Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Hostilities with Ethiopia ended, at least temporarily, with the signature of a cease-fire in June after an Ethiopian advance succeeded in making significant territorial gains. The agreement provided for a United Nations-led buffer force to be installed along the Eritrean side of the contested border and further negotiations to determine the final boundary line. The war dominated the country’s political and economic agenda and reflected 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 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 U.N. 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. Eritrea’s proclivity to settle disputes by the force of arms and continued tight government control over the country’s political life have dashed hopes raised by President Isaias Afwerki’s membership in a group of “new African leaders” who promised more open governance and a break with Africa’s recent tradition of autocratic rule.
The war with Ethiopia began in 1998. In May 2000, an Ethiopian military offensive succeeded in making significant territorial gains. Eritrea signed a truce with Ethiopia in June which stipulated that international peacekeepers be deployed in a security zone while negotiations continued on resolving ongoing disputes between the two countries about the border.
The war with Ethiopia has impeded Eritrea’s progress in developing a de facto and de jure pluralist political system. The challenge now faced by the government is to follow through on long-delayed promises to institute a pluralist political system. By the end of 2000, some initial moves had been made in establishing a timetable for this change.
Externally based opposition groups, some of which are backed by Eritrea’s foes in Ethiopia and Sudan, have begun to function. In 2000 there were also some reports of growing political disaffection with the government. For example, there were reports that a de facto curfew was declared around the capital of Asmara, and that students who protested against the war were evacuated to military camps outside of Asmara.
Eritreans cannot change their government democratically. Created in February 1994 as a successor to the EPLF, 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 has had broad public support, although in 2000, the existence of exiled opposition groups and some reports of internal disaffection with the war suggested that its rule is not monolithic.
In 1994 a 50-member constitutional commission was established. In 1997 a new constitution authorizing “conditional” political pluralism with provisions for a multiparty system was adopted. 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 appointed national assembly comprises 75 members of the PFDJ central committee, 60 members of the former Constituent Assembly and 15 representatives of Eritreans residing abroad.
In reality, Eritrea has yet to institutionalize a democratic political system. In October the national assembly decided that the first elections should be held in December 2001 and appointed a committee that will draft regulations governing political parties. Until this, no timetable had ever been drafted and adopted concerning implementing legislation and statutes regarding political parties and elections. Polls were supposed to have been held in 1998, but were postponed indefinitely following the outbreak of hostilities with Ethiopia. Independent political parties authorized by the constitution are not yet registered. The war with Ethiopia provided a useful rationale for the government to continue to keep this issue unresolved.
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 rights of citizens to select their leadership and to associate remain 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.
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 fora may be tolerated, the dissemination of dissenting views is not. Government control over all broadcasting and pressures against the 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. The government controls most elements of civil life, either directly or through affiliated organizations. The absence of energetic independent media and nongovernmental human rights organizations in turn has a dissuasive effect upon the potential development of other civil society groups.
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.
The government finally adhered to the Geneva Convention in July 2000, permitting some independent monitoring of conditions in detention facilities and granting representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) broad access to prisoners and detainees. Arbitrary arrest and detention are problems. The provision of speedy trials is limited by a lack of trained personnel, inadequate funding, and poor infrastructure, and the use of a special court system limits due process.
Women played important roles in the guerilla movement, and the government has worked in favor of improving the status of women. In an effort to encourage broader participation by women in politics, the PFDJ named 3 women to the party's executive council and 12 women to the central committee in 1997. Women participated in the constitutional commission (filling almost half of the positions on the 50-person committee) and hold senior government positions, including the positions of minister of justice, and minister of labor.
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. Jehovah's Witnesses face some societal discrimination.