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Is Eritrea the North Korea of Africa?

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Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

(Read caption) Christian migrants from Eritrea and Ethiopia pray together during the Sunday mass at the makeshift church in 'The New Jungle' near Calais, France, August 2, 2015. Some 3,000 migrants live around the tunnel entrance in a makeshift camp known as 'The Jungle,' making the northern French port one of the frontlines in Europe's wider migrant crisis.

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Africa Monitor is an occasional blog offering subjective views on African subjects. The views expressed are the authors' own.  

Is Eritrea guilty of crimes against humanity?

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The question evidently matters to the UN Human Rights Council, which last month extended for another year the mandate of its Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in the Horn of Africa nation. This extension followed the COI’s release in June of a 500-page report detailing its abuses.

The question should also matter to the rest of the world, given Eritrea’s serious contribution to the global refugee crisis, as seen through the continued flight of 5,000 Eritreans monthly from their homeland, many of whom are heading north to Europe. 

The COI report confirmed what the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, has documented for years:   Eritrea is the North Korea of Africa. It is a totalitarian police state which rules by fear, not law, producing a tragedy for human rights, including religious liberty, which the world must not ignore.

The regime of President Isias Afwerki and the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice have run Eritrea since 1993 after winning a long war for independence from Ethiopia. War with Ethiopia resumed in 1998, and while the conflict ended in 2000, Eritrea’s leaders operate on a permanent war footing.

The government deploys a pervasive domestic surveillance apparatus. Eritreans constantly fear they are being monitored and can be detained.

For a country of fewer than five million people, Eritrea has a vast penal system, and arbitrary detention is widespread.  Moreover, Eritrea’s judicial system lacks any semblance of independence or justice.  Citizens frequently aren’t told why they’re being detained or for how long, and those who are imprisoned often are tortured. Many are held incommunicado and some disappear and are never seen or heard from again.

Civic space for the free and peaceful practice of religion is incredibly restricted, with the government grossly interfering with Eritrea’s four recognized religious communities – the Coptic Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and a Lutheran-connected denomination. It has kept Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios under house arrest since 2006 for objecting to its meddling in church affairs, and has deposed him from his position as leader of his church.

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The regime makes all other religious groups illegal. Imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical and pentecostal Protestants routinely are tortured and pressed to recant their faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses are denied citizenship due to their conscientious objection to military service.

Both USCIRF and the US State Department concur that Eritrea is one of the world’s worst religious freedom environments, with the State Department designating Eritrea a “country of particular concern” or CPC each year since 2004.

Eritreans also are subjected to indefinite periods of universal conscription when they reach 18 and often at near-starvation levels, amounting to forced labor or slavery; women who serve often report being sexually assaulted.

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans -- between six and 10 percent of the country’s population -- have fled such tyranny over the past generation. The government has a shoot-to-kill policy against those making the attempt and frequently tortures their family members.

Those who leave are at risk of human traffickers capturing, torturing and killing them. Those who traverse Libya risk falling into Islamist State hands.   Those crossing the Mediterranean risk drowning.

Do any of Eritrea’s depredations amount to crimes against humanity? If the UN makes that determination next year, Eritrea’s regime and its rulers will be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Meanwhile, what can the United States do?

It can continue naming Eritrea a CPC, while taking specific CPC actions based on religious freedom violations. It can maintain its long-standing arms embargo against Eritrea. It can limit Eritrea’s ability to levy and forcibly collect a tax on Eritrean Americans by imposing visas bans on Eritrean officials.It can work with other nations to advocate the release of religious prisoners, including Patriarch Antonios, and support the efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and nongovernmental organizations to aid Eritrean refugees.

Eritrea’s tyranny has unleashed tragedy. The world community must press for a reversal of course toward freedom.

Robert P. George is Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Thomas J. Reese, SJ, is a USCIRF Commissioner.