75th Summit of the General Assembly
Humanitarian and Cultural Issues (Third Committee)
Interactive dialogue on Eritrea
New York, 26 October 2020
Madam chair, distinguishes delegates, ladies and gentlemen.
It is with great honour that I present my oral update on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.
It has been two years since Eritrea’s peace agreement with Ethiopia and the lifting the UN sanctions on Eritrea. In this period, Eritrea has strengthened its cooperation with neighboring countries. Yet, Eritrea’s increased engagement at the regional level has not translated into reforms in the country. In my May 2020 report, I set out five benchmarks for progress in human rights and noted the lack of meaningful and substantive improvement in relation to these areas. Since the publication of my report, there have been limited signs of progress.
On the issue of political prisoners, there has been no progress. This lack of progress was most recently acknowledged by the European Parliament in a resolution adopted earlier this month, which focused on the case of Dawit Isaak and referred to the pervasive practices of arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances in Eritrea. Dawit Isaak is a Swedish-Eritrean journalist who has been held for over 19 years in Eritrea, without charge or trial. His case is not an isolated one. This December will mark the 8th year since the arrest of Ciham Ali Abdu, an American-Eritrean woman who has been held incommunicado since the age of 15. She was arrested as she tried to flee the country in December 2012, and has not been heard of since. Paulos Eyasu, Isaac Mogos and Negede Teklemariam are three conscientious objectors who have been held for 26 years. They are part of a group of 52 Jehovah’s Witnesses currently in jail. Berhane Abrehe, a former finance minister, has been in prison for over two years following his arrest for publishing a book critical of the government. He is in his seventies and said to be in poor health. These are examples of the numerous cases of individuals who are currently languishing in Eritrean prisons, with no prospect of release. It is difficult to speak of progress in Eritrea while their cases remain unresolved.
This September, like every year, the authorities sent busloads of high school students to Sawa military camp despite the Covid-19 restrictions in place in the country. At Sawa, the students will complete their final year of education and be forced to take part in military training. Students should be allowed to return home to avoid the spread of Covid-19. They should also have the choice to decide where they go to school and not be forced into conscription. The authorities should stop using the education system to recruit new conscripts and should ensure that no minors are recruited into the army.
Eritrea continues to severely restrict civil liberties. Independent human rights defenders, political opposition groups and independent journalists cannot work freely in the country. The authorities also continue to impose restrictions on religious communities, in particular on unregistered religious congregations. While I welcome the release by the authorities of over 60 Christians in the months of August and September, I note that many were released on bail, despite the absence of charges against them. Most of them spent over a decade in prison, without charge, simply because of their faith. No church leaders were among those released. Alongside these releases, there were new arrests of Christians in August, including of four pastors who were taken from their homes by security forces in Asmara. At least five Christian women were reportedly arrested in Dekemhare, south-east of Asmara, in September. Additionally, I continue to receive reports of Christians who have died in custody because of poor prison conditions and the lack of basic health services. I urge the Eritrean authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all of those who remain in prison because of their faith or belief.
I welcome the release of a large group of Muslim men this past August. While the authorities have not provided official figures, several sources place the number of those released at around 100, although the exact numbers are difficult to confirm. Most were arrested in March 2018 at the funeral of Haji Musa Mohamed Nur, a Muslim community leader and the former chairman of Al-Diaa Islamic School in Asmara. While this is a positive development, the authorities have yet to ensure full respect for the rights to peaceful assembly and association. As I indicated in my report, some of those arrested for attending this funeral died in prison.
I am also following up on reports that, on 30 August, the authorities carried out mass arrests of men in the village of Quazien, north of Asmara, allegedly due to a land dispute with a neighboring village. Based on the information received, at least one of these men has since died in custody. The whereabouts of the remaining men are not known.
Finally, despite being a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Eritrea remains unwilling to cooperate with my mandate, and the Eritrean authorities have refused to meet with me over this past year. Eritrea has also not made progress in its cooperation with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. While the Eritrean authorities have indicated their willingness to implement Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendations, they have yet to show concrete signs of their commitment to improving their human rights record. For the UPR recommendations to translate into positive change in the lives of ordinary Eritreans, the authorities must create an environment conducive for international agencies and donors to operate effectively and freely in the country.
In closing, this is my last week as Special Rapporteur. I wish the new Special Rapporteur, Mohamed Babiker, success in this role. And I urge the Eritrean authorities to engage constructively with him and invite him to conduct a country visit.
Thank you for your attention.