Freedom in the World
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The government of Eritrea continued its long-standing suppression of democratic and human rights in 2007, and a group of independent journalists imprisoned in 2001 remained behind bars. There was no movement toward developing pluralist political institutions during the year. Eritrea maintained its activist foreign policy in the region, which has included conflict with Ethiopia, support for antigovernment forces in Somalia, tension with Yemen, and involvement in Sudanese civil conflicts.
Britain ended Italian colonial rule in Eritrea during World War II, and the country was formally incorporated into Ethiopia in 1952. Its independence struggle began in 1962 as a nationalist and Marxist guerrilla war against the Ethiopian government of Emperor Haile Selassie. The seizure of power in Ethiopia by a Marxist junta 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 Nations produced a landslide vote for statehood.
War with Ethiopia broke out again in 1998. In May 2000, an Ethiopian military offensive made significant territorial gains. The two sides signed a truce in June 2000, and a peace treaty was signed that December. The agreement provided for a UN-led buffer force to be installed along the Eritrean side of the contested border and stipulated that further negotiations should determine the final boundary line. The war had dominated the country’s political and economic agenda, reflecting the government’s habitual use of real or perceived national security threats to generate popular support and political unity.
In May 2001, 15 senior ruling-party members, known as the Group of 15, publicly criticized President Isaias Afwerki and called for “the rule of law and for justice, through peaceful and legal ways and means.” Eleven members of the dissident group were arrested for treason in September 2001 and remain incarcerated. The small independent media sector was also shut down, and 18 journalists were imprisoned.
The Eritrean government in 2005 clamped down on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by withdrawing tax exemptions, increasing registration requirements, and ordering the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to end its operations in the country. Separately, tensions remained high with Ethiopia, as Eritrea objected to the inconclusive results of international mediation on its long-standing border dispute. It claimed that the Ethiopians were not respecting the 2000 agreement, and the authorities banned UN helicopter flights in Eritrean airspace, restricted UN ground patrols, and expelled some of the peacekeepers.
In 2006, reports emerged that hundreds of followers of various unregistered churches (mostly Protestant) were being detained, harassed, and abused. In 2007, approximately 2,000 individuals remained in detention at year’s end because of their religious affiliation, according to the NGO Compass Direct. The government in 2006 also expelled several development NGOs, including Concern Worldwide, Mercy Corps, and Acord. Official suppression of democratic and human rights continued throughout 2007. Especially given evidence of Eritrea’s support for Islamist rebels in Somalia, the U.S. government was considering placing Eritrea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The 2006 UN Human Development Index ranked Eritrea at 157 out of 177 countries measured. Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was $977. According to a recent study by the Peace and Conflict Review, Eritrea has the world’s highest level of per capita military imports as a percentage of GDP.
Eritrea is not an electoral democracy. Created in February 1994 as a successor to the EPLF, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) maintains complete dominance over the country’s political life. Instead of moving toward a democratic political system, the PFDJ has taken significant steps backward since the end of the war with Ethiopia. The 2001 crackdown on those calling for greater political pluralism and subsequent repressive steps clearly demonstrate the Eritrean government’s authoritarian stance.
In 1994, a 50-member Constitutional Commission was established. A new constitution was adopted in 1997, authorizing “conditional” political pluralism with provisions for a multiparty system. The constitution calls for the 150-seat legislature, the National Assembly, to elect the president from among its members by a majority vote. However, national elections have been postponed indefinitely. Regulations governing political parties have never been enacted, and independent political parties do not exist. In 2004, regional assembly elections were conducted, but they were carefully orchestrated by the PFDJ and offered no real choice.
Eritrea has long maintained a reputation for a relatively low level of corruption. In recent years, however, graft appears to have increased somewhat. Eritrea was ranked 111 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Government control over all broadcasting outlets and the repression of independent print publications have eliminated the vehicles for dissemination of opposing or alternative views. In its September 2001 crackdown, the government banned all privately owned newspapers while claiming that a parliamentary committee would examine conditions under which they would be permitted to reopen. Journalists arrested in 2001 remain imprisoned, and other journalists have subsequently been arrested. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Eritrea as one of the five worst countries for press freedom in the world. Internet use remains limited but growing, with an estimated 100,000 users in 2007 out of a population of nearly five million.
The government places significant limitations on the exercise of religion. It officially recognizes only four faiths—Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Lutheranism as practiced by the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. Persecution of minority Christian sects has escalated in recent years, particularly against Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were stripped of their basic civil rights in 1994, and evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Amnesty International cites Abune Antonios, patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, as a prisoner of conscience; he has been under house arrest since January 2006. According to Amnesty, members of other minority churches have been jailed and tortured or ill-treated to make them abandon their faith, and about 2,000 are currently imprisoned. Some Muslims have also been targeted. In 2007, the U.S. Department of State renewed its classification of Eritrea as a “country of concern” with regards to its restrictions on religious liberty..
Academic freedom is constrained. High school students are required to comply with a highly unpopular policy of obligatory military service, and they are often stationed at bases far from their homes, such as the training camp in Sawa, in the far western part of the country near the Ethiopian border. The conscription periods can be open-ended, and no conscientious objector clause exists. Freedom of assembly does not exist. The government continues to maintain a hostile attitude toward civil society. Independent NGOs are not allowed, and the legitimate role of human rights defenders is not recognized. In 2005, Eritrea enacted legislation to regulate the operations of all NGOs, requiring them to pay taxes on imported materials, submit project reports every three months, renew their licenses annually, and meet government-established target levels of financial resources. International human rights NGOs are barred from the country, and in 2006 the government expelled three remaining development NGOs.
The civil service, the military, the police, and other essential services have some restrictions on their freedom to form unions. In addition, groups of 20 or more persons seeking to form a union require special approval from the Ministry of Labor. The military conscription of men aged 18 to 45 has also created a scarcity of skilled labor.
A judiciary was formed by decree in 1993. It has never issued rulings significantly at variance with government positions, and constitutional guarantees are often ignored in cases related to state security. The provision of speedy trials is limited by a lack of trained personnel, inadequate funding, and poor infrastructure.
According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, torture, arbitrary detentions, and political arrests are widespread. Religious persecution and ill-treatment of those trying to avoid military service are increasing, and torture is systematically practiced by the army. Prison conditions are poor, and outside monitors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have been denied access to detainees.
There have been reports of government and societal discrimination against the Kunama, one of the country’s nine ethnic groups. Historically, the Kunama, who reside primarily in the west, have resisted attempts to integrate them into the national society.
Official government policy is supportive of free enterprise, and citizens generally have the freedom to choose their employment, establish private businesses, and operate them without government harassment. Critics have alleged that the system of military conscription constitutes forced labor. In addition, according to the World Bank, Eritrea ranks poorly in terms of regulatory checks on the economy.
Women played important roles in the guerrilla movement, and the government has worked to improve the status of women. In an effort to encourage broader participation by women in politics, the PFDJ in 1997 named 3 women to its executive council and 12 women to its central committee. Women participated in the Constitutional Commission, filling almost half of the positions on the 50-member panel, and hold senior government positions, including minister of justice and minister of labor. Approximately 40 percent of all households are headed by women. Equal educational opportunity, equal pay for equal work, and penalties for domestic violence have been codified. However, traditional societal discrimination against women persists in the largely rural and agricultural country.