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UK arms export to Eritrea (2012-2022)

Country overview

The State of Eritrea is located on the Horn of Africa, bordering Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, with Asmara as the capital city. Eritrea has a population of around 6 million and is known to be one of Africa’s poorest countries. Since Eritrea gained independence in 1993, President Isaias Afweki has governed the country with his party as the sole political presence. The UN has accused the Eritrean government of crimes against humanity and, from 2009 to 2018 imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea for its alleged support of al-Shabab in Somalia.

The country has had several long standing disputes with countries in the region. In 2015, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea released a report accusing the Eritrean government of committing crimes against humanity, including torture, rape and enslavement against it’s own people, as well as during the disputes with it’s neighbouring countries such as in the Tigray region in Ethiopia. 

 Eritrea has, to date, neither signed nor ratified the Arms Trade Treaty.

How many licenses for the sale of arms to Eritrea  did the UK government issue between 2012 and 2022?

In total between 2012 and 2021, the UK approved in total 1 limited military arms export licences to Eritrea which were issued in 2013.

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

The value of the exports to Eritrea was £8,640 in the last decade, they were all granted in 2013.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

What are the top 10 types of arms export licenses Britain is selling to Eritrea?

The military export license for Eritrea included: Body Armour and Military Helmets

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

Eritrea is ranked last in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index – 180th out of 180 countries. It is a repressive one-party state, which does not hold elections, and lacks opposition parties, a legislature, or civil society organisations. Arbitrary detention, torture, and forced disappearances are widespread and systematic, and often target journalists, members of certain religious groups, and those who criticise government policy or seek to evade military conscription. There have been no independent media outlets since a crackdown in 2001, and foreign reporters are not allowed into the country.

The UN Human Rights Council has identified the security and defence institutions as among the main perpetrators of systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations committed in the country. The role of Defence Forces, and in particular, the Army is a matter of concern. National service is mandatory and indefinite, and many conscripts are victims of forced labour and abusive conditions.

Eritrea’s macro-economic condition remained “dire” and the region was identified in a 2019 survey as one of only three countries that place “extreme constraints” on humanitarian assistance to citizens from international organisations.

Moreover, the government carries out arbitrary and pervasive surveillance of its citizens, therefore arms sale to Eritrea is a matter of concern, as it risks sustaining the current violent and suppressive environment.

What has the British government said about these concerns?

Despite selling arms to the country, the UK government has spoken out forcefully about the Eritrean regime’s human rights abuses.

Recently, on 4th March 2022, the UK delivered a statement for the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea in the 49th regular session of the Human Rights Council where concerns about the ongoing human rights situation in Eritrea were outlined. The continued involvement of Eritrean forces in the Tigray conflict remains a serious barrier to peace. Eritrea should withdraw its troops, accept the report of the recent Joint Investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and fully investigate all alleged breaches of international law by Eritrean actors identified in the report.

An arms embargo, asset freeze, and travel ban were imposed in 2009 because Eritrea was accused to support al-Shabab militants, an Islamic insurgence group active in East Africa and Yemen. Eritrea always denied the accusations; Araya Desta, Eritrea’s ambassador to the UN, dismissed the sanctions as “ludicrous punitive measures”.

Nonetheless, in 2018, The UN Security Council unanimously agreed to lift sanctions against Eritrea after nine years and the resolution was drafted by the UK, and backed by the US and its allies. This appears incoherent since in 2016, the FCO admitted that “the human rights situation in Eritrea continues to be of concern to the UK and there have been no tangible improvements to the situation in the second half of 2016. From July to December 2016, we continued to use our embassy in Asmara and our wider engagement to encourage the government of Eritrea to improve their human rights record.”

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Eritrean government have committed since 2012?

The country has been widely criticised by the international community for its severe human rights abuses, including restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and the press; as the government tightly controls the media, censors the internet and detains journalists, arbitrary detention and torture of political prisoners, forced labour; the government has been accused of using conscripts as forced labour in the mining and construction service, discrimination; including against the Kunama and Afar, and religious persecution. More specific examples have included:

In 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) identified Eritrea as the most censored country in the world as Information Minister Ali Abdu used intimidation and imprisonment to enforce a government-approved message. 

Amnesty International found that “torture and other ill-treatment are commonplace, used for the purposes of punishment, for example of government critics, dissenters and draft evaders, for failure to perform duties during national service, insubordination, or as punishment for the escape of another prisoner; for interrogation, for example, people who attempted to flee the country are tortured to extract information on who assisted them; and for coercion – adherents of religions not recognised by the state have reported that they were tortured to force them to recant their religion.” Other sources reported that the Eritrean government had been distributing machine guns and ammunition to the civilian population, for unknown reasons. The conflict with Ethiopia could arguably explain the distribution as it would enable the population to retaliate immediately on an Ethiopian attack.

In 2015 the UN Human Rights Council stated in its annual report that “National service as implemented by the Eritrean authorities involves the systematic violation of an array of human rights on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere in the world … the indefinite duration of national service, its terrible conditions – including arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labour, absence of leave and the ludicrous pay and the implications it has for the possibility of any individual to have a family, conduct a family life and have favourable conditions of work makes national service an institution where slavery-like practices are routine.” The main perpetrators of these violations, according to the UN, was the Eritrean Defence Forces, several ministries, including the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the President.

The 2016 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report found that grave human rights violations persisted to take place throughout 2016, with little improvement. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea stated that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed by the Government of Eritrea”. The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea continued to be denied access to the country. The UK State Department found that the lack of transparency completely hindered to determine the exact scope of deaths because of torture or poor detention conditions.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur found evidence indicating that “Eritrea’s military/national service programmes continued to be arbitrary, extended, and involuntary in nature, amounting to enslavement”. Doctors Without Borders also reported widespread violence and indefinite mandatory military service, comparable to slavery, arbitrary and severe punishment and sexual assault of women.

At the 41st session of the UN Human Rights Council (24 June-12 July 2019), the Council extended a hand to the Eritrean Government renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the country. In March 2019, Eritrea took an initial step by meeting with the Special Rapporteur in Geneva but ultimately refused to cooperate, and launched yet another unwarranted attack on the Special Rapporteur and her mandate. The Government continues to reject findings of ongoing grave violations, as well as calls for reform, and human rights-based recommendations.

In late 2020, Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) and Ethiopian government forces indiscriminately attacked the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and civilians in Axum in the Tigray region, killing and injuring many, and destroying properties including healthcare facilities. During the conflict, serious human rights violations were committed, including sexual violence against women and extrajudicial killings of civilians, which could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity according to Amnesty International.

In 2020, the UN Human Rights Council maintained its scrutiny of Eritrea’s human rights situation because no progress was reported in the country. On 26 October 2020, the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Ms. Daniela Kravetz, highlighted that two years after the peace agreement with Ethiopia and the lifting of UN sanctions, she could only note that severe restrictions on civil liberties remained in place and lament a “lack of meaningful and substantive improvement” concerning the benchmarks for the progress she identified. 

After the first term as a Member of the Council (2019-2021), the Eritrean government showed no willingness to address the grave human rights violations and abuse that UN bodies and mechanisms have highlighted or to engage in a serious dialogue with the international community.

On 24 February 2021, in his first address to the Council, the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, noted “no concrete evidence of progress or actual improvement in the human rights situation in the country.”  

In the 49th regular session of the Human Rights Council the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea stated that “Eritrea’s membership of the Human Rights Council is increasingly indefensible given that its human rights situation has shown no signs of improvement”.

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Eritrea.  

Human rights abuses continue.