10 March 1997
STATEMENT ISSUED BY THE INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS OFFICE OF THE ELF-RC IN RESPONSE TO THE REPORT BY THE US DEP. OF STATE ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN ERITREA ON JANUARY 30 1997
Eritreans must have read "The 1996 Human Rights Report on Eritrea", issued by the US Department of State in January 30 1997, with a sense of shock and bitterness. Also, concerned circles who have been closely following developments in Eritrean, but who are well aware of the gloomy political and human rights situation in the country, must have been shocked and taken it as an insult to their intelligence to have known of the deplorable assertions and distortions made by the report with regard to the policies of the dictatorial regime in Eritrea and the reality lived under its tyrannical rule.
The document, in letter and spirit, cries for drastic revision and correction. Far from reflecting the hard facts on the ground, and the human rights concerns of the Eritrean people and human rights monitoring organizations, it didn't even use the accepted norms and proper language normally required of a report on such sensitive issues as human life, human rights and political freedoms in all their aspects. Indeed, the overall presentation doesn't give one the impression that this has ever been the concern of the report at all.
Much smoke and mist had covered our arena in the early nineties, partly as a result of the natural euphoria of victory we all shared, but largely due to the propaganda smoke-screen disseminated with calculation by the propaganda machinery of the EPLF & Co. to conceal their real intentions by confusing the atmosphere. The fog did not, however, take long to clear and the hard facts and real intentions were there in bold features; our people who aspired to and made heavy sacrifices for recovering their long lost human and political rights, felt betrayed and the euphoria soon gave way to dismay. Also friends, including erstwhile admirers of the EPLF who stood in solidarity our revolution through the thick of it all, were very disappointed. Other circles who had, for this or that consideration, given the regime the benefit of doubt have gradually come to learn and admit the truth. How was it then that the US Dep. of State remained so 'ignorant' about the situation in Eritrea and come up with such assertions and distortions that by themselves amount to gross violations of human rights.
Thus, as each and every sentence in the report cries for, to say the least, comment and correction, we shall be obliged to take up the provisions of the report point by point.
To begin with, we find it positive that the US has at last learned to accept and recognize the independence of a country, which it had fought hard against until this became inevitable in 1991. The report takes note of this in its introductory remarks. It has, however, tried to misrepresent the history of the Eritrean Revolution by claiming that the EPLF led the 30-year war for Independence. We don't have an iota of doubt that anyone with a sound memory could be misled by such a blunder. We only wish to point out, in passing, to the possible motive behind it and 'remind' the US Administration of an entire epoch of Eritrean history it sought to forget, or tried to rewrite. The EPLF, an organization that did not exist at all before 1972, and was not even a force to be reckoned with until the mid-seventies, could not have been in a position to lead the prolonged liberation war that started in 1961 and ended in 1991. Why try to deny the shining historical fact that the Eritrean liberation war was started by the ELF in 1961 and led until the beginning of the eighties, when it suffered a severe military setback, not at the hands of the occupation forces (over which it had always emerged victorious), but as a result of a broadly orchestrated internal and external conspiracy and the joint offensive of the "contras" in the region, whose motives the US Administration knows better than any other. Such false allegation need not have been necessary even for the purpose the US Administration seems to have had in mind, that of providing cover for EPLF human rights violations and its Macchiavellian politics. It should have been self-evident that the history of a nation or political movement written with the blood of so many of its compatriots could never be undone by paper and ink, whatever the power and influence of the author. It is simply historically indelible.
The report makes its misguided approach clear from the outset. Skipping over the most serious human rights violations that took place under the EPLF government, it quickly passed on to its intended objective, that of propagating or advertising for the 'constitution' the ruling party is poised to impose on the people. Had its concern really been human rights, the US Department of State would have cared to 'remember' the developments that unfolded in the country, and the policies of the regime that lie at the root of gross human rights violations being continually perpetrated. Does the US Department really need to be reminded that:
Regarding the so-called Draft Constitution and the debates the Dep. of State alleges are being undertaken, and the democratic freedoms it professes will be provided by the draft, the concerned authors appear to have not put the minimum of effort into their research before writing it, making not only a mess of their report but utterly distorting the real situation in our country. In doing so, they must have had other motives in mind, thus hopelessly missing the target.
Had the US Dep. of State been serious about the human and political rights situation in Eritrea, it would not have thought of writing a report of this magnitude without prior formation of opinion about questions relating to the issues at hand. It failed to note the basic elements common to all democratic and durable national constitutions or CONSTITUTIONALISM, the essences of the human and political rights atmosphere conducive to free and fruitful popular debate on any issue of national concern, particularly more so on a constitution, if the process of constitution writing is to contribute to conciliation and democracy, justice and genuine stability. And last but not least, the authors of the report should have asked themselves as to who makes the constitution and how; and who is expected to abide by it and why? These are questions that even the most elementary report, let alone one by a super power claiming to champion the causes of democracy and human rights, could not have overlooked.
We are, however, the people directly concerned with the destiny of our nation and affected by developments there. It is our human and national duty, therefore, to bring to light what the report has apparently tried to conceal or ignore.
The US Administration is well aware of the course and form constitution writing has taken under EPLF's Eritrea. It is also cognisant of the critical position the opposition has taken on this and other issues, particularly the democratic alternative put forth by the ELF-RC on constitution writing and the peaceful transition to democracy. It may as well have also been aware that the imposition of such a process of constitution writing by the EPLF would inevitably contribute to instability, and precipitate the country towards more internal conflict. Why propagate then on behalf of such a practice in its human rights report, without alluding to the flaws and pitfalls it embodies and giving due consideration to other opinions in the country? No doubt, far from being concerned on the human rights situation, the report constitutes an exposition on the erroneous political position taken by the US on the situation in Eritrea.
The ELF-RC international relations office has continued to maintain contacts with the US Administrations through its embassies in a number of countries with the purpose of exchanging views on a number of issues which our organization still believes are of common concern to our peoples. In those contacts and discussions, we have to the best of our ability tried to update them with regard to the disastrous developments in our country and the position of our movement, hoping this would help avoid possible mistakes in the formulation of policies relating to the situation, and sparing all concerned the consequences of mutual misunderstanding and non-compatibility with the aspirations of our people. Yet, by rewarding the tyrants at the helm of power, and increasing the burden on the democratic struggle of our people, the US Administration seems to continue repeating its old cold-war mistakes.
The report alleges that the Eritrean regime made a sustained effort to reduce the armed forces. It is true that there had been a lot of talk and smoke about the need for reducing the size of the army; it is true also that a sizeable number of ex-freedom fighters were demobilised. The regime tried to obtain as much money as it could from the impoverished people, as well as foreign donors, allegedly for the rehabilitation of demobilized ex-fighters. But isn't it true also that the demobilization was power-oriented more than anything else? Indeed, their intention was to gradually replace the politically conscious, organizationally positioned and potentially critical elements within the army with new and more malleable recruits and groom more yes-men for the ruling regime. Several political observers and other concerned circles have also time and again made similar observations in a number of papers, including African Confidential. But, in the face of prevailing facts, why does the US Administration prefer to forget and ignore the human rights abuses that were inflicted on the ex-fighters and the people in the process? Indeed, why does it want to ignore the fact that militarisation and not demobilization was what had actually followed, and that the financial resources obtained in the name of rehabilitation was actually used in the training and arming of many more recruits under the cover of "national service?"
The truth is, contrary to the allegations of the report, even in absence of freedom of expression, our people's opposition to the policies of the regime has been evident and, depending on the circumstances, has taken many forms. What are the means of the expression of popular will under a dictatorship where repression, slander and blackmail are the order of the day? To illustrate our point, we shall now take the reaction of the people at different times and in different parts of the country to the policies and practices of the regime:
Having, on our part, examined the allegations of the report about the "popular support" supposedly enjoyed by the regime, it would be relevant to see what Mr. Isayas had to say to the same question.
Asked by an attendant at a meeting he presided personally about his assessment of the measure of support to the ruling EPLF, he replied: "There is no definite means of giving an assessment on the measure of support for us; it is difficult to say. If we take the dissatisfaction and resentment prevalent in the urban centers, we can even say support is declining. But no matter we do, the people in the towns will never accept it as positive. They seem to have all the same made up their mind to continue voicing their resentment and dissatisfaction about our policies. The picture is, however, somewhat different in the rural areas, where the people admit of some positive changes and an appreciable improvement in their life. This doesn't necessarily mean, however, that the same feeling exists in all the rural areas; it differs from place to place". He concluded by saying that "he doesn't care whether the extent of popular support goes up or down". Doesn't this seem more objective than the allegation of the report? Whoever is interested in verifying this could check the video cassette on the president's questions and answers session held on the occasion of September one (Revolution Day) 1997.
Having disastrously misrepresented the reality lived in the country beyond recognition, the report has in a way served the dictatorship in Eritrea to bolster its position. The allegation by the US Administration that the regime generally respected the rights of its citizens with the exception of Jehovah's Witnesses is totally unfounded. While trying to cover up EPLF's crimes it has, in actual fact, exposed its own weaknesses. We have not set human rights standards of our own, nor are we ready to accept anyone setting special standards for us. The rights of citizens anywhere - human, political and civil rights - are embodied in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Human Rights Bill. But, could we really say Eritreans enjoy the right to free thought and expression, the right to peaceable assembly and organized movement? Do they enjoy the right to free economic opportunities? Are the ELF-RC and other political organizations allowed to operate legally in the country? Are independent trade unions allowed to exist and operate? None at all. Thus, far from proving the "democratic" nature of EPLF policies, the authors of the report have, with such misguided allegations, instead offended the Eritrean people and done untold harm to their struggle for democracy.
Here, the report appears to be more promising than the draft "constitution" provides, or the EPLF has ever been willing to allow. It implies that there is freedom of speech and press claiming, inter alias, that "citizens were generally free to express opinions in various forums. "Strange, isn't it? While reluctantly admitting that the government controls all media, it nonetheless tries to apologize for the harsh reality that stands on its way. In fact, it speaks with a forked-tongue claiming that freedom of press is allowed and not allowed at the same time. The reality, however, speaks for itself. The Government controls all media, meaning there is no freedom of press whatsoever. Having confirmed that, all talks about the prevalence of "mild criticism", or the practice of "self-censorship", makes hardly any sense at all; there is no grey area for that. In a country under the grip of a dictatorship and reign of terror, freedom of expression is non-existent and the voice of the people stifled. No other language fits the situation, or help make the plight of the betrayed people any better.
Having thus failed to substantiate any of its allegations on the subject, the report proceeds to another equally misguided assessment. It accords undeserved credit to the EPLF government for non-existent "full academic freedoms" currently "enjoyed" by the University of Asmara. Should we remind the Department of State of the massive purges which, in line of its ant-democratic policies, the government undertook shortly after liberation against the staff and administration of the University and its constitution to bring it firmly under the control of the ruling party? The fact that the staff was composed of intellectuals who had demonstrated unquestioned national integrity during the struggle, as well as having undisputed qualifications in their fields, did not matter to the EPLF. To be relied on, they had to satisfy the basic requirement, that of proving their loyalty to the ruling party and its head. They did not; so they were fired with the poorest justification that was dismissed by all observers. A group of yes-men were appointed in their place so that the Eritrean dictator could rest at ease from the kind of nightmares the Ethiopian rulers had experienced with Addis Abeba University. Even worse, one finds it incredible to believe the report's baseless allegation that there could ever be full academic freedom under a dictatorship which rules the country through terror, terror that is bound to affect all aspects of the people's social, cultural, economic and political life. They seem to have forgotten that academic freedom in any educational institution is inextricably bound with the overall political and cultural freedom enjoyed by the society at large. In the absence of the freedom of thought and expression, it is virtually impossible to imagine, let alone expect, full academic freedom unless the report has something else in mind - a standard of academic freedom set especially for Eritrea!
Nonetheless, there have been a number of street protests that were mercilessly crashed by commando units and the secret police. Student protests surfaced on the streets in 1991-92 and where violently dealt with. At the time, two students died at the hands of the army and several others were wounded. Ironically, parents and close relatives were warned of the consequences if information is leaked about the fate of their sons and daughters.
Following the announcement of the new administrative demarcation by the EPLF, people were naturally outraged and began to gather here and there to exchange information about the matter. Orders were passed to disperse any such gatherings. Representatives who were sent to the government to convey the complaints of the people were arrested and interrogated. Some have since "evaporated" in the hands of the secret police.
This, we believe, would not only suffice to update and correct the report's misguided suggestion that "permits for political demonstrations are not denied by the dictatorial regime", but would also make the report pointless and irrelevant. On the contrary, the situation has in fact become so bad that it is driving the people to extreme desperation. Despite their patience, they have come to learn the hard way that they have no alternative but defend themselves from the terrorist activities of those in power. In a country where the regime and the people are already on a collision course because of the arrogance, selfish policies, contemptuous attitude and humiliating practices of the regime, such talk of whether or not the ruling party permits peaceful demonstrations becomes hollow and pointless.
Though the report reluctantly admits about the persecution perpetrated against the Jehovah's Witnesses, yet it stresses more on the reasons that led to those measures, thus subtly apologizing for the stance the regime had taken. In doing so, it has completely ignored the grave consequences that such attitude and policy of the government would have on freedom of religion in general. Instead, the report seems to be rather more eager to dismiss its wider implications by repeatedly implying that no other religious groups have been affected "except the Witnesses." By the way, the ELF-RC was the first organisation to expose and condemn the measures taken against the "Witnesses" despite their unpopularity among our people. For us, far from being a game for political gains, it is a matter of principle and human rights. But, where does the case of the Witnesses lead us to? Unfortunately, the report did not want to say it because, as it turned out, human rights was not its primary concern. The measures taken against the "Jehovah Witnesses" have revealed, however, that a very dangerous development has indeed taken place in the regime's attitude towards all religions. Their status and freedom will be determined by whether or not they comply with the ruling party's policies and interests. There is no other explanation for such behaviour of the regime which is manifestly reflected in all of its policies and proclamations - it is anti democratic, anti-people and tyrannical. Today, the Witnesses might appear to be facing the brunt of the government's persecussion, but the other religions are also sure to follow next.
Despite overwhelming evidence, why does the report then keep on beating around the bush? It is clear already that not only the Witnesses, but Moslem religious schools in general, and those in Keren in particular, are known to have been harassed. Those schools were closed many times and several of their teachers abducted and thrown in prison. Despite its foreign backing and influence, the Catholic Church and its institutions have not been spared either. They have been put under strict surveillance for fear that they might initiate a human rights campaign. The EPLF might have claimed to stand for religious freedom in many of its boastful statements and proclamations, but this have proven to be nothing more than smoke-screen intended to cover its real intentions. Indeed, how could it have "escaped" the authors of the report that religious freedom, equality of the sexes and races, etc. are integral part of the basic human and political rights of citizens, and could be materialized only with the democratization of the political life of a nation. Simply put, where there is no democracy, there is no genuine freedom of religion. Why, indeed, have the said authors gone to the extreme of apologizing and finding a way out for the regime in Eritrea?
Contrary to the claims of the report, which in many ways has desperately tried to overlook or minimize the regime's oppressive policies, peoples' movements are restricted and kept under surveillance. Until recently, people travelling from one town to another were even required to have permits for which they had to pay. This has now been replaced by harassment, intimidation and questioning of travellers. In addition, some areas and roads in some parts of the country are totally closed to the public. Among them include the sites of the notorious underground prisons, many Red Sea islands, areas allotted for the installation of foreign military bases, industrial plants as well as prohibited zones run by the EPLF whose purpose is not known to the public. Though the country is small already, it is becoming ever smaller for the people.
Foreign travel and emigration are as well made practically impossible through a myriad of preconditions, bureaucratic tangles and corruption. The report has pitifully tried to simplify the problem. But Eritreans who have travelled, and those trying to travel, are living witnesses of the problems they are facing.
The report talks about promises for the repatriation of refugees in the Sudan. On this point, we would like to make a couple of comments. Firstly, though the country has been under the rule of the EPLF for the past six years, the fact that there is still more talk than action about their repatriation under the auspices of the UNHCR raises a serious dilemma. The reason why we still have refugees in the Sudan is mainly due to the irresponsible and power-oriented position of the EPLF government. By making selfish demands, it has continued to frustrate UNHCR programme and practically blocked its implementation. Right from the beginning, the PFDJ government had been more after the financial support it was hoping to get from foreign sources in the name of refugee repatriation and, as later developments have shown, was hardly ever interested in the repatriation of the people. Equally, it was more interested in buying time for the consolidation of its monopoly of political power without being bothered about the refugees in the Sudan and elsewhere, who constitute a substantial portion of the population, and whom it suspects of being supporters of opposition organizations. The other important point we would like raise is the report's failure to note the new influx of refugees into the Sudan, Ethiopia and beyond the seas to neighbouring Arab countries, caused by the dictatorial policies of the government in Eritrea. In the Sudan alone, the number of registered and non registered refugees has now swollen to well over half a million. What does the US Department has to say about that?
It is positive to note, for a change, that the report has not only admitted the fact that the transitional government is dominated by the PFDJ, but that authority within the government is held by a narrow clique, and that the citizens do not enjoy the right to change their government. We agree with such assessment with some important modification: The government is formed exclusively by the PFDJ, and authority not only narrowly held but has in actual fact crystallized into a one man rule. To call things by their names, this is a dictatorship. In fact, in this connection, the report has given an adequate description of the dictatorship in place without saying the word. But why not? Yet, the Department of State has been more than eager to say it elsewhere in similar circumstances. Is it diplomacy or a cover up?
On this issue, too, the report goes back to its litany of EPLF claims and propaganda, making its own assessment more shallower than ever. The EPLF has never been tolerant of any political or syndical movement outside its control, neither during the liberation war nor in post independence era. As such, there simply isn't any room for independent trade unions to exist and operate legally. All independent associations have since long gone underground and are leading clandestine life. Despite difficulties, they have, to some extent, succeeded to influence the legally operating PFDJ-affiliated trade unions. At any rate, whatever the claims of the dictatorship in Eritrea, the workers do not as yet enjoy the right to organize themselves and bargain collectively.
The report unduly exaggerates about what it calls "...the transition from a centrally planned economy introduced by the former Ethiopian military dictatorship to a free-market economy introduced by the Eritrean government..." Though mainly for the consumption of foreign political and business circles, it is true that the ruling party in Eritrea has recently been claiming to have created conditions conducive to investment by "opening" a number of areas to interested investors. But is that true? What has actually happened here is neither a change of policy nor a transformation of a system, but adoption of a new tactic and mode of performance brought about by the failure of the ruling party to run and maintain the economic sectors it has arbitrarily taken under its control, failures that were markedly manifested in the technical and managerial areas. The authorities are now on the look out for companies that would provide this and share in the profits on the terms of the party, which will invariably continue to maintain its grip on the economy and remain the sole partner on the Eritrean side, thus opening not the door but the window to those who would collaborate in the exploitation of the already impoverished people, and stifling development opportunities of both national and foreign capital by blocking freedom of competition in the market. The fact that a number of American companies have been invited to share in the booty with the dictatorship doesn't necessarily make the market free and open either. Contrary to the propaganda disseminated by certain political and business circles who are poised to go along with the deal on EPLF terms, whose ethical justification the report amply serves, these are the hard facts that tell about the real intentions behind the regime's semblance of policy changes. Contrary to the report's allegation, the transition had been, if any, from Ethiopian military dictatorship to an equally repressive Eritrean military Dictatorship.
Indeed, despite the end of the war with Ethiopia and the liberation of the country, the past six years has been full of broken promises and profound disappointments; the nation stands betrayed and deeply outraged,. Though independent, Eritrea remains an oppressed nation. While some circles in the international community have preferred to bury their heads in the sand, and continue singing praises of peace and stability, democracy and CONSTITUTIONALISM allegedly taking roots under the EPLF-PFDJ, the country has been transformed into a fortress prison for its people. These are things our people have as yet to achieve through still more struggle and sacrifice.
The report has deplorably failed to reflect the picture the US likes to project of itself, nor did it succeed to live up with the standards it has set for others. It has not succeeded to provide a cover up for the dictatorship either. The latter stands as starkly naked as ever. In doing so, it has instead uncovered much about its unholy intentions in the region, which could be not only incompatible but detrimental to the vital interests of the Eritrean people in democracy, stability and prosperity. And above, all it failed to tell the truth about the reality in Eritrea to the American people. What we have in Eritrea is not simply dictatorial oppression, but state terrorism so callous and cold-blooded that it is doing its best to annihilate our people's deserved aspiration to democracy, justice and prosperity. If the US is really serious about its black list of states accused of sponsoring terrorism, then the Eritrean government would definitely qualify to occupy the top of the list more than any other, not only as a state sponsoring terrorism but one implementing it directly.
As the largest and most influential democracy in the world, we had expected from the US to put its pressure and influence on the dictatorship, which depends heavily on its support, to stop its terrorist activities among the people and help free the hundreds of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience (among whom are two top leaders of the ELF-RC, Weldemariam Bahlebi and Tekleberhan Ghebretsadik). As our people's struggle for change gains momentum, we had equally hoped that it would coax and influence events in the right direction, thus facilitating the democratisation of the political life in Eritrea. This has, unfortunately, not happened.
In conclusion, we would like to clarify the position of our organization with regard to the policies of the US and other concerned countries who are, in one form or another, involved in Eritrea in particular and the region in general. We have never been a threat to, or an instrument of, any big or small power's interests in Eritrea or, for that matter, in the region, and shall never be one. Without being against anyone's vital or strategic interests, we stand firmly for the legitimate interests of our people. We are deeply convinced that the strongest and most enduring of relations, relations that transcend governments and generations are those founded on people's mutual respect and interests and not on narrow governmental interests and conspiratorial relations. We are a problem to no one, unless the so-called vital interests of others prove to be incompatible with our people's legitimate interests. There we draw our line; and it is a line already drawn and enshrined in the UN, OAU and other charters, the right of a nation to determine its future, including its right to determine its internal life - political, economic, social etc. - and the obligation to respect, under any circumstance, the same right to other peoples.
CASES OF HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS TYPICAL OF THE DICTATORIAL REGIME'S PRACTICES IN ERITREA THAT REFLECT THE NATURE OF THE SYSTEM, THE MENTALITY OF ITS LEADERS AND THE PLIGHT OF THE ERITREAN PEOPLE UNDER ITS OPPRESSION, CASES WHICH THE US DEPARTMENT OF STATE'S HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT ON ERITREA DIDN'T CHOSE TO INFORM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE ABOUT.
C. INDISCRIMINATE PUNISHMENT OF INNOCENT CIVILIANS
These are in a way reminiscent of the mass punishment and mass killings that were perpetrated by the Ethiopian forces of occupation.
D. TORTURE OF POLITICAL PRISONERS AND EXTRAJUDICIAL KILLINGS OF OPPOSITION ELEMENTS
These are only a few of the numerous people who have been victimized by the state terrorism that has become the trademark of the EPLF Government in Eritrea today. No mention has been made here of the organization's notorious background during the liberation war, the numerous purges and liquidation of democratic intellectuals and other compatriots that took place within the organization, the assassination of leading ELF elements and the disappearance of hundreds of ELF followers from among the peasantry. As far as the Eritrean regime is concerned, this has since long become a matter of routine practice.
Based on this, we urgently call on the US Department of State to revise its notes and evaluate the situation in Eritrea anew, and tell its people the truth about the reality lived in Eritrea
As to the future of our nation, it lies primarily in the hands of the heroic Eritrean people, who are capable of retaking their destiny back to the safety of their own hands. We as a people had done it before despite overwhelming odds, and can do it once again with the solidarity of all peace, justice and democracy loving peoples.
DOWN WITH DICTATORSHIP IN ERITREA AND ELSEWHERE !
LONG LIVE THE SOLIDARITY OF DEMOCRATIC AND PROGRESSIVE FORCES!
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS OFFICE / ELF-RC