Just How Bad Has Post-9/11 America Become? Some Insights from Eritrea

By Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall

Eritrea, a small African country east of Sudan and north of Ethiopia, is probably not a place you would like to visit, let alone reside. A small country with a population of about six million, Eritrea is incredibly poor, with a 2013 GDP per capita of approximately $700. In addition to widespread poverty, the government of Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records on the planet. In fact, during the first ten months of 2014, the number of refugee-seeking Eritreans nearly tripled compared to the previous year, with about 40,000 people seeking asylum in Europe alone.

Last week the United Nations Human Rights Council released a report on the state of human rights in Eritrea. The report, which was the result of a year-long investigation, presented a series of findings. Among other things, the report found that:

  • “Through its extensive spying and surveillance system targeting individuals within the country and in the diaspora, the Government engages in the systematic violation of the right to privacy” (p. 6).
  • “As a result of this mass surveillance, Eritreans live in constant fear that their conduct is or may be monitored by security agents, and that information gathered may be used against them leading to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, disappearance or death” (p. 6).
  • “The Government strives to control strictly any human movement both internally and for those who wish to leave the country…” (p. 6).
  • “Freedom of the press is another casualty of the Government’s effort to control society” (p. 7).
  • “Violations of the right to fair trial and due process of law are particularly blatant” (p. 9).
  • “The use of information collected by the Government through spying networks leads…to arbitrary arrest and detention” (p. 9)
  • “The detention network in Eritrea is vast … with many secret and unofficial facilities” (p. 11).
  • “The harshest conditions and the strictest regimes of detention are deliberately employed in a number of situations, including to punish those suspected of being a threat to national security” (p. 11).
  • “Eritrean officials use a variety of forms of ill-treatment during interrogations and to punish detainees and conscripts. The common element of these forms of ill-treatment, such as extreme forms of restraint, beatings or rape, is that they are intended to inflict severe physical and psychological pain” (p. 12).

The report’s findings describe the behaviors of a brutal totalitarian regime that engages in “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” with “no accountability” and “a total lack of rule of law” (p. 14). For anyone concerned with human rights the UN report makes for a depressing read. For those concerned with civil liberties in the U.S., what is most shocking is that that the report’s findings also describe many of the behaviors of the U.S. government.

Over the past decade it has been revealed that the U.S. government spied (and continues to spy) on U.S. citizens and international leaders. The U.S. government has used “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture) techniques as part of the War on Terror. Recent revelations regarding the Chicago Police Department indicate that local governments have employed these same techniques at home. Extrajudicial killings with drones under the Obama administration have become standard practice. There are numerous instances of militarized police trampling the rights of U.S. citizens. And the war against whistleblowers who expose the wrongdoings of the U.S. government continues to be used as a tool for the political elite to punish political enemies while sparing the politically connected.

Taken together, this leads to an uncomfortable yet stark reality. The post-9/11 behaviors of the U.S. government are much more characteristic of an authoritarian police state than those of a constitutionally constrained republic. This is not shocking to those who appreciate the political economy of crisis and how foreign interventions can boomerang back to the homeland to undermine the freedoms of liberties of U.S. citizens domestically. The War on Terror has acted as a justification for the U.S. government to undermine and destroy the basic rights and liberties of U.S. citizens.

This should be jarring to those who continue to hold an unquestioning and romantic view of the U.S. government as the protector of freedom and liberty at home and abroad. Although not its intended purpose, what the UN report on Eritrea makes clear is that when it comes to human rights, the differences between the U.S. government and the most brutal and repressive regimes elsewhere are ones of degree and not of kind. The sobering reality is that actions undertaken by the U.S. government in the name of protecting national security, liberty and freedoms have actively undermined and destroyed the very things they purport to protect.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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