• Indigenous peoples in Eritrea

    Indigenous peoples in Eritrea

    Eritrea has not adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the indigenous peoples’ rights are not formally acknowledged, and there are no representative organisations advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples. Thus, indigenous peoples in Eritrea are facing a number of challenges.
  • Peoples

    9 ethnic groups are officially recognised in Eritrea
  • Rights

    2007: Eritrea is absent during the voting for UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • The Afar Triangle

    3 national borders, namely Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, are transcended by the Afar ethnic group. The area is known as the “Afar Triangle”.

Indigenous World 2020: Eritrea

Eritrea borders the southern Red Sea in the Horn of Africa. It emerged as an Italian colonial construct in the 19th century, superimposed on Indigenous populations.

Eritrea’s current population stands at between 4.4 and 5.9 million inhabitants.1 There are at least four Indigenous Peoples: the Afar (between 4 and 12% of total population), Kunama (2%), Saho (4%) and Nara (>1%).2 These groups have inhabited their traditional territories for approximately 2,000 years. They are distinct from the two dominant ethnic groups by language (four different languages), religion (Islam), economy (agro and nomadic pastoral), law (customary), culture and way of life. All four Indigenous groups are marginalised and persecuted.3

Following a United Nations Resolution in 1950 calling for the federation of Ethiopia with the Eritrean colony that Britain had captured from the Italians, a federation was established in 1952. Tensions immediately arose when Ethiopia interfered in the Eritrean courts and executive branch. An armed national liberation struggle broke out in the 1960s when Ethiopia abolished Eritrea’s official languages, imposed Ethiopia’s national language, Amharic, dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea. The ensuing 30-year struggle succeeded in 1991 when the current regime marched into the capital and took power. Following a referendum in 1993, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia to form a new state. Eritrean nationalism emanates from the two large ethnic groups (80% of total population combined) that control power and resources. This nationalism is based on suppressing sub-state identities, which the elites see as threatening to the nation-building process. In particular, the Indigenous Peoples have been pressured by the government’s policy of eradicating identification along regional and religious lines. The regime expropriates Indigenous lands without compensation and has partially cleansed Indigenous Peoples from their traditional territories by violence.

The existence of Indigenous Peoples as intact communities is under threat from government policies aimed at destroying Indigenous cultures, economies, landholdings and, for some, their nomadic and pastoral lifestyles. Eritrea is a party to the CERD, CEDAW and CRC but not to ILO Convention 169A country over the brink.

On 8 June 2016, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI) reported that there were reasonable grounds to  believe that Eritrean officials had committed crimes against hu manity in a widespread and systematic manner over the past 27 years. The COI provided detailed evidence relating to specific crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, reprisals and other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder.4

Notably, the COI found that these crimes had been perpetrated against two of Eritrea’s four Indigenous Peoples, the Afar and the Kunama. Eritrea had persecuted these groups, the COI concluded5 and, accordingly, the COI recommended that the UN and other entities initiate protective actions to safeguard the two Indigenous groups.6 The recommended measures include bringing Eritrea’s crimes and human rights violations to the attention of the relevant special procedures,7 getting the UN Security Council to determine that the Eritrean situation poses a threat to international peace and security;8 and, accordingly, ensuring that the Security Council refer the situation in Eritrea to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.9 

The situation continues

On 23 June 2017, pursuant to a request from the Human Rights Council (HRC), the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (SR-Eritrea) investigated and reported on Eritrea’s progress in addressing the concerns noted by the COI.10 The SR-Eritrea’s general conclusions were stark: “The situation of human rights in Eritrea has not significantly improved.”11 These findings were confirmed in a press release from the SR-Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, on 24 October 2018 and confirmed again in a press release on 21 June 2019 from the newly appointed SR-Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, who reported that “the human rights situation in Eritrea remains unchanged”.12

Crimes against Indigenous Peoples

Eritrea’s crimes against Indigenous Peoples are especially concerning. In 2013, the SR-Eritrea reported that Eritrea had engaged in a campaign to force the Afar Indigenous People from their traditional territory and to destroy their traditional means of subsistence and livelihood. The methods used were killings, disappearances, torture and rape.13 The SR-Eritrea reported that Eritrea had also displaced the Kunama from their traditional territory and colonised their land with other peoples from elsewhere in Eritrea, again using “killings, death in custody, arbitrary arrests and detention”.14 Eritrea had turned all land into state property, thereby undermining “the clan-based traditional land tenure system of the Kunama people”.15 The First Report of the COI in 2015 confirmed these findings.16 The COI concluded that the government’s acts “may be construed as an intentional act to dispossess them [the Kunama and Afar] of their ancestral lands, their livelihoods and their cultures”.17

In June 2018, the SR-Eritrea reported that Eritrea’s crimes were ongoing: “The problem is live today as the crimes are still being committed.”18 To clarify the ethnic cleansing situation the SR-Eritrea reported on 23 October 2018 that: “The Afar people have been evicted without any compensation from the port area of Assab.”19

Bisha mine

One aspect of Eritrea’s land confiscations concerns Bisha, a large mining project that produces gold, copper and zinc. The mine is located 150 km west of the capital, Asmara, in the heart of Kunama traditional territory. It is “owned” jointly by a Canadian company, Nevsun, Eritrean government entities and the military. Profits from the mine comprise a significant proportion of government revenues in the small, heavily-indebted Eritrean economy. In 2019, Nevsun sold its interest in the mine to Zijin, a Chinese company, for US$1.41 Billion.

In November 2014, Eritrean refugees and 1,000 others filed a Notice of Civil Claim in the British Columbia Supreme Court alleging that Nevsun had engaged the Eritrean military and Eritrean government entities to build the mine using forced (slave) labour (four of the plaintiffs were former slaves at the mine). The claim alleges that those compelled to work at the mine were subjected to constant threats of physical punishment, imprisonment, slavery, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and crimes against humanity. Nevsun brought preliminary motions to dismiss the case on the grounds of state immunity and non-recognition of liability for damages caused by breaches of customary international law. These motions failed in the British Columbia courts; the Supreme Court of Canada heard an appeal against the B.C. Court of Appeal’s decision on 23 January 2019.20 The Supreme Court decision is awaited at the time of writing.

Should the Supreme Court clear the way for the case to proceed to trial, a very significant path will have opened up by which to hold corporations accountable for unpalatable activities in foreign jurisdictions. Indigenous populations around the world have raised complaints about corporate extractive activities in their traditional territories, particularly when mining, oil and gas and forestry corporations partner with government entities. The Supreme Court decision will bear significantly on these disputes.

Climate change / prolonged drought

The human rights crisis is not the only cause of the Eritrean migration: climate change and its associated phenomena are also contributing agents. In 2007, the International Panel on Climate Change observed that the Horn of Africa was projected to be one of the regions of the world most negatively affected by climate change.21 This projection is now a reality. The region was beset by prolonged droughts, desertification, flash floods and land degradation in 2010-11, and again in 2016-17.

In 2019, UNICEF reported that parts of Eritrea had experienced the lowest cumulative rainfall totals since 1981, with the result that food insecurity had reached emergency proportions.22 Populations that rely on agricultural and pastoral activities, including Eritrea’s Indigenous Peoples, found their livelihoods and food security severely compromised.23 Global warming is likely to intensify these pressures on Indigenous populations throughout the Horn of Africa.

North-Eastern Africa is also home to significant inter-ethnic and inter-Indigenous disputes. The most protracted of these is the centuries-old violent conflict between the Afar and the Issa, a northern Somali Indigenous people also prominently represented among the population of Djibouti and present in northern Ethiopia.24 This conflict is deeply embedded and ongoing, supercharged by decades of raids and atrocities on both sides, which have claimed many thousands of Indigenous lives. A principal cause of the clashes is competition over resources and land, as pastoral communities move north and south.25 This, and other similar inter-Indigenous and inter-ethnic conflicts in the region, is likely to be exacerbated by the effects of global warming and drought. These phenomena make resources scarcer, competition for them fiercer and efforts at peace-making much more difficult. 

Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement

On 9 July 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship, providing for the two countries “to forge intimate political, economic, social, cultural and security cooperation.”26 This event ended a tense, mobilised-for-war standoff that had characterised their relations for a generation. The thaw between Eritrea and Ethiopia has produced “peace-but-no-change” as far as the human rights situation inside Eritrea and its impact on Indigenous populations trapped inside Eritrea is concerned.27 The border opened briefly, with a consequent rise in the number of Eritreans seeking asylum in Ethiopia. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees reported that, between 12 September and 12 October 2018, a total of 9,905 Eritrean refugees were recorded in Ethiopia.28 Since April 2019, the border has closed once more

In 2019 and early 2020 there was road-building activity going on through Afar and Kunama lands, financed by China and the European Trust. Some of this is designed to enable connections between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Netherlands-based foundation Human Rights for Eritreans complained that the European-financed project was using national service (i.e. slave) labour; the New York Times reported the same.29

For the future

The situation of Indigenous Peoples inside Eritrea is grim. The country has never held free national elections; it lacks a functioning legislature; it is controlled by a small group of men connected to the President; only government media operate; there is no freedom of speech or political space; there are no guarantees of, and no institutional structures to protect, Indigenous rights and Indigenous Peoples. “Information collected on people’s activities, their supposed intentions and even conjectured thoughts are used to rule through fear … individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, disappeared or extra judicially executed.”30 The Indigenous People are viewed with suspicion by the regime and persecuted to such an extent that important United Nations agencies have now called for the perpetrators to answer for crimes against humanity.

International agencies and institutions need to keep working at justice, security and peace for Eritrea’s Indigenous Peoples as the Human Rights Council and some of its mandate holders have done so far. They might also consider reminding Ethiopia that it cannot simply take the plunder from Eritrea’s crimes against humanity, including the lands and waters around the port of Assab, which are the traditional territory of the Afar Indigenous People, without its officials becoming parties or accessories to those crimes themselves.31 International institutions might also want to suggest to Ethiopia that it would be better for that country to use its new-found access, power and leverage in Eritrea to try to put a stop to the ongoing crimes against humanity now being committed there. Ethiopia is well placed to impress on the Eritrean regime the wisdom and justice of the two countries beginning discussions with Indigenous Peoples about how to involve them in planning for the redevelopment of the port of Assab and other projects that foresee use of Indigenous lands and resources. At the very least, both countries have an obligation to consult. Eritrea, moreover, has legal obligations to make reparations for past human rights violations and crimes against Indigenous Peoples. Ethiopia should be persuaded to insist on beginning this process before any deal to use Indigenous lands is sealed.

The new Chinese ownership of the Bisha mine on Indigenous territories and involvement of Chinese construction entities in road-building activities on Indigenous traditional lands is unlikely to improve the human rights situation for Indigenous Peoples inside Eritrea. European institutions, particularly the European Trust, would be expected to hold themselves to a higher standard, and ensure that they are visible in doing so. It is disappointing, to say the least, that the Trust has opened itself up to charges of participating in slave labour projects.

The better course is for the democracies and international institutions to showcase their human rights commitments by their actions. By so doing, they will have a better standing to be firm with both Eritrea and Ethiopia. This will prepare the community of civilized nations to act when Eritrea’s day of reckoning arrives. This is likely not far off. Hopefully, it will bring relief to the persecuted Indigenous Peoples of Eritrea.

Notes and references

  1. 39 million is an estimate by the World Bank, see World Bank Country Profile: Eritrea, http://databank.worldbank.org/data/Views/ Reports/ReportWidgetCustom.aspx?Report_ Name=CountryProfile&Id=b450fd57&tbar=y&dd=y&inf=n&zm=n&country=ERI; 5.9 million is an estimate by the CIA, see CIA, World Factbook, https://www.cia. gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/er.html 
  2. The numbers are disputed. There are no reliable figures to resolve the dispute as there is no count and no census that has been conducted by Eritrea or others. The CIA, World Factbook reports Afar at 2 per cent but this is very unlikely given that there are 20,000 UN-documented Afar refugees in two refugee camps in neighbouring Ethiopia and many more undocumented asylum seekers inside Ethiopia – this alone would likely account for 2 per cent of the Eritrean population. The figure for the Saho is reported by Abdulkader Saleh Mohammad, The Saho of Eritrea: Ethnic Identity and National Consciousness (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2013).
  3. Eritrea: Constitutional, Legislative and Administrative Provisions Concerning Indigenous Peoples (a joint publication of the International Labour Organization, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, 2009, pp. 5-7. http://www.chr.up.ac.za/ chr_old/indigenous/country_reports/Country_reports_Eritrea.pdf
  4. Second Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, A/HRC/32/47, 8 June 2016, para 60, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/ HRCouncil/CoIEritrea/A_HRC_32_CRP.1_read-only.pdf
  5. Ibid. Paras 87-88, 124, 129(b)
  6. Para 124 (The COI referred to the Afar and Kunama as “ethnic groups”.)
  7. Para 129(b)
  8. Para 132(a)
  9. Para 132(b)
  10. Para 34. In 2016, 21,253 Eritrean refugees arrived in Europe (6 per cent of all refugees). This is the fifth largest group of arriving refugees. It is notable that, among the significant refugee-producing countries, Eritrea is the only one that is not experiencing violent conflict, a fact that supports the conclusion that it is the county’s human rights violations that are prompting people to leave.
  11. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, A/ HRC/35/39, 23 June 2017, para 54, http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e. aspx?si=A/HRC/35/39
  12. “UN expert urges Eritrea to allow religious institutions to operate freely and respect the right of freedom of religion”. 21 June 2019: https://www.ohchr. org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24721&LangID=E
  13. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, A/ HRC/23/53, 28 May 2013, para 77, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/ HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.53_ENG.pdf
  14. Ibid Paras 80-82.
  15. Para 80.
  16. “…the Afar people have been subjected to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance by the Eritrean Government since 2000. These killings have also triggered their displacement from their lands within the country and across borders to Ethiopia and Djibouti. This has posed great difficulty to their livelihoods as they depend on their traditional lands for the sustenance as an indigenous ethnic ” Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, A/HRC/29/CRP.1, 5 June 2015, para 1121. See also para 1171, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIEritrea/Pages/ ReportCoIEritrea.aspx.
  17. Para 1171
  18. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, paras 90-93, 11 June 2018, A/HRC/38/50. Online: https:// reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/A_HRC_38_50.pdf
  19. Publicación Facebook Post, Daniel G Mikael, in 47:30: https://www.facebook. com/daniel.g.mikael/videos/10218033215124582/ at 47:30
  20. Araya Nevsun Resources, 2017 BCCA 417; Nevsun Resources v. Gize Yebeyo Araya, SCC File no. 37919.
  21. IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC, 2007, 2.1, 9.4.4, 9.6.1).
  22. UNICEF, Horn of Africa Drought Situation as of 31 May Online: https:// reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/unicef-horn-africa-drought-situation-may-31-2019
  23. UNHCR, Climate Change, Vulnerability and Human Mobility: Perspectives of Refugees from the East and Horn of Africa, p. 12. Online: https://www.unhcr. org/protection/environment/4fe8538d9/climate-change-vulnerability-human- mobility-perspectives-refugees-east.html.
  24. Olson, James S. (1996). THE PEOPLE OF AFRICA: An Ethnohistorical London: Greenwood, p. 244. Online: https://books.google.ca/books?id=MdaAdBCS4C&pg=PA244&dq=issa+people+are+considered+a+subgroup+of+Dir.&rediresc=y&hl=en#v=onepage&q=issa%20people%20are%20considered%20a%20 subgroup%20of%20Dir.&f=false
  25. Muauz Gidey Alemu, Anatomy of Issa-Afar Violence. (2017). Journal of Developing Societies 33(3):1, p. 4. Online: https://www.researchgate.net/ publication/319206862_Anatomy_of_Issa-Afar_Violence.
  26. Eritrea, Ministry of Information, Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Online: http://www.shabait.com/news/local- news/26639-joint-declaration-of-peace-and-friendship-between-eritrea-and- ethiopia
  27. Tanja Muller, The Ethiopia-Eritrean Rapproachment After Year One: Cycles of Hope and Despair in Eritrea (2019) Observatoire de l’Africa de l’Est.
  28. Ibid
  29. “Europe accused of financing Eritrean project based on ‘forced labour”. The Guardian, 2 April 2019: The Guardian, Europe accused of financing Eritrean project based on “forced labour”. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/global- development/2019/apr/02/europe-accused-financing-eritrea-project-based- on-forced-labour; Matina Stevis-Gridneff, How Forced Labor in Eritrea is Linked to U.-Funded Projects, New York Times, 8 January 2020.
  30. Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, A/HRC/29/CRP.1, 5 June 2015, p. 1, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/ HRC/CoIEritrea/Pages/ReportCoIEritrea.aspx
  31. The chapter on Eritrea in The Indigenous World (2019) sets out in detail the case for prosecuting Ethiopian officials who simply use or take for Ethiopia Afar traditional territories around the port of Assab. These lands may be considered the fruits of Eritrea’s crimes against the Afar Indigenous People. The 2019 chapter shows what a proper reconciliation process would look like and makes recommendations on how to move forward with the port’s redevelopment in the interests of all concerned.


Joseph Eliot Magnet, F.R.S.C., B.A., LL.B., LL.M., Ph.D. is Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa. He has been Distinguished Visiting Professor, Boalt Hall Law School, University of California, Berkeley; Distinguished Visiting Professor, Tel Aviv University; Visiting Professor, Université de Paris, France; Visiting Professor, University of Haifa, Israel; and Visiting Professor, Central European University, Budapest. He is legal counsel for Governments, First Nations and National Indigenous Associations in Canada and for the Afar Nation in the Horn of Africa.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here




IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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