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Statement by Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea at the 38th session of the Human Rights Council

26 June 2018

Mr President,
Ladies and gentlemen

It is my pleasure to present my fifth and final report since my appointment as the mandate holder for the situation of human rights in Eritrea.  In this last report, I provide an update on the situation of human rights in the country and reflect on my six years as the mandate holder. I thank the Human Rights Council for the trust and confidence placed in me through my appointment in 2012. 

I regret that I am not in a position to report tangible improvements in the human rights situation. The main violations as identified in my first and subsequent reports, as well as in those of the Commission of Inquiry in Eritrea remain unchanged. Patterns of human rights violations ascertained over time persist, namely arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention, indefinite military/national service amounting to forced labour, with a range of violations committed in this context, as well as severe restrictions of fundamental freedoms.

While Eritrea has had limited engagement with human rights mechanisms, I would like to highlight a few positive developments. At the regional level, Eritrea submitted its first report covering the period 1999 to 2016 to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which was reviewed during the 62nd Ordinary Session held from 25 April to 9 May this year. Eritrea also reported to the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; and the Committee published its concluding observations in January 2017.

At the international level, in 2014, Eritrea participated in the second round of the Universal Periodic Review and is due to be reviewed again in January 2019. Eritrea has also reported to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2014 and 2012.  While it has not yet submitted its initial report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been due since 2003, the Human Rights Committee will consider a list of issues during its 123rd session in July 2018. I hope that the Government will constructively engage with the Committee.

It is regrettable that Eritrea chose not to participate in the Enhanced Interactive Dialogue on 12 March 2018, another example of Eritrea’s selective collaboration with the Human Rights Council and its special procedures. Eritrea has invited two mandate holders covering the right to health and the right to education, while it did not respond to the seven thematic mandates that have requested to visit between 2003 and 2018. Furthermore, as a matter of common knowledge, the Government has refused to cooperate with the country mandate. I encourage Eritrea to cooperate with the all human rights mechanisms in an inclusive manner. This would reflect a sincere commitment to engage with those UN mechanisms responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe in an effort to address patterns of human rights violations in the country, as documented by these mechanisms. 

I commend the Government of Eritrea for increased engagement with the United Nations and its agencies, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, several member States, as well as a number of foreign journalists. It is essential that these international actors continue to monitor how Eritrea is giving effect to its human rights obligations and how such international engagement impacts on the daily enjoyment of human rights by all Eritreans.

However, international actors in the country continue to be subjected to a difficult working environment. Additionally, there is a lack of accurate information, data and statistics, which makes meaningful engagement challenging, especially regarding humanitarian action.

In my report, I provide details about ongoing human rights violations.  Arrest and detention used as a form of punishment for legitimate and peaceful exercise of fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of religion, are deemed arbitrary.

For example, those that express their views about state policies and practices or are perceived as critics, risk being arrested. I note the arrest and detention of late Haji Musa Mohammed Nur, former director, and other committee members of the Al Dia School in the Akhria neighbourhood of Asmara, after they declined to apply Government directives in contradiction with long-established practices at the school at the end of October 2017.  Haji Musa died in March 2018, during his fourth month in custody.

An Evangelical Christian from an unrecognised church died in August 2017 while in prison.  The person was arrested during a house-to-house raid in the dead of night at home without any search or arrest warrant. During detention the person’s health deteriorated rapidly and reportedly the detainee died on the way to the hospital.  All deaths in custody need to be investigated promptly and families whose loved ones died in custody should be informed about the cause of death, prosecution of perpetrators and they should obtain reparations.

I am also worried about the continued detention of children. I spoke with the parents of an adolescent boy who has been arrested after the funeral ceremony of Haji Musa on 3 March 2018. He was with other children below eighteen, who were rounded up just after the ceremony. The child has been in incommunicado detention since then. While some children have been released, an unknown number is still in detention following these events.  These parents are worried, not only for their son, but for all the children still in incommunicado detention.

In view of the ongoing serious human rights violations in Eritrea, I am very concerned about efforts by some countries to limit access to protection contrary to UNHCR guidance and obligations under international law. According to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, an Eritrean national died on 6 June 2018 at a detention holding area at Cairo International Airport where he was held in transit while awaiting removal from the United States to Eritrea. His body was buried in Eritrea last week.  Several pertinent questions are raised in this case, namely how he died.

Eritreans have and will continue risking their lives to flee a climate of repression and human rights abuse in their country. I reiterate my call to host countries to continue providing protection to Eritreans and refrain from sending them back as the risks of punishment for having left are high.

I would like to highlight a development which could lead to positive changes in the Horn of Africa. Both the Commission of Inquiry and I have repeatedly called for the implementation of the 2000 Algiers Peace Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the 2002 decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission to delimit the border between the two countries.  We have also stressed that non-implementation and the status quo cannot serve as a justification for Eritrea’s repressive practices, namely violations in the context of the national/military service.  In this regard, I welcome recent efforts to reach peaceful solutions. In response to Ethiopia’s recent declaration to fully accept the border ruling, Eritrea announced its intention to dispatch a delegation to Addis for ‘constructive engagement’.  I call on both parties to ensure that human rights remain a central consideration, moving forward. I also call on the international community, member states and the United Nations to use their good offices to facilitate a dialogue which would lead to enhanced respect for human rights.

As I conclude my tenure as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, I reiterate that various actors bear responsibility for a future where human rights of Eritrean people are fully respected.

With regards to accountability and justice, it is unfortunate that Eritrea has shown that victims of crimes against humanity and human rights violations are not able to get adequate remedies.  Thus, deep-rooted impunity persists, with the prospect that perpetrators will continue to be shielded.  The pursuit of justice and accountability is a long-term process that requires sustained advocacy efforts by all actors involved.

I call on Eritrea to put an immediate stop to the indefinite national service and to arbitrary arrests and detention. It should immediately release all those arbitrarily detained, especially children, women, the elderly and prisoners of conscience.

I urge member states and international organisations to protect Eritreans who have sought refuge in or transiting through a member country’s territory by abiding to the principle of non-refoulement and end bilateral and other arrangements that jeopardize the lives of those seeking asylum. 

I appeal to the Human Rights Council to continue monitoring the human rights situation in Eritrea, an essential activity to eventually bring full respect of human rights for all Eritreans. Member states should appeal to Eritrea to adopt concrete benchmarks and deadlines as previously detailed, to ensure consistent and tangible progress in the human rights situation.

To end, I would like to send a message of hope for a future where respect for human rights should prevail and where justice for past and ongoing human rights violations should be possible for survivors and their families. I thank Eritreans for entrusting me with their life stories, dreams and hopes, confident that I would use these with utmost care and respect for their right to inherent dignity to alert the international community. 

Thank you.