On June 8, a special U.N. commission released a report accusing the leadership of Eritrea of crimes against humanity. It cites cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, rape and extrajudicial killing. It claims that up to 400,000 Eritreans have been enslaved in a vast conscription program, forced to work in the army or the bureaucracy for next to nothing, often for a decade or more.
Isaias Afwerki, a former rebel hero, has ruled Eritrea since its independence in 1993. A constitution drafted in 1997 has yet to be implemented. National elections have never been held. Opposition political parties are illegal. Many dissidents have been arrested and have not been heard from since. There are few civil society organizations and no independent media. It is tortuously difficult for Eritreans to obtain formal authorization to leave the country.
The Eritrean government deserves to be called out for these practices. But the criticism, to be credible and effective, must be scrupulously fair, and the commission’s report is not. It extrapolates from anecdotal examples — like instances of rape by military forces — to allege systemic abuses and blame them on state policy.
The commission recommends that its findings be referred to the International Criminal Court. This is ill-advised, and would backfire. Initiating a formal criminal investigation would give the Isaias government more reason to retrench into its righteous isolation — a primary cause of poor governance and economic atrophy in Eritrea, which engender abuses in the first place.
I’ve visited Eritrea for research several times over the past year, talking to senior government officials, including Mr. Isaias; foreign diplomats; local and foreign businesspeople; and ordinary Eritreans. No doubt, the human rights situation there is frightful, and hundreds or thousands of cases of torture, rape or unjust imprisonment probably escaped the commission’s attention. At the same time, things aren’t as bad as the report claims.
Eritrea is not the North Korea of Africa. It, too, is isolated and secretive, but satellite dishes carrying the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera can be seen throughout the country. Though connections are very slow, the internet is accessible and appears to be unfiltered. Radio programs from abroad that are critical of the Isaias administration are widely listened to.
The quality of education and healthcare is good considering that Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in the world. The foreign diplomats and U.N. personnel I met in Asmara often pointed that out, and many praised the absence of corruption. The United Nations Development Program gives Eritrea high marks for its progress on several Millennium Development Goals.
But you wouldn’t know this from reading the U.N. report. And no wonder: The commissioners relied primarily on the testimony of about 800 Eritrean refugees living outside Eritrea. They were inevitably hamstrung after the Isaias government ignored their requests to visit Eritrea, but their research also suffered from selection bias, and that was their doing.
The commissioners didn’t interview Western diplomats or U.N. staff based in Eritrea. By their own admission, they did not consult the relevant academic literature. They discarded tens of thousands of testimonials from Eritreans defending the Isaias regime, claiming these were irrelevant or inauthentic.
The result is a seriously flawed report that entrenches the skewed perspective long dominant in policy circles and the media in the West.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have been locked in a dangerous stalemate for over a decade, after Ethiopia refused to recognize a 2002 arbitration decision settling the border over which they fought a devastating war from 1998 to 2000. But Washington, along with other major Western governments, has allowed the Ethiopian government to flout the ruling: Since at least the mid-1990s, U.S. policy toward the region has been driven by an almost single-minded preoccupation with counterterrorism, and Washington considers Ethiopia to be its main security partner in the Horn of Africa.
The Eritrean government didn’t help its case by giving military support to Al Shabab, a Somalia-based affiliate of Al Qaeda; it’s been under sanctions as a result. But it has very good reason to feel betrayed, especially by the West’s failure to enforce the boundary decision.
The effects of that failure have been terrible. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been needling each other, including by proxy via various rebel groups throughout the region. The Ethiopian government, no less than the Isaias administration, has used instability in the Horn of Africa as an excuse to crack down on political opponents at home. Eritrea may top the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of 10 Most Censored Countries, but Ethiopia is number 4.
Yet if Eritrea has received plenty of criticism, Ethiopia has not received enough. And this remains the case even though there are signs of change in Eritrea and the West’s strategic interests would be better served by a softer position toward the Isaias government.
The war in Yemen has underscored the benefits of having access to Eritrea’s long coast along the Red Sea. The migrant crisis has given European countries an urgent reason to keep Eritreans from leaving home: The European Union has pledged €200 million to help Eritrea reduce poverty, develop its energy network and improve living conditions.
Such engagement is the only way to help Eritrea reform. The conscription program, for example, needs to be rethought, and the term of service reduced to a fixed and reasonable length. This will require converting the many jobs currently performed by conscripts — farming, construction, teaching — into formal civil-service or private-sector positions. Eritrea does not have the resources to manage such a comprehensive overhaul on its own. But foreign companies are wary of getting involved for fear they’ll be accused of profiting from slave labor, and Eritrea doesn’t trust Western governments to help.
Shrill condemnation of the Isaias government also risks alienating the Eritreans best positioned to push it toward sustainable change. Many older members of the diaspora still support Mr. Isaias, and through vast remittances and impassioned community organizing abroad, they offer essential support to his regime. Asmara’s small business community has some influence on his decision-making, if behind closed doors. But the scathing attacks on his administration can seem overblown to his sympathizers, making it easier for them to dismiss uncomfortable truths about its real shortcomings.
Mr. Isaias’s distrust of Western governments has hindered change in Eritrea. The United Nations’ shoddy human rights report will only make matters worse. Just days after it was released, there was an alarming skirmish at the border, apparently initiated by the Ethiopian government, which had made blatant threats in the past.
The U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to vote on the commission’s report before the end of the month. While recognizing the seriousness of the situation in Eritrea, it should approach the report’s findings with caution. In particular, it should vote against the recommendation to refer them to the U.N. Security Council and later the I.C.C. — otherwise, it will only help prolong the repression it was set up to prevent.
Bronwyn Bruton is deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, in Washington.