An Opportunity for Eritrea, Ethiopia and the International Community

By Derek Paulhaus, Advocacy and Government Relations Fellow, Amnesty International USA

While the historic peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia penned last month is a celebratory moment, it also presents an opportunity for the United States and the international community to help both countries address glaring human rights issues and fully realize the promise of peace between the two countries. The US Congress which has played a critical role on pressing for reform by passing H. Res. 128 which calls for improved respect for human rights and more inclusive governance must continue to push and throw its weight behind nascent reforms from the new prime Minister until they become laws and support efforts to ensure accountability. The Trump administration must also mobilize the international community and engage the Eritrean government to undertake meaningful reform related to human rights and humanitarian access during a rare window of opportunity.

Ethiopia’s path toward reform has been driven by over three years of nonviolent resistance and protest that the ruling EPRDF government could not crush and that triggered a change in leadership and opened the door for critical reforms under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. While the new prime minister of Ethiopia has ended the state of emergency — in which at least 1,000 people were killed, and over 10,000 were arrested — and implemented key reforms, many reforms are still desperately needed before elections in 2019 and 2020. Millions of people remain displaced, the nation’s judicial system remains biased, torture continues to take place in the country’s prisonsand there has been little institutionalized accountability, justice, and reparations for previous human rights violations by Ethiopian officials and security forces.

One infamous example is the Liyupoliceunit of the Somali regional state. They have been implicated in unlawful killings of people in the Oromia region, burning down homes and forcibly displacing residents. Attacks in Oromia have led to hundreds of deaths and over one-million displacements. Under former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desaglen, the government rejected calls for independent and impartial investigations, and refused to investigate or bring suspected perpetrators to justice. Prime Minister Abiy will have to restore the rule of law and respect for human rights by enforcing accountability in this instance and many others if he is lead his country away from the precipice.

The way forward for reform in Eritrea is more challenging, not because of uncertainty over what is needed but because of doubts over the political will of the Eritrean government to accept and facilitate change. Thousands of people have fled Eritrea, as authorities have restricted the ability to leave the country while attacking human rights. The police and military have been documented using excessive force, including killing women, children, and bystanders, such as in November 2017 when 28 people were killed during a police crackdown on a protest. Thousands of Eritreans, including children, are forced into military training and indefinite national service, which is the primary reason why many Eritreans continue to flee the country.

Ordinary citizens and journalistsalike cannot criticize, question or speak out against their government without fear of facing severe reprisals from authorities, who use arbitrary detention and torture to silence critics. In addition, exceedingly poor prison conditions amount to cruel and inhumantreatment, as inmates have inadequate access to food, drinking water, and sanitation facilities. The rights to freedom of expression and religion are severely restricted, and Amnesty International has documented cases of Eritreans disappearing for simply holding and expressing their views.

Two cases which Amnesty International has been following: Aster Yohannesand Aster Fissehatsionare emblematic of the scale of the incarceration in Eritrea. On September 18, 2001, Aster Fissehatsionwas detained indefinitely, along with other members of the G-15 — a group of political dissidents who opposed the border war with Ethiopia that lasted from 1998 to 2000. Since then, Fissehatsionhas been held incommunicado without trial or charge, and there are serious concerns about her current healthand well-being. For the past 17 years, her family has neither seen nor heard from her.

Aster Yohannes was detained on December 11, 2003, at the Asmara airport after returning from the United States, where she had been studying for the previous three years. Yohannes was returning to spend time with her children with a newly issued Eritrean passport, and after she was assured safety when she returned. Since she was detained, Eritrean authorities have refused to provide a reason for her arrest or state where Yohannes is being held. She has not been allowed to see her family, and Amnesty International fears that she could have been subject to torture or ill-treatment.

The peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea is to be welcomed, but it must also lead to reforms that restore fundamental rights in both countries. The United States and the international community can and must support those reforms. First, the Senate should pass S. Res. 168, a bipartisan bill that underscores support for key reforms that Prime Minister Abiy has himself endorsed. Then the Trump administration must engage the Eritrean government to get it to ease the restrictions on the rights of freedom of expression and religion; end the indefinite mandatory national service, and cease arbitrary detention. The Eritrean government must also be called upon to release human right defenders and other prisoners of conscience.

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