Published by the Human Rights Watch
Thank you very much to the Committee on Development (DEVE) for inviting me to testify today about the human rights situation in Eritrea. This discussion is timely, as the European Commission is moving forward with a significant new development project focused largely on the construction sector which could put the European Commission in the position of facilitating an abusive system of forced labor.
I will start by offering an insight, based on over a decade of research, into the country’s uniquely abusive program of indefinite forced labor and then talk about other severe restrictions on Eritrean’s basic rights.
As the European Parliament clearly spelled out in its 2016 and 2017 resolutions, the rights situation in Eritrea is one of extreme repression. In July 2018, when a peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia was signed, many hoped that this would usher in human rights reforms in one of the world’s most repressive countries. But, eighteen months after the peace deal, these hopes have been dashed.
What is clear is that any engagement with Eritrea risks bringing the European Commission into a minefield of human rights issues – in some sectors more than others.
The country’s national service system remains intact.
By a proclamation issued in 1995, all Eritreans are subject to 18 months of national service, including six months of military training. The Eritrean government disregards the proclamation’s time limits: most Eritreans, women included, aged 18 to 50, some younger or older, are forced into working for the government for years, even decades.
While some “fortunate” conscripts are assigned to civil service jobs such as teachers, many fill the military’s rank and file, and are assigned in state-owned construction companies that have a complete monopoly in the field.
None have a choice about their assignments, the locations or the length of their service. But, it is not just the length of service but also what happens to conscripts during their years of service which is devastating.
We have found that conditions are particularly abusive in the construction sector, sector that the EU is now supporting.
In 2013, we looked into the treatment of construction laborers working in government-owned firms in the mining sector. The workers – by and large national service conscripts- faced terrible conditions, from inadequate food supplies to unsafe housing. Workers we interviewed said that national service conscripts and other Eritrean workers lived in fear and were ordered not to complain about their plight. One conscript told us he was imprisoned after leaving his post without permission in order to attend a relatives’ funeral.
In 2019, we investigated the impact of national service on secondary education in Eritrea.
Why? Because secondary school is the main channel used by the government to force its population into indefinite national service. Since 2003, each year thousands of Eritrean students, some under 18, are separated from their families and forced to spend the last year of secondary school in a military camp known as Sawa.
Throughout the final year at Sawa, students are under military command and face abusive punishments. As one young student told me, “they are making us into slaves, not educating us.” All military officials are men, and so female students risk sexual harassment and exploitation.
After this terrible year, when students graduate, the government either forces them directly into indefinite military service or on to vocational training or college, from which they are channeled into government-owned companies or government jobs.
Many children told us they had observed what had happened to their fathers, older siblings, or other close relatives who had been conscripted and didn’t want to suffer the same fate. But, students who try to evade Sawa– which often means deciding to drop out of school – risk being rounded-up and sent directly into military service.
Since the July 2018 peace agreement with Ethiopia, two “rounds” of students – which represents between 16,000 and 24,000 students in total – have been sent to Sawa and placed on the conveyor belt into national service.
While the government has started to pay some conscripts since late 2015/ 2016, conscripted teachers told us they still struggle to meet their basic financial needs, especially if they have a family. And the government introduced currency controls that limited the amount of cash they could withdraw from banks and continued to make significant deductions on national service wages, including for housing and food.
Conscripts who try to leave their posts, even temporarily, face reprisals and, especially if caught fleeing, imprisonment in dire conditions, as well as ill-treatment and torture.
For almost two decades the government justified indefinite national service on the basis that it was on a ‘war’ footing. More recently, it has started to justify it on the basis that the economic conditions are not ripe for ending the service.
But national service is not only used as a form of ‘employment’ in an, unquestionably, dire economic context, but as the main instrument of repression that the government uses to control almost every single aspect of its citizens’ lives.
So far, the government has shown no interest in creating a civilian service system outside of the national service system.
The government uses many other tools to repress its’ citizens basic rights.
Citizens cannot express their views or question government policies affecting them. There is no independent civil society in the country. Independent media outlets inside Eritrea have been shut down since 2001.
The president still refuses to hold elections and to implement the country’s draft constitution. The interim legislature has not met since early 2002. The judiciary is tightly controlled by the government.
Unlike Ethiopia, which released tens of thousands of political detainees two years ago, in Eritrea, thousands of prisoners are detained arbitrarily in dire conditions in the country’s web of detention facilities. Torture and ill-treatment are common.
The government has neither released nor improved the conditions of its most prominent prisoners – including 11 high-level government officials and 10 journalists, including the Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak – detained incommunicado since 2001. It has held Ciham Ali Abdu, daughter of a former information minister, in incommunicado detention for almost 7 years. She was arrested aged 15.
The EU’s dual track approach places human rights on its political agenda, but these trends are showing no sign of abetting, in some instances things are getting worse.
Two months after the peace agreement, the government arrested Abrehe Kidane Berhane, a former finance minister, after he called for political reforms. He has not been heard from since.
Since the peace agreement, the space for independent actors appears to have shrunk further, and as the EU is aware, at least one of its own partners is having to withdraw from the country.
Similarly, in 2019, after Eritrean Catholic bishops called for justice and reform from the government, the government took over important religion-affiliated schools and confiscated all Catholic health facilities, leaving people in parts of the country without access to healthcare.
Thousands of Eritreans, many of them children, flee the country each month directly as a result of the abuses they face at home. This exodus has not reduced since the peace agreement. UNHCR statistics suggest that about 10% of the Eritrean population is currently in exile.
Young Eritreans have repeatedly told us about how much they agonized about the decision but that the lack of freedom and control over their future forced them to take the incredibly difficult and perilous decision to leave their families behind and flee. “It’s a life in prison, in our own country,” a 19-year-old Eritrean told me.
Despite this reality, it appears that the EU has chosen to accept the risk of indirectly supporting forced labor by engaging in a construction project – one of the most abusive sectors – and accepting that not even the most basic checks and balances are in place.
The EU should do better. Measures should be put in place to ensure that EU funding and other activities do not contribute to the abusive system of forced labor in Eritrea.
At the same time, the EU should not rely on the Eritrean government to monitor its projects or take the any government commitments at face value; independent safeguards are needed.
Reform is a process, but some reforms are purely a question of the Eritrean government’s political will.
Eritrea has a constitution that it could implement and a parliament it could convene. The government could release political prisoners or at minimum let their relatives have information on their fate. The EU should be using its leverage, notably during the ongoing political dialogue, to insist that these types of reforms be implemented before moving forward with new development projects.
And the EU should push for concrete evidence that the government is truly working towards ending the repressive use of national service, including by creating jobs outside of national service, by separating schooling from conscription, and by immediately demobilizing individuals who have spent more than five years in service.
Eritreans deserve to be free and to have their basic rights respected, including to have an adequate standard of living and a family life, and the right to not be arbitrarily detained. At a time where Eritrean leaders have gained international recognition without having improved the plight of their citizens, the EU needs to make clear through its support that ordinary Eritreans are not forgotten.