Eritrea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 1999

1999 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Eritrea’s political rights rating changed from 6 to 7, its civil liberties rating from 4 to 5, and its status from Partly Free to Not Free, due the government’s hostile attitude towards the development of civil society and multi-party politics which were exacerbated by the war with Ethiopia.   


Eritrea’s continuing, inconclusive war with Ethiopia dominated the country’s political and economic agenda in 1999. The war, which began in 1998, is, on the surface,  about territory claimed by both countries.  In reality it reflects deeper issues of nationalism and political mobilization by governments that have long used the presence of real or perceived enemies to generate popular support and unity.  In 1999 various international actors, including the Organization of African Unity, attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate an end to the hostilities.  Thousands of Ethiopians of Eritrean origin were expelled from Ethiopia.

War costs are having a serious impact on Eritrea’s economy, as is the loss of access to Ethiopian markets.  The war has also impeded Eritrea’s progress in developing a de facto and de jure pluralist political system.  Externally based opposition groups, some of which are backed by Eritrea’s foes in Ethiopia and Sudan, have begun to function.

In 1950, after years of Italian occupation, Eritrea was incorporated into Ethiopia.  Eritrea’s  independence struggle began in 1962 as a nationalist and Marxist guerrilla war against the Ethiopian government of Emperor Haile Selassie. The seizure of power by a Marxist junta in Ethiopia in 1974 removed the ideological basis of the conflict, and by the time Eritrea finally defeated Ethiopia’s northern armies in 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had discarded Marxism.  Internationally recognized independence was achieved in May 1993 after a referendum supervised by the United Nation produced a landslide vote for statehood.

Since 1993, Eritrea has engaged in hostilities with Sudan, Yemen, and in 1998 Ethiopia.  It has also had strained relations with Djibouti.    A constitution was adopted in May 1997, but many of its provisions have yet to be implemented.  For example, national elections have yet to take place.  The expectations raised by President Isaias Afwerki’s membership in a group of “new African leaders” who have promised more open governance and a break with Africa’s recent tradition of autocratic rule have been largely disappointed by Eritrea’s proclivity to settle disputes by the force of arms and continued tight government control over the country’s political life.

After a lull of several months in the fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea, hostilities resumed in early February, 1990.  Estimates of the number of soldiers involved range from 120,000 to 400,000.  Early in the year Ethiopian forces succeeded in making territorial gains, pushing the Eritreans out of Badme, one of the disputed localities. The conflict reverted to a form of low-intensity, long-drawn-out warfare. Complex and seemingly interminable negotiations failed to produce a peace settlement, and fighting continued sporadically throughout the year.  

Eritrea has now demanded compensation for those deported from Ethiopia and for people displaced by the conflict. In October Ethiopia responded by suing Eritrea for damages due to the war.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Created in February 1994 as a successor to the wartime Eritrean Popular Liberation Front, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) maintains a dominance over the country’s political and economic life that is unlikely to change in the near, to medium- term future. The PFDJ appears to continue to have broad public support, although 1999 has been marked by the emergence of opposition parties based outside the country.

In 1994 a 50-member constitutional commission was established.  In 1997 a new constitution was adopted, with provisions for a multiparty system. The constitution provides for the election of the president from among the members of the national assembly by a vote of the majority of its members.  The term of office is five years, for a maximum of two terms.   The national assembly, currently appointed but to be elected by direct and secret ballot by all citizens who are qualified to vote, is the country’s highest legislative body. 

In reality, Eritrea has yet to institutionalize a democratic political system..  No timetable has ever been drafted and adopted concerning implementing legislation and statutes regarding political parties and elections. Independent political parties authorized by the constitution are not yet registered.  In 1999 the war with Ethiopia provided a useful rationale for the government to continue to keep this issue unresolved.

The rights of citizens to select their leadership and to associate are, in practice, seriously  limited.  Many inside and outside the government argue that in the current context, emphasis must be placed on maintaining domestic unity and consensus.  Parties based on ethnicity or religion are to be barred.

Eritrea’s political culture places priority on group interests over those of the individual.  This view has been forged in part by years of struggle against outside occupiers and austere attachment to Marxist principles.  Eritrea’s aggressive foreign policy has contributed significantly to regional instability and to a sense of victimization among Eritreans, which in turn afford a rationale for continued strong central government control.

The new constitution’s guarantees of civil and political liberties are unrealized as pluralistic media and rights to political organization continue to be absent.  A judiciary was formed by decree in 1993 and has yet to adopt positions that are significantly at variance with government perspectives.   A low level of training and resources limits the courts’ efficiency.  Constitutional guarantees are often ignored in cases relating to state security.   While free discussion in public forum may be tolerated, the  dissemination of dissenting views is not.  Government control over all broadcasting and pressures against the small independent print media have constrained public debate. A 1997 press law allows only qualified freedom of expression, subject to the official interpretation of “the objective reality of Eritrea.”

The government has maintained a hostile attitude towards civil society and has refused international assistance designed to support the development of pluralism in society.  Reflecting its roots as a “national liberation” movement, the government controls most elements of civil life, either directly or through affiliated organizations.  Often these are characterized as being “mass” based.  The absence of independent media and nongovernmental human rights organizations in turn has a dissuasive effect upon the potential development of other civil society groups.  Until now, there have been relatively few open expressions of popular sentiment in favor of greater political liberties by the Eritrean people, who are accustomed through years of guerilla struggle and now the war with Ethiopia, to act collectively and in support of their rulers.

Official government policy is supportive of free enterprise, and citizens generally have the freedom to choose their employment, establish private businesses, and function relatively free of government harassment.    Until recently, at least, government officials have enjoyed a reputation for relative probity.

Women played important roles in the guerilla movement, and the government has worked in favor of improving the status of women. Equal educational opportunity, equal pay for equal work, and penalties for domestic violence have been codified, yet traditional societal discrimination persists against women in the largely rural and agricultural country.