ruled for years by a single man — a man so ambitious for power that he seeks to hold it for a lifetime? And what makes the issue of enforcing the Eritrean Constitution secondary, tertiary or even unnecessary to the people of Eritrea? These are some of the issues that need to be addressed if the government desires to gain the slightest legitimacy from us, but it has failed to do so thus far. Instead, citizens who inquire about these issues have been met with arrogance, abusive language, and alienation, as well as more coercive or inhumane measures.

Despite severe repression and alienation, there are significant resistance activities keeping the light of hope alive. Most are directed against the policies and practices of the government and are based outside the country. They include many civil society organizations, media groups and more than a dozen political parties. Most opposition activities, though courageous by their nature, have been taken in response to initiatives by the government of Eritrea, foreign governments or the international community. However, so long as the government of Eritrea continues to violently suppress any and all dissenting views, it is the Eritrean people’s legitimate right and duty to take the initiative to transform the situation toward one more favorable to the present and future generations.

It is our wish to see our country become peaceful, democratic and prosperous. We aspire to have a nation of all its citizens with its sovereignty respected. We dream of playing an important and constructive role in the attainment of peace, security and development in the entire Horn of Africa as well as in the international arena. We desire to be part of forward looking national, regional and international endeavors, and not in those projects driven by emotions, hatred and vengeance. In order to fulfill our wishes, though, we need to go an extra mile and exercise our legitimate citizenry rights and responsibilities. We need to take a proactive initiative to develop an all-inclusive platform accessible to Eritrea’s grassroots community, critically re-examine and prioritize the immediate issues at stake, and develop consensus about a realistic national objective around which we all will be able to rally in solidarity. And this whole endeavor – long and arduous one – can become fruitful only by constructively engaging ourselves and not by alienating or coercing one another.

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