Conscientious Objection in Eritrea

Background to the country

Eritrea, located in the horn of Africa, won its de-facto independence on 24 May 1991 after 30 years of a bitter, bloody and costly armed struggle against rule by its neighbour, Ethiopia. Eritrea formally declared independence on 24 May 1993 after an overwhelming yes vote in a referendum overseen by the United Nations.

The two major ethnic groups are the Tigrigna (50%) and Tigre (40%). The Afar constitute 4% and the remaining 6% include Kunama, Nara, Bielen, Rashaida, Hidarb and Saho. The two dominating religions are Christianity, including Coptics, Catholics and other Protestant demoninations, and Islam. The official languages are Tigrigna, English and Arabic, but diverse ethnic languages persist as well.

The Italians colonised and named Eritrea in 1890. After the Italian defeat in World War II, its African colonies of Eritrea, Somalia and Libya were placed under the protectorate of Britain for 10 years. The future of these three nations was a hot issue in the United Nations from 1945 to 1950, ending in an ill-advised confederation of Eritrea and Ethiopia for a projected 10 years from 1952 to 1962. In 1961, Ethiopia violated the terms of the confederation and declared Eritrea to be its 14th province. In the same year, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) began armed resistance under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate.

In 1970 a faction of the ELF, known as the Peoples Forces of Eritrea (PFE), broke away. It was a revolutionary movement led by the younger generation. After its first congress in 1977, the PFE reorganised as the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) and eclipsed the ELF. The EPLF succeeded in achieving independence from Ethiopia after a long war.

The EPLF immediately established a transitional government under Issayas Afewerki, leader of the successful fight for independence. EPLF members took all administrative posts and other key positions. In 1994 the third congress of the EPLF renamed itself the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

Unlike its name, the regime was undemocratic and unjust. Moreover, it was unconstitutional. Its own Eritrean Constitutional Commission, set up in 1994, had produced the constitution of 1997 after ratification by the Eritrean people. The regime ignored this and, after September 2001, imprisoned 11 prominent members of the opposition party which had demanded democratic change and enforcement of the ratified constitution.

Today, the PFDJ is the sole lawmaker in a harsh dictatorship. Eritreans are denied their basic civil and human rights, any protests always ending in arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. For all Eritreans whose vision of their new nation included peace, stability and prosperity, the scale of wars, corruption and abuse of power that followed independence was unbelievable. Eleven years after independence and 13 after freedom, Eritrea is a country where poverty and oppression are the rule.

In the last three years, the military training camp Sawa was established as headquarters for universal national service. All high school students, female and male, are forced to finish their 12th year of study in a school within Sawa. None of them have returned for further eduation at university once they completed national service. The University of Asmara, Eritrea's only university, has only third and fourth year students who had entered before the draft came into effect.

The government has militarised the country completely. Forced recruitment of young people, underage children and adults under 50 is a daily event. Recruits are treated brutally and there is evidence of sexual abuse of women. Nobody has a right to question the miliary authorities. Nobody has a right to conscientious objection.

Over the past three and a half years, Eritreans have been denied their constitutional right of free expression. There are no independent newspapers, TV channels or radio stations. The only active media are government owned. Only the Internet gives those who have access to it a source of information not coloured by government propaganda.

Foreign policy has isolated the country from human rights organisations, aid agencies and the international community at large. The dictator has used the concept of National Unity to intimidate and discredit opponents of the regime. Religious minorities are being persecuted by means of prison and torture. According to the Compass Direct news agency, 187 Eritrean Christians have been arrested so far this year, including groups at prayer, whole wedding parties, and home Bible study groups, intellectuals and professionals. Often children and the elderly are among those arrested.

According to The Christian Post of 24 February 2005 the Eritrean government since May 2002 has closed down the country's Protestant churches, declaring their places of worship illegal and forbidding home gatherings. Only four religions are officially acceptable: Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Lutheranism and Islam.

Conscientious objection is taboo. COs are branded by the regime as cowardly and unpatriotic. There is no recourse to the law nor substitute civilian service for COs. The consequences of conscientious objection and desertion are severe torture, long-term imprisonment and even death.

After the horrors of the border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, the number of COs within the military increased. Today there are thousands who objected to military service and the military. They are forced to go into exile. Considerable numbers of them are in Europe, Libya, Ethiopia and Sudan seeking political asylum. In Germany, Eritrean refugees founded the Eritrean Antimilitarism Initiative (EAI), which supports refugees who had to flee from the Eritrean military and fights for peace and antimilitarism in Eritrea.

Consequences of war

The adverse impact of the long war for independence and later conflicts on Eritrean society and economy have been incalculable. They have exacerbated the cycle of draught, which has afflicted the entire region and caused millions of people to become dependent on external assistance for their survival. The results of these disputes are horrendous: loss of life, impoverishment, displacement of people, land mine hazards, looting, confiscation of property, exile, trauma.

At the moment, more than one-third of the Eritrean population is living in exile. The war has resulted in the disintegration of families and the loss of culture and norms of socieity both at home and in exile.

International and national NGOs

There is little activity by national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). What does exist is under the supervision of the regime. There are no international NGOs that advocate human rights or witness the forced military recruitment with its brutality of recruits and its persecution of COs. Nor does the government tolerate independent national NGOs, human rights groups, international observers or foreign reporters. Investigations demanded by Amnesty International and others are ignored. All international journalists have been officially banned.

Conscientious Objection as one way to peace

The people of Eritrea are in political, social and economic crisis. There is an urgent need to establish a healthy democratic atmosphere with a constitutionally elected leadership and a multiparty political system. There is an urgent need to release all political prisoners and COs. Hence the AEI is advocating the refusal of military service in the above context.

We believe that refusing military service, militarism and war is vital for these reasons:

  1. The ideas and teachings of conscientious objection are based on peace, humanity and morality. We believe they are the answer to withstanding the propaganda of national unity and national sovereignty, which are misleading and provacative.
  2. The more people say No to war in Eritrea and the more people say No to war in our neighbouring countries, the region and the world, the more governments may begin to think about peaceful solutions, start to develop respect for human life and plan to build a just and secure society for coming generations.
  3. Conscientious objection is the check and balance against war and militarism. A CO is at the other extreme of a warlord. We believe COs can confront and divert military objectives.

Steps for lasting peace

The AEI believes that the following steps can help to achieve a lasting peace on the basis of human, civil and political rights.

  1. Introduce and cultivate respect for the right of conscientious objection and offer COs alternative civilian service.
  2. Establish a culture of pluralism, civility, respect and tolerance.
  3. Develop the political leadership on principles of democracy.
  4. Adopt nonviolent ways of struggle.
  5. Solution of conflicts peacefully through dialogue, mediation and negotiation.
  6. Respect for international law.

Yohannes Kidane is a refugee from Eritrea and lives in Germany, where he is active with the Eritrean Antimilitarism Initiative

Sources:

Eritrean Democratic Parties (EDP) manifesto, Asmarion and Awate home pages on the Internet.
Eritrean Antimilitarism Initiative, c/o Yohannes Kidane, Bahnstrasse 51, D-61449 Steinbach, email yohannesk2000@yahoo.com