A Resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on July 1 calls for an African investigation, supported by the international community, into serious crimes in Eritrea. Some of these crimes could qualify as crimes against humanity, it says. The resolution follows a Commission of Inquiry report presented to the Council on June 28, which calls for strong measures from the international community to address serious, ongoing human rights abuses in Eritrea. Commission President Mike Smith called for the UN Security Council to “determine that the situation of human rights in Eritrea poses a threat to international peace and security, and refer the situation in Eritrea to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court”, although this suggestion has been criticized by some observers who fear that it would give the Eritrean government an additional reason to retrench into isolation and human rights abuses.
The Commission said the international community can no longer ignore the extensive human rights violations occurring in Eritrea, particularly in military training camps where hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are enslaved through forced conscription. Eritrean officials have also committed the crimes of arbitrary imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape and murder, it said. The Commission found that because State officials have relied so extensively on the commission of crimes to establish and consolidate total control over the Eritrean population, they have engaged in a persistent, widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of Eritrea since May 1991.
The Commission goes further and asks that targeted sanctions be imposed, namely travel bans and assets freezes. It urges that, under the aegis of the African Union supported by the international community, “crimes against humanity be investigated, prosecuted and individuals reasonably believed to have committed these crimes be tried”. The Commission has compiled evidence on a number of individuals whom it has reasonable grounds to believe bear responsibility for crimes against humanity. It told JusticeInfo that “this evidence will be made available at the appropriate time to relevant institutions, including courts of law, following strict witness protection requirements, to ensure that there is justice for the Eritrean people”.
The Commission report includes detailed results of investigations on sexual and gender-based violence, especially in military training camps. Whilst Eritrean officials maintain that “there is no rape in Eritrea”, the Commission found that sexual and gender-based violence persists. It gathered a large amount of corroborated evidence, and documented physical and mental scars from such violence in people who have fled the country.
It heard evidence that some cases of rape committed by men against women in local communities had been adjudicated by courts and the perpetrators had been sentenced to imprisonment. However, rape and domestic servitude in military training centres and in the army, and rape in detention, go unpunished. Sexual violence against men also occurs in detention. Men’s sexual organs are often targeted for beating or electric shock, the Commission reported.
The Commission underlined the vital role that a missing civil society needs to play in Eritrea. “Firstly Eritrea needs to have vibrant civil society organizations inside the country that are not appointed by the government,” it says. “Those that are based outside Eritrea can continue to raise awareness of the human rights issues facing the people of Eritrea.”
The number of Eritrean asylum seekers remains constantly high with an average 5,000 Eritreans continuing to leave the country each month. Although little seems to be known in Europe about their situation at home, it can no longer be ignored. Commission President Mike Smith was adamant that UN Member States should provide Eritrean nationals seeking protection with refugee status, in accordance with the provisions of international asylum and refugee law.
Eritrean officials say the UN Commission report is biased and not credible. Perhaps they might one day change their tune if they find themselves before a criminal court.