The United Nations Security Council today voted to lift a nearly decade-old arms embargo imposed on Eritrea, removing one of the government’s favorite excuses for denying its citizens basic rights.
The Security Council had justified its embargo on two grounds: Eritrea’s alleged weapons support for the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the country’s refusal to release prisoners of war and withdraw from territory it seized during a two-day war with Djibouti in 2008. A monitoring group, set up by the Security Council to oversee compliance with the sanctions, found no recent evidence of Eritrean arms support for al-Shabaab. In 2016 Eritrea released four Djibouti POWs; Djibouti claims a dozen remain missing.
The sanctions were lifted largely because of improved relations between Eritrea and its neighbors, principally Ethiopia. In July, after two decades of enmity following a bloody border war, the countries declared a “new era of peace and friendship” and restored diplomatic relations. Somalia and Djibouti also resumed relations with Eritrea shortly after.
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has previously attempted to justify his repressive rule by citing the tensions with Eritrea’s neighbors. The UN sanctions were used as evidence that Eritrea remained under threat.
Yet Isaias’ justification for repression was never valid, and after relations with Eritrea’s neighbors improved, many hoped that human rights conditions in the country would also improve.
But that is not the case. The president still refuses to hold elections, allow the formation of political parties, or realize the basic rights guaranteed in the country’s 1997 constitution. He still forbids an independent press and non-governmental organizations to operate, as thousands of citizens are jailed incommunicado, without trial or opportunity to appeal, some for decades.
Children are conscripted into national service in high school and forced to serve indefinitely, often for a decade or more. During their service, abuse, including torture, is extensive and forced conscription remains a primary driver impelling thousands of Eritreans to flee their country every month.
Lifting the arms embargo undermines the last of Isaias’ ill-conceived rationales for indefinite national service. Eritrea’s international partners should keep pressuring the president to finally implement the rule of law and end indefinite national service.