The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Eritrea is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Eritrea is not a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Eritrea is a State Party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Article 11 provides as follows:
Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
Eritrea is not a party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
According to Article 19(5) of the 1997 Constitution of Eritrea: "All persons shall have the right to assemble and to demonstrate peaceably together with others."
In its submission for its 2019 Universal Periodic Review under the United Nations Human Rights Council, Eritrea declared there was a legal basis for the freedom of assembly but did not identify what law or laws protected assemblies.
In its submission for the 2019 Review, the Information Forum for Eritrea in Geneva claimed that Eritrea had not introduced policy or taken any other measures to ensure the freedom of assembly.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and prioportionate to that purpose.
Under the 2015 Penal Code, it is an offence for a law enforcement or other public official to unlawfully arrest and detain another, or to use
physical or mental torture, or other improper methods, during the arrest, custody, supervision, escort or interrogation of a person.Art. 149, 2015 Penal Code.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
A law enforcement official who, in using unlawful force, causes serious bodily injury to another commits an aggravated offence.Art. 150, 2015 Penal Code.Where death results, life imprisonment and even the death penalty may be imposed.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures
In May 2020, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea reported that:
Since May 2019, the Eritrean authorities have tightened their restrictions on the right to assembly. The wave of arrests of non-recognized Christian congregations during prayer gatherings ... illustrates this. These individuals were arrested not only because of their faith but also because they gathered without government authorization. Persons arrested for assembling without government approval often face prolonged detention. For example, many Muslims arrested in March 2018 at the funeral of Haji Musa Mohamednur, the former chairman of Al-Diaa Islamic School in Asmara, remain in prison. Some have died in custody. ... In mid-June 2019, Said Mohammed, a Muslim man in his thirties who was arrested at this funeral, died in prison after he was reportedly tortured and denied proper medical attention.
In its 2019 Concluding Observations on Eritrea in the absence of an initial report, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern about "the severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and association applied to independent human rights defenders and civil society organizations". The Committee called on Eritrea to ensure that all individuals and political parties fully enjoy the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association in practice and that all restrictions on the exercise of these rights comply with the strict conditions laid down in the Covenant.
The Committee was also concerned about
allegations of disproportionate use of force against civilians, such as the reported killing of at least 11 individuals during an incident on 3 April 2016, in which young conscripts jumped out of a truck in Asmara, and the alleged use of live ammunition on 31 October 2017, during the dispersal of a protest against government involvement in a Muslim school, also in Asmara.
In 2018, Eritrea submitted its Initial Report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights covering 1999 to 2016. The report claimed that freedom of assembly is respected by law.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Eritrea:
Freedom of assembly is not recognized by the authorities. Those who take to the streets to protest face the threat of deadly force at the hands of the state security forces, or arbitrary detention. In 2017 and 2018, reports emerged indicating that rare public protests were met with such repression. By one account, over two dozen people were killed by the security forces during the October 2017 demonstrations in support of Musa Mohammed Nur. His funeral in March 2018 prompted mass protests that erupted into clashes between protesters and police; news sources reported that protesters were arrested, with numbers ranging from a handful, to close to a thousand.