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Statement by Ms Sheila B. Keetharuth, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea at the 35th session of the Human Rights Council

​14 June 2017

Mr. President,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to engage in this interactive dialogue and to present my fourth report, pursuant to the Council’s resolution 32/24. This resolution extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea for one year. The resolution also requested the mandate holder to follow up on the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea in its report (A/HRC/32/47) presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2016.

In the report, I provide an update on the human rights situation. I conclude that the Government of Eritrea has not made any effort to address the human rights concerns highlighted by the Commission of Inquiry and that it has shown no willingness to tackle impunity regarding perpetrators of past and ongoing violations, and end with several recommendations.  

Allow me at the outset to say that fifteen years ago, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission rendered its decision regarding the border demarcation between the two countries, and in the process allocated the village of Badme to Eritrea. I reiterate that the ongoing Ethiopian occupation of Badme is against international law. I support calls for the full implementation of the provisions of the decision. However, the failure to implement the Boundary Commission’s decision cannot serve as justification for the open-ended and arbitrary nature of Eritrea’s military/national service programmes and other human rights violations and crimes against humanity that I and the Commission of Inquiry have documented.

Let me share with you several aspects of the current human rights situation in the Eritrea.

Conditions in detention remain harsh, leading to irreparable damage to the health of prisoners, in some instances even causing death. Tsehaye Tesfamariam, a Jehovah’s Witness, died on 30 November 2016, after having been imprisoned at the Me’eter camp since his arrest in January 2009.

In June 2016, Eritrea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs noted in an interview that the high profile political prisoners, known as the G-15, and journalists held incommunicado since 2001 were all alive. Other than that comment, I have not obtained any communication about those arbitrarily detained since 2001. I am deeply concerned that almost 16 years later, family members and the world at large are kept completely in the dark about the physical and mental health, as well as whereabouts of the G-15 and journalists.

Similarly, I have not received information about others who have disappeared or held incommunicado, including those arrested in the aftermath of the ‘Forto Incident’ in 2013. Also, I have not received any updates on the situation of the remaining Djibouti prisoners of war. In this context, it should be noted that the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances recently published a General Allegation based on information from credible sources alleging obstacles to implementing the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in Eritrea.

In March 2017, Dawit Isaak, one of the journalists arrested in 2001, was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2017 in recognition of his courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression. The President of the jury stated that Dawit Isaak was among those who have persevered to shed light in the dark spaces, keeping their communities informed against all odds. Noting that Dawit Isaak has spent nearly 16 years in jail, without charge or trial, she expressed the hope that with the award the world will say, ‘Free Dawit Isaak Now’.

I have continued to receive reports of new cases of arbitrary arrest and detention. The reasons for the arrests appear to be those previously identified by the Commission of Inquiry, namely attempting to evade military service or trying to assist a family member in doing so; trying to leave the country; practicing an unauthorised religion; or offending a high-ranking official of the Government or the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the sole political party in the country, or exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The importance and value of full access to places of detention by international monitors cannot be sufficiently emphasised. The Eritrean Government’s continued refusal to accept such scrutiny as a first step for openness is incomprehensible and obstructive. It is striking in this context that humanitarian actors and diplomats continue to require travel permits to travel beyond the 25 kilometres limits outside Asmara in the course of their work, making it difficult to access the population outside of the capital.

During the reporting period, I received information indicating that Eritrea’s military/national service programmes continued to be arbitrary, extended, and involuntary in nature, amounting to enslavement, as per the findings of the Commission of Inquiry. Several interlocutors highlighted that forced recruitment into the military/national service also continued.

I received reports that the Government has increased stipends paid to conscripts. While this would be a positive and much needed development, such increases would not remedy the other determining factors for the military/national service programmes amounting to enslavement. However, there are serious doubts whether the stipend increases have made a difference in reality, as the Government also imposes compulsory deductions for various purposes such as taxes, logistics, and construction. While I am unable to verify the information, I strongly urge the Government to enhance transparency with respect to the handling of administrative matters, especially those that have a significant impact for the majority of the population.

I observed that in 2016, Eritrean refugees constituted the fifth largest group of arrivals to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, with 21,253 people, representing six per cent of the overall figures; Eritrea was the only country among those five not experiencing violent conflict. Regarding arrivals in Italy, Eritreans were among the top two nationalities. Since the beginning of 2017, IOM has noted a recent surge with over 4,500 people crossing into Ethiopia.

Eritreans fleeing human rights violations in their home country continue to face life threatening situations in their attempts to seek refuge in third countries. These challenges are increasing because of the pushback by some countries in the region and in Europe. Eritreans, like many other refugees and/or migrants travelling through Libya suffer human rights violations and abuses during their journeys.

I am particularly worried by the marked increase in numbers of unaccompanied and separated children from several countries making the journey to Europe, with figures reaching over 25,000 in 2016. They represented 14 percent of all new arrivals in Italy, amounting to 25,849 children and this is more than double the figure reported the previous year. A large number were from Eritrea.

I cannot underscore enough the devastating and long-lasting impact on children who are deeply traumatised, having crossed international borders and undertaken death-defying journeys. Some have seen their family members and friends die in the process. These experiences will affect them for many years to come, pursuing them throughout their lives.
There is an unconditional obligation on all to provide special protection for children.

Migration is certainly a multi-faceted and complex phenomenon that must be viewed from various angles and perspectives but human rights cannot be considered as bargaining chips in this context. Beyond the numbers involved, I urge the international community to see the human tragedy in terms of the cost in human lives. The international community should show a strong commitment to address the root causes of human rights violations as the key reasons fuelling the exodus of large numbers of people from Eritrea. As many Eritreans have pointed out to me, only justice and respect for human rights will bring a lasting solution to the problems relating to flights from the country. Member States should ensure that efforts to curb migration from Eritrea in response to anti-migration opinion at home should not come at the expense of respect for human rights in their policies.

The Commission of Inquiry called on the Government of Eritrea to ensure accountability for past and persistent human rights violations and crimes against humanity. These include enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, and other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder. It recommended to the Government the establishment of independent, impartial and gender-sensitive mechanisms, and provide victims with adequate redress, including the right to truth and reparations. It noted, however, that far-reaching and substantial institutional and legal reforms would be required before the domestic legal system could hold perpetrators to account in a fair and transparent manner.

At this point in time, neither a Security Council referral to the ICC, nor the setting up of an accountability mechanism under the aegis of the African Union seem imminent. As an additional avenue for tackling impunity, the Commission of Inquiry recommended that Member States exercise jurisdiction over crimes against humanity when any alleged offender is present on their respective territories, or extradite him or her to another State in accordance with its international obligations.

While advocating for universal jurisdiction as one of the possibilities for accessing justice for human rights violations and crimes against humanity, I am aware that there are various other measures, such as criminal prosecutions, truth-seeking initiatives, reparations for the victims and institutional reform, representing other avenues. However, I am not aware of any effort in Eritrea to address past and ongoing violations. What I have observed instead are failures and shortcomings of institutions meant to be based on the rule of law, such as the judiciary or the non-existence of institutions, such as the absence of a legislative assembly. In any case, prosecutions at international level and in-country are not mutually exclusive.

Rule of law also implies redress for past and ongoing human rights violations because a country cannot declare its respect for the rule of law if human rights violations of the past and ongoing ones are not addressed. It remains to be seen what concrete steps Eritrea will take to combat human rights violations, counter impunity, and ensure transparency and accountability at all levels while guaranteeing non-recurrence.

Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Eritreans from all walks of life I have spoken with express deep-rooted frustration. In rebuilding trust with its own people, the Eritrean Government needs to provide assurances to all Eritreans that their human rights will be respected in the short, medium and long-term. I want to use my interaction with you today to highlight the main concerns and calls for action, which I have heard from Eritrean interlocutors during the past year:

  • There has been no reform of the military/national service programmes and it appears that none is envisaged for anytime soon. The military/national service programmes and the people’s militia have transformed the country into a highly militarized society. What the people consider an essential requirement is to align practice to law by bringing the national/military service to 18 months and writing off the people’s militia.
  • Impunity of perpetrators of human rights violations remains a persistent challenge. The Eritreans I spoke with call for effective measures, including prosecutions, to address impunity.
  • In view of the current constitutional void, they also call for the 1997 Constitution to be implemented immediately or for constitutional reforms, which guarantee participation of all, including minorities. For them, constitutional reforms also imply that provisions should be included to ensure human rights violations committed by the military and security forces are duly investigated and perpetrators held to account.
  • They regret that there are still no institutions in line with the rule of law, such as an independent judiciary, a democratically elected parliament and legislative assembly, which ensure separation of powers, with checks and balances built in within the system.  They call for this institutional weakness to be tackled urgently for long-term sustainability, development and enjoyment of human rights.
  • Furthermore, they yearn for democratic practices and processes involving accountability and responsive governance, allowing them to participate fully in the important decisions and policies as well as in key economic decisions with a potential of huge impact on their daily lives.  They call for concrete steps taken towards democratic governance, full enjoyment of freedom of expression and association. I hope that the Government will allow independent civil society organisations working on human rights to operate freely and independently in the country, and get involved in future reform processes to assure its legitimacy. 
  • For those Eritreans I have met, as long as serious human rights violations continue, there is an urgent need to carry on with human rights investigations, monitoring, documenting, and reporting.

The time for Eritrea to take bold action for human rights protection is now, but so far, the Government has not delivered on any of its obligations and promises. I have repeatedly, every year in fact, invited the Eritrean authorities to enter into a dialogue with my mandate on to discuss obstacles encountered in the implementation of their obligations under international human rights treaties. Throughout my tenure as a mandate holder, I have maintained this invitation which I first extended in November 2012, when I assumed this mandate, and reiterate it again today. 

While the Eritrean authorities have not responded to my offer, various stakeholders, including Member States, other interested actors and most importantly, numerous Eritrean individuals have seized the opportunity offered by this Council when setting up the country mandate, and they continue to do so. They have used the space to voice their opinions, express their ideas, and highlight their concerns – a space that the Government continues to deny them at home. Today, I again pay my deep respect to all those victims and survivors and countless other interlocutors with whom I have spoken over the past five years, in my capacity as Special Rapporteur and a member of the former Commission of Inquiry.

Mr. President
Excellencies
Ladies and Gentlemen

In my report, I have reiterated my recommendations and those of the Commission of Inquiry, as the majority of them have not been implemented. I have also presented further recommendations. Allow me to highlight a few:

To the Government of Eritrea to take concrete steps to ensure a truly participatory process in preparation for Eritrea’s next review under the Universal Periodic Review to ensure it will adequately reflect the diverse voices of civil society organisations involved in the protection of human rights in Eritrea.

To Member States to cooperate closely with Eritrean human rights defenders and civil society organisations to ensure that human rights remain at the core of all engagement with the country, while also bearing in mind the findings of the Commission of Inquiry.

To Civil Society Organisations to set up and support networks among victims of crimes against humanity and other human rights violations, human rights defenders and their partners at regional and global levels.

I have said previously that in light of the findings of crimes against humanity, it cannot be business as usual with Eritrea. Let me add that here is no room for delaying tactics or complacency either. My plea to you all is to help the Government to work towards providing a trustworthy ground for Eritrean society to move forward by emphasizing the supremacy of human rights. For this to happen, Eritrea must listen to the victims of human rights violations silenced by the rule of fear and provide reparations. In my report, I have suggested a list of areas with the intention to assist the Human Rights Council in developing specific and time-bound benchmarks to assess substantive change that I hope the Government will undertake during the next year and beyond. I hope that this time next year, we will be able to celebrate such tangible improvements that will make a positive change in people’s life.

I thank you for your attention.