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Oral Update by Mr. Mike Smith, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, at the 70th session of the General Assembly

New York, 29 October 2015

Chair, Delegates,
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea finds that it cannot start this update without strongly reiterating its concern over the increasingly alarming refugee exodus reaching the coasts of Europe and in particular, the sizeable component of Eritreans in this group. As has been noted by, amongst others, the President of the EU, while the majority of the almost half a million men, women and children who have reached Europe this year are fleeing war and displacement in Middle East conflict zones, a very significant number are fleeing from Eritrea, a country that is not in a situation of conflict or unrest. That so many people feel the need to flee their birth place in order to live a decent life free from fear, is an extraordinary indictment of the government that has controlled Eritrea since Independence more than 20 years ago.

The reports of this Commission of Inquiry, presented to the Human Rights Council in June this year, goes a long way to explaining why the number of Eritreans fleeing the country towards Europe has grown steadily since 2001 and has accelerated with a growth of more than 150 percent between 2013 and 2014. Eritreans find that they have not gained any of the promises of democracy that shone so brightly in 1991. Instead, sadly, they discover every day anew how they are ruled not by law but by fear.

Every day they awake to find a further gap in the ranks of their acquaintances, colleagues, friends or families: a bright student, who has been sent to carry out national service in a remote location and who will be gone for an unknown number of years; a trusted co-worker, who yesterday expressed an opinion and the arrest of whom her husband is today too frightened to announce; a cherished child, whose bed is unslept in and who has joined the unrelenting flow of youngster walking towards the borders. Towards a different world that is worth risking death to reach – because it holds hope. The dignity they are denied at home. The rights that are unendingly curtailed.

No elections since 1993. No independent press since 2001. Ongoing restrictions of all freedoms: movement, expression, religion, association. Arbitrary arrests with no fair trials or no trials at all. Forced labour. Torture.

And these new disappearances add themselves to old but not forgotten - and still painful - absences: political leaders, journalists, church leaders, business professionals who once proudly set out to build a democratic future for Eritrea and who ended up languishing incommunicado in the dire conditions of Eritrea’s numerous places of detention. Or died there, desperate and alone. Just like thousands of ordinary citizens who commit one of the so-called crimes that in Eritrea can earn one arrest, detention, torture and even death: asking a question, refusing an order, expressing solidarity to the ‘wrong’ person – even being related to one - trying to leave, being a member of the ‘wrong’ religious denomination.

The Commission has repeatedly heard how surveillance networks have torn the fabric of society by planting suspicion and breeding mistrust within a community that no longer dares speak up because of fear of retaliation, not even in the supposed safety of exile. It has also heard how in the blogosphere, anonymous trolls take up the same job and subtly infiltrate communities and instil doubts on the origins, allegiances and objectives of those who strive to promote human rights in Eritrea.

The Commission has been disappointed by the apparent success this campaign of intimidation has had in fragmenting civil society in the diaspora and undermining the resolve of individuals to claim their own rights. We had the opportunity to experience, in a token way, this phenomenon in Geneva in June, where we were followed in the streets and in our hotels and vilified in blogs on line where the words of our report have been twisted and misquoted. Of course this is trivial compared to the day to day experience of people in Eritrea itself, but it is indicative of a determination on the part of the authorities to control anyone they perceive as a critic.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

In its conclusions, the Commission of Inquiry found that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are still being committed in Eritrea and that there is no accountability for them. The main perpetrators of these violations are the Eritrean Defence Forces, in particular the Eritrean Army; the National Security Office; the Eritrean Police Forces; the Ministry of Information; the Ministry of Justice; the Ministry of Defence; the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice; the Office of the President; and the President.

The commission also found that the violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labour may constitute crimes against humanity.

The international community, in the form of the Human Rights Council, has responded to the dramatic nature of these findings by reiterating its deep concern at the ongoing reports of grave violations of human rights by the Eritrean authorities against their own population and fellow citizens.

It has also, in an unprecedented move for a country not in an open situation of war, decided to extend the mandate of the Commission for a further one-year period “to investigate systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights in Eritrea with a view to ensuring full accountability, including where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity”.

We regret that so far the Government of Eritrea has not responded to our requests to visit the country but will continue to seek its cooperation in carrying out our work.

We ask the General Assembly to support the Council’s determination by also making a statement of its concern for human rights in Eritrea and to keep it firmly on its agenda.

Today the Eritrean Government is faced with a haemorrhage of its productive youth who are fleeing national service and a future with little hope and even less choice. It also faces a weak and under- performing economy that is in desperate need of international investment. In these circumstances it is giving signals of a preparedness to open up to the international community. In responding to these positive indications it is enormously important that we all bear in mind that respect for human rights is the bedrock of successful development and should be front and centre of any new agreements to assist Eritrea build its economy and provide opportunities for Eritreans abroad to return and play their part in that process.