Freedom House Note

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Population: 4,700,000
GDP/capita: $190
Life Expectancy: 58
Religious Groups: Muslim, Coptic Christian, Roman Catholic, Protestant
Ethnic Groups: Tigrinya (50 percent),Tigre and Kunama (40 percent), Afar (4 percent), Saho (3
percent), other (3 percent)
Capital: Asmara

Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Not Free

Ratings Timeline (Political Ri ghts, Civil Liberties, Status)
Year Under Review 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Rating 6,4,PF 6,4,PF 6,4,PF 7,5,NF 7,5,NF 7,6,NF 7,6,NF 7,6,NF 7,6,NF 7,6,NF


In 2005, the government of President Isaias Afwerki continued its repressive policies,
forbidding pluralism in the political and civic a renas. In fact, stricter regulations regarding the
functioning of local and international developm ent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were
enacted, and the government asked the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to end
its operations in the country. Tensions remained hi gh with Ethiopia, as the government objected to
the inconclusive results of an internationally mediated solution to its long -standing border dispute.

In 1950, after years of Italian occupation, Eritrea was incorporated into Ethiopia. Eritrea’s
independence struggle began in 1962 as a na tionalist and Marxist guerrilla war against the
Ethiopian government of Emperor Haile Selassie . The seizure of power by a Marxist junta in
Ethiopia in 1974 removed the ideological basis of the conflict, and by the time Eritrea finally
defeated Ethiopia’s northern armies in 1991, the Er itrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had
discarded Marxism. Internationally recognized independence was achieved in May 1993 after a
referendum supervised by the United Nations produced a landslide vote for statehood.
War with Ethiopia broke out in 1998. In May 2000, an Ethiopian military offensive
succeeded in making significant territorial gains. Eritrea signed a truce with Ethiopia in June
2000, and a peace treaty was signed in December 2000. The agreement provided for a UN-led
buffer force to be installed along the Eritrean si de of the contested border and stipulated that
further negotiations should determine the fi nal boundary line. The war had dominated the
country’s political and economic agenda, reflecti ng deeper issues of nationalism and political
mobilization by a government that has long used th e threat of real or perceived enemies to
generate popular s upport and unity.
In May 2001, a dissident group of 15 senior ruling-party members (the “Group of 15”)
publicly criticized Isaias and ca lled for “the rule of law and for justice, through peaceful and
legal ways and means.” Eleven members of this group were arrested in September 2001,

allegedly for treason (three members who were out of the country at the time escaped arrest, and
one withdrew his support for the group). The small independent media sector was also shut
down, and 18 journalists were imprisoned.
In 2005, the Eritrean government furt her clamped down on the NGO sector by
withdrawing tax exemptions and increasing requirements for registration. Po litical dissidents and
journalists imprisoned in 2001 remained in jail de spite widespread international calls for their
release. The United Nations warned that the humanitarian situation in Eritrea was deteriorating,
mainly because of recurrent dr ought and the protracted stalem ate in the peace process with
During the year, tensions remained high with Ethiopia. The Eritrean government claimed
that Ethiopians were not respecting the 2000 border agreement, and in 2005 the authorities
banned U.N. helicopter flights in its airspace, restricted U.N. ground patrols, and expelled some
of the peacekeepers. The conflict has taken a toll on the economy. The UN Human Development
Index ranks Eritrea 156 out of 177 countries, with an average $130 in per capita annual income.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties:

Eritreans cannot change their government democratically. Created in February 1994 as a
successor to the EPLF, the Popular Front for Demo cracy and Justice (PFDJ) maintains complete
dominance over the country’s political life. Instea d of moving towards creating a framework for a
democratic political system, since the end of the war with Ethiopia, the PFDJ has taken
significant steps backwards. The 2001 crackdown against those calling for greater political
pluralism, and subsequent repres sive steps, have chilled the already tightly controlled political
In 1994, a 50-member Constitutional Commission was established. In 1997, a new
constitution was adopted, author izing “conditional” political pluralism with provisions for a
multiparty system. The constitution provides for the election of the president from among the
members of the 150-member National Assembly by a vote of the majority of its members. In
2000, the National Assembly determined that the first elections would be held in December 2001
and appointed a committee that issued draft regul ations governing political parties. These draft
regulations have never been enacted, and inde pendent political parties authorized by the
constitution do not exist. Nationa l elections have been postponed indefinitely. In 2004, regional
assembly elections were conducted, but they were carefully orchestrated by the PFDJ and offered
no real choice.
Eritrea has long maintained a reputation for a relatively low level of corruption. In recent
years, however, it appears to have increased somewhat. Eritrea was ranked 107 out of 159
countries surveyed in Transparency Intern ational’s 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Government control over all broadcasting and pressures ag ainst the independent print
media have seriously constrained public debate. In its September 2001 crackdown, the
government banned all privately owned newspa pers while claiming that a parliamentary
committee would examine conditions under which they would be permitted to re-open.
Journalists arrested in 2001 remain imprisoned, and other journalists have subsequently been
arrested. The Committee to Protec t Journalists determined in 2005 that Eritrea had the worst
record in Africa in terms of imprisoning journa lists. The independent media in Eritrea has in
effect ceased to exist. Internet use remains lim ited, with an estimated 9,500 users in 2003 out of a
population of more than four million.

The government places significant limitations on the exercise of religion. It recognizes
only four officially sanctioned religions—Orthodox Christianity, Is lam, Roman Catholicism, and
the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. In 2005, the Eritrean government allegedly dismissed the
leader of the Orthodox Church, Patriach Abune Antonios, from his position, although a
government spokesman denied this action was take n. Reports suggested that he had objected to
government interference in the ch urch and the arrest of three priests. Religious persecution of
minority Christian faiths has escalated in recent years, particularly against Jehovah’s Witnesses
(who were stripped of their basic civic rights in 1994) and evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
Members of other minority churches have been ja iled and tortured or ill-treated to make them
abandon their faith. Muslims have been targeted too, some held in secret incommunicado
detention for years on suspicion of links with an Islamist armed opposition group operating from
Academic freedom is constrained. High sc hool students are required to undertake a
highly unpopular policy of obligator y national service, often at a station far from their homes
such as at the military training camp in Sawa (i n the far western part of the country, near the
Ethiopian border). This conscription lasts fo r extended and open-ended periods of time. No
conscientious objector clause exists. Critics have alleged that such activities constitute forced
The government continues to maintain a hostile attitude towards civil society.
Independent NGOs are not allowed, and the legitimate role of human rights defenders is not
recognized. International human ri ghts NGOs are barred from the country. In June 2005, Eritrea
enacted legislation to regulate th e operations of all NGOs, includi ng requiring them to pay taxes
on imported materials. In addition, NGOs are re quired to submit project reports every three
months and will have to renew their licenses annually. Local NGOs will be required to have
$1,000,000 in operating capital; international groups will have to have twice as much. Of
Eritrea’s current 58 registered NGOs, 20 are international.
Reflecting the government’s hostile attitude toward international aid organizations, in
August 2005 the U.S. ambassador confirmed that the Eritrean government had asked the USAID
to cease its operations. Relations between the aid community and the Eritrean government had
deteriorated following the government’s imp ounding of more than 100 vehicles and a new
proclamation requiring aid agencies to pay taxe s on the import of relief items, including food.
The civil service, the military, the police, and other essential services have some
restrictions on their free dom to form unions. In a ddition, groups of 20 or more persons seeking to
form a union require special approval from the Ministry of Labor. Conscription of men aged 18
to 45 into the military has also created a scarcity of skilled labor.
A judiciary was formed by decree in 1993. It has never adopted posit ions significantly at
variance with government perspectives. A low leve l of training and resources limits the courts’
efficiency. Constitutional guarantee s are often ignored in cases relating to state security. The
provision of speedy trials is limited by a lack of trained personnel, inadequate funding, and poor
According to a 2004 report by Amnesty Internati onal, torture, arbitrary detentions, and
political arrests are widespread. Religious persecution and ill-treatment of those trying to avoid
military service are increasing, and torture is systematically practiced by the army. Political
prisoners and members of minority churches are said to be particularly singled out. Prison
conditions are poor, and prison monitors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross
have been denied access to detainees.

There have been reports of government and societal discrimination against the Kunama,
one of nine ethnic groups, who reside primarily in the west. Historically, the Kunama have
resisted attempts to integrate them into the national society.
Official government policy is supportive of free enterprise, and citizens generally have
the freedom to choose their employment, establ ish private businesses, and function relatively
free of government harassment. Until recent years, government officials enjoyed a reputation for
relative probity.
Women played important roles in the guerilla movement, and the government has worked
in favor of improving the status of women. In an effort to encourage broader participation by
women in politics, the PFDJ named 3 women to the party’s executive council and 12 women to
the central committee in 1997. Women participated in the Constitutional Commission (filling
almost half of the positions on the 50-person committee) and hold senior government positions,
including the positions of minister of justice an d minister of labor. Approximately 40 percent of
all households are headed by women. Equal educ ational opportunity, equal pay for equal work,
and penalties for domestic violence have been codified. However, traditional societal
discrimination persists against women in th e largely rural and agricultural country.