The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released its 2016 Annual Report on religious freedom violations in over 30 countries and its Eritrea report was hardly flattering.
The report reveals that the Eritrean government continues to repress religious freedom for unregistered, and in some cases registered, religious communities, particularly Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It also accuses the government for dominating the internal affairs of the Orthodox Church, the country’s largest Christian denomination, and suppresses the religious activities of Muslims, especially those opposed to the government-appointed head of the Muslim community.
In light of these violations, USCIRF again recommends in 2016 that Eritrea be designated a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
Since 2004, USCIRF has recommended, and the State Department has designated, Eritrea as a CPC, most recently in July 2014.
U.S. Policy towards Eritrea
Relations between the United States and Eritrea remain poor. The U.S. government has long expressed concern about the Eritrean government’s human rights practices and support for Ethiopian, Somali, and other armed and rebel groups in the region.
The government of Eritrea expelled USAID in 2005, and U.S. programs in the country ended in fiscal year 2006. Eritrea receives no U.S. development, humanitarian, or security assistance. Since 2010, the government has refused to accredit a new U.S. ambassador to the country; in response the U.S. government revoked the credentials of the Eritrean ambassador to the United States.
U.S. government officials routinely raise religious freedom violations when speaking about human rights conditions in Eritrea.
The United States was a co-sponsor of a 2012 UN Human Rights Council resolution that successfully created the position of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.
In July 2014, the United States supported the creation of a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea to investigate systematic violations of human rights, recommend how to improve conditions and ensure accountability, and raise awareness of the situation in the country.
In 2015, the U.S. government supported the continuation of the COIE’s mandate for one additional year to determine if the Eritrean government’s actions constitute crimes against humanity.
In September 2004, the State Department designated Eritrea a CPC. When re-designating Eritrea in September 2005 and January 2009, the State Department announced the denial of commercial export to Eritrea of defense articles and services covered by the Arms Export Control Act, with some items exempted.
The Eritrean government subsequently intensified its repression of unregistered religious groups with a series of arrests and detentions of clergy and ordinary members of the affected groups.
The State Department most recently re-designated Eritrea a CPC in July 2014, and continued the presidential action of the arms embargo, although since 2011 this has been under the auspices of UN Security Council resolution 1907 (See below).
U.S.-Eritrean relations also are heavily influenced, often adversely, by strong U.S. ties with Ethiopia. Gaining independence in 1993, Eritrea fought a costly border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000. The United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and the now-defunct Organization of African Unity were formal witnesses to the 2000 accord ending that conflict.
However, Eritrean-Ethiopian relations remain tense due to Ethiopia’s refusal to permit demarcation of the boundary according to the Hague’s Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s 2002 decision.
The U.S. government views the commission’s decision as “final and binding” and expects both parties to comply.
U.S. policy toward Eritrea also is concentrated on U.S. concerns that the country’s activities in the region could destabilize the Horn of Africa. In December 2009, the United States joined a 13-member majority on the UN Security Council in adopting Resolution 1907, sanctioning Eritrea for supporting armed groups in Somalia and failing to withdraw its forces from the Eritrean-Djibouti border following clashes with Djibouti. The sanctions include an arms embargo, travel restrictions, and asset freezes on the Eritrean government’s political and military leaders, as well as other individuals designated by the Security Council’s Committee on Somalia Sanctions.
In April 2010, President Obama announced Executive Order 13536 blocking the property and property interests of several individuals for their financing of al-Shabaab in Somalia, including Yemane Ghebreab, presidential advisor and the former head of political affairs.
In December 2011, the United States voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 2023, which calls on UN member states to implement Resolution 1907’s sanctions and ensure that their dealings with Eritrea’s mining industry do not support activities that would destabilize the region.
In 2015, the U.S. government voted in the UN Security Council to retain an arms embargo on Eritrea and to renew for another year the mandate of its Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.
The U.S. government should press for immediate improvements to end religious freedom violations in Eritrea and raise concerns through bilateral and multilateral initiatives. In addition to recommending that the U.S. government should continue to designate Eritrea a CPC and maintaining the existing, ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a), USCIRF recommends that the U.S. government should:
• Continue to use bilateral and multilateral diplomatic channels to urge the government of Eritrea to:
> release unconditionally and immediately detainees held on account of their peaceful religious activities, including Orthodox Patriarch Antonios;
> end religious persecution of unregistered religious communities and register such groups; grant full citizenship rights to Jehovah’s Witnesses;
> provide for conscientious objection by law in compliance with international human rights standards; implement the Constitution of 1997;
> bring national laws and regulations, including registration requirements for religious communities, into compliance with international human rights standards;
> bring the conditions and treatment of prisoners in line with international standards;
> and extend an official invitation for unrestricted visits by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the International Red Cross;
• Ensure, if development assistance is to be resumed, that it is directed to programs that contribute directly to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law;
• Intensify international efforts to resolve the current impasse between Eritrea and Ethiopia regarding implementation of the boundary demarcation as determined by the “final and binding” decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission that was established following the 1998-2000 war;
• Encourage unofficial dialogue with Eritrean authorities on religious freedom issues by promoting a visit by U.S. and international religious leaders, and expand the use of educational and cultural exchanges, such as the Fulbright Program, the International Visitor Program, and lectures by visiting American scholars and experts; and
• Work with other nations, especially those with mining interests in Eritrea and large Eritrean diaspora communities, to draw attention to religious freedom abuses in Eritrea and advocate for the unconditional and immediate release of detainees held on account of their peaceful religious activities, including Orthodox Patriarch Antonios.