Eritrea: slender land, giant prison

A nation once respected for its independence struggle is now disfigured by severe political repression, says Ben Rawlence of Human Rights Watch.

(This article was first pubished on 6 May 2009)

About the author
Ben Rawlence is consultant to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch

Eritrea has avoided international attention in recent years in ways that may have protected the Red Sea country's rulers from proper scrutiny but benefit no one else. Even those who recall that the continent's youngest state gained its unlikely independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a bloody thirty-year struggle may be shocked to hear that the optimistic nationalism of the 1990s has been dissolved under President Isaias Afewerki into a despairing void, causing thousands of Eritreans to flee the country that they fought so hard to establish.

Ben Rawlence is a researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch (HRW)

HRW's report Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea was published on 16 April 2009

Also by Ben Rawlence on openDemocracy:

"Nigeria and the G8: time for action" (6 June 2007) - with Christopher Albin-Lackey

Much of the inattention to what is going on in Eritrea is owed to the fact that all independent media were shut down in 2001, at the start of a wave of political repression that continues to this day. Many journalists arrested at the start of the decade remain in prison. Foreign journalists of whom the government disapproves are deported. State-run media broadcast a near-continuous diet of praise of the president and vitriol against Eritrea's nemesis, Ethiopia.

The closing country

There is no independent civil society, and human-rights organisations are not allowed to operate. Freedom of worship is limited, and movement is restricted. Citizens travelling inside Eritrea need travel permits while those trying to leave the country need visas, which are rarely granted. Mistrust of Ethiopia frames the government of Eritrea's relations with its citizens and its neighbours. In May 1998, a border dispute with Ethiopia gave Isaias Afewerki a justification to shelve plans for elections. The fighting killed tens of thousands on both sides before it ended in December 2000 (see Edward Denison, "Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war", 18 January 2006). 

A United Nations commission was appointed to demarcate the border between the two countries, but Ethiopia refused to carry out its decision that awarded disputed territory to Eritrea. The government in Asmara, frustrated by the lack of international pressure on Ethiopia, stopped cooperating with a UN border force. The situation remains volatile, even if neither government seems eager to resume direct clashes. The respective governments support the other's opposition movements; Eritrea has also supported extreme Islamist factions in Somalia, Ethiopia's rival to the east. 

President Isaias uses the border standoff and paranoid claims of "western interference" to justify his increasingly totalitarian rule. The country's eighteen-month national-service obligation has been indefinitely extended. This means that much of the adult population (in a nation of about 4.4 million people) works at the direction of the state for years for only a token wage. The majority of national-service conscripts serve in the 300,000-member military.  

Also on Eritrea and the Horn of Africa in openDemocracy:

Ann Pettifor, "Ethiopia: the price of indifference" (19 February 2004)

David Styan, "Tony Blair and Africa - old images, new realities" (26 May 2005)

Becky Hogge, "I didn't do it for Michela Wrong" (16 August 2005)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war" (18 January 2006)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea: a cheap holiday in other people's misery" (20 December 2006)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia at the crossroads" (10 January 2007)

Edward Denison, "Ethiopia's hostages to history" (5 March 2007)

Edward Denison, "The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary" (13 April 2007)

The continuing "emergency" is also used to legitimise sweeping restrictions on political dissent and religion. National-service conscripts who question government policy soon find themselves in Eritrea's massive and mysterious national network of jails. Among those languishing in appalling conditions in Eritrea's prisons - underground, in shipping containers and in the notorious Dahlak Kebir island prison in the Red Sea - are students who were caught reading the bible in school, soldiers who tried to flee the army, and political opponents who in 2001 questioned the president and called for the return of democracy in 2001 (the last category includes the former foreign minister and vice-president).

Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of refugees in Djibouti, Sicily and London in preparing a new report, Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea. Many had been forced to work for the state indefinitely for a pittance, either in the military or in back-breaking jobs in farming, building or mining.  All had been jailed at some point for their religious beliefs or for trying to flee, in some cases four or five times.

Indeed, it is no surprise that the repression is causing increasing numbers of Eritreans to flee. Every month, hundreds pour into refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia; many of them try to reach Europe, despite the risky journey across Darfur, Libya and the Mediterranean. But leaving Eritrea is not easy. The border is sometimes mined, and patrolled by soldiers with "shoot-to-kill" orders. 

The international task 

Even if they do manage to escape, their nightmare is not over. In recent years Malta, Libya, Sudan, Egypt and even Britain have returned asylum- seekers to Eritrea, where they are viewed as traitors to the nation-building cause and treated as such. They face almost certain incarceration, torture and possibly death. The Human Rights Watch report calls for an absolute prohibition on all forcible return of Eritrean asylum-seekers.

Many of the refugees we interviewed in Italy and Djibouti feared for their safety even outside the country. The Eritrean government has an active network of informants in the region, in Europe and the United States. Overseas embassies are also responsible for fundraising for the government; collecting a 2% tax from expatriates; and intimidating and repressing the family members in Eritrea of those who don't pay. 

The threat from this repressive government extends beyond the suffering of Eritrea's people. Eritrea is also a major impediment to security in the Horn of Africa as a whole.

What should be done? Any serious efforts to stabilise the Horn and prevent Eritrea's human-rights crisis from getting any worse should start with the poisonous relationship between Asmara and Addis Ababa. The United Nations, the African Union and key governments should make a serious effort to bring Ethiopia and Eritrea to terms, normalise relations and begin to reduce the network of repression that is choking democracy and human rights in both countries and fuelling instability in Somalia. 



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6 May 2009 - 4:29pm


I appreciate the work of HRW to highlight issues to do with human right, but your article is just one sided and full of inaccuracies.

[Quote] "President Isaias uses the border standoff and paranoid claims of "western interference" to justify his increasingly totalitarian rule"

Well, I do not call it paranoid claims when western countries are blatantly manipulating international rule of law, illegally funding and dumping huge amounts of arms and invading countries by proxy. Please follow the few links among hundreds that I can provide you.

You conveniently try to blame Eritrea and its leadership, while not mention the real culprits of the real problem, that is imprisoning millions of Eritreans in "No war no peace" constant mobilization limbo.

If you are not aware of it, there is such a thing called International rule of law, that so called democratic countries should not put conditionality, but they are.
As you correctly pointed, the Hague based international border commission made its ruling, that both countries agreed to abide before hand. UN, US, EU and AU were witnesses to this agreement and UNSC was supposed to be the guarantor and enforcer of the ruling, but instead they have blatantly tried everything but enforce the decision, including reversing the decision, falsifying UN monitoring report etc...

It is disingenuous to point at every shortcoming of Eritrea, while try to defend the disgraceful actions of so called democratic western countries in the horn of Africa.

Even in your HRW report on Ethiopia, you questioned why the Western countries are pumping so much aid (at least $2 billion/yr and growing) with out questioning the human right and heinous crimes.
[Quote] "Western governments and institutions alone, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, give at least US$2 billion in aid to Ethiopia annually, but have remained silent on the widespread abuses being committed"

"Ethiopia: Army Commits Executions, Torture, and Rape in Ogaden
Donors Should Act to Stop Crimes Against Humanity"

I can add to it
Illegal invasion of Somalia with UN and US complicity

Somalia Crisis worse than Darfur, says UN

Ethiopia's 'own Darfur' as villagers flee government-backed violence

Looking at the above links including your report, it is hard to miss the deep western gov. implication and conivance to the whole crisis in the horn of Africa.

In the end, I agree with your conclusion. Humor the Eritrean people and leadership by enforcing the demarcation of the border, then there is not excuse for no democratization .

oh when will people stop telling white lies
6 May 2009 - 8:37pm

The problem with this article is there are some truths many lies and some star treks moments all mix into one story

Not logged in
7 May 2009 - 7:28pm

Normalizing relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea will never solve the case of human rights violations in Eritrea, in the contrary such an approach would enforce and prolong the span of Isaias Afwerqi stay on power. Which means more and more violations,

The right thing to done it just overthrowing Isaias Afwerqi and bring him to the court of law.
He have said that free elections will not happen in Eritrea for the next 30 or 40 years. He said this when interviewed by Aljazeera English "Riz Kan"
We never expect him to tolerate rivals, he kills and kills and kills and we watch and just

we will never see rule of law, democracy,free press, and just in Eritrea since Isaias is in power

8 May 2009 - 2:38am

         Your articel was interesting, up to a point.  However, you need to include in consideration of the problems of this whole region of Africa, the excessive birth rate of close to five children per woman, which DOUBLES the population every 30 or so years !!  How can the situation in these countries improve when the already starving population is adding contantly MORE of malnourished children ??  The only beneficiaries of this kind of mindless propagation are the exploiters of these misfortunate people. The religious and mercantily warlords who profit from these mindless conflicts.


Not logged in
8 May 2009 - 4:47am

I am a proud Eritrean but I am too sad, too disappointed and too disconnected to join and celebrate our hard won independence.

my people, the Eritrean people do not deserve to be treated this was. It is betrayal in its totality!

Humility, empathy, sympathy and compassion is the core of our value but you don't see this value in the PFDJ leadership and in their alien culture.

Thanks for voicing for the voiceless and joining the struggle for a fundamental change!

Not logged in
9 May 2009 - 9:41am


No matter what so ever internal and external problems Eritrea is facing, the people of Eritrea do not deserve the cruelty and disrespect they are subjected to from their own government, the way it is in Eritrea day in day out.

If you have an opinion, the Eritrean government is doing a fair job and treating it's people as humans, then i rest my case. And note, I have shed my share of sweat and blood I feel so disgusted few people with Isayas at the helm are treating Eritrea as their private ranch. My pain and misgivings are too long to list them here.


Denden Nakfa

25 February 2010 - 5:08pm

me my self i do not belive" white people "what they says

they says day and night of bad about eratrea but how the citisens living ethiopi,sudan,libya,italy even in united kingdom .that they are saying you do not desert military ,you al ready  demoblisied you leve eratrea with pasport and so so so my beloved brotheres and sisters  I DO NOT BELIVE THEM i do not trust my government .one thing i pray to GOD day and night to save my beloved country and its people


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