Disturbing situation of human rights of Afar people in Eritrea becoming more visible
Over the past several decades, the Indigenous Afar people have been subjected to widespread discrimination, forced incarceration, disappearance and violence, and information from the notoriously closed country is sparce and sometimes unreliable. However, in 2023, some recent information on the situation of human rights, including that of Indigenous Peoples, has started to trickle out and come to light.
Numerous credible allegations of arbitrary arrests and disappearances of Afar people, especially fisherfolk have been received over the years under the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteurs for the situation of human rights in Eritrea. Several recent disturbing violations have been included in the current Special Rapporteur’s, Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker’s, latest May 2023 report.
The Afar live in the Dankalia Region at the southern tip of the Red Sea. As the Special Rapporteur notes: “the Afar are one of the most disenfranchised communities in Eritrea. For several decades, they have been subjected to discrimination, harassment, arbitrary arrests, disappearance, violence and widespread persecution.”
Furthermore, the Afar have been barred from carrying out their traditional occupation. These injustices have interfered with their traditional way of life, compromised their culture and uprooted their community.
Decades of discrimination and human rights violations
There is an established history of arbitrary detentions and disappearances of Afar people, as noted by the Special Rapporteur. One particularly egregious incident in 2022, as noted in the Special Rapporteur’s report, was that of a mass detention of Afar fisherfolk by the Eritrean navy.
“On 28 August 2022, the Eritrean navy seized fishing boats and detained between 80 and 100 Afar fisherfolk off the coast of Bara sole and took them to Assab prison. They were then handed over to the 38th Military Division, which was responsible for carrying out roundups of conscripts in the Southern Red Sea Region and taken to Ras Tarma, the Eritrean navy defense hub near Assab port. They were later transferred to Tehadiso prison, also in Assab, where they reportedly remain in detention."
Another similar incident happened just a couple of weeks later, as noted in the report:
“On 9 September 2022, the Eritrean navy captured several members of a family in Buri, when they were returning from Yemen, where they had sold their fish. Their boat and cargo were seized and they were taken to Galalu navy detention centre.”
The report assesses that the government of Eritrea has engaged in a pattern of harassment and exploitation toward the Afar people. The Special Rapporteur report includes incidents involving arbitrary arrests and seizures of their property and goods.
“While some of them have been released, many remain unaccounted for, with no further information available on their fate. Those who are released, as well as the families of those detained, are instructed not to enquire about the goods and boats confiscated during the arrests. Those who attempt to recover their property from the Government are threatened with imprisonment and prohibitive fines into millions of nakfa [currency of Eritrea].”
The report's findings only confirm an established practice that dates back decades and one that has been reported on routinely by IWGIA through The Indigenous World annual publication documenting the situation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights across the globe. Previous editions note that “Indigenous Peoples have been pressured by the government’s policy of eradicating identification along regional and religious lines” and that “the regime expropriates Indigenous lands without compensation, and has partially cleansed Indigenous Peoples from their traditional territories by violence.”
Special Rapporteur recommendations
In light of such insurmountable evidence, the Special Rapporteur called on member states to exert pressure on Eritrea's government to end the discrimination against the Afar and others.
The Special Rapporteur recommends that its member States and international organizations:
“Exercise universal jurisdiction over alleged crimes against humanity and initiate legal proceedings against individuals responsible for the commission of international crimes and violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law, in accordance with the national legislation of member States; [and] Exert maximum pressure on the Government of Eritrea to end the two-decade practice of enforced disappearance, torture, arbitrary and incommunicado detention and persecution of thousands of political opponents, journalists, critical voices, prisoners of conscience and people of faith.”
The Special Rapporteur further noted that: “the High Commissioner for Human Rights and human rights mechanisms, such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the universal periodic review, have outlined ways in which the human rights challenges of Eritrea can be addressed. However, the vast majority of the recommendations issued by these bodies remain unimplemented”, thus underlining the continued importance of documenting these human rights violations and calling for action.
Impact of COVID-19
Indigenous Peoples worldwide have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the plethora of social injustices these communities already face. The same case has been for Indigenous Peoples in Eritrea.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eritrean government implemented measures that forced the Afar from their traditional territory of Dankalia.
Several sources in the report indicate that the government blocked all sea and road access to Dankalia, prohibited the Afar from fishing and denied them humanitarian aid, resulting in starvation. Because this community relies primarily on fishing and trade with neighboring countries, this has had catastrophic effects on their way of life and survival.
A modest victory
It is evident that in regard to human rights, there has been little progress; instead, in recent years, the Special Rapporteur noted that many aspects of human rights have deteriorated. Despite the alarming findings, the publishing of the Special Rapporteur’s human rights report, as well as previous rapporteur reports, continues to be an important component in the fight for the rights of the Afar people, bringing their plight and reality to light.
International recognition marks a significant step forward in addressing the Afar people's oppression. Recognition by an international body such as the UN signals the start of an arduous journey toward the Afar being able to claim their rights.
President of the Eritrean Afar National Congress (EANC), Ahmed Mohammed, expressed his thoughts on this issue:
“Even though the conditions of our people in the country continue to be dangerous, this report gives us, the defenders of Afar some hope that our suffering is not hidden, and available for the world to see.”
General situation of Indigenous Peoples in Eritrea
There are nine officially recognized ethnic groups in Eritrea. However, there is no organization protecting Indigenous Peoples' rights in Eritrea, nor has the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples been adopted by the government of Eritrea.
Additionally, there is no legal framework in Eritrea that protects these fundamental rights. As a result, the Indigenous Peoples of Eritrea face a number of challenges. The Special Rapporteur has expressed serious concerns about the situation of Indigenous Peoples in the country.
The Special Rapporteur concludes the section of his report on the Afar people by noting that their human rights have been consistently violated:
“The Special Rapporteur has observed discriminatory treatment of the Afar Indigenous People by the authorities in the provision of fundamental services, such as education, access to decent work and livelihoods, health services and humanitarian assistance. The Afar Indigenous Peoples right to free, prior and inform[ed] consent in relation to the management and exploitation of their lands continues to be systematically violated, and they have little access to information to empower them to effectively participate in the matters that affect them.’’