4 Outrages from the UN Human Rights Council Report on Eritrea

The UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry of human rights abuses in Eritrea just published what might be the most exhaustive documentation of human rights abuses in one of the word’s most oppressive states. The report shows that Eritrea has basically become North Korea in the Horn of Africa.  It’s run by an ever shrinking cadre of paranoid ex-revolutionaries who are more focused on controlling their population than providing any sort of meaningful governance.

Their means of population control are atrocious. Torture and disappearances are widespread. Travel within the country is tightly controlled. Legally exiting the country is nearly impossible for much of the population.  The government uses a food subsidy system to essentially spy on its citizens. A national service requirements is used as a tool to intimidate citizens of military age.

Here are just a few examples pulled from the nearly 500 page report.

1) Torture is Widespread.

This is called “Helicoptering.” It’s used in prisons. But mostly it’s been used to intimidate and subjugate conscripts in the national service.

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Testimonies reveal that milk or sugared water is sometimes poured over the body of the victims to attract insects so that they are bitten but cannot relieve their itch. Victims may be tied for days outside, exposed to extreme temperatures. Witnesses said they are generally only released two or three times a day for meals and to relieve themselves. Witnesses explained that their arms and legs were wounded and bleeding by the ropes, which were generally placed on the same wounds day after day. After a while, the upper and lower limbs would swell and feel numb and the blood flow was blocked. This sometimes resulted in gangrene and ultimately led to amputations.

This is called the “Torch” position

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And this is a medieval torture device called a Ferro.

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“Several testimonies refer to the use of ferro during interrogations. They described ‘special’ iron handcuffs with bolts that can be screwed from underneath to tighten them (“the metal goes inside the flesh”). This creates severe pain with every move and stops the blood flow. Depending on the replies given to the questions of the interrogator, the ferro are tightened or loosened.”

I think you get the picture. Torture is a feature, not a bug, of Eritrean governance.

2) Kids Are Recruited to Spy on their Friends and Neighbors

The government will target the children of individuals considered great patriots. They will indoctrinate and train these children to be spies.

“We were 13-14 at that time … They gave us training in Asmara at a Government office. We came to the office two to three times a week. They taught us how to behave, what information to tell them. They gave us IDs. I went there every day for four months. You spy on the neighbours and report to them: they take notes. I used to have a red book with my name … I was asked to spy on a big businessman. When he went to a café, I also went to the same café.”
Another former spy said: “After the work on the farm was finished we were all separated. I was sent to the intelligence unit because my parents were freedom fighters and my father was a martyr. They thought they could trust me. All the people in the intelligence unit were children of former freedom fighters.”

Spies’ assignments range from extracting specific information to conducting general surveillance activities in order to detect “sanctionable” conduct. The spy network targets almost everyone in Eritrean society. This includes spying on your neighbours; conscripts during national service; people trying to avoid or escape from national service; people suspected to be planning to flee the country; relatives and/or critics of the Government; members of non-governmental organizations and religious groups; detainees in places of deprivation of liberty, as well as on individuals who are suspected to be spies for foreign entities and governments.

The Soviets had a similar system in east Germany. Tyrants learn from tyrants.

3) Live Abroad and Need A Passport? You’ll Have to Fork Over 2% of Your Income and Write a Letter of Apology

The government considers most Eritreans living abroad to be traitors. They deny them access to regular consular services like renewing a passport unless they fork over a hefty sum. If you are an Eritrean and need a passport, you are forced to pay a tax of 2% of your annual income. Incidentally, this is called the “Rehabilitation Tax.”

It gets worse.

Moreover, in addition to paying the Tax, Eritreans who have left the country unlawfully have to sign an “Immigration and Citizenship Services Request Form” to regularise their situation before they can request consular services. By signing the Form, individuals admit that they “regret having committed an offence by not completing the national service” and are “ready to accept appropriate punishment in due course.” Such procedure seems to provide a blank cheque to the Government to punish persons outside of judicial proceedings and safeguards. For all those reasons, many who are in the diaspora do not take the risk to travel to Eritrea.

4) The “Coupon System”

In order to qualify for special coupons that to purchase subsidized food; enroll children in school; or get a government document like a passport of exit visa, you need to register with the government. Here’s the catch: the entire family needs to be present to renew coupons. So if you want to escape the country, or if you are in someway in need of evading the authorities, your family will suffer mightily.

As a family, you have coupons, you have to go to the administration zone and they ask you about the whereabouts of all your family members, and about your religion. Without the coupon, you cannot shop in the Government stores. The price is triple outside Government stores. You cannot afford it. You need the coupon to shop. As people leave the country, they check from time to time.Then you have to bring a paper from the military officer certifying the whereabouts of your husband. You have to bring a paper for each individual in your family. The coupon is for one year. You have to renew it each year but they can ask you anytime about the whereabouts of your family members. Therefore, people who are in hiding do not get anything.

Eritrea’s “coupon system” is an evil genius means of population control. It may be an innovation of Eritrean tyrants themselves as I’ve never heard of this particular form of control.


The report is a tough read. It was compiled by a group of international investigators who were given their mandate directly from the Human Rights Council. Needless to say, Eritrea did not cooperate so the investigators based much of their report on several hundred interviews conducted over many months.

These reports tend to stand on their own in the sense that the “recommendations” section are only valuable to the extent that member states are willing to follow through on the recommendations. However, in this case the report will directly contribute to ongoing discussions in Europe about the migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. About one in every four migrants who made it to Italy last year were Eritrean. And after reading this report, you can have a deeper understanding that the push factors that drive people to flee Eritrea are much more profound than typical cases of economic migration.  This report offers the context from which these migrants are fleeing and makes a compelling argument that Eritreans who make it to European soil deserve asylum.

Finally, it worth noting that the 47 member Human Rights Council is sometimes derided for including some states that have less than stellar human rights records. This report shows that despite its imperfections, the council can — and does– powerfully serve the cause of human rights.