The right to conscientious
objection is not recognised.
Conscientious objectors are
detained – often indefinitely – without trial.
Draft evaders face harsh
punishment. In several cases relatives of draft evaders have been
arrested to put pressure on the draft evader.
Eritrea became an independent state on 24 May
1993, following a UN-supervised referendum in which a 99.8 percent
majority voted for independence from Ethiopia. In 1991 the Eritrean
People's Liberation Front (EPLF) had defeated the Ethiopian armed
forces after a thirty-year war and had since been in control of the
Eritrean territory. The EPLF, which in the past had split from the
Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), formed a government and renamed
itself the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).
In 1998 another war between Ethiopia and Eritrea
broke out in a dispute about the exact location of their border. A
peace agreement was signed on 12 December 2000 between Ethiopia and
Eritrea putting an end to their two-year border war
During peacetime the military of Eritrea numbers
approximately 45,000 with a reserve force approximately 250,000
strong and growing. It is estimated that Eritrea currently (2009)
maintains a force of at least 300,000 soldiers on the border with
In 1991 the provisional government of Eritrea
introduced compulsory national service, including military service
(Decree no. 11/1991 of 6 November 1991).
However, until May 1994, the 1991 decree was not implemented.
After officially achieving independence from
Ethiopia in 1993, the 1991 Decree was initially revised (Decree
71/1995), but later replaced with the 23 October 1995 Decree on
The law states that all Eritrean citizens, men and women between the ages of
18 and 40, have the obligation to perform national service.
Although some refugees claim 55 is now the upper limit, other sources claim up to 57 for men and 47 for women.
In normal circumstances, national service is supposed to last 18 months (article 8). This consists of six months military training and 12 months deployment either on military duties or some other national development project. However, article 13 (2) states that even after
completing the compulsory 18 months, national service can be extended
until 50 years of age 'under mobilization or
emergency situation directives given by the government'.
At the same time it was reported that many 'voluntary' conscripts had almost
completed their eighteen-month national service without having
received any military training. Instead of allowing them to perform
the missing six-month military training, the President decided they
must start again with the entire eighteen-month period.
Moreover, a pattern of sexual violence against female conscripts exists within
the military. Some female conscripts are reportedly subjected to
sexual harassment and violence, including rape. There have been
reports of female conscripts coerced into having sex with commanders,
including through threats of heavy military duties, harsh postings,
and denial of home leave. Refusal to submit to sexual exploitation
and abuse is allegedly punished by detention, torture and
ill-treatment, including exposure to extreme heat and limitation of
food rations. No effective mechanism for redress or protection exists
within or outside the military, and perpetrators generally go
unpunished. Women, who become pregnant as a result, are
decommissioned and are likely to experience social ostracism from
their families and communities as unmarried mothers, and may resort
to committing suicide to escape the cycle of abuse.
postponement and exemption
There are exemptions from national service for the disabled (article 15).
Exemptions also include provisions for EPLF (Eritrean People's
Liberation Front) veterans, for mothers while they are
breast-feeding, on medical grounds, and for a family to retain a
young person to remain to help at home when all other siblings have
“Psychological derangement” (article 14, 5.1) is also a ground for exemption from
military service, and this appears to be a popular way to try and
evade service. Recruits who have recently been in Sawa describe a
dramatic increase in the number of people in the camp showing signs
of severe mental illness.
The 1991 decree allowed postponement to the recently married for the period of
their pre-stated honeymoon. Postponement is also possible for
pregnant women and sole breadwinners. Postponement was further
possible for businessmen, industrial and farm workers, self-employed
women, women working in the home, women raising children,
and women in employment, except in bars, nightclubs and hotels and
there is a postponement for those in higher education. It is not
known whether these provisions still exist under the 1995 Decree.
Those considered unfit for military training must serve “in
any public and government organ according to their profession.”
But in reality, as one Eritrean refugee said, “the
only people who don't go to military service are blind or missing
their trigger fingers.”
Until May 1994, there were no call-ups. In May 1994, it was announced that in a first round of recruitment, 10,000
youths who were registered in 1991 in the Asmara province would be
called up. In practice women, students and those working in a vital
capacity in governmental and non-governmental institutions were
There are two principal means of recruitment; on the one hand a formalised call-up
system, facilitated by the formalised militarisation of the education
system; on the other hand forced recruitment by raids, which are
known as “giffa” in the Tigrinya language, in areas where those
who have not responded to the call-up, or who have deserted, may be
hiding. These "round-ups" seize all who appear to be of
military age and cannot produce documentation to show that they are
not liable for military service. Those resisting are reportedly shot,
the government itself has officially admitted some fatal woundings
during such operations.”
Both recruitment models are prone to involve the
conscription of persons aged under the legal recruitment age of 18.
Since the 1998–2000
war with Ethiopia, Eritrea has in practice remained in an almost
permanent state of mobilisation.
Since 2003 all secondary school students are recruited directly after they
finish their 11th grade in order to do their final 12th grade inside Sawa military
camp, effectively starting their military training. Each round or
intake of students incorporates 8,000 to 9,000 students. Those
who do not spend the year at Sawa do not get the results of their
school leaving examinations and are thus ineligible to sit university
Conscientious objection for conscripts
Eritrea does not recognise the right to conscientious objection. “The National Service Proclamation of 1995 makes no provision for conscientious objection to military
Jehovah's Witnesses are reported to refuse to perform the compulsory national service. This resulted in a October
1994 government directive that Jehovah's Witnesses had no citizen's
rights. They are denied government employment, government housing,
business licenses and passports.
During the thirty year civil war many Jehovah's
Witnesses were COs and refused to take part in the war.
As of June 2009, there are a total of 12 Jehovah’s
Witnesses in prison in Eritrea due to their objection to military
Three Jehovah’s Witnesses arrested in September
1994 for refusing military service remain in incommunicado detention
without charge or trial more than 14 years later.
Besides conscientious objection, draft evasion and
desertion are widespread (see below).
Conscientious objection for professional soldiers
Nothing is known about the service conditions of professional soldiers. Given that conscripts do not have a right to conscientious objection, it can be assumed that professional soldiers
do not have this right either.
Nothing is known about the conditions for leaving the service prematurely.
Draft evasion and desertion
The 1957 Ethiopian penal code, which was adopted by Eritrea at
independence and, according to the British embassy in Asmara, was
still in force in July 2003, details various penalties for desertion
from and evasion of military service.
According to article 296, “refusal to perform military service” is punished
with “simple imprisonment”, or – in time of emergency, general
mobilisation, or war – with rigorous imprisonment not exceeding 10
“Failure to enlist” is punishable with simple imprisonment not
exceeding six months, or – in time of emergency, general
mobilisation or war – rigorous imprisonment of up to five years
The potential punishment for “intentional provocation of unfitness”
(article 298) and “fraudulent evasion of service” (article 299)
range from "simple imprisonment" for six months to
"rigorous imprisonment" for up to fifteen years. Penalties
for desertion range from five years of “rigorous imprisonment” to
the death penalty (article 300).
Being absent without leave can be punished with simple imprisonment of up
to six months in times of peace, or up to two years in time of an
emergency, general mobilisation, or war (article 301).
However, according to Amnesty International, “the few
functioning courts failed to protect the constitutional rights not to
be tortured or arbitrarily detained. Special Courts handed down
prison sentences in secret summary trials for corruption and
political offences where the accused had no right to legal defence
representation or appeal”.
Human Rights Watch
reports that persons detained for evading national service are often
“held incommunicado indefinitely without formal charge”.
Prison conditions are reportedly harsh and include overcrowding,
extreme temperatures, solitary confinement, the absence of
sanitation, “starvation rations”, hard labour and mental abuse.
Furthermore, an officer in charge of a military
prison who subsequently fled to Djibouti explained that sentencing
was completely arbitrary and commanders decide how long people remain
in jail. Whether or not the sick are given access to medical
treatment is left to the caprice of their superior officers: “There
were no rules from Asmara on how long prisoners stay in jail, it
depends on individual commanders. Prisoners can be detained up to two
years. If someone is sick they usually don’t believe him, he might
be trying to escape or does not want to be punished.”
Amnesty International reports: “Military
courts were not functioning. Military conscripts accused of a
military offence such as desertion, attempted desertion or being
absent without permission were arbitrarily imprisoned or punished
with torture, or possibly executed in the most serious cases, on the
order of their military commander”.
Family members and relatives of draft evaders and deserters may also be at
risk of persecution due to the practice of substitute service and/or
punitive fines and imprisonment. Since 2005, the Government has
instituted measures to address the widespread evasion of and
desertion from military service, including: arrest of family members,
mostly parents, of children who have not reported to the military
training camp at Sawa for their final year of high school or have not
reported for national service; imposition of fines on families of
draft evaders; forced conscription of family members, particularly
the father, of the draft evader; and withdrawal of trade licenses and
closure of businesses held by members of the nuclear family of a
In a sweep that started on 6 December 2006 more than 500 persons, mostly parents
of young men and women who have either deserted the army or avoided
conscription, got arrested. In an earlier action in July the year
before, several hundred relatives of deserters and draft evaders have
reportedly been arrested in the Debub region of southern Eritrea
since 15 July. They were held incommunicado, many in harsh conditions
with a high risk of torture or ill-treatment.
As a consequence, many young Eritrean flee abroad, also to avoid military
service. According to the UNHCR, about 10,000 refugees arrived in
Sudan in 2007 alone, adding to the then about 95,000 Eritrean
refugees in Sudan. “A lot of it relates to the
compulsory military service and the penalties for not doing the
services and the penalties that are imposed on family members,”
so a speaker of UNHCR in Sudan.
From January to June 2009, more than 10,000 Eritrean refugees arrived
Once in Sudan, Eritrean refugees are still not save. According to
Eritrean human rights groups, the Sudan has allowed Eritrean
intelligence agents to kidnap some of the refugees and return them to
Eritrean refugees are also at risk of deportation from many other
countries. Amnesty International issued alerts on Egypt,
and European countries.
People fleeing Eritrea are at risk of being shot by Eritrean troops
when crossing the border.
Amnesty International also reports on the fate of returned refugees. Between
12 and 19 June 2008, up to 1,200 Eritrean asylum-seekers were
forcibly returned from Egypt to Eritrea. The majority of the
asylum-seekers returned were transferred to the remote Wia prison and
other military facilities, where they are still being held, while
some were released after weeks in detention, including pregnant women
and women with children.
4 Recruitment by armed insurgent groups
Eritrea has some small armed opposition groups,
which are mostly working abroad in countries like Sudan, Djibouti or
Ethiopia. About their recruitment methods not much is known. Since
2004 all opposition parties and groups have been driven out of the
Apparently, rebels belonging to a Eritrean
Liberation Front (ELF) fraction in the Danakil region try to prevent
young men performing national military service. In 1995 it was
reported that ELF rebels came into conflict with government officials
over young men refusing to perform national military service, leading
to two deaths on the side of the government.
In 2009, the ELF formed a coalition with Islah, EIJD and EFDM, called
Eritrean Solidarity Front.
More recently, two ethnic minority organisations,
the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO) and the
Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrean Kunama
(DMLEK) have announced that they have created the Democratic Front
of Eritrean Nationalities (DFEN), and “invited all
organizations with military wings to co-ordinate their efforts”.
While the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation is active,
its form of recruitment is unknown. The same applies to the
Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrean Kunama.
Furthermore the Eritrean government has accused
Sudan of recruiting and training more than 700 of The Eritrean
Islamic Salvation Movement
(formerly the Eritrean Islamic Jihad), after clashes between
Islamic militants and government forces in December 1994. More recent
military activities of the group have been reported in 2003.
The Islamic opposition is reported to be recruiting among Eritrean
refugee camps in Sudan.
6 Annual statistics
There are 1,108,836 males and 1,096,120 (estimated numbers, 2008) females aged between
16-49 available for military service. 834,018 of the males and 887,495 (estimated numbers, 2009) of the females are declared to be fit for military service.
Every year approximately 62,265 male and 62,328 (estimated numbers, 2009) female reach