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Eritrea UN Commission of Inquiry: “time for true commitment and real change”

02 July 2015

“More than two decades have passed since Eritrea has emerged as a newly independent nation, full of hope for a free and prosperous future for all its citizens. Unfortunately, that promise remains unfulfilled… The Eritrea we see today is marked by repression and fear,” said Mike Smith, Chairperson of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea.

Smith was presenting to the Human Rights Council in Geneva the Commission’s 500-page report based on 550 testimonies and 160 submissions received by the Commission. It found that widespread and systematic gross human rights violations have and continue to be committed in total impunity by State institutions in Eritrea.

“Our findings are sobering. The many violations in Eritrea are of a scope and scale seldom seen anywhere else in today’s world,” Smith continued. “Basic freedoms are curtailed, from movement to expression; from religion to association. The Commission finds that crimes against humanity may have occurred with regard to torture, extrajudicial executions, forced labour and in the context of national service.”

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that by the end of 2014 some 417,000 Eritreans had braved deadly peril in the Mediterranean waters to reach the shores of southern Europe.   

Eritreans were “the second largest nationality after Syrians to resort to seaborne smugglers to cross the Mediterranean to Europe,” Smith pointed out.

Eritreans have never been able to participate in national, free, fair and democratic elections. They have virtually no privacy because of a massive surveillance network, the report describes. Their country is also notorious for its curtailment of the freedom of the press: in its latest report, Reporters without Borders has placed it at the bottom of their Press Freedom Index next to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Smith pointed out that Eritrea’s first Constitution adopted in 1997 had never been implemented. And what had shown great promise never bore fruit: Eritrea has no independent judiciary and no rule of law; tens of thousands of Eritreans have been arbitrarily detained, and torture is often used to obtain statements of self-incrimination, or to force religious believers to renounce their faith.

Smith added that the Eritrean Government, on the pretext of defending the State’s integrity and self-sufficiency, had subjected all Eritreans over the age of 18 to an open-ended national service, either in the army or civil service sometimes for periods exceeding a decade, in harsh and inhumane conditions. “Forced labour in this context is a practice similar to slavery in its effects and, as such, is prohibited under international human rights law,” Smith stressed.

“The Commission recommends that the Government start the process of acknowledging the existence of human rights violations and ensuring accountability for them…,” Smith said. “This should include the establishment of an independent and impartial mechanism to investigate and, where appropriate, bring perpetrators to justice, particularly those with command responsibility. Victims should receive adequate redress.”

Smith urged the international community to continue to provide protection to Eritrean asylum seekers and warned against sending them back to their country of origin where they could face arbitrary arrest, detention, ill treatment and forced labour. The Commission also documented cases of retaliation by the Eritrean Government against relatives of people who had fled that country.

“It is high time that the Government of Eritrea truly endeavours to improve the human rights of its people. We need real progress, not just words,” Smith said.

“It is now the responsibility of the Council to keep the human rights situation in Eritrea under close scrutiny,” Smith concluded.

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 Mr. Mike Smith (Australia), 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.

2 July 2015