Eritrea’s Conscription Continues Despite War’s End 1

A report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday has detailed Eritrea’s continued use of secondary schools to conscript students into national and military services. Before completing their final year of secondary school, students are sent to an isolated military camp to train and take their final tests. The use of conscription has created persistent flows of asylum seekers from Eritrea, as many seek greater individual freedom. The use of indefinite national service has been enforced in Eritrea since 1998, when a border war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Of great concern to NGOs such as HRW is that the use of indefinite conscription appears to be continuing unabated, despite both countries signing a declaration to the end of the war in July 2018.

Laetitia Bader, senior researcher for HRW Africa Division, has conducted interviews with former Eritrean students and teachers. The findings are concerning, as once secondary schooling is completed, “[citizens] are then channelled into indefinite national service, either in military or civilian roles. During their prolonged conscription, they risk systematic abuse, including torture, harsh working conditions and pay insufficient to support a family.” Bader suggests that reforms must take place, particularly with regards to human rights, and ‘freedom of the country’s youth’.

Researcher at the South African Research Chair in International Law, University of Johannesburg, Cristiano D’Orsi, has suggested that the reasons for Eritrea’s conscription are not solely based on military concerns. In an article written for The Conversation shortly after the signing of the declaration to the end of war, he stated, “the national service is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future to fulfil other parts of its mandate which are reconstructing the country, strengthening the economy, and developing a joint Eritrean identity across ethnic and religious lines.”

The use of conscription, military training and national service not only undermines the Eritrean education system, but fundamentally removes an individual’s freedom to make decisions for themselves. As suggested by HRW, Eritrea should announce a timeline detailing the demobilisation of conscripts, provide better training for those who wish to remain as teachers, and discontinue the use of the Sawa military camp in secondary schooling. It is important that these measures are taken in a constructive and careful way to ensure their success.

Before completing the final year of secondary school, students are forced to spend a year at the Sawa Military Camp, in the country’s West. Students are exposed to military discipline, which includes ill-treatment and punishments for minor infractions. Once their ‘training’ is complete, students are either funnelled into the military, or vocational training, where their careers will be decided for them. The use of conscription has been persistent in Eritrea. It was introduced in 1995, following the 30 year liberation war with Ethiopia. In 1998, national service became indefinite, as another border war broke out between the two countries. Until 2018, Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s head of state, used the ‘no war, no peace’ situation to legitimise the use of conscription to protect the country. While the signing of the peace declaration has brought with it many improvements between the two countries, and within Eritrea, conscription is still utilised. Conscription is a primary reason so many young people choose to flee the country, and seek asylum. However, such desperate journeys often place asylum seekers in danger.

Despite the end of the war, the Eritrean government seems intent on maintaining national service. It seems likely that this is an attempt by Afwerki to maintain power and control over the public. Not only does this infringe the rights of Eritreans in the country, particularly youth, but it acts as a distinct push factor, that drives young people and teachers from the country to seek a better life. The journey to other countries (Europe and Israel in particular) is fraught with danger, and can result in serious harm. The Eritrean government has no discernible need to maintain national service and military education, and must take concrete steps to end this practice.