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Statements and speeches Multiple Mechanisms
06 March 2023
It is my honour to address you on the human rights situation in Eritrea since the last oral update by the former High Commissioner in March 2022.
The human rights situation in Eritrea remains dire and shows no sign of improvement. It continues to be characterised by serious human rights violations. Our Office continues to receive credible reports of torture; arbitrary detention; inhumane conditions of detention; enforced disappearances; restrictions of the rights to freedoms of expression, of association, and of peaceful assembly. Thousands of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience have, reportedly, been behind bars for decades. Furthermore, the harassment and arbitrary detention of people because of their faith continues unabated with estimated hundreds of religious leaders and followers affected.
Furthermore, Eritreans continue to be subjected to indefinite military or national service, which intensified following the Tigray conflict. I would like to recall the story of a young man whose brother was compelled to escape to the forest to avoid forced conscription and has spent the last eight years of his life hiding there, occasionally entering the city at night, to get food and water. Conscripts continue to be drafted for an open-ended duration of service beyond the 18 months provided by law, often in abusive conditions, which can include the use of torture, sexual violence and forced labour. Those who attempt to desert military service are detained and punished. Eritrea further continues with the practice of punishing family members for the behaviour of relatives who evade the draft, including by home evictions.
In fact, the national service remains the main reason Eritreans flee the country. According to UNHCR, at the end of 2022, there were over 160,000 and 130,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan, respectively, representing a slight increase from previous years mainly from the age group of 18 to 49 years old. Recently, there have been reports of some other countries engaging in forced returns of Eritrean asylum seekers, which exposes returnees to serious human rights violations in the country.
We reiterate our call to Eritrea to bring its national service in line with its international human rights obligations; and call upon States to stop the forcible return of asylum seekers to Eritrea.
It is alarming that all these human rights violations are committed in the context of complete impunity. Eritrea has not taken any demonstrable steps to ensure accountability for past and ongoing human rights violations. No person has been held accountable for the human rights violations documented by the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea in 2016 and in 2017, which found that Eritrea had committed crimes against humanity, including enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, and other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder. In addition, Eritrea has not taken any steps to establish accountability mechanisms for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) in the context of the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia as found by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) of our Office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Eritrea has rejected this JIT report and has allowed perpetrators in the EDF to act with impunity. There is no genuine prospect that the domestic judicial system will hold perpetrators to account.
Furthermore, reports show that while the EDF has commenced withdrawal from Tigray, as requested under the Agreement for Lasting Peace through a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities that was signed in Pretoria, South Africa, in November of last year, the withdrawal remains very slow and largely incomplete, which requires continued monitoring and reporting of the situation.
Let me now turn to Eritrea’s engagement and cooperation with our Office. Following his January 2022 visit to Eritrea to attend the launch of the United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework discussions, our Regional Representative for East Africa led a second mission to Eritrea in May 2022, at the invitation of the Government. The mission explored areas of technical support and assistance following technical assessment visits by our Office to the country in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
During the visit, the team met with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Information, and other senior government officials, as well as our development partners. Following discussions with national counterparts, five areas were identified for potential technical cooperation and support by our Office including on (1) enhancing rights as part of a transformative justice system; (2) the harmonisation of “indigenous or traditional laws” in line with international and regional human rights norms; (3) support to a regional conference on traditional justice; (4) enhancing the rights and protection of persons with disabilities; and (5) capacity building on the effective engagement with UN human rights mechanisms.
Further to these two missions, the authorities have not responded to our follow-up towards devising a concrete plan of activities and implementation. Similarly, in Geneva, the Permanent Mission has not engaged with our Office, nor has our Office received any response to communications relating to Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict in Tigray. This total lack of cooperation is in stark contrast to Eritrea’s commitments as a member of the Human Rights Council and its voluntary pledge as a member of this Council to continue its engagement with our Office.
OHCHR is unable to progress with technical engagement and cooperation in light of Eritrea’s lack of response over the years. While we welcome the Government’s increased engagement with the United Nations Country Team in the context of the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework, there is a need for engagement on critical human rights issues, through dialogue with our Office and extension of full cooperation to international human rights mechanisms. This includes the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, and the relevant thematic Special Procedures mandate holders notably those who have requested a visit – including the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Eritrea also has a number of overdue reports to United Nations treaty bodies (the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee Against Torture).
During its third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review in January 2019, Eritrea made important commitments supporting 131 out of 261 recommendations, including on peace, justice and on supporting stronger institutions. During our Office’s last visit in May 2022, the Government stated that a coordinating body on reporting had designed a plan and a framework for action to implement these recommendations. Our Office has not seen this plan despite our follow up.
In closing, let me reiterate our call for the Government to engage in a full and frank dialogue with our Office. We remain ready to build on these missions to Eritrea, particularly last year, to begin to address some of most serious human rights concerns, including through the provision of technical support. I also call on Member States to encourage and facilitate the engagement by Eritrea with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms.