Statement to the media by Mr. Mike Smith, Chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea
08 June 2016
Geneva, 8 June 2016
Good morning and thank you all very much for coming to this briefing on today’s publication of the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. My name is Mike Smith, and I am the Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. Today, I am also representing my fellow Commissioners, Victor Dankwa and Sheila B. Keetharuth, who are unable to be here. I will briefly present our report and then open the floor to any questions you may have.
The Commission’s first report, released 12 months ago, documented a multitude of human rights violations in Eritrea. The Human Rights Council has asked us to determine whether these violations might amount to crimes against humanity and to address the issue of accountability.
The Commission has concluded that Eritrean officials have committed crimes against humanity. Crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts – have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic campaign since 1991 aimed at maintaining control over the population and perpetuating the Eritrean leadership’s rule. The Commission has made every effort to investigate the situation impartially and to report fairly, including with respect to serious human rights violations in Eritrea since the publication of the our first report. Unfortunately, the gross human rights violations we have documented are continuing to take place, they often happen behind closed doors and continue to instil fear in Eritreans, not only in the country but also in the diaspora.
The issues relating to Eritrea’s military/national service programmes include : i) their arbitrary and indefinite duration; ii) the use of conscripts as forced labour, including manual labour; iii) the inhumane conditions of service; iv) rape and torture often associated with service, and iv) their devastating impact on family life and freedom of choice. In addition, female conscripts are routinely subject to domestic servitude. Despite promises to the contrary, the Eritrean Government has taken no steps to address any of these problems. For these reasons, we have concluded that Eritrea’s programmes constitute crimes against humanity.
Eritrea’s military/national service programmes are not the same as, for example, in Switzerland where there are options about how a citizen can serve his or her country – where there are clear rules and full transparency. Very few Eritreans are ever released from their military service obligations.
The use of arbitrary detention is, and has been, rampant across Eritrea. It is not only reserved for critics of the Government. Indeed, many of the witnesses who we spoke to described arrest and lengthy detention for reasons difficult to discern or categorise. The vast majority of those detained said they had not been brought before a judge, tried or involved in any form of judicial proceeding whatsoever. In addition, the Government very rarely informs family members or judicial authorities about detentions, and most former detainees described widespread torture. In the past week, the Commission has received corroborated information that Eritreans expelled from Sudan to Eritrea in late May have been arrested and detained upon arrival in Eritrea, and that their families have had no access to them. Family members able to obtain unofficial information said that those who were in the national service, prior to leaving the country, were detained at Adi Abeito prison on the outskirts of Asmara, and that those who had not yet undergone military training are currently detained elsewhere, including in Tessenei and Hashferay, apparently awaiting transfer to military training centers. Some family members in Eritrea were able to obtain information about detained individuals through informal means, and not because they were officially notified about the detentions or permitted to visit the detainees.
The Commission has also found that the Eritrean Government consistently arrests innocent family members of individuals alleged to have committed a wrong. The Commission has concluded that these acts also constitute crimes against humanity, and that they are ongoing.
The Government of Eritrea permits only four religious denominations to practice. Members of other religious denominations are often subject to detention until such time as they renounce their denomination and accept membership in an officially authorised group. Ethnic minorities, including the Kunama and Afar, have also been subject to arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killing. The Commission has found that this extreme discrimination constitutes persecution and that it is also ongoing. Rape and murder have also been committed
The Commission has found that the crimes it has documented have been committed primarily, directly or indirectly, by government and ruling party officials, military commanders, and members of the National Security Office. The Commission has identified individual suspects and will provide our files on those individuals to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to assist future accountability mechanisms.
The Commission has also concluded that the Eritrean Government has neither the political will nor the institutional capacity to prosecute the crimes we have documented. It recommends that the UN Security Council refer the situation in Eritrea to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and that the African Union establish an accountability mechanism.
It has also asked Member States to prosecute or extradite suspects on their territories. These accountability mechanisms are not mutually exclusive. It has also recommended that the Security Council impose travel bans and asset freezes on individuals suspected of crimes against humanity.
The Commission has also reminded Eritrea in today’s report and the cover letter sent to President Isaias Afwerki of the importance of preventing the commission of crimes going forward. It has made 40 recommendations to the Government of Eritrea. Our recommendations are not exhaustive. The Commission remains open to engagement with the government of Eritrea in order to provide justice for the Eritrean people.