Published on 12 Mar 2019
Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an enhanced interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.
Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that this year’s dialogue came at a pivotal moment for Eritrea, as, after a 20-year military stalemate, the signing of the peace agreement with Ethiopia could lay down foundations for resilient peace. Despite these positive developments, the Office of the High Commissioner had not seen any improvements in the actual situation of human rights. This was a historic opportunity to lift up the human rights of the people of Eritrea and for the Government to demonstrate that peace yielded true dividends for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Daniela Kravetz, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, welcomed Eritrea’s move to join the Council in 2019. Despite making progress, Eritrea had yet to put in place an adequate legal and institutional framework to uphold minimum human rights standards. The country had not implemented its 1997 Constitution, had no national assembly, and no independent judiciary or free press. Last year’s declaration of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia had created an expectation that Eritrea would implement reforms.
Tesfamicael Gerahtu, Head of the Eritrean delegation to the fortieth session of the Human Rights Council, said that despite challenges of peace, security and development, including under the pretext of human rights, Eritrea’s ground reality attested that there had never been any systematic crisis. The lifting of the United Nations sanctions on Eritrea was a welcome development. The Council was called on to terminate its confrontational approach that had existed for the past seven years, as there was no crisis that warranted a special mandate on Eritrea.
Vanessa Tsehaye, Founder, One Day Seyoum, said that the Government’s official response to everything that happened post 2001 was that it was because Ethiopia had no demarcated border, the so-called “no war, no peace” situation. The standoff at the border could not justify the horrible rape, torture and crimes committed. It did not justify the fact that the only university in the country had been shut down, that there was no free press, and that tens of thousands of people had been imprisoned without a trial.
Daniel Eyasu, Head of International Relations and Cooperation of the Union, National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, said that Eritreans, particularly youth, had paid a huge price for the 20 years of instability. The national service was critical for nation building and its characterization as modern slavery was unwarranted, unjustified and unacceptable. It was incumbent on all to recognise the need for the whole of society to participate in burden sharing responsibility and thus to extend the duration of national service.
In the ensuing discussion, delegations welcomed the peace process and expressed hope that the peace declaration and the various commitments signed by countries in the Horn of Africa would contribute to the protection of human rights. Eritrea was urged to engage with the Special Rapporteur; reform its military service and place limits on its terms; release all political prisoners; stop the continuing practice of arbitrary arrests; and end torture and inhumane detention conditions. Eritrea was called on to use recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review as a roadmap. Some speakers expressed concern that although Eritrea was now a member of the Council, it would not improve its human rights situation.
Speaking were European Union, Angola on behalf of the African Group, Ethiopia, Sudan, United Kingdom, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Czech Republic, Somalia, Australia, Venezuela, Russian Federation, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Iceland, Iran, China, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Hungary and Algeria.
The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Europe External Programme for Africa; East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project; Advocates for Human Rights; International Fellowship of Reconciliation; Jubilee Campaign; Christian Solidarity Worldwide; Maat for Peace, Development and Human Rights Association; and Human Rights Watch.
Lebanon spoke in a right of reply.
The Council will next meet at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 12 March, to hold an interactive dialogue with the Commission on South Sudan.
Enhanced Interactive Dialogue on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea
COLY SECK, President of the Human Rights Council, reminded that in its resolution 38/15, the Human Rights Council had decided to hold an enhanced interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, with the participation of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, civil society and other stakeholders.
KATE GILMORE, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that the dialogue came at an important moment, pivotal for the Horn of Africa and for Eritrea, as after a 20-year military stalemate, the signing of the peace agreement with Ethiopia could lay down foundations for resilient peace. It was a moment that could be seized by the Government to propel forward urgently needed and long-awaited reforms that would lift up human rights for the people of Eritrea, including reforms to its indefinite national service, adoption of a human rights based Constitution, and reforms to enable the introduction of private enterprise that could contribute to the country’s economic and social development. The Deputy High Commissioner appreciated Eritrea’s election to the Human Rights Council, as it signalled new openings for the authorities to fully embrace the responsibilities of the Council membership, including their obligations to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, who could provide expert guidance on ways to advance human rights in the country. Eritrea had participated in the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review in January 2019, with 261 recommendations issued to the Government. Those combined with the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur and the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights provided an authoritative roadmap to improve the human rights situation in Eritrea. However, it was regrettable that despite these positive developments, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Eritrea had not seen any improvements in the actual situation of human rights for Eritreans on the ground in the past year.
Eritrea’s 1997 Constitution had not been enforced, Ms. Gilmore reminded. For the sake of the dignity and protection of its people, the Deputy High Commissioner urged Eritrea to immediately take the necessary steps to correct that. The Government should tackle rampant impunity, release all those who had been subjected to unlawful and arbitrary detention, and allow civil society and human rights defenders to operate freely. The right to a fair trial must be respected while information should be provided to family members on the whereabouts of disappeared persons, with families provided access to justice as appropriate. Eritrea’s ranking in the 2018 world press freedom index remained unchanged compared to last year, whereas the continued use of indefinite national service remained a major human rights concern. Conscripts continued to confront open-ended duration of service, far beyond the 18 months stipulated by law and often in abusive conditions, which may include the use of torture, sexual violence and forced labour. Eritrea should bring its national service in line with the country’s international human rights obligations, the Deputy High Commissioner emphasized. In September 2018, the opening of the border with Ethiopia had led to an exodus of Eritreans. In the absence of promising signs of tangible progress, the flow of asylum-seekers was not expected to drop.
Presenting the Office of the High Commissioner’s actions on Eritrea, Ms. Gilmore reminded that following its last mission to Eritrea in October 2017, the Office had submitted a proposal for technical cooperation focused on reforms that Eritrea could adopt to bring its system of justice in line with international standards. It had further requested permission to visit Eritrea again and it looked forward to hearing back from the authorities on that. The Working Group on arbitrary detention and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peacefulassembly and of association had also sent requests to visit Eritrea, whereas Eritrea had invited the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and the Special Rapporteur on the right to education to carry out visits. It had also expressed interest in extending invitations to the mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, as well as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Office was ready to visit Eritrea to engage with the Government so that it could provide all the necessary assistance to help improve the human rights situation for the people of Eritrea. The recent international developments were an historic opportunity to lift up the human rights for the people of Eritrea, Ms. Gilmore stressed. It was a moment the country’s leadership could seize to demonstrate to the people of Eritrea that peace did indeed yield true dividends in respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
DANIELA KRAVETZ, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, welcomed Eritrea’s membership in the Human Rights Council, which showed a recognition by the Government of the central importance of that United Nations body. As a member of the Council, Eritrea was duty bound to respect the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. Eritrea’s membership in the Human Rights Council represented an opportunity for the Government to ensure that its nationals enjoyed all of their rights, including their civil and political rights. It was also an opportunity to strengthen its rule of law. Despite making progress, Eritrea had not yet put in place an adequate institutional and legal framework to uphold minimum human rights standards. It had yet to implement its 1997 Constitution, or to finalize the drafting and adoption of a new Constitution. Eritrea continued to have no national assembly to discuss and adopt laws regulating basic rights. There was no independent judiciary to enforce the protection of and respect for these rights. The country did not allow freedom of press, freedom of association, or freedom of expression. Freedom of religion, which was central to the ability of people to live together, was in practice not guaranteed for all faiths.
The situation of detainees was particularly concerning. Many had received no information as to why their relatives had been detained, where they were being held, or when they would be released. Some had spent over a decade looking for their relatives. Under international law, detainees had rights. Those included the right to be brought before a judge, the right to legal counsel, the right to be informed of the charges against them, and the right to family visits. Those were basic minimum standards. Last year’s declaration of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia had created expectations within Eritrea and in the international community that Eritrea would implement reforms. That had not yet happened. In particular, there had been no public announcement about a reduction of the duration of the national service or about any demobilization plans. Progress in promoting civil and political rights must be a critical part of Eritrea’s road to development, and Eritrea must take concrete steps to enable such progress. The Special Rapporteur urged Eritrea to live up to its international commitments as a member of the Human Rights Council. She remained willing to engage with Eritrean authorities in a constructive dialogue and cooperation.
TESFAMICAEL GERAHTU, Head of the Eritrean delegation to the fortieth session of the Human Rights Council, said that despite challenges to peace, security and development, including under the pretext of human rights, Eritrea’s ground reality attested there had never been any systematic crisis. Eritrea was participating in the enhanced interactive dialogue during an important historic development for both Eritrea and the Horn of Africa region. Eritrea wanted to appraise the Human Rights Council of a ground reality that had been neglected for the last seven years. There was a people-based political process of nation building, a people-power nexus, in the country. The negative effect of the last 20 years on the peace, security and development of the Horn of Africa region had been unprecedented, Mr. Gerahtu emphasized. Eritrea and Ethiopia had signed a peace, friendship and cooperation agreement, intending to harmonize efforts and policies and ensure peaceful coexistence. The lifting of the United Nations sanctions on Eritrea was a welcome development. The Government was now focused on three interrelated dimensions: macro-economic stability, comprehensive reorganization, and consolidation of institutions. Exerting pressure on Eritrea would be counterproductive. Nevertheless, Eritrea was committed to further strengthen its international cooperation. In the past eight years, Eritrea had been targeted by protracted country-specific resolutions and mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, which had not created any dividend in the promotion of human rights. In fact, they had undermined the engagement of Eritrea in the Universal Periodic Review as a viable way to address human rights concerns. In closing, Mr. Gerahtu called on the Council to terminate the confrontational approach that had lasted for the past seven years because there was no crisis that warranted a special mandate on Eritrea.
VANESSA TSEHAYE, Founder of One Day Seyoum, spoke as niece of Seyoum Tsehaye, a journalist and photographer who had been imprisoned without a trial in Eritrea since 2001. He was one of the members of the guerrilla group who had fought for the country’s independence and after the war had been won in 1991 he had expected democracy. In 2001, he had been imprisoned alongside other journalists because he had publicly demanded changes. The Government’s official response to everything that happened after 2001 was that it was because Ethiopia had no demarcated border. Without attempting to downplay what the Government had to deal with when facing threats to national security, Ms. Tsehaye said that the response was neither legal nor proportionate. There was no legal declaration of emergency and the standoff at the border could not justify horrible rapes, torture and other crimes committed, crimes that the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea had classified as crimes against humanity. It did not justify the fact that the only university in the country had been shut down, that there was no free press, and that tens of thousands of people had been imprisoned without a trial. It was hard to understand that anyone could take the Government’s justification seriously. Eight months after the peace deal, the Constitution was still not implemented, and the border was still not demarcated. There was no transparency about details of the peace agreement. Hope had an expiration date, and in the case of Eritrea, it was long overdue. The language of hope was being used to camouflage self-interest at the expense of the wellbeing of the Eritrean people. Ms. Tsehaye urged the Council to think about the Eritrean people, and the impact that its support had on prolonging their suffering.
DANIEL EYASU, Head of Cooperation and International Relations of the National Youth Union & Eritrean Students, thanked the Human Rights Council for the opportunity to present the voice of Eritrean youth. With more than 3,000 members, the organization’s aim was to ensure the responsible participation of Eritrean youth in national-building process, national unity and citizenship, and in Eritrea’s future. The broad, mass-based, extensive nature of the youth network gave it the liberty to provide a concrete representation of the situation in the country. The organization had provided follow-up to the Universal Periodic Review recommendations to Eritrea, and it had been involved in the preparation and compilation of reports. Mr. Eyasu noted that the Eritrean people, particularly youth, had paid a huge price for the 20 years of instability. The national service was critical for nation building and its characterization in the reports of the Council’s special procedures as modern slavery was unwarranted, unjustified and unacceptable. It was incumbent on everyone to recognize the need for the whole of society to participate in the responsibility of burden sharing. The Government had demobilized over 100,000 members of the national service in 2003, Mr. Eyasu pointed out. The Council should recognize that Eritrea had achieved significant progress, despite many challenges. He reiterated that there was no human rights crisis in Eritrea and he urged the Council to consider any issues through the Universal Periodic Review process.
European Union said it stood ready to support Eritrea’s investment in jobs, in support of efforts to demobilize the military. It encouraged Eritrea to support the establishment of an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the country and to engage with the Special Rapporteur in her work. Angola, speaking on behalf of the African Group, considered the peace agreements between the Horn of Africa countries as an essential development in the region. It called on Eritrea and the United Nations mechanisms to continue their ongoing cooperation in a constructive manner. Ethiopia stated that the peace declaration and the various commitments signed by countries in the Horn of Africa would contribute to the protection of human rights. It encouraged Eritrea to engage with the international community, including with the Human Rights Council, to ensure that human rights were upheld.
Sudan believed that the optimal way to promote human rights was through a non-biased and non-politicized approach, and through the provision of technical assistance. It encouraged Eritrea to continue its engagement with the international community, and it called for technical assistance to be extended to Eritrea. United Kingdom urged Eritrea to engage with the Special Rapporteur, given its obligations as a member of the Council, and to address the large scale detentions in the country, as set out by the Special Rapporteur. It also urged the Government to reform its military service to place limits on its terms. Belgium welcomed the recent efforts made by Eritrea in normalizing its relationship with Ethiopia, and expressed hope that the normalization would encourage Eritrean authorities to undertake reforms. Those should address the unlimited length of military service, human trafficking and violence against women.
Croatia was pleased to see an improvement of Eritrea’s relationships with other countries, but called on the Government to expedite work on reforms. Croatia called on Eritrea to use recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review as a roadmap for achieving that goal. Germany welcomed the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which offered a unique chance for regional stability. It called on Eritrea to end involuntary conscription, release all political prisoners, stop the continued practice of arbitrary arrests, and end torture and inhumane detention conditions. Czech Republic urged the Government of Eritrea to organize general elections in accordance with international democratic standards, as the last elections were in 1993. Had the Rapporteur witnessed any improvement in Eritrea’s cooperation with her mandate?
Somalia noted that a new chapter of regional cooperation was taking place in the Horn of Africa and it acknowledged Eritrea’s progress in improving the standard of living. However, more needed to be done to improve women’s representation in decision-making process and Somalia encouraged Eritrea to cooperate with the human rights mechanisms. Australia remained concerned about reports of forced labour and indefinite national service. Reports of torture and arbitrary and indefinite detention were alarming, and Australia thus called on Eritrea to uphold the international human rights conventions and to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur. Venezuela opposed the imposition of country-specific mandates, noting that the Universal Periodic Review was the best mechanism to improve the human rights situation in countries. The United Nations had to provide support to Eritrea in order for it to fulfil the recommendations.
Russian Federation observed that the discussion of the human rights situation in Eritrea was not objective, noting that it was led by outside forces who had an interest in destabilizing the region. The steady development of relations between Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti was welcome, and any issues of human rights should be discussed in a constructive setting, such as the Universal Periodic Review. Netherlands remained concerned about the human rights situation in Eritrea, particularly the indefinite national service, allegations of arbitrary detention, and allegations of the use of illicit means by Eritrea to collect diaspora tax from its nationals abroad. Netherlands urged Eritrea to build on the positive momentum and to accelerate necessary domestic reforms. France noted that despite some improvements in education and health policies, Eritrea should take all measures to improve the human rights situation in the country, put an end to the national service, and improve the respect of fundamental freedoms of its citizens.
Switzerland said that despite the signing of the peace agreement, the human rights situation in Eritrea remained worrying. It urged Eritrea to grant access to the Special Rapporteur, to demonstrate a real intention to cooperate with all the human rights mechanisms, and to act on all the recommendations in its Universal Periodic Review. Iceland stated that for progress to be made in Eritrea, comprehensive domestic reforms were needed and the 1997 constitution should be fully implemented. Iceland urged Eritrea to grant access to all international human rights mechanisms and instruments. Iran voiced its opposition to the politicization of human rights by singling out countries through non-constructive mandates. The Government of Eritrea faced many challenges in attaining international human rights standards; the role of the Council should be supportive rather than punitive.
China believed that Eritrea had improved the living conditions of vulnerable groups, including women and children. China understood the challenges it faced as a developing country, and it called on the international community to view Eritrea’s human rights situation in that context. Greece called on Eritrea to ensure the unimpeded work of journalists, human rights defenders and civil society in general. It expressed concern about the indefinite and compulsory nature of its national service. Luxembourg stated that the recent reconciliation between Eritrea and Ethiopia had given rise to hope, and it called on the authorities in Eritrea to bring about human rights changes. The indefinite military service was a human rights issue that greatly damaged the international image of the country and discouraged international investment.
Norway believed that the new dynamics in the Horn of Africa had raised hope for peace and normalization of relations, including improved human rights. It welcomed the willingness of the Government of Eritrea to engage with the international community. Saudi Arabia welcomed the positive developments between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which had culminated with the signing of the Jeddah Peace Accord of 2018, heralding the new era of peace and stability in the region. Saudi Arabia commended Eritrea’s efforts to promote human rights, in spite of multiple challenges. Djibouti believed that the opportunities provided by the peace and reconciliation developments in the Horn of Africa were significant. Djibouti had authorized the review of all individual cases of Eritrean prisoners of war held in Djiboutian prisons, but it remained concerned about the lack of information about the 13 remaining Djiboutian prisoners of war in Eritrea.
Hungary said that the election of Eritrea to the Council could be an opportunity for it to strengthen cooperation with human rights mechanisms. How could the Government of Eritrea be engaged to take forward institutional and legal reforms in the human rights area? Algeria welcomed positive dynamics in the Horn of Africa and urged countries involved to continue on the path of peace. Authorities were invited to constructively engage with the Office of the High Commissioner and the international community to provide adequate technical assistance.
Europe External Programme for Africa said that in 2018, the long-standing stalemate with Ethiopia had been resolved. This situation had been persistently cited by the Eritrean Government to supress rights and freedoms. Concern was expressed that the election of Eritrea to the Council might be used as a shield to hide the problematic record of human rights violations. East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project said that the opening of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border was positive for people of the region. However, grave concerns remained over Eritrea’s domestic human rights situation and Eritrea was urged to engage with the United Nations human rights system. Advocates for Human Rights drew attention to the forced military service and arbitrary detention, as many asylum seekers continued to flee from such situations in Eritrea. Arrests and detentions, without clear legal charges, solely due to connections to those that criticized the Government, were regularly reported. International Fellowship of Reconciliation noted that nothing had changed on the human rights front since Eritrea became a member of the Council and signed the peace agreement with Ethiopia. Peace had removed the only justification for the indefinite military and national service, but there had been no end to the endless forced conscription and over 10,000 prisoners of conscience were incarcerated in inhuman conditions.
Jubilee Campaign drew the Council’s attention to the lack of freedom of religion and belief in Eritrea. It highlighted the imprisonment of civilians for belonging to unregistered Christian denominations, including Jehovah Witnesses, Pentecostal Christians and Seventh Day Adventists, and called for their immediate release. Christian Solidarity Worldwide welcomed the improved relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia but was surprised that Catholic priests were not able to leave the country to participate in a church summit. It called for the immediate release of all those detained because of their religious beliefs and the creation of judicial mechanisms to hold identified perpetrators accountable. Maat for Peace, Development, and Human Rights Association stated that in addition to national service, shrinking civil society and crack downs, grave human rights violations against thousands Eritreans were perpetrated when then tried to leave the country. It recommended that Eritrea elaborate a strategy to promote the safe return of displaced people and to grant access to international human rights mechanisms and non-governmental organizations. Human Rights Watch regretted that there was little evidence that oppression in Eritrea had subsided since the signing of the peace agreement and highlighted that the Council’s Commission of Inquiry had labelled Eritrea’s national service as enslavement. It asked the delegation to outline a timetable for the demobilisation of its conscripts and to indicate whether it would allow the Special Rapporteur access to carry out her mandate.
KATE GILMORE, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she understood the need to extend the technical cooperation with Eritrea, adding that the Office of the High Commissioner had met with the delegation of Eritrea last week. The commitment was in place by the Office of the High Commissioner to extend support to Eritrea and work together in the administration of justice. Further meetings were expected to discuss details. The Government’s outreach to the Special Procedures was welcomed.
DANIELA KRAVETZ, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, said that peace with Ethiopia represented a chance to put an end to the indefinite national service and to focus on institution building and empowering civil society. The lack of an adequate institutional and legal framework was the major barrier; the lack of a constitution, of a national assembly, and of a system of checks and balances. As she only started her mandate in November, the Special Rapporteur said she had made a few requests to meet with the delegation and so far no response was received, but she hoped that this would change soon. The situation of detainees was a particularly important issue, and it had to be a top priority. Human rights should be at the centre of development and economic projects, and States were urged to consider a human rights perspective when initiating international cooperation. The mandate included the development of benchmarks and a time plan for Eritrea going forward, so States were invited to share their inputs, and the delegation of Eritrea was particularly called on to share their input.
TESFAMICAEL GERAHTU, Head of the Eritrean delegation to the fortieth session of the Human Rights Council, disagreed with the way Eritrea was portrayed in the interactive dialogue. Eritrea was ready to seize the opportunity presented by its membership of the Council, but he regretted that the difficult situation that the country had been in over the past 20 years had been downplayed, which was unacceptable. The repeated comments made by some speakers, who expected changes overnight, were unrealistic. The offensive language used regarding forced conscription was wrong, and did not recognize that the military service had served to assert national survival in a time of hostilities. Nevertheless, transformation was underway to make changes to the national service in Eritrea, such as efforts to reintegrate national service recruits, even though these were not mentioned in the interactive dialogue. The membership of Eritrea in the Council was about responsibility for everybody. They were not in the Council to defend themselves, but to make modest progress, to detoxify the atmosphere in the Council, and to work with others to bring about changes. In addressing the criticism that Eritrea had not engaged with the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Gerahtu indicated they had requested to meet her here in Geneva.
VANESSA TSEHAYE, Founder of One Day Seyoum, addressed the issue of the politicization of human rights. The Eritrean delegate had created a false dichotomy between the Government and the international community, and he forgot one important group, the Eritrean people. The Eritrean people had no interest in politicizing their situation, or the human rights abuses that they were being subjected to. The Eritrean delegate spoke of the national service programme as part of his reality, but he was not the one in the camps, and was not the one serving his country indefinitely. The Eritrean people should remain front and centre of this discussion, and they should not get stuck in the hypocrisy of countries that was well known before and after the Council.
Right of Reply
Lebanon, speaking in a right of reply in response to allegations made by Israel during the interactive dialogue on Iran, said Israel was taking advantage of the debates in the Council for its own agenda, to disguise that they were occupying territories, including parts of Lebanon. Groups in Lebanon operated in line with the law and they were not terrorist groups.
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