37th session of the Human Rights Council
Statement by the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights
12 March 2018
Mr. President, Distinguished delegates, Ladies and gentlemen.
In recent years, OHCHR has engaged in dialogue with and provided technical assistance to the Government of Eritrea, including during a mission to Asmara, in October 2017. I will further elaborate on this engagement in an oral update, on Wednesday 14 March.
Today, however, I will focus on the human rights situation in Eritrea.
Since the Council’s last deliberations on this important question, in June 2017, our Office has continued to receive reports of severe curtailment of human rights in Eritrea.
In the past year, we have received worrying allegations of restrictions of freedom of religion, including allegations of arrests of over 100 persons practicing religions not officially recognized by the State, as well as the suppression of a protest outside an Islamic school after its 93 year old founder was arrested for opposing the takeover of the school by the State. The man died two weeks ago, after he was released from detention.
It remains difficult for us to verify such allegations and to assess the human rights situation in Eritrea given our restricted access to the country and the absence of independent actors – whether media, NGOs or others – to monitor and report on the situation inside the country.
This Council, as well as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Eritrea and the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, have repeatedly called on the Government to allow human rights defenders and independent civil society organizations to operate without interference, and to permit independent human rights monitors unhindered access to the country, including to places of detention. I reiterate this call today.
In 2016, the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity, namely, enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder, had been committed since 1991. The Commission noted that despite the State’s increased engagement with the international community, there was no evidence of progress in the field of human rights.
I regret to report that this state of affairs remains unchanged.
The Commission’s 2016 findings on extensive use of arbitrary arrest and detention remain relevant. Detainees are very rarely brought before a judge after arrest or tried, which enables enforced disappearance and the use of torture. We urge Eritrea to immediately release all those unlawfully and arbitrarily detained and fully respect their right to a fair trial; and to provide information on the whereabouts of disappeared persons and access to justice by family members.
The fear of arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention curtails freedom of expression, leaving no room for dissent or criticism. There is still no privately-owned media outlets, with the Government controlling the Eritrean TV channel, radio stations and the written press. In its 2017 World Press Freedom Index and Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea 179 out of 180 countries; and in 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked it as the most censored country in the world. The 2017 Information and Communication Technology development index compiled by the International Telecommunication Union ranked Eritrea last of 176 countries.
Eritreans continue to be subjected to indefinite military/national service. Conscripts are drafted for an open-ended duration of service beyond the 18 months provided for by law, often in abusive conditions, which include the use of torture, sexual violence and forced labour. Those who attempt to desert military service, often after years of conscription, are subjected to detention and punishment often amounting to torture, without an administrative or judicial proceeding. Given the abuses that occur in the context of the national service, the idea that this system is instrumental in addressing youth unemployment is abhorrent. We urge Eritrea to bring its national service in line with the country’s international human rights obligations.
Eritrea’s Constitution of 1997 has never been in full force, and we urge the Government to implement it without further delay. Further, the Government must introduce serious efforts to address impunity and hold those responsible for past and ongoing human rights violations to account.
OHCHR welcomes the Government’s increased engagement with the United Nations, including OHCHR, as well as with regional organizations and donors. We hope that this growing cooperation with international actors will lead to concrete steps to address human rights concerns.
During its second UPR in February 2014, Eritrea made important commitments, supporting 92 recommendations on issues ranging from social equality and development to liberties and freedoms; administration of justice to strengthening institutions and international engagement and cooperation. The Government has established a coordinating body to design a plan and framework for action (2015-2018) to implement the recommendations it accepted.
Implementing these commitments would be a good starting point for reform in Eritrea and means significant strides could made towards addressing its alarming human rights record.
Until then, human rights violations will continue to fuel a steady stream of asylum seekers from Eritrea. I must emphasize that UNHCR’s assessment of Eritrean asylum-seekers’ protection needs has remain unchanged since 2011. Some six years later, in June 2017, the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea advised this Council that there can be “no sustainable solution to the refugee outflows until the Government complies with its human rights obligations.” In their efforts to address migration and the situation of Eritrean refugees, I would also appeal to receiving countries to respect human rights and the principle of non-refoulement. Currently, the conditions do not exist for return agreements to be implemented safely.
Finally, I reiterate our calls for the Government to cooperate with the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea and take into account the important recommendations she and the Commission of Inquiry have made to improve the human rights situation in the country.