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Statement by Mr. Mike Smith, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry at the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council

Geneva, 21 June 2016

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

Good morning and thank you all very much for the opportunity to present to the Human Rights Council the findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. I am joined on the podium by my fellow Commissioners, Sheila B. Keetharuth and Victor Dankwa.

We presented our first report to you 12 months ago, documenting a multitude of human rights violations in Eritrea. The Human Rights Council unanimously approved – without a vote – a resolution – and mandated the Commission to determine whether these violations might amount to crimes against humanity and to address the issue of accountability.

The Commission has concluded that Eritrean officials have committed crimes against humanity. The crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts – have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic campaign against the civilian population since 1991. The aim of the campaign has been to maintain control over the population and perpetuate the leadership’s rule in Eritrea.

I want to focus on some of the crimes the Commission documented by the Commission. With regard to the crime of enslavement, the Commission found that the violations relating to Eritrea’s military/national service programmes include their arbitrary and indefinite duration, often for years beyond the 18 months set out in the law; the use of conscripts as forced labour, including manual labour; the inhumane conditions of service; the rape and torture often associated with service, and the devastating impact of these programmes on family life and freedom of choice. Despite promises to the contrary, the Eritrean Government has taken no steps to address any of the problems associated with its military and national services programmes. For these reasons, we have concluded that Eritrean officials have committed the crime of enslavement.

The use of arbitrary detention has been and remains routine across Eritrea. It is not only reserved for critics of the Government. Indeed, many of the witnesses to whom we spoke described arrest and lengthy detention for reasons difficult to discern or categorise. The vast majority of those detained said they had not been brought before a judge, tried or involved in any form of judicial proceeding.. In addition, the Government very rarely informs family members or judicial authorities about detentions and most former detainees described widespread torture. These acts are on-going and constitute crimes against humanity.

The Commission has also documented various acts of sexual and gender-based violence. In military training camps and in the army, some young women are used as slaves to perform domestic duties and are also raped. Rape is also committed in detention facilities by officials and guards, not only against a significant number of women, but also against men.
While some forms of torture are used against both men and women, other forms are gender-specific such as the beating of pregnant women in military training camps or in the army to induce abortion. Instances of sexual violence against men were also documented by the Commission, including sexual torture done intentionally to ensure that these men are no longer able to reproduce.

The Commission found that the crimes it documented have been committed primarily, directly or indirectly, by State and ruling party officials, military commanders, and members of the national security office. The Commission has identified alleged perpetrators and has compiled files on those individuals to assist future accountability mechanisms.
The Commission has concluded that the Government of Eritrea has neither the political will nor the institutional capacity to prosecute the crimes we have documented. We therefore recommend that the UN Security Council refer the situation in Eritrea to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and that the African Union establish an accountability mechanism.

The Commission has also asked Member States to prosecute or extradite suspects on their territories, and that the Security Council impose travel bans and freeze the assets of individuals suspected of crimes against humanity.
I would like to highlight some of our recommendations to the Human Rights Council:

  • Renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea and provide the mandate-holder with additional human and financial resources;
  • Keep the situation in Eritrea on its agenda, and invite the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to report periodically on the situation of human rights;
  • Support the establishment of a structure by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights with a protection and promotion mandate, in particular to ensure accountability for the crimes against humanity set out in our report.

We are aware that several visitors to Eritrea, as well as some diplomats based in Asmara have recently painted a more favourable picture of Eritrea. We have been mandated by the Human Rights Council to investigate systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations that generally take place in isolated locations and behind closed doors, in places where casual visitors, journalists and diplomats do not have access. The Commission would have wished to visit the country and have unhindered access to sites and locations, but was denied such visit by the Government of Eritrea.

Our findings are based on detailed statements and information from over 833 individuals in over 13 countries, the overwhelming majority of whom have personally suffered human rights violations in Eritrea. We have been able substantially to corroborate the information provided by these witnesses. We also selected contacted a sample of 500 individuals who wrote to us saying that our first report was inaccurate and read with care the written submissions of thousands more.

In our report we have acknowledged some signs of increasing engagement from Eritrea with the international community, including with OHCHR, but we have noted any substantial change with regard to the human rights situation in the country.
Where is the rule of law in Eritrea? The rule of law must be paramount in any country. The Government and its agents must be subject to the law. People who have their rights abused must have an avenue to raise their grievances. And when they do so, they should not be arrested and thrown into prison. Rather, they should be heard by a properly constituted, independent court which is staffed by professional judges who are also not frightened of being arrested.

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 organisations 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.

The preamble of the ICC statute states that crimes that shock the conscience of humanity, such as those that we have documented in our report, threaten the peace, security and well-being of the world, and therefore must not go unpunished. We need collectively to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice not only for the sake of the countless number of Eritrean victims but to demonstrate that such behaviour is simply unacceptable anywhere in the world today.