Any intelligent, meaningful engagement in the 21st century with a sovereign state can only occur by first understanding its context and motivation. Engagement otherwise, especially when utilising the narrow human rights lens cannot provide generative, sustainable or context-specific solutions, nor contribute to peace.
Academics have long criticised the subordination of collective rights in favour of individual and political rights. Today, many western-supported NGOs overwhelmingly engage prescriptively, without context, through a myopic lens of individual and political rights – a convenient western lens for a convenient western agenda.
Often, such an approach does more harm than good, as it fails to address the context and protect the collective rights of a nation’s people, frequently creating further violations of human rights.
Eritrea, located in the Horn of Africa, is one of youngest countries in the international community, achieving independence in 1991 after a 30-year struggle for freedom, human rights, and basic dignity. Its struggle was a collective one, involving all segments of its diverse population – various ethnicities, both genders, and all ages and religious faiths. Notably, the Eritrean diaspora also played an important role in the independence struggle, through extending charitable donations, generating awareness, and establishing organizations abroad.
After formal independence in 1993, Eritrea experienced rapid socio-economic development, making considerable gains in terms of rehabilitation and reconstruction. However, this was not to last, as the country was soon confronted by a series of threats to its sovereignty and obstacles to peace and development.
The first of these was Ethiopia’s invasion and war of aggression, resulting in a costly, destructive conflict that lasted from 1998 to 2000. While the war was ended through an international arbitration process, the international community’s subsequent failure to enforce Ethiopia’s adherence to and implementation of the Ethiopia Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) decision meant that Eritrea and its people were subjected to flagrant violations of fundamental rights and international law.
Second, Eritrea was subjected to international sanctions (first imposed in 2009, and then expanded in 2011). Beyond being fundamentally illegitimate, unfounded, and unjustified, the sanctions have been counterproductive, only served to promote misunderstanding and distrust, diminish possibilities for effective cooperation or partnership, stunt development, investment, and socio-economic growth, and further destabilize the Horn of Africa through contributing to unnecessary rivalry, conflict, and regional insecurity.
Finally, Eritrea has also been the victim of an incessant regime-change campaign, propagated through inaccurate media coverage and disingenuous activism. Not only has this campaign sought to create of a false, dark portrayal of the country, it has violated the collective human rights of the Eritrean people and their vision for ethical, non-corrupt, sustainable, inter-generational, equitable development of the nation – by its people and for its people.
The media’s coverage of the country is limited to a narrow frame focused on conflict, extremism, famine, persecution, oppression, and poverty. The negative images and pervasive stereotypes tend to drown successful local initiatives, the energy, resilience, and enterprise of the country’s people, rich local cultural practices and traditions, and important indigenous knowledge. In the rare instance that any positive aspects of the country are presented, they are quickly glossed over, and often belittled or dismissed. Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to Eritrea; Western media have created an image of Africa as a “dark” place of turmoil, disaster, disease, and savagery – “the repository of our greatest fears” (Hawk 1992: 13).
To be clear, the genuine protection of the human rights of the Eritrean people is not the aim of the subversive activists who have campaigned against Eritrea. They have deliberately obstructed opportunities for honest, constructive, meaningful dialogue, locking out any and all contradictory or alternative perspectives, while seeking to elicit support and sympathy via lazy, unobjective, unsubstantiated, or exaggerated accounts.
Such activism has little interest in truly promoting rights or sustainably improving standards of living as it is focused on short termism. Short termism, like its activism, seeks to ensure that destabilisation will create rehashed economic models leading to unsustainable development, superficial consumption and consumerism, planetary degradation, and the ultimate creation of a few super wealthy individuals who have as much interest in the collective rights of the Eritrean people as the original activists did.
My conclusion regarding such activism is evident from the behaviour of other similar activists – who have left countries at the stranglehold of corruption, crippling foreign debt, unsustainable development, stolen elections and false democracy, lack of genuine press freedom, greed, disgruntled youth, and a destroyed national identity. Eritrea’s future at the behest of such activists and activism, which are unwholesome and lack integrity, is a deeply grim one.
Genuine activists, truly concerned with the rights of the Eritrean people, would have sought to engage through the appropriate mechanisms, instead of highly politicised ones which have long held a subversive agenda. Furthermore, while these activists incessantly criticize, often lacking context, objectivity, and utilizing false testimonies, they utterly fail to offer alternatives or solutions. It is high time that such unethical activism is held accountable for its harmful actions and consequences.
Eritrea’s context needs to be understood and respected in order to truly protect the human rights of the Eritrean people. On the global stage, Eritrea is a unique country, born from a collective consciousness and a long struggle where human rights were fundamental. Today, human rights remain a core concern for the Government and people of Eritrea, both in the pursuit of development and the establishment of a bright, prosperous future.
This is particularly evident in the Government’s vision – based on equality, social justice, and zero tolerance for corruption – where funding from institutions is carefully and strategically considered. It is common knowledge that the Government operates with utmost integrity and caution with respect to funds, whether grants, aid, or investment. Largely self-reliant, it eschews aid for unnecessary or unsustainable projects.
Along with caution there is due diligence, which includes coordinated strategy meetings from all ministries of the Government in order to ensure that the impact of projects and the indicators of its success are relevant. While this can be frustrating and perceived as tedious by funders, investors, and grantors, it is the Eritrean way, reflecting its notion that “haste makes waste.”
Furthermore, it is evident from discussions that a nation-wide policy for honest, just, and inclusive socio-economic development – “leaving no-one behind” – is the underlying impetus. It is premised, first and foremost, as a responsibility to the memory of the Eritrean martyrs who laid down their lives for Eritrean independence, to free themselves from the yoke of brutal colonisation and tyranny, and for the collective respect of human rights and dignity.
Eritrean diaspora protesting in the USA during the independence struggle
This was a collective struggle and the development of Eritrea today is again from a collective vision motivated by that history. Eritreans feel obligated to history and toward future generations of Eritreans to protect all human rights – through just, fair, inclusive, sustainable development and the promotion of inter-generational equity.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals
Eritrea’s response to the 21st century solution to the western lens of “individual rights” is reflected in its dedication to the MDGs and the SDGs. These goals are pertinent and relevant, addressing the chronic problems within our systems that fail to address the genuine concerns of the human rights of the people in the developing world.
When activists superficially talk of elections and constitution, they not only ignore important indigenous developments and overlook context and ground realities, they fail to consider the west’s lack of access to justice for all, its own lack of media freedoms, and issues such as unsustainable consumption, planetary degradation, the incredible wealth divide, excessive corruption through tax havens and now the awareness of endemic modern slavery within western and global supply chains. Simply, our systems are not the best of examples for the developing world.
For activists to advocate from this human rights lens is farcical when they advocate without awareness of the truth, context and the ground reality. In fact, a frustrating approach of rehashing textbook prescriptions to issues on human rights when we would do best instead to constructively engage with and support a young country is itself a mockery human rights.
Eritrea – Sustainability and Intergenerational Equity
Eritrea’s vision for socio-economic development is careful and considered – it is intended not only for the present, but also future generations. It is based on equality, inclusiveness, and inter-generational equity (the sustainable exploitation of natural resources to protect development for future generations).
The country is acutely aware of environmental externalities created by human induced climate change from rapid industrialisation, polluted air, ozone depletion, soil and water depletion, deforestation and erosion of animal habitats, species extinction, and of course the harmful impact on human systems. For this reason, the Government’s strategy to development is careful, strategic, environmentally friendly, and seeks long term sustainable growth.
Unfortunately, I do not hear this from disingenuous human rights activists. Their idea of development is premised on rehashed (e.g. neoliberal) models that have created great disparity and violated the human rights of millions. Furthermore, these models have done little to protect the rights of future generations. Eritrea is a country that was born out of the struggle for the protection of human rights, and human rights remain at the forefront of its pursuit for development.
Collective Rights for Just Development with Protection of all Human Rights of the Eritrean People
In summary, Eritrea was built on the very premise and foundation of protecting human rights. Any engagement with the country requires genuine understanding and constructive dialogue. In order to ensure the protection of human rights, more efforts can be undertaken to support capacity building and best practices, with due consideration for ground realities and local context.
The map is not the territory. And much of what is being rehashed about Eritrea is but a map – you would be better served, as the Eritreans say, to “come and see for yourself”.