Op-Ed: Damning findings of Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea require urgent response

On Monday this week, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Eritrea released its much-anticipated report on the human rights situation in the country from independence to date. Its findings are damning: systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and continue to be committed under the authority of the government. While not mandated to investigate crimes under international law, the Commission also posited that crimes against humanity may have been committed in Eritrea and called for further investigations to be carried out.

In 484 pages of detailed findings, based on interviews with 550 witnesses and 160 written submissions, the Commission describes the rule by fear through which Eritrean citizens are systematically stripped of their fundamental freedoms: in the report’s own words, ‘controlled, silenced and isolated… abused, exploited and enslaved.’

The Commission’s findings tally with the violations reported consistently by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations over many years, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detention, enforced disappearances, torture, forced labour in indefinite national service and severe restrictions on freedom of expression and religion. In the 22 years since independence, the government has systematically crushed any opposition, silenced all forms of dissent and punished anyone who refuses to comply.

The report is all the more significant given the government’s outright hostility to any monitoring of the human rights situation in Eritrea. Access to the country is closely controlled by the government, which has consistently refused entry to anyone that might scrutinise their human rights record too closely or too publicly. The COI, the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and independent human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have all repeatedly been denied access to Eritrea. Those visits that are permitted are closely choreographed.

This control extends far beyond Eritrea’s borders. Chillingly, the Commission reported that almost all the victims and witnesses they spoke to, all outside the country, feared reprisals by the authorities, either against themselves or family members still living in Eritrea, and believed that the authorities were able to monitor their activities through a network of spies and informants in the diaspora.

Continuing obligation to protect those who flee

Against this backdrop of fear, intimidation and a stranglehold on the free flow of information, a number of Western governments have in recent months attempted to paint a more positive image of the situation in Eritrea. On the back of a short fact-finding mission with limited access, the Danish Immigration Services for example produced a now widely discredited report which asserted that the human rights situation is ‘not as bad as it has been described’ by organizations such as Amnesty International and drew the conclusion that it would be safe to return some Eritreans to the country.

One of the COI’s most significant conclusions, however, is that it is indeed the human rights situation in Eritrea that lies behind the ever-increasing number of Eritreans leaving their country at the rate of around 5,000 people every month. It notes that 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.’ The Commission is very clear in its recommendation: pending tangible evidence of reforms, the international community must continue to provide protection to all those who have fled and continue to flee the dire human rights situation in Eritrea.

Reassessing the parameters of international engagement

The Commission’s findings also necessitate a fundamental reassessment of current trends in engagement with Eritrea on the part of the region and the rest of the international community. While some governments have been eager to jump on the slightest indications of reform to open the way for the repatriation of some Eritreans, far greater proof is needed before bringing in significant policies changes, such as in the area of asylum, where people’s lives and well-being are at stake.

The Danish, British and Norwegian authorities have all carried out brief fact-finding missions to the country, during which they have received reassurances that, for instance, the government intended to comply with an 18-month limit on compulsory national service. It is worth pausing to note that this is simply a commitment to comply with Eritrea’s own laws as they stand, rather than the current practice of extending the term of service for many years and frequently indefinitely. In the context of the absolute repression in the country, this would indeed mark a sea change in behaviour – if proven. Independent and unfettered access for human rights monitors is therefore essential, and according to media reports, the Norwegian Minister of Justice has at least acknowledged that they did not have good enough knowledge of the conditions in the country to begin to return people, and sought to secure access for experts and observers to assess the situation.

The Commission has recommended that the government seek technical assistance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other agencies, as appropriate, to help them implement their recommendations, as well as recommendations from Eritrea’s universal periodic review and made by other human rights mechanisms. If this is to have any meaning, these agencies must ensure that human rights is at the centre of their engagement and they must, for example, insist on immediate access for the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea and others, including to the scores of detention facilities identified by the Commission. Providing technical assistance on implementing human rights recommendations in a context where human rights monitors and observers do not have access to monitor, document and report on the situation would be impossible, and attempts to do so may defeat its very purpose.

Amnesty International has reported on the thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners held by the Eritrean authorities in secret detention, without charge or trial. Many hundreds of families are not informed of arrests or of the whereabouts of their relatives; have never heard from them after their arrest and do not know if they are alive or dead. Some have even been arrested and detained themselves for asking questions about their family members. The COI has also reported on numerous cases of secret detentions amounting to enforced disappearance.

As a bare minimum indication of the government’s willingness to reform, regional governments and the rest of the international community must demand the release of political prisoners and victims of enforced disappearances, where this is not possible, information on their fate and the steps taken to ensure accountability for serious human rights violations committed against them. To fail to do so is an insult to the thousands upon of thousands of people detained simply for what they have said or for their beliefs.

As the Human Rights Council prepares to respond to the Commission’s report in two weeks’ time, concern for human rights and the well-being of Eritrean citizens must be at the heart of the regional and international engagement with Eritrea. Anything less is a betrayal of the trust of the hundreds of Eritreans who dared to speak out and share their testimony with the Commission.