GENEVA (24 June 2015) -- As thousands of Eritreans continue to flee government repression in their homeland, a UN-appointed commission of inquiry warned today that the dire human rights situation in the isolated Horn of Africa nation can no longer be ignored.
Delivering a nearly 500-page report to the 29th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the three-member Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea described a state that rules through fear and a vast security network that reaches into every level of society. Citing a litany of systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations carried out with impunity by the government, the commission called on the Human Rights Council to maintain close scrutiny on violations committed in Eritrea that may constitute crimes against humanity.
Commission Chairperson Mike Smith (Australia) told the Human Rights Council that after more than two decades of independence, the dream of a democratic Eritrea now seems more distant than ever.
“Instead of a country ruled by law and good governance, the Eritrea we see today is marked by repression and fear,” Smith said. “Since independence, ultimate power in Eritrea has remained largely in the hands of one man and one party. Those in control often rule arbitrarily and act with impunity… The Eritrean people have no say in governance and little control over many aspects of their own lives.”
Eritrea has never held free elections. It has no independent judiciary. Arbitrary arrest is common, often ordered by anyone with de facto authority. Tens of thousands of Eritreans have been imprisoned, often without charge and for indeterminate periods. Ill-treatment and torture of detainees are used routinely.
Under the pretext of defending the integrity of the state and ensuring national self-sufficiency, the government has subjected much of the population to open-ended national service, either in the army or through the civil service. All Eritreans are conscripted by age 18. While national service is supposed to last 18 months, in reality conscripts end up serving for an indefinite period, often for years in harsh and inhumane conditions. Smith said forced labour was so prevalent that all sectors of the economy rely on it, and all Eritreans are likely to be subject to it at some point in their lives.
This overwhelming climate of repression has prompted hundreds of thousands of Eritreans, mostly young people, to risk their lives escaping the country. Many are heading for Europe, resorting to human smugglers and traffickers to cross the Mediterranean as well as via other irregular routes. The UN refugee agency last week reported the number of Eritreans outside their country and under its concern at nearly 417,000 at the end of 2014. It said the total of those fleeing Eritrea had nearly doubled over the past six years.
“The number fleeing such a small country – estimated at 5,000 people each month – is forcing the outside world to take notice,” Smith said. “Eritrea’s dire human rights situation can no longer be ignored. Imagine the impact of this uncertainty on young Eritreans who lose all control over their own futures. Is it any wonder that Eritreans – most of them young people – are the second largest nationality after Syrians to resort to seaborne smugglers to cross the Mediterranean to Europe? Many cite indefinite conscription as a reason for fleeing… This is a tragedy both for them and for their home country, which can ill-afford to continue losing its youth.”
As governments in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East grapple with a growing influx of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, Smith urged that they continue to provide protection to Eritreans and avoid sending them back to a country that punishes anyone who tries to leave without permission. Those who assume Eritreans are leaving solely for economic reasons are ignoring the country’s “dismal human rights record and the suffering of its people,” he said.
“In engaging with the Eritrean authorities on solutions to stem the flow of asylum seekers from Eritrea, the international community should place human rights considerations at the forefront of any package of proposed abatement measures,” Smith said. “And it should insist on tangible progress on human rights in Eritrea, in particular the adoption of real reforms that seriously address the problems identified in this report.”
The failure to implement Eritrea’s 1997 Constitution has had a profound effect on the country and its people, Smith said, and the commission called for its full and immediate implementation. With no sitting parliament and a court system controlled by the executive branch, there is no rule of law in Eritrea.
“Given the widespread nature of human rights violations over many years in Eritrea, a culture of impunity is firmly entrenched throughout the country,” Smith said. “Bringing this pervasive culture of impunity to an end is obviously a daunting task, but essential for any genuine efforts to improve the human rights situation in the country.”
He said the government must start the process by acknowledging human rights violations and ensuring accountability for them, and urged more international pressure on Eritrea to bring about real change.
Although the commission repeatedly sought the cooperation of the government in carrying out its work, it received no response. Denied access to Eritrea, the team conducted interviews with some 550 witnesses in eight countries and received 160 written submissions. On June 9, the Eritrean Foreign Ministry issued a statement describing the commission’s findings as “an attack, not so much on the government, but on a civilized people and society who cherish human values and dignity.”
“With respect, we the commission are recording the voices of real Eritrean people as articulated in the 550 testimonies and 160 submissions received,” Smith said. “We also reflect the silenced voice of the majority of Eritreans who have never been able to elect their own representatives in national, free, fair and democratic elections. It is the voice of imprisoned and ill-treated critics, journalists, religious leaders and others who have disappeared into a vast network of jails. It is the muzzled voice of those subjected to forced labour and inhumane conditions for years on end. And it is the voice of those who every day risk their lives to flee a government that has failed them and all of the others.
“It is high time that the Government of Eritrea truly endeavours to improve the human rights of its people,” Smith concluded. “We need to see real progress, not just words.”
The commission was established by the Human Rights Council in June 2014 to investigate all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea. In addition to Smith, the members are Mr. Victor Dankwa (Ghana), and Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth (Mauritius), who also serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.
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