In pursuit of Social Justice

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

World Day of Social Justice – 20 February 2015

Social justice becomes a reality when social protection measures against discrimination and marginalization are enforced, thus targeting systemic social injustice and differential treatment. This is what the United Nations General Assembly aimed at emphasizing when it proclaimed The World Day of Social Justice on 20 February 2007.[1] The advancement of social justice requires the removal of such barriers which discriminate against people based on – but not exclusive to – their age, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity or disability.

In Eritrea, religion can be a basis for differential treatment and persecution. A 1995 Presidential Decree declared that the country would recognize only four religions: the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Roman Catholicism, and Sunni Islam. The 1997 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but because it was never implemented, the Decree trumps this right. All other faiths were banned and those who practice them would incur penalties of arrest, detention in inhumane conditions, intimidation and even social exclusion.

Makda[2], a young Eritrean girl, recounts how her father was expelled from his government job and left with no income to support his wife and seven children for being a Jehovah’s Witness.

“Our family were called “traitors” and our neighbours harassed us when we went outside. One day my parents and I were arrested during a religious gathering – I was only 14 years old. After three days, locked up in a cold prison cell with my mother, the officer released me with a warning: “Do not follow your parents’ religion or you will be expelled from school”.

A 1995 Presidential Decree declared that the country would recognize only four religions the Evangelical Lutheran Church the Eritrean Orthodox Church Roman Catholicism and Sunni Islam

There are roughly 3,000 Christians detained in Eritrea, many of whom were arrested during religious gatherings or whilst praying in their private homes[3]. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, in April 2014 alone, over 90 worshipers were imprisoned during a religious ceremony; they were aged between 16 months to 85 years and older[4]. To date, those arrested and imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea have not been officially charged or sentenced; they are not told the reasons and length of their incarceration, nor are there any means for them to challenge its legality.

“My twin sisters were arrested in 2006 for singing a gospel song during a wedding ceremony. They were interrogated almost every day and asked “if they were ready to drop their religion”. In 2008 the twins were taken to separate cells and the guards beat them heavily; when they got tired they threw the twins back into their cells. They beat one sister to death. Four months later the administration called my family and told them that she died of malaria. My other twin sister was released at the end of 2008 – just because they thought she was not going to make it.”

The right to one’s religion is the cornerstone of personal freedoms; simply put – it is sacred. It is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a fundamental human right (Article 8). Religion also plays a social role of linking members of a community together. So, when citizens are denied identity cards or forced to renounce their religions because they exercised their human right to religious freedom, this begs the question: what does the notion of ‘social justice’ really mean in Eritrea?

Yet, all that social justice promises I see in the Eritrean people. From those as young as 15 years old leaving their homes and families – fleeing to countries where they can enjoy their human rights to escape indefinite national service, to a mother who battles fear as she holds her child close on a rickety boat across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a life where justice prevails; all the Eritrean people seek is a just society. There are no guarantees for any of them as they deal with uncertainties of perilous journeys which can result in death. But one important lesson can be learned – you can suppress someone’s right to self-expression, you can detain their bodies, but you cannot imprison their minds or dreams for social justice. For as long as the mind believes in, or knows that rights are fundamental – we too cannot allow ourselves to forget them.


[1] The UN General Assembly proclaimed 20 February as World Day of Social Justice in 2007. Observance of the World Day of Social Justice should support efforts of the international community in poverty eradication, the promotion of full employment and decent work, gender equity and access to social well-being and justice for all.

[2] Not her real name.

[3] Christian Solidarity Worldwide. ‘Eritrea’. Available at:

[4] Jehovah’s Witnesses. Imprisoned for their faith. Available at:

About the Author: Thato Motaung is a researcher in the fields of gender, peace and security and human rights on the African continent. Prior to working for the Centre, she was a Research Fellow to the African Union Commission, Bureau of the Chairperson in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She holds a Master of Science in European Studies: Transnational and Global Perspectives from the K.U. Leuven in Belgium, and a Bachelor of Science in Political Studies & Industrial and Economic Sociology from Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

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