Repressing the peoples of Eritrea under the “No war, no peace” Pretext



Repressing the peoples of Eritrea under the “No war, no peace” Pretext

Hadas Abraha


The ruthless repression and systemic human rights violation that is wrecking Eritrea has long became a public knowledge. In fact, it does no longer require much research or covert investigative operation, given the large number of unaccompanied minors arriving from Eritrea to refugee camps in Ethiopia every week.

One cannot doubt the plight of the peoples of Eritrea in light of the exodus, which has become a regional and international concern.

As a report released last year put it:

An exponentially high number of people leave Eritrea, despite the life-threatening risks faced while attempting to flee the country and during flight. As at mid-2013, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that the total population of concern originating from Eritrea was 313,375 people, including 292,969 refugees or people in refugee-like situations and 20,336 asylum seekers.

Those statistics place Eritrea as the 10th highest refugee-producing country in the world; they include a high number of unaccompanied minors. On the other hand, the recent data from the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicated that in the period since last July alone, more than 320,000 Eritreans had fled the country.

This is in a country estimated to have some 5-6 million populations, though there had not been reliable census in that nation for the past two decades.Nonetheless, as it is the case with matter of this magnitude it needs to be independently investigated and verified by the United Nations' experts.Therefore, last year the UN Human Rights Council announced decision "to establish, for a period of one year, a commission of inquiry comprising three members". According to the resolution of the Council, the commission of inquiry will investigate all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea.

At the time, the Council's resolution called upon the government of Eritrea "to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur and the commission of inquiry, to permit them and their staff members unrestricted access to visit the country, to give due consideration to the recommendations contained in the reports of the Special Rapporteur, and to provide them with the information necessary for the fulfillment of their mandates, and underlines the importance for all States to lend their support to the Special Rapporteur and the commission of inquiry for the discharge of their mandates".

The Council did also tasked the commission of inquiry "to present an oral update" in the of the Human Rights Council's 28th session held this March.Accordingly the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea presented an update on the16th of March. As expected, the government of Eritrea was uncooperative. The Commission optimistically stated that the Asmara regime "has so far not cooperated with the Commission and has left unanswered our repeated requests to visit the country and to obtain additional information that would be relevant for its investigation".

Nonetheless, the Commission conducted its investigations 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.In the past four months, the Commission have interviewed approximately 400 people in five different countries and received 140 written submissions and consulted experts and spoken with a variety of representatives from inter-governmental and non-governmental bodies.The findings were damning. Indeed, the Commission's preliminary report has recognized the smokescreen that the Asmara regime has used to disguise its irresponsible domestic policies. The Commission stated:

The dominant dimension of the situation in Eritrea appears to us to be the so-called state of “no war, no peace” often referred to by the government of Eritrea. This has become the pretext for almost all the State’s actions that generate and perpetuate human rights violations in the country.

We are consciously using the word “pretext”: the so called “no war, no peace” situation is indeed not a status recognized under international law. It is an expression abusively used by the Eritrean authorities to disregard international human rights law as if Eritrea was in a legal limbo, while other countries have experienced the uncertainty linked to international conflicts without resorting to such drastic curtailing of freedoms and violations of rights.

Under this pretext, the whole society is militarised, and national service is universal and of an indefinite duration. Most Eritreans have no hope for their future: national service, whether in a military unit or in a civil assignment, is the only thing that from the age of seventeen they can expect to spend their life doing – paid between less than one and a maximum of two dollars a day. On such wages, they struggle to fulfill their basic needs, let alone think about raising a family.

Under this pretext, the Constitution has never been implemented and the National Assembly is not sitting; there is no rule of law in the country; and no one is being held accountable for violating the rights of groups or individuals.

Under this pretext, the Government has curtailed most freedoms, from movement to expression; from religion to association. It has created a condition in which individuals feel that they have hardly any choice with regard to the main decisions in their lives: where to live, what career to pursue, when to marry or who to worship.

These observations conform to the conclusions of the 2012 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council which strongly condemned 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.

At that time, the Council had called upon the government of Eritrea 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.  Still, two years later, the Asmara regime made no improvements. If things had changed, it was to the worst.The Commission's this month's report observed pervasive State control and ruthless repression have become the hall mark of the so-called national service. The report noted:

In order to ensure the enforcement and perpetuation of such a system, pervasive State control and ruthless repression of perceived deviant behaviours – particularly within national service – are crucial. Hence, the creation of a network of spies that goes so deep in the fabric of social life that a man employed by national security might not know that his daughter is similarly employed.

Hence, the extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detentions aiming at silencing all perceived critics and teaching a lesson to them and others – because you are never really told why you are arrested, and once you have been arrested, for how long you will be detained and where.

Eritrea is a country where detention is an ordinary fact of life, experienced by an inordinate number of individuals – men and women, old and young, including children; where detention centres are official and unofficial, above ground and underground, metal containers in forbidding heat or mere fences with no shelter for inmates in punishing cold; where once in one of them, there is a likelihood that you will be subject to torture to extract a confession or to simply punish behaviors.

The Eritrean government, nonetheless, would rather play word game claiming that there is no universal standard to measure human rights and at the time arguing the situation in the country is improving.

However, relevant benchmarks for measuring Eritrea’s human rights record do exist and those points have been explicitly communicated to the Asmara regime on several occasions and resolutions. Respect international human rights obligations; Cooperate with international mechanisms such as the Commission and Special Rapporteur; Release of prisoners detained on political grounds, including journalists and government officials jailed without trial since 2001; Lift restrictions on independent media, non-governmental organizations, and “unrecognized” religions; Put an end to indefinite military service; and others.

There is no indication of progress on any of these points. In fact, the Asmara regime has started attempts to confuse the international community with spreading rumors that national service conscripts who have served longer than the statutorily-permissible 18 months have been demobilized. However, that is far from the truth.Quite to the contrary, even Eritreans who have aged out of national service – sixty and seventy year olds – now must provide uncompensated service in a militia several times a week.Indeed, as rights groups reiteratively stated:

Eritrea conscripts all men and unmarried women into “national service.” Although Eritrean law limits national service to 18 months, most conscripts serve for much of their working lives. Conscripts are routinely used as forced labor on essentially civilian jobs. In 2013, Human Rights Watch reported that conscripts were used by a state-owned construction company, Segen Construction Co., engaged by Canadian mining firm Nevsun Resources, to build infrastructure at its Bisha gold mine. Former conscripts described working long hours for minimal food rations, primitive lodging, and wages too low to sustain themselves, much less their families. They were not allowed to leave the work site.

Children as young as 15 are inducted and sent for military training, according to recent interviews by refugee agencies. They and other recruits are regularly subject to violence and ill-treatment for raising questions or for other perceived infractions. Beatings, torture, and prolonged incarcerations are common. Women are subject to sexual violence from military commanders, including rape. No mechanisms for redress exist.

Since mid-2012, all men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are compelled to perform militia duty: carrying military weapons; reporting for training; and going on periodic patrols.

The dire situation of the peoples of Eritrea is patent in the statements of the victims interviewed by the Commission.One of the questions that the Commission posed to the more than 400 interviewees was that: "What are the behaviors that trigger punishments?". In response, the victims said:

“When you look at them with judging eyes, they punish you”

“The [military] doctor did not listen to me. The first time I talked to him, he hit me. I again complained. He said go and take a shower, there is no medicine.”

“The guards used to try to have sexual activity with the women there. When we refused them, we were punished, simply for refusing. We were forced to roll in the hot sand and lie in the sun.”

“If we did not walk quickly enough during military training, they beat us or shackle us in the ‘otto’ position [feet and hands tied behind the back and lying face down] and force us to stay under the direct sun at mid-day for three hours. I was punished like this, because I had drunk water without permission. A peer denounced me to the officers; in return, he was allowed to take a rest.”

It should not be overlooked, however, that the no war, no peace pretext has a regional dimension as well. Eritrea has developed a reputation as a regional spoiler and exporter of instability and for her aggressive foreign policy engagement. As result the UN 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.

Specifically, the United Nations Security Council prohibited the Asmara regime from harbouring, 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. And, it established a Monitoring Group to investigate whether Eritrea abided by the resolution.

A change of attitude and policy in Asmara, however, is still absent, as it Nonetheless, a recent report of the United Nations Security Council Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea revealed that the Asmara regime continued arming, training, or equipping armed groups and their members. Indeed, the report explicitly stated that "Eritrea’s support for regional armed groups is linked to its larger foreign policy".With regard to Ethiopia, the Monitoring Group stated:

"the Monitoring Group has obtained testimonials and evidence that Eritrea continues to support armed opposition groups from neighbouring countries, notably the following in Somalia and Ethiopia: The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF); The Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM); and Ginbot Sebat."

The Monitoring Group's section regarding Eritrea's role in South Sudan noted that:

The Monitoring Group investigated allegations that Eritrea facilitated and in some cases provided weapons to three armed groups in South Sudan: Riek Machar’s group (Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition), George Athor Deng’s rebel forces, and the David Yau Yau group. The Monitoring Group received information from senior officials of the Government of South Sudan that Eritrea delivered military equipment to the Machar forces on four occasions in 2014. In addition, South Sudanese authorities informed the Monitoring Group that they had captured arms that Eritrea provided to the Yau Yau group and to George Athor Deng’s rebels.

Eritrea's unruly policies are also directed on her third neighbor, Djibouti. The Monitoring Group described:

The Monitoring Group continues to note the lack of any progress on article 3 concerning prisoners of war of the Comprehensive Agreement, signed on 6 June 2010 by Djibouti and Eritrea under the auspices of the Government of Qatar. Djiboutian officials informed the Monitoring Group that there are still 17 Djiboutians being held by Eritrea.

Well-informed sources with contacts within the Qatari and Djiboutian leaderships told the Monitoring Group that the mediation process has stalled. The Government of Eritrea has yet to acknowledge that it holds Djiboutian combatants or to provide information on their current condition.

By any standard, these domestic and regional hazards cannot be left unattended. The international community should not entertain fancy notions of engagement, as the track-record regime of Asmara should be more than enough to dispel any illusion that it would reorient its policies and change course.Indeed, quite to the contrary, the Asmara regime is habituated to belittling multi-state cooperation platforms, whether it is the United Nations, the African Union or IGAD. After all, Eritrea's long-held and repeated policy of rejection of any rule-based engagement with neighbors or the international community.As one commentator observed:

"The international community has long observed Eritrea's endless denial, diversion and confusion tactics. It has become evident that, like any bully, Eritrea rapidly backs down when faced by firm action. Indeed, it is clear from past experience that the government in Asmara only responds to the threat of superior strength. Nothing less will produce change".

It is high time the international community steps up the pressure on the tyrannical regime in Asmara both to improve the misery of the peoples of Eritrea in particular and the region in general.As Chairperson of the Eritrean Law Society, Daniel Mekonnen, rightly put it:

“If the UN inquiry concludes there is a situation of crimes against humanity in Eritrea, which I very much hope it will do, then we can say the international community is duty bound to respond with actions commensurate to that of crimes against humanity."





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