Isaias Afwerki, the 25-year leader of Eritrea, has recently been accused of crimes against humanity in a new report compiled by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. The report included testimonies of arrests for voicing dissent, torture, rape, enslavement, murder, and retaliation against the families of dissidents who fled Eritrea.
Sources: Yahoo.com, NYTimes.com, Post-Gazette.com, BBC.com, VOANews.com
Afwerki was studying engineering in Addis Ababa in 1966, when he decided to abandon his studies to join the 30-year Eritrean War for Independence, also known as the “Gedli.” He joined the Eritrean Liberation Front, while in exile in Sudan.
As the leader of the successful Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF, Afwerki helped lead the country to its independence in May 1991, ending a 30-year-old liberation struggle. The EPLF, now known as the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), is the only governing party of Eritrea today.
When he first came to power, Afwerki shunned the “cult of personality” adopted by many African leaders, earning him praise from international observers as a positive force for Eritrea. He was also praised for his commitment to building governmental infrastructure and electoral system. Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton described him as a “renaissance leader.”
According to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, Afwerki has become an increasingly “isolated and mercurial…unhinged dictator.” He has accused the CIA of attempting to orchestrate assassination attempts against him.
Under Afwerki’s rule, Eritrea is now ranked as the world’s worst country for freedom of the press, worse even than North Korea. He has closed all independent media and is known for jailing journalists critical of his administration.
After attending military training in China during the Cultural Revolution, Afwerki became an admirer of Mao Zedong, and is well known for having Marxist-inspired politics. Eritrea has enjoyed close relations with Beijing.
The United States, along with other foreign governments, provided aid to Eritrea until Afwerki ended all so-called foreign aid, citing it as a dependency creator. The following year, he prohibited non-governmental organizations.
Afwerki instituted mandatory conscription for all young people into national service, but often there is no end in sight for new soldiers. The mass national service can last for decades, forcing many Eritreans to flee. Afwerki points to ongoing tension with Ethiopia as the reason for maintaining national conscription.
Afwerki has a shoot-to-kill policy for his border patrols, but many Eritreans take the risk and flee across the border anyway. Eritrea’s refugee crisis has drawn attention to Afwerki’s administration and forced international observers to look more closely at his actions. Last year alone, over 47,000 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe.
After refusing to allow U.N. officials to enter Eritrea to compile a report on the country, Afwerki’s administration accused the report of being one sided and inaccurate. The report was based on interviews with Eritreans living outside the country, many with refugee status.
Afwerki’s administration responded to the U.N. report with outrage, citing a lack of evidence such as video or audio. Others claimed the commission overstepped its mandate, and questioned the impartiality of its leaders.
Citing over 300,000 cases of forced labor and indefinite conscription, the U.N. report deemed Eritrea’s actions akin to slavery, and recommended that high-ranking Eritrean officials, including Afwerki, be referred to the International Criminal Court and charged with crimes against humanity. The report will now go to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which will decide whether or not to adopt a resolution on the issue.
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