Eritrea, a small African nation bordering Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia in Africa’s northeastern coast, has gone largely unnoticed as one of the most oppressive governments in all of Africa, and arguably the world. But, now that sanctions against the authoritarian government of Eritrea have been lifted by the United Nations, a spotlight is being shone on the nation where residents are fleeing from in packs; a nation which has been referred to by the Wall Street Journal as ‘Africa’s North Korea’
The nation of just under 6 million people is occupied by residents practicing Islam, Roman Catholicism, Coptic Christianity, and Protestantism. But make no mistake, the existence of multiple religions is no sign of freedom within Eritrea. After fighting a 30-year war, Eritrea gained formal independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and ever since has been one of the leading sources of refugees from Africa. As a single-party state, the president in Eritrea – currently Isaias Afwerki – is both head of state and head of government. This is one of the primary reasons that the country has been compared with the likes of North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela.
This isolation of power and no-contest political structure has led to what can only be described as an authoritarian dictatorship with little respect for basic human rights. The current government continues to ignore the framework for democratic governance that was outlined and ratified in the nation’s National Assembly in 1997. Those who criticize the president are routinely imprisoned, as evidenced by 21 senior government officials and journalists who have been behind bars since 2001 after speaking out against the Eritrean government. The nation has never held elections, has no independent media and requires indefinite, mandatory military service with little to no pay.
This is why it is so perplexing that the United Nations has decided to lift sanctions against the Eritrean government which have been in place since 2009. In October, Human Rights Watch stated firmly that Eritrea is among the countries that should not be considered for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and they were spot on. To allow a nation with such a persistent, checkered history of human rights – a nation currently operating under a single-party dictatorship – would be to make a mockery of the concept of a Human Rights Council.
Yet, Eritrea was ultimately elected to the Human Rights Council, leading some to question frankly: ‘Why are the world’s worst violators joining UN human rights council?’ It’s a question that has gone unanswered, with the UN apparently willing to take the Eritrean government’s word that they will ‘address human rights challenges’.
To most, pledges by Eritrean government officials that they will embrace a 180-degree reorientation are laughable. A single-party government with a track record of oppression and brute tactics doesn’t simply concede power, or concede anything, for that matter. Heavy-handedness and tyranny have kept president Isaias Afwerki and his party in power, and now have led to their election to the UN Human Rights Council. From their perspective, their tactics are clearly working, even if more than 9% of Eritreans have fled the country in recent years.
Why would the Eritrean dictatorship feel any reason to change?
The message that has been sent by the United Nations, with the Human Rights Council decision and now the lifting of sanctions, is that the Eritrean government can keep on ruling as they have for decades, and they will ultimately be rewarded if they issue some false promises. They will be free to accept international loans, conduct their economy how they please without fear of a chilly international trade climate, and will even be called upon as a member of the Human Rights Council to critique how other nations go about ruling.
The Eritrean people, meanwhile, will continue to go on neglected, subject to the whims of a ruthless government in a highly-isolated nations. Because Ethiopia has worked to contain the policies and practices of Eritrea, the people of Eritrea are left to fend for themselves. Those who flee the Afwerki regime are often forced to turn to means that are often dangerous, whether it means fleeing to Europe in ramshackle, overcrowded vessels or turning to individuals that ultimately prove to be human traffickers.
There are other very real consequences to be considered from the lifting of sanctions against Eritrea. The unfreezing of assets and lifting of a travel ban are thought to increase the likelihood that Eritrea may become involved in regional conflicts, particularly in Yemen. This would only heighten the chaos in the region, and in Eritrea, where life is already hectic. A Saudi-supported peace deal between Eritrea in Ethiopia, which was signed in September, went a long way towards sanctions being lifted. But, as many an African peace deal has shown, the deal was likely a means to an end, and Saudi support likely came from their desire to take advantage of Eritrea’s strategic location south of the Suez Canal.
In other words, a tit-for-tat between Saudi Arabia and Eritrea should have been seen for the Machiavellian move that it was. But, UN member nations apparently felt compelled enough to pretend that the peace treaty is real progress.
For the people of Eritrea, the dictatorship persists, and little if anything will change, despite pledges issued from the Afwerki government, and despite the United Nations’ implied endorsement of a Eritrean regime with a shameful record on human rights.