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“Keep Eritrea under close scrutiny,” new UN Special Rapporteur urges international community

GENEVA (14 May 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, today called on the international community to keep Eritrea under close scrutiny until meaningful change is evident in the country.

“Blatant disrespect for human rights in Eritrea is unacceptable,” Ms. Keetharuth stressed after a ten-day mission to Ethiopia and Djibouti to collect first-hand information directly from Eritrean refugees on the human rights situation in their country. “Real change would require a fundamental reform process transforming the current culture of rights denial with one anchored in the rule of law, respect for and realization of all human rights and human dignity.”

The human rights expert warned that the high numbers of Eritrean refugees in both countries is indicative of the serious human rights violations in Eritrea, pushing people to take the difficult decision to leave their families and homes behind for an unknown future.

“An improvement in the human rights situation in Eritrea will be crucial to allow refugees to return to their home country,” Ms. Keetharuth noted while commending the efforts by Ethiopia and Djibouti to host the large Eritrean refugee communities. “Many of those refugees I spoke to underlined their wish to return, should there be a significant shift from the Government’s current brutal and inhumane policies and practices.”

In Ethiopia, the human rights expert met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), and representatives of the African Union. She also visited the ARRA Reception Centre in Endabaguna, as well as the Adi-Harush and Mai-Aini refugee camps in the Tigray region.

“The continuing stream of refugees is of high concern,” she said. Since the beginning of the year, close to 4,000 Eritrean refugees have crossed the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, bringing the number of those living in the three camps in the Tigray region to over 50,000 Eritrean refugees.

“I am particularly concerned about the increasing number of unaccompanied children crossing the border without the knowledge of their families,” Ms. Keetharuth said. “Children regularly mentioned dysfunctional family circumstances due to the long absence of the father, most of the time because of conscription, lack of educational opportunities and the fear of forced conscription into indefinite national service as major reasons for their decisions to flee.”

The rights expert warned that such a situation not only poses major protection challenges but is indicative of the scale of despair these children are facing at home. “A 16-year old boy asked me ‘How can I go to Wi’a for military training? I have no interest in being a soldier.’ He was terrorized by the harsh conditions prevailing in this desert camp, which he described at length,” she recalled.

In Djibouti, the Special Rapporteur held meetings with the Minister of Cooperation and representatives of the national security, the local administration, as well as the Office National d’Assistance aux Réfugiés et aux Sinistrés.

Ms. Keetharuth met some of the 247 Eritrean deserters detained in NAGAD Police Academy, as well as urban refugees and those based in the Ali Addeh refugee camp. A young woman in her early twenties, mother of a toddler and wife of a soldier, explained that everybody aged between the age of 18 and 60 were forced to undergo military training daily from 07h00 until 10h00 and from 16h00 to 18h00. She said: “I would go with my mother and my child for the shooting training; when we asked why, we got no answer. When are we going to live a normal life?”

The Special Rapporteur is particularly concerned about the indefinite national service, the ongoing practice of arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention in inhumane conditions and widespread torture, both physical and psychological, during interrogation by the police, military and security forces. Mere suspicion appears to be enough for somebody to be subjected to interrogation and detention without charge or without being brought before a court of law.

Those trying to cross the border may fall prey to a ruthlessly implemented shoot-to-kill policy; family members of those who successfully escape regularly have to pay a heavy fine of 50,000 Nakfa or are arrested, in line with the so-called guilt-by-association policy.

In one camp, the Special Rapporteur met a mother of two, who decided to leave her small children behind when she fled from repeated arrests and incommunicado detention following her brother's escape.

Ms. Keetharuth heard how Eritreans do not express their views and share their opinions openly for fear of reprisals. “Persecution on religious grounds continued in Eritrea; followers of unrecognised religions face draconian restrictions and are often arrested while worshipping,” she said. “An all-encompassing feeling of fear and distrust, even within families, reflects the pervasive intelligence network the Eritrean Government has established throughout the country.”

Several interviewees stated that they were not at liberty to choose their profession. Compulsory military service took away sons who should be tending the family farm, causing financial crisis in farming communities. The Eritrean population is leaving in high numbers, in particular the young men, a process that has started to deplete entire villages in Eritrea, with the potential to destroy the country’s social fabric.

The result of her findings, which would be strictly limited to the situation inside Eritrea, will be reflected in her first report to the Human Rights Council in June 2013.

Sheila B. Keetharuth was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea during the 21st Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2012. She took her functions on 1 November 2012. As Special Rapporteur, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. A lawyer from Mauritius, she has extensive experience in monitoring and documenting human rights violations, advocacy, training and litigation in human rights in Africa.

UN Human Rights, country page – Eritrea: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/ERIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Birthe Ankenbrand (+41 22 928 9465 / bankenbrand@ohchr.org) or write to sr-eritrea@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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