Reconsidering The Place Of Conscription In The 21st Century: A Review Of The Eritrean National Service Program And Human Rights Discourse


The United Nations has issued a report recently condemning Eritrea for committing crimes against humanity. The report, published by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights, accused the East-African nation of breaching a plethora of basic human rights, pertaining primarily, but not limited to, the “enslavement” of citizens through compulsory military or national service.

 The COI reported that somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 Eritrean citizens have been enslaved through mandatory state service since the country gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991. The existing “systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” as highlighted in the report include the “abusive conditions” in which the service takes place, the state’s “use of conscripts as forced labour” and the “open-ended, arbitrary duration” of the national service program. The COI accuses the Eritrean government of committing “systematic enslavement”, and the violation of the right to life by subjecting citizens to “abysmal conditions of detention and national service, in which death is a foreseeable consequence.”

Whilst it is commonplace to attribute such violations of human rights to being symptomatic of developing countries and fragile states, the illumination of Eritrea’s current situation does indeed raise the question of the relevance of conscription and mandatory national service in any context in the 21st century. It is important to understand how conscription can be transformed from what may be understood as a reciprocal obligation of citizens to their state, into a mechanism of state violence and systematic oppression. It is easy to frame the Eritrean example as a matter of the extreme misuse and abuse of State power, which indeed it is; however, individual autonomy remains affected in any form of compulsory national service, therefore any conception of compulsory service in an infringement on such.

One can argue either way as to whether or not compulsory national service is a legitimate element of the relationship between a nation and its citizens, but the promotion and preservation of individual rights is fundamental in any event. As illustrated in the Eritrean case, once an individual has been limited in their autonomy through participation in a compulsory national program they become vulnerable to systematic violence and oppression. This is especially true to military service, wherein individuality and identity is limited and participants are instilled with state-oriented ideologies. As Ayn Rand has famously argued, not only does conscription negate the individual’s right to life through the potential exposure to conflict, but also establishes the fundamental principles of statism, that is, that a citizens life belongs to the state. If an individual is conscripted by the state they are limited in their autonomy for the length of the period of their service, which, in many cases extends beyond the initial period if a country operates a military reserves program.

In a study of female Israeli conscripts Sociologist Orna Sasson-Levy concluded, “For them, military service is not an experience that articulates their citizenship or enhances feelings of national belonging, but rather stands in opposition to the values and goal of the mandatory people’s army by estranging them from the state and its institution.” This is consistent with former US Congressman Ron Paul’s argument that conscription is often incorrectly associated with patriotism, when in actuality it more closely aligns with involuntary servitude. It would seem that in some circumstances compulsory service works to distance individuals from their nation, which is a somewhat contrary outcome to what state service aims to achieve on a certain level.

Stephan Pfaffenseller of the University of Liverpool concluded in an analysis of the compatibility between conscription and democracy:

“More generally, universal service requirements are inconsistent with the notion of individual liberty as a constraint on government power once they are no longer motivated by a necessity forced on society by an existential military threat. In the absence of such a threat, a compulsory service requirement sets a precedent that allows the state to deploy individuals at the state’s discretion. It allows bona fide responsible adults to be forced into a situation where they can be deployed as inputs in a social engineering process or can be politically conditioned or educated in accordance with an established set of mainstream political values.”

The aforementioned existential military threat is often ambiguous and part of wider political discourse. This is particularly the case within current international security discourse regarding threats from non-state actors, whereby a tangible or easily observable threat is absent; however, an instantaneous threat, such as an isolated terrorist attack for example, is always plausible. This state of perpetual ambiguity allows governments to employ heavy security-centric rhetoric and morally and legally justify systematic what may be perceived as impeachments of civil rights in other contexts, such as the inclusion of compulsory national service in nations like Eritrea and Israel, or the recent implementation of national security acts in Western nations such as the UK, USA and Australia.

According to the U.N., in February, 2016 the Eritrean Minister for Information Yemane Ghebremeskel confirmed that Eritrea did indeed have plans for demobilization, which was to take place after the removal of the “main threat”, although, currently “[we] are talking about prolongation of national service in response to continued belligerence by Ethiopia.” Tensions have been high between the two nations since Eritrea achieved independence and military clashes between them fairly regular, with the most recent taking place the same week as the current U.N. report was released. Additionally, the Huffington Post reports that last year the Eritrean government indicated that it would curtail compulsory service to 18 months, but has since reneged on that motion. As long as nations such as Eritrea maintain that their sovereignty or national security is threatened, they are, as far as the international law is currently concerned, justified in operating national conscription programs. Even if they were to implement a fixed-term service period there is still a significant amount of room for the reported domestic human rights violations to continue within the program if international action is not mounted.

Since the Eritrean-Ethiopian war ended in 2000, numerous attempts have been made at establishing peace between the two nations. In 2002, a ruling by the Eritrean-Ethiopian Boundary Commission, that aimed to settle territorial disputes, was accepted by both parties, however, no affirmative action has been taken since. In 2004, Eritrea rejected Ethiopia’s attempts at initiating a diplomatic dialogue, and in 2008 a U.N. peacekeeping mission withdrew after Eritrea imposed restrictions upon it that made it “impossible for the mission to function,” Reuters reports. Despite maintaining a seemingly contrary attitude towards international intervention, the New York Times highlighted the disdain expressed by the Eritrean government over the lack of assistance from the international community, particularly from the USA and UK.

Failed diplomacy, or indeed the lack thereof, between Eritrea and Ethiopia has allowed over the course of 25 years, the development and prolongation of gross violations of human rights. Whilst it is difficult to acknowledge conflict may exist as an acceptable solution to certain issues, the enslavement of a nation by its government to be used to perpetuate such is utterly impermissible. Further, the refusal to engage in a constructive diplomatic dialogue, and therefore maintain the existence of an ambiguous existential threat to national sovereignty in order to justify the government’s actions requires immediate attention. Establishing peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, or indeed even creating a stable state within Eritrea may be many years of hard work away, with or without the help of the international community. The current suffering that is taking place as a result of the existing national service scheme can be addressed sooner rather than later, however.

International law currently permits conscription, and human rights frameworks such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, whilst theoretically rejecting conscription for its inherent opposition to many individual rights, does not directly address it. A step toward the global reduction of many widespread and systematic violations of human rights would be the legal acknowledgement that participation in compulsory military service is in essence a violation of individual autonomy and rights. The deeply troubling situation currently taking place in Eritrea may seem like an anomalous occurrence, but the implementation of safeguards through international law could help to protect individuals from the mechanisms of state violence in the future. Additionally, the provision of international assistance and aid could help developing nations and fragile states such as Eritrea move away from their dependence on the forced labour of conscripts, which in turn, in the long run could help to develop a nation that is able to contribute to the international community itself in the future.

 Working towards a global redefinition of what service to one’s nation means could help to realign and balance the relationship between the state and its 21st century citizens. In Austria, for example, 6 months of national service is compulsory, however, it is not limited to military service. Zivildienst, or “civilian service”, allows contentious objectors to perform their national service in roles outside of the military, typically in fields of social work. Similarly, Switzerland offers the Swiss Civilian Service to similar effect. The primary issue with these programs is the limited scope in which one may be considered a conscientious objector. In order to be truly progressive, and to add an additional dimension of individual autonomy, the option to select between civil or military service should be offered regardless. If national military service is to remain, especially to militarize nations in times of true crisis, perhaps conscripts can be placed in exclusively non-combative roles in order to protect their right to life at the very least.

Conflict has changed significantly since the inception of conscription, where manpower was once a determining factor; technology and intelligence are now much more highly valued. As a result, the practice of compulsory military service is becoming increasingly harder to justify. At its very core, conscription is inhumane and incompatible with the protection of human rights and individual autonomy. As is the case currently in Eritrea, it is a powerful mechanism of state violence, capable of affording widespread and systematic enslavement. All human life is valuable, all human life deserves protection, and all of humanity is responsible in protecting one another. One by one the existing crimes against humanity can be dismantled and prevented in the future, if humanity is prepared to work together to do so.



Sebastien Miller


The Organization for World Peace