[OP-ED] We Cannot Turn a Blind Eye to Eritrea’s Human Rights Abuses
Isaias Afwerki is the President of Eritrea, a country often being referred to as the “North Korea of Africa.” Since he rose to power in 1993, he has dominated Eritrean politics. He came to power following a 30-year war for Eritrea’s independence. The country has yet to convene a legislature and officially approve its constitution, which was created in 1997.
In September of 2001, 15 members of the President’s cabinet penned a letter to Afwerki heavily criticizing the regime’s authoritarian practices and made calls for the constitution to be put in place. In response, 11 of these dissenters were arrested along with ten other journalists.
Those arrested have been placed under Incommunicado Detention, which the Human Rights Watch defines as “a situation of detention in which an individual is denied access to family members, an attorney, or an independent physician.” Once arrested, political prisoners in Eritrea are sent to one of the 34 detention camps identified by Amnesty International. These camps have been described as full of horrible living conditions. There are numerous allegations of torture, rape, and beatings, many of which are described in a UN Human Rights Council Report published in 2015. The UN Report concluded that the actions of the Eritrean government, “may constitute crimes against humanity.”
In addition to the brutality of the Afwerki regime, the sheer number of prisoners in this incommunicado detention is appalling. Amnesty International estimates that since 1993, there have been an alleged 10,000 prisoners processed through these detention camps. One of such prisoners is Ciham Ali Ahmed, a citizen of the US and Eritrea. She was arrested at the age of 15 while attempting to flee Eritrea’s national service. Her family has not seen her since she was arrested and have no knowledge of her whereabouts. This is just one case of thousands in which families are left with little to no information about their loved ones.
The national service that Ali Ahmed was fleeing is, on paper, an 18 month long mandatory military conscription. However, in reality, citizens are left doing forced labor for the government for decades after the supposed end of their conscription. The military service is also plagued with allegations of sexual assault and rape. People fleeing the military service have contributed to Eritrea being, “the ninth largest refugee group in the world.” Eritreans are the second largest African refugee group in Europe (as of 2018) and among the highest regarding estimated deaths while crossing the Mediterranean.
Afwerki’s record of Human Rights abuses makes it no surprise that Eritrea is nicknamed the “North Korea of Africa.” However, there has been an outpouring of positive press for Afwerki’s government recently. Much of this positive coverage has come on the heels of the historic peace agreement which brought forth the end to the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict. While it should be acknowledged that the agreement is a step towards peace, it should not reconcile such human rights abuses. Afwerki’s positive surge has reached such a point that as of Oct. 12, 2018, Eritrea was elected, unopposed, to a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council. The council is responsible for sanctioning investigations into human rights violations around the world.
The international community is turning a blind eye to Eritrea’s violations, giving them voting power and a voice in what could be investigations into their human rights abuses. There is a worrying trend in countries with questionable human rights records such as China and Saudi Arabia joining the council. Countries with such allegations have no place on the council meant to investigate them. The predecessor of the current body was the UN Human Rights Commission, which failed due to its inability to persecute abusers properly, was plagued by similar problems. The UNHRC’s creation by Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan was meant to replace the preceding body’s failures. What seems to be happening, however, is a relapse of the issues that plagued the UN Human Rights Commission.
Will the council be able to adequately investigate abusers? The answer would seems doubtful if countries like Eritrea are admitted with no opposition. Isaias Afwerki’s government has subjugated Eritrea’s people to a life in constant fear for 26 years. His human rights record should disqualify him and his government from any position in the UN Human Rights Council. The solution is to ensure that violators are persecuted and, more importantly, not given a seat at the table. Those who commit crimes against humanity as Eritrea has should be persecuted and not elected to the UN Human Rights Council.