Eritrea: Scathing UN Report [HRW]

(Nairobi) – Eritrea should implement the recommendations of a year-long United Nations Commission of Inquiry that concluded that serious human rights violations in Eritrea may amount to crimes against humanity. The commission released its 484-page report on June 8, 2015.

The commission said that “the international community” should protect tens of thousands of Eritreans who have fled or continue to try to flee their country, and promote safe channels for regular migration, particularly for those attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Approximately 5,000 Eritreans are fleeing their country each month, the commission said.

“This authoritative report rightly condemns the horrific patterns of torture, arbitrary detention, and indefinite conscription that are prompting so many Eritreans to flee their country,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “In the absence of tangible human rights reforms by Eritrea’s government, host countries, particularly in the European Union, should not close the door on Eritrean asylum seekers or send them back to almost certain abuse.”

The UN Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry in June 2014 to investigate human rights abuses in Eritrea since the country’s independence in 1991. The commission conducted over 500 interviews and found that “systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations persist” and that it is “not law that rules Eritreans but fear.” Human Rights Watch interviews in May 2015 with 85 Eritreans who fled Eritrea as recently as March concur with the commission’s conclusion that there has been no improvement in Eritrea’s human rights practices.

The report provides substantial evidence of longstanding patterns of human rights violations in Eritrea, concluding that abuses remain pervasive, systemic, and the product of deliberate government policy. The report says that arbitrary arrests are rampant, detainees are rarely charged or brought to trial, and scores of people have been victims of “enforced disappearances.”

The commission said that prisoners are kept in “extremely harsh” conditions of confinement; some are held incommunicado indefinitely. People practicing any religion other than the four approved by the government are subject to arrest, harassment, and mistreatment in detention.

Citizens are subject to constant surveillance and violations of privacy. Freedom of movement is restricted, with permits required for movement beyond the community where a person works or lives. Political parties are prohibited, there are no independent media, and Eritrea has not held an election since independence.

The commission’s findings reiterate the role of Eritrea’s abusive military and national service in prompting thousands of Eritreans to flee – especially youth, and even children. Eritrean law requires each person to serve 18 months of military or national service, but in practice most conscripts spend most of their working lives in national service, where “slavery-like practices are routine.” During that time they are subject to what the commission calls “the systematic violation of an array of human rights on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere in the world.”

The report also places foreign companies doing business in Eritrea on notice that the use of forced labor is prevalent throughout the economy.

The commission also recommends that the international community should “continue to provide protection to all those who have fled and continue to flee Eritrea owing to severe violations of their rights or fear thereof” and that governments should “end bilateral and other arrangements that jeopardize the lives of those who seek asylum.”

A number of European countries, including the UK, Denmark, and Norway, have recently changed or considered changing policy to be less receptive to Eritrean asylum seekers following a controversial and deeply flawed Danish immigration report about Eritrea. The Danish report, based on interviews with Western diplomats and Eritrean government officials, suggested that the Eritrean government had begun enforcing the 18-month limit on military and national service. The Danish immigration service later backtracked on parts of the report.

In an important Independence Day address to the nation in May, however, President Isayas Afwerki made no mention of a change in policy or practice on conscription. None of the 85 people Human Rights Watch interviewed, including those who fled as recently as March, had heard of any change in policy and there is no indication of increased discharge rates from indefinite military conscription.

The EU has proposed a multi-million-euro development package for Eritrea in the hope of stemming the flow of asylum seekers, according to media reports. However the commission of inquiry repudiated some governments’ unsubstantiated suggestions that those fleeing Eritrea are doing so primarily for economic reasons. That, the commission wrote, ignores the “dire situation of human rights in Eritrea and the very real suffering of its people.” The commission also noted that Eritreans forced to return to Eritrea “have been arrested, detained and subjected to ill-treatment and torture.”

The commission stressed the relevance of continued in-depth documentation of the human rights situation in Eritrea. The Human Rights Council should expand its scrutiny, renew the mandate of the special rapporteur on Eritrea, and send a clear message that any decisions on refugee status by government authorities considering Eritrean asylum claims should be informed by the commission’s findings, Human Rights Watch said.

“The commission’s in-depth fact-finding shows that the overwhelming majority of Eritrean asylum seekers will have good reasons to fear persecution if returned and will continue to flee until there are human rights reforms, not just economic improvements, in their country,” Lefkow said. “Host countries should have generous policies toward Eritrean asylum seekers and avoid bilateral agreements with the Eritrean government to repatriate people for the foreseeable future.”

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