Eritrea: The Indefinite National Service Defining the Fate of Adolescents

Eritrea: The Indefinite National Service Defining the Fate of Adolescents

Paris – The Etritrean-Ethiopian War, one of the most brutal wars in Africa, took place between both countries from May 1998 to June 2000, however peace was finally agreed in 2018, twenty years after the conflict began.

Since Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea became a militarized authoritarian state with only one political party, The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which is led by President Isaias Afwerki. Democracy is far from accurate as the country has not held a national election since 1993 and President Isaias and the PFDJ have been in power since the country’s independence. With national elections being postponed indefinitely, opposition groups are unable to participate or join government. Freedom of expression or any private discussion is entirely forbidden and any form of dissent is likely to result in arrest or arbitrary detention, leaving Eritreans no choice but to pledge their allegiance to the PFDJ. With Eritrean society being dominated entirely by the military since May 2002, Eritrean citizens are required to participate in the endless national service which requires all men and women aged 18 to 55 to join the national service for an unspecified amount of time. Offering two programmes, the civil service and the military service, anyone who enters the programmes are forbidden to leave until they turn 55, making Eritrea one of the most punitive countries in Africa justly earning its unofficial title of Africa’s North Korea. 

Despite the legal conscription age of 18, teenagers as young as 16, both girls and boys receive a letter from the authorities notifying them of their requirements to finish high school in a military camp, most commonly, in the city of Sawa. For 12 months, adolescents are expected to complete rigorous military training, with girls being forced to partake in the same activities as boys. Many girls are expected to repeat their training for failing to operate the heavy machinery appropriately in their first year.

In these military environments, many teenagers have reported copious human rights abuses such as physical abuses, degrading punishments, torture, extra judicial killings and sexual violence, especially among girls as many are sent home after falling pregnant.   

Once adolescents have completed their 12 month ‘sentence’ in the Sawa military camp, Eritrean authorities then decide their future and whether they will be able to do the following: continue an academic education, fulfill their national service in a state-owned company, or complete their military service, which means no chance at a civilian life or access to an appropriate academic education. They work for minimal pay, are denied the ability to resign, unable to choose another employment avenue or continue an academic or professional education elsewhere.

The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia during 1998-2000 made children extremely vulnerable, particularly girls. Being female and young in a time of crisis made young girls especially susceptible to violence, with many reports suggesting young girls and women were raped throughout the war. The Eritrean government’s failed attempt at managing the widespread sexual violence that took place during the two-year conflict cemented the current ideologies surrounding rape. Many young girls and women are neglected by their families and communities due to the prevalent social view of rape being shameful, causing many to suffer in silence. Furthermore, military officers, often without any formal legal training are chosen as judges by the President of the Special Court of Eritrea. The Special Court has the power to cancel and to reopen decisions taken by other courts, meaning adolescents who are victims of abuses find themselves unable to take any legal action that can protect their rights and their integrity.

In 2019, women and girls at the Sawa Military Camp are still subjected to sexual violence and harrassment, especially by high ranking officers in the military who choose ‘attractive’ women to work in their station. Using various forms of threats, commanders blackmail girls and women by threatening to beat them or deny them home leave. Abusing their position and power through intimidation techniques and instilling fear, vulnerability and shame, girls are often too terrified or ashamed to admit any form of abuse. Moreover, considering the level of authority from military officers in the Special Court and the discriminatory attitude of the police carrying out investigations, the sympathetic mentality towards the military regime leaves many girls and women scared they will be accused of being deceitful, resulting in further punishment.

The risk of sexual assault faced by Eritrean women and girls is proven in a 2016 report by Amnesty International which revealed that from the 14,000 people who graduated from Sawa camp, 48 percent were females and had experienced some form of gender assault including, sexual exploitation, abuse and torture.

The taxing psychological and physical torture of the indefinite national service has forced many Eritrean’s to flee the country, risking arbitrary arrest, torture, sexual abuse in other countries and execution for a chance at a better life overseas. Those caught trying to avoid military service are likely to receive lengthy detention sentences in hazardous prisons and are then dispatched back to the military where they are usually placed in a more demanding role. If anyone is caught attempting to escape the service and are captured at the border, their fate is almost automatically decided by Eritrea’s shoot-to-kill policy.

The Francophone Association for Human Rights (AFDH) urges the Eritrean government to end the current indefinite national service and implement a phasing out period for those who have served for more than 12 months. The Special Court of Eritrea must ensure those appointed as judges have received appropriate legal training to issue sentences that are consistent and respect both national and international law. AFDH also urges the government to provide post trauma programmes for all previous conscripts who may have been subjected to any type of physical and/or sexual abuse during their time of service.

Eritrea has an opportunity to make a critical change to its current human rights record by ending the compulsory and indefinite national service that is now redundant due to the end of the Etritrean-Ethiopian War. The Eritrean government’s justification of the ongoing practice of the national service due to fear of another conflict with Ethiopia is unsatisfactory and a blatant violation of human rights. Eritrea’s military service is crippling the country’s economic networks and also its international relations. It is time for Eritrea to make extensive changes to its current political landscape by moving away from the repressive, authoritative regime and restore confidence in the people of Eritrea by ending the indefinite national service.

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