Eritrea Focus wholeheartedly welcomes and supports the reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The initiative taken by Dr Abiy Ahmed has broken the deadlock that existed between the two countries from the end of the border war in 2000 until this year. President Isaias Afwerki’s decision to accept the hand of friendship – albeit reluctantly – and to participate in this process was an important contribution hopefully to end the hostility between the two nations and reduce tension across the Horn of Africa.

At the same time, we note the bold steps that Dr Abiy has taken to end repressive measures in Ethiopia. Political prisoners have been released; opposition groups – including some armed movements – have been allowed to return from exile and participate freely in the country’s politics; journalists have been freed and internet restrictions lifted. Ethiopia is making strides towards becoming an open democracy.

Nothing has changed

The contrast with the situation in Eritrea could hardly be starker. Despite the normalisation of relations with Ethiopia, nothing appears to have changed, and some argue that the situation has in fact deteriorated. Young men and women are trapped indefinitely in military conscription under the guise of ‘national service’. The number of refugees fleeing the country has increased from an average of 50 to more than 400 a day. The jails are full to overflowing with political prisoners who have never been given their day in court. The National Assembly remains suspended, the Constitution gathers dust, and there is only one legal political party. Far from diminishing, the dictatorship of President Isaias continues unabated. No wonder Eritreans continue to flee into exile in record numbers.

This is known and understood by the international community, yet Eritrea is to be rewarded by the lifting of the limited and targeted sanctions, in place since 2009, which hurt no-one but the president and his closest associates. It is a matter of grave concern that the US appears ready to support the ending of sanctions, despite the fact that its own Eritrean staff remain in indefinite detention. Eritrea has also been elected onto the UN Human Rights Council, despite having refused all cooperation with the UN Commission of Inquiry and the UN Special Rapporteur, whom the Council appointed.

Political prisoners

This has all taken place as a former Minister of Finance was arrested for speaking his mind, joining other political prisoners who have been held in incommunicado detention without charge for more than 17 years. We recently learned of one prisoner who was finally released after being kept for five years in total darkness. He is now blind.

Hour of need

We call on the British government to not abandon Eritreans in their hour of need. Even if the limited UN sanctions are lifted, now that Eritrean support for armed groups attacking its neighbours has ceased, it would be wrong to end pressure on the regime. There is no evidence that Eritrea will respond to the lifting of sanctions by improving the human rights of its citizens. The UK, together with its international friends and allies, needs to find new means to keep the pressure on President Isaias until Eritrea is a democratic nation that respects the rights enshrined in the UN Charter.

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