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Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea

MORNING

24 June 2015

Concludes Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea

The Human Rights Council this morning discussed the situation of human rights in Eritrea, holding an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, and concluding its interactive dialogue with the Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea.

Sheila Keetharuth, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, presenting her report which focused on forced evictions and demolitions as a violation of the right to adequate housing in Eritrea, said that the figure of approximately 800 houses bulldozed in Asmara and several other villages in the vicinity represented conservative estimates collated from different sources, as no official statistics were available. In Adi Keyh, residents opposed the demolitions and evictions fiercely, leading to physical confrontations between high school students and the military. There was little evidence that the State authorities took any proactive measures to inform those facing eviction about the demolitions. The plight of unaccompanied Eritrean minors crossing international borders was becoming increasingly visible; those minors represented a group with special protection needs considering that they faced the risk of falling prey to many forms of abuse, including sexual, economic and criminal.

Eritrea, speaking as the concerned country, said that the report by the Special Rapporteur was unproductive, while the duplication of mandates with the Commission of Inquiry clearly indicated the intention to harass Eritrea, its Government and its people. Eritrea was strongly opposed to country-specific mandates and resolutions which lacked the consent of the concerned country, adding that those mandates were abused for other ulterior motives. The sensational representation of Eritrea as a society without any possibility of participation by the population was unfounded. Responsible participation at all levels of the society was a reality.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers took positive note of the signs of an increasing engagement of Eritrea with the international community, but regretted the lack of cooperation with the Special Rapporteur. A speaker expressed concern at reports of grossly inadequate shelters for returning refugees and internally displaced persons, as this presented an immediate deprivation and an ongoing basis of instability. The massive flight of Eritrean victims as migrants, asylum seekers and refugees triggered by human rights violations was of grave concern: more than 300,000 persons, or over five per cent of the population, had fled during the past decade.

Speaking were the European Union, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Ireland. The following non-governmental organizations also spoke: International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Conscience and Peace Tax International, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Projects, United Nations Watch, Association of World Citizens, and Amnesty International.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea which started on 23 June. The summary of the first part of the dialogue can be found here.

Speakers in the dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry expressed concern that some of the grave, systematic and widespread human rights violations in Eritrea, including torture and sexual torture, might amount to crimes against humanity. The lack of accountability for those violations was especially troubling. The regime created a climate of fear in which dissent was stifled and a large proportion of the population was subjected to forced labour and imprisonment, causing involuntary migration. The Council should support further investigation into allegations of crimes against humanity in Eritrea and build on the Commission’s findings by strengthening the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. Thousands of Eritreans continued to flee the country to escape the unchecked and brutal repression; the international community must continue to provide them with protection in line with their non-refoulement obligations. A concern remained about reprisals against witnesses who cooperated with the Commission of Inquiry; measures must be taken to ensure that individuals and their families were not subjected to targeted state persecution for engaging with the Commission.

Speaking were Norway, Croatia, Republic of Korea, Spain, Venezuela, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sudan, Iran, Luxembourg, Ireland, Cuba, Somalia, Ethiopia, Austria, France, and Estonia.

Also speaking were the following non-governmental organizations: Human Rights Watch, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Projects, Conscience and Peace Tax International, Jubilee Campaign, International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Article 19 – International Centre against Censorship, World Association of Citizen Participation CIVICUS, and Amnesty International.

In concluding remarks Eritrea, the concerned country, thanked the delegations who rejected politically motivated mechanisms and said that Eritrea had seriously engaged with the Universal Periodic Review process and with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Eritrea rejected the Commission of Inquiry’s report.

Mike Smith, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, in his concluding remarks said that the most urgent measure was for Eritrea to change political will and acknowledge the issues it faced, followed by the adoption and implementation of the constitution, which would include the rule of law and access to justice for victims. Eritrea had to urgently demobilize its citizens and end indefinite military service, as well as release all political prisoners. The Government had to understand that the system they had set up was simply not acceptable in the modern world.

The Human Rights Council is holding a full day of meetings. Next, it will hold a general debate on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention, followed by consideration of the Universal Periodic Review outcomes of Kyrgyzstan and Guinea.

Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea

Norway expressed grave concern about the human rights situation in Eritrea which caused the exodus of several thousand persons every month. Norway noted some positive statements by Eritrea regarding the indefinite military service, and urged Eritrea to implement the reduction of military service to 18 months. Croatia condemned all human rights violations occurring in Eritrea and said that the findings of the Commission of Inquiry pointed to an oppressive system which controlled free expression. There were no parliamentary meetings, no elections and the judiciary was not independent, which limited the exercise of democracy. Croatia asked about the negative impact of the indefinite military service on children, particularly girls. Republic of Korea said that there was undeniable evidence of human rights violations in Eritrea which might constitute crimes against humanity, and the lack of accountability for those violations was especially troubling. The Republic of Korea called on Eritrea to implement the 1997 Constitution and asked how the international community could best address the ongoing human rights violations in Eritrea?

Spain took note of the recommendations concerning the need to guarantee an independent judicial system, eradicate torture and improve the situation of women and children. Spain shared the concern expressed by the Commission of Inquiry about victims of criminal trafficking activities and agreed that concerted action was needed to address this issue. Venezuela denounced the fact that country-specific mandates were used as political tools which did not improve the human rights situation on the ground, but violated the principle of sovereignty, non-interference and territorial integrity. The Human Rights Council should aim to act within its mandate. United Kingdom shared concern about human rights violations in Eritrea, and said that the country fell short of honouring its international human rights obligations. Eritrea should follow through on the commitments made during its Universal Periodic Review, including limiting national service to 18 months, implementing the Constitution, releasing those arbitrarily detained and holding those responsible for human rights violations to account. Switzerland was concerned about extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and conditions of detention, and torture, and deplored the climate of fear in the Eritrean society which restricted freedom of expression and of association. There was lack of accountability and rule of law. Switzerland asked about specific measures that the international community could consider in order to encourage Eritrea to respect human rights.

Sudan encouraged the Council to conduct its work without politicization, selectivity or partiality. Sudan considered with satisfaction the recommendation that technical assistance should be provided to Eritrea for the implementation of Universal Periodic Review recommendations. Sudan strongly rejected the use of Special Procedures for pursuing political goals. Eritrea had been under sanctions for a decade, which constituted an obstacle to the realisation of human rights, including the right to development. Iran said human rights should be addressed through dialogue and without politicization, selectivity and partiality. Iran rejected the use of Special Procedures for political agendas. The Council should engage constructively with Eritrea. Luxembourg was gravely concerned about conclusions in the report that some of the violations might amount to crimes against humanity. Luxembourg was shocked at allegations of torture against women and girls and the indefinite military service, which led to forced labour. Luxembourg noted the ratification by Eritrea of the Convention against Torture and its engagement with the Office of the High Commissioner.

Ireland was deeply disturbed that members of the Commission had been subjected to threats during the exercise of their mandate, including in Geneva. Ireland appreciated the methods of work of the Commission in carrying out investigations with independence and impartiality. Ireland was disappointed that Eritrea had not cooperated with the Commission, and was disturbed about the systematic human rights violations in Eritrea, some of which amounted to crimes against humanity. Cuba said that international cooperation, dialogue and exchange constituted the most effective part towards achieving the highest standards of human rights. The imposition of punitive measures and sanctions could only undermine that goal. A new opportunity for cooperation should be sought through African regional and sub-regional organizations, including the representatives of Eritrea. Somalia regretted the lack of cooperation of the Eritrean authorities with the Commission of Inquiry, and the disastrous effect of the committed human rights violations in that country. It was the responsibility of States to take all measures to protect fundamental human rights everywhere in the world. Somalia urged Eritrea to fully cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry. Ethiopia condemned in the strongest terms any threat against and intimidation of the Commission members. It fully accepted the decision of the Boundary Commission, and was continuously calling for the peaceful settlement of relations with Eritrea. Unfortunately, those efforts had not yielded results because of Eritrea’s stubborn stand not to enter into dialogue and to use the border issue to perpetrate human rights violations.

Austria deeply regretted that Eritrea refused to cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry and refused it access to the country, and was very concerned about arbitrary arrests and silencing of journalists. Austria asked about the results of investigations into violations that could amount to crimes against humanity. France said that grave, systematic and widespread human rights violations were being committed in Eritrea, and expressed particular concern that some of those violations, including torture and sexual torture, could constitute crimes against humanity. Additional investigative work seemed necessary, said France and asked what specific priorities should be established for this inquiry. Estonia said that the regime in Eritrea systematically violated the basic human rights of its citizens and had created a climate of fear in which dissent was stifled and a large proportion of the population was subjected to forced labour and imprisonment, causing involuntary migration. Eritrea should take immediate steps to cease the use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment and to improve prison conditions.

Human Rights Watch said the Council should support further investigation into allegations of crimes against humanity in Eritrea. Human Rights Watch’s investigations had shown that there had been no improvement regarding the indefinite conscription and that since 2014 there had even been increased conscription of men previously released from national service. As part of discussions on how Eritrean emigrants became victims of traffickers, States should analyse Ethiopia’s and Sudan’s free movement and work restrictions on Eritreans. East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Projects was deeply concerned about human rights violations in Eritrea and the absence of civil society and freedom of expression there. No independent media existed in the country, and journalists were being silenced and tortured. The limited access to the country by any international monitoring was worrisome. It expressed concerns about Eritrea’s lack of cooperation not only with the Commission but also with other Special Procedures of the Council. Conscience and Peace Tax International welcomed that accountability for widespread human rights violations in Eritrea had been rightly accorded to the President himself. It deplored forced, compulsory and indefinite national service and the denial of the rights of conscientious objectors. It was concerned about domestic servitude and sexual violence, and was opposed to the militarization of education.

Jubilee Campaign, in a joint statement with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said the array of abuses in Eritrea was overwhelming and unremitting, encompassing almost every right outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Eritrea was party. It called on the Government of Eritrea to engage openly and positively with all United Nations human rights mechanisms. International Fellowship of Reconciliation asked the Commission of Inquiry to recommend action that civil society and non-governmental organizations could take on the basis of the findings of the report. It agreed that the mandate of the Special Rapporteur had to be renewed and that additional measures should be taken by the Council to increase the likelihood that Eritrea would implement the report’s recommendations. Article 19 – International Centre against Censorship noted that Eritrea’s continued policy of non-cooperation with the United Nations’ and regional human rights mechanism was unacceptable. The isolation and silencing was central to the regime’s apparatus of repression and on-going impunity. No private media had existed in Eritrea since the last eight private newspapers were closed in 2001, while a total of 69 journalists had been arrested and detained without charge.

World Association for Citizen Participation CIVICUS remained concerned about reprisals against witnesses who cooperated with the Commission of Inquiry and said that measures must be taken to ensure that individuals and their families were not subjected to targeted State persecution for engaging with the Commission. Thousands of Eritreans continued to flee the country to escape the unchecked and brutal repression. Amnesty International said that for 22 years, Eritrea had systematically crushed any opposition, silenced all dissent and punished all who refused to conform. The Council should build on the Commission’s findings by strengthening the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, and the international community must continue to provide protection to all those that fled the country, in line with non-refoulement obligations.

Closing Remarks:

Eritrea, in concluding remarks, said it was very thankful to some States that rejected politically motivated mechanisms and baseless statements against Eritrea. There was no border dispute with Ethiopia as the issue had been settled, but Ethiopia continued to occupy sovereign Eritrean territory in contravention of international law. Eritrea had seriously engaged with the Universal Periodic Review process and with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and called on all to reject the Commission’s report and reject the proposed draft resolution submitted by Djibouti.

MIKE SMITH, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, said in concluding remarks that the most urgent step for the Government of Eritrea to take was a complete change of political will and acknowledging the issues it faced. Assuming this change would happen, the first priority would be the adoption and implementation of the constitution, which would include the rule of law and access to justice for victims. Eritrea had to urgently demobilize its citizens and end indefinite military service, as well as release all political prisoners. The international community could provide technical assistance if the Government was prepared to adopt some of these measures. The Government had to understand that the system they had set up was simply not acceptable in the modern world. The origin of migration flows from Eritrea was simply the Eritrean people’s impossibility to work well and free in their country. The Commission of Inquiry, in conducting interviews, had made efforts to avoid politicized views and had gathered evidence of a system of systematic human rights violations. Regarding accountability, a free and independent judiciary in Eritrea would be the ideal situation. But this was not likely to happen at the moment, and the international community had to get involved.

The Commission’s conclusion that human rights violations were so systematic that they may amount to crimes against humanity required further investigation, and the Security Council should refer this situation to the International Criminal Court. The Commission had focused on human rights violations within Eritrea and had not particularly addressed trafficking and smuggling of Eritrean seeking asylum in Europe and other countries, but heard cases of such abuses nevertheless. The national service stunted young people’s dreams and future. In case the Commission’s mandate was extended, it would focus its work on the accountability issue.

SHEILA B. KEETHARUTH, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea and Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, explained that the national service, which was identified by the Commission as forced labour, distorted the fabric of the family life because of the absence of the father. Girls and women were discriminated against on gender basis in both military camps and within the army. They were subjected to gender specific exploitation by officers and trainers, who used them for domestic service and also subjected them to sexual abuse. The national service structure used the military hierarchy where the subordinated were required to obey the orders of their superiors. As for female genital mutilation, a law was passed but more had to be done to raise awareness.

Documentation
The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (A/HRC/29/41)
Presentation by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea

SHEILA B. KEETHARUTH, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, presenting her third report, said that the current report focused on forced evictions and demolitions as a violation of the right to adequate housing in Eritrea. She looked forward to an opportunity to visit the country. The authorities had bulldozed scores of houses, approximately 800 houses in Asmara and several other villages in the vicinity. Those figures represented conservative estimates collated from different sources, as no official statistics were available. In Adi Keyh, town residents opposed the demolitions and evictions fiercely, leading to physical confrontations between high-school students and the military. There was little evidence that the State authorities took any proactive measures to inform those facing eviction about the demolitions. Speaking of the plight of unaccompanied Eritrean minors crossing international borders, Ms. Keetharuth noted the issue was becoming increasingly visible. In light of the risk of falling prey to many forms of abuse, including sexual, economic and criminal, those minors represented a group with special protection needs.

Ms. Keetharuth said she was encouraged by the few signs that Eritrea was increasing its engagement with the international community, such as unequivocal measures of the Government to abide fully by its human rights obligations. However, more concrete evidence had to be seen. Arbitrary military service continued, whereas there were half measures to combat torture. Eritrea had acceded to the Convention against Torture in September 2014, but it did not accept the Committee against Torture’s inquiry procedure under Article 20 of the Convention. There still remained hundreds of prisoners in detention, some incommunicado, without charge or trial and without the possibility of challenging the legality of their detention. One commendable action was the coming into force of the following laws: the Civil Code, the Penal Code, the Code of Civil Procedure and the Code of Criminal Procedure, which remained in “transition mode” since 1991. More concrete actions, rather than vague promises that the Government was willing to be more compliant with its international human rights obligations, were necessary.

Statement by Concerned Country

Eritrea said that the report by the Special Rapporteur was unproductive, while the duplication of mandates with the Commission of Inquiry clearly indicated the intention to harass Eritrea, its Government and its people. Eritrea was strongly opposed to country-specific mandates and resolutions which lacked the consent of the concerned country, and said that those mandates were abused for other ulterior motives. The sensational representation of Eritrea as a society without any possibility of participation by the population was unfounded. Responsible participation at all levels of the society was a reality. Equal rights and opportunities prevailed and there was no discrimination or exclusion on the basis of ethnicity or religion. Housing development in any country was managed based on land policy and housing regulations; in Eritrea housing must follow the standard of legality. Eritrea was combatting the scourge of illegal migration and human trafficking and was engaged in continuous dialogue with the countries in the region and with the European Union. Pointing fingers at Eritrea was unacceptable, and Eritrea denounced the practice of some States which lured the Eritrean youth with heavenly promises and had in place facilitated visa systems for Eritreans.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea

European Union took positive note of the signs of the increasing engagement of Eritrea with the international community, through it regretted that Eritrea did not cooperate with the Special Rapporteur. The European Union called on Eritrea to release all those detained without charge or trial and to put an end to torture, forced military service and forced evictions. The European Union expressed concerns about human trafficking of Eritrean emigrants. United Kingdom shared the Special Rapporteur’s concerns on the ongoing threats to the right to housing, and was interested to hear the Special Rapporteur’s view on business and human rights in Eritrea and asked whether she would engage on this issue with international companies. The United Kingdom regretted Eritrea’s lack of cooperation with the Special Rapporteur, and called for the renewal of her mandate. New Zealand said human rights concerns had deepened owing to Eritrea’s lack of cooperation with the Special Rapporteur. New Zealand was particularly concerned at reports of grossly inadequate shelter for returning refugees and internally displaced, as this presented an immediate deprivation and an ongoing basis of instability. It was also concerned at reports of a systemic and brutal repression of a number of forms of civic participation in community and public life.

Ireland remained concerned that three years into her mandate, the Special Rapporteur had not yet been able to gain access to the country and called on the Government of Eritrea to facilitate that access. It was vital that all individuals had a voice in the decisions which affected their lives, particularly the most vulnerable, and that they were allowed to do so free from fear and intimidation. It asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on gender effects of forced evictions. International Fellowship of Reconciliation agreed that the Government of Eritrea had to put an immediate end to the practice of forced evictions and demolition of houses. It asked the Special Rapporteur for advice to Governments of Member States which had large numbers of Eritreans desperately seeking refuge within their territories, suggesting that it would be better to challenge the cause of the problem rather than penalize the symptoms. Conscience and Peace Tax International agreed that a great majority of the young Eritreans who were getting caught up in human trafficking and dangerous crossings on the Mediterranean were actually fleeing forced conscription. It was also concerned about the plight of children and the fact that many of them were easily falling prey to unscrupulous traffickers promising them passage to unattainable safe haven.

East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Projects was concerned by the massive flight of Eritrean victims as migrants, asylum seekers and refugees triggered by human rights violations. The survivors were exposed to more threats across the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea and often endured more violations including human trafficking as they struggled to find a safe place in Europe and Africa. United Nations Watch said that the people of Eritrea required the Council’s immediate attention as the human rights situation had significantly deteriorated since 2014. Faced with the realities of arbitrary detention, torture, indefinite military service and severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and religion, more than 300,000 Eritreans – more than five per cent of the population, had fled during the past decade. Association of World Citizens said that it had been looking after Eritreans who arrived en masse in Europe, who on arrival had always been very fragile and were one of the groups with highest rate of suicide. They needed to feel safe within a group and were in such despair that still today they got on a boat well aware of the risks they ran, which were little with what they left behind. Amnesty International said thousands of prisoners of conscience continued to be held in secret detention in Eritrea, and their own families had no knowledge of their whereabouts. Amnesty International raised concerns about detention conditions, prolonged solitary confinement and the widespread use of torture in Eritrea. Eritrea must at least inform the families about their relatives’ status.

Concluding Remarks

Eritrea, in concluding remarks, rejected baseless allegations made against it, and said the findings in the report were far from the reality of Eritrea. It affirmed its commitment to human rights and said the mainstreaming of human rights in all its State policies had been strengthened. Other measures had been taken in reaction to Universal Periodic Review recommendations.

SHEILA B. KEETHARUTH, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, elaborated on the specifics of the right to housing and its link with the Millennium Development Goals. An adequate standard of living included the right to adequate housing, which was essential for the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as of civil and political rights. There was a direct link between the right to adequate housing and other human rights. In meeting those obligations, Eritrea was obliged to refrain from carrying out forced evictions, consult with the relevant local communities, hold individuals to account, provide remedies and respect due process, and provide alternative housing. If housing was affected, it definitely impacted the right to health and the rights of women. As for the gender aspects of forced evictions, women were those taking care of the families in the areas where the demolition of houses were taking place. They were left vulnerable after the destruction of their homes, as their security was endangered. Other issues in Eritrea that should remain on the agenda were: arbitrary detention, unaccompanied minors, migration, and economic and social rights. Migration was very closely linked to human rights violations. The mandate should remain a safe place where everyone could communicate their concerns to the Special Rapporteur. Ms. Keetharuth warned that trading human rights for short-term political or economic gains would undermine the long-term enjoyment of all human rights by all in Eritrea. She reassured the Council that she was very particular in maintaining the difference between the two mandates, namely the Special Rapporteur and membership in the Commission of Inquiry.

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