International human rights day: A call to Eritrea to own up to its shocking human rights record!

Legogang MaxeleguAuthor: Lebogang Maxelegu
Assistant Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

10 December 2015 marked the 65th anniversary of the International Human Rights Day, which the international community celebrates annually to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The UDHR is arguably the first global document to pronounce on human rights standards that countries ought to aspire to. Though not a treaty itself and therefore not binding on Member States, the UDHR serves as the cornerstone for the definition of human rights and fundamental freedoms as outlined in the United Nations Charter, which is legally binding on all State Parties including Eritrea which joined the United Nations(UN) in 1993.

The UDHR is also the bedrock upon which treaties such the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were founded. Eritrea has notably ratified both covenants, further and invariably placing upon itself a legal obligation to abide by the human rights norms enunciated in the declaration as well as other ratified treaties.

The United Nations General Assembly held its Seventieth Session in October 2015, during which the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Eritrea, H.E. Mr. Osman Saleh, was invited to address the assembly. In his speech, the Honourable Minister declared that Eritrea is making remarkable progress in building a nation founded on the respect for human rights, contrary to what he described as “unfair and baseless accusations” of human rights violations that Eritrea has been subjected to. But is Eritrea truly making the progress that it has committed itself to in terms of the UDHR? Is it being unfairly targeted by the international community? These questions warrant an examination of some of the observations on the state of human rights in Eritrea made by treaty bodies and the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.

The Minister’s statement comes in the wake of the publication of various reports from credited international bodies that paint a disturbing picture. Most notable of these reports is the highly critical report by the COI on the state of human rights in Eritrea, published in June 2015. The COI was established by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to investigate all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea, as outlined in the reports of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea. The COI reported that after collecting first hand evidence from 550 testimonies given during confidential interviews with Eritreans and 160 written submissions, it concluded that ‘systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are still being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the government’. These include enforced disappearances, forced labour, torture and extra judicial killings, among others.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a mechanism through which the UNHRC assesses the human rights records of Member States on a voluntary basis, has also expressed concerns about the state of human rights in Eritrea. The 2014 report of the second UPR cycle showed growing concern for the painfully slow implementation or lack thereof, of the recommendations to which Eritrea had acceded during the first UPR cycle, to respect and protect human rights. These recommendations include stepping up efforts for a rapid and definitive application of the country’s Constitution, ensuring that it incorporates the principles and commitments arising from international human rights instruments which Eritrea has ratified. Out of the 200 recommendations made by Member States of the Council at the second UPR cycle, Eritrea only acceded to 90 based on factors cited in its response as including the validity, relevance, practicality and timing of the recommendations.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women considered Eritrea’s fourth and fifth country reports on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in February 2015. In its concluding remarks, the committee found that although Eritrea has made some strides in legislative reform to advance women’s rights, especially through the adoption of Proclamation No. 158/2007 to abolish female circumcision, there were still concerns preventing the successful implementation of the convention.

The committee noted that women and girls are being forcibly recruited into national service for an indefinite period and without formal pay, under conditions amounting to forced labour. It was further reported that women performing national service are often victims of sexual violence, including rape, committed by officers and male recruits.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child which monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child considered Eritrea’s fourth periodic report in May 2015. In its concluding remarks, it expressed concern about the prevalence of certain forms of discrimination, including de facto discrimination against girls, children from ethnic minorities and nomadic communities and about measures adopted for border control, including a “shoot to kill” practice against those trying to flee the country, including children.

The conditions in Eritrea are such that reportedly 5000 Eritreans feel compelled to leave their country monthly in search for havens where they can enjoy their human rights

The conditions in Eritrea are such that reportedly 5000 Eritreans feel compelled to leave their country monthly in search for havens where they can enjoy their human rights. Unfortunately the extensive media coverage of the exodus and investigations by various UN bodies, have revealed that the emigration has exposed Eritreans to tragedies untold including, risking their lives in a perilous voyage at sea to Europe; abuse and death at the hands of human traffickers.

These reports and others cast doubt on the Minister’s claim that Eritrea is making remarkable progress in respecting and protecting human rights, whether civil and political or economic, social and cultural rights. While we acknowledge the progress Eritrea has made in relation to specific Millennium Development Goals, it would benefit Eritreans immensely for the Eritrean government to stop playing the victim of international backlash for its human rights record, and begin a critical introspection in light of the above reports. Hopefully, this reflection exercise will enable the government to appreciate the gravity of the situation and accordingly, be galvanised into action to fully respect, protect and fulfill its human rights obligations towards its population.

About the Author:
Lebogang Maxelegu holds a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of the Witwatersrand. She is currently an Assistant Researcher at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She is also the Campaign and Advocacy Officer at the Human Rights Institute of South Africa. Previously she interned at Lawyers for Human Rights in the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme, and worked as a Socio-Legal Researcher at Coram’s Children Legal Centre.



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