Eritrea may have committed crimes against humanity, a year-long UN human rights inquiry said in a report describing extrajudicial killings, widespread torture, sexual slavery and enforced labour.
The report detailed horrific torture, including electric shock, near drowning, sexual abuse and forcing people to stare at the burning sun for hours.
Its nearly 500-page report details how the country, under Isaias Afwerki’s iron-fisted regime for the past 22 years, has created a repressive system in which people are routinely arrested at whim, detained, tortured, killed or go missing.
Slavery-like practices are routine and torture is so widespread that the commission said it could only conclude that the government’s policy was to encourage its use.
“Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea with impunity under the authority of the government,” said Sheila Keetharuth, one of the three commission members.
“The commission concludes that the government is accountable for the widespread torture inflicted on Eritreans throughout the Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah country,” the report said.
The commission had asked Eritrea for access and information during its inquiry but “it received no response”, it added.
Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea with impunity under the authority of the government.Sheila Keetharuth, UN human rights commission member
Eritrea effectively enslaves people by a system known as “national service”, but which really involves “arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labour, absence of leave”, the report said.
National service is supposed to last 18 months, but the commission spoke to one witness who had fled after 17 years.
Witnesses reported people being executed for trying to avoid being drafted into service as recently as 2013, it said.
Women recruits meanwhile are routinely subjected to “sexual slavery”, the report found.
“I was ordered to bring girls to commanders’ rooms. They would give me their names and I would go and collect them,” a personal assistant to an official at the Wi’a training camp told the investigators.
He said he would bring one or two girls a day, and that over a three year period, he had brought around 1,200 girls to the officers.
Eritrea maintains a vast detention network and regards anyone who tries to leave the country as a traitor, but a large portion of the population has already fled.
About 6 to 10 per cent of Eritreans are now registered as refugees by the UN, depending on estimates of the population.
Eritrea has operated a shoot-to-kill policy on its borders to stop people fleeing. The commission said people were still being shot in 2014, although the government says it has ended the policy.
The government operates a “pervasive” surveillance network to monitor its own citizens, while judges – often conscripts earning less than $2 per day – are not competent to ensure fundamental rights are upheld, the report said.
Mass killings had also been perpetrated against certain ethnic groups, it added.
Convincing expat Eritreans to testify was meanwhile difficult, due to Eritrea’s extensive network of spies even outside the country, and fear of reprisals against family members back home.
That fear is justified, the report said, stressing “there is no rule of law in Eritrea.”
Mass exodus fuelling Mediterranean migrant crisis
The situation has sparked a massive exodus from Eritrea, which after Syria is the second largest source of migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe.
Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a brutal 30-year independence struggle, is “ruled not by law but by fear,” Ms Keetharuth said.
That, she said, is the main reason why “hundreds of thousands are fleeing their country, risking capture and torture by Eritrean authorities and death at the hands of ruthless human traffickers.”
The investigators urged the international community to protect fleeing Eritreans, to make their migration routes safer and, above all, to not send them back.
They described an Orwellian mass-surveillance society, where neighbours and family members are drafted to inform on each other, and where people can be held for years in horrific conditions without ever knowing what crime they allegedly committed.