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Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea

Human Rights Council
AFTERNOON

21 June 2016

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with Mike Smith, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry to investigate systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights in Eritrea.

Presenting the report, Mr. Smith said that the Commission had concluded that Eritrean officials had committed crimes against humanity, including widespread and systematic enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, rape, murder and other inhumane acts with the aim of maintaining control over the population and perpetuating the leadership’s rule.  Military and national service programmes were arbitrary and of indefinite duration, the use of arbitrary detention remained routine across the country, and former detainees described widespread torture.  Those acts were ongoing and constituted crimes against humanity.  The documented crimes were committed primarily, directly or indirectly, by State and ruling party officials, military commanders, and members of the national security office.  The Commission identified alleged perpetrators and compiled files on those individuals to assist future accountability mechanisms and it recommended that the Security Council refer the situation in Eritrea to the International Criminal Court.

Speaking as the concerned country, Eritrea said that the Commission of Inquiry denied reality and claimed Eritrea had committed “crimes against humanity” since its independence in May 1991, and it unfairly accused Eritrea of “enslavement, torture, persecution, rape, murder, and other inhuman acts”.  However, the Commission’s methodology was flawed and its findings were compromised.  Eritrea was actively working to implement the 92 recommendations it had received through the Universal Periodic Review process, and it was also actively participating in regional and international arrangements to comprehensively address irregular migration.  The course of action advocated by the Commission could only lead to an unmitigated disaster, and it was no accident that the same week that the Commission released its report, the worst outbreak of hostilities since the end of the war 16 years ago had been seen along the Eritrea-Ethiopia border. 

In the ensuing dialogue, speakers expressed their deep concerns about the findings of persistent, systematic and widespread gross violations of human rights, including enslavement, rape, murder and torture, which amounted to crimes against humanity.  There were no changes in the national service policy or improvements in the patterns of repression overall, they noted with concern, and called upon the Government to respect the human rights of its people, and to cooperate fully with the Human Rights Council mechanisms, and so prove that it had nothing to hide.  Delegations stressed the need for accountability and justice for the victims of violations and said that, in the complete absence of a national mechanism to address the Commission’s findings, it was crucial for the international community to ensure justice for victims of human rights violations and abuses.  Some speakers expressed their opposition to the Council’s country-specific mandates, emphasizing the importance of neutrality, non-politicisation and cooperation in the area of human rights, on an equal footing.

Taking part in the discussion were the European Union, Switzerland, Cuba, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Norway China, also on behalf of Pakistan, Portugal, Belarus, France, Djibouti, Venezuela, United States, Spain, Ghana, Botswana, Somalia, Ukraine, Nicaragua, Kenya, Belgium, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Ireland

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: Conscience and Peace Tax International, Centre for Global Nonkilling , International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Human Rights Watch, CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizens’ Participation, United Nations Watch, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 

Turkey spoke in a right of reply.


The Council will meet at 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 June, to start an enhanced interactive dialogue on South Sudan, followed by a general debate on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.


Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the commission of inquiry to investigate systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights in Eritrea (A/HRC/32/47).

The Council has before it the Detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea (A/HRC/32/CRP.1).

Presentation of the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea

MIKE SMITH, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry to investigate systematic, widespread and gross violations of Human Rights in Eritrea, said that the Commission had concluded that Eritrean officials had committed crimes against humanity characterized by widespread and systematic enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts with the aim to maintain control over the population and perpetuate the leadership’s rule.  With regard to the crime of enslavement, the Commission found that violations relating to military and national service programmes included their arbitrary and indefinite duration, forced labour, inhumane conditions of service, rape and torture, and devastating impacts on families.  No steps had been taken to address any of the problems, which had led the Commission to conclude that officials had committed the crime of enslavement. 

The use of arbitrary detention remained routine across Eritrea.  The Government very rarely informed family members or judicial authorities about these detentions, and former detainees described widespread torture.  Those acts were ongoing and also constituted crimes against humanity.  The Commission had also documented various acts of sexual and gender-based violence, including the use of young women as slaves in military training camps.  Rape was committed in detention facilities by officials and guards, not only against a significant number of women, but also against men.  Some forms of torture were gender-specific such as the beating of pregnant women in the army to induce abortion.  Instances of sexual violence against men were also documented, including sexual torture done intentionally to ensure that these men were no longer able to reproduce. 

The Commission found that the crimes it documented had been committed primarily, directly or indirectly, by State and ruling party officials, military commanders, and members of the national security office.  It had identified alleged perpetrators and had compiled files on those individuals to assist future accountability mechanisms.  Mr. Smith recommended that the Security Council referred the situation in Eritrea to the International Criminal Court and imposed travel bans and froze the assets of individuals suspected of crimes against humanity.  Further, he called on the Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, to keep the situation in Eritrea on its agenda, to invite the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report periodically on the situation there, and to support the establishment of a structure by the Office of the High Commissioner with a protection and promotion mandate, in particular to ensure accountability for crimes against humanity.

“So long as there is no constitution, so long as there is no parliament where you can debate national questions, so long as there is an abusive national service which is unending, so long as there is no free press, so long as there are no civil society organizations apart from government-appointed ones, so long as people are living in fear and controlled by the State, there will be no full enjoyment of all human rights and no real progress for the Eritrean people”, he concluded.

Statement by the Concerned Country

Eritrea, speaking as the concerned country, said that today, just outside the building, thousands of Eritrean citizens were holding an all-day peaceful march, calling for fair and just treatment for their country.  The Commission of Inquiry denied reality and claimed Eritrea had committed “crimes against humanity” since its independence in May 1991.  It unfairly accused Eritrea of “enslavement, torture, persecution, rape, murder, and other inhuman acts”.  The Commission of Inquiry’s methodology was so flawed its findings were compromised.  Eritrea was actively working to implement 92 recommendations received through the Universal Periodic Review process.  Eritrea was actively participating in regional and international arrangements to comprehensively address irregular migration.  The Eritrean economy was growing, and a promising political, economic and social landscape was emerging.  The course of action advocated by the Commission of Inquiry could only lead to an unmitigated disaster.  It was no accident that the same week the Commission had released its report, the worst outbreak of hostilities since the end of the war 16 years ago had been seen along the Eritrea-Ethiopia border.  Ethiopia was making preparations for a full-scale war. 

Interactive Dialogue

European Union regretted that Eritrea had not granted access to the Commission and took note of the finding that there were reasonable grounds that crimes against humanity had been committed in Eritrea since 1991.  A conditional policy of engagement with Eritrea could contribute to the improvement of the human rights situation and the European Union called upon the African Union to get involved.  Switzerland was gravely concerned by the widespread grave human rights violations in Eritrea and called upon the Government to respect the human rights of its people, and cooperate fully with the Human Rights Council mechanisms, and so prove that it had nothing to hide.  How could the international community ensure accountability for the crimes that had been committed?  Cuba said taking everyone’s view into account would ensure that the measures to the promotion and protection of human rights of people were effective.  The involvement of the Council in the internal affairs of countries was not within its mandate and it meant that punitive measures would be taken instead of cooperation and dialogue.  United Kingdom shared the concerns about the human rights situation in Eritrea.  Eritrea’s cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and with the international community on human rights reforms should be intensified.  The mechanism of the Special Rapporteur was an important tool for the international community to strengthen cooperation with Eritrea.

Germany expressed disappointment that the Government of Eritrea had not cooperated with the Commission, which had expressed reasonable grounds to believe human rights violations had been committed in the country since 1991.  Concerns were further expressed that there did not seem to be recourse for justice for victims of human rights violations.  Australia thanked the Commission of Inquiry for its second report, and expressed deep disturbance at the finding of, among other things, the absence of judicial processes, torture and disappearances.  The commitment of the Government to implement Universal Periodic Review recommendations was welcomed, and Eritrea was urged to remain engaged with the international community, implement the constitution, and respect humanitarian law.  Norway said that as a longstanding friend of Eritrea, Norway was concerned about the lack of accountability for crimes committed. The implementation of the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review and other human rights mechanisms should continue.  Eritrea’s commitment to improving conditions of detention was welcomed.  China, also speaking on behalf of Pakistan, said they were against the politicisation of human rights.  The Commission of Inquiry should make due acknowledgement of progress made in the promotion and protection of human rights.  Eritrea was constrained by its developing country status.  The international community should provide Eritrea with assistance for technical capacity building, and all relevant human rights mechanisms were called on to engage with Eritrea with objectivity and neutrality for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Portugal regretted that Eritrean authorities had refused access to the country by the Commission and was deeply concerned about the Commission’s findings of persistent and widespread gross violations of human rights, which had continued since the last report of the Commission.  Belarus was convinced that human rights were only possible with cooperation and mutual discussion on an equal footing.  Mandates that were not in the interest of the country concerned were counter-productive and useless.  Belarus noted the Eritrean Government’s interest in cooperating, in particular with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  France said the Commission had confirmed that given their systematic and widespread nature, certain human rights violations, including enslavement, rape, murder and torture, amounted to crimes against humanity.  France was deeply concerned about the conclusions of the report and fully supported the renewal of the mandate.  Djibouti was deeply concerned that there had been no improvement in the human rights situation in Eritrea since the first report of the Commission of Inquiry.  It called upon the authorities to return all prisoners, including those who were taken prisoner in 2008. 

Venezuela deplored the fact that the use of country-specific mandates, especially without the consent of the country concerned, sought to promote political agendas.  Venezuela called upon members of the Council to refrain from imposing mandates which violated sovereignty and which history had proven to be ineffective.  United States had repeatedly expressed its grave concern about human rights violations in Eritrea and said that thousands of citizens that were fleeing the country every day were evidence of the dire human rights situation.  Eritrea should honour its own Constitution, limit the duration of national service, reform the judiciary and protect human rights defenders and journalists.  Spain expressed concerns about armed clashes at the border with Ethiopia and urged a speedy and peaceful solution.  Spain called upon Eritrea to cooperate with the Commission and with other mechanisms to improve the human rights situation, including with the African Court for Human Rights.  Ghana recalled that this year, 2016, was the Year of Human Rights in Africa, which underscored the principle of non-indifference and obliged countries to speak the truth to their African friends.  Friendship between Ghana and Eritrea was strong and in this spirit, Ghana called upon Eritrea to duly address the recommendations made by the Commission.

Botswana said the Commission of Inquiry documented a wide range of serious human rights violations, which should be of concern to the Human Rights Council.  It was the view of Botswana that the range of recommended measures listed in the report would contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights in Eritrea, which should be assisted in complying with its obligations under instruments relating to human rights.  Somalia expressed deep concern that Eritreans were subjected to indefinite national service, arbitrary detention, and other crimes, leaving them no alternative but to flee their country.  Somalia had always supported the Eritrean people’s pursuit of self-determination, and reiterated its support for the Commission of Inquiry, urging the Eritrean Government to safeguard the human rights of its citizens.  Ukraine expressed concern at the human rights situation in Eritrea and endorsed the report of the Commission of Inquiry.  Given the absence of improvements since 1991, Ukraine urged the Human Rights Council to transmit the report to the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Secretary-General to follow up on its suggestions.  Readiness was expressed to use all tools, including targeted sanctions, to ensure the implementation of the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations.  Nicaragua reiterated that unilateral mandates were a violation of the principle of equality among States, and that the mandate in question went against the spirit of cooperation and dialogue which should prevail among States.  The call for cooperation and dialogue based on good faith was reiterated, so the international community could properly fulfil the mandate of the Council. 

Kenya urged the Human Rights Council to support a process that engaged the Government of Eritrea as they were ultimately the ones to promote and protect the rights of the Eritrean citizens.  Belgium noted the release of prisoners of war from Djibouti and of former Eritrean combatants, and hoped these signs of openness would be enhanced.  It regretted the lack of broad access to the territory, stating that only an onsite visit would enable the establishment of the facts.  Sudan appreciated Eritrea’s cooperation with some mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review and the visit by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Sudan had reservations about the attitude of the Commission, which was based on crimes under the Rome Statue, especially given that the Commission had not even visited Eritrea nor met those responsible.  Ethiopia thanked the Commission of Inquiry for its report that focused on ensuring accountability for widespread and systematic violations, and which established that crimes committed 20 years ago persisted without impunity.  In light of this overwhelming evidence, the Council would be failing the victims if the perpetrators were allowed to go unpunished.  Ireland was deeply disturbed about human rights violations perpetrated in Eritrea, in particular about findings that crimes against humanity were carried out.  Many of the reported violations were linked to the national military service, and highlighted forced labour and torture.  This was not justified by any military imperative, and on the contrary had a negative effect on Eritrea’s economy as it forced many Eritreans to flee their country. 

Conscience and Peace Tax International was concerned about the lack of freedom of conscience in Eritrea as the military service continued to be mandatory.  Violations were still being perpetrated in detention centres, including metallic cells causing the death of many inmates as a result of prolonged exposure to heat.  Centre for Global Nonkilling referred to extrajudicial mass executions carried out by the regime, which were committed in a persistent, widespread and systematic manner.  It also referred to the context of lawlessness and the culture of impunity, and noted the importance of ensuring accountability for the perpetrators.  International Fellowship of Reconciliation expressed support to those who had collaborated with the Commission, despite their fear of reprisals.  The report had mandated the Council to act, and to seek justice at the highest level in order to put an end to the suffering of the Eritrean population. 

Human Rights Watch noted with deep concern the conclusions of the Commission that many abuses committed in Eritrea were widespread and systematic, and that there were no changes in the national service policy or improvements in the patterns of repression overall.  Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, all States should investigate and prosecute in a fair trial individuals accused of human rights violations in Eritrea amounting to crimes under international law, notably torture and enforced disappearances.  CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizens’ Participation was deeply concerned about the Commission’s finding that crimes against humanity had been committed in Eritrea, and about no changes in the national service policy.  In the complete absence of a national mechanism to address the Commission’s findings, it was crucial for the international community to ensure justice for victims of human rights violations and abuses.  United Nations Watch said that the report depicted a broad range of crimes against humanity that were being perpetrated in Eritrea, including enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and murder.  The Council should adopt a robust accountability mechanism to facilitate access to justice for victims.  Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom said that the high incidence of sexual violence and harassment during military service had led to increased early marriages as a means of avoiding military conscription.  The Council and the international community should create a mechanism inside Eritrea to monitor and investigate all human rights abuses.  East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project said the Commission had brought attention to one of the most concerning human rights situations in the world today.  The Commission had found that the Government of Eritrea was responsible for unspeakable crimes, which gave reasonable grounds to believe that they amounted to crimes against humanity. 

Concluding Remarks

Eritrea, speaking as the concerned country, thanked the countries which had spoken, and which continuously supported the engagement and cooperation of Eritrea through the Universal Periodic Review and other human rights mechanisms.  No evidence nor grounds had been provided by the Commission of Inquiry.  Eritrea underscored that the Government had been continuously and earnestly working to improve the human rights situation in the country.  Challenges remained, however, there were no systematic and gross widespread violations of human rights in Eritrea.

MIKE SMITH, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, in his concluding remarks responded to a number of questions that had been raised.  On the question on why no findings on crimes against humanity had been found in the previous report, while they had been found in the current report, he replied that the first report had focused on the gathering of testimonies and the Commission had not been given the task to reflect on the issue of crimes against humanity.  Although they had noted that there could be evidence of crimes against humanity, given the pressure of time, and given that they were not sure to have the expertise necessary to make such a grave conclusion, they had decided to leave those concerns out.  For the second report, the Human Rights Council had asked them to specifically look at the issue of crimes against humanity and this had been propped by experts in that area.  In addition, several hundred more victims had been interviewed, and the previous ones had been interviewed again.  It was based on this that they had concluded that crimes against humanity had been committed.

On the question of what could be improved, the essential recommendation made in the report was that the Eritrean Government should take steps to address the extremely serious human rights situation in the country.  While the international community could stand behind this, political will and concrete steps were needed by the Government.  Specifically, this meant the introduction of the rule of law, with the adoption of a new Constitution and institutions that were able to hold government institutions and individuals to account.  Regarding how the international community could contribute to accountability for the past violations, it was important to achieve accountability, and the international community could contribute to this by asking the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.  The Commission could not confirm whether the Government was paying individuals for military service following the eighteen months service, and had not looked into the issue of people traffickers.

In conclusion, Mr. Smith expressed his deepest appreciation, on behalf of the three Commissioners, to the hundreds of people who had come forward and spoken about their personal grievances.  This report and the documented human rights violations were based on individuals who had told about their personal experiences.  These were the tip of the iceberg – an iceberg which went down to detention centres and military camps, where nameless people had suffered abuses.  It was up to the Government to respond to its own people who had suffered for so long.

Right of Reply

Turkey said it was countering terrorism in all its manifestations and in the fight against foreign terrorist fighters, Turkey had formed a non-entry list and deported 3,000 foreigners.  Turkey deplored hints that brought its determination into question.  The Syrian regime had been condemned thousands of times by the international community.  The Syrian regime was responsible for the flourishing of Daesh and was not in a position to speak about terrorism.


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For use of the information media; not an official record

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