U.N. investigators on Wednesday accused the Eritrean government of a quarter-century of widespread, systematic violations amounting to crimes against humanity.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea released its second report on alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea, which painted a disturbing picture of a society in which abusive conditions and the use of conscripts as forced labor are the norm, rather than the exception.
The commission of three independent experts regarded Eritrea as an authoritarian state, with no independent judiciary, national assembly or democratic institutions. Commission Chairman Mike Smith said there was a vacuum in governance and the rule of law, “resulting in a climate of impunity for crimes against humanity to be perpetrated over a quarter of a century.”
He added that “these crimes are still occurring today.”
According to the report, crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances and other inhumane acts are committed to instill fear in the population and deter political opposition.
The investigators said people should not be fooled by what they called “the facade of calm and normality” that visitors to Eritrea see. Smith told VOA many visitors to the capital, Asmara, and even foreigners living there, describe a situation that is very different from the apparent reality.
“Human rights abuses of the type that we describe do not generally happen in the streets of Asmara," he said. "They are happening in detention centers across the country. They are happening in military camps. They are happening in training centers where foreigners simply do not have access.”
Smith said violations, including torture, rape and murder, occur in hidden places. He estimated between 300,000 and 400,000 people have been enslaved during the past 25 years, doomed to serve indefinitely in the country’s system of national service.
Total loss of choice
“The principal elements are the complete loss of choice — the fact that you are having to work and that you are not remunerated for your work; that you have to work, come what may,” he said.
Smith said the military and national service programs are of indefinite duration and are frequently cited as a main reason for people fleeing the country. He said he thought Eritrea was still operating under “a shoot-to-kill policy” to stop people from crossing its borders.
He noted, however, that there has been "some relaxation, certainly at the local level, as to whether the soldiers really do shoot or not, or shoot all the time."
“So people risk their lives just crossing the border,” he said. “They then risk their lives crossing the desert to get to the southern Mediterranean. That is the north of Africa, to Libya and similar places, from where they can then get a boat and risk that journey across to Europe, which is extremely dangerous.”
The U.N. refugee agency said 47,025 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe last year. Many others died while making the risky sea crossing. In one particularly tragic event, 366 people drowned when their boat capsized in October off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The UNHCR said nearly all the victims were Eritreans.
Refusal to cooperate
For a second year, Eritrean authorities refused to allow the commissioners to visit the country, so the U.N. officials gathered their information from 833 interviews with Eritreans abroad and 160 written submissions received from mid-2014 to mid-2015.
The commission also received 45,000 written submissions, which were largely critical of the commission’s first report. The independent experts said these submissions “were the direct result of an organized government campaign to attempt to discredit the inquiry.”
Yemane Gebreab, adviser to Eritrea’s president, rejected this claim. He said members of the Eritrean diaspora have mounted a global campaign “to oppose the unsubstantiated allegations of the Commission of Inquiry.”
He said testimonies of those in the diaspora were given to the Commission of Inquiry secretariat. “It is very strange that the commission that is set up to investigate into the human rights situation in the country would dismiss offhand the testimony of 42,000 people,” he said.
Gebreab offered a lengthy, methodical rebuttal of the report, attempting to refute each accusation made and calling the report seriously flawed, unprofessional and one-sided. He dismissed the commission’s charge that Eritrea had committed crimes against humanity since it gained its independence in 1991 as being without merit.
'No solid evidence'
“The COI has no solid evidence or firm legal basis to support this extreme and unfounded charge, " he said. "The report of the COI fails to meet the principles of impartiality, objectivity and nonselectivity.”
When asked by VOA to justify his criticism of the report as being one-sided, given that his government had refused the commission entry into the country, he said, “We have not allowed the members of the Commission of Inquiry to visit Eritrea because from the very get-go, they have shown that they lack independence, impartiality and objectivity.”
The investigators said they had compiled dossiers of evidence against a number of individuals they think bear responsibility for crimes against humanity. They said the evidence would be made available at the appropriate time to relevant institutions “to ensure there is justice for the Eritrean people.”
They called for the U.N. Security Council to refer Eritrea to the International Criminal Court. The commission will formally present its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council on June 21.