The Eritrean government sent a letter to the President and members of the Human Rights Council (HRC) on 30 May, 2016, urging them to be given “meaningful opportunity to study and respond to the allegations” brought forth by the Commission of Inquiry”. In the meantime, the Government of Eritrea urges the Council to suspend all deliberations. The government further urges the Council to intervene and “prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that allows for the flagrant violation of the HRC’s own ‘Commission of Inquiry Manual'”. Eritrea has also objected the early release of the Commission of Inquiry’s report. The COI is releasing its findings to the media tomorrow, June 8, 2016. (See COI advisory here)
The Eritrean government’s desperate gasp, parading as an appeal to the HRC, begins with a daunting omission of the fact that the government was given opportunity to be proactive and engage with the investigations. The government was urged to cooperate with the COI and Special Rapporteur by, for example, allowing unrestricted access to the country so that a thorough investigation can be conducted. This opportunity was deliberately squandered by the government of Eritrea and the Commission of Inquiry had to carry out it’s investigations with the obvious limits but with determined commitment to the integrity of it’s investigation.
The due diligence invested in this investigation is quite apparent, what is not apparent, although obvious, is the failure on the part of the Eritrean government to comply without reservations to a reasonable request for access. The government willingly carved it’s participation out of the investigation, and is now shamelessly alleging that it is in “the dark on the contents of the report.”
The modus operandi of the government is to disengage, deny and denounce and when a responsible body like the COI carries out it’s duties in accordance to it’s mandate, it cries foul. This has long become the predictable unfortunate behavior of the regime.
One of the grievances addressed in the letter is the fact that the identity of many of the victims was shielded. Such a statement stands in shameless disregard to the fact that the government has a brutal history of retributive actions that are often taken against the family members of or associates of dissenters.
One of the high profile cases that highlights this fact is that of Ciham Abdu, the teenage daughter of the ex-Minister of Information, Ali Abdu, who has been held incommunicado since the age of 15. When Ali Abdu abandoned the regime and fled the country, the government took its revenge by arresting his daughter, his father and his brother. By giving false reassurances, the government also lured Aster Yohannes, the wife of jailed minister Petros Solomon, to join her children back in Eritrea from the United States where she was doing her studies. She was immediately detained upon her arrival and has not been seen since. These are just two of many similar cases that did not make it to the media due to their low profile nature. But, they are prolific examples of how vengeful the government can be.
We are, after all, talking about a regime that arbitrarily demands 50,000 Nakfa (Eritrean currency equivalent to $2,500 US dollar) from the parents of youth who escaped the grip of the government that forcibly and indefinitely conscripts them.
There are ample reports of cases where the parents who are unable to come up with the sum, most of them elders and unemployed, would end up being thrown in jails. So the need to protect the identity of the victims stems both out of common sense informed by horrific examples of what happens when the government knows the identity of victims and dissenting citizens.
In a high profile investigation, the first of it’s kind, like this, the stakes for the government that has never been held accountable, are very high. As a result, as far as the government is concerned, no method of suppression or discrediting is barred. Even when the identity of many Eritreans who were brave enough to come forward was kept secret for their protection, the government of Eritrea seems to conveniently ignore the fact that, in an act of astonishing courage, an adequate amount of Eritreans have given their statements openly. There are video recordings, Skype sessions and direct interviews with individuals who took an enormous risk to come forward.
The Government of Eritrea engages in deliberate, wholesale dismissal of the testimonies but has never bothered to address specific incidents reported by the victims. It denied access to the country and yet has the audacity to smear the integrity of the Eritrean victims interviewed in Ethiopian camps. We doubt the following fact is lost on the government: an investigation about the victimized is collected from the victims themselves and that logically and inevitably includes refugee camps in Ethiopia, Sudan and wherever else the victims manage to find a safe haven from their persecutors.
The Eritrean government has been busy engaging in an aggressive campaign that aims to collect counter statements from it’s supporters with the goal of “debunking” the damning report the COI has issued. Astonishingly, these statements are pre-written by the government and the signees merely express their support for the government issued statement. For starters, the very logic of the campaign is weakly anchored on flawed premises: if a group of citizens are claiming that they have been victimized by the government of Eritrea, the logical step is to investigate the veracity of the specific statements openly and with completely accountability and with the uncompromising intent of delivering justice.
How does launching a petition that essentially states the victims are lying negate specific statements that are backed by critical details such as dates, the places the crime was committed, description of the crimes and those responsible? Furthermore, both anecdotal and observational information of those signing the petition indicates that they are either ardent supporters of the government living abroad, in which case a symbiotic relationship with the government is an uncompromising feature, or are often indirectly coerced into signing because not doing so would create issues with matters pertaining to passport and/or visa renewals (such is the case for Eritreans living in Saudi Arabia, for example, where their “good standing” with the local counsel has immense bearing on whether they can have their passports renewed and continue to stay in the country).
The Eritrean government’s letter to the HRC vaguely cites a list of “positive changes” and “achievements” that the COI “ignored”. In it’s desperate attempt to confuse the issue, the government reveals its illusion about the purpose of the COI. The Commission was formed following the continued grave violations of human rights by Eritrean authorities against their own population and fellow citizens ranging from arbitrary detention and arrest, arbitrary and extrajudicial killings, summary killings, use of torture, incommunicado detention and the widespread use of indefinite conscription into national service, lack of freedom of expression, absent of religious freedom, lack of independent judicial system and as well as the absence of national elections since 1993.
So, unless the government is prepared to address these issues, it will continue to waltz around with mind boggling irrelevance. There are several interviews given by the Eritrean government officials, including president Isaias Afewerki, where inquiries about the Eritrean citizens currently languishing in jails are either dismissed or denied.
As an example, for several years now, there has been a campaign waged to free journalist Dawit Issac, despite several attempts by the individual activists engaged in this campaign and the Swedish government itself, there has been absolutely no cooperation or results. So, what possible “positive changes” have been taken by the government to address this, for example.
The letter goes on to address the question of sovereignty: “The COI also deliberately ignores fundamental realities which have a profound bearing on the state of the country, including the illegal occupation of Eritrean territory which constitutes a flagrant violation of human rights, repeated armed aggression, sanctions and mistaken policies that consider almost all Eritreans asylum-seekers.” Matters concerning sovereignty have their place and time. The EEBC has made it’s ruling on this matter and it is the Eritrean government’s responsibility to engage with all parties responsible to ensure its implementation. It is also the Eritrean government’s responsibility to address the alleged aggressions with the responsible international body. It is rather astonishing, although not surprising, that an institution that identifies itself as a legitimate government is incapable of deciphering a channel established to inquire about the violations of human rights of Eritreans by the Eritrean regime vs. one that deals with matters of sovereignty. If it is not a deficiency on the government’s part, it is a deliberate act to confuse the main issue nestled at the very heart of the inquiry: investigating the crimes committed against Eritrean citizens by the Eritrean government.
It should be noted here that the Eritrean government tends to have a rather sharp penchant for identifying “flagrant violations of human rights” when the alleged aggressor is anyone but the government.
The letter ends with the following: “This unfair, unjustified and illegal treatment of Eritrea is only a continuation of the double-standards that developing nations and those who wish to chart an independent path have been subjected to. This recurring recourse to politically-motivated, selective and country-specific measures and pressures needs to come to an end.” Unfair. Unjustified. Illegal.
The government seems to be adequately prolific in the language of the law, when it slings shameless allegations against anyone or anything that dares to hold it accountable. When it comes to the rights of its citizens the very concepts of fairness, justice or legality have been null and void. This rich vocabulary of legality and morality are shamelessly mounted as shields. The daunting irony is not just in the fact that the Eritrean government is a tyrannical regime demanding that others be just in their dealings but that it is fully cognizant what “just” is and yet blatantly refuses to see why or how it applies to its citizens.
As long as the voice of justice continues to roar with righteous indignation, the people of Eritrea are not without hope.
7 June 2016