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406 Chapter 11 Atlantic Council: The Eritrean Regime's US Spin Doctors?45 François Christophe When Eritreans leave, they do it for economic opportunities. In order to get a green card, they have to say that they’re oppressed. (Deputy Director, Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, Bruton, 2015). Eritrean officials have engaged in a persistent, widespread and systematic attack against the country’s civilian population since 1991. They have committed, and continue to commit, the crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder. (Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, UNHRC, 2015, p. 18). Introduction Contrary to classic dictatorships, the totalitarian state does not simply target political opponents, but society as a whole. It methodically destroys all forms of human solidarity that are not directly under its control, from religious congregations and civil society organisations down to the family unit, in order to exert absolute rule over a population of atomized and defenceless individuals. Whereas those who do not actively oppose the government are usually safe in an ‘ordinary’ dictatorship – they can choose to stay away from politics and seek refuge in the private sphere – a totalitarian state requires 45 This chapter is adapted from the article by François Christophe published on the blog of Martin Plaut published on 12 December 2016 at -council-eritreas-prison-state-isnt-that-bad-2/ 407 that each and every one of its citizens to be entirely dedicated to its leader and official ideology. Eritrea is one of the world’s few totalitarian states, although you would never know it from the reports of the Atlantic Council – a think tank on international affairs with its headquarters in Washington. This chapter examines the peculiar bias in the Atlantic Council's coverage of Eritrea. What we know about the human rights situation in Eritrea Reputed non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), among many others, paint a bleak picture of the human rights situation in Eritrea (Human Rights Watch, 2016; Amnesty International, 2016; UNHRC, 2016). In June 2014, UNHRC established a special UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea (COIE) to document the situation. The COIE concluded that the Eritrean government engages in “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” and that “it is not the law that rules Eritreans, but fear” (UNHRC, 2015, p. 1 & p. 8). Despite “the facade of calm and normality that is apparent to the occasional visitor”, human rights violations by the authorities include “enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, reprisals and other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder” (UNHRC, 2016, p.5 and p.18). The scale of the abuse largely explains why Eritrea, which according to the World Bank only had 4.8 million people in 2011, sent more refugees to Europe than any other country in Africa in 2015: more than 5% of the total population fled between 2003 and 2013 (JeangeҒne Vilmer & Goueғry, 2015, p. 209). In one incident, on 3 April 2016, “as military/national service conscripts were being transported through the centre of Asmara, several conscripts jumped from the trucks on which they were traveling. Soldiers fired into the crowd, killing and injuring an unconfirmed number of conscripts and bystanders” (UNHRC, 2016, p. 9). Yosief Ghebrehiwet, one of the most perceptive analysts of Eritrean politics, describes contemporary Eritrea as a large-scale, 408 multi-layered penitentiary system comprising several prisons, in the manner of a Russian doll (Ghebrehiwet, as cited in JeangeҒne Vilmer, &Goueғry, 2015, p. 142): x The tens of thousands of prisoners populating Eritrea’s jails make up the narrowest circle, the “prison within a prison within a prison”. x A broader, middle circle includes the hundreds of thousands of military conscripts whom the government uses as forced labourers. x Finally, the outer circle encompasses the entire population, who lives in fear of arrest and is forbidden from leaving the country, hence the depiction of Eritrea as a “prison state.” An essential layer of Eritrea’s repressive system is its mandatory military service, which is indefinite in duration. Although national service is officially justified by the threat posed by foreign enemies such as Ethiopia, it provides the government with a constant supply of virtually free labour and allows it to “maintain control over the Eritrean population” (UNHRC, 2016, p.12). Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International note that agelglots (‘conscripts’ in Tigrinya...


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