What is the “indefinite national service” in Eritrea?
The indefinite national service entered into force in May 2002, nearly two years after the border conflict with Ethiopia (1998-2000). Le national service includes two programmes: the civil service and the military service. Today, all men and women from the age of 18 to 55 are obliged to join the national service for an indefinite period of time which means that any able-body who enters the programmes has no possibility to exit it until the age of 55. Hence, recently, seniors of the age of 55 to 70 are also forced to pursue a military training in remote areas.
At the age of 16 or 17, teenagers receive a letter from the authorities informing them that they are called to finish high school in one of the military camps. Often, they are taken to the city of Sawa. The average temperature in Sawa is 45°. For a period 12 months, the girls and boys receive a physically challenging military training. In this military context, a large number of teenagers reported human rights abuses such as beatings, inhumane and degrading punishments, torture, extra-judiciary killings, sexual violence which led to unwanted pregnancies.
Conscripts find no avenues to receive reparations when they were victims of violence in the military service. Conscripts fear the judicial system. According to the first report of the UN Commission of Inquiry, military officers, without legal training, are appointed judges by the President of the Special Court of Eritrea. This Special Court has the power to cancel and to reopen decisions taken by other courts. Adolescents who are victims of abuses find themselves without any legal avenue protecting their rights and their integrity.
After 12 months in the Sawa military camp, the Eritrean authorities determine the future of each adolescent, whether she/he will :
• continue or not an academic education;
• accomplish her/his national service in a state-owned company. This group of persons generally will not have access to a professional or academic education;
• accomplish her/his military service (training and various military preparation) and will not enjoy a civilian life, neither will she/he have access to a professional or academic education.
According to the Madote website, in 2016, the salary of the conscripts increased from 500 to 2000 Nakfa (CHF 130.- a) for new recruits and to 3500 Nakfa for college graduates.
Sources living in the country continue to report a general frustration related to this salary. It remains insufficient to cover their basic needs. As a matter of illustration, the renting of a single room in the capital city oscillates between 900 Nakfta to 1200 Nakfa. Prices at the food market are high. Many families depend on the money sent from their families abroad. The last figures the World Bank reported regarding Eritrea’s inflation rate was for the years between 2010-2012. The rate was then at 13%. Since then, economic sites, such as Knoema, report an inflation rate at 9%.
The leave requests depend on military superiors who often refuse such requests on an arbitrary basis. The UN Commission of inquiry highlights: “the denial of leave for several years and the restrictions imposed to conscripts for communicating with relatives resulting in a lack of contact with the family constitutes restrictions that are not proportional, reasonable and necessary in the interest of national defence. The Commission finds that these restrictions constitute a violation of conscripts’ right to privacy and family life.”
The government of Eritrea considers these programmes as a project for reunification and national building. The Eritrean authorities judge this flight of the conscripts as an offense. Thus, every person who flees the country during her/his national service is considered as a traitor.
Source : A/HRC/29/CRP.1
Page 408 para. 1394
A large number of conscripts are assigned to a military unit, where they receive intensive military trainings for an indefinite period. When conscripts are not assigned to a military unit, they accomplish forced labor, usually in foreign companies operating in the mining sector or in building infrastructure and private houses. Conscripts often report that the work in the military service is physically harsh, inhumane and degrading.
Finally, in the civil aspect of the national service, conscripts work in the fields of education, health, or in office work and state-owned businesses.
Many conscripts who wish to pursue an academic path are often forced to build houses or work in the fields.