Inhumane treatment, sexual violence, and torture are just some of the human rights violations against Eritreans during compulsory national service in the East African country. A UN investigator says he found “numerous and credible reports of” such instances in the secluded country.
Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, an independent investigator on human rights for the United Nations in Eritrea, says that Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees told him they had been subjected to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, sexual and gender-based violence, forced labor and abusive conditions.
According to the Associated Press (AP) news agency citing a report published by Barbiker on Monday (August 7), the alleged human rights violations took place as part of the Eritreans’ draft into compulsory national service.
Eritrea has a national service program which never ends, including both a civilian service and a military service component, AP reports. Moreover, Eritrean authorities have ignored numerous pleas by human rights NGOs and UN agencies to enforce legal limits to the duration of the national service and to protect the human rights of those drafted into it.
While Eritrea claims its policy of national service is “unfairly judged,” according to AP, Babiker said he continues to receive “numerous and credible reports of grave human rights violations in the context of forced national/military service.”
Objecting to military service is not allowed in Eritrea, the investigator said, adding that “deserters and draft evaders continued to be subjected to arbitrary detention in highly punitive conditions, enforced disappearance and torture.”
Babiker, an associate professor of international law at the University of Khartoum in Sudan, has been the special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Eritrea since September 2020.
One of the world’s most repressive country
Human rights groups describe Eritrea as one of the world’s most repressive countries. Since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1991, the small east-African nation has been ruled by President Isaias Afwerki, who has never held an election.
According to AP citing UN special investigator Babiker, Afwerki refused to implement the 1997 constitution and effectively controls the country without any rule of law, division of powers, checks or balances or constraints on his power.
In his interviews with Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees, Babiker learned that indefinite national service was the main reason why people were leaving the country of 3.6 million.
“The national service program, which was ostensibly put in place for the furtherance of national development, is in practice undermining development by forcing young persons to leave the country,” Babiker said in the report, which coincidentally was published just days after 52 people were injured last week at an Eritrea-themed cultural festival in a suburb of Stockholm. According to Swedish media, about a thousand anti-Eritrean government protesters had stormed the event.
Sweden is home to tens of thousands of people with Eritrean roots. A similar incident last month at an Eritrean cultural event in the western German city of Gießen left at least 26 police officers injured.
With some 90 victims per 1,000 people, Eritrea is also the country with the third-highest rate of modern slavery in the world; only North Korea and Mauritania have more.
Meddling in Ethiopia’s Tigray war
Eritrea has also been accused of engaging widespread human rights violations in the northern Tigray region of its neighbor, Ethiopia. In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to Tigray to aid Ethiopian forces and try to topple the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The move triggered a war which only ended in November 2022, having cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Ethiopian government troops, Tigray fighters and Eritrea’s military likely committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the two-year conflict, a UN commission said last year.
According to AP, the US said in March that it had found that all sides in the brutal conflict to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Reported uptick in forced recruitment
UN special investigator Babiker meanwhile said he had identified an upsurge in forced recruitment of Eritreans “as well as the use of increasingly coercive practices to mobilize the population and force individuals to participate in military action in Ethiopia” between mid- and late 2022.
“Eritrean conscripts continued to be forced to participate in national/military service under threat of severe punishment to themselves and their families,” he added.
According to Babiker, witnesses also told him that the government was also “evicting families from their homes, including children, pregnant women and older persons, locking in their belongings, confiscating their livestock and even detaining family members,” leaving entire families in abject poverty.