HRCE’s Elizabeth Chyrum Reflects back on Journey to UN COI on Eritrea

Elizabeth Chyrum with colleagues
Elizabeth Chyrum with colleagues

Elizabeth Chyrum reflects on the 7-year long journey that culminated with the establishment of the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. With a humble note, Ms. Chyrum remebers her personal experience and expresses her deep gratitude for all the support and help that brought the journey to fruition. This is what she shared on her experience while lobbying at the Human Rights Council, in Geneva, starting “from Nothing to the Establishment of the Commission on Inquiry (COI)…

It started with visiting the Human Rights Council, in Geneva in September 2008, and after 6 years of non stop lobbying and advocacy, a Commission of Inquiry was established on 27 June 2014, to investigate and document the human rights violations from 1993 to the present time.

Elizabeth Chyrum with Matthew Jones of CSW
Elizabeth Chyrum with Matthew Jones of CSW

It was not an easy battle, but I am glad I did it. At last the crimes which have been committed against my people and country with impunity are investigated and documented. Those responsible for the violations will be held accountable.

I would like to thank Hassan Shire of EHAHRDP, Dr Khataza Gondwe and Matthew Jones of CSW for their full support since 2009. They were always there supporting me and voicing for the Eritrean people. They are special friends of the Eritrean people.

Elizabeth Chyrum and Dr Khataza Gondwe
Elizabeth Chyrum and Dr Khataza Gondwe

Herewith below one of the letters that I sent to the African Group’s co-ordinator in October 2011. I wanted Eritrea’s case to be presented by delegations of the Africa countries. It worked. Somalia and the late Somalia’s Ambassador Yusuf Bari-Bari stood by my side to advocate for the Eritrean people throughout, my struggle at the Human Rights Council. I am grateful and thankful for that.

Elizabeth Chyrum with the late Ambassador Bari Bari of Somalia and Mr. Hassan Shire
Elizabeth Chyrum with the late Ambassador Bari Bari of Somalia and Mr. Hassan Shire

To the African Group in Geneva,


His Excellency Mr. Fodé Seck
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
Permanent Representative
Permanent Mission of the Republic of Senegal to the United Nations Office at Geneva
Chemin de Joinville 26
1216 Cointrin

12 October 2011


Re: Human Rights Violations in Eritrea

I am writing to draw your attention to the grave and ongoing violations of fundamental human rights in Eritrea and to seek your advice as to how best the Human Rights Council should react.

I would also be grateful if you could bring this letter to the attention of the African Group in your capacity as Group Coordinator.

Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics and independent journalists. Their fate is unconfirmed and they, along with thousands of their fellow citizens, languish in harsh detention centres without due legal process. All other avenues being exhausted, including non-compliance with African Commission Decisions, Human Rights Concern – Eritrea believes that the time has come for the Human Rights Council to take action on the situation in Eritrea.

There is no independent judicial system in Eritrea. An Eritrean can be arrested and imprisoned without charge or trial for years. There are hundreds of conventional prisons, underground dungeons, and metal shipping containers housing innocent citizens whose crimes are to be critical of the government, to belong to the ‘wrong’ religious group, or refusing to comply with the indefinite National Services imposed on the entire nation.

Torture in all its forms is the most defining characteristic of the prison system in Eritrea. Solitary confinement, brutal beatings, electric shocks, genital torture, rape and sex slavery are common. Privations of all kinds – sleep, food, water, clothes, medicine, company, and visitation – are used routinely, while all legal procedures are ignored.

The only university in the country has been closed down, and education is militarised. Any able-bodied young person, and some not-so-young, is obliged to enter the military for an indefinite period. In addition to this, currently, there is famine, yet, President Isaias Afewerki, has not allowed food aid to those who are dying of malnutrition, hunger and lack of medical attention.

Forced labour of students and other conscripts has been widely used under the pretext of development programmes. The conscripts are forced to work in government-owned projects such as farming, dam building, housing and road construction. Many of those who joined National Service in 1994 are still there today,. And now, with numerous mining projects being developed in cooperation with foreign investors, Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE) has ample evidence that most of the manual labour in these projects is being provided by national service conscripts, forced labour and exploitation of the work force.

Finally, freedom of religion and belief is severely curtailed. Every religious groupings has effectively been outlawed with the exception of Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and the Sunni school of Islam. Members of forbidden groups face indefinite detention without charge or trial in life-threatening conditions, pending the denial of their faith. Several have died in prison following torture or denial of medication. Even “permitted” groups face repression. For example, following governmental machinations, the ordained Orthodox patriarch was illegally removed from office in 2006 and remains under stringent house arrest, while Muslim teachers who objected to the installation of a government-appointed leader have been imprisoned since the 1990s.

Eritrea’s government has been conducting its domestic policy through sheer terror. No consultations, dialogues, petitions, elections or legal proceedings ever take place. If the government wants land, it grabs it without any compensation. If an enterprise suddenly becomes profitable, it monopolizes it either by bankrupting the owners or by blatantly taking over. If it wants new recruits for its army, it conducts vicious roundups. If it wants workers in its mines, it uses slave labour. If it wants to stop the desertion of army conscripts, it takes their parents hostage. If it does not like a particular religion, it renders it illegal and throws its members into prison. Human rights defenders and media advocacy groups under the umbrella of human rights defenders are not permitted to operate in the country. The youth try to escape from Eritrea on a daily basis risking all kinds of privations, including Eritrea’s shoot-to-kill border policy, in their desperation to leave a country that is effectively a giant prison in which they are starving.


Due to the grave and continuing human rights violations that have been perpetrated by the Government of Eritrea against its people, with domestic remedies non-existent, having exhausted the regional remedies in seeking to secure the release of the 11 parliamentarians and 18 or more journalists, and having observed the non-compliance of the Government of Eritrea with the African Commission’s decisions on the matter, HRCE would seek your views on which mechanism the UN Human Rights Council could use to tackle this issue.

I would therefore like to request a meeting with you in your capacity as coordinator of the African Group to explore possibilities for addressing this situation at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

For your further information, I have annexed to this letter details of arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics, information on the clampdown on private media and the two relevant African Commission Decisions. You may also find interesting a transcript of an interview with an ex-prison guard that details widespread and state sanctioned abuses and violations of human rights.

Yours respectfully,

Elizabeth (Elsa) Chyrum
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea