NEW YORK (24 October 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, today reiterated her call on the international community to keep the human rights situation in Eritrea in sharp focus and increase efforts to protect Eritrean refugees, in particular the numerous unaccompanied children, during their perilous search for safety.
Ms. Keetharuth described to the UN General Assembly in New York an alarming situation on the ground, with extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, inhumane prison conditions, indefinite national service, and lack of freedom of expression and opinion, assembly, association, religious belief and movement.
“All Eritreans should be able to claim and enjoy their human rights, be it civil and political or economic, social and cultural,” she said. “This will require innovative ideas to address those issues perceived by Eritrea as hostile and constructive engagement with Eritrea and neighbouring countries to improve the situation of human rights in the country.”
The Special Rapporteur was extremely saddened by the two successive boat tragedies off the coasts of Italy and Malta earlier in October, during which more than 350 refugees lost their lives, including many Eritreans. According to Ms. Keetharuth, the alarming human rights situation in Eritrea was triggering a constant stream of refugees to neighbouring countries and further afield.
“Despite a shoot-to-kill policy targeting those attempting to flee, thousands of Eritrean citizens have fled over the past decade,” she said. In 2012, the total Eritrean population of concern to UNHCR amounted to 305,723 persons, and between 2,000 and 3,000 Eritreans are currently fleeing the country every month, among them a large number of unaccompanied children, a sign of the scale of despair they face at home.
“Only when the human rights situation on the ground improves will people stop putting their lives at risk by undertaking such dangerous journeys,” the expert said calling on the international community to promote channels of migration from Eritrea and to promote regional cooperation aimed at countering human smuggling and trafficking, while treating victims humanely.
In her first report* to the Human Rights Council in June 2013, Ms. Keetharuth was particularly concerned about the excessive militarisation affecting the very fabric of the Eritrean society and its core unit, the family. “The indefinite National Service is depriving the women and men of Eritrea of their most productive years and a coercive apparatus is in place to retain them in conscription, consequently generating an atmosphere of fear and mistrust”.
“Extended periods of incommunicado detention for prolonged periods appears to be the norm, and not the exception”, Ms. Keetharuth said, explaining that incommunicado detention seemed to be used in Eritrea as a technique to obtain information or as a punishment. She noted that detainees in Eritrea were particularly vulnerable to abuse in circumstances where legal safeguards and procedures, including access to family members, doctors, lawyers and judges, were lacking.
The Special Rapporteur reiterated her call to the Eritrean Government for cooperation with her mandate, which in her view offered the opportunity for a frank and open dialogue on the human rights situation.
“I remain available for a meaningful dialogue in a spirit of good will for the advancement of human rights of all Eritreans and I sincerely hope that I will be invited to Eritrea during my second term”, she stressed.
Sheila B. Keetharuth was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea during the 21st Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2012. She took her functions on 1 November 2012. As Special Rapporteur, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. A lawyer from Mauritius, she has extensive experience in monitoring and documenting human rights violations, advocacy, training and litigation in human rights in Africa.
(*) Check the Special Rapporteur first report to the Human Rights Council: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.53_ENG.pdf or http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session23/Pages/ListReports.aspx
UN Human Rights, country page – Eritrea: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/ERIndex.aspx
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