Indigenous Peoples in Eritrea, 2019

7 Pages Posted: 27 Feb 2019

See all articles by Joseph Magnet

Joseph Magnet

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Date Written: February 08, 2019


Eritrea borders the southern Red Sea in the Horn of Africa. It emerged as an Italian colonial construct in the nineteenth century, which was superimposed over indigenous populations. Eritrea’s current population is between 4.4 and 5.9 million inhabitants. There are at least four indigenous peoples: the Afar (between 4 and 12% of the total population), Kunama (2%), Saho (4%) and Nara (>1%). These groups have inhabited their traditional territories for approximately two thousand 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 marginalized and persecuted. Following a United Nations Resolution of 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 rose immediately when Ethiopia interfered with the Eritrean courts and executive. 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 thirty years 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 by 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 169 or the UNDRIP. It is the subject of complaints to the UNHRC, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (all of which sustained the allegations) and the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples. The complaints allege mass murder, ethnic cleansing, displacement of indigenous peoples from their traditional territories and intentional destruction of the indigenous economy.

Keywords: Eritrea, indigenous populations, Ethiopia

Suggested Citation

Magnet, Joseph, Indigenous Peoples in Eritrea, 2019 (February 08, 2019). Ottawa Faculty of Law Working Paper No. 2019-07. Available at SSRN: or

Joseph Magnet (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5

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