Former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, 10 December 2002
The present state of human rights in the Middle East and Africa is deplorable to say the least. Over the past few years, major conflicts and oppression in Syria, South Sudan, Libya, Egypt, and Nigeria have precipitated a serious deterioration in living conditions across the region. Government-sanctioned abuse in Eritrea has also played a significant albeit less prominent role in this development. According to a recent United Nations investigation, the Eritrean government has engaged in extrajudicial killings, forced labor, violation of individual liberties, and other abuses that have essentially quashed Eritreans’ human rights. The severity of these violations demands an international diplomatic effort to establish humane governance in Eritrea.
Like many nascent Sub-Saharan countries, Eritrea’s path to statehood was not peaceful. Following the British liberation of East Africa during World War II, Eritrea’s status as an independent nation became a regional point of contention. With an eye toward Eritrea’s ports on the Red Sea, landlocked Ethiopia lobbied the United Nations to approve a federation plan that would permit Eritrean autonomy in the context of territorial and economic union. Ethiopia disregarded this arrangement after it was implemented and subsequently pursued outright annexation of Eritrea. By 1960, Eritrea was effectively an Ethiopian territory.
Ethiopian ethnic and religious discrimination quickly incensed many Eritrean Muslims and motivated a new independence movement. Eritrean rebels formed the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1960 and soon began an armed insurrection against Ethiopian rule. Obstinacy and political infighting on both sides led to a protracted war that ravaged Eritrea’s land and economy. After nearly thirty years of fighting, Ethiopian forces were ousted from Eritrea, and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), successor to the ELF, began its provisional administration of the country. In 1993, Eritreans voted for independence in a national referendum, and EPLF leader Isaias Afwerki took the helm of the transitional government.
Eritreans voted for independence under the assumption that a democratic government would soon be instituted in Eritrea. Indeed, with the ratification of a liberal constitution in 1997, a transition to democratic governance seemed imminent. However, subsequent foreign policy conflicts with Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti derailed Eritrea’s progress toward democracy. Regional hostility allowed Afwerki to delay implementation of Eritrea’s new constitution and consolidate authoritarian power under the guise of national security. Afwerki and his People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), Eritrea’s sole political party, have since established a totalitarian regime sustained by domestic political repression.
The international community has long been aware of human rights abuses by the Afwerki regime, but the full extent of the government’s brutality was only recently uncovered in a 2015 UN investigation. The findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea are nothing short of horrifying. Eritreans residing outside of Eritrea (and Afwerki’s reach) testified to mass government surveillance, suppression of free speech and press, religious discrimination, restriction of movement, arbitrary administration of justice, arbitrary imprisonment, extrajudicial killings, torture, excessive conscription, sexual violence, and forced labor. These acts are unconscionable, and they are entirely repugnant to any conception of human dignity. They are also perpetrated daily by the Eritrean government under the outrageous pretext of national security.
The growing flood of refugees out of Eritrea underscores the severity of Afwerki’s atrocities. The UN estimates that 5,000 refugees flee the country each month, joining the 400,000 Eritreans already residing outside of their homeland. The magnitude of this exodus is staggering considering the government’s “shoot-to-kill” border policy and Eritrea’s small population of only 6 million citizens. Most Eritrean refugees live in impoverished camps in Sudan and Ethiopia, though tens of thousands of Eritreans have undertaken the harrowing journey to Europe with the aid of human traffickers.
Perhaps most remarkable is the international community’s almost complete lack of concern for the plight of Eritreans. Since the publication of the June 2015 report, the only diplomatic action taken against Eritrea involved the extension of a UN arms embargo. Even this sanction was imposed not in response to Eritrea’s human rights violations, but to its suspected support for Al-Shabaab and its continuing conflict with Djibouti. Despite recognition of Eritrea’s human rights violations, governments party to the UN have taken no action to censure or pressure the Afwerki regime on its domestic abuses.
This international inaction is particularly striking when we consider the wealth of measures that governments could take to protect human rights in Eritrea. At minimum, countries could leverage their diplomatic relations with Eritrea to pressure Afwerki on his government’s abuses. Persistent and public admonishment from the United States, China, and other influential states would cast Eritrea as a political pariah and incite international outrage against the Afwerki regime. Given its contentious relationship with neighboring countries, Eritrea has a vested interest in maintaining extra-regional diplomatic relations. The international community could incentivize Afwerki to halt human rights abuses by deliberately straining these relations in response to violations.
Although diplomatic action is significant, economic sanctions provide a more compelling means to force Eritrea’s compliance with international human rights standards. Unilateral or multilateral economic sanctions would impose a tangible cost on the Afwerki regime that it could not easily defray without changes to its social policies. As Eritrea’s top two trading partners, Canada and China are in particularly strong positions to implement these sanctions. Canadian and Chinese trade embargos would reduce Eritrea’s exports by over $200 million, certainly a considerable loss to Eritrea’s $2.6 billion economy. Furthermore, these countries have an incentive to intervene in favor of human rights. With action against Afwerki, Canada would bolster its exemplary human rights record and China would improve its credentials. Multilateral economic sanctions facilitated through the UN would stand an even greater chance at effecting change. Such measures would likely find support in the Security Council, as few states have a vested interest in supporting Eritrea’s inhumane government.
Should Afwerki continue exploiting his people despite diplomatic and economic pressures, the international community will have to resort to military intervention to protect Eritreans. However, use of force under humanitarian grounds is difficult to initiate given its legal ambiguity. The present Westphalian system of governance generally protects states from outside interference, though the UN Charter permits intervention “to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Because of this legal uncertainty, states have hesitated to engage in humanitarian intervention in the past: The Rwandan, Bosnian, and Cambodian genocides stand as stark examples of international equivocation. If history is to serve as any indication, the international community will similarly allow conditions in Eritrea to deteriorate until it feels compelled to intervene.
To some extent, neglect of Eritrean atrocities is understandable. The international community has focused primarily on resolving the Syrian civil war and stemming the spread of the Islamic State, and rightly so: These developments have displaced over 11 million people and are principally responsible for human suffering in the Middle East and Africa. Nonetheless, concentration on these issues does not justify complete inaction with regard to Eritrea. At minimum, economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure must be leveled against the Afwerki regime to incentivize reform. Should these efforts fail to encourage change or, at worst, aggravate Afwerki’s abuses, humanitarian intervention may be justified. In any case, action must be taken to address these human rights violations. All nations have a responsibility to uphold human dignity and defend basic freedoms. Thus far, they have failed to fulfill this responsibility in Eritrea.
Todd Lensman is a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Mathematics and Economics.