Eritrea is home to a culturally, ethnically, linguistically and religiously heterogeneous society. In spite of this, it has a highly centralised and unitary state. Its government wields complete control and monopoly of the state apparatus, and all national and natural resources belonging to the Eritrean people. With no available legal remedies, the rights of Indigenous Peoples and minorities remain severely curtailed. Eritrea has neither a national legislative nor institutional framework that protects the rights of minorities or other societal groups that lay claim to indigeneity.
There are nine officially recognized ethnic groups in Eritrea. Eritrea has not adopted the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples and there are no representative organizations that defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Therefore, the Indigenous Peoples of Eritrea face a series of challenges.
Eritrea is a State Party to CERD, CEDAW and CRC, but not ILO Convention 169, an international legal instrument that specifically addresses the rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples. There is a large gap between the commitments made through these treaties and the actual practice of the government.
Eritrea does not have a national legislative or institutional framework that protects the rights of Indigenous Peoples. The rights of Indigenous Peoples are not formally recognized, nor are there representative organizations that defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In addition, the country does not have an operational constitution or functional parliament and has never held free and fair national elections.
Indigenous Peoples in Eritrea
There are nine officially recognized ethnic groups in Eritrea, Afar, Blien, Hidareb, Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, Saho, Tigre and Tigrinya. In an Eritrean context, reference to Indigenous Peoples is primarily based on the claim of indigeneity made by some Eritrean ethnic groups such as the Afar, Kunama, Saho and Nara. Lately, a newly-formed political movement known as Agazian is also making radical claims of indigeneity.
The current population of Eritrea is between 4.4 and 5.9 million, and there are at least 4 Indigenous Peoples. Data on the exact number of ethnic groups and the socio-economic status of Indigenous groups are hardly available.
In Eritrea, the language and the official name of each ethnic group are the same. The Jeberti and Tigrinya groups share their language.
Main challenges for the Indigenous groups of Eritrea
A major struggle of ethnic groups in Eritrea is related to different group identities. The request made by the Jeberti in the early 1990s was met with a draconian persecution of their representatives, and since then no such claim has been taken into account in the country. All other similar claims, including indigeneity claims, are now made by exile activists and political groups.
Another struggle is related to areas of natural resources. The Eritrean government has concluded long-term mining agreements with foreign companies that exploit natural resources on lands belonging to potential Indigenous groups.
It is said that the land rights of Indigenous groups have been violated by the government's policy of encouraging mountaineers to settle on lands traditionally owned by lowland dwellers and to convert the land into state property, undermining the systems traditional land tenure of the clans and leading agropastoralists and new settlers.
The nomadic and semi-nomadic Indigenous Peoples are deprived of their traditional grazing and herding lands. The pressure to abandon their traditional territories is intensified by the confiscation of their animals and the feeling of the traditionally used plants, shrubs and trees on which their grazing activities depend. In addition, when Indigenous Peoples have established or established businesses, such as salt extraction or fishing along the coast, these lands are confiscated without compensation.
In 2017, the Special Rapporteur detailed new crimes against Indigenous Peoples, including the attack of a combat helicopter on an Afar fishing boat that killed one person and injured 7, and the extreme situation of the Afar refugees in Yemen who fled to escape the severe violations of rights.
Eritrea borders the southern Red Sea in the Horn of Africa. It emerged as an Italian colonial construct in the 19th century, superimposed over indigenous populations. Eritrea’s current population is between 4.4 and 5.9 million inhabitants.1 There are at least four indigenous peoples: the Afar (between 4 and 12% of the total population), Kunama (2%), Saho (4%) and Nara (>1%).2