Crimes against Humanity in Eritrea: Accountability Now


The UN commission of inquiry on the human rights situation in Eritrea (COIE) released its report on the 8th of June 2016. In the report, the commission found that ‘Crimes against Humanity’ have been committed in in Eritrea by the Eritrean government. The commission also submitted its report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on the 21st of June 2016 during its 32nd session.

The commission also made recommendations that called the Eritrean government be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and that African Union establishes an accountability mechanism to hold accountable those committed the crimes. The UNHRC approved the report of the commission and passed a resolution condemning the crimes committed. It called the Eritrean government to improve its human rights record and decided that the report be referred to the various UN organs including the Security Council and called the African Union to set up an accountability mechanism that would look into the crimes committed and bring the perpetrators to justice. The UNHRC also extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea. 

This raised high hopes and expectations among Eritreans that justice will be served and those perpetrators will be brought to justice. Thousands of Eritreans converged in Geneva in support of the findings of the commission and demanded the UN and the international community bring to justice those who committed the crimes.

On the 27th of October 2016, Ms Sheila Keetharuth, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea and the former member of the commission of Inquiry on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea presented oral update to the UN General Assembly third Committee on the findings of the commission and the recommendations of the commission and the UNHRC.  “States must heed the pleas of countless victims of crimes against humanity for justice and accountability. The Commission has recommended that the situation in Eritrea be referred to the International Criminal Court,” she said.

Ms Sheila Keetharuth described the crimes committed in Eritrea in the following words. “The crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic campaign against the civilian population. The aim of the campaign has been to maintain control over the population and perpetuate the leadership’s rule in Eritrea.”

Ms Keetharuth stressed that the Eritrean government continues on its trajectory of violating human rights and committing crimes against the Eritrean population and warned the international community that “business as usual” does not work. She reminded the UN General Assembly to shoulder its responsibility and stressed, “The Commission has concluded that the Government of Eritrea has neither the political will nor the institutional capacity to prosecute the crimes we have documented. The Commission therefore recommends that the UN Security Council refer the situation in Eritrea to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and that the African Union establish an accountability mechanism.”

On the same date, about 1500 Eritreans in the diaspora flocked to New York demanding that the international community shoulders its obligation of brining justice to the Eritrean people and ensuring accountability to the crimes committed in Eritrea.

However, many countries appear to ignore human rights violations and crimes committed in Eritrea but support the Eritrean regime. It is not surprising or a new phenomenon to see countries with poor human rights records and repressive regimes to defend the Eritrean regime. These countries include Zimbabwe, Iran, Cuba, China, Arab countries such as Egypt and United Arab Emirates. But what is more disappointing is that countries in the European Union are coming closer to the Eritrean government and the EU in general has started to give political, diplomatic and economic support to the Eritrean government. The EU claim of engagement with the Eritrean government for decades now without any positive results registered is unjustifiable. The EU needs to put clear bench marks in which to measure its engagement outcomes.

The EU is allegedly funding the Eritrean government to curb the flow of Eritreans to Europe. The Eritrean government already has the shoot to kill policy in place which has not stopped people from taking the risk and fleeing their country. The Eritrean borders are heavily guarded by the army and people who are found fleeing are either shot dead, arrested, detained and tortured for several years. Many die or become disabled as a result of the tortures and poor prison conditions.

In this case, the EU is becoming complicit in crimes committed against humanity in Eritrea by enabling the Eritrean government to kill, detain and torture more people. The funds will strengthen the capacities of the Eritrean government in terms of mobility, intelligence gathering and facilities to execute its crimes more efficiently and effectively.

The EU is also funding the Sudanese government to stop the flow of refugees towards Europe. Through the funding of the EU, the Sudanese government is mobilizing the notorious Janjeweed rapid support force that had reigned havoc in Darfur to now arrest, detain, torture, loot and deport Eritrean refugees in Sudan. Thousands of Eritreans have already been detained and deported to Eritrea, and many paid bribes for temporary release from detention.

For the above reasons, the crimes committed in Eritrea seem to be ignored. The EU is not doing what it can to ensure accountability for the Eritrean people. The hopes and expectations that commission of the inquiry has come with seem to be fading away. The Eritrean people had expected that justice will be served through the efforts of the international community.

For two years now, the Eritrean regime has been isolated not for its human rights crimes but for its support, training, financing and arming terrorist groups such as AlShabab and for destabilizing the region. Human rights violations and crimes committed in Eritrea have been ignored and the EU is working to rescue the Eritrean government from its isolation. The conflict in Yemen is also another blessing for the Eritrean regime that relaxed the isolation. Eritrea is now part of the Coalition in Yemen and Eritrean territory has been used by the coalition as a launching pad for its war in Yemen.

Here is the irony. The commission of inquiry was established by the UN itself and considerable resources have been invested to make the work of the commission real. This means resources, efforts and time have been invested into the work of the commission. Hundreds of Eritrean victims gave their testimonies and made submissions in the hope of getting justice. Many human rights activists worked day and night to make the work of the commission a success.

However, it is incomprehensible to see the UN unable to take concrete actions towards implementing its own commission’s recommendations.  Some member states have even gone to the extent of questioning the work of the very commission set up by their own organization. In this case the noncompliance and non-abiding by its own principles and charter brings the credibility of the UN body to be questioned.

Jeopardizing the work of the UN commission of inquiry on Eritrea is not only a betrayal of the Eritrean people but also a betrayal of justice and the UN principles. The UN must prevent humanitarian crisis from happening. Response must be preventative rather than dealing with the aftermath of a crisis. The UN could have prevented the genocides in Rwanda and the war crimes committed in Sudan if acted in time. The human and material costs of a particular situation is less costly to deal with before it explodes. The international community should to address the root cause of the problems rather dealing with its symptoms. In the Eritrean case, the root cause for the flow of refugees are the crimes committed against Humanity. The attempt to curb the flow of refugees by supporting and funding the very regime which is committing crimes against humanity will not take us anywhere. On the contrary it will compound and worsen the situation.

Eritrea is signatory to the UN charter which calls for the respect of human rights but is acting contrary to the UN charter. Yet it is enjoying the rights as a member state of the UN without being challenged while it commits crimes against humanity. The victims’ hope is the international community will be honest with itself and that it has learned lessons from the Rwanda genocide and the war crimes in Sudan and would not repeat the same mistakes. Repeating the same mistakes shows the lack of willingness to learn or the lack of capacity to learn. And this is a very serious fault that needs be addressed. The world cannot afford to remain idle when crimes against humanity are being committed.  The Eritrean people want justice and accountability now.

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