Eritrea, with a population of approximately 3.6 million, is a one‑party state that became independent in 1993 when citizens voted for independence from Ethiopia. The People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), previously known as the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, is the sole political party and has controlled the country since 1991. The country's president, Isaias Afwerki, who heads the PFDJ and the armed forces, dominated the country, and the government continued to postpone presidential and legislative elections; the latter have never been held. The situation was used by the government to justify severe restrictions on civil liberties. The government's human rights record remained poor and authorities continued to commit numerous serious abuses including: abridgement of citizens' right to change their government through a democratic process; unlawful killings by security forces; torture and beating of prisoners, sometimes resulting in death; arrest and torture of national service evaders; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of family members of national service evaders; executive interference in the judiciary and the use of a special court system to limit due process; infringement on privacy rights; and roundups of young men and women for national service. Other problems included severe restrictions of basic civil liberties such as the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion; restriction of freedom of movement and travel for diplomats, the personnel of humanitarian and development agencies, and the UN Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia; and restriction of the activities of NGOs. There was societal abuse and discrimination against women, widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and reports of discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS. There were limitations on workers' rights.
Among the U.S. government's primary foreign policy objectives in Eritrea is the promotion of human rights and civil liberties. The United States aims to help the citizens realize a country which allows for a pluralistic and democratic political process, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and a robust civil society.
As a result of government restrictions on U.S. programs, operations, and in-country travel, U.S. activities have focused on public diplomacy outreach, providing public information services, and diplomatic cooperation with other international partners on areas where we can assist the local population.
For example, the U.S. embassy funds four public information service centers throughout the country that provide free Internet and library resources. Such programming has enabled the dissemination of information on a wide range of issues. The embassy also works in partnerships with individuals and private groups by means of small grants to forward outreach, education, and assistance initiatives in local communities. U.S. assistance continues to fund humanitarian projects implemented through international NGOs and UN agencies to reach the country's most vulnerable communities. The embassy regularly meets with other diplomatic partners to exchange information on community outreach and assistance programs. In order to promote greater mutual understanding, the embassy sponsors monthly lectures, weekly films, exhibitions, reading clubs, and community service events such as health fairs.
To promote women's rights, the United States has funded grants that educate women and entire communities on the dangers of FGM. In addition to raising awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities among government officials, U.S. programming has sponsored several workshops to allow dialogue between the hearing impaired community and relevant officials.