In pursuit of Social Justice

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

World Day of Social Justice – 20 February 2015

Social justice becomes a reality when social protection measures against discrimination and marginalization are enforced, thus targeting systemic social injustice and differential treatment. This is what the United Nations General Assembly aimed at emphasizing when it proclaimed The World Day of Social Justice on 20 February 2007.[1] The advancement of social justice requires the removal of such barriers which discriminate against people based on – but not exclusive to – their age, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity or disability.

In Eritrea, religion can be a basis for differential treatment and persecution. A 1995 Presidential Decree declared that the country would recognize only four religions: the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Roman Catholicism, and Sunni Islam. The 1997 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but because it was never implemented, the Decree trumps this right. All other faiths were banned and those who practice them would incur penalties of arrest, detention in inhumane conditions, intimidation and even social exclusion.

Makda[2], a young Eritrean girl, recounts how her father was expelled from his government job and left with no income to support his wife and seven children for being a Jehovah’s Witness.

“Our family were called “traitors” and our neighbours harassed us when we went outside. One day my parents and I were arrested during a religious gathering – I was only 14 years old. After three days, locked up in a cold prison cell with my mother, the officer released me with a warning: “Do not follow your parents’ religion or you will be expelled from school”.

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Zero tolerance for female genital mutilation in Eritrea?

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation: 6 February 2015

February 6 – the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation – is dedicated annually to making the world aware of the harmful effects of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) and to promote its eradication[1]. FGM/C involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia; a deep form of discrimination against women and girls, it directly violates their right to health, and physical integrity. The practice is rooted in cultural and religious beliefs of communities who perceive it as a social obligation to control female sexuality and ‘preserve or protect’ a woman’s chastity.

The most common form of FGM/C in Eritrea is ‘infubulation[2]’. During the procedure, the child’s legs and hips are tied together to limit movement – often for several weeks afterward to allow healing. The age for circumcising of a girl varies amongst cultural groups, but can range from one month old to 15 years. A traditional circumciser commonly performs the act within communities; close relatives or neighbours can also act as circumcisers.

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Freedom of expression for a day in Eritrea

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists: 2 November 2014

In a land where the right to freedom of expression and information is heavily curtailed, I sought to interview three exiled Eritrean journalists and allow them the space to freely express what they cannot in their country.

Why did you choose to become a journalist?

*Aman: “I used to be a development worker; I was taken to prison camps and three times I saw people tortured and killed. I started to write stories and post articles on what was happening…I became a journalist by accident – all I wanted to do was contribute to justice”.

Since Eritrea’s “liberation” from Ethiopia in 1991 and its international recognition as an independent sovereign state in 1993, the country gradually evolved into a nation rife with human rights abuses. Notably, the systematic attack on dissent of any form resulting in extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and indefinite incommunicado detentions.

What does freedom of expression mean to you?

Aman:” It is a symbol of democracy- the flow of information without fear or restrictions – the means to freely enlighten and educate”.

18 September 2001 was coined as the Eritrean government’s ‘Crackdown’ on all independent media, when it banned the entire private press by shutting down media houses. It also marked the end of dissenting voices at the political level. Eighteen journalists, as well as eleven political leaders  were rounded – up and imprisoned incommunicado without trial. Their whereabouts are still unknown till today. Since then, more than 70 journalists have been detained at different periods in time.

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Child marriage as ‘security’?

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

International Day of the Girl Child: 11 October 2014

“The female soldiers did everything we did. In addition they were forced to cook for the commanders, wash their clothes, and some were forced to have sex with them.” – Khalid al-Amin on life as a conscript, Aljazeera interview – Escaping Eritrea’s ‘open prison’ (3 October 2014)

The legal age at which a girl can get married in Eritrea is 18 years, however many marry earlier as an act of great desperation.

Child marriage is prohibited in numerous international human rights instruments, namely; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. That said, child marriage is nevertheless rampant on the African continent. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) figures (2013), out of the 20 countries most affected by child marriage, Africa hosts 15. ‘Typical’ drivers of child marriage include customary/traditional beliefs, desire for economic gain or to provide security. I hesitated at the mention of ‘security’ because how does a minor gain security from being forced to engage in sexual reproduction, childbearing and birth within a completely unprepared body and mind?

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In the absence of democratic principles, tyranny reigns

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

International Day of Democracy: 15 September 2014

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” – William Wilberforce​

When the world celebrated the International Day of Democracy (15 September 2014), I reminded myself of some of the key tenets of democracy, namely: free and fair elections, the rule of law, the upholding of fundamental rights and freedoms — to name but a few. The mention of the rule of law in particular raised red flags in my mind as I pondered where to place Eritrea when choosing between definitions of democracy and autocracy.

The rule of law and the respect for human rights stand as prerequisites to realising democratic statehood. The laws which govern a state are enshrined in a constitution; a constitution sets the parameters for lines that cannot be crossed; the principles by which a state should conduct itself. Where then does one begin to place or reference these barriers in a country with no constitution? Who has legitimacy in decision-making? What legal standards are used? The lines continue to blur…

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This is no magic trick: I can make you disappear

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance: 30 August 2014

To cite magic here wrongly alludes to fantasy and enchantment. The reality is people disappear without warning and information in Eritrea. There is no make-believe; from one day to the next, a person can vanish into thin air.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006) defines enforced disappearances as:

“… the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State”.

Enforced disappearances are followed by the State’s refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or the concealment of the fate or whereabouts of disappeared persons. Enforced disappearances, which constitute a crime against humanity, in effect place the ‘disappeared’ outside the protection of the law.

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A hijacked youth that wants to go home

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

International Youth Day: 12 August 2014

Blurred lines come to mind when defining the word “youth” in Eritrea.

There are multiple global ranges afforded to the term “youth”; the United Nations (UN) declares a range of 15 to 24 years old, and the African Youth Charter settles for 15 to 35 years of age. One common definition is to observe youth as a transitional phase from dependent childhood to independent adulthood, a time when parental guidance and experience are equipping children with the tools to construct an independent adult self.

When interviewing young people who left Eritrea, it troubles me that I cannot capture that moment, that space reserved for such transition. I asked 18 year old Hermon* when she first recalled hearing about the compulsory national service introduced in 1995, which systematically recruits people from the ages of 18 to serve their country. Her response was:

I knew what national service was when I was eight years old because there was a round-up [known as giffa] and they took my mother during the night.

By the time Hermon was 12 years old, her mother came to her at night and asked if she would be prepared to “take a long and difficult trip”. She agreed, not knowing that what lay ahead was three days and nights of travel to arrive in Khartoum, Sudan and live for four-years as a member of a nameless, faceless and poor refugee mob. Hermon did not comprehend the risk she and her mother took: the risk of being detained for desertion or the risk of becoming victims of the ‘shoot to kill’ policy at the borders. At 12 years, she could not have possibly understood but saw the fear in her mother’s eyes, who arranged this journey for her daughter so she would never have to go to Sawa or any other military training camp.

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