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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL HOLDS AN INTERACTIVE DIALOGUE WITH THE SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN ERITREA

26 June 2018

The Human Rights Council this morning held an interactive dialogue with Sheila Keetharuth, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea.

In her presentation, Ms. Keetharuth regretted that she was unable to report tangible improvements in the human rights situation in Eritrea.  The main violations as identified in her first and subsequent reports remained unchanged.  Patterns of human rights violations ascertained over time persisted, namely arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detention, indefinite military service amounting to forced labour, and severe restrictions of fundamental freedoms.  Ms. Keetharuth welcomed recent efforts to reach peaceful solutions to Eritrea’s boundary dispute with Ethiopia. 

Eritrea, speaking as the concerned country, said it was being harassed by the mandate and the Council.  The report was not driven by human rights concerns, but by a political objective to isolate Eritrea, thus abusing human rights instruments.  The lack of objectivity in the report was reflected in the denial of Eritrean achievements and unfounded claims.  Eritrea rejected the report and launched an appeal for the Council to stop this harassment and engage in a constructive dialogue such as the one present in the Universal Periodic Review, in line with the principles of objectivity and non-selectivity. 

During the interactive dialogue, delegations voiced regret over Eritrea’s lack of cooperation with the Special Rapporteur.  The Government was urged to cooperate fully with human rights mechanisms and grant full, unhindered access to mandate holders.  While there was an overall lack of progress in the human rights situation, speakers pointed to improvements on gender equality and increased dialogue between Eritrea and Ethiopia on boundary issues.  Some States said they disapproved of country-specific mandates and said only constructive dialogue could advance human rights.

The following delegations took part in the discussion: European Union, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland, Djibouti, Switzerland, Sudan, Netherlands, Spain, Greece, Venezuela, China, United Kingdom, Algeria, Belarus, Cuba, Russian Federation, and France.

Also taking the floor were the following civil society organizations: Centre for Global Nonkilling in a joint statement, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Human Rights Watch, CIVICUS- World Alliance for Citizens Participation, Article 19- International Centre against Censorship, and Association Mauritanienne pour la promotion du droit.


The Council will next hold an interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.  It will also hear an address by Karin Kneissl, Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs of Austria. 


Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea (A/HRC/38/50)

Presentation of Report by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea

SHEILA B. KEETHARUTH, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, regretted that she was not able to report tangible improvements in the human rights situation in Eritrea.  The main violations as identified in her first and subsequent reports remained unchanged.  Patterns of human rights violations ascertained over time persisted, namely arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detention, indefinite military service amounting to forced labour, and severe restrictions of fundamental freedoms.  Ms. Keetharuth expressed concern about the continued detention of children.  Eritreans had and would continue risking their lives to flee a climate of repression and human rights abuse in their country.  She reiterated her call to host countries to continue providing protection to Eritreans and to refrain from sending them back as the risks of punishment for having left were high. 

Ms. Keetharuth highlighted a development that could lead to positive changes in the Horn of Africa, namely the implementation of the 2000 Algiers Peace Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the 2002 decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission to delimit the border between the two countries.  The non-implementation and the status quo could not serve as a justification for Eritrea’s repressive practices, namely violations in the context of the military service.  In that respect, Ms. Keetharuth welcomed the recent efforts to reach peaceful solutions, and called on both parties to ensure that human rights remained a central consideration.  She called on the international community, Member States and the United Nations to use their good offices to facilitate a dialogue which would lead to enhanced respect for human rights.  Concluding her tenure as the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Keetharuth reiterated that various actors bore responsibility for a future where the human rights of Eritrean people were fully respected.  She called on Eritrea to put an immediate stop to the indefinite national service and to arbitrary arrests and detention.  It should immediately release all those arbitrarily detained, especially children, women, the elderly and prisoners of conscience. 

Statement by the Concerned Country

Eritrea, speaking as a concerned country, said that Eritrea was being harassed by the mandate and the Council.  The report was not driven by human rights concerns, but by a political objective to isolate Eritrea, thus abusing human rights instruments.  It was unfortunate that the Council was considering the report.  The lack of objectivity in the report was reflected in the denial of Eritrean achievements and unfounded claims.  Eritrea’s reality continued to be negated in violation of the United Nations principles.  The report failed to acknowledge reforms.  Eritrea did acknowledge it was facing problems in consolidating its national legislative framework like many other countries.  However, all regional and international conventions on human rights were incorporated.  Strategic development plans were also incorporated.  Commendable achievements which were widely recognized offered a glimpse of the true progress in spite of the narrative present in the report.  Eritrea was preparing for its third Universal Periodic Review.  Eritrea rejected the report and launched an appeal for the Council to stop this harassment and engage in a constructive dialogue such as the one present in the Universal Periodic Review in line with the principles of objectivity and non-selectivity. 

Interactive Dialogue

European Union remained deeply concerned over the lack of progress in Eritrea on issues highlighted by the Special Rapporteur.  Eritrea was called on to cooperate fully with United Nations mechanisms and grant the Special Rapporteur full and unhindered access to the country.  The European Union asked what the general trend of women’s rights in Eritrea was.  Norway regretted that the Special Rapporteur had not been invited to Eritrea and hoped there would be greater cooperation with her successor.  Norway was concerned over grave human rights violations but recognized advances made on gender equality.  Norway asked how further progress on women’s rights could be made.  Belgium said the Special Rapporteur faced difficult conditions resulting from Eritrea’s lack of cooperation.  The lack of independence of the justice system was a major barrier to the development of the rule of law.  Belgium asked how regional human rights bodies could support efforts to improve the situation in Eritrea.

Switzerland noted discussions between Eritrea and Ethiopia and reiterated its support for increased dialogue.  Switzerland recalled the fact that it was vital to guarantee free access to United Nations human rights mechanisms.  Switzerland asked which Special Procedures should be the first to conduct visits to Eritrea.  Djibouti said the lack of cooperation from Eritrea was a major challenge to advancing the situation of human rights in the country.  The Government continued to fail in the compliance of international human rights and humanitarian law.  Djibouti called for the immediate release of all arbitrarily detained persons.   Australia welcomed Eritrea’s decision to send a delegation to Ethiopia to discuss boundary issues.  Australia encouraged Eritrea to build on progress made in the field of human rights as a component of its economic development.  Australia asked what concrete benchmarks could support tangible progress in Eritrea.

Sudan welcomed the recent positive developments between Eritrea and Ethiopia, adding that mandates imposed on States did not achieve the desired goals and were contrary to the work of the Human Rights Council, threatening the principles of sovereignty and international cooperation.  Netherlands said that the human rights situation in Eritrea showed no improvement and that it remained ground for serious concern.  It was particularly worried about the continued practices of indefinite national service, arbitrary detentions, and absence of a valid constitution and the rule of law, as well as of freedom of expression, religion or belief.  Spain shared the Special Rapporteur’s concern about the human rights situation in Eritrea, where institutions were weak and Government officials were not law abiding.  It regretted the arbitrary arrests of children and the elderly, often leading to the death of detainees in custody, as well as lawless land expropriations. 

Greece added its voice to all those who had called on the Government of Eritrea to pay heed to the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations and to proceed with all suggested actions to improve the human rights situation in the country.  It also urged Eritrea to respect land and property rights, including those of foreign communities.  Venezuela opposed any country specific action against developing countries, particularly when they did not enjoy the acceptance of the concerned country.  Those mandates did nothing for human rights on the ground.  Eritrea worked for the human rights of its people through its participation in the Universal Periodic Review.  China advocated for constructive dialogue and cooperation to address the differences in human rights.  The international community should recognize the progress and achievements of Eritrea in the area of human rights, and it should offer constructive assistance to Eritrea. 

Comments by the Special Rapporteur

SHEILA B. KEETHARUTH, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, agreed that the preferred mode of collecting information and engaging with Eritrea would be directly with the Government.  In that vein she had tried several times, but the Government had not extended an invitation.  Progress in the area of women’s rights was noted, but there were reports about sexual violence in the national service.  Education was available to all women but there was hidden discrimination in place.  Families took their own coping measures concerning the national service.  For example, prior to going to twelfth grade, girls would remain at home instead of continuing with education.  Prison conditions were dire across Eritrea and particularly had a negative impact on women, resulting in several deaths. 

Progress was noted in banning female genital mutilation but more data was needed, especially concerning the number of prosecutions.  Political will was the result behind the advancement of women’s rights and the same political will was lacking when it had come to the improvement of civil and political rights.  Where was the Constitution of Eritrea? Political will had to be transferred from women’s rights to political rights and that would change the human rights landscape.  The openness of Eritrea to engage with all human rights instruments was needed and it should not pick and choose.  It would be good if a mandate holder on arbitrary detention would be able to visit the country as well as the mandate holder on freedom of religion or belief as well as freedom of religion.  This was particularly important as 19 journalists had been arrested; they had been released but were still incommunicado.  There was cooperation between mandates at the global level and regional organizations through the Addis Ababa road map.  This was important as regional organizations had a proximity relationship with countries. 

As concerned the advancement of accountability, the commission of inquiry had reasonable ground to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed in Eritrea.  It was important that people had access to justice but deep impunity persisted and it was unfortunate that victims of crimes against humanity were not able to get remedies.

Interactive Dialogue

United Kingdom said that Eritrea remained a priority country for the United Kingdom’s engagement on human rights. It renewed it call for the Government to reform the national service system, implement the constitution, and release those arbitrary detained, including journalists.  Algeria welcomed positive developments achieved in relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Renewed contact was a promising sign needed to implement the Algerian peace agreement as well as the conclusions of the Commission on the demarcation of the border. 

Belarus said country-specific procedures were not the most effective approach to promoting and protecting human rights.  The mandate on Eritrea was created without the agreement of the Government concerned and would be unable to effectively monitor the situation on the ground.  Reports based on remote monitoring were unreliable.  Cuba regretted that the Special Rapporteur’s report was not made available in all official languages.  Cuba was not in favour of involving the United Nations Security Council in matters of human rights as this would eliminate the possibility of fostering cooperation and technical assistance.  The Human Rights Council must explore a respectful dialogue on Eritrea.

Russian Federation noted that the discussion on Eritrea was politicised.  Russia stressed that human rights situations in individual countries must be discussed in a constructive manner with the cooperation of the concerned country.  The best approach to addressing human rights was the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.  France remained concerned over the human rights situation in Eritrea.  The Special Rapporteur’s report showed ongoing human rights violations, including attacks on freedom of expression.  The Government was urged to heed recommendations included in the report.  The Human Rights Council must continue to monitor the situation.

Centre for Global Nonkilling said the situation in Eritrea was worsening and the Government was unwilling to act in the face of human rights violations.  Eritreans were fleeing the country for fear of arbitrary detention.  National service recruits remained bonded to an indefinite bondage of slavery.  Christian Solidarity Worldwide pointed to the arbitrary detention of an Eritrean national taken from his office in 2003.  The man was held incommunicado until his death in 2017.  Prison officials were aware of health concerns, yet failed to act.  Many prisoners of conscious were dying in Eritrean jails.

East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project reiterated that the human rights violations for which the Government of Eritrea was responsible, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity, called for accountability.  It urged all States to exercise jurisdiction over Eritrean cases, including through the use of universal jurisdiction for crimes under international law.  International Fellowship of Reconciliation drew attention to crimes against humanity committed in Eritrea, and commended the efforts of the Special Rapporteur to document those crimes and to champion the rights of victims.  The organization reminded that there was no constitution in Eritrea, no independent judiciary, and no civil society.  Human Rights Watch regretted that Eritrea had repeatedly ignored the Council’s concerns and that the situation remained unchanged.  Prisoners remained in jail without trial, indefinitely and sometimes incommunicado, and torture in detention continued.  The Eritrean Government had used the “no peace no war” situation with neighbouring Ethiopia as a justification for the indefinite national service.

CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation, in a joint statement, expressed concern about the targeting and detention of individuals in Eritrea who dared to express their opinion.  It urged the Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and to maintain attention on some of the most egregious human rights violations in sub-Saharan Africa.  Article 19 – International Centre against Censorship remained disturbed that those who were seen or perceived to speak against the Eritrean Government or its policies continued to face harsh reprisals, including against their family members.  The Government-controlled media was the only type of local media in Eritrea.  The organization called on the Government to cooperate constructively with the Special Rapporteur.  Association Mauritanienne pour la promotion du droit noted that the current narrative that pervaded the international community’s views on Eritrea did not align with the reality on the ground, and it did not provide effective and constructive engagement with a sovereign State.  Those flaws in the methodology highlighted concerns of a politicized and de-investment campaign aided by fake news which violated the principle of “do no harm.”

Concluding Remarks

SHEILA B. KEETHARUTH, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, called on Eritrea to stop the indefinite national service and arbitrary detention.  All detainees had to be released, especially children, elderly and prisoners of conscience.  Poor conditions were observed both in formal and hidden detention centres.  The crowded rooms, and the quality and quantity of food were inadequate, causing starvation and minimising access to light.  Lack of adequate sanitary facilities had resulted in unnecessary humiliation for female detainees.  Prisons were used as places of torture.  Eritrean authorities were asked to ensure that detainees were able to challenge detention, use legal aid, to use pre-trial detention as a last resort, and to develop alternative measures to detention.  Proactive steps had to be taken to address incarceration.  Not implementing the right to non-refoulement in transit countries was jeopardizing the life of asylum seekers from Eritrea.  For all those reasons, the Council had to continue monitoring the human rights situation in Eritrea.  The presence of the Office of the High Commissioner had to result in concrete changes on the ground.  Conscript labour was used in Eritrea and almost 300 small business had been closed recently, impacting on income generating activity of people.  As no reforms were being implemented, scrutiny was still needed, particularly in regards to accountability, detention conditions, freedom of association, and forced labour.  The report clearly laid out priorities.


For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC18.092E