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Human Rights Day 2019: the Eritrean perspective

Tuesday 10 December 2019 - 10:21am

Eritrean women passing in front of a swimming pool in Asmara, Eritrea | (By Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us)

To commemorate Human Rights Day, PEN International and PEN Centres are launching an essay series and holding events on human rights issues across the globe.

Of threshing fields, funerals and Eritrea on International Human Rights Day

Daniel Mekonnen

Looking at the very title of this contribution, a reader may wonder what ‘threshing fields’ and ‘funerals’ have to do with this year’s International Human Rights Day. In the Eritrean context these are all linked, as this contribution aims to show.

For a country like Eritrea, an occasion like International Human Rights Day serves two major purposes. On the one hand, it serves as a stark reminder about the dire state of human rights violations in the country. On the other hand, it is seen as a prelude to our eventual day of reckoning in the forthcoming Democratic State of Eritrea. It is an occasion for us to renew our commitment to ensuring accountability for gross human rights violations in the country, including the wanton suppression of the right to freedom of expression. Fighting these unacceptable practices and devising pragmatic accountability systems are among the core ideals for which PEN International and its national chapters stand.

This year’s International Human Rights Day marks the second such event since Eritrea formally settled its 20-year political and diplomatic stalemate with neighbouring Ethiopia. The stalemate was repeatedly cited by the Eritrean Government in justifying abhorrent practices that made the name “Eritrea” synonymous with heart-wrenching expressions, such as: ‘the most censored country in the world,’ or ‘the highest jailer of journalists in Africa,’ ‘the least connected country on earth,’ or ‘the bottom country for 10 consecutive years in a row’ in the annual Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders (covering the period between 2007 and 2017). The list is endless. But the real issue, which is unique by the standards of any nation in the world, is the following: Eritrea as a country does not have a working constitution or a functioning parliament, regardless of how democratic these documents and institutions might be regarded.

The hopes that many Eritreans expressed in July 2018, when a new peace and friendship agreement initiated by the new prime minister of Ethiopia was signed between both countries, seem to be waning gradually. This is true in particular as far as the internal political dynamics of Eritrea are concerned. While many things have changed dramatically in Ethiopia over the last eighteen months, in Eritrea it is still “business as usual.” Not only that, but international media outlets have now begun to refer to the rapprochement of 2018 as a stagnated peace process. The most important example in this regard comes from two major reports that BBC Tigrinya published on the first and third weeks of November 2019. It is from these reports that the phrase ‘threshing sites’ and the word ‘funerals’ are taken.

From the reports cited above, one clear but undesirable picture is emerging. In spite of the high level of enthusiasm many Eritreans demonstrated when the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia paid several official visits to each other in 2018, the fragility of the peace process is becoming more evident by the day. One only needs to remember that all the common borders of the two countries that were briefly opened in 2018 are now closed again as of December 2018 or early 2019. In a striking illustration of the problem, BBC Tigrinya tells the story of an Eritrean man who recently travelled to Mekele (Ethiopia) for medical treatment. The man died in Mekele and while he was there the Zalambesa-Senafe border was closed. After his death, his relatives were unable to transport the corpse to the man’s birthplace for burial. They were forced to bury the corpse in Zalambesa. In another story, BBC Tigrinya laments that after the closure of the border, the main asphalt road between Zalambesa and Senafe became an ideal traditional ‘threshing field’ for crops, due to the fact that there is no traffic in the area since the closure of the border. This has become ‘business as usual.’

BBC Tigrinya’s reference to a ‘threshing field’ evokes a powerful and well-known poem written at the height of the 1998-2000 border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia in which similar language was used. The poem is none other than Amanuel Asrat’s The Scourge of War. Asrat, who has become one of the major icons of human rights violations in Eritrea, is the former editor-in-chief of Zemen newspaper, one of several news outlets that were shut down in September 2001. At the time, he was subjected to incommunicado detention and to this day his fate has not been legally resolved. In his poem, one of the best-known poems in the post-independence history of Eritrea, Asrat laments about the conflict as an unwanted growling war that ‘spilled infinite lives’ by reaping death with death, ‘threshing it on the shoulders of our offspring.’ This happened in ‘the valley of anxiety and peace,’ in ‘the piazza of life and death,’ where ‘two brothers pass each other by,’ where they also meet in ‘the gulf between calamity and culture.’ The ‘brothers,’ having served the war ‘willy-nilly,’ prayed ‘so hard for it to be silenced!’ It remains unclear whether their prayers have been answered.

One can only hope for better days in Eritrea. In making this a reality, one of the most important things PEN Eritrea and its partners can do is redouble their ongoing efforts to ensure accountability for gross human rights violations. It is therefore worth concluding this contribution with a clear message. In spite of the broad sense of enthusiasm Eritreans felt in July 2018, the political space remains to be opened to democratic debates and conversations, and other measures remain to be taken by the Government to resolve the political crisis of the country. As of today, the Government seems to have returned to the status quo before July 2018. On a day like this, it is incumbent on all of us to bring light to this sad reality and to persist with our resolve to fighting the pervasive culture of impunity in the country.

Daniel Mekonnen, a writer and translator, is a Founding Member of PEN Eritrea. He is also member of the Advisory Council of PEN Eritrea. He is formally trained as a human right lawyer and has done a considerable amount of work in human rights activism, advocacy and teaching. He is a Fellow of the African Studies Centre in Leiden University, and Director of the Eritrean Law Society (ELS). Read more about Daniel Mekonnen here.