“Most students report to Sawa when they are between the ages of sixteen and seventeen, which means by the time they arrive in Sawa and start their military training they do so as underage children.”
Source: Eritrea Law Society
In the morning hours of 6 March 2019, the Director of ELS, Dr. Daniel Mekonnen, gave a speech at a side event (panel discussion), hosted on the fringes of the 40th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Palais des Nations.
Co-organised by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and Child Soldiers International, the side event took place under the theme of “Child Soldiers: Seventeen Years after OPAC.” The speech of Dr. Mekonnen focused on the prolonged practice of juvenile military conscription in Eritrea. His speech was based on the following background notes.
Eritrea and Its Prolonged Practice of Juvenile Military Conscription
Eritrea has a pervasive problem of underage military conscription. The fact that the issue of child soldiers is often times discussed in the context of on-going armed hostilities, a problem non-existent in present day Eritrea, the issue may be subject to obscurity, requiring a short contextual background about the overall political situation in Eritrea.
Eritrea suffers from an on-going situation of crimes against humanity, as sufficiently corroborated by two major reports of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in Eritrea published in June 2015 and June 2016. Moreover, between May 1998 and July 2018, Eritrea experienced a prolonged political stalemate with neighbouring country Ethiopia. In this context, apparently under the pretext of a threat of aggression from Ethiopia, the Government of Eritrea has continuously kept the entire able-bodied members of the Eritrean society under prolonged military mobilisation, making Eritrea one of the most militarised states in the world. This practice has been in place in the form of a very controversial policy of national-military service programme (NMSP), which is indefinite by nature and implemented without any formal remuneration. The policy has disproportionately affected underage children, who are subjected to an abusive practice of military conscription at a tender age.
For many years, it has been mandatory for all high school Eritrean students to officially enrol for their final year of education in the main military training centre of the country, located in Sawa. Most students report to Sawa when they are between the ages of sixteen and seventeen, which means by the time they arrive in Sawa and start their military training they do so as underage children. The brunt of such an abusive practice is by far damaging to the rights of female underage conscripts, who would be exposed to other forms of abuse once under the control of unscrupulous military personnel.
The practice of underage military conscription is so pervasive that it has affected tens of thousands of underage children over the past many years, as also reported by the COI and other credible sources. This is one of the main reasons that made Eritrea not only among the top refugee producing counties to Europe, but also one of the major source countries of unaccompanied refugee children.
The government’s persistent practice of underage military conscription is contrary to its obligations emanating from Article 2 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), namely: the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OAPC), acceded to by Eritrea in 2005.
Moreover, in all of the relevant Eritrean laws related to military conscription, in particular NMSP laws, the starting age for military conscription is eighteen years. In practice, however, the government conscripts underage children on a regular basis. As noted above, since 1998, the government maintained a pervasive practice of militarisation due to its long and frozen conflict with Ethiopia. The problem was officially resolved by a new reconciliation agreement signed by the two countries in July 2018. After more than eight months since the signature of the new rapprochement treaty, the government has not shown any sign of relinquishing its pervasive practice of militarisation, including the recruitment of underage children into formal military training.
In the interest of accountability, the ratification of the new reconciliation agreement with Ethiopia should be taken by the Eritrean Government as an opportune moment to change course by: ending the prolonged practice of indefinite NMSP, including conscription of underage children into formal military training, and taking other bold steps that shall open-up the political space in the country in order to usher a new democratic dispensation for Eritrea.
The above observations heavily rely on the following previous contributions:
Eritrean Law Society, “Alternative Civil Society Report Submitted to the Sixty-Ninth Session of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC),” May 2015.
Daniel Mekonnen, “Transitional Justice Implications for the Use of Child Soldiers in Eritrea,” in Ilse Derluyn et al (eds.), Re-Member: Rehabilitation, Reintegration and Reconciliation of Children Affected by War (Intersensia: Antwerp, 2012), pp. 263–281.