GENEVA (27 October 2017) – The people of Eritrea are suffering unending brutal human rights violations, and thousands continue walking for days in a desperate bid to reach the borders with neighbouring countries, the UN General Assembly has heard.
Special Rapporteur Sheila B. Keetharuth listed multiple severe violations of people’s human rights, pleading with the international community to show compassion to those who risked death to cross the border, where shoot-to-kill orders were allegedly carried out by the military.
“I appeal to the international community not to turn their backs on Eritrean refugees for short-term political gain in response to populist electoral demands or promises, which can translate into actual restrictions, harassment and human rights violations,” she said, while updating the General Assembly on the country’s bleak human rights picture.
“At best, efforts to reduce the number of Eritrean refugees arriving will lead only to a temporary drop in numbers, but they will not stop people crossing deserts and seas in search of safe havens. No barrier will be insurmountable for someone fleeing human rights violations.”
The Special Rapporteur said that with no apparent changes in Eritrean policy at home, citizens were still dying in custody or enduring indefinite detention with no access to their families and lawyers.
The rights to freedom of expression and religion were also being violated, the Special Rapporteur said, citing reports that followers of both recognized and non-recognized religious denominations were still being detained in the capital, Asmara.
“Arrest and detention are used to punish, intimidate, create an atmosphere of fear, or to ‘disappear’ those who are deemed dangerous because they do not toe the line,” said Ms. Keetharuth, urging the Government of Eritrea to end its long-standing practice of arbitrary detentions and respect the rights of all prisoners.
“Eritrea still has no constitution to provide protection for fundamental human rights, no independent judiciary, no legislative assembly – in fact no institutions that could ensure checks and balances or protect against the misuse of power by the state,” she said.
Many arrests followed the same pattern, she said. Detainees were not told why they were being held, were not taken to court where they could challenge their detention, and were denied access to lawyers and visitors. Even close family members could only hand food and clean clothes to prison guards. Detainees were not told whether or when they would be freed, and no information was made public on specific cases.
Countless Eritreans were seeking to leave in search of a place where their rights would be respected, but even that was fraught with risks, the Special Rapporteur said.
Ms Keetharuth highlighted that Eritreans were still being forced into indefinite national service, despite a maximum of 18 months being set by the country’s laws.
Recent figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) show 20,000 people have crossed into a neighbouring country so far this year, nearly as many as in the whole of 2016, with 46 per cent of those transported by the IOM aged 18-24.
The Special Rapporteur said that, rather than trying to reduce the number of Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees they were receiving, other countries should ensure their human rights were protected.
“The international community needs to restore the rights and dignity of Eritrean refugees by closing human rights protection gaps in national refugee policies,” she said.
Calls by the Commission of Inquiry to ensure accountability for past human rights violations and crimes against humanity had not resulted in any new measures, she added.
The Special Rapporteur, who has proposed a series of benchmarks to assess Eritrea’s progress, urged the Government to show its “genuine commitment and serious determination” to achieve progress by taking concrete steps to improve people’s lives.
Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth (Mauritius) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea in October 2012. From 2014 to 2016, she also served as a member of theCommission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. Since May 2014, Ms. Keetharuth has been an expert member of the Working Group on Extractive Industries, Environment and Human Rights Violations of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Until 2012, Ms. Keetharuth was the Executive Director of the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa in Banjul, The Gambia. She also worked with Amnesty International in Kampala, Uganda, and as a lawyer and broadcaster in Mauritius. In 2017, Ms. Keetharuth was awarded the Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award by the University of Leicester, in recognition of her human rights work.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.