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Statement by Mr. Mike Smith, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea at the 29th session of the Human Rights Council

23 June 2015

President,
High Commissioner,
Distinguished members of the Human Rights Council,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

More than two decades have passed since Eritrea emerged as a newly independent nation, full of hope for a free and prosperous future for all its citizens. Unfortunately, that promise remains unfulfilled. Today, the dream of a democratic Eritrea free of human rights violations seems more distant than ever. The Eritrea we see today is marked by repression and fear.

Since independence, ultimate power in Eritrea has remained largely in the hands of one man and one party. Those in control often rule arbitrarily and act with impunity. A promising Eritrean Constitution adopted in 1997 has never been implemented. The Eritrean people have no say in governance and little control over many aspects of their own lives. A massive domestic surveillance network penetrates all levels of society, turning even family members against each other. Much of the population is subject to forced conscription and labour, sometimes in slave-like conditions. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned, often without charge and for indeterminate periods. Eritreans have never voted in a free and fair election. Hundreds of thousands have lost hope and are risking their lives to escape one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. The number fleeing such a small country – estimated at 5,000 people each month – is forcing the outside world to take notice. Eritrea’s dire human rights situation can no longer be ignored.

Over the past several months, our Commission of Inquiry has found that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations have been and are still being committed with impunity in Eritrea.

Our findings are sobering. The many violations in Eritrea are of a scope and scale seldom seen anywhere else in today’s world. Basic freedoms are curtailed, from movement to expression; from religion to association. The Commission finds that crimes against humanity may have occurred with regard to torture, extrajudicial executions, forced labour and in the context of national service.

The non-implementation of Eritrea’s 1997 Constitution has had a profound effect on the country and its people. With no parliament meeting and a court system controlled by the executive branch of the Government, it can be said there is no rule of law operating in Eritrea. Violations of the right to fair trial and due process are particularly blatant. Torture is often used to obtain statements. Judgments are rarely made public or even communicated to the accused. Arbitrary arrest is common, often ordered by any person with de facto authority. Scores of people have been victims of enforced disappearances, including journalists, political dissidents, religious leaders and adherents and members of minority ethnic groups.

Given the widespread nature of human rights violations over many years in Eritrea, a culture of impunity is firmly entrenched throughout the country. Bringing this pervasive culture of impunity to an end is obviously a daunting task, but essential for any genuine efforts to improve the human rights situation in the country.

The Commission recommends that the Government start the process by acknowledging the existence of human rights violations and ensuring accountability for them, including but not limited to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, unlawful detention, sexual violence, including in the national service, and forced labour. This should include establishment of an independent and impartial mechanism to investigate and, where appropriate, bring perpetrators to justice, particularly those with command responsibility. Victims should receive adequate redress.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In addition to human rights violations previously reported by the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, by CEDAW, by the CRC and most recently by the ILO Committee on the Applications of Standards, the Commission has identified new patterns of violation under the repressive system used by the Eritrean Government to control, silence and isolate individuals.

Eritrean authorities intentionally use torture in the course of detention. The harshest conditions and the strictest regimes of detention are deliberately employed to punish ‘traitors’, those believed to be a threat to national security or suspected of ‘cross-border crimes.’ It is also used to obtain statements of self-incrimination, to extract a confession or information, or to force religious believers to renounce their faith.

Another pattern involves the routine, systematic use of certain methods of torture on conscripts and detainees. Ill-treatment and torture are an established feature of the interrogation process and is routine during military training and in the army. The recurrence, coherence and similarities of the many torture accounts heard by the Commission are a clear indication of the existence of a deliberate policy.

Under the pretext of defending the integrity of the State and ensuring national self-sufficiency, the Government has subjected much of the population to open-ended national service, either in the army or through the civil service. On turning 18 or even before, all Eritreans are conscripted. While national service is supposed to last 18 months, in reality conscripts end up serving for an indefinite period, often for years in harsh and inhumane conditions. We collected several testimonies of conscripts having been in the national service for periods exceeding more than a decade. The Commission concluded that forced labour in this context is a practice similar to slavery in its effects and, as such, is prohibited under international human rights law.

Imagine the impact of this uncertainty on young Eritreans who lose all control over their own futures. Is it any wonder that Eritreans – most of them young people – are the second largest nationality after Syrians to resort to seaborne smugglers to cross the Mediterranean to Europe? Many cite indefinite conscription as a reason for fleeing. Having lost all hope in their own country, they risk their lives to escape a dire human rights situation and a bleak future. This is a tragedy both for them and for their home country, which can ill-afford to continue losing its youth. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, placed the number of Eritreans under its concern outside the country at nearly 417,000 by the end of 2014.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Commission urges the international community to continue to provide protection to Eritreans fleeing human rights violations and warns against sending them back to danger in a country that punishes anyone who tries to leave without permission.

Returning Eritreans to their country of origin can put them in danger of arbitrary arrest, detention, ill treatment and forced labour. The Commission also has documented cases of the relatives of people who have fled the country being arbitrarily arrested in retaliation.

In engaging with the Eritrean authorities on solutions to stem the flow of asylum seekers from Eritrea, the international community should place human rights considerations at the forefront of any package of proposed abatement measures. And it should insist on tangible progress on human rights in Eritrea.

The Commission would like to emphasise that it repeatedly sought the cooperation of the Government of Eritrea in carrying out our work, but received no response to our requests.

The Government of Eritrea described on 9 June the findings of the Commission as “an attack, not so much on the government, but on a civilized people and society who cherish human values and dignity.” With respect, we the Commission are recording the voices of real Eritrean people as articulated in the 550 testimonies and 160 submissions received. We also reflect the silenced voices of the majority of Eritreans who have never been able to elect their own representatives in national, free, fair and democratic elections. The voices of imprisoned and ill-treated critics, journalists, religious leaders and others who have disappeared into a vast network of jails. The muzzled voices of those subjected to forced labour and inhumane conditions for years on end. And the voices of those who every day risk their lives to flee a government that has failed them and all of the others.

The testimonies collected by the Commission include Eritreans who fled their country as recently as February 2015. Contrary to Government pronouncements, those testimonies indicate little has changed in recent years. Arbitrary arrests, detention - including incommunicado - enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, widespread ill treatment and torture continue.

It is high time that the Government of Eritrea truly endeavours to improve the human rights of its people. We need to see real progress, not just words. The President of Eritrea has announced that a new Constitution is being drafted, but no one knows who is in charge of that task and whether it will be submitted for approval by the people or their representatives. Similarly, the Government announced that the length of national service will be reduced to 18 months as of 2014. But it is impossible to verify implementation because the decision appears to apply only to those conscripted in 2014 – not before.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is now the responsibility of the Council to keep the human rights situation in Eritrea under close scrutiny. The Commission strongly recommends the extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. The Council may also decide on further investigations to establish whether crimes against humanity have actually occurred in Eritrea.

It is time for true commitment and real change.