Eritrea - Military Personnel

Mandatory conscription is utilised in Eritrea. Mandatory conscription per se is not unlawful under international human rights law, as military service lies at the heart of State sovereignty and its national defense. Although mandatory conscription into national service may constitute an infringement by the State of the individual freedoms and liberty of its citizens, governments enjoy a considerable level of discretion regarding the details of mandatory conscription, namely its scope, length, organisation and other aspects. Very few international human standards have been developed to regulate mandatory conscription. There is no internationally recognised right to conscientious objection,

All Eritrean nationals, both female and male between the ages of 18 and 50 years have the duty to participate in the national service. According to estimates of The Military Balance 2015 [International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, p. 445-446], the majority of the estimated 201,750 current active members of the armed forces are national service conscripts. Exact figures are not available and it is unclear how many of these are women.

Though no exact figures were available, most estimates suggest that as of 2009 the country employed some 300,000 on active duty. Some estimates are that one in twenty Eritreans actively serve in the military. Eritrea’s impressive manpower - the most recent figures (lamentably from 2010) suggest that a staggering 11.3% of its population is employed in the military - lead it to rank second in the world in terms of workforce population employed by the military.

During the war for independence, the EPLF fighting force grew to almost 110,000 fighters, about 3% of the total population of Eritrea. In 1993, Eritrea embarked on a phased program to demobilize 50%-60% of the army, which had by then shrunk to about 95,000. During the first phase of demobilization in 1993, some 26,000 soldiers--most of who enlisted after 1990--were demobilized. The second phase of demobilization, which occurred the following year, demobilized more than 17,000 soldiers who had joined the EPLF before 1990 and in many cases had seen considerable combat experience.

As tensions with Ethiopia again reached a fever pitch in 1998, the country again began intensive recruiting. The moves to demobilize were abruptly reversed after the outbreak of the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia over the contested border. During the war, which is estimated to have resulted in well over 100,000 casualties on the two sides, Eritrea's armed forces expanded to close to 300,000 members, almost 10% of the population. This imposed a huge economic burden on the country.

The government has been slow to demobilize its military after the end of the conflict, although it formulated an ambitious demobilization plan with the participation of the World Bank. A pilot demobilization program involving 5,000 soldiers began in November 2001 and was to be followed immediately thereafter by a first phase in which some 65,000 soldiers would be demobilized. This was delayed repeatedly.

A demobilization of about 50,000 soldiers took place in 2003, although aggressive efforts to round up men aged 18 to 40 who were avoiding national service continued as lingering tensions with Ethiopia failed to reach a peaceful resolution. The "national service" program includes most of the male population between 18-40 and the female population between 18-27. The program essentially serves as a reserve force and can be mobilized quickly.

No official data is available regarding the number of people engaged in national service but various estimates place the figure at between 200,000 and 600,000 in recent years, approximately half of whom are assigned to active military service. Deserters have reported that many army units are seriously undermanned and that the whole force numbers only 100,000.

National service is divided into two parts: active national service (military service) and civilian national service which officially involves development projects. In reality, however, civilian service conscripts work in administrative structures, schools, hospitals, agriculture and construction companies.

Eritrea has policies that could be improved, including its requirement of universal military service. The problem is that the military service takes a lot of productive assets away from building the economy and from building food security. In November 1991 the new EPLF government issued regulations to make national service compulsory for all citizens. The first intake of national service was in 1994 and it continued in staged phases since then.

The law prohibits forced labor and slavery. The law’s definition of forced labor excludes activities performed as part of national service or other civic obligations, and labor protections limiting hours of work and prohibiting harsh conditions did not apply to persons engaged in national service. The state of emergency, declared in 1998 because of a border war with Ethiopia, remained in effect during the year. As a result, despite the 18-month limit on national service under the law, the government did not demobilize many conscripts from the military as scheduled and forced some to serve indefinitely under threats of detention, torture, or punishment of their families.

The national service obligation consisted of six months of military training and 12 months of active military service and development tasks in the military forces for a total of 18 months or, for those unfit to undergo military training, 18 months of service in any public and government organ according to the person’s capacity and profession.

Military training of six months is the first part of active national service that every Eritrean national between the age of 18 and 40 years is obliged to undertake, as stipulated in article 8 of the National Service Proclamation. During military training, conscripts are routinely subjected to punishment amounting to torture and ill-treatment.

During active military service, conscripts perform various tasks, some of a purely military character, others related to prison management, policing and internal security. Often, conscripts also have to perform civil tasks, such as working in construction and agriculture. It is very common for Eritreans, who spend their life in the military, to perform both sets of tasks, military and non-military assignments, either interchangeably during the same period of time, or during alternating periods.1851 Very few conscripts serving in the army perform purely military tasks, such as serving in the logistics department of the army, transportation staff or guarding the borders with neighbouring countries.

Military service was routinely prolonged indefinitely. Persons performing national service could not resign from their jobs or take new employment, generally received no promotions or salary increases, and could not leave the country legally because they were denied passports or exit visas. Those conscripted into the military or other public works projects performed standard patrols and border monitoring, in addition to labor such as agricultural terracing, planting, road maintenance, and laying of power lines. Working conditions were often harsh and sometimes involved physical abuse.

National Service is compulsory for a term of 16 months, including four months of military training. Since 1998, however, military service has often been extended indefinitely for men aged 18 to 40 and childless women aged 18 to 27. the most up-to-date information available from inside Eritrea suggests, in general, military/national service lasts for around four years. Some persons may serve longer than this; others may serve around 18 months. How long a person may serve appears to be arbitrary

Many of the fighters had spent their entire adult lives in the EPLF and lacked the social, personal, and vocational skills to become competitive in the work place. As a result, they received higher compensation, more intensive training, and more psychological counseling than the first group. Special attention was given to women fighters, who made up some 30% of the EPLF's combat troops. By 1998, the army had shrunk to 47,000.

The demobilized fighters in Eritrea were all very committed and disciplined, and had just ended a war of three decades, victoriously. The population perceived them as the liberators of the country. And they themselves generally trusted their leadership and had patience when required. But a study of ex-combatants in Eritrea found that women fighters found re-integration more difficult than their male counterparts, often because during the struggle they experienced relative equality with their fellow fighters. Following the end of hostilities, this equality was questioned.

In 2012 the government instituted a compulsory citizen militia, requiring persons not already in the military or being trained at Sawa military and educational camp, including many who had been demobilized or exempted from military service in the past, to carry firearms and attend military training. The civilian militia program requires that some units carry out public works projects such as dam building, planting trees, and other activities deemed necessary by the government. Failure to participate in the militia and its uncompensated public works efforts could result in detention or the government’s withholding of a person’s national identification card.

The Eritrean police comprises national service conscripts who receive minimal training. They are paid approximately $4 per month, are plagued by low morale, and have little incentive to risk their lives to stop crime. The Eritrean police is plagued by a lack of professionalism, resources, training, equipment, and motivation. Only high ranking officers have vehicles or radios and the police are unable to quickly respond to emergencies. The police walk around in clusters in the major downtown areas. The Eritrean police can perform basic police functions, but lack any investigative capability.

The government's force retention policies have clogged the higher ranks of the Eritrean military, leaving many resentful officers in their forties and fifties as captains and majors for ten or more years. In addition, the EDF's drafting of an officer corps (a practice started in 2001) could spark a lower-level military rebellion in coming years if Eritrea continues fielding a large conscript army.

Many of the battalion (major/colonel) and brigade commanders (colonel/brigadier general) are hold-overs from "the struggle," and are nearing retirement age. The EDF will soon be forced to replace these former fighters with drafted officers who have no direct connection to the liberation war. The contact added that these officers will not be of high enough rank to enjoy the financial benefits of smuggling, making them potentially even more inclined to foment a coup than their predecessors.

Usually, round-ups [a giffa] are conducted by soldiers in cities and villages where draft evaders or deserters are suspected to be hiding. The number of soldiers participating in a giffa depends on the size of the village or the city. Often soldiers are deployed in regions far from their home town to avoid them coming across relatives and friends when conducting giffas. As a result, they do not know the age of people and arrest everyone without distinction. Giffas target almost everyone who is found on the streets and places of public gathering such as markets, weddings and classrooms. Soldiers arrive in a village and surround it so that no one can escape. Often, the round-ups take place at crossings during the times of the day when many people are moving around, namely in the morning or during market days.

Citizens are assumed to be part of the military structure from the beginning of their lives (and for the duration of them). Beginning in 1994, Afewerki began a program of mandatory national service for all of the country’s citizens, demanding that all Eritreans (both male and female) between the ages of 18 and 40 serve the country for at least 16 months, of which at least four are in military training.

Age limits for service have been constantly expanding though, as in 2005, the Afewerki regime went to smaller Eritrean towns to recruit older males, aged 40 to 60, for weeks of additional civil defense training. Limits on length of deployment have proven malleable too, as, since 1998, obligatory service tours within the Eritrean military have been extended indefinitely. Just after the conclusion of its independence struggle in 1993, Eritrea began a demobilization campaign that saw some recruits phased out, but when tensions flared with Ethiopia again in 1998, term limits in the military became a fiction. To this end, recruits from the inaugural national service class of 1994 were still conscripted some 14 years later in 2008; resultantly, the National Service Program has been rightly described as ‘a giant prison for people under forty’. Lamented one Eritrean, ‘the only people who don’t go to military service are blind or missing their trigger fingers.’

Further crossing the civil–military divide was the creation of the so-called ‘Sawa camps’, military training facilities located in the western part of the country to which the country’s youth must go to complete their senior year of high school. Created by the EPLF in the country’s immediate post-independence period, the camps have been employed instrumentally as part of a larger nation-building scheme to instill within the country’s youth the ethos of struggle that had been indispensable in the country’s fight for independence from Ethiopia. So too have the Sawa camps been described as giant prisons by attendees.

Military Identification Cards and Permits are used in all kinds of bureaucratic procedures. But internal regulations can change at any time without any advance notification. For instance, the geographical validity of permits is sometimes restricted to the town of assignation only, thus preventing conscripts from visiting their relatives. This kind of bureaucratic interference in providing permits to people carrying out National Service is pervasive. When internal regulations change within an office, this can also have an important effect on the daily functioning of the bureaucrats in charge of them. In these situations, it sometimes happens that every basic responsibility is frozen since no one yet knows the new regulations or they do not know who will be in charge of issuing permits after an internal reshuffle of posts. Bureaucratic purge also takes place unexpectedly. A new team of bureaucrats is then constituted and they usually change the rules and issue new kinds of permits of which Military Police will again be suspicious.

Not having an ID card can hinder access to civil services. However, since the border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000), military conscripts need only a laissez-passer (and no ID card) to pass checkpoints. Conscripts in both sectors of the National Service hold laissez-passers (Mänqäsaqäsi), which are issued by the Ministry of Defense (for the military sector) or another ministry or civil institution under which the conscript is assigned.

National Service members who have successfully carried out the demobilization process generally have more freedom of movement within the Eritrean territory. However, they are still assigned to their position within the state institutions and do not have the right to change or to find a job elsewhere. Usually, Eritreans do not differ between the national service period and such demobilization in the sense that the conscript is not released. Many people doubt that they are officially demobilized by the army.

Children of former fighters in the struggle for independence or high-ranking military officials routinely are assigned better positions in national service, such as working for Eritrean Airlines in contrast to being assigned to hard labor projects on rural areas of the country. For Eritrean youth, there are no possibilities of advancement, only the prospect of indefinite assignment to military duty. It is perhaps not surprising that the armed forces in Eritrea face increasing amounts of desertions. Defections from the Eritrean military are common, with service members frequently escaping to other countries. When trying to flee Eritrea, deserters are frequently shot and killed by the military, or are punished in impromptu ways by nearby officers. Particularly notorious among these punishments is the ‘Jesus Christ’, the nailing of deserters to trees in the Eritrean desert.

The reclusive Red Sea nation considers any citizen who tries to flee as traitor constituting a punishment of a lengthy jail terms or death penalty. The punishment is more severe if the deserters are members of the Army. Refusal to perform military or militia service, failure to enlist, fraudulent evasion of military service, and desertion were punishable by lengthy imprisonment. The most up-to-date information available from inside Eritrea suggests that those who refuse to undertake or abscond from military/national service are not viewed as traitors or political opponents. It is unlikely that a person would be detained/imprisoned on return as a result.

Even those who have repeatedly deserted or evaded – or have deserted or evaded a critical post – are unlikely to be detained/imprisoned or, if they are, not for any significant length of time. In recent years, the attitude of the Eritrean Government also appears to be more relaxed and pragmatic.

Former detainees and other sources reported detention center conditions for persons temporarily held for evading national service and militia duties were harsh, equivalent to conditions for national security detainees. There were occasional reports, particularly from rural areas, that security forces detained and arrested the parents or spouses of individuals who evaded national service or fled the country.

In 2014 the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted that “Eritrea has some human rights issues and that one of the real issues is the open-ended National Service”. The ministry added that the National Service is being discussed in the government but no specific information about whether or when it would undergo change was provided. Finally the ministry stated that “the Eritrean government and the EU and the embassies of the European countries are in an ongoing and constructive dialogue”’

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