Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2017, 12:58 GMT

Louder than words - Case Study: Eritrea: Widespread conscription of children goes unchecked

Publisher Child Soldiers International
Publication Date 12 September 2012
Cite as Child Soldiers International, Louder than words - Case Study: Eritrea: Widespread conscription of children goes unchecked, 12 September 2012, available at: [accessed 12 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Eritrea has the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated strength of between 200,000 and 320,000 men and women, representing around 35 per cent of the population in military service.[1] Military/national service is mandatory for every Eritrean. Conscription is provided for under the National Service Proclamation of 23 October 1995 under which all citizens aged 18 to 40 (male and female) are required to perform national service totalling 18 months. The period of national service can be extended in the event of mobilisation or emergency.[2] In 2002 the government did precisely this, extending national service indefinitely. Known as the "Warsai-Yikalo Development Campaign", this has trapped vast numbers of Eritreans in military and other forms of national service up to the age of 50 and possibly beyond.[3]

The militarisation of secondary education

Although by law national service begins when a person reaches 18 years, in practice for many it begins earlier. Girls and boys under the age of 18 years are among thousands of people who enter military training every year and who then spend most of the rest of their active working lives in military or other forms of national service. Although the Eritrean government denies allegations of unlawful conscription of under-18s, there is evidence that it occurs on a large scale.

To prevent increasing evasion of national service by school leavers, the government announced in 2003 that the final year of secondary education, Year 12, must be performed at the Sawa Military Training Camp in western Eritrea near the border with Sudan. Because the Year 12 designation is based not on a child's age but rather on the school grade achieved, some Year 12 students are under 18 years old. According to a recent US State Department report on human rights in Eritrea, "Students at Sawa were typically 18 years old or older, although a fair percentage were as young as 16 years old".[4]

The government denies underage conscription and argues that students attending the twelfth grade in Sawa should not be confused with national service conscripts.[5] However, the Year 12 students at Sawa have military status and are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence and subject to military discipline. They are therefore in reality soldiers, even if not fully operational members of the Eritrean National Army. Academic education is interspersed with military training such that, according to a teacher at Sawa interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2008, "the students could not study. Students were always being forced to leave the class for some kind of military service".[6]

According to credible reports, under-18s may also have been unlawfully conscripted during annual conscription rounds or through regular military and police "round-ups" of suspected draft evaders. According to the published testimony of a former conscript detained in a round-up in 2007 there were 17 children aged 11-14 in his 500-strong battalion in training and an unspecified "big" number of others aged 15-17, including girls. He estimated that, in his intake of some 5,000 students, 170 were below 18. He also alleged that some 15-17 year olds were later selected for further special "commando training".[7]

It is possible that some of the underage conscription is inadvertent: some young Eritreans particularly those living in remote rural areas do not have official birth certificates and establishing age may therefore be difficult.[8] However, even in such cases the onus is on the authorities to find alternative means to prove that the individual has attained the minimum age for conscription.

But there is also evidence to suggest that the authorities may be well aware that not all new conscripts have reached 18 years. According to a leaked report by the commander of the Sawa Military Training Camp, dated 30 June 2008 and sent to the Office of the Eritrean President, 3,510 conscripts under the age of 18 years were enlisted in the twenty-first round of the national military service program that took place between August 2007 and February 2008.[9]

Although the authenticity of the report cannot be verified, it is consistent with independent reports that under-18s in Eritrea are regularly enlisted for compulsory military training.

Once trained, conscripts may be assigned to military service including deployment to military camps on Eritrea's borders where there is a risk of their participation in hostilities, particularly on the border with Ethiopia with which there is a situation of "no-war-no peace" following the 1998-2000 war. It is not known if under-18s are among those deployed to these areas or whether they are deployed elsewhere in the country.[10]

Eritrea's links to child soldier recruitment and use in Somalia

The Eritrean government supports a number of armed opposition groups operating elsewhere in the region, at least one of which, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, is reported to have recruited thousands of children, many of them forcibly.[11] Eritrea acknowledges that it maintains relationships with Somali armed groups but claims that these are of a political and humanitarian nature. According to the UN Arms Embargo Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, however, the support is also military, material and financial.[12]

There are no reports of the direct involvement of Eritrean military or other officials in child recruitment and use by Al-Shabaab. However, there is no indication either that the government has used its influence to prevent it. The Monitoring Group noted in a 2011 report that "there is no evidence to suggest that Eritrea, either in terms of unilateral initiatives or through participation in multilateral political forums, is employing its privileged relationship with Al-Shabaab or other opposition groups for the purposes of dialogue or reconciliation".[13]

By providing military and material support, Eritrea contributes to the capacity of Al-Shabaab to carry out serious human rights abuses, including the widespread and systematic recruitment and use of child soldiers. As such it may bear responsibility for aiding and abetting the commission of such abuses. Its actions are also contrary to government obligations to act with due diligence to prevent the commission of human rights abuses and specifically in violation of Article 4 of the Optional Protocol which requires states to take all feasible measures to prevent recruitment and use of children by armed groups.

The international response

Despite Eritrea's poor record in relation to child soldiers both domestically and abroad, it has barely featured on international children and armed conflict agendas. Although it is party to the Optional Protocol, having acceded in 2005 (and deposited a binding declaration in which it states that 18 is the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces), it has yet to submit its first report on progress towards implementation of the treaty. Concerns relating to child soldiers have occasionally been raised elsewhere (in the Committee on the Rights of the Child's 2008 examination of Eritrea's report on implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and during the Human Rights Council's 2009 Universal Periodic Review of Eritrea for example), but there has been no systematic monitoring of the situation.

The recent appointment by the Human Rights Council of a Special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea should result in greater attention being paid to the human rights situation there, creating new opportunities for the issue of unlawful recruitment of children to be addressed. This is particularly important given that the situation in Eritrea – where there is no actual armed conflict and children are therefore not participating actively in hostilities – is not addressed under the UN Security Council children and armed conflict framework.

Yet without proactive monitoring and at least some attempt to engage the Eritrean authorities (although hostile to independent human rights monitoring and notoriously difficult to influence) children will remain at risk of unlawful conscription and other human rights violations associated with it. There is a very real risk that, were the security situation in the region to deteriorate, these children would become involved in armed conflict. Intervention at that point could be too late for many of Eritrea's children.


1 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Eritrea, 20 April 2011, HCR/EG/ERT/11/01, available at:

2 Articles 8, 9, 18 and 21 of the Proclamation of National Service No. 82/1995, available at:

3 See International Crisis Group, Eritrea: The Siege State, 21 September 2010 and Human Rights Watch, Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea, April 2009.

4 The US Department of State, 2010 and 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Eritrea,

5 See Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Eritrea, UN Doc. A/HRC/13/2, 4 January 2010.

6 Human Rights Watch, Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea, April 2009.

7 Human Rights Concern-Eritrea, Testimonies of untold atrocities and suffering, 8 September 2008,

8 UNICEF is supporting the Government of Eritrea to strengthen and expand birth registration services. See UNICEF, What we do, Eastern and Southern Africa/Child protection at:

9 The original version of the report is available at: An unofficial English translation is available at:

10 Others are assigned to military-controlled development tasks such as road building or construction or to work on enterprises owned by the state, the ruling party and military officers, to foreign aid funded projects, or other government jobs including in the civil service. See Human Rights Watch, Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea, April 2009.

11 For further information on patterns of recruitment and use of child soldiers by Al-Shabaab see: Children and armed conflict, Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/65/820-S/2011/250, 23 April 2011; Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Somalia, UN Doc. S/2010/577, 11 September 2010; Human Rights Watch, No Place for Children: Child Recruitment, Forced Marriage, and Attacks on Schools in Somalia, February 2012.

12 Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 1916 (2010), UN Doc. S/2011/433, 18 July 2011.

13 Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 1916 (2010), UN Doc. S/2011/433, 18 July 2011.

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