Open Letter to Hon William Hague on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea

Dear  Mr Hague,

My name is Elizabeth Chyrum and I am the Director of  Human Rights Concern – Eritrea, a London based Human Rights organisation that promotes and protects the human rights of Eritrean inside Eritrea and in diaspora.

I am writing to you as we are very much concerned about your ongoing bilateral engagement with Eritrea, although according to  your own accounting Eritrea is one of the countries about which  you have expressed concern because of its gross human rights violations towards its own people. Eritrea’s abuse of human rights is not better than North Korea’s, but Eritrea does not make the media headlines.

The Eritrean president  closed the only University in the country (Asmara University) in 2006. What future do young people have in a country without an institute of higher learning?

Eritrea is a country where no human right is respected, be it the choice of religion, the right to a fair trial, the right to vote in free elections, the right to leave town looking for food and work, the right not to join the army, not to be sexually molested, tortured, beaten, and even killed for daring to express anything other than a blind subservience to a government that causes the starvation of its own people and forces their underfed bodies to dig for gold, and children to join the army while depriving them of an education.

Eritrea has now become one of the most paranoid, secretive and repressive nations on earth. As a result, its people are fleeing in droves, and the majority continue to suffer after fleeing, either at the hands of people traffickers or hostile host governments, or at the hands of a regime which seeks to control its citizens wherever they are found.

Over 380,000 youths have been  drafted since 1994. National Service is officially 18 months, but many of those who joined national service in 1994  are still doing it, 19 years later,  (through no choice of their own). Conscripts are used as forced labour in gold mines, commercial farms, factories, transportation, merchandise, construction, tourism and in all other economic projects expropriated by the government. Conscripts are paid 450 Nakfa which is equivalent to $10 per month and are forced to work up to 16 hours per day. (The websites of these companies, some of which are British-funded, tell a different story, though, pretending that one would be lucky to work, as an Eritrean, in these mines.) The whole country is militarised and  the government is arming even  pregnant women, mothers with young children, civil servants and elders. Anyone who refuses to take up arms is subjected to punishment.

There are over 300 prisons all over Eritrea. Arbitrary, indefinite and incommunicado detention is routine. Summary executions are normal, torture is systematic, prisons are overcrowded, and shipping metal containers are used to detain people.

There is no adequate medical treatment, very little food and water,  and illness and death are rampant. The prison population are youths who attempted to escape national service, army deserters (and their parents), dissenters and evangelists. There is no due process and prisoners have no visitation  rights.

I wish to remind you, Mr Hague, on behalf of hundreds of thousands of suffering Eritreans, that on 23 December 2010, four Britons, (former Royal Marines) were taken prisoners off the coastal area of Eritrea,  and incarcerated incommunicado for six months. The U.K government was denied consular access to the detainees throughout. The denial by the Eritrean government was against the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic relation to which both countries are signatories. The Foreign Office was ‘deeply concerned’ including the detainees’ families.  You ordered British ambassadors in New York, Brussels, Khartoum, Tripoli, Nairobi and Beijing to raise the issue as a matter of priority with their Eritrean counterparts there. Their case was also discussed at the House of Commons on 5th April 2011.

The then Africa Minister Henry Bellingham also summoned the Eritrean ambassador in London to the Foreign Office many times to repeatedly request access to the British detainees. All the attempts and the efforts were ignored by the Eritrean government.

Finally, on 26  May 2011, the British government  in protest at being denied access to four Britons held in Eritrea, put restrictions on the movement of Eritrean diplomats and on the collection of the 2% tax collected by the Eritrean government from Eritreans in diaspora as extortion is unlawful.

On 7 June, suddenly, the four Britons appeared on National Television in Eritrea (Eri -Tv) and were charged. Five days later, on 12 June 2011, the four Britons were freed.  A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We are pleased that the four British nationals have now been able to leave Eritrea and can be reunited with family and friends. We are very grateful to the Government of the State of Qatar for helping facilitate their return.”

Following the release of the four Britons, notable things started to happen. To mention the most obvious ones:

1. Five days after, on 17 June 2011, Mrs Sandra Tyler-Haywood, the UK Ambassador to Eritrea, handed in her credentials to President Isaias Afewerki, in order to re-establish your diplomatic relationship;

2. In February  2012,  The Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, and Yemane Ghebreab, Senior political adviser to the President, were invited by the U.K. government and visited the Foreign Office from 7-8 February. “This was the first Eritrean ministerial visit to the UK. The Eritrean Delegation met the Minister of Africa, Henry Bellingham, the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, and had meetings with senior FCO and UKBA officials.

A range of issues were discussed including the UK ‘s bilateral relationship with Eritrea; regional security and stability; migration and piracy. Mr Bellingham also underlined the importance the UK attaches to improvements to human rights, including the case of the G11, (the group of 11 parliamentarians arrested in September 2001 for requesting implementation of the ratified Eritrea’s constitution,  and who have never been released; some are believed to have since died), and religious and press freedoms.

Mr Bellingham also hosted a business roundtable for existing and potential investors in which 22 companies participated. Discussion centred on potential investment opportunities in the extractive industries, infrastructure development, agriculture and financial services.”

The following are the list of companies that met with Foreign Minister Bellingham, The Eritrean Foreign Minister,  Osman Saleh, and Senior Political Adviser to the President, Yemane Ghebreab, to discuss investment in Eritrea. Andiamo Exploration already has an exploration license from the Ministry of Mines in Eritrea.

1.            Cluff Geothermal

2.            Scottish International Investment Ltd

3.            Nectar Group Ltd

4.            BMCE Bank International

5.            East Africa Association

6.            Atra Capital Ltd

7.            Maxwell Stamp Plc

8.            IMC Worldwide Ltd

9.            Cardno Emerging Markets Ltd

10.          Frontier Markets Fund Managers

11.          Nataim UK Ltd

12.          Developing Markets Associates

13.          Andiamo Exploration Ltd

14.          Investec

15.          University of Dundee

16.          Sub Saharan Consulting Group

17.          Arabian Nubian Resources

18.          Copper Tree capital

19.          Ericommerce International Ltd

20.          Astbruy Marine Services

21.          Cross Border Information Publishing

22.          Developing Markets

23.          ETIWG

24.          Simba Energy

25.          Plaza Holding Ltd

3. The U.K. government’s effort in promoting a positive Eritrean role in the troubled region including for allowing the UN to consider easing of sanctions.

Mr Hague,

At the same time that the the G-11 were arrested, independent media journalists were rounded up and jailed and their newspapers were closed. They are detained in a purposely built prison called ‘Era’ Ero’. Human Rights Concern – Eritrea obtained credible information from three former prison guards about the prison conditions. Prisoners at Era’Ero are cuffed 24 hours, even when they eat and sleep. This has been the practice from 18 September 2001, to this day. They have not seen each other since they were arrested. They are kept in solitary confinement.

There is no window or ventilation in their room. The place can get as warm as 50 degree centigrade. They don’t call them by names, they have numbers. They are not provided with TV, radio, books or newspapers to pass their time. They do not have  proper medical care and have not seen their family for almost 12 years.

The G-11’s and the Journalists case were brought to the attention of  the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2002 ( by Mussie Efrem- an Eritrean citizen residing in Sweden) and in 2003 (by Article 19, an NGO based in London, which advocates for journalists’ rights) respectively as Eritrea is a signatory to the African Charter.

The African Commissions gave its finding, deliberation and recommendations during the 34th (2002) and 41st  (2007), Ordinary Sessions of the African Commission in Banjul, The Gambia. Since then , 10 out of 21 died in detention, and Eritrea has refused to implement the recommendations.

Since 18 September 2001, thousands more have been incarcerated in the 300 or more prisons throughout the country and metal shipping containers, without due process. In some cases, for over 15 years. Those prisoners have children, wives, mothers, fathers and friends, the same as the four Britons who were detained for six months(from 24 Dec 2010 – 12 June 2011) incommunicado in Eritrea .

The Eritrean prisoners of conscience have never been charged, never been brought to a court of law, they have no visitation rights, and most of them are detained in  dark overcrowded underground prisons.

Torture is systematic. Prisoners are tied up in more cruel ways, they are given electric shocks and genital torture. Rape, sex slavery and hard labour are commonplace. Deprivations of sleep, food, water, clothing, medicine, company and visitation are the norm. Many have died. Extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions also occur regularly.

Due to hardship, most of the Eritrean population do not have anything to eat. The government has denied them access to food aid. This has been done by expelling international NGOs from the land and disallowing the local ones. Despite being at starvation level, President Isaias advises Eritrea’s people on the national television to eat even less. Food is rationed and distributed by the government.

The government has maintained a firm grip on the economy by expanding the use of military and party-owned businesses; and has paralyzed the private sector either by bankrupting it or directly confiscating their licenses, resulting in mass unemployment and destitution.

Mr Hague,

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea, attended the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ rights 53rd Ordinary Session, in Banjul, The Gambia  from 08/04/2013 – 15/04/13. Two representatives of the State of Eritrea were present. In one of the sessions, after the Commissioner for Freedom of Expression submitted her report, NGOs were reading statements.

A statement on freedom of expression in Eritrea by the Human Rights Defenders Network Project, based in Kampala with observer status, was read by myself, Elizabeth Chyrum,  as I am one of the founding members. During the right to reply, the Eritrean Government representative took the floor, and he started accusing the journalists whom they have been detaining since September 2001, and were not present  to defend themselves, of being recruited by foreign NGOs with intent to overthrow the Eritrean Government.  He also said that the journalists had close links with  western intelligence agencies, including with the Pentagon and  CIA among others.

Their statement was made in front of the Chairperson of the African Commission, the Commissioners, International and regional human rights organisations. From 2003 to 2007, the Eritrean government tried to argue  its case against the journalists, who were being defended in absentia by the NGO Article 19,  at the African Commission, but lost its case, and here is details of the case, the decision and recommendations

Summary of the decision:

“No political situation justifies the wholesale violation of human rights; indeed general restrictions on rights such as the right to free expression and to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention serve only to undermine public confidence in the rule of law and will often increase, rather than prevent, agitation within a State. The Commission draws on the findings of the UN Human Rights Committee: The legitimate objective of safeguarding and indeed strengthening national unity under difficult political circumstances cannot be achieved by attempting to muzzle advocacy of multi-party democracy, democratic tenets and human rights.”


“For the reasons given above the Commission: Holds a violation of Articles 1, 5, 6, 7(1), 9, and 18 by the State of Eritrea; Urges the government of Eritrea to release or to bring to a speedy and fair trial the 18 journalists detained since September 2001, and to lift the ban on the press; Recommends that the detainees be granted immediate access to their families and legal representatives; and Recommends that the government of Eritrea takes appropriate measures to ensure payment of compensation to the detainees.”

Decided at the 41st ordinary session, May 2007

Mr Hague,

A  resolution on Eritrea’s human rights situation (A/HRC/20/L19) was tabled during the Human Rights Council 20th session by three African countries and co-sponsored by 44 countries including the United Kingdom, and it was passed by consensus on 6 July 2012, to establish a mandate for Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.
Another resolution (A/HRC/RES/21/1) under a confidential procedure was also passed by the Human Rights Council during the 21st session, on 27 September 2012.

The mandate for Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea was rejected by the Eritrean government. The rapporteur has issued three statements on the lack of co-operation by the Eritrean government and its denial of access to the country to assess the human rights situations:

Mr Hague,

On 23 March 2013, the British Embassy in Asmara issued a statement

“Britain is promoting a positive Eritrean role in the Horn of Africa, as Eritrea’s destructive role has been affecting its particular interest in Sudan and Somalia.  It seems, the  British Embassy in Asmara is encouraging the Eritrean government to end its self-imposed isolation and become more involved with the regional and international parties to achieve this potential.”
None of the issues listed on the statement addresses the misery the Eritrean people are going through, the torture, the forced labour, the indefinite national service imposed on the Eritrean people, the starvation, the illness, the oppression, the terror, the arbitrary arrest, the incommunicado detention, the oppression, the shoot-to-kill policy, the extrajudicial killing, the lack of freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the right to form a political party, the right to education and the right to live as a free people.

Mr Hague,

When the four Britons were detained incommunicado in Eritrea and you were refused consular access, you were planning to take a ‘robust action’ against the Eritrean government. You also put restriction of movement  on Eritrean diplomats and stopped the Eritrean embassy collecting the 2% income tax, also known as extortion, from Eritreans residing in  the U.K. The Eritran government was panicking and did not want your actions to set a precedent and other countries to follow your footsteps. So, five days later, through the intervention of the Amir of Qatar, you managed to set free the detained Britons, and you lifted the restrictions immediately (you did not even hold it for one month to show your solidarity with the families of thousands of prisoners of conscience detained incommunicado in Eritrea). You  dispatched a new ambassador 4 days later to Eritrea to re-establish your diplomatic relationship; she handed in her credentials on 17 of June 2011. You invited the Eritrean Foreign Minister and the President Advisor six months later. You have also invited 22+ companies to discuss possible investment in Eritrea with the Minister and the President Advisor.

Mr Hague,

You are aware of the gross human rights violations in Eritrea. Eritreans are fleeing persecution in their own country to seek refuge, faced with hostility and humiliation from potential host countries, detention, destitution and eventual refusal of asylum, they are refused access to basic public services, such as shelter, food, and medical care – and they are also prevented from working.

Some fall into the hands of an extensive network of human traffickers, who, in collaboration with the Sudanese security forces and Eritrean intelligence, are heavily engaged in kidnapping and trafficking of refugees for ransom. Those kidnapped are trafficked to the Sinai desert, where they are being held hostage and subjected to rape, torture, organ extraction, and killing by their captors to extort payments of tens of thousands of dollars. This is all a matter of documented fact. Even the BBC has broadcasted radio programmes in which the screams of the hostages could be heard.

The root cause of their problem is the oppressive policy of the government of Eritrea, a  government that does not care about their welfare, does not care for Eritrea as a country and the people. By promoting the Eritrean government, you are subjecting the people of Eritrea to more oppression and misery. Knowing the use of forced labour and conscripts,  to invite  22+ companies from the U.K. to invest in Eritrea is deplorable.
The Eritrean government has no respect for the AU, African Commission, the EU the UN Human Rights Council, and more than anything it has no respect for its own people.

Trying to promote a regime which is starving, oppressing, torturing , slaving, shooting, and detaining incommunicado is promoting its actions against its people, and by virtue of this , you  become an accomplice to the crimes which are perpetrated against the Eritrean people.

I therefore urge the British government to stop playing a double standard and stand in solidarity with the people of Eritrea until the situation of human rights improves, until all the political and religious prisoners are released, until the indefinite national service is stopped and the starved people of Eritrea are given access to food aid, as most of them are starving and dying in silence for fear of persecution as talking about starvation is criminalised and if they are found begging they are detained indefinitely and until the political situation is improved.

HRCE recommends that rather than lobby the UN Security Council to ease sanctions on Eritrea,

the UK government should work with the UN to enforce these sanctions until Eritrea acknowledges its terrible human rights record and agrees to cooperate with the regional and international UN mechanisms, rather than ignore it completely. How does the UK government justify this relationship with the Eritrean dictator? At the risk of sounding cynical, is this another case where the UK government does business with someone who has no moral compass, such as Gaddafi, until circumstances  change and it becomes financially inconvenient? Is the UK’s human rights record no longer a factor?

HRCE recommends that the UK, as a co-sponsor of the mandate for appointing a UN Special Rapporteur, should ask its business partner why is refusing to cooperate with her? This mandate expires in June 2013. HRCE recommends that the UK support the extension of the mandate so that the rapporteur  might actually set foot on Eritrean soil to assess and report the true conditions of the Eritrean people in their country.

HRCE recommends that the UK follows Germany’s example by outlawing, once again, the collection of the 2% tax on the British Citizens of Eritrean origin and Eritreans residents in the U.K.

HRCE recommends that the UK re-introduce restrictions on the movements of Eritrean diplomats, especially their Ambassador, as he is constantly fomenting trouble in Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, and other cities in England. He organises meetings with supporters  who will do anything the government asks them to do for fear of being reported for non-attendance and likely reprisals on their families. Those who dare to state the truth about what is happening in Eritrea at these meetings are denied access, physically attacked and otherwise bullied into submission.

HRCE knows people who were beaten up while the Ambassador sat there in a meeting witnessing what was going on. This also happened when the same Ambassador visited Stockholm (Sweden) and other European countries. He is a hate-monger. Is he not in breach of the Vienna Convention? What kind of diplomacy is this? Is  it good for the UK to be associated with this kind of figure?

HRCE recommends that at the very least the UK should stay away from Eritrea and sever all business ties instead of forming this cordial relationship with a dictator, and playing along with a false promotion such as the lies published on the mining companies’ web sites in which the smiling faces of Eritreans replace the reality which is that they are treated like slaves at the mines.

HRCE recommends that the UK cease to appease  the Eritrean government, which has never implemented the ratified constitution and has no legitimacy, and considers itself above the law, local, regional, international, or otherwise.

Yours sincerely

Elizabeth (Elsa)  Chyrum


Mark Simmonds MP

Justine Greening MP

Baroness Glenys Kinnock,

Catherine Dupe Atoki

Ban ki-moon

Baroness Catherine Ashton


Stavros Lambrinidis