Africa Watch

Africa and the ICC could head-butt again on Eritrea

President Afewerki posing next AU/ICC crisis?
President Afewerki.jpg

While the jury is still out regarding the Bashir debacle, President Afewerki in neighbouring Eritrea could soon find himself in a similar situation, causing more trouble for the already strained relations between Africa and the ICC.

There must be something seriously wrong when a country’s national soccer team repeatedly abscond during international tournaments in foreign countries and ask for political asylum.

In the latest incident earlier this month during an international football tournament in Botswana, ten members of Eritrea’s national football team and the team doctor absconded and requested political asylum – repeating what some of their compatriots did in 2009 in Kenya, others in 2011 in Tanzania and in 2012 in Uganda.   

Déjà vu

Most South Africans are familiar with the name Omar al-Bashir and the trouble the Sudanese president caused the South African Government (SAG) when attending the AU Summit in Johannesburg in June.

Forsaking its responsibility as a founding member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to apprehend Bashir and hand the ‘Butcher of Darfur’ over to the ICC to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, the SAG compromised its ICC membership.

A clumsy attempt to escape from the hole dug by disobeying a South African court order and international legal obligations, the SAG is now involved in some deft footwork to prepare for the country’s eventual withdrawal from the ICC.

Many analysts expect the SAG to trip over its own feet, denting its international image to the extent that it might bury its unbridled ambition to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

The reasons for the warrant for Bashir’s incarceration are well known. Less known is that its neighbour Eritrea – considered  one of the most repressive and secretive states on earth and Africa’s equivalent to North Korea – stands accused of similar transgressions.

Unenviable history

Eritrea, a former Italian colony, is one of Africa’s younger, but also poorest, countries.

After the Second World War it formed a loose federation with its stronger neighbour Ethiopia. In 1962 Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the Eritrean parliament and annexed the country.

A bloody conflict with Eritrean separatists followed. It lasted for 30 years until the main separatist movement, The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), in a victorious attack captured the capital Asmara in 1991.

In 1993 Eritreans voted for, and gained, independence, with EPLF leader, Isaias Afewerki, as president. Today, 22 years later, Afewerki is still in power.

Tense relations with Ethiopia, 20 times the size of Eritrea, erupted in 1998 in open hostilities. It lasted two years, claiming an estimated 100 000 lives.

No permanent peace deal could be negotiated, and a fragile truce with thousands of troops facing each other along a 1 000 km border remains, with Afewerki continuing to rule under the emergency regulations imposed in 1998.

Citing security reasons, the Afewerki regime built one of the biggest armies in Africa, abolished all elections, banned all other political parties except the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), and disallowed an independent press.

But Eritreans are voting with their feet.

Massive exodus

An estimated 5 000 Eritreans flee the country every month – the second-largest group of migrants after Syrians – risking their lives to reach Europe.

Syrians are fleeing a devastating civil war, Eritreans are fleeing abuses by a repressive dictatorship “which to the rest of the world are largely invisible because of the regime’s secretiveness”, according to the head of the Migration Law Unit of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The Wall Street Journal, reporting on the flight from Eritrea, concludes: “Yet by some measures, the exodus from the smaller Eritrea is more extreme. From the start of 2012 to the middle of this year (2015), 1 in 50 Eritreans sought asylum in Europe, nearly twice the ratio of Syrians. The UN estimates that 400 000 Eritreans – 9% of the population – have fled in recent years, not counting those who died or were stranded en route.” 

UN investigation

President Afewerki’s dictatorial tendencies did not go unnoticed and the UN Commission of Inquiry and Human Rights in June 2015 released the findings of its year-long investigation into allegations of human rights abuses by his government.

The highly critical 500 pages report concludes: “It is not law that rules Eritrea – but fear ...”

It lists among the many Eritrean government transgressions extrajudicial killings, sexual slavery, enforced labour and the stifling of free speech and religion. People practising any religion, other than the four approved by the government, are subject to arrest, harassment, and mistreatment in detention.

It is also highly critical of the Eritrean government’s preference for mass surveillance, reminiscent of the old communist Eastern Bloc countries where family, friends and neighbours were encouraged to inform on one another. In Eritrea it has morphed into a vast spying and detention network. Scores of people, often including children, are held without trial for years.

Freedom of movement is also restricted, with permits required for movement beyond the community where a person works or lives.

Top of the list, and probably the main reason for even Eritrea’s best soccer players to flee the country of their birth, remains draconian, indefinite and open-ended national service.

Facing a vastly superior enemy, the Eritrean government adopted a conscription policy stipulating that every Eritrean, man and woman, from the age of 18 can be conscripted into the military. It can continue for years until the age of 40.

It is reported that some conscripts have served for more than 20 years under conditions that, according to the UN investigation, are comparable to “slavery-like practices” and constitute a “systematic violation of an array of human rights on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere in the world”.

Controversial tax

The tentacles of repression reach far beyond the borders of Eritrea. In 2011 the Afewerki regime was severely criticised by the UNSC for the collection of a 2% tax on the incomes of all of Eritrea’s citizens living abroad – a so-called ‘diaspora tax’.

Not only is this tax an indispensable source of income, but the UNSC accused the Afewerki regime of using it to fund terrorism and armed opposition groups in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Islamist al-Shabab in Somalia. This led to the introduction of limited UN sanctions against Eritrea.

Although the Afewerki regime refused to participate in the UN investigation, it did not deter the UN from extending the investigation for a second year. The UN Human Rights Council wants to extend its investigation to consider possible crimes against humanity, a level of offence that can be prosecuted by the ICC.

Should further investigations lead to a warrant being issued for President Afewerki’s arrest and appearance before the ICC, Africa will be faced with the same dilemma that has led to the current stand-off between Africa and the ICC.  

How Africa and the SAG are going to respond, will reveal whether anything was learnt from the Bashir debacle.

by Garth Cilliers

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