Transitions

The Country That’s Never Had an Election

Eritrea, a country of roughly 6 million people on the Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s most repressive states. There is no freedom of speech, press, or religion. Not a single election has been held since the country achieved independence two decades ago after a 30-year war with Ethiopia. Prolonged detention and torture ...

PETER BUSOMOKE/AFP/Getty Images
PETER BUSOMOKE/AFP/Getty Images

Eritrea, a country of roughly 6 million people on the Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s most repressive states. There is no freedom of speech, press, or religion. Not a single election has been held since the country achieved independence two decades ago after a 30-year war with Ethiopia. Prolonged detention and torture are routine for any dissenters. And adults are forcibly conscripted mandatory military or national service that can last as long as the government decides.

Yet despite Eritrea’s ghastly human rights record, few human rights activists, policy makers, or world leaders ever mention the place.

Here are ten reasons why we should care about the state of human rights in this oft-forgotten corner of the world:

20
For the past 20 years, since the country was formally recognized by the international community on May 24, 1993, Eritrea has been ruled by President Isais Afwerki (pictured above) and the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). After an initially promising start toward democratization, the Isaias regime became insular and repressive. Over the years the ailing President Isaias has become exceedingly paranoid about losing control. The country has yet to hold an election, and its 1997 constitution, which recognizes universal human rights, remains suspended.

10,000
Amnesty International estimates that there are 10,000 prisoners of conscience in Eritrea. They include government critics and dissidents, journalists, followers of registered and unregistered religious communities, national service evaders and military deserters, returned asylum seekers, and family members of those who fled the country. Detention can last for years or decades. Prisoners are often held incommunicado, in secret, with no family or legal counsel contact, and without charge or trial.

2,000-3,000
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where I serve as a senior policy analyst, reports that there are 2,000 to 3,000 people imprisoned because of their religious beliefs. In interviews I conducted with Eritrean refugees in December 2012, many former religious prisoners spoke of being subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment.

Only four religious communities (the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea) are legally recognized. The Eritrean government interferes in the leadership of the communities and imposes a number of invasive controls over these religious groups. The government has refused to register all other religious communities and has prohibited their public religious activities and closing their places of worship. The situation for Jehovah’s Witnesses and Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians is particularly dire.

x
The number of prisons, military prisons, town and/or district jails, and secret prisons in Eritrea is unknown. What we do know is that political and religious prisoners, as well as persons caught trying to escape the country, are held under shocking conditions. Reports of torture and other inhumane or humiliating treatment are common. These prisoners, including former religious prisoners whom I’ve interviewed, report sustained exposure to the sun in the desert, having hands and feet tied behind their back for prolonged periods of time, beatings, forced recantations of faith, and confinement in cramped conditions, such as 20-foot metal shipping containers or underground barracks in the desert where they are subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations. Reports of death in detention due to torture, ill-treatment, or denied access to medical care are common.

0
There are no independent political parties, civil society organizations, or independent news organizations operating in Eritrea. Independent public gatherings are prohibited.

1
The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Eritrea as the world’s most censored country in 2012, reporting that it is Africa’s leading jailer of journalists (and the world’s fourth worst). Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea at the bottom of its Press Freedom Index in 2013. No independent, domestic news agency has operated since 2001, the same year that the Eritrean government expelled its last accredited foreign news reporter.

18-50
Men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 can be called up for mandatory military or national service. National service is indefinite and begins during Eritreans’ final year of high school at the Sawa military camp. What’s more, Eritreans can be called to service up to age 55. When conscripts do not perform military service, the Eritrean Department of Defense assigns them to civilian development projects or commercial enterprises and pays their salaries.

285,142
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in January 2013 that more than 285,142 Eritreans have fled the country. A large percentage of Eritreans are young men and unaccompanied minors escaping Eritrea’s indefinite military or national service. Others are fleeing abuses of human rights and religious freedom.

The Eritrean government apparently has a "shoot-to-kill" policy ordering military officers to shoot anyone trying to cross the border — an issue that recently brought the regime some unwelcome scrutiny at the United Nations.

$30,000
Family members of Eritrean refugees abducted from Sudanese refugee camps by Sudanese and Egyptian smuggling networks and held for ransom in the Sinai are asked to pay up to $30,000 for their release. The victims of human trafficking endure torture and other ill-treatment, including rape, beatings by various objects such as whips or chairs, burnings with cigarette butts, suspension from ceilings for prolonged periods of time in contorted positions, electric shocks, etc. There are also reports of organ harvesting.

7 percent
The Eritrean economy is expected to grow by 7 percent in 2013 and 6.5 percent in 2014 due to a mining boom. Australian and Canadian mining companies are helping the nation grow by mining for zinc, copper, gold, and silver. But, as the numbers above demonstrate, this wealth doesn’t necessarily guarantee the happiness or well-being of the majority of the population.

Tiffany Lynch, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are her own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission.

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