FILE -  Eritrean refugees chant slogans as they participate in a demonstration in support of a U.N. human rights report accusing Eritrean leaders of crimes against humanity in front of the Africa Union headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa,
FILE - Eritrean refugees chant slogans as they participate in a demonstration in support of a U.N. human rights report accusing Eritrean leaders of crimes against humanity in front of the Africa Union headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa,

WASHINGTON - In a surprise announcement, Ethiopia has promised to implement an international court’s decision resolving a border dispute with Eritrea. The move could end an 18-year stalemate and change Eritrea’s internal policies.

Eritrea has long said the border issue justified restrictions on its citizens, including mandatory national service, a diversion of resources into the military, curtailed civil liberties and the uninterrupted rule of President Isaias Afwerki, the unelected leader of the country since 1993.

In a report submitted to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights last month, Eritrean officials said national elections were “kept on hold as priorities changed and the country had to grapple, first and foremost, with existential issues of preserving its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Eritrea and Ethiopia Border Map
A map of Eritrea and Ethiopia depicts the border between the countries based on an international ruling in 2002. Both countries agreed to accept the terms in full, but Ethiopia prevented demarcation of the border, resulting in 16 years of unresolved tension between the countries. In June 2018, the Ethiopian government said it would agree to implementing the terms of the 2002 ruling in full.

Those actions set the stage for extensive human rights violations and an exodus of young people from the country, according to multiple reports by the U.N. and various human rights groups. Amnesty International calls the overall human rights situation in Eritrea “deplorable.”

Jamie Staley is an aide to U.S. Representative Randy Hultgren, co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. In April, the commission held a hearing to address concerns about human trafficking and religious freedom in Eritrea.

Staley told VOA that Eritrea produces a large number of refugees and often denies religious freedoms.

“We are following cases of Eritrean asylum seekers around the world, in the U.S., in Israel and elsewhere, and want to ensure that no one who has left seeking asylum from Eritrea would ever be returned back to a situation where they would be put back in circumstances that they had left or where they would be made vulnerable to human trafficking in any way,” he said.

Press freedom

Press freedom groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House have also raised concerns about how Eritrea stifles dissent and targets journalists.

Abraham Zere is the executive director of PEN Eritrea, part of an international network of writers. He’s also a former columnist for Hadas Eritrea, a state-owned Eritrean newspaper. He testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that dozens of Eritrean journalists with whom he worked were held in military prison for up to six years.

Zere said that he was fortunate compared to his colleagues but still faced “continuous struggles of not being able to speak and not being able to express your thoughts,” even after he left the country.

Eritrea is one of the leading jailers of journalists around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Based on data compiled by CPJ, 15 journalists were imprisoned in Eritrea in 2017, among the most jailed journalists per capita in the world.

Seeking asylum

About 3,000 unaccompanied minors from Eritrea sought asylum in 2015, said Phillip Connor, a senior researcher with Pew Research.

“Eritreans have some of the highest success rates when it comes to their actual asylum applications being decided or approved to remain in Europe,” Connor told VOA last August. “About 92 percent of Eritreans receive positive decisions in some way, to be able to stay in Europe either temporarily or on a more permanent basis,” he added.

FILE - Eritrean refugees wait to get registered on
FILE - Eritrean refugees wait to get registered on arrival at the Indabaguna refugee reception and screening center in Tigrai region near the Eritrean border in Ethiopia, Feb. 9, 2016.

Eritreans almost always receive asylum because of the threats they face if they return home, according to European officials and human rights groups. But the Eritrean government has seized on these trends to advance another possibility: Migrants from other countries, particularly in East Africa, claim to be Eritrean given the likelihood they will receive asylum.

?Unfairly maligned?

Eritrea’s government says the country is the victim of a coordinated campaign to malign its reputation and punish its leaders. In his annual independence day address last month, Afwerki repeated concerns about an “illicit sanctions regime” against Eritrea.

Last November, a U.N. monitoring group determined that no conclusive evidence linked Eritrea to support of al-Shabab militants in Somalia since at least 2013, despite earlier claims to the contrary by a member state in the region. Concerns about links to the militant group led to sanctions in 2009.

Criticism of Eritrea’s human rights record has also come from within Africa. In April, the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa called for action in a statement to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights because of “long-standing deficiencies in the rule of law and the severe nature of human rights violations in Eritrea.”

Awaiting response

Eritrea has not yet officially responded to Ethiopia’s decision to adhere to the terms of the Algiers Agreement and implement the border defined by a U.N. boundary commission.

FILE - President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea address
FILE - President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Sept. 23, 2011.

Following the announcement, Yemane Gebremeskel, Eritrea’s minister of information, said on Twitter that Eritrea’s “position is crystal clear and has been so for 16 years” in response to questions about why his government has not issued an official statement.

But Zere is doubtful that Ethiopia’s move will prompt action from Eritrea. 

“I don’t think that the Eritrean government would make any big change,” he told VOA. “The government of Eritrea isn’t interested in bilateral relations, and they don’t believe in that. And therefore I would say that it is better if they (the international community) start focusing on those who are oppressed.”