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Statements Special Procedures

Statement by Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea at the 37th session of the Human Rights Council

12 March 2018

12 March 2018

Mr. President,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

While participating in this enhanced interactive dialogue I intend to provide an update on the situation of human rights in Eritrea. My monitoring of the current situation shows that the patterns of human rights violations identified by both my mandate and that of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea continue unabated. Little has changed regarding basic human rights since in 2012, when this Council gave me the responsibility to monitor, document, analyse, report and make recommendations on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, now almost five and a half years ago. I will focus on the right to life, the right to liberty and security of the person, freedom from arbitrary arrests and detention, freedom of expression, assembly and association, and freedom of religious belief, to name but these ones.

Arbitrary arrests and death in custody

When I addressed the Third Committee of the General Assembly in October2017, I pointed out that Eritrea continued to keep people in custody until death. Following the recent events in the Akhria neighbourhood of Asmara another name has been added to the long list of known and unknown individuals who die while in the custody of the Eritrean Government.

On Saturday 3 March 2018, the family of Haji Musa Mohamednur, aged 93 years, received information that the respected elder and former freedom fighter died while in jail. He had been arbitrarily arrested and detained for almost four months. Reports reaching me from credible sources point to the arrest of hundreds to people, mainly males, some of them children as young as thirteen years, after the burial of Haji Musa. The arrests continue.

The genesis of these continuing serious breaches of international human rights law is as follows: Haji Musa Mohamednur was put in jail in October 2017, and afforded no due process since. Members of the management committee, including Haji Musa, and other school officials were arrested because they declined implementing the orders of the Government relating to the administration of the Al Diaa private secondary school located in the Akhria neighbourhood. They resisted the imposition of restrictions, including banning Muslim girls attending the school from wearing the veil or hijab, the discontinuation of religious teachings as well as the introduction of co-education.

On 31 October 2017, people marched to protest against the arrests of school officials and the government-imposed restrictions, exercising their right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association. Armed law enforcement officers violently dispersed the crowd, wielding truncheons and firing shots in the air. Hundreds of people were arbitrarily arrested on that day.  In the aftermath, more people were arrested from the Akhria neighbourhood, including students of the school. Reports indicate that while some people have been released, an unknown number remain in custody following this first wave of arrests.

After the burial of Haji Musa Mohamednur on Saturday 4 March, the second wave of arrests started. I continue to receive reports of arrests, including of children, aged 13 years. The Government of Eritrea implemented its notorious and repeatedly documented modus operandi once more: mass arrests to instil fear; those in custody are not allowed to exercise their rights to due process to challenge the legality of their detention; family members have not received any formal notification of the arrest and detention of their loved ones. However, some family members have been able to find out their whereabouts through informal channels and deliver food and clothing.

The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, of which I was a member, already documented cases of death in custody. The responsibility for death in custody falls squarely on Government authorities and impunity cannot be allowed to prevail.

Freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly

The Government tried to portray the resistance by the Al Diaa school leadership as a Muslim conspiracy and uprising. The indiscriminate mass arrests in October 2017 and during the past week are carried out to quell any kind of protest or resistance in the face of human rights violations. The fear to share anything that could be perceived by the Government as criticism, such as details about the arrest and detention of a relative, remains high. Shots were fired, but no one was hurt. The participation in the funeral of Haji Musa on 4 March was also severely punished when the Government arrested hundreds who attended.

Freedom of religion and belief

Followers of both recognised and unrecognised religions continue to be targeted for their religious beliefs. Government interference persists. The Minor Seminary School in Asmara, which provides religious education to aspiring priests and nuns of the Catholic church, was closed in October 2017. Two representatives of the school, a priest and a nun, were arrested and detained for refusing to hand over the list of students enrolled at the school. Six health clinics run by the Catholic church across the country have been closed between November and December 2017.

The seminary attached the Nda Mariam, the Orthodox Cathedral in Asmara, has also been closed.

The Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox church was threatened to step down, so that a new person could be appointed.  However, he resisted. He continues to remain under house arrest, being constantly monitored by a minder who controls access to him. Harassment, mistreatment, torture and detention of members of unrecognised religions continue.

Economic, social and cultural rights

Currently, reportedly the economy has reached stagnation point.  Several businesses were closed following the change of currency notes in 2015. The withdrawal limit from bank accounts remains 5,000 Nakfa. Some 200 to 300 small businesses such as coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, cinemas, pharmacies, photo studios, workshops and clothes stores, have been closed in Asmara, Keren and other cities in recent months. Business owners have been accused of hoarding cash and not depositing the money in banks, an action triggering the Government to close their businesses. Business owners were not informed about the closure prior to their shops being sealed by a ‘taashigu’, a note from the Ministry of Interior glued on the door. The means of livelihoods of scores of people are thus affected.

Lack of access

Independent observers and researchers continue to be denied access. There is still no free and independent reporting on the situation by Eritreans from within the country. Sharing information abroad, including short video clips of events as they happen, or suspicion of doing so, can expose oneself to arrests and detention.  In such circumstances, claims made by the Government regarding their adherence to human rights norms cannot be verified. Sustained scrutiny is critical, given the continuing serious human rights situation.

What progress has been registered despite increased international engagement?

Some Governments and international actors have invested in strengthening their engagement with the Government of Eritrea, in an effort to normalise relations over the past three years or so. I end by posing a question: what tangible progress has been achieved on the ground regarding the fundamental human rights I have dealt with in my update? What concrete steps have been taken for necessary transformation? From my vantage point, there is very little to write home about.

Thank you.