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Statement by Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council

Agenda item 4

Geneva, 13 March 2017

Mr. President,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

On 1 July 2016, the Human Rights Council (HRC) extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (SRE) for one year, requesting the mandate holder to follow up on the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COIE), contained in its final report submitted to the Human Rights Council in June 2016.

Three months prior to my report, in today’s oral update, I plan to:

  • Provide highlights of my activities since the renewal of my mandate;
  • Focus on a selected number of key recommendations, which the Commission addressed to the Government of Eritrea and to the international community;
  • Briefly address key issues in the situation of human rights in Eritrea.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since the extension of the mandate, I have held consultations in Switzerland from 1 to 8 September 2016, in Brussels, Belgium, from 26-30 September, in Arusha, Tanzania, from 21-26 November on the margins of the Symposium and High-Level Dialogue on Human Rights in Africa, and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 28-30 November. The central point of discussions was the follow-up regarding the findings and recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea with several member States, EU and AU officials, civil society organisations and other interlocutors.

The Commission’s call for accountability for those responsible for crimes and human rights violations identified in its final report presented to you in June 2016 still reverberates in this room.

Cognisant of the fact that the exercise of national jurisdiction is not only a right, but also a state duty, the Commission called on the Government of Eritrea to ensure accountability for past and persistent human rights violations and crimes through the establishment of independent, impartial and gender-sensitive mechanisms, ensuring that victims are provided with adequate redress, including the right to truth and reparations. I am not aware of any steps taken by the Government towards substantial institutional and legal reform to hold perpetrators to account at the domestic level. 

Thus, I have and will continue to advocate for the implementation of the Commission’s additional recommendations on accountability addressed to the international community and each individual State, aimed at ensuring justice for the victims that have suffered serious human rights abuses in Eritrea.

During my interactive dialogue with the General Assembly in October 2016, I briefed member States about the findings of the Commission, namely its conclusion that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials have committed crimes against humanity since 1991. I called on member States to submit the report of the Commission of Inquiry to the Security Council for a referral of the human rights situation in Eritrea to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. 

I organised a side-event on the margins of the Symposium On The 10th Anniversary Of The African Court On Human And Peoples` Rights; and The Fifth Annual High-Level Dialogue On Democracy, Human Rights, Women’s Rights And Governance In Africa; held in Arusha, Tanzania, from 21-26 November. The main objective of the Arusha mission was to follow up to Commission’s recommendation calling on the African Union to establish an accountability mechanism to investigate, prosecute and try individuals reasonably believed to have committed crimes against humanity.

The fight against impunity at the multilateral level does not stop there. An increasing number of universal jurisdiction trials in several African and European countries as well as in Australia, Canada and the US are encouraging developments.  The Commission specifically called on individual member States to exercise jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, when any alleged offender is present on the territory of a member State. I intend to increase efforts towards justice to be served in third countries, as Eritrea is not showing any inclination to acknowledge the crimes committed, let alone respond to the need for justice.

I reiterate my plea to all to undertake every effort to hold accountable individual perpetrators responsible for the crimes identified by the Commission to serve justice for the Eritrean victims that have suffered serious abuses. Beyond that, it is incumbent on all of us to demonstrate that such behaviour is simply unacceptable anywhere in the world, today more than ever.

Mr. President,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I welcome efforts by international actors to reinforce engagement with Eritrea, which is a positive development after years of isolation. I understand that the UN team in Asmara is currently being strengthened with the deployment of several senior advisors, who will focus on issues such as peace, development, youth, migration and the universal periodic review (UPR). Under the 11th European Development Fund (EDF), the EU is supporting Eritrea in the implementation of UPR recommendations.

I hope that support of the Government’s preparations for the next UPR will be accompanied by an implementation of the recommendations formulated by member States during the 2014 UPR in a comprehensive manner. I look forward to seeing Eritrea’s report for its third review in 2018, I invite the Government to use this opportunity to demonstrate its genuine efforts to improve the overall situation for the people on the ground, but above all, to make evident its tangible progress in the situation of human rights and the enjoyment of the full spectrum of human rights. The UPR offers a framework for progress on a number of critical areas.

Let me reiterate that engagement needs to be grounded on facts; and as indicated, there is little to suggest that the human rights situation has changed. I am worried that the renewed engagement may fail to address critical human rights issues in an effort to curb migration. It would be dramatic should member States be prepared once again to sacrifice the respect for human rights of Eritreans for short term gains.  

Positive change in the situation of human rights by 2018 will require genuine commitment and serious determination by the Government of Eritrea to address the key areas identified by the Commission of Inquiry and my own mandate. So far, I see little progress that could be identified as actual improvement in the situation of human rights in the country.  In effect, there has been no progress on any of the key areas identified by the Commission of Inquiry in its recommendations addressed to the Government of Eritrea.

The Commission called on Eritrea to implement fully and without delay the 1997 Constitution. Following announcements by President Isaias Afwerki in 2014 that a new constitution would be drafted, we heard in 2016 that a committee was established for such purpose. Surely such a process, which would have profound impact on the lives of all Eritreans, would have to take place in a transparent and participatory manner.  Yet, there is no easily accessible information about the different steps directed towards bringing such a crucial activity to fruition.

The Commission concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials have committed the crime of enslavement within the context of the military and national service programmes. When detailing its findings, the Commission referred to several aspects of the military and national service programmes, in particular the arbitrary and open-ended duration of conscription, routinely for years beyond the 18 months provided for by the decree of 1995.

Consequently, the Commission called on the Government to discontinue indefinite military/national service by limiting it to 18 months for all current and future conscripts, as stipulated by the proclamation on national service. It appears that up to today, the Government has not taken any measures towards a temporal limitation of the military/national service, which thus continues to be indefinite.

The Commission further found there are reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials have committed the crimes of imprisonment and enforced disappearance. The Commission highlighted that arrests and detention in violation of fundamental rules of international law have been and remain central to an Eritrean State policy. In most cases, Government officials have refused to provide information about the fate or whereabouts of those detained, thereby intending to deprive victims of the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time and to create fear among their relatives, in a manner inconsistent with international law.

Consequently, the Commission called on the Government to release immediately and unconditionally all those unlawfully and arbitrarily detained; and to provide information on the fate and whereabouts of all those deprived of physical liberty, including on all prisoners of war. It also called on the Government to put an end to the practice of arbitrary arrest and detention of individuals based on their religious beliefs and release immediately and unconditionally all those unlawfully and arbitrarily detained, especially Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church.

I continue to receive reports of new cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, including most recent cases since the beginning of the year. The reasons appear to fall into the broad categories already identified by the Commission, namely attempting to evade military service or trying to assist a family member to do so; trying to leave the country; practicing an unauthorised religion; or offending a high ranking government or PFDJ official. I have not, however, been informed of any releases or information shared on the fate of any of the high profile cases of enforced disappearance, which include former fighters of the Eritrean Liberation Front detained in 1992; Jehovah’s Witnesses detained in 1994; Muslim teachers in Keren detained in 1994; members of the Afar ethnic group, detained in 1998-1999; the G-15 political critics and journalists detained in 2001; scores of Muslims detained for protesting the appointment of a Mufti in 2007; or those alleged to have participated in the attempted takeover of the Ministry of Information building at Forto, detained in 2013. The only exception remains the March 2016 release by the Government of Eritrea of four Djiboutian prisoners of war detained in 2008 and its announcement that one prisoner of war had died in detention; however, thirteen prisoners of war still remain unaccounted for.

The Commission further urged the Government to immediately permit unhindered access by independent monitors to all places of detention with regard to both legality and conditions of detention, including OHCHR and other recognised organisations. I am aware that the Government of Eritrea continues to grant access to the country to bilateral and international delegations; however, none of these visitors or any of the foreign diplomats or staff of international organisations based in Asmara have been permitted to visit any places of detention. I have no information as to whether the independent monitoring of prisons figures in any of the ongoing discussions.

The Commission found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials have committed the crime of torture, against persons under their control. It concluded that the use of torture was, and remains, an integral part of the Government’s repression of the civilian population. Consequently, the Commission called on the Government to establish adequate complaint mechanisms and ensure investigations are conducted into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment with a view to bringing perpetrators to justice.

The Government was widely praised for the 2014 ratification of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Notwithstanding the ratification, I have not heard about any steps the Government has taken that would suggest its seriousness in putting an end to the systematic and widespread use of torture by Eritrean officials in civilian and military detention centres.

The Commission concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials have committed the crime of rape, both in the context of military/national service and in detention centres. In committing this crime, perpetrators took advantage of the coercive environment and, in many cases, also used force or threat of force. Consequently, the Commission called on the Government to implement a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse in the army and in detention centres; and to establish complaint mechanisms and to ensure the prompt and adequate investigation, prosecution and accountability of perpetrators. Again, I have not been informed of any Government efforts to address sexual abuse in the army and detention centres or a willingness to tackle impunity of perpetrators.

I deeply regret that the Government of Eritrea has not made any effort to address the very serious findings of the Commission, and my own findings as Special Rapporteur. I also regret that the Government of Eritrea continues to deny access to independent experts of the various human rights mechanisms for a comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation, who could take into account the perspectives of all actors, including victims, as well as the Government. In my case, as long as such access is denied, I will continue to monitor the situation remotely, and intend to provide a more detailed account of the serious human rights situation in Eritrea in my upcoming written report.

Last year, Eritrean refugees constituted the fifth largest group of Mediterranean sea arrivals to Europe, with 20,734 people arriving, amounting to six per cent of the overall number. Regarding arrivals in Italy, Eritreans were among the top two nationalities. A striking feature is the increasing number of unaccompanied and separated children from several countries making the journey to Europe, with over 25,000 in 2016. They represented 14% of all new arrivals in Italy and their number more than doubled compared to the previous year. 14% of all arrivals (25,846 children) were unaccompanied and separated children (UASC), mostly from Eritrea, Gambia, and Nigeria, more than dou­ble the 12,360 UASC who arrived in 2015.  In 2013, I had informed the Council about the number of children I found in refugee camps in neighbouring countries as part of the early warning function of the mandate and last year, I raised their vulnerability and special protection needs in the camps, during their journeys and at destination. This remains valid more than ever today.

Throughout the EU, about 93 percent of Eritrean asylum applicants continued to be granted some form of protection.  However, I am concerned whether EU action under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa are in line with commitments undertaken at the New York Summit for Refugees and Migrations in 2016, and that we may see efforts to curb migration from Eritrea that come at the expense of engagement for the respect for human rights in the country.

In conclusion, I would like to make three points:

  • Impunity for human rights violations and accountability for crimes against humanity should remain among the top priorities of the Government of Eritrea and of the international community;
  • The international community should continue raising human rights as a recurrent point of discussion until such a time that demonstrated, tangible and measurable improvements in the whole spectrum of human rights in Eritrea are recorded;
  • While I continue to remain open to constructive dialogue with the Government of Eritrea, I reiterate my victim-centred approach. My work and that of the COIE brought to the international community the voices that we all need to hear. Those are the voices the international community need to stand with, the voices which should not be ignored in the enthusiasm for re-engaging with Eritrea.

Thank you.