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Statement by Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea at the 73rd session of the General Assembly

New York, 24 October 2018

Chair,
Excellencies,
Distinguished delegates,

I address you as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea and am honoured to brief you for the sixth and final time in this capacity, after the Human Rights Council extended the mandate for another year in resolution 38/15, adopted without a vote on 6 July 2018. I reach the end of my term of service on 31 October 2018. My successor has already been nominated and will start on 1 November 2018. I wish her well in her upcoming role.

First, allow me to congratulate the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia for signing a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship on 9 July 2018, which has been reaffirmed on several occasions since then. This accomplishment raises expectations that the end of the 'no war, no peace' stalemate between the two countries will also impact positively on Eritrea’s internal human rights situation.

Secondly, Eritrea has successfully campaigned to be elected as a member of the Human Rights Council for the period 2019 to 2021, thereby recognising this institution’s importance as the premier human rights body on the world stage. Such an achievement comes with weighty responsibilities.

I would like to start with an update on human rights violations that I have documented since I addressed this Committee in October 2017.

The overall legal and institutional context remains unchanged. Eritrea still has no constitution, no independent judiciary, no legislative assembly where laws are discussed, enacted and questions of national importance debated,  no institutionalized checks and balances protecting citizens from excessive exercise of state power. There is no free press, no space for people to express their views, and the country continues to lack avenues for Eritrean citizens to voice their opinions on public matters of grave importance. The environment  is compounded by non-respect for the rule of law and existence of weak institutions.

Patterns of human rights violations, amply documented in my reports and those of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, persist. These are incommunicado and arbitrary detentions, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, breaches of the rights to freedom of expression and religion, among others.  

According to reliable sources, on 17 September 2018, Mr. Berhane Abrehe, Eritrea’s former Minister of Finance, was picked up forcefully on the street of Asmara. Since then, no news has transpired regarding his whereabouts and his worrying state of health.  He does not have access to legal representation and has not been taken before a court of law. His arrest happened on the eve of the anniversary of the 18 September 2001 clampdown during which senior Government officials, who had criticized the President’s actions in an open letter, and independent journalists were arrested. They are  held incommunicado to date. Mrs. Almaz Habtemariam, the wife of Mr. Berhane Abrehe, was arrested in January 2018, also without an arrest warrant or being charged of a recognizable offence. Her state of health also raises concern.

In August 2018, over 300 water-tanker owners, drivers and other workers operating in the field of water distribution in the capital city Asmara were arrested over a dispute about water prices. Reportedly, they were called for a meeting and ended up being arrested and detained. A few were released after paying hefty fines, without appearing before a judicial body or administrative tribunal. The majority remain in custody, as they were unable to raise the fine money.

In July 2018, following the resumption of flights between Asmara and Addis Ababa, an Ethiopian preacher from a church not recognized in Eritrea visited Asmara.   National Security agents are reported to have used video footage and pictures taken during his brief public preaching to track down and arrest over 40 people who happened to be present at that moment. More followers from unrecognized churches have been arrested since then, in contrast to unconfirmed reports that several people jailed because of their faith for long periods have been released after the peace declaration was signed. 

Furthermore, Haji Musa Mohammed Nur, the former director of the Al Dia School in the Akhria neighbourhood of Asmara, was arbitrarily arrested and detained at the end of October 2017.  He died in custody on 3 March 2018. Other committee members of the Al Dia school were also arrested  after they declined to apply government directives that contradicted long-established practices at the school. Several of those believed to have participated in peaceful demonstrations on 31 October 2017 against the arrest and detention of late Haji Musa and the other committee members were also arrested. Many of those arrested were Al Dia school students and their parents, including older persons, women and children.

Reportedly, security forces effected mass arrests of over 800 hundred after the burial ceremony of Haji Musa Mohammed Nur on 3 March 2018. The Al Dia school committee members, as well as many of people arrested during the October 2017 protests and after Haji Musa’s funeral are still in jail. 

While some children have been released, others were moved to Ala prison.  Until now, parents have not yet been informed why their children were arrested. There are unconfirmed reports that some of those arrested have been transferred to a military training camp.

The pattern of arrest and detention remains the same: mass arrests are carried out to instil fear; prisoners are not allowed to exercise their fundamental rights to due process to challenge the legality of their detention; detained persons, including children, are kept incommunicado; and family members are not formally notified of the arrests and detentions. While some family members have been able to discover the whereabouts of their loved ones through informal channels to deliver food and clothing, others are reluctant to enquire because they fear being arrested and detained themselves. I am particularly concerned about children in Eritrean prisons.  I would like to know why they are still being arbitrarily held, when will they be released and which measures are in place to protect them from abuse during arbitrary detention.

During the last year, people have contacted me about additional cases of enforced disappearances of their relatives since the early 1990s. They are still waiting to hear what happened to their loved ones, like this mother from Keren, who prays for the day when she will be able to see her sons, arrested in late 1999 and in 2000. Her sons were in their early twenties when they were arrested and disappeared, not to be seen until this very day. Enforced disappearance is a crime and perpetrators should be held accountable.

With the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia reopening in September 2018, hundreds of Eritrean refugees has made their way towards reception centres along the border with Ethiopia.  According to the latest UNHCR figures, during the period 12 September to 12 October 2018, a total of 9,905 refugees were registered at the Endabaguna Reception Centre, while 2, 838 were awaiting registration. Over 6,900 have already been moved to the camps, namely Adi- Harush, Mai-Aini and Hitsats. Amid earlier fears expressed by the refugee population, Ethiopian authorities have indicated that they would respect their international obligation of non-refoulement. 

Sources from the ground reveal that women and children represent the biggest group.  This is telling, because until recently, new arrivals were predominantly young male. The increase can be attributed to the relative safety provided by the open borders. Until recently, those fleeing faced high risks, such as being shot at or caught and detained.  Others faced the dangers of entrusting their lives and those of their children to people smugglers and traffickers Many crossed under the cover of night, thus risking attacks by wild animals.  Recent UNHCR figures confirm this trend, indicating that women and children make up approximately 91 percent of the new arrivals. Still according to UNHCR, 1,003 unaccompanied children have arrived from Eritrea.  There are also young conscripts, both male and female, among those who have recently crossed the border. Reportedly, teachers and medical personnel make up a sizeable part of arrival figures, impacting negatively on schools and hospitals.

According to my sources, people continue to leave, ‘taking the ultimate leap of faith to freedom’, away from the continuing indefinite national/military service, to further their education, and because of the current economic situation, which has a serious impact on their economic and social rights, including their livelihoods. The new arrivals also cite family reunification as an additional motive for their departure from Eritrea.

I have received distressing accounts of the dire situation affecting Eritrean refugees in Libya. As security deteriorates, they are held in sub-standard detention centres where they suffer from lack of food, clean water, poor hygiene, inexistent medical support, at risk of contracting an array of diseases.  Women have been subjected to sexual violence and rape. Those who were able to escape these worrisome conditions are living rough in Tripoli, doing their best to keep away from people smugglers and traffickers.  UNHCR runs a programme to evacuate those most in need and presenting heightened levels of vulnerability, to protect them from further harm. Their situation requires a response from the international community.

Eritreans are still expecting news about policy changes following the signature of the peace agreement.  For example, Eritreans and the world are waiting to hear how the declaration of peace will affect the indefinite national/military service. National/military service is still in place and conscripts have not yet been informed about any demobilization plans.

Open borders have allowed the start of trade between the two countries. However, there are policies in place limiting the amount of money that Eritreans, including traders, can withdraw from their bank accounts, that is Nakfa 5,000 per month. This policy has a negative impact on small traders, including shop owners, making it difficult for them to compete with incoming traders. 

Despite the open borders, Eritreans still require an exit visa to travel abroad, effectively restricting freedom of movement. For example, Eritrean bishops were unable to attend the Plenary Assembly of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in East Africa (AMECEA), held in July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Their exit visas were not approved.

With regards to religious rights, arrests and detention on religious grounds continued throughout the year. The Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, now 91, remains under house arrest since January 2007, that is eleven years. There are Jehovah witnesses still in jail since 1994 as conscientious objection is not allowed in Eritrea. Followers of unrecognized religions are still incarcerated or subjected to arrests because of their faith.

With regards to freedom of expression, the Eritrean Government continues to lock up or forcibly disappear dissenting voices, thus silencing analytical discussions and critical debates. The recent arrest of Berhane Abrehe and the Akhria peaceful protests are emblematic in this regard. Berhane Abrehe published a two-volume book in which he details about the prevailing situation in Eritrea, highlight the deficit of the rule of law in the country.  Prior to his arrest, an audio message was broadcast on the net, proposing a public debate on the current situation.  The same applies to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.

The Government continues to  pursue a land policy that has legitimized forcible displacement and dispossession of indigenous populations and minorities, leading to arbitrary and uncompensated evictions. For example, the Afar people, a pastoralist ethnic minority, have been forcefully evicted, affecting their means of livelihood. They depend on their land, salt mines and fishing and they have been removed from around Assab, the port city in the Southern Red Sea Region, an area traditionally belonging to or used by them. Overtures have been made for their return to Eritrea from neighbouring countries.  However, no guarantees have been given to them regarding restitution, compensation or respect for their property rights and traditional way of life. The Government’s policy of resettling people in areas traditionally populated by the Kunama, another ethnic minority, continues. I remain concerned that as a result of a lack of the rule of law and an independent judiciary, affected communities are not able to oppose decisions on forcible evictions or access adequate compensation in a court of law. 

Eritrea is coming up for its third Universal Periodic Review in 2019. During the first cycle, Eritrea received 137 recommendations, while it received 200 during the second one.  During the first cycle, 15% percent of the recommendations were noted and during the second, 54 percent, that is 108 recommendations, were noted.  During the first cycle, Eritrea accepted 50 percent of the recommendations and during Cycle 2, 46 percent, that is 92 recommendations were accepted. However, at this point in time, it is not possible to assess the degree of implementation of recommendations from both Cycle 1 and Cycle two and there is no publicly available material to allow for such an exercise. While there were  assurances that a mid-term report was available, it is unfortunately not accessible. Now that Eritrea is a member of the Human Rights Council, the UPR takes a heightened importance allowing for an informative and stringent scrutiny of its human rights performance by Member States.

I take note of Eritrea’s membership to the Human Rights Council for the period 2019 to 2021. I cite from the Eritrean Government’s voluntary pledge, where it stated that ‘Eritrea’s interest in serving in the Council reflects its determination and its commitment to contributing to the effective implementation of the underlying principles of the human rights architecture of the United Nations, which befit the lofty ideals of humanity’. Consequently, to actualize the key responsibilities which come with such membership, Eritrea should:

  • Give effect to its responsibilities to respect, protect and fulfill all universally recognized  and indivisible human rights contained in the treaties it has adhered to, together with the obligation of disseminating principles of human rights in-country through human rights education programmes;
  • Take into earnest consideration the recommendations expressed in my reports and those of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea and implement them by adopting an action plan that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound; 
  • Cooperate with all human rights mechanisms, including by replying timeously to communications from Special Procedures Mandate holders, as well as the country-specific one. Currently, Eritrea’s record is far from  exemplary;
  • Extend a standing invitation to Special Procedure Mandate Holders to visit Eritrea and respond positively to pending visit requests by all Special Procedures Mandate Holders, some of which date to 2003;
  • Protect from intimidation and reprisals  those survivors of human rights violations, witnesses, civil society representatives  cooperating with human rights organs both at the UN and regional levels. Putting it all succinctly, Eritrea has the obligation to protect those cooperating with human rights entities and not to be the source of intimidation.
  • Finally, Eritrea’s membership to the HRC needs to result in tangible and measurable progress in the enjoyment of human rights on the ground.

The achievement of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia must be duly celebrated. While it is yet to be translated into actual improvements of Eritrea’s human rights situation, peace should be viewed as having the potential of ushering in a new beginning for the enjoyment of  all human rights by all Eritreans. Briefly put, bring human rights at the very heart of peace because progress in external relations must be reflected internally by bringing human rights home.

However, I’m afraid that without any space for the Eritrean people to participate in shaping the country’s future, there will be little progress. The Eritrean Government can start by implementing the 1997 Constitution, which is the natural basis on which to build a solid national legal framework and a society governed by the rule of law.

As a second step, the Eritrean authorities would need to take stock and account for what has happened to whom, where and when. Families of the victims of enforced disappearance should be informed about the fate of their loved ones. People languishing in Eritrean prisons, some for excessively long periods, including the G-15 and journalists,  and others arrested more recently, should be brought before the courts as a matter of urgency or released unconditionally without delay. These would be impressive peace dividends.

Justice and accountability are twin pillars, reinforcing each other, on which peace can be built, strengthened and security achieved. The impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of crimes against humanity and human rights violations remains an unrelenting challenge to be addressed through effective measures, the more so at this particular moment in time, for lasting and sustainable peace.

I would like to thank Member States for the trust placed in me during the past six years. As the Eritrean Government chose not to grant me access to the country, I thank those Member States that invited me to engage with Eritreans in the diaspora and other stakeholders in their respective countries. I also thank the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for its support provided throughout these six years. I thank representatives of civil society for the invaluable collaboration during my tenure.  

Last but not least, I am indebted to survivors of human rights violations, family members, relatives and witnesses, who entrusted me with their life experiences, dreams and hopes. They showed confidence that I would use these with utmost care and respect for their right to inherent dignity to alert the international community about the plight of Eritreans who have suffered human rights violations. They also requested me to amplify their calls for justice and accountability. Their voices represented the driving force during my tenure. As I end my term of service, on their behalf, I appeal to the international community to pay heed to those voices because they tell the true story, with the power to reverse a situation of human rights violations to one respectful of human rights.  

I thank you for this opportunity and stand ready to answer any questions you may wish to pose.