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One Year After Peace Deal, Little Has Changed in Eritrea

Thousands Still Fleeing Indefinite Conscription

Eritrea's President, Isaias Afwerki talks to Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed during the Inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018.  © 2018 Reuters

Today marks one year since the historic peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended 20 years of intermittent conflict between the two countries. Eritrea’s leaders had long used the “no war, no peace” situation with Ethiopia to justify some of their most repressive policies, and many had hoped that the peace deal would usher in a new era of respect for human rights. Yet one year on, little has changed.

Among the most egregious problems is indefinite national service, in which all young Eritreans – men and women – starting in their last year of high school must serve indefinitely in the military or civil service for low pay, with no say in their profession or work location, and often under abusive conditions. While the threat from Ethiopia was previously used as a justification for this policy, there are no signs this has eased since the peace deal was signed. National service remains the primary driver behind the mass exodus of thousands of young Eritreans each month who brave dangerous foreign journeys and callous governments to reach safety abroad.

Eritrea’s leaders and their vocal supporters have claimed, with some justification, that the international community sided with Ethiopia during the dispute, and cite the range of United Nations sanctions and increased UN scrutiny on Eritrea’s human rights record as evidence of this. But international oversight should spur improvements in rights protections, not new excuses for violating them.

Eritrea’s government should recognize that its dire rights record and the mass migration that it fuels is the biggest threat facing the country. The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should continue monitoring Eritrea, including by renewing the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea later this week. Eritrea’s international partners who want to see the country’s human rights record improve should continue exploring how they can support the government to demobilize indefinite conscripts. And the government should finally set a detailed timetable on demobilization and ensure that national service no longer lasts indefinitely.

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