Located in the Horn of Africa on the western coast of the Red Sea, the State of Eritrea is bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. With its capital at Asmara, the nation has a total land area of approximately 101,000 sq km inhabited by just over 3.5 million people (Worldometer, 13 April 2021).
With numerous national languages in practice, Eritrea has no designated official language, while Tigrinya, Arabic, and English serve as the three working languages. Most people in the territory adhere to Christianity (63%) or Islam (36%), with a small minority (1%) adhering to traditional faiths.
For sixty years (1882-1941), Eritrea was colonised by the Kingdom of Italy. Italy lost the region in 1941 during the East African campaign of WWII when Italian Eritrea became a British protectorate.
Ten years later, in 1951, Eritrea fell under United Nations supervision. The following year, according to a UN General Assembly resolution, Eritrea became an autonomous constituent state of the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea, until its independence in 1991.
However, in 1962, following the Eritrean secessionist movement by an all-Muslim group - the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) - the government of Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea. Since then, Eritrea fought one of the longest liberation wars of modern history that lasted for almost thirty years (1961-1991).
In 1991, Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) - the split away segment of ELF and the principal guerilla group leading the fight for liberation- proclaimed Eritrea's de facto independence. The formal independence from Ethiopia was recognised in May 1993 after a UN-supervised referendum on independence that was approved by 99% of voters. In February 1994, as part of its transformation into Eritrea's ruling political party, the EPLF renamed itself as the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) under the leadership of its former commander Isaias Afewerki.
In April 1993, Afewerki was elected as the first President of the State of Eritrea by the National Assembly. Since then, to date, Eritrea remains a unitary one-party presidential republic - a one-man dictatorship under President Afewerki's totalitarian rule, with no elected legislature or an independent judiciary, or other democratic state institutions.
Initially, Afewerki was hailed by many fellow global leaders as a new type of African President, a 'renaissance African leader' as the then-US President Bill Clinton once referred to him. The scenario, however, rapidly took a sharp turn around over the following years.
Although the unimplemented Eritrean Constitution of 1997 provides for the existence of multi-party politics, the PFDJ is the only 'legal' political party in Eritrea. The National Assembly has 150 seats but no election has ever been held.
President Isaias Afwerki has regularly expressed his disdain for what he refers to as "western-style" democracy. In a 2008 interview with international media, Isaias Afwerki stated that "Eritrea will wait three or four decades, maybe more, before it holds elections. Who knows?".
The global community, including the UN, has been deeply concerned by the rampant, systematic violence and atrocities committed by the Eritrean government which is regarded as one of the most repressive regimes with its human rights and corruption records being among the worst in the world (Human Rights Watch and Transparency International, 2021). These include arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detentions under extreme punitive conditions, torture and inhuman treatment, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, and the denial of fair trials, access to justice and due process of law. There are severe restrictions on freedom of movement, peaceful assembly, association, expression, religion or belief (UNHRC, 2021).
A state-sponsored mandatory system of indefinite conscription continues in the country involving torture, violence and forced labour. Even young school children are not spared from this inhuman, abusive system.
Purposeful and methodically applied rape and sexual servitude by state officials are also widespread. With 'dire' macro-economic conditions, Eritrea was identified as one of only three countries that place "extreme constraints" on humanitarian assistance to its poverty-stricken population (HRW, 2019). Impunity for past and ongoing human rights violations by the authorities has become an accepted norm in the country.
In September 2020, the government ignored its Covid-19 restrictions on movement, ban on public transport and school closures by channelling thousands of school children to the infamous Sawa military camp where all secondary school students must complete their schooling and simultaneously undergo military training.
It has been reported that the government denied many detainees vital food parcels and sanitary products from their families as well as ignoring calls to release those unlawfully detained to decongest detention facilities in response to Covid-19.
Being the only African country to have no privately-owned news media, Eritrea is ranked at 178 in the global Press Freedom Index, placed only ahead of North Korea and Turkmenistan (Reporters sans frontières, 2020). RSF further reported that "[They] do nothing but relay the regime's belligerent and ultra-nationalist discourse. ... Not a single [foreign correspondent] now lives in Asmara." The Eritrean authorities had reportedly imprisoned the fourth-highest number of journalists after Turkey, China and Egypt, the whereabouts of many of them are unknown to this day (VOA, 2021).
For the past three decades, President Afewerki continued to use the absence of peace with Ethiopia to justify his authoritarian government. However, neither the July 2018 peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia that ended Eritrea's diplomatic isolation nor the December 2020 Algiers Peace Agreement between the two countries that formally ended the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000), steered the Afewerki regime to its lofty commitments for human rights, civil liberties and democracy.
While Eritrea is not a State Party to several international human rights treaties (including the Conventions on Enforced Disappearance, Genocide, Migrant Workers and Persons with Disabilities), the country has ratified the UN Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention against Torture (CAT), Convention on Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Convention on Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Child Rights Convention (CRC). Eritrea has not, however, accepted any of the individual complaints or inquiry procedures established by these treaties.
Eritrea has also ratified eight fundamental ILO conventions, all in 2020, including the Forced Labor Convention, 1930; Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948; Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, 1957; Minimum Age Convention, 1973; and the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, 1999.
In October 2018, Eritrea was elected as a member of the UN Human Rights Council for a two-year term (2019-20). As a Council member, as well as its legal commitments to adhere to the international treaties ratified, Eritrea had an obligation to 'uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights' and to 'fully cooperate with the Council' (OHCHR, 2021).
In defiance, however, the Eritrean government refused to cooperate with or grant access to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, whom they recently denounced as 'the mouthpiece of Eritrea's archenemies.'
Historically, the African continent is not short of instances of autocratic regimes- from Teodoro Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea to José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, King Mswati III of Swaziland, Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Siad Barre of Somalia or Juvenal Habryimana of Rwanda have all authored many of the darkest memoirs in the African geopolitics marked by horror, terror, chaos, and bloodshed. Standing out from his fellow autocrats in many respects, President Afewerki's twenty-eight years' despotic authoritarianism in personalising state power with merciless political strategies and abusive policies inscribes one of the most brutal and deplorable chapters in the history of humanity.
Looking forward, from international legal perspectives, two critical dimensions prevail in the context of Eritrea. The first relates to the expectations of the international community that the government of Eritrea will implement its commitments for political and institutional reforms, particularly in the wake of the recent momentum for peace and security in the East African region.
Secondly, three decades of widespread, systematic atrocities and violations of human rights and humanitarian laws in Eritrea amount to crimes against humanity that in the modern development of international criminal justice come within the purview of the principle of 'universal jurisdiction'. This principle empowers the international courts (ICJ, ICC or the regional courts) and special ad hoc tribunals, or any national courts of law, to take cognizance of the international crimes committed in Eritrea and adjudicate culpability of the perpetrators irrespective of their authority and status, jurisdictional immunities, place of occurrence or relevance of the complainants.
To conclude, from a country with a total population of about 3.5 million, more than 1,800 Eritrean refugees cross the border into eastern Sudan every month (UNHCR, 2020). A previous generation of these people - thousands in number- still lives in the refugee camps in eastern Sudan for the last five decades.
For these elderly Eritreans, like many other younger ones, the haunting memory of their motherland remains a gruesome nightmare - a land and its incubus mnemonics they wish they could forget.
The author, formerly a human rights, justice and governance expert within the UN System, is currently a faculty member at the Department of Law, School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Independent University, Bangladesh. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.