Eritrea is a highly centralized, authoritarian regime under the control of President Isaias Afwerki. A constitution, although drafted in 1997, was never implemented. The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, headed by the president, is the sole political party. There have been no national-level elections since an independence referendum in 1993.
Police are responsible for maintaining internal security, and the armed forces are responsible for external security, but the government sometimes used the armed forces, reserves, demobilized soldiers, or civilian militia to meet domestic as well as external security requirements. Agents of the national security service, a separate agency which reports to the Office of the President, are responsible for detaining persons suspected of threatening national security. The armed forces have authority to arrest and detain civilians. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over most security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
The country experienced significant adverse changes in its human rights situation after, according to credible reports, it intervened in the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia, that began in November. There are credible reports of Eritrean soldiers engaging in unlawful and arbitrary killings in Tigray. There are also reports of Eritrean soldiers engaging in forced disappearance and forced repatriation of Eritrean refugees from Tigray.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful and arbitrary killings, forced disappearance; torture; and arbitrary detention, all committed by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; political prisoners; serious problems with judicial independence; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression and the press, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on religious freedom; widespread restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; trafficking in persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct; and the worst forms of child labor.
The government did not generally take steps to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses. Impunity for such abuses was the norm.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although the law provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, the government severely restricted these rights.
Freedom of Speech: The government severely restricted the ability of individuals to criticize the government in public or in private through intimidation by national security forces.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law bans private broadcast media and foreign ownership of media. The government controlled all domestic media, including one newspaper published in four languages, three radio stations, and two television stations.
The law requires journalists to be licensed. The law restricts printing and publication of materials. The printing of a publication by anyone lacking a permit and the printing or dissemination of prohibited foreign publications are both punishable under the law. Government approval is required for distribution of publications from religious or international organizations.
On May 6, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported there were 16 journalists in detention.
The government did not prevent persons from installing satellite dishes that provided access to international cable television networks and programs. The use of satellite dishes was common nationwide in cities as well as villages. Access to South Africa’s Digital Satellite Television required government approval, and a subscriber’s bill could be paid only in hard currency, but access to free Egyptian satellite television was common. Satellite radio stations operated by diaspora Eritreans reached listeners in the country. Citizens could also receive radio broadcasts originating in Ethiopia.
Violence and Harassment: The government did not provide information on the location or health of journalists it detained and who were held incommunicado.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law requires submission of documents, including books, to the government for approval prior to publication. Most independent journalists were in detention or lived abroad, which limited domestic media criticism of the government. Authorities required journalists to obtain government permission to take photographs. Journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel as a misdemeanor and prescribes a punishment of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine. The law also criminalizes “malicious injury to honor or reputation,” which covers true statements communicated solely to damage a person’s reputation, and prescribes a punishment of less than one month in prison and a fine. It is unclear if these provisions were enforced.
National Security: The government repeatedly asserted national security concerns were the basis of limitations on free speech and expression.
The government monitored some internet communications, including email, without appropriate legal authority. Government informants were reported to frequent internet cafes, prior to their closure as an anti-COVID-19 measure. Some citizens expressed fear of arrest if caught viewing opposition sites. Nonetheless, the sites were generally available.
In February a media report described the deployment of a 30-member intelligence unit to monitor internet activities. The report also claimed that an unspecified number of technology experts and cyber cafe owners arrested in 2019 on accusations of disseminating material from the diaspora and supporting an opposition group in exile remained in detention.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.
With few exceptions, secondary school students must complete their final year of high school at the government’s Sawa National Training and Education Center. Students also had to complete a four-month military training program at Sawa to be allowed to take entrance exams for institutions of higher education (see section 6, Children).
The government sometimes denied passports or exit visas to students and faculty who wanted to study or do research abroad.
The government censored film showings and other cultural activities. It monitored libraries and cultural centers maintained by foreign embassies and in some instances questioned employees and users. The government directly sponsored most major cultural events or collaborated with various embassies and foreign cultural institutions in sponsoring musical performances by international performers. All cultural centers, cinemas, and libraries were closed, however, in April as a COVID-19 countermeasure.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. For some public gatherings, the government intermittently required those assembling to obtain permits. Authorities investigated and interfered with large gatherings lacking prior approval, with the exception of gatherings of government-affiliated organizations that were social in nature, or of religious observances of the four officially registered religious groups.
The law provides citizens the right to form organizations for political, social, economic, and cultural ends. It specifies their conduct must be open and transparent and that they must be guided by principles of national unity and democracy. The government did not respect freedom of association. It prohibited the formation of civil society organizations except those with official sponsorship. The government generally did not allow local organizations to receive funding and other resources from, or to associate with, foreign and international organizations.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government restricted all these rights.
In-country Movement: The government requires citizens to notify local authorities when they change residence, although many did not. When traveling within the country, particularly in remote regions or near borders, authorities required citizens to provide justification for travel at checkpoints.
Travel restrictions on noncitizens lawfully in the country remained in effect. The government required all diplomats, international humanitarian workers, UN staff, and foreigners to request permission from the government at least 10 days in advance to travel more than 15 miles (25 kilometers) outside of Asmara. During the year, however, the government on many occasions approved requests with fewer than 10 days’ advance notice.
Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government required citizens, sometimes including dual nationals, to obtain exit visas. Requirements for obtaining passports and exit visas were inconsistent and nontransparent. The government often denied citizens passports and exit visas because they had not completed their military or national service duties or for arbitrary or unstated reasons. Authorities generally did not give exit visas to children older than age five. Categories of persons most commonly denied exit visas included men younger than 40, regardless of whether they had completed the military portion of national service, and women younger than 30. Authorities were more likely to approve exit visas for married women and those with children. All land borders remained closed, preventing legal overland travel.
Exile: In general, citizens had the right to return, but citizens residing abroad had to show proof they paid the two percent tax on foreign earned income to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be eligible for some future government services and documents, including exit permits, birth or marriage certificates, passport renewals, and real estate transactions. The government enforced this requirement inconsistently.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government did not cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees regarding treatment of refugees inside the country. The government defined refugee status differently than do the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The government continued downsizing the Umkulu Refugee Camp. Of the more than 2,100 refugees housed at the camp in 2018, only 80 remained in the country as of October. Most of those who left have relocated to refugee camps in Ethiopia.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government did not recognize Ethiopians, Sudanese, or South Sudanese as refugees, instead considering them economic migrants. The government, however, allowed these refugees to remain in the country.
Employment: Refugees were not granted formal work permits, but some worked informally.
Access to Basic Services: Persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin living in the country sometimes claimed they received social entitlements commensurate with the perceived degree of their loyalty to the government, including ration coupons to buy essentials at government-subsidized prices.
Ethiopians, Sudanese, and Somalis were able to access basic government services upon procuring and presenting residency permits.
Durable Solutions: Although the government did not grant persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin asylum or refugee status, authorities permitted them to remain in the country and to live among the local population instead of in a refugee camp. Authorities granted them residency permits that gave them access to government services. Authorities granted Sudanese and Ethiopians exit visas to leave the country for resettlement and study.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections, held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, but they were not able to exercise this ability.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The government came to power in a 1993 popular referendum, in which voters chose to have an independent country managed by a transitional government. The transitional government did not permit the formation of a democratic system. The government twice scheduled elections but canceled them without explanation. An official declaration in 2003 asserted, “In accordance with the prevailing wish of the people, it is not the time to establish political parties, and discussion of the establishment has been postponed.” Local communities elect area administrators, magistrates, and managing directors.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The country is a one-party state. Political power rests with the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice and its institutions; the government does not allow the formation of any other political parties. Membership in the People’s Front was not mandatory, but authorities pressured some categories of individuals, particularly those occupying government positions, to join the party. Authorities reportedly visited citizens in their homes after they completed national service and compelled them to join the party and pay the required fees. Authorities occasionally convoked citizens to attend political indoctrination meetings as part of mandatory participation in the militia irrespective of People’s Front membership. Authorities denied benefits such as ration coupons to those who did not attend. Some citizens in the diaspora claimed such meetings also occurred at embassies abroad, with the names of those who did not attend reported to government officials, sometimes resulting in denial of benefits such as passport services.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process.