Eritrea: Crackdown on Draft Evaders’ Families

The Eritrean government has in recent months punished relatives of thousands of alleged draft evaders as part of an intensive forced conscription campaign, Human Rights Watch said today.

Eritrean security forces have been heavily involved in operations in support of the Ethiopian government since the outbreak of conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020, and have carried out some of the conflict’s worst abuses. Eritrean authorities have conducted waves of roundups in Eritrea to identify people it considers draft evaders or deserters. Since September 2022, when Ethiopian and Eritrean forces carried out joint offensives in the Tigray region, the Eritrean government has inflicted further repression, punishing family members of those seeking to avoid conscription or recall, to enforce widespread forced mobilization, including of older men. Such punishment has included arbitrary detentions and home expulsions.

“Struggling to fill its dwindling fighting ranks, Eritrea’s government has detained and expelled older people and women with young children from their homes in order to find people it considers draft evaders or deserters,” said Laetitia Bader, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Eritrea should immediately end its collective punishment of relatives of those who refuse to comply and instead focus on reforming its ruthless indefinite military service system.”

Eritrea has a policy of indefinite national service, including compulsory military conscription, which has been central to the government’s broader repression of its population since the 1998-2001 border war with Ethiopia, and its aftermath.

The statutory national service of 18 months was indefinitely extended to require all male and female adults under age 40 to be available to work at the direction of the state, either in a military or civilian capacity. In practice, adults older than 40 are also forced to serve. Despite the country’s 2018 peace deal with Ethiopia, the government has refused to reform this repressive system.

Once conscripted into the military, young men and women, some still minors, have very few options for discharge. As a result, they risk serious reprisals to escape what a United Nations Commission of Inquiry has characterized as “enslavement.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 people who had recently fled Eritrea, relatives of people affected by the forced conscriptions and reprisals, as well as 11 journalists and other analysts, two of whom were inside Eritrea as the campaign took place. Human Rights Watch did not interview anyone still inside Eritrea for security reasons. Human Rights Watch also reviewed satellite imagery that corroborated important aspects of the accounts of those interviewed through mid-January 2023. In February, Human Rights Watch received reports of the return of some military units that had been sent to fight in Tigray, and of some reservists who had been at the border inside Eritrea.

The latest conscription drive started mid-2022, with the authorities targeting people considered draft evaders, including students who have dropped out of school to evade military training, as well as army deserters, some of whom already had served for years. Then, in mid-September, the government mobilized reservists, primarily men aged 50 through to 60, many of whom had been officially discharged from active military duty but continue to hold arms and are required to conduct guard duties. On September 17, Eritrea’s information minister told the media that only “a tiny number” of reservists were being called up, denying that the entire population was being called up.

During the latest mobilization drive, especially from September onward, the security forces have set up checkpoints throughout urban and rural areas. In addition, by working with the local officials, security forces have gone door to door, ostensibly to confirm eligibility for coupons that grant people access to subsidized goods, but in fact, to also identify draft evaders. They used the visits, people interviewed said, to identify discrepancies between the number of family members the coupon system said should be in a particular home and those of conscription age who were living there, often retaliating against family members who the authorities claimed had failed to track the missing people down.

Older parents as well as women with young children have been temporarily detained for days, some reportedly longer, and have been expelled from their homes during the government’s searches, Human Rights Watch found. A 71-year-old woman was evicted from her home in Asmara, the capital, because she was unable to confirm the whereabouts of one of her sons being sought by the authorities. Another son who lives abroad said:

My mother has some health issues, so the neighbors tried to plead with the authorities not to lock up the house after my first brother turned himself in. But when the second didn’t come, they shut up the house.

An Eritrean woman abroad whose relatives have also been evicted said: “The confiscation of homes, we’ve never seen this before. It’s an act of desperation.”

Despite a November cessation of hostilities agreement, signed between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigrayan authorities, Human Rights Watch continued to receive reports of ongoing roundups and reprisals through early 2023.

Many presumed draft evaders, rounded up near Asmara, were initially taken to the notorious, military-run Adi Abeito prison, northeast of the capital. Satellite imagery Human Rights Watch analyzed shows large crowds of people in the prison yard and surrounding areas of the prison from October 2022 through late January 2023. Relatives reported that many men were taken from the prison to their assigned military unit headquarters in this time period.

“Everyone has always lived with the dreadful feeling of the risk of being conscripted, but this is at a whole different level,” an Asmara resident said.

Some forms of conscription for military service are permitted under international human rights law. However, Eritrea uses violent methods including the threat of penalty and punishment for those who do not participate, and collective punishment of relatives. Officials also show a lack of respect for the right to conscientious objection and provide no opportunity to challenge arbitrary enforcement and the indefinite nature of conscription. These factors constitute abuse, Human Rights Watch said. International human rights law prohibits holding anyone criminally responsible for acts they are not responsible for.

International and regional officials should take concrete measures against Eritrea’s leadership for the ongoing repression. They should ensure ongoing scrutiny by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and UN experts.

They should adopt and maintain targeted sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for serious abuses inside Eritrea, as part of broader targeted sanctions for Eritrean and other armed forces responsible for serious abuses in northern Ethiopia, tied to clear human rights benchmarks, Human Rights Watch said. Eritrea’s regional partners, including Horn of Africa and Gulf states, should press Eritrea to ensure meaningful changes to the abusive national service system, which has continued to drive Eritreans into exile.

“Eritreans from all walks of life are bearing the brunt of the government’s repressive tactics,” Bader said. “Eritrea’s regional partners and international actors should take action to end rampant repression.”

Source: Human Rights Watch