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Finding inspiration from the depths of despair

September 18 EMDHR statement

For many Eritreans, 18 September 2001 marks the day that the dream of a truly free and democratic Eritrea died, and with it, the hopes and aspirations of Eritrean’s young and old. September 18 marks the 20-year anniversary of the illegitimate Eritrean Government’s systematic and wholesale assault on the ideals of democracy, liberty and justice; ideals for which our martyrs laid down their lives. Whilst dissidents were targeted prior to 2001 and crackdowns on freedom of association and expression were prevalent, September 18 is significant as the day Isaias clinically targeted those dissidents and entities at the highest echelons of state and civil society, setting the wheels in motion for Eritrea’s transition into a totalitarian state, where Isais played the tripartite role of judge, jury and executioner.

Under the instructions of Isaias Afewerki, on 18 September 2001, security agents moved to arrest 11 high ranking officials, all of whom were members of the National Assembly (legislature) and also the Central Committee of the PFDJ (the sole party which has ruled Eritrea since its independence in 1993). The eleven high profile dissidents were part of a group of 15 (G-15), who in May 2001 had signed an open letter to all members of the PFDJ; the letter accused Isaias of: “conducting himself in an illegal and unconstitutional manner”, criticized his handling of the 1998 border conflict with Ethiopia, admonished the postponement of elections and called for the implementation of the Constitution. The eleven have been detained incommunicado ever since that fateful day in 2001, with credible claims that several of the group are either dead or seriously ill. Isaias and the PFDJ have ignored repeated calls by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Human Rights Council (to which Eritrea was elected a member in 2018) to release them or bring them to trial.

The days and weeks that followed signalled the death knell of independent media in Eritrea, with Isaias summarily banning all privately-owned media outlets in Eritrea and arbitrarily arresting 17 independent journalists that had reported on the G-15’s open letter. 20 years later, the arrested journalists are still detained incommunicado, with no access to lawyers or their families and no updates on their health status. During its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2018, the Eritrean Government pledged to the Human Rights Council that it would: “allow for the establishment of independent media and issue licenses to private broadcasting radio and television stations.” Predictably, the regime has not taken any measures to implement these recommendations. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Eritrea has acceded should guarantee Eritrean citizens the right to freedoms of expression and opinion. Article 19 of the ratified Eritrean Constitution also guarantees the right to freedom of expression; however, the Constitution remains unimplemented, with the state retaining total control of the media.

But it shouldn't have been this way; Eritrea formally gained its independence in 1993 following a protracted 30-year war with Ethiopia. In the years which immediately followed, there was a period of relative political openness. In 1994, the liberation army (EPLF) transformed itself into the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the ruling party. A transitional national assembly (legislature) was formed, and a number of independent media and Civil Society Organizations (CSO’s) emerged. The Constitution was ratified in 1997, and to many, it appeared that Eritrea was on an upward trajectory towards constitutional governance.

These nascent democratic institutions were extinguished following the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, and the human rights situation in the country substantially deteriorated. The PFDJ refused to implement the ratified constitution, disbanded the legislature in 2002, brutally cracked down on dissent, condemned Eritrean youth to indefinite military/national service, tantamount to slavery and consolidated the position of Isaias Afewerki as head of a totalitarian state. But there were warning signs well before 2001, with the PFDJ showing an aversion to dissenters, independent Civil Society and the universal principles of freedom of association and expression. In 1996, Isaias dismantled the Eritrean Women War Veteran’s Association (BANA); founded in 1994, BANA was created to help recently demobilized women fighter’s transition into civilian life. By 1996, its almost 1000 members had set up successful cooperatives and the association had raised significant revenue from international donors. When BANA refused to fall under the control of the state sponsored National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and later the government’s Demobilization Agency, it was shut down and its assets seized.

In the 3 years since Isaias Afewerki and Abiy Ahmed Ali signed the joint declaration during the Eritrea-Ethiopia ‘peace summit’ in Addis in July 2018, no steps have been taken to institutionalize the peace and there have been no tangible improvements to the lives of the Eritrean people. Eritreans continue to be subject to arbitrary imprisonment without recourse to the courts; the thousands of detainees languishing in Eritrea’s secret prison networks include political dissidents, journalists, members of unregistered religious denominations and other prisoners of conscience, including women and underage girls. Imprisonment is indefinite, often incommunicado and detainees are subjected to harsh punishment including torture. Despite the issuance of a new criminal code in 2015, its procedural safeguards requiring warrants for arrest, access to defence counsel, and the right to habeas corpus petitions remain unimplemented.

The regime has made no announcements regarding the implementation of the constitution or phased demobilization of Eritreans trapped in indefinite military/national service and the political space remains closed for independent Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), media, associations and trade bodies. In the latest World Press Freedom rankings, Eritrea is ranked bottom at 180 out of 180 countries. In November 2020, Isaias unilaterally took Eritrea into another destructive war the people did not ask for, with no independent media, civil society and National Assembly to publicly scrutinize and hold Isaias to account. The human, economic, legal and security costs of the war may be felt for generations to come.

Whilst September 18 is a day of hurt and lost hope, we must use that hurt to reflect upon the sacrifices of our prisoners of conscience and use them as an inspiration to galvanize our fightback against the repressive system which seeks to keep us shackled. Let us understand that there is nothing more the dictatorship fears than a united, enlightened and organized citizenry. It was this very fear which triggered the 2001 assault on the rule of law, the crackdown on civil society (including media) and the universal principles of freedom of association and expression.

Our greatest weaponry in our fight against the dictatorship is our unity and unrelenting pursuit of truth, justice and accountability. So today, on September 18, let us make a vow to enhance our efforts to provide a voice for the voiceless, to empower our communities at home and in the diaspora and to project an image of unified strength to those at home. Together, we are greater than the sum of our parts and it is only together we can achieve a new dawn in Eritrea, where the rule of law replaces the arbitrary exercise of power and where the Eritrean citizenry are the drivers of their own destiny.


Advocacy Unit

18 September 2021

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