Prioritising the Lives of Eritrea’s Citizens

Letter sent by HRCE to:

Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations;
Mr. Choi Kyong-Lim, President of the Human Rights Council;
Ms. Maria Emma Mejia, Chair of the Third Committee, General Assembly.

Mr. Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs,
Mr. Zerihoun Taye-Brook, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs,
Mr. Miroslav Jenča, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs,
Mr. Haile Menkerios, Head of the United Nations Office to the African Union and Special Representative to the African Union,
Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Ms. Kate Gilmor, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Ms. Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission,
Ms. Adv. Faith Pansy Tlakula, Chairperson of African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Ms. Linda Thomas Greenfield, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs in the United States
Ms. Faduma Abdullahi Mohamud, Ambassador, of Somalia to the United Nations, Geneva
Mr. Awale Ali Kullane, Ambassador of Somalia to the United States, New York
Mr. Mohamed Siad Douale, Ambassador of Djibouti to the United States, New York
Mr. Ahmed Mohamed Abro, First Counsellor, Chargé d’affaires, of Djibouti to the United Nations, Geneva
Mr. Mike Smith, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on the situation of Human Rights in Eritrea
Mr. Victor Dankwa, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea
Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea

Dear Excellency,

Re: Prioritising the lives of Eritrea’s citizens

We note with concern that the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea (COIE) no longer features on the provisional list of special procedure mandate-holders, independent experts, chairperson and SRSGs who are scheduled to make presentations on 27 October to the Third Committee of the General Assembly (GA) during its Seventy First session. [1] We strongly urge that this decision is reviewed and that the COIE is restored to the agenda, in the interests of justice.

In its second report, released in June 2016, the COIE “found reasonable grounds to believe” that crimes against humanity, “namely enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder” have been committed in a “widespread and systematic manner” in Eritrea since 1991, and continue to occur. Given the gravity and extent of the violations outlined in this report, it is deeply perplexing that there is no discernible urgency on the part of the GA for further action to address this situation.
The human rights violations underway in Eritrea are comparable in terms of scale, severity and flagrancy to those occurring in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), and both nations have been deemed by UN-mandated inquiries to have committed crimes against humanity.

In its resolution adopting the report of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea,[2] the Human Rights Council (HRC) resolved to submit it, along with all the other reports by the Commission, to “all relevant bodies of the United Nations and to the Secretary-General for appropriate action.” Laudably, the report was presented before the Third Committee that same year, culminating in the adoption of a GA resolution calling on the UN Security Council (SC) “to consider the relevant conclusions and recommendations of the commission and take appropriate action to ensure accountability,” including a possible International Criminal Court (ICC) referral.

In its resolution adopting the COIE report[3]  the HRC again requested the submission of this report and oral updates to all relevant UN bodies “for consideration and appropriate action”. Moreover, while extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, it directed the mandate holder to follow up on the implementation of the report’s recommendations “and to address and engage in an interactive dialogue with the General Assembly at its seventy-first session.” This last stipulation renders the removal of the COIE from the Third Committee’s agenda all the more perplexing, as it gives the impression that a recommendation issued by the UN’s foremost human rights organ is effectively being disregarded by another of its key bodies.
This omission or removal of the COIE comes at a sensitive time, occurring after the recent commemoration of 15 years since a group of 35 individuals, consisting of senior government officials known collectively as the G11 and Eritrea’s independent journalists, were subjected to enforced disappearance and placed under incommunicado detention. These prisoners are reportedly held in a purpose built facility erected in an extremely inhospitable environment. They are chained day and night, referred to by numbers and kept in barely ventilated cells for 23 hours a day, lacking adequate food, water and medical treatment. Some are reported to have been driven to suicide, while others have died due to the privations. Their only crime was to request greater democracy and the implementation of Eritrea’s ratified constitution.

The suffering of these prisoners is emblematic of the plight of over 10,000 of their fellow citizens, who are similarly detained without charge or trial in harsh circumstances, and of those outside who are trapped in a nation that has been termed a giant prison. Thousands flee each month, risking a shoot to kill border policy, death while traversing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels or severe mistreatment by trafficking gangs and locals or officials in countries through which they pass in search of refuge. The pervasive oppression often follows them abroad; tellingly, while the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea was able to hold public hearings in different venues, the COIE was obliged to interview witnesses in secret, as they either feared for their own lives or the lives or relatives who remain in Eritrea.

For a people numbed by decades of suffering under a repressive government that has normalised the most inhumane treatment, the COIE provided hope in otherwise unremitting bleakness. Many Eritreans spoke out for the first time, daring to believe their plight was finally being recognised at the highest international level and would now be addressed. Removing the COIE from the Third Committee’s agenda will take away any grounds for hope and will be interpreted understandably as sign that in the case of Eritrean citizens the international community is once more evading its responsibility to protect. However, “commissions of inquiry …do not relieve States of their legal obligations to investigate and prosecute torture, and to provide effective remedies to victims of past violations, including reparation for the harm suffered and to prevent its reoccurrence.”[4]

The COIE’s landmark report requires the urgent attention of the international community. It shines a light on severe violations that have continued in relative impunity because perpetrators felt they would never be exposed. Withdrawing, shelving or otherwise disregarding this report effectively enables this impunity to continue. We therefore urge you to prioritise the lives of Eritrea’s citizens, in line with the responsibility to protect, by ensuring this report is presented to the Third Committee, as recommended by the HRC, with a view towards formulating a resolution to mandate further action to address Eritrea’s dire human rights crisis.

Yours respectfully.

Elizabeth Chyrum
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea
+44 7958 005 637

Khataza Gondwe
Team Leader, Africa and Middle East
Christian Solidarity Worldwide
PO Box 99
New Malden
T:0208 329 0036

[2] A/HRC/22/L.19
[3] A/HRC/32/L.5
[4]The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, stated this in a report to the UN Human Rights Council. UN News Centre, Commissions of inquiry alone cannot fight impunity against torture – UN expert, March 5, 2012,