Eritrea is a human rights nightmare. International action may be making it worse.
"I still very much love my country, but it's the harsh conditions and lack of basic human rights which has compelled me to seek asylum", said Weynay Ghebresilasie, Eritrea's flag-bearer at the 2012 Olympic Games and one of the four Eritrean athletes now claiming asylum in the UK.
For a decade, Eritrean authorities have arrested citizens seen to be a political threat to the regime, and the country's four Olympic defectors are amongst a reported 14,000 Eritrean refugees seeking asylum from President Isaias Afewerki's rule.
Following the end of the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2000, human rights have been eroded in the country. Dozens have been arbitrarily detained and held for years without charge, it is reported that torture in detention is widespread, and its press is the most censored in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Just yesterday, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) announced that 4 Eritrean journalists had died in prison after suffering ill treatment.
The government in Eritrea has come under pressure from activists, the African Union and the broader international community to release political prisoners and improve human rights. However, these calls are being undermined by one-sided criticism of Eritrea's role as a regional actor which weaken human rights critiques and may even contribute to the worsening of domestic abuses.
In 2001, 15 members of the ruling party - including high-level ministers - signed an open letter to Isaias calling for political reform. Shortly after, 11 of the 15 (known as G-15) were arrested and detained without charge along with 10 journalists. Nearly 11 years later, little is known about the prisoners' condition or whereabouts save for some unconfirmed accounts from those who have managed to flee the country.
A defector who claimed to be a former prison guard reported in 2010 that at least 7 of the 21 political prisoners had died due to lack of medical care, high temperatures and insufficient food rations. In his account, he talked of the harsh conditions in Eritrea's secret prisons, where shackled inmates are often kept in solitary cells and subject to regular bouts of torture and molestation.
Despite appeals to the Eritrean government for the release of the political prisoners by the European Union, the country being described as "a giant prison" by Human Rights Watch (HRW), and last month's report by the UN Human Rights Council, Isaias denies knowledge of their existence and has ignored proceedings brought against Eritrea by groups such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Sadly, this case is just one example of the state of affairs in Eritrea where the ruling party, ironically named the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), has clamped down on freedom of expression over the past decade. Estimations have suggested that there are now between 5,000-10,000 people languishing in Eritrea's prisons for political reasons.
Since 2001, scores of government officials, journalists and businessmen have been jailed allegedly for criticising governmental policy, for practicing "unregistered" religions and even for listening to Ethiopian music. Although the 1997 constitution includes articles confirming the 'Fundamental Rights, Freedoms and Duties' for its people, these have not been implemented and Isaias's power remains unconstrained. As neither a functioning legislature nor independent judicial body are in place to formally charge those who are detained, many Eritreans are imprisoned indefinitely without trial or sentence.
Furthermore, a September 2011 report by HRW highlighted forced labour, religious persecution, restrictions on the freedom of movement, and abuses within the system of National Service. Under the guidelines of the National Service it is obligatory for 18-year-olds to complete 18 months of training and service in the armed forces. However, national service stints are often extended indefinitely, with some serving for a decade before demobilisation - three of Olympian Ghebresilasie's brothers are still in the military. It is alleged that many spend their time as forced labour for the commercial enterprises and farms owned by the PDFJ, and that sexual abuse of female recruits is widespread. Those trying to evade or abscond from National Service are rounded up, beaten and sometimes killed by the authorities.
Accusations and attacks
Eritrea is nestled along the Red Sea in the troubled Horn of Africa region. Despite the many violent crimes, both domestic and regional, committed by state and non-state actors in the region, Eritrea has been singled out for pariah status by the international community.
Eritrea has, for example, been accused of providing weaponry, supplies and financial support to Somalia's militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, for which, in 2009, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the regime. Asmara rejected the claims and some independent analysts criticised the UN Monitoring Group, which provided the basis for sanctions, as biased and politicised and based on Ethiopian-gathered evidence. One example of bias given is the Monitoring Group's criticism of Eritrea taxing Eritrean citizens who live overseas, a practice also carried out by the US government on American citizens abroad.
There has also been speculation regarding Eritrea's possible involvement a plot to bomb the July 2011 summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa. The plot was allegedly carried out by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a banned separatist group operating in Ethiopia. Eritrea does have historic links to the OLF and other Ethiopian opposition groups as allies during the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war. However, previous ties do not mean Eritrea planned the attack on around 30 African heads of state and most of the evidence gathered linking Asmara to the foiled attack comes from Ethiopian security forces hostile to Eritrea. Furthermore, the Ethiopian government may have a history of inventing bomb attacks and blaming the Oromo separatists and Eritrea. A US embassy cable, released by wikileaks, from September 2006 suggests that another supposedly failed terrorist attack in Addis Ababa, which was blamed on OLF and Eritrea, may in fact have been carried out by Ethiopian security forces.
The Eritrean government are also accused of having trained and funded the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) militants who carried out attacks in northern Ethiopia at the start of this year, although no evidence has been presented directly linking Asmara to the killings and the ARDUF have a history of attacks on foreigners and hostility towards both Addis Ababa and Asmara.
A paranoid president?
To explain many of Eritrea's supposed regional crimes, the international community often points towards the paranoia of Isaias and the PFDJ elite. For example, the UN report into the foiled 2011 Addis Ababa bomb plot referred to Eritrea as "no longer proportional or rational" in its actions. Whilst this may seem patronising, there may be some truth in these claims as Isaias has demonstrated some paranoid tendencies. In a 2009 interview with Reuters, for instance, the Eritrean president said "It is not a question of human rights, religious rights. It is part of a fight, of a powerful opposition, and this powerful opposition has not succeeded in achieving anything," in response to criticisms of Eritrea's domestic rights situation.
It is clear that Isaias may view criticism of domestic and regional policies as a conspiracy against Eritrea. And he would have some evidence to support this view. Besides the at least partially unfair casting of Eritrea as a pariah, Eritrea continues to be accused of being the destabilising factor in relations with Ethiopia despite it being Addis Ababa not Asmara that rejected the post-war Independent Boundary Commission judgement, which ruled in Eritrea's favour.
Indeed, international actors expressly link their criticisms of domestic and regional policy. HRW, for example, attacked Isaias' visit to the UN in New York at which he criticised the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea and the UN Security Council, arguing that "Isaias complains that the council had not given Eritrea an opportunity to refute the evidence against it and to receive a fair hearing. He has not accorded such rights to the people of Eritrea for the past 10 years".
The partially unfair criticisms of Eritrea regionally and the linking of these criticisms to those on domestic rights abuses could lead to further clampdown on dissent from an increasingly worried regime and certainly leads to Eritrea not taking HRW, certain organs of the UN, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and other international entities' calls for improved domestic human rights seriously.
And you can see why. In its report recommendations, HRW appeals to Eritrea's "foreign partners" to work towards apprehending and investigating officials suspected of torture and other crimes, as well as continuing to press Eritrea to allow independent monitors and commissioners into the country's detention facilities. These are the same "foreign partners" that Eritrea believes take Ethiopia's side in their disputes and unjustly vilify the Red Sea state.
Focus on the domestic
When international bodies have focused solely on Eritrea's domestic policies, they have had some, although still limited, success in improving human rights in the country. For example, in March 2010, Eritrea agreed to comply with the Convention against Torture as well as to improve human rights practices by agreeing to half of the recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council in November 2009.
Moreover, now may be the ideal moment to decouple critiques of regional and domestic policies. It appears that the Eritrean government is on a charm offensive to improve relations with the African Union and re-enter the regional body the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). And international actors concerned with stability in Somalia may recognise that engagement with Eritrea could be crucial as the African Union force seeks to mount an assault on the port city of Kismayo and Somalia exits its long drawn out phase of transitional government.
Ending Eritrea's regional pariah status could provide an opportunity for the international community to focus primarily on its domestic policies, using reintegration of Eritrea into the regional and international community, along with pressuring Ethiopia into accepting the International Boundary Commission's findings, as a carrot for reform. If the international community continues to prioritise regional over domestic criticisms and elides the two, the abuses in Eritrea may get worse.