• Indigenous peoples in Eritrea

    Indigenous peoples in Eritrea

    Eritrea has not adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the indigenous peoples’ rights are not formally acknowledged, and there are no representative organisations advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples. Thus, indigenous peoples in Eritrea are facing a number of challenges.

The Indigenous World 2024: Eritrea

Eritrea borders the southern Red Sea in the Horn of Africa. It emerged as an Italian colonial construct in the late 19th century, superimposed over Indigenous populations. Eritrea’s current population is between 4.4 and 5.9 million inhabitants.[i] There are at least four Indigenous Peoples: the Afar (between 4 and 12% of total population), Kunama (2%), Saho (4%) and Nara (>1%).[ii] These groups have inhabited their traditional territories for some 2,000 years. They are distinct from the two dominant ethnic groups by language (four different languages), religion (Islam), economy (agro and nomadic pastoral), law (customary), culture and way of life. All four Indigenous groups are marginalized and persecuted.[iii]

Following a United Nations Resolution in 1950 calling for the federation of Ethiopia with the Eritrean colony that Britain had captured from the Italians, a federation was established in 1952. Tensions arose immediately when Ethiopia interfered with the Eritrean courts and executive branch. An armed national liberation struggle broke out in the 1960s when Ethiopia abolished Eritrea’s official languages, imposed Ethiopia’s national language, Amharic, dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea. The ensuing 30-year struggle succeeded in 1991 when the current regime marched into the capital and took power. Following a referendum in 1993, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia to form a new state.

Eritrean nationalism emanates from the two large ethnic groups (80% of total population combined) that control power and resources. This nationalism is based on suppressing sub-state identities, which the elites see as threatening to the nation-building process. In particular, the Indigenous Peoples have been under pressure from the government’s policy of eradicating identification along regional and religious lines. The regime expropriates Indigenous lands without compensation and has partially cleansed Indigenous Peoples from their traditional territories by violence.

The existence of Indigenous Peoples as intact communities is under threat from government policies aimed at destroying Indigenous cultures, economies, landholdings and, for some, their nomadic and pastoral lifestyles.

Eritrea is a party to the CERD, CEDAW and CRC but not to ILO Convention 169 or the UNDRIP. It is the subject of complaints to the UNHRC, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (all of whom sustained the allegations) and the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples. The complaints allege mass murder, ethnic cleansing, displacement of Indigenous Peoples from their traditional territories and intentional destruction of the Indigenous economy.

 A country over the brink

On 8 June 2016, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea [COI] reported that there were reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials had committed crimes against humanity in a widespread and systematic manner over the past 27 years. The COI provided detailed evidence relating to specific crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, reprisals and other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder.[iv]

Notably, the COI found that these crimes had been perpetrated against two of Eritrea’s four Indigenous Peoples, the Afar and the Kunama. Eritrea had persecuted these groups, the COI concluded[v] and, accordingly, the COI recommended that the UN and other entities initiate protective actions to safeguard these two Indigenous groups.[vi] The recommended measures included that Eritrea’s crimes and human rights violations be brought to the attention of the relevant special procedures,[vii] that the UN Security Council determine that the Eritrean situation poses a threat to international peace and security[viii] and, accordingly, that the Security Council refer the situation in Eritrea to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.[ix]

The situation continues (2021-2022)

In August 2021, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned General Filipos Woldeyohannes, the Chief of Staff of the Eritrean Defense Forces, for being a leader or official of an entity that is engaged in serious human rights abuse committed during the conflict in Tigray.

In November 2021, OFAC expanded its sanctions and designated four entities and two individuals pursuant to Executive Order 14046 in response to the growing humanitarian and human rights crisis and expanding military conflict in Ethiopia including numerous reports of looting, sexual assault, killing civilians, and blocking humanitarian aid. The individuals and entities designated by OFAC are the Eritrean Defense Force, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (the governing party in Eritrea), and military associated business entities and individuals. Among the human rights violations and international crimes Eritrean forces engaged in were kidnapping Indigenous refugees from Ethiopia and forcibly returning them to Eritrea, to either fight on the Tigray front in the ongoing Tigray war, be imprisoned in Eritrea or disappeared and presumed murdered.

Because the situation in Ethiopia became unsafe for Eritrean Afar refugees in 2022, 104 Eritrean Afar families fled the country on foot, crossed the border into neighboring Djibouti and requested asylum there. Djibouti established a refugee camp at Oblock for these Eritrean Afar. The Oblock camp grew to house 1,680 people in 2023.

The situation continues (2023)

On 9 May 2023, pursuant to a mandate from the UN Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, delivered the most current report on the situation of human rights in the country. Dr. Babiker’s general conclusions were stark: “There were no signs of progress in the human rights situation in the country.”[x] On the contrary, Dr. Babiker observed, there was “a deterioration in a number of areas”.[xi]

In particular, Dr. Babiker’s report singled out Eritrea’s treatment of “Eritrean Afar Indigenous communities” who, he wrote "are one of the most disenfranchised communities in Eritrea. For several decades, they have been subjected to discrimination, harassment, arbitrary arrests, disappearance, violence and widespread persecution".[xii]

Persecution on a widespread basis is a crime against humanity.[xiii] Dr. Babiker elaborated as to how Eritrea was persecuting the Afar Indigenous people. The country’s measures, he said, had “caused the displacement of Afar Indigenous communities from their traditional territory of Dankalia”,[xiv] “prevented [the Afar] from carrying out their traditional occupation, namely fishing”,[xv] “eroded their culture”,[xvi] and “threatened their way of life”.[xvii] Dr. Babiker called on Eritrea to “refrain from subjecting Indigenous communities to discriminatory practices, including arbitrary arrests, and respect and protect their traditional ways of life and means of livelihood”.[xviii] He did not stop there. He also called on UN Member States and international organizations to exercise universal jurisdiction over alleged crimes against humanity and initiate legal proceedings against individuals responsible for the commission of international crimes and violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law. “Member states and International organizations,” he said, should “exert maximum pressure on the Government of Eritrea to end the two-decade practice of enforced disappearance, torture, arbitrary and incommunicado detention and persecution of thousands [of its opponents].”[xix]

Diaspora resistance

Reaction to Eritrea’s brutality spilled out of official UN’s monitoring processes and poured onto the streets of Western democracies in 2023. Eritrea sponsors festivals in several cities around the world that are home to significant Eritrean diaspora communities (approximately 20% of the country’s population has fled and live abroad as refugees and asylum seekers). Eritrea presents the festivals as cultural events. They are not perceived thus by an increasingly militant Eritrean diaspora who object to the glorification of the dictatorial leader, Isaias Afwerki, the ubiquitous presence of government officials, intimidation of the diaspora including pressure to pay a 2% tax, threats against those who flee the country and more.

“These programmes promote the brutal dictatorship, glorify war and whitewash the name of the dictator himself,” said Semhar Ghebreslassie, a member of global Eritrean activist group Yiakl.[xx] First in Stockholm, then in Toronto, Calgary, Minneapolis, Washington and other cities in Germany, USA, Sweden, The Netherlands and Canada, the festivals descended into violence and chaos. Regime opponents attacked the events with knives, clubs and stones, sending people to hospital; set fires to cars; and generally provoked such widespread chaos beyond the control of riot squads that some city administrations shut the festivals down.[xxi]

Situation of Eritrean Afar refugees in Ethiopia

In 2023, approximately 200,000 Eritrean Afar and an unknown number of other Indigenous Eritrean peoples fled Eritrea and are now living as refugees and asylum seekers in neighbouring countries. Eritrean Afar live in close proximity to Afar state in Ethiopia, which has an Afar population of 1.8 million.[xxii] Approximately 57,000 Eritrean Afar refugees are registered in Ethiopia’s Afar state. Ethiopia has traditionally welcomed Eritrean Afar refugees in two camps at Barhale and Asayita.

The Tigray war (2020-2022) dramatically changed this situation. Barhale, one of the two refugee camps Ethiopia established for the Eritrean Afar, was destroyed by military action in 2022 and its Afar population resettled in the Ethiopian Afar town of Semera.[xxiii] In the second Afar refugee camp at Asayita, Ethiopia actively discriminated against the Eritrean Afar. From 2022 on, Ethiopia denied Indigenous Afar access to asylum procedures, in violation of its commitments under the Refugee Convention, drawing criticism from Dr. Babiker.[xxiv] To make matters worse, Ethiopia engaged in mass deportations of Eritrean Afar back to Eritrea, with some returned refugees conscripted into the military and sent to the Tigray front[xxv] and others subjected to “torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, trafficking and arbitrary detention”.[xxvi] An impressive panel of 14 UN special procedures mandate holders condemned these mass deportations and refoulements.[xxvii]

For the future

The situation of Indigenous Peoples inside Eritrea is grim. The country has never held free national elections; it lacks a functioning legislature; the country is controlled by a small group of men connected to the President; only government media operate; there is no freedom of speech or political space; individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, disappeared or extrajudicially executed.”[xxviii] There are no guarantees for, and no institutional structures to protect, Indigenous rights or Indigenous Peoples – quite the opposite. Indigenous Peoples are persecuted by the regime to such an extent that important United Nations agencies have consistently called for the perpetrators to answer for crimes against humanity, including as recently as May 2023.[xxix]

There is no panacea for this grim situation. I will, however, continue to work with my colleagues in order, among other things, to bring to light what is happening inside this repressive regime.[xxx] I hope international agencies and institutions will do the same, as the Human Rights Council and its mandate holders have done so far. It would be truly helpful if the democracies could model, in their behaviour, what just relations between Indigenous Peoples and their surrounding societies can look like so that they will have the standing to be firm with both Eritrea and Ethiopia when the day of reckoning arrives and with it, hopefully, relief for the persecuted Indigenous Peoples of Eritrea.



Joseph Eliot Magnet, FRSC, Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

 [i] 4.39 million is an estimate by the World Bank, see World Bank Country Profile: Eritrea, http://databank.worldbank.org/data/Views/Reports/ReportWidgetCustom.aspx?Report_Name=CountryProfile&Id=b450fd57&tbar=y&dd=y&inf=n&zm=n&country=ERI; 5.9 million is an estimate by the CIA, see CIA, World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/eritrea/

[ii] The numbers are disputed. There are no reliable figures to resolve the dispute as there is no count and no census that has been conducted by Eritrea or others. The CIA World Factbook reports the Afar at 2% but this is very unlikely given that there are 20,000 UN-documented Afar refugees in two refugee camps in neighbouring Ethiopia and many more undocumented asylum seekers inside Ethiopia – this alone would likely account for 2% of the Eritrean population. The figure for the Saho is reported by Abdulkader Saleh Mohammad, The Saho of Eritrea: Ethnic Identity and National Consciousness (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2013).

[iii] Eritrea: Constitutional, Legislative and Administrative Provisions Concerning Indigenous Peoples (a joint publication of the International Labour Organization, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, 2009, pp. 5-7. http://www.chr.up.ac.za/chr_old/indigenous/country_reports/Country_reports_Eritrea.pdf

[iv] Second Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, A/HRC/32/47, 8 June 2016, paragraph 60, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoIEritrea/A_HRC_32_CRP.1_read-only.pdf

[v] Paras 87-88, 124, 129(b)

[vi] Para 124 (the COI referred to the Afar and Kunama as “ethnic groups”.)

[vii] Para 129(b)

[viii] Para 132(a)

[ix] Para 132(b)

[x] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, UN Doc. A/HRC/53/20 (9 May 2023), para 2. Online: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G23/092/08/PDF/G2309208.pdf?OpenElement. This was also the conclusion of Dr. Babiker’s predecessors as Special Rapporteur (SR). SR Sheila Keetharuth confirmed in a 24 October 2018 Press Release, as did SR Daniela Kravetz in a 21 June 2019 Press Release, that “the human rights situation in Eritrea remains unchanged.” See https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24721&LangID=E.

[xi] Id., para 2.

[xii] Id., paras 58 and 78.

[xiii] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, art. 7(1)(h) and 7(2)(g). See generally, F. Pocar, Persecution as a Crime Under International Criminal Law, [2008] 2 Journal of National Security Law and Policy 355.

[xiv] Supra, note 10, para 59.

[xv] Id., para 58.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id, para 80(l).

[xix] Id., para 81 (c) and (d).

[xx] The Guardian, Eritrean diaspora vow to continue disrupting festivals that ‘promote dictatorship’. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/12/eritrean-diaspora-vow-to-continue-disrupting-festivals-that-promote-dictatorship; CBC News, Why Eritreans in Canada are clashing at festivals. Online: https://www.cbc.ca/amp/1.6944229.

[xxi] The Guardian, Id.

[xxii] Ethiopia, Central Statistical Agency. This is a projection for 2017.

[xxiii] Ethiopian Citizen, Feb. 27, 2022. Online: https://www.ethiopiancitizen.com/2022/02/tplf-forces-displaced-over-34246-refugees-from-harhale.html?m=1.

[xxiv] Supra, note 10, paras. 66-67.

[xxv] Witness statements on file with the Eritrean Afar National Congress, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

[xxvi] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Press Release (13 July2023). Online: https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-reseases/2023/07/un-experts-urge-ethiopia-halt-mass-deportations-eritreans#:~:text=GENEVA%20(13%20July%202023)%-,%2C%20asylum%2Dseekers%20and%20migrants.

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, A/HRC/29/CRP.1, 5 June 2015, p. 1, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIEritrea/Pages/ReportCoIEritrea.aspx

[xxix] In 2013, the SR on Eritrea reported that Eritrea was engaging in a campaign of killings, disappearances, torture and rape to force the Afar Indigenous people from their traditional territory, and to destroy their traditional means of subsistence and livelihood: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, UN Doc A/HRC/23/53, 28 May 2013, para 77. Online: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.53_ENG.pdf. The First Report of the COI in 2015 confirmed these findings: Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, UN Doc A/HRC/29/CRP.1, 5 June 2015, paras 1121, 1171. Online: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIEritrea/Pages/ReportCoIEritrea.aspx. In June 2018, the Special Rapporteur reported that Eritrea’s crimes were ongoing: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, paras 90-93, 11 June 2018, A/HRC/38/50. Online: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/A_HRC_38_50.pdf. And, as stated in the text, a newly-appointed Special Rapporteur confirmed in 2023 that the situation was not only ongoing but was deteriorating.

[xxx] I have been legal counsel to the Afar nation since 2010 and, accordingly, have developed a wide network of people inside the Horn countries who provide first-hand information as to events transpiring there.

Tags: Human rights, Cultural Integrity , International Processes



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