Slavery within Africa is a problem with deep roots. In the 19th century, African enslavement of rivals helped drive the Western slave trade as some Africans sold others to Western traders. In certain corners of the continent, state-sponsored slavery persisted. Until two decades ago, Sudanese Janjaweed enslaved Sudanese blacks, though the country has now largely ended the practice. Enslavement of Black Africans continues in Mauritania, however, no matter that the country officially outlawed slavery in 1981.
Lawlessness and state collapse contributes to the problem. In recent years, the plight of enslaved migrants shocked the international audience, especially when pictures emerged of criminal syndicates selling them in Libya. Using the United Nations’ definition of human trafficking, the non-governmental organization End Slavery Now estimates “there are an estimated 21 million to 45 million people trapped in some form of slavery today.”
That is bad enough but, because the Eritrean regime seeks to profit from trafficking in person, the situation is now growing worse, especially in the Horn of Africa. The Eritrean Research Institute for Policy and Strategy (ERIPS) is a careful and professional organization formed by Eritrean intellectuals and professionals. Its products are prone more to understatement than hyperbole. In that context, it latest report, “Modern-Day Slavery Fuels Eritrea’s Isaias Regime” should be a wake-up call.
In the background, the report observes that, historically, “The Eritrean government has maintained minimal efforts to prevent trafficking and has continued to subject its citizens to forced labor by compelling them under penalty of punishment to serve for indefinite or otherwise arbitrary periods in its compulsory national service and citizen militia.” In effect, to be born in Afwerki’s Eritrea is to risk a life of unpaid servitude. Indeed, Afwerki’s regime has, in the past, even sought to profit from the sale of children.
The situation has worsened over the past year as Afwerki has dispatched not only Eritrean men and children to Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray province, but has also forced several thousand Somali men to fight in Tigray as part of an agreement between Afwerki and Somali President Mohamed Farmaajo.
That such slavery occurs in plain sight and without consequence is a black mark on the international community. The fact that the United States does not give Eritrea aid renders moot the usual response to suspect such assistance. This should not mean, however, that the White House and Congress should shrug off Eritrea and the atrocities in which it participates.
ERIPS has identified several realistic sanctions that the Biden administration and Congress could impose should they have the will. Eritrea is the only country in the world to tax based upon ethnicity rather than nationality. While U.S. taxation of Americans living and working abroad is a bad policy, it is not equivalent to what the Afwerki regime does. Washington does not hold hostage the families of those whose roots might be in the United States but who are no longer citizens. To ensure that the long arm of Afwerki’s terror does not harm Eritrean Americans, U.S. law enforcement should actively protect and assist those whom Eritrea’s government or diplomatic officers seek to intimidate or blackmail.
Given the bloodshed in Tigray and the evidence that Eritrean forces were responsible for some of the worst abuses on the ground there, the Biden administration should sponsor or support a UN effort for a total arms blockade on Eritrea. So too should the White House pressure the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to break their ties with Eritrea which, in effect, provide cash and cover for Afwerki’s regional military adventures. Both the Saudi or Emirati governments might find alternate facilities in Somaliland or perhaps even Sudan if the strategic imperative that brought them to Eritrea remains.
ERIPS also suggests expanding the application of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions to more Eritrean generals and to ruling party leaders like Yemane Gebreab, economic adviser Hagos Ghebrehiwet (Kisha), and Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed and to party-run companies like the Red Sea Corporation. Neither Eritrean officials nor their family members, or even state-sponsored cultural figures should qualify for visas to the United States. Those who profit from slavery neither have a right to Disneyland nor to shop on Fifth Avenue. In addition, the United States and Europe should sanction any mining companies that operate in Eritrea and profit from drafted Eritreans who Afwerki forces to work as slaves. The U.S. Treasury Department should also end Eritrea’s ability to make dollar-denominated transactions worldwide.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken makes his first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa and as Jeffrey Feltman, his Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, continues his efforts to pull the region back from the brink, there could be no better policy prerogative than ending state-sponsored slavery in Africa once and for all.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).