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Time to Stop Eritrea's Rule by Fear


Time to Stop Eritrea's Rule by Fear

Martha Halefom


The world already knows Eritrea's reputation as a regional spoiler and exporter of instability. For that reason, the United Nations Security Council imposed a well-deserved sanction on the Eritrean regime in resolution 1907 (2009), which prohibited Eritrea from supporting armed opposition groups, which aim to destabilize the region.

In particular, the UN prohibited the Eritrea regime from harboring, financing, facilitating, supporting, organizing, training, or inciting individuals or groups to perpetrate acts of violence or terrorist acts against other States or their citizens in the region. In addition, it established a Monitoring Group to investigate whether Eritrea abided by the resolution.

The Monitoring Group repeatedly exposed that the Eritrea regime did not stop arming, training, or equipping armed groups and their members. Indeed, it explicitly point out that, "Eritrea’s support for regional armed groups is linked to its larger foreign policy".

One of the main decisions of the Security Council had been that Eritrea shall

"cease using extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea from its nationals or other individuals of Eritrean descent, decides further that States shall undertake appropriate measures to hold accountable, consistent with international law, those individuals on their territory who are acting, officially or unofficially, on behalf of the Eritrean government or the PFDJ..."

However, Eritrea's Ambassadors continued money extortion and, as a result, several countries reprimanded Eritrea's diplomatic missions.

After seeing that its resolutions are being ignored, the UN started taking a closer look at the belligerent and irresponsible regime of Eritrea. Indeed, in 2012 the Human Rights Council appointed a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea and adopted a resolution that:

"the Council strongly condemns the continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights committed by the Eritrean authorities, including arbitrary executions, enforced disappearances and systematic use of torture; the severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression; the forced conscription of citizens for indefinite periods and the shoot-to-kill practice employed on the borders of Eritrea to stop Eritrean citizens seeking to flee their country.”

It called upon the Eritrea Regime to end its use of arbitrary detention and torture; to release all political prisoners, including the “G-11”; to allow regular access to all prisoners; to put an end to the policy of indefinite military service; to allow humanitarian organizations to operate; to end ‘guilt-by-association’ policies that target family members of those who evade national service or seek to flee Eritrea; to cooperate fully with the United Nations, in accordance to international human rights obligations; urges Eritrea to make available information pertaining to Djiboutian combatants missing in action since the clashes of 10 to 12 June 2008 so that those concerned may ascertain the presence and condition of Djiboutian prisoners of war. 

However, Eritrea failed to adhere to the resolutions and continued to act in total disregard of the Council's concerns and recommendations. Instead, it resorted to denial and silly diversion tactics by talking of foreign conspiracies against the state.

As a result, the UN Human Rights Council decided last year:

"to establish, for a period of one year, a commission of inquiry comprising three members, one of whom should be the Special Rapporteur, with the other two members appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council".

According to the resolution of the Council, the commission of inquiry will investigate all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea, as outlined in the reports of the Special Rapporteur.

The government of Eritrea was not cooperative. It did not respond to the commission’s repeated calls for access and for information related to the human rights situation.

In spite of the fact that it was denied access to Eritrea, the commission obtained first-hand testimony by conducting confidential interviews with witnesses residing in third countries and published its final report this week.

As it detailed in the report:

The commission and its secretariat conducted confidential interviews with more than 550 witnesses, 100 of whom were women. In accordance with best practices, it paid special attention to gender issues and the gendered impact of violations.

Nevertheless, it faced significant difficulties in the investigation and documentation of human rights violations suffered by women. The commission therefore takes the view that its inquiry may have only partially captured the extent of sexual violence and violence against women.

In November 2014, the commission made a call for written submissions to relevant individuals, groups and organizations. By the deadline, 160 submissions had been received.

The Commission conducted reviewed these informations in line with the established practices applied by other international commissions of inquiry, besides to pursuing alternative avenues to obtain direct and first-hand information in a transparent, independent and impartial manner.

The findings were incriminatory. Indeed, the Commission's report, which was released this week, accurately identified the camouflage that the Asmara regime has used to disguise its irresponsible domestic policies.

The Commission stated:

In the pretext of defending the integrity of the State and ensuring its self-sufficiency, Eritreans are subject to systems of national service and forced labour that effectively abuse, exploit and enslave them for indefinite periods of time.

In its lengthy report, the commission detailed how the Eritrea regime has:

"created and sustained repressive systems to control, silence and isolate individuals in the country, depriving them of their fundamental freedoms. Information collected on people’s activities, their supposed intentions and even conjectured thoughts are used to rule through fear in a country where individuals are routinely arbitrarily arrested and detained, tortured, disappeared or extrajudicially executed".

Let us highlight the main points covered in the report.

With regard to PFDJ's dictatorship, the report illuminated:

The PFDJ, the ruling and only party in Eritrea, has held on to power by progressively dismantling or refraining from implementing reforms aimed at establishing democracy and rule of law in the country.

Through the establishment of control systems and the application of harsh repression, the PFDJ has eroded public freedoms and established a rule of fear that tolerates no opposition. It has blurred the lines between the three sources of constitutional authority by concentrating all power in the executive, and in particular, in the figure of the President – who is the head of the party, at the cost of the legislature and the judiciary. National elections have never been held.

The PFDJ has established a system by which an extraordinary number of individuals have the power to spy on Eritreans and conduct investigations and arrests often without observing the law. The proliferation of national security offices and of officers assigned to administrative offices but with an intelligence mandate – and their overlap with the party’s own intelligence and with military intelligence – is a major concern.

Describing the regime's rule by fiat rather than laws, the commission said:

What was meant to be the supreme law of the country, the Constitution of 1997, has never been implemented. The National Assembly stopped convening in 2002. Even while it was sitting, laws were passed by government decree (“Proclamation”); since 2002, it has been the exclusive way to promulgate legislation.

It is of particular concern that some important policies adopted by the Government, including those severely affecting individual rights and freedoms, are not embodied in law; they are simply “announced” by government media or in messages passed on by local administrations and implemented in practice, with all the ambiguities of such a procedure.

This modus operandi has undermined the legitimate expectations of Eritreans on the certainty of laws and on proper legislative processes separated from and under the control of an independent legislature.

The Judiciary system is a mockery of the fundamental principles as the Commission observed. The report said:

The Judiciary is not independent. Judges are appointed, reassigned and dismissed at the will of the President and are directed in their actions and influenced in their decisions by members of the PFDJ and of the army

The judicial system has also been affected by the creation of a parallel structure, the Special Court, which, in practice, presides over and rules on all kinds of crimes, operating with clear disregard for the most basic safeguards related to due process.

Its judges are senior military officers without legal training, apparently directly appointed by the President and directly accountable to him. Globally, administration of justice is completely deficient, particularly when it comes to processing cases of persons in detention.

Concerning Freedom of movement and free expression, the report states:

Eritreans are unable to move at will, to express themselves freely, to practice their religion without undue interference, to enjoy unrestricted access to information or to have the liberty to assemble and associate. Pervasive control systems and heavy consequences for perceived deviant behaviors, including lifetime incarceration or death, have created an environment of self-censorship whereby individuals no longer trust anyone – not even their own family.

The right to life is one the basic rights the Eritrean regime routinely violates. The commission found that:

Continuing practices already recorded during the liberation struggle when dealing with internal and external opposition, the Government has since independence used enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions to crush real or perceived opposition and prevent the rise of any opposing views.

The violation of the rights of detainees is another area on which the report illuminated. The matter was described in the report:

The Commission found particularly abhorrent the Government’s practice of acknowledging arrests while providing no further information regarding the fate or whereabouts of those arrested. Arbitrary detention is ubiquitous. The number of officials misusing the power of arrest is particularly worrisome, as is the number of official, unofficial and secret places of detention – all outside the control of the judiciary.

Conditions of detention are extremely harsh, and the lack of access to sufficient food, water and medical care while in detention is found to debilitate prisoners and to lead to short- and long-term health complications, and sometimes death. The practice of keeping detainees in incommunicado detention and/or in isolation with total disregard for international standards is widespread. The mental and physical health of prisoners is thus unduly and unnecessarily affected.

Persons arrested, detained or held for punishment under various circumstances, including during national service and military training, are routinely subject to forms of ill-treatment that, in many cases, amount to torture. The Commission found that the use of torture is so widespread that it can only conclude that it is a policy of the Government to encourage its use for the punishment of individuals perceived as deviant and for extorting confessions. Monitoring of detention centers is non-existent, and perpetrators of torture are never brought to justice.

It is widely known that the Eritrea regime punishes relatives and family of its opponents and other suspected people. That is now confirmed in the Commission's report as follows:

The Commission found that the practice of punishing family members for the behavior of a relative constitutes a form of guilt by association that is in violation of international standards. Retaliation of this kind can be financial or take the form of harassment (including abroad), arbitrary arrest and detention. Targets can be relatives of perceived critics of the Government, conscripts who have deserted, detainees who have escaped or individuals who had fled the country.

Controlled access to property, including land, has allowed the Government to use such resources as a further means to punish those in perceived disagreement with it and to reward supporters. The Commission finds that military and party representatives in particular have abused their authority to seize land, houses and businesses for their own profit.

The so-called National Service is another area on which the Commission made incriminator observations. In the report, it stated:

Eritreans have had to spend most of their working lives in national service since 1994. The duration of national service is indefinite, its conditions violate international standards and conscripts are severely underpaid. As such, it is an institution where slavery-like practices take place. Conscripts are at the mercy of their superiors, who exercise control and command over their subordinates without restriction in a way that violates human rights and without ever being held accountable.

Conscripts are regularly subjected to punishment amounting to torture and ill-treatment, during both military training and life in the army. Women and girls are at a high risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence in all areas of national service, and particularly in military training camps, where they are often forced into concubinage by superiors in the camp. Eritreans who attempt to avoid conscription or escape from the military are severely punished and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty.

The regime has unlawfully and consistently been using conscripts and other members of the population, including members of the militia, many beyond retirement age, as forced labourers to construct infrastructure and to pursue the aim of economic development and self-sufficiency of the State, thus indirectly supporting the continued existence of a totalitarian Government that has been in power for the past 24 years.

The use of forced labour is so prevalent in Eritrea that all sectors of the economy rely on it, and all Eritreans are likely to be subject to it at some stage in their lives. The Government also regularly profits from the almost free work exacted from conscripts and detainees to obtain illegitimate financial gain when they are “lent” to foreign companies paying salaries to the Government that are considerably higher than the amounts paid by the Government to the workers.

As regards Eritrean Refugees, the report stated:

The situation of human rights incites an ever-increasing number of Eritreans to leave their country. Overall, it is estimated that approximately 5,000 people leave Eritrea each month, mainly to neighboring countries. The trend has been upwards, with a marked spike during the latter months of 2014. In October 2014, the registered refugee population was 109,594 in the Sudan and 106,859 in Ethiopia.

The total Eritrean population of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in mid-2014 was 357,406; depending on estimates of the current population, this would constitute between 6 and 10 per cent of the national population.

Thousands of Eritreans are killed at sea while attempting to reach European shores. The practice of kidnapping migrating individuals, who are released on ransom after enduring horrible torture or killed, targets Eritreans in particular. Episodes of Eritreans killed inside the country while trying to leave have also been recorded.

About discrimination and violence against women, which the commission found to be present in all areas of Eritrean society, the report described:

Women are not only at extreme risk of sexual violence within the military and in military training camps, but also in society at large, where violence against women is perpetrated in an environment of impunity. Discrimination against women intersects with the other human rights violations, placing women in a position of vulnerability.

Violations of the right to property, employment and freedom of movement result in women being vulnerable to food insecurity, engaging in transactional sex and prostitution and at heightened risk of punishment for non-sanctioned work. The lack of genuine rule of law, credible security agencies and independent and impartial women’s civil society organizations leaves women and girls unable to seek recourse to justice or remedy for the sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination they endure.

The list of the abuses and violations are endless. Time and space limit us from detailing all the crimes of the Eritrea regime.

Even the Commission itself, after writing 500 pages recommended further investigations so as to assess other forms of crimes that might have been committed by the Asmara regime.

Nonetheless, the infringement of basic rights and liberties listed above are more than enough to highlight the plight and sufferings of the peoples of Eritrea.

As the Commission emphatically recommended, the international community should:

In engaging with the Eritrean authorities on solutions to stem the flow of asylum seekers from Eritrea, place human rights considerations at the forefront of any package of proposed abatement measures; furthermore, neighbouring Governments should train security sector personnel in gender-sensitive trafficking awareness;

When negotiating development assistance and investment projects in Eritrea, Governments, non-governmental organizations and private sector companies should ensure that decent wages for locally engaged staff are an integral part of the agreement, and insist that wages effectively go to those doing the work.

In general, as the Commission underlined the international community should:

"Keep Eritrea under close scrutiny until tangible progress in the situation of human rights is evident, and ensure the centrality of human rights in all engagement with the country".


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