UN Commission of Inquiry indicts Eritrea for crimes against humanity

A detailed and damning report by the UN Commission of Inquiry, released on Wednesday this week (June 8), states unequivocally that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea over the past 25 years. It lists "crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts|" that were, the report says, all "part of a campaign to instill fear in, deter opposition from and ultimately to control the Eritrean civilian population since 1991". The 94 page report provides detailed evidence of its claims. Mike Smith, chair of the Commission of Inquiry said these crimes were still occurring today.

The Commission's report describes Eritrea as "an authoritarian State without an independent judiciary or a national assembly or any democratic institutions", and Mr. Smith said, "There is no genuine prospect of the Eritrean judicial system holding perpetrators to account in a fair and transparent manner. The perpetrators of these crimes must face justice and the victims' voices must be heard. The international community should now take steps, including using the International Criminal Court, national courts and other available mechanisms to ensure there is accountability for the atrocities being committed in Eritrea." The report noted there had been no improvement in the human rights situation in Eritrea documented in the first Commission of Inquiry report published just a year ago.

The report highlights that "Eritreans also continue to be subjected to indefinite national service, arbitrary detention, reprisals for the alleged conduct of family members, discrimination on religious or ethnic grounds, sexual and gender-based violence and killings." The indefinite duration of military and national service programs, it pointed out, are frequently cited by Eritreans as the main reason for fleeing the country. In 2015, 47,025 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe, many making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in unsafe boats, exploited by smugglers in search of safety. The numbers leaving the country have steadily increased in the last few years.

The report said that "particular individuals, including officials at the highest levels of State, the ruling party – the People's Front for Democracy and Justice – and commanding officers bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations." It added that "the National Security Office is responsible for most cases of arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance and torture in official and unofficial detention centres." The Commission said that it had compiled dossiers of evidence on a number of individuals whom the Commission "has reasonable grounds to believe bear responsibility for crimes against humanity". It said this evidence will be made available "at the appropriate time to relevant institutions, including courts of law, following strict witness protection requirements, to ensure there is justice for the Eritrean people." For the moment, these dossiers and the names of those in them remain confidential.

The Commission's report also detailed its methodology. In addition to the 833 testimonies it took from Eritreans, including 160 written submissions received during the first term of the Commission of Inquiry, from mid-2014 to mid-2015, the Commission also received another 44,267 written submissions during its second investigation. The vast majority of these were group letters and petitions critical of the Commission's first report. Almost all contained common themes and similar content and were the direct result of an organized Government campaign to try to discredit the Commission of Inquiry. The Commission contacted over two thousand of these and "next to none …had actually read the report, and many had been provided with sensationalized information about the Commission's findings." The most fervent critics were those who had left Eritrea around 1991 and most based their comments either on an "erroneous understanding, or deliberate misinformation, about the United Nations sanctions regime." Others admitted being illiterate and receiving assistance from an Eritrean Embassy in formulating their letters. In some cases signatures had been forged; in others cases, Eritrean officials had made it known that Eritreans who did not write to the Commission supporting the Government would not have their passports renewed.

Many came from people who said they visited Eritrea briefly during the summer to see relatives. The Commission said that "the façade of calm and normality that is apparent to the occasional visitor to the country, and others confined to sections of the capital, belies the consistent patterns of serious human rights violations." It added: "the types of gross human rights violations in Eritrea documented by the Commission … are not committed on the streets of Asmara, but rather behind the walls of detention facilities and in military training camps. Torture and rape are not normally perpetrated in the open." The Commission also noted that as on previous occasions, despite repeated requests to the Government, the Commission was refused permission to visit the country.

The conclusions of the report are quite clear and bear quoting in full:

"(341) The Commission finds that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea since 1991. Eritrean officials have engaged in a persistent, widespread and systematic attack against the country's civilian population since 1991. They have committed, and continue to commit, the crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder. 

"(342) In the absence of a constitution, an independent judiciary or democratic institutions in Eritrea, the Commission has found no improvement in the rule of law. The Commission has heard of no plans to hold national elections. While the Commission was informed about the establishment of a committee to consider drafting a new constitution, it has received no further details.

"(343) The Commission finds that the gross human rights violations it documented in its previous report persist, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture, killings, sexual and gender-based violence, discrimination on the basis of religion and ethnicity, and reprisals for the alleged conduct of family members. In addition, many of those subjected to enforced disappearance in the past remain unaccounted for.

"(344) While the Commission notes the State's increased engagement with the international community, there is no evidence of progress in the field of human rights. Human rights violations are cited as the main motivating factor for departure by the consistently large number of Eritreans fleeing the country, including by the rising number of unaccompanied minors.

"(345) Eritreans continue to be subjected to indefinite military/national service. The Government has recently confirmed that there are no plans to limit its duration to the statutory 18 months. Conscripts are drafted for an indefinite duration of service in often abusive conditions, and used as forced labour.

"(346) Political power and control are concentrated in the hands of the President and a small circle of military and political loyalists. The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that the top levels of the National Security Office and the military are responsible for most cases of arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance and torture. Military commanders are also responsible for abuses committed in the context of the Government's military service programmes and at Eritrean borders. The leadership of the party and the military also benefit from the use of military/national service conscripts as forced labour."

The Commission provides a comprehensive list of recommendations to the Government of Eritrea, the UN and the UN Security Council, the AU and to member states and international organizations and transnational corporations. These include a call for the Government of Eritrea to implement fully and without delay the Constitution of 1997, to carry out changes in governance, allow political parties and free, fair and transparent democratic elections and establish the rule of law. The Commission says indefinite military/national service should be limited to 18 months for all current and future conscripts, torture, ill-treatment, sexual violence and enslavement of conscripts as well as forced labor of conscripts should be discontinued. It calls for an end to arbitrary detention and the closure of all secret detention centers, and independent monitoring of all places of detention. It wants an end to the arrest of individuals for religious beliefs and protection for all minority ethnic groups, in particular the Kunama and the Afar. It says the Government should implement a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse in the army and in detention centers, stop harassment and reprisals against relatives and associates of persons accused of wrongdoing. It should also put an end to extrajudicial killings, and provide accountability for past and persistent human rights violations and crimes, including "enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, and other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder."

The report recommends that the UN Human Rights Council renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, keep the situation in Eritrea on its agenda, and transmit the present report to the General Assembly, the Secretary-General and the UN Security Council for follow-up. It also suggests the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights establishes a structure with a protection and promotion mandate to assist in ensuring accountability for human rights violations in Eritrea, especially where such violations amount to crimes against humanity.

It recommends that the UN General Assembly puts the human rights situation in Eritrea on its agenda and that UN Security Council classify the situation of human rights in Eritrea as posing a threat to international peace and security. It suggests the UN Security Council should impose targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on persons where there are reasonable grounds to believe they are responsible for crimes against humanity or other gross violations of human rights. It also calls for the Security Council to refer the situation in Eritrea to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The African Union should establish a mechanism, supported by the international community, to investigate and prosecute individuals in Eritrea who may reasonably be believed to have committed crimes against humanity.

The report says Member States and international organizations should keep Eritrea under close scrutiny until visible progress can be seen in human rights. It calls for the implementation of the decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission on the delimitation of the border, though it might have added that Ethiopia has been trying unsuccessfully to get Eritrea to open a dialogue on demarcation of the border or over a decade. It wants the International Labour Organization to keep Eritrea on its agenda and continue to address the issue of forced labor. Member states, it says, should provide Eritrean nationals seeking protection with refugee status. They should also act if any alleged offender, accused of crimes against humanity, arrives in the territory of a Member State. It concludes by calling on all transnational corporations operating in Eritrea to conduct human rights impact assessments. They should specifically look at the possibility that Eritrean contractors rely on the use of conscript labor, as well as issues arising from the problems of freedom of association and expression in Eritrea and the absence of financial transparency.

Despite the plethora of detailed evidence produced, the Commission's report was strongly attacked by Eritrean officials as might be expected. Indeed, the government has been trying to organize a massive petition to present to the UN Human Rights Council against the Commission. In addition to organizing tens of thousands of written submissions criticizing the Commission, the government also mobilized armed Ethiopian opposition groups based in Eritrea  to campaign against the Commission. Presidential Adviser, Yemane Gebreab, in a press statement on Wednesday, claimed the report failed to meet "principles of impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity" and "lacked the minimum standards of rigor and professionalism." He alleged it had produced "no solid evidence or firm legal basis to support its extreme and unfounded charges", and its methodology was " so deeply flawed as to seriously compromise its findings and render its conclusions null and void." The report, he asserted, was entirely one-sided and its evaluation of the "evidence" it received was "woefully inadequate." It lacked balance as it ignored "any positive development" including, he said "Eritrea's significant achievements in political and civic rights". Eritrea, he said, therefore rejects "the politically motivated and groundless accusations and the destructive recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry."

The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea was first established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014. The Commission's first report was published on 8 June 2015. It documented a number of grave human rights violations in the State's military/national service program and concluded that there might have been crimes against humanity committed in Eritrea. The UN Council of Human Rights then asked the Commission of Inquiry to investigate further . The Commission consists of three independent experts: Chairperson Mr. Mike Smith (Australia), Mr. Victor Dankwa (Ghana) and Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth (Mauritius), who is also the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea. It will formally present its report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 21.