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 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were credible reports that Eritrean forces deployed in Tigray committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
An unknown number of persons disappeared during the year and were believed to be in government detention or to have died while in detention. The government did not make efforts to prevent the disappearances or to investigate or punish those responsible. The government did not regularly notify family members or respond to requests for information regarding the status of detainees, including locally employed staff of foreign embassies and foreign or dual nationals. The disappeared included persons presumably detained for political and religious beliefs, journalists, and individuals suspected of evading national service and militia duties, and for others whose offense was unknown.
There were no known developments in the case of the G-15, a group of former ruling party members and officials who called for reforms and journalists whom the government detained in 2001.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture. Reports of torture, however, continued.
In August 2019 Human Rights Watch published a report documenting that security forces tortured, including by beating, prisoners, army deserters, national service evaders, persons attempting to flee the country without travel documents, and members of certain religious groups.
Former prisoners described two specific forms of punishment by security forces known as “helicopter” and “8.” For “helicopter,” prisoners lie face down on the ground and their hands and legs are tied behind them. For “8,” they are tied to a tree. Prisoners were often forced to stay in either position for 24-48 hours, in some cases longer, and only released to eat or to relieve themselves. Use of psychological torture was common, according to inmates held in prior years. Some former prisoners reported authorities conducted interrogations and beatings within hearing distance of other prisoners to intimidate them.
Lack of transparency and access to information made it impossible to determine the numbers or circumstances of deaths due to torture or other abuse.
Impunity remained a serious problem among security forces. The government did not release any information to indicate it had conducted investigations of alleged abuses, making it difficult to assess the extent of the problem among the different branches of the services.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, but the government did not respect these rights.
Many citizens believed the government monitored cell phones. Authorities required permits to use SIM cards.
The government used an extensive informer system to gather information.
Without notice, authorities reportedly entered homes and threatened individuals without explanation. Reports stated that security forces detained and interrogated the parents, spouses, or siblings of individuals who evaded national service or fled the country.
Ruling party administration offices and their associated local militia units, composed of persons who had finished their national service but were still required to assist with security matters, reportedly checked homes or whole neighborhoods to confirm residents’ attendance at national service projects.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
c. Freedom of Religion
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.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: Persons seeking executive or judicial services sometimes reported they obtained services more easily after paying a “gift” or bribe. Patronage, cronyism, and petty corruption within the executive branch were based largely on family connections and used to facilitate access to social benefits. Judicial corruption was a problem, and authorities generally did not prosecute acts such as property seizure by military or security officials or those seen as being in favor with the government.
There were reports of police corruption. Police occasionally used their influence to facilitate the release from prison of friends and family members.
Financial Disclosure: The law does not subject public officials to financial disclosure.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
International civil society organizations focused on human rights were generally not able to operate in the country. The government generally did not cooperate with such groups or with investigations into human rights abuses. No local human rights NGOs operated in the country (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).
The government permitted the ICRC to operate but limited its operations to supporting Ethiopian repatriation and vulnerable Ethiopian residents; implementing assistance projects (water, agriculture, and livestock) for persons living in regions affected by conflict; disseminating information on international humanitarian law to students and government officials; and connecting separated family members living abroad to their family members in the country through the country’s Red Cross. Authorities did not permit the ICRC to visit prisons or detention centers. As a result, in September the ICRC downsized its office, removing all international staff.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not permit visits by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea and remained opposed to cooperating with her mandate.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
There were reports governmental discrimination continued against ethnic minorities, particularly against the Afar, one of nine ethnic groups in the country.