Eritrea accused of enslavement and crimes against humanity


By Peter Hulm

A U.N. Commission of Inquiry this month accused Eritrean officials of "crimes against humanity, including widespread and systematic enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, rape, murder and other inhumane acts".

The Commission chair Mike Smith presented his findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council on 21 June 2016 after releasing the report on 8 June.

"The documented crimes were committed primarily, directly or indirectly, by State and ruling party officials, military commanders, and members of the national security office," the U.N. reported.

"The Commission identified alleged perpetrators [...] and it recommended that the Security Council refer the situation in Eritrea to the International Criminal Court."

The report, following up one in 2015, had a number of respectable people -- and not so reputable -- immediately crying foul. It's almost a case study in the dilemmas of U.N. human rights assessment and discussion: accusations that are dismissed by the accused and others, plus invocation of questionable rules governing U.N. action.

The nay-sayers

In The New York Times, Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, in Washington, described the CoI document as a "shoddy human rights report". His argument: "It's Bad in Eritrea, but Not That Bad."

"The commissioners didn't interview Western diplomats or U.N. staff based in Eritrea. By their own admission, they did not consult the relevant academic literature. They discarded tens of thousands of testimonials from Eritreans defending the Isaias regime, claiming these were irrelevant or inauthentic," said Bruton on 23 June. Al-Jazeera notes that Eritrea expelled its last international correspondent in 2007.

What the Commission said was that: "Given the large number of group letters and petitions and the similar contents of most of the submissions, the commission has concluded that the campaign critical of its first report was well organized. While the commission is satisfied that a significant number of the letters were essentially voluntary, very few of those contacted had actually read the report, and many had been provided with sensationalized information about the commission's findings."

Over 200,000 signed petition

The Eritrean Ministry of Information accused the Commission of ignoring a petition signed by "more than 200,000 Eritreans and friends from around the globe" and writing off all but 5% of "nearly 46,000 testimonies that were submitted to the Commission in January 2016".

The Ministry also boasted: "More than 10,000 Eritreans and their friends from across Europe inundated Geneva on Tuesday, June 21, 2016, to protest against the politically driven agenda of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights and to condemn the COI-Eritrea for its preposterous conclusion."

The Ministry also quoted the Eritrean specialist Tanja Müller of Manchester University who "exposes that the lies against Eritrea was the work of western lobbying companies" engaged by human rights activists. She also pointed out that the experts the CoI consulted "included hardly anybody with recent first-hand experience of Eritrea."


The Eritrea statement didn't mention Müller's proposal that the government allow any citizens to leave the embattled country after having done their 18 months of military service (instead of employing a reported shoot-to-kill policy against anyone trying to escape across the border). An estimated 40,000 Eritreans sought asylum in Europe in 2015. The Government blames human traffickers rather than rights abuses.

Less surprisingly, a demonstration by up to 10,000 Eritreans and supporters at the Place des Nations against the government's policies didn't make it into the government statement either.

Mike Smith told the Council: "So long as there is no parliament where you debate national questions, so long as there is an abusive national service which is unending [which the CoI described as enslavement], so long as there is no free press, so long as there are no civil society organizations apart from government-appointed ones, so long as people are living in fear and controlled by the State, there will be [...] no real progress for the Eritrean people."

'Actively working'

Eritrea replied that it was "actively working to implement 92 recommendations" from the Council's periodical review and it was participating in international and regional arrangements to "comprehensively address irregular migration".

The European Union expressed concern that Eritrea had not granted the Commission access (evidence was taken from several hundred victims who gave testimony outside the country).

This may sound damning but some countries still questioned the procedures.

Cuba argued that the involvement of the Council in the internal affairs of countries was not within its mandate and this meant that punitive measures would be taken instead of cooperation and dialogue.

China announced it was also speaking on behalf of Pakistan in declaring its opposition to the politicization of human rights.

'Cooperation on equal footing'

Belarus noted Eritrea's statement that it was interested in cooperating with the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner. It called for cooperation and mutual discussion on an equal footing: mandates that were not in the interest of the country concerned were counter-productive and useless.

Venezuela deplored that country-specific mandates, especially without the consent of the country concerned, sought to promote political agendas. Nicaragua reiterated that unilateral mandates were a violation of the principle of equality among States.

Bruton noted, as the Government also told the Council: "The United Nations Development Program gives Eritrea high marks for its progress on several Millennium Development Goals."

'Tip of the iceberg'

Smith was asked why the first Commission report did not mention crimes against humanity. He reminded the Council the Commission was only asked to look at this issue for the current report. Its 2015 report spoke of "systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations" and "a total lack of rule of law" (see Human Right Watch).

Smith pointed out the indications are that the abuses for which victims provided evidence are just "the tip of the iceberg". He called for travel bans and freezing of assets held by suspects. Watch this space.

Are human rights the internal affair of a country, particularly if the State has not signed onto a Convention? Can a State exclude discussion of its abuses if it refuses entry to investigators?How much does progress on development goals justify suppression of basic rights?

Clearly, some States think the answer to all these questions is yes. Forget Nazi Germany, Chile and Argentina in the 1980s, North Korea, Cambodia and Mao Tse-Tung's China.

The report is available online in PDF. It includes two letters since December 2015 proposing a visit. The testimony is kept private in a separate document.


Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea. 21 June 2016

Commission of Inquiry report 2016: issued on 8 June 2016

Eritrea Ministry of Information: Over 200,000 Petitioners Slam Sickening COI-Eritrea Report: 23 June 2016

Bronwyn Bruton, New York Times, 23 June 2016: It's Bad in Eritrea, but Not That Bad

UNDP: UN, Eritrea showcase country's health successes. 27 September 2014.

Tanja Müller: Human rights as a political tool: Eritrea and the 'crimes against humanity' narrative. 10 June 2016

Al-Jazeera: Everyday Eritrea: Resilience in the face of repression. 21 April 2016

U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Eritrea for 2014 pdf

Back to top up to top Previous Page