Our Voices

Enough is Enough in Horribly Repressive Eritrea

This week, Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak spent his fourteenth consecutive birthday in prison. Isaak was arrested back in 2001, along with twenty others, for signing an open letter critical of the government in Asmara. These individuals were labeled as “spies” and enemies of the state simply for demanding democratic reforms in their country. Isaak was never charged or sentenced, has had no contact with relatives, no access to Swedish consular officials, and no recourse to a lawyer. These are all are violations of his human rights and the freedoms that are ostensibly protected in Eritrea’s constitution. Eritrean authorities have also refused to confirm whether Isaak, and the other detained journalists and politicians, are alive.

Dawit Isaak is not alone. In fact, his harrowing saga is emblematic of an overall disdain for human dignity and common decency that has flourished under President Isaias Afwerki. Since assuming power in 1991, Afwerki, has presided over a worsening human rights catastrophe. The prevailing situation is so bad that Afwerki was among only a handful of heads of state not invited to Washington last year to participate in the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

For seven straight years, Eritrea has ranked last in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Likewise, the Committee to Protect Journalists has deemed Eritrea the most censored country in the world, having the dubious distinction of being Africa’s top jailer of journalists.

To be sure, this systematic and widespread repression has had severe consequences. Since the onset of 2012 to the middle of this year, 1 in 50 Eritreans have sought asylum in Europe, nearly twice the ratio of Syrians. Overall, the United Nations now estimates that over 400,000 Eritreans have fled the country. With a population of 6 million people, Eritreans have formed the third-largest national group of migrants who crossed the Mediterranean this year. Similarly, Eritrea’s athletes have repeatedly refused to board their planes back home (again and again).

The human rights disaster seems unending, and is arguably worsening, in Eritrea. No amount of governmental propaganda — whether on social media or elsewhere— can obscure this fact. It is time for democratic actors in the region to step up and declare: Enough. Enough with a horribly abusive regime that only deflects attention from democratic gains being made elsewhere on the continent. And enough with a pariah state that imprisons, tortures, and murders dissidents and critics with impunity, those like Dawit Isaak, whose only crime was exercising their basic rights.