It’s Bad in Eritrea, but Not That Bad

On June 8, a special U.N. commission released a report

accusing the leadership of Eritrea of crimes against humanity. It

cites cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture,

rape and extrajudicial killing. It claims that up to 400,000 Eritreans

have been enslaved in a vast conscription program, forced to work in

the army or the bureaucracy for next to nothing, often for a decade or


Isaias Afwerki, a former rebel hero, has ruled Eritrea since its

independence in 1993. A constitution drafted in 1997 has yet to be

implemented. National elections have never been held. Opposition

political parties are illegal. Many dissidents have been arrested and

have not been heard from since. There are few civil society

organizations and no independent media. It is tortuously difficult for

Eritreans to obtain formal authorization to leave the country.

The Eritrean government deserves to be called out for these practices.

But the criticism, to be credible and effective, must be scrupulously

fair, and the commission’s report is not. It extrapolates from

anecdotal examples – like instances of rape by military forces – to

allege systemic abuses and blame them on state policy.

The commission recommends that its findings be referred to the

International Criminal Court. This is ill-advised, and would backfire.

Initiating a formal criminal investigation would give the Isaias

government more reason to retrench into its righteous isolation – a

primary cause of poor governance and economic atrophy in Eritrea,

which engender abuses in the first place.

I’ve visited Eritrea for research several times over the past year,

talking to senior government officials, including Mr. Isaias; foreign

diplomats; local and foreign businesspeople; and ordinary Eritreans.

No doubt, the human rights situation there is frightful, and hundreds

or thousands of cases of torture, rape or unjust imprisonment probably

escaped the commission’s attention. At the same time, things aren’t as

bad as the report claims.

Eritrea is not the North Korea of Africa. It, too, is isolated and

secretive, but satellite dishes carrying the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera

can be seen throughout the country. Though connections are very slow,

the internet is accessible and appears to be unfiltered. Radio

programs from abroad that are critical of the Isaias administration

are widely listened to.

The quality of education and healthcare is good considering that

Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in the world. The foreign

diplomats and U.N. personnel I met in Asmara often pointed that out,

and many praised the absence of corruption. The United Nations

Development Program gives Eritrea high marks for its progress on

several Millennium Development Goals.

But you wouldn’t know this from reading the U.N. report. And no

wonder: The commissioners relied primarily on the testimony of about

800 Eritrean refugees living outside Eritrea. They were inevitably

hamstrung after the Isaias government ignored their requests to visit

Eritrea, but their research also suffered from selection bias, and

that was their doing.

The commissioners didn’t interview Western diplomats or U.N. staff

based in Eritrea. By their own admission, they did not consult the

relevant academic literature. They discarded tens of thousands of

testimonials from Eritreans defending the Isaias regime, claiming

these were irrelevant or inauthentic.

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The result is a seriously flawed report that entrenches the skewed

perspective long dominant in policy circles and the media in the West.

Eritrea and Ethiopia have been locked in a dangerous stalemate for

over a decade, after Ethiopia refused to recognize a 2002 arbitration

decision settling the border over which they fought a devastating war

from 1998 to 2000. But Washington, along with other major Western

governments, has allowed the Ethiopian government to flout the ruling:

Since at least the mid-1990s, U.S. policy toward the region has been

driven by an almost single-minded preoccupation with counterterrorism,

and Washington considers Ethiopia to be its main security partner in

the Horn of Africa.

The Eritrean government didn’t help its case by giving military

support to Al Shabab, a Somalia-based affiliate of Al Qaeda; it’s been

under sanctions as a result. But it has very good reason to feel

betrayed, especially by the West’s failure to enforce the boundary


The effects of that failure have been terrible. Eritrea and Ethiopia

have been needling each other, including by proxy via various rebel

groups throughout the region. The Ethiopian government, no less than

the Isaias administration, has used instability in the Horn of Africa

as an excuse to crack down on political opponents at home. Eritrea may

top the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of 10 Most Censored

Countries, but Ethiopia is number 4.

Yet if Eritrea has received plenty of criticism, Ethiopia has not

received enough. And this remains the case even though there are signs

of change in Eritrea and the West’s strategic interests would be

better served by a softer position toward the Isaias government.

The war in Yemen has underscored the benefits of having access to

Eritrea’s long coast along the Red Sea. The migrant crisis has given

European countries an urgent reason to keep Eritreans from leaving

home: The European Union has pledged Euros 200 million to help Eritrea

reduce poverty, develop its energy network and improve living


Such engagement is the only way to help Eritrea reform. The

conscription program, for example, needs to be rethought, and the term

of service reduced to a fixed and reasonable length. This will require

converting the many jobs currently performed by conscripts – farming,

construction, teaching – into formal civil-service or private-sector

positions. Eritrea does not have the resources to manage such a

comprehensive overhaul on its own. But foreign companies are wary of

getting involved for fear they’ll be accused of profiting from slave

labor, and Eritrea doesn’t trust Western governments to help.

Shrill condemnation of the Isaias government also risks alienating the

Eritreans best positioned to push it toward sustainable change. Many

older members of the diaspora still support Mr. Isaias, and through

vast remittances and impassioned community organizing abroad, they

offer essential support to his regime. Asmara’s small business

community has some influence on his decision-making, if behind closed

doors. But the scathing attacks on his administration can seem

overblown to his sympathizers, making it easier for them to dismiss

uncomfortable truths about its real shortcomings.

Mr. Isaias’s distrust of Western governments has hindered change in

Eritrea. The United Nations’ shoddy human rights report will only make

matters worse. Just days after it was released, there was an alarming

skirmish at the border, apparently initiated by the Ethiopian

government, which had made blatant threats in the past.

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The U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to vote on the commission’s

report before the end of the month. While recognizing the seriousness

of the situation in Eritrea, it should approach the report’s findings

with caution. In particular, it should vote against the recommendation

to refer them to the U.N. Security Council and later the I.C.C. –

otherwise, it will only help prolong the repression it was set up to


Bronwyn Bruton is deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic

Council, in Washington.

Source: DEHAI-Eritrea OnLine,