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“Citing an array of human rights violations on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere, the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea describes a totalitarian state bent on controlling Eritreans through a vast security apparatus that has penetrated all levels of society. ‘Information gathered through the pervasive control system is used in absolute arbitrariness to keep the population in a state of permanent anxiety,’ the 500-page report says. ‘It is not law that rules Eritreans – but fear.’ – Press release, Office of UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.
This new United Nations report, released on June 8 and scheduled to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 23, is a devastating and well-documented indictment, substantiating reports from multiple human rights organizations in recent years. The prospects of direct short-term effects on the ruling regime in Eritrea, or on the willingness of the international community to significantly increase pressure on the regime, are limited.
However, depending on the political climate on immigration issues in each country, it could have an impact, particularly in Europe, on the legal strategies available for Eritrean asylum-seekers, as well as on European policies on development aid for the country.
The implications of the report are that because of the situation from which they are fleeing, Eritrean asylum-seekers should have a prima facie case for refugee status. The recognition rate in industrial countries was between 80% to 90% in 2014, according to November 2014 data from the UNCHR. Yet the trend, paralleling growing anti-immigrant sentiment in many countries, has been to move towards more restrictive policies (as in Denmark and in the UK). The UN report provides additional evidence for use by policy advocates and immigration lawyers, although its impact depends on conditions in particular potential receiving countries.
What is certain is that the flow of asylum-seekers will continue as long as the fundamental causes are not addressed, that attempts to control it by heightening restrictions will fail, and that both international law and humanitarian imperatives require new measures for protection both of asylum-seekers and of all migrants.
Among additional relevant recent sources:
Analysis of implications of UN Commission report by Mirjam van Reisen and Klara Smits, June 8, 2015
For additional background and testimonies, see the website of Human Rights Concern Eritrea (http://hrc-eritrea.org/).
UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Eritrea, April 2009
“Number of Eritreans seeking asylum in Europe increases threefold in a year,” Guardian, November 21, 2014
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Office of UN High Commissioner on Human Rights
Geneva (8 June 2015) — The Government of Eritrea is responsible for systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations that have created a climate of fear in which dissent is stifled, a large proportion of the population is subjected to forced labour and imprisonment, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country, according to a UN report released Monday. Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity.
Citing an array of human rights violations on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere, the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea describes a totalitarian state bent on controlling Eritreans through a vast security apparatus that has penetrated all levels of society.
“Information gathered through the pervasive control system is used in absolute arbitrariness to keep the population in a state of permanent anxiety,” the 500-page report says. “It is not law that rules Eritreans – but fear.”
The release of the report comes as the international community, particularly governments in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, struggles to cope with a growing exodus of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants across the Mediterranean and along other irregular routes. Many of them are Eritreans, a significant proportion of whom fall victim to human traffickers while trying to reach Europe. The UN refugee agency placed the number of Eritreans under its concern outside the country at more than 357,400 in mid-2014.
The report strongly urges continued international protection for Eritrean refugees fleeing human rights violations, and warns against sending them back to danger in a country that punishes anyone who tries to leave without permission.
“Faced with a seemingly hopeless situation they feel powerless to change, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country,” the report says. “In desperation, they resort to deadly escape routes through deserts and neighbouring war-torn countries and across dangerous seas in search of safety. They risk capture, torture and death at the hands of ruthless human traffickers. To ascribe their decision to leave solely to economic reasons is to ignore the dire situation of human rights in Eritrea and the very real suffering of its people. Eritreans are fleeing severe human rights violations in their country and are in need of international protection.”
The commission of inquiry was established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014 to conduct an investigation of all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea, including: extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and inhumane prison conditions; violations of freedom of expression and opinion; freedom of association and assembly; freedom of religion and belief; freedom of movement; and forced military conscription.
The three-member commission is chaired by Mr. Mike Smith (Australia), with 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, as commissioners.
Announcing the release of the report Monday, Ms. Keetharuth urged renewed commitment from the international community to help end the climate of fear in Eritrea.
“With the end of the commission’s investigations and the publication of this report detailing our findings on human rights violations in Eritrea, I look forward to a renewed commitment by the international community to address the justice deficit and to support our call for a restoration of the rule of law,” she said. “Rule by fear – fear of indefinite conscription, of arbitrary and incommunicado detention, of torture and other human rights violations – must end.”
The commission is scheduled to formally present its report to the UN Human Rights Council on June 23 in Geneva.
Eritrean authorities ignored repeated requests by the commission for direct access to the country as well as for information. The commission travelled to eight other countries and carried out some 550 confidential interviews with Eritrean witnesses who had fled the Horn of Africa nation. In addition, it received some 160 written submissions.
The report says fear of reprisals, even among witnesses now in third countries, was a major challenge.
“Many potential witnesses residing outside Eritrea were afraid to testify, even on a confidential basis, because they assumed they were still being clandestinely monitored by the authorities and therefore feared for their safety and for family members back in Eritrea,” the report says.
The report notes that the initial promise of democracy and rule of law that came with Eritrea’s independence in 1991 has been extinguished by the Government under the pretext of national defence.
“The commission finds that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Government of Eritrea and that there is no accountability for them,” it says. “The enjoyment of rights and freedoms are severely curtailed in an overall context of a total lack of rule of law. The commission also finds that the violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labour may constitute crimes against humanity. The commission emphasizes that its present findings should not be interpreted as a conclusion that international crimes have not been committed in other areas.”
The report lists the main perpetrators of these violations as the Eritrean Defence Forces, in particular the Eritrean Army; the National Security Office; the Eritrean Police Forces; the Ministry of Information; the Ministry of Justice; the Ministry of Defence; the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ); the Office of the President; and the President.
The report describes the repressive systems used by the Government to control, silence and isolate individuals, including a pervasive domestic surveillance network in which neighbours spy on neighbours and even family members mistrust each other.
“As a result of this mass surveillance, Eritreans live in constant fear that their conduct is or may be monitored by security agents and that information gathered may be used against them, leading to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, disappearance or death,” it says.
The judicial system in the country lacks independence and the administration of justice is “completely deficient,” the report says. Arbitrary detention is ubiquitous and conditions of detention in the country’s vast network of jails are extremely harsh. Holding prisoners incommunicado is a widespread practice, and many detainees simply disappear. In addition, many detainees have no idea why they are being held, nor of the length of their imprisonment.
“The commission finds that the use of torture is so widespread that it can only conclude it is a policy of the Government to encourage its use for the punishment of individuals perceived as opponents to its rule and for the extraction of confessions,” the report says. “Monitoring of detention centres is non-existent and perpetrators are never brought to justice.”
The report also describes how the Government, under the pretext of defending the integrity of the State and ensuring national selfsufficiency, has subjected much of the population to open-ended national service, either in the army or through the civil service. When they turn 18 or even before, all Eritreans are conscripted. While national service is supposed to last 18 months, in reality conscripts end up serving for an indefinite period, often for years in harsh and inhumane conditions.
Thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labour that effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years. Women conscripts are at extreme risk of sexual violence during national service.
Many others – detainees, students, members of the militia – are also subjected to forced labour: “The use of forced labour is so prevalent in Eritrea that all sectors of the economy rely on it and all Eritreans are likely to be subject to it at one point in their lives,” the report says.
“The commission concludes that forced labour in this context is a practice similar to slavery in its effects and, as such, is prohibited under international human rights law.”
A/HRC/29/42, June 4, 2015
Excerpts from section III: Principal Findings of the Commission and Section IV: Conclusions
Full report and documentation available at: http://tinyurl.com/q9noeak
23. The commission finds that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government. Patterns of systematic human rights violations have been identified, taking into account several factors. They include the high frequency of occurrence of the human rights violations documented and corroborated during the investigation, the number of victims and the replication of the violation during a certain period of time; the type of rights violated; and the systemic nature of these violations, meaning that they cannot be the result of random or isolated acts of the authorities. The main perpetrators of these violations are the Eritrean Defence Forces, in particular the Eritrean Army; the National Security Office; the Eritrean Police Forces; the Ministry of Information; the Ministry of Justice; the Ministry of Defence; the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ); the Office of the President; and the President.
24. The struggle for the independence of Eritrea is recorded in history as a major feat of a people’s fight for self-determination. The commission finds that the current situation of human rights in Eritrea is the tragic product of an initial desire to protect and ensure the survival of the young State that very quickly degenerated into the use of totalitarian practices aimed at perpetuating the power of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and its successor, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.
25. In the present report, the commission shows how the initial promises of democracy and rule of law, incarnated in the neverimplemented Constitution of 1997, were progressively suppressed then extinguished by the Government on the pretext of threats to its existence. It details how the Government has created and sustained repressive systems to control, silence and isolate individuals in the country, depriving them of their fundamental freedoms. It shows how information collected on people’s activities, their supposed intentions and even conjectured thoughts is used to rule through fear in a country where individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, disappeared or extra-judicially executed. The commission also describes how, under the pretext of defending the integrity of the State and ensuring its selfsufficiency, Eritreans are subject to systems of national service and forced labour that effectively abuse, exploit and enslave them for indefinite periods of time.
26. Faced with a seemingly hopeless situation they feel powerless to change, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country. In desperation, they resort to deadly escape routes through deserts and neighbouring war-torn countries and across dangerous seas in search of safety. They risk capture, torture and death at the hands of ruthless human traffickers. To ascribe their decision to leave solely to economic reasons is to ignore the dire situation of human rights in Eritrea and the very real suffering of its people. Eritreans are fleeing severe human rights violations in their country and are in need of international protection.
66. The commission finds that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Government of Eritrea and that there is no accountability for them. The enjoyment of rights and freedoms are severely curtailed in an overall context of a total lack of rule of law. The commission also finds that the violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labour may constitute crimes against humanity. The commission emphasizes that its present findings should not be interpreted as a conclusion that international crimes have not been committed in other areas.
67. Following up on practices developed during the liberation struggle, the PFDJ, the ruling and only party in Eritrea, has held on to power by progressively dismantling or refraining from implementing reforms aimed at establishing democracy and rule of law in the country. Through the establishment of control systems and the application of harsh repression, the PFDJ has eroded public freedoms and established a rule of fear that tolerates no opposition. It has blurred the lines between the three sources of constitutional authority by concentrating all power in the executive, and in particular in the figure of the President – who is also the head of the party, at the cost of the legislature and the judiciary. National elections have never been held.
68. The PFDJ has established a system by which an extraordinary number of individuals have the power to spy on Eritreans and conduct investigations and arrests often without observing the law. The proliferation of national security offices and of officers assigned to administrative offices but with an intelligence mandate – and their overlap with the party’s own intelligence and with military intelligence – is a major concern.
69. What was meant to be the supreme law of the country, the Constitution of 1997, has never been implemented. The National Assembly stopped convening in 2002. Even while it was sitting, laws were passed by government decree (“Proclamation”); since 2002, it has been the exclusive way to promulgate legislation. …
70. The judiciary is not independent. Judges are appointed, reassigned and dismissed at the will of the President and are directed in their actions and influenced in their decisions by members of the PFDJ and of the army. …
71. Eritreans are unable to move at will, to express themselves freely, to practice their religion without undue interference, to enjoy unrestricted access to information or to have the liberty to assemble and associate. Pervasive control systems and heavy consequences for perceived deviant behaviours, including lifetime incarceration or death, have created an environment of selfcensorship whereby individuals no longer trust anyone – not even their own family.
72. Continuing practices already recorded during the liberation struggle when dealing with internal and external opposition, the Government has since independence used enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions to crush real or perceived opposition and prevent the rise of any opposing views. The commission finds particularly abhorrent the Government’s practice of acknowledging arrests while providing no further information regarding the fate or whereabouts of those arrested.
73. Arbitrary detention is ubiquitous. The number of officials misusing the power of arrest is particularly worrisome, as is the number of official, unofficial and secret places of detention – all outside the control of the judiciary. Conditions of detention are extremely harsh, and the lack of access to sufficient food, water and medical care while in detention is found to debilitate prisoners and to lead to short- and long-term health complications, and sometimes death. The practice of keeping detainees in incommunicado detention and/or in isolation with total disregard for international standards is widespread. The mental and physical health of prisoners is thus unduly and unnecessarily affected.
74. Persons arrested, detained or held for punishment under various circumstances, including during national service and military training, are routinely subject to forms of ill-treatment that, in many cases, amount to torture. The commission finds that the use of torture is so widespread that it can only conclude that it is a policy of the Government to encourage its use for the punishment of individuals perceived as deviant and for extorting confessions. Monitoring of detention centres is non-existent, and perpetrators of torture are never brought to justice.
75. The commission finds that the practice of punishing family members for the behaviour of a relative constitutes a form of guilt by association that is in violation of international standards. Retaliation of this kind can be financial or take the form of harassment (including abroad), arbitrary arrest and detention. Targets can be relatives of perceived critics of the Government, conscripts who have deserted, detainees who have escaped or individuals who had fled the country.
76. Controlled access to property, including land, has allowed the Government to use such resources as a further means to punish those in perceived disagreement with it and to reward supporters. The commission finds that military and party representatives in particular have abused their authority to seize land, houses and businesses for their own profit.
77. Since 1994, Eritreans have had to spend most of their working lives in national service. The duration of national service is indefinite, its conditions violate international standards and conscripts are severely underpaid . As such, it is an institution where slavery-like practices take place. Conscripts are at the mercy of their superiors, who exercise control and command over their subordinates without restriction in a way that violates human rights and without ever being held accountable. Conscripts are regularly subjected to punishment amounting to torture and ill-treatment, during both military training and life in the army. Women and girls are at a high risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence in all areas of national service, and particularly in military training camps, where they are often forced into concubinage by superiors in the camp. Eritreans who attempt to avoid conscription or escape from the military are severely punished and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty.
78. The Government has unlawfully and consistently been using conscripts and other members of the population, including members of the militia, many beyond retirement age, as forced labourers to construct infrastructure and to pursue the aim of economic development and self-sufficiency of the State, thus indirectly supporting the continued existence of a totalitarian Government that has been in power for the past 24 years. The use of forced labour is so prevalent in Eritrea that all sectors of the economy rely on it, and all Eritreans are likely to be subject to it at some stage in their lives. The Government also regularly profits from the almost free work exacted from conscripts and detainees to obtain illegitimate financial gain when they are “lent” to foreign companies paying salaries to the Government that are considerably higher than the amounts paid by the Government to the workers.
79. The situation of human rights incites an ever-increasing number of Eritreans to leave their country. Overall, it is estimated that approximately 5,000 people leave Eritrea each month, mainly to neighbouring countries. The trend has been upwards, with a marked spike during the latter months of 2014. In October 2014, the registered refugee population was 109,594 in the Sudan and 106,859 in Ethiopia. The total Eritrean population of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in mid-2014 was 357,406; depending on estimates of the current population, this would constitute between 6 and 10 per cent of the national population. Thousands of Eritreans are killed at sea while attempting to reach European shores. The practice of kidnapping migrating individuals, who are released on ransom after enduring horrible torture or killed, targets Eritreans in particular. Episodes of Eritreans killed inside the country while trying to leave have also been recorded.
80. Discrimination and violence against women are present in all areas of Eritrean society. Women are not only at extreme risk of sexual violence within the military and in military training camps, but also in society at large, where violence against women is perpetrated in an environment of impunity. Discrimination against women intersects with the other human rights violations, placing women in a position of vulnerability. Violations of the right to property, employment and freedom of movement result in women being vulnerable to food insecurity, engaging in transactional sex and prostitution and at heightened risk of punishment for non-sanctioned work. The lack of genuine rule of law, credible security agencies and independent and impartial women’s civil society organizations leaves women and girls unable to seek recourse to justice or remedy for the sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination they endure.
82. The commission has not benefited from any form of cooperation from the Government of Eritrea. The limited access to the country by international and regional governmental and nongovernmental organizations is of great concern, particularly in the context of a Government that maintains an opaque system and that does not make information publicly available to either its citizens or the international community.