Time to step up the international effort on Eritrea's human rights' situation

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Abraham Yemane (2 July 2014)

The repressive regime in Eritrea has long used its foreign relation problems as a smoke screen and diversion from the deteriorating human rights situation in that country. It had even succeeded in misleading some commentators that the situation is a result of Eritrea's status as an international pariah.

For example, months ago, Messrs Cohen and Shinn made that kind of suggestion. Another writer made similar suggestion claiming that: "Finding ways to engage Eritrea by creating more linkages between its government, economy and the outside world will be crucial to establishing the counter-incentives needed to draw it out of a narrow rhetorical focus on the border. The deeper Eritrea’s linkages outside of the region are, the more secure its position relative to Ethiopia will become (much as Ethiopia has managed its external linkages). Having both countries, and particularly Eritrea, more secure in their own international and regional positions could help move them towards a more realistic set of expectations for the eventual normalization of relations."

The entire idea was not only a misguided notion that rewarding belligerency could be a solution, but it was also a failure to notice that Eritrea's problem with her neighbors are a direct result of its repressive domestic policy.

As one US diplomat said, referring to Stalin’s policies after the Second World War: “A hostile international environment is the breath of life for the prevailing internal system…”. President Isaias’ is practices that Stalinist tactic. The Eritrean regime's hostility to the outside world, the US and everybody else, is not caused by insecurity in the face of a continued threat posed by Ethiopia and the US.

Rather, the anti-Ethiopia, Anti-America rhetoric is the standard official line is a deliberate excuse for keeping national conscripts mobilized for more than a decade, and postponing the implementation of a constitutional order for since 2003. The excuses for the increasing sacrifices demanded of the population is provided by the threat of the “evil, hostile, menace of Ethiopia,” or by the machinations of the US and its control of the UN and indeed almost everybody else, as one writer observed.

However, it seems the international community is finally noticing the scale of abuse in Eritrea and the irrelevance of the excuses given so far. The UN Human Rights Council decided last week, "to establish, for a period of one year, a commission of inquiry comprising three members, one of whom should be the Special Rapporteur, with the other two members appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council". According to the resolution of the Council, the commission of inquiry will investigate all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea, as outlined in the reports of the Special Rapporteur.

The UN Human Rights Council started taking a strong stand on Eritrea two years ago. It was on July 5, 2012 that the Human Rights Council appointed a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea and adopted a resolution that "strongly condemned the continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights committed by the Eritrean authorities, the severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, and the forced conscription of citizens for indefinite periods."

The 2012 resolution underlined that:

"the Council strongly condemns the continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights committed by the Eritrean authorities, including arbitrary executions, enforced disappearances and systematic use of torture; the severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression; the forced conscription of citizens for indefinite periods and the shoot-to-kill practice employed on the borders of Eritrea to stop Eritrean citizens seeking to flee their country.

The Council calls upon the Government of Eritrea to end its use of arbitrary detention and torture; to release all political prisoners, including the “G-11”; to allow regular access to all prisoners; to put an end to the policy of indefinite military service; to allow humanitarian organizations to operate; to end ‘guilt-by-association’ policies that target family members of those who evade national service or seek to flee Eritrea; to cooperate fully with the United Nations, in accordance to international human rights obligations; urges Eritrea to make available information pertaining to Djiboutian combatants missing in action since the clashes of 10 to 12 June 2008 so that those concerned may ascertain the presence and condition of Djiboutian prisoners of war.

The Council decides to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, to report to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly; and requests the Secretary-General to provide the Special Rapporteur with the resources necessary to fulfil the mandate."

However, Eritrea's response to that resolution was denial, denial and denial. It also tried to divert and confuse the issue by raising conspiracy theories.

In her response at the time, Eritrea claimed:

"As a small, least developed country, Eritrea had a limited capacity and faced protracted hostilities aimed at destabilizing its Government.  It believed that the international community had failed to contribute to the peace and stability of Eritrea.  Despite facing significant challenges, there were no human rights violations in Eritrea."

As would be expected, Eritrea continued to act in total disregard of the Council's concerns and recommendations.

One of those areas was the coercive collection money from the Eritrean diaspora. Irrespective of the way the tax is collected, the collection of the Diaspora tax and its extortion from Eritreans in the Diaspora is in clear violation of the UN Resolution 2023 of May 2011. This was an extension of an earlier Security Council UN resolution 1907 of 2009 which condemned the usage of the Diaspora tax for acts of destabilization including support and arming of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab in Somalia. As would be recalled, Resolution 2023 went further, condemning the use of the Diaspora Tax collected from the Eritrean Diaspora by the Eritrean Government to destabilize the Horn of Africa region or violate other relevant resolutions, including 1844 (2008), 1862 (2009) and 1907 (2009). In this context it noted that possible purposes included “procuring arms and related materiel for transfer to armed opposition groups or providing any services or financial transfers provided directly or indirectly to such groups”, as outlined in the findings of the Somalia/Eritrea Monitoring Group in its 18 July 2011 report (S/2011/433). It called on Eritrea to cease all such practices.

Resolution 2023 also “decides that Eritrea shall cease using extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea from its nationals or other individuals of Eritrean descent, decides further that States shall undertake appropriate measures to hold accountable, consistent with international law, those individuals on their territory who are acting, officially or unofficially, on behalf of the Eritrean government or the PFDJ..."

However, Eritrea's Ambassadors continued money extortion and, as a result, it has been reprimanded for in several countries.

For example: In Canada, a leaked audio recording revealed that the Embassy continued to undertake money extortion by holding unofficial meeting with the diaspora and saying (as CBS reported): “What we are saying is that you have to fulfill the law of the country to be an investor because you are a citizen of the country. Therefore, since what it comes down to is national honour and law, any service that requires a permit will have to remit two per cent.” An Eritrean told CBS that: “You have to go to the consulate and they arrange how you have to pay the money. They want two per cent … they don’t give you a reason. You have to pay the money. My family [in Eritrea] would get in trouble if I don’t pay.”

In consequence, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Canada expelled the chief Eritrean diplomat and issued a statement noting that:

“Canada has taken steps to expel (declare persona non grata) Mr. Semere Ghebremariam O. Micael, consul and head of the Eritrean Consulate General in Toronto, effective immediately. Mr. O. Micael must leave Canada no later than noon Eastern time on June 5, 2013. Today’s actions speak for themselves. Canada has repeatedly made clear to Eritrea to respect international sanctions and Canadian law. The Eritrean government is welcome to propose another candidate to represent it in Canada, but that person must be prepared to play by the rules. Our resolve on this matter should not be further tested."

Nonetheless, the diplomats of Eritrea still continued money extortion in several western countries.

In Feb. 2014, the Guardian reported that:

The diaspora tax was banned by the UN security council in 2011 (pdf). Resolution 2023, supported by the UK, condemned the tax because it was being used to fund "arms and related material" for rebel groups across the Horn of Africa. These included the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida affiliate. Eritrea supported al-Shabaab as an indirect means of attacking Ethiopia, its long-standing enemy.

In May 2011 the Foreign Office notified the Eritrean authorities that "aspects of the collection of a tax levied by the Eritrean government on Eritreans living in the UK may be unlawful and in breach of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. The ambassador was told that until it was demonstrated otherwise the embassy should suspend, immediately and in full, all activities relating to the collection of the tax."

Despite this warning, the Foreign Office is aware that pressure on British Eritreans to pay the tax has continued. Lady Warsi, the senior minister of state at the Foreign Office, confirmed in a written reply to Lady Kinnockthat the Eritrean ambassador had been warned he must comply with the resolution to desist from illicit means of collecting revenue from members of the Eritrean diaspora in the UK.

Similarly, Canada media reported this month that:

A year after Ottawa expelled the consul-general of Eritrea to put a stop to a money-making scheme his regime had set up in Canada, the dubious “diaspora tax” program appears to be continuing undeterred.

Under the system, the Eritrean consulate in Toronto tells expatriates they must hand 2% of their wages to the repressive African regime. The setup is part of a strategy that “routinely involves threats, harassment and intimidation,” according to a United Nations report.

Foreign Affairs officials have repeatedly warned Eritrea to end the practice. Last month, as a condition for maintaining a diplomatic post in Toronto, Eritrea agreed the consulate would not have any role in the solicitation and collection of taxes.

But several Eritreans who recently phoned the Toronto consulate said they were told they would have to pay the tax. They tape-recorded the conversations as evidence the consulate was still an active player in the taxation scheme.

These and other violations are re-confirmed in the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth.

In a section of the report titled "Brief update on the situation of human rights in Eritrea", Mrs. Sheila B. Keetharuth stated that:

20. In her first report, the Special Rapporteur endeavoured to corroborate patterns of human rights violations through the gathering of first-hand information. She confirmed that violations of human rights in Eritrea included indefinite national service; arbitrary arrests and detention, including incommunicado detention; extrajudicial killings; torture; inhumane prison conditions; infringement to freedoms of movement, expression and opinion, assembly, association and religious belief; sexual and gender-based violence; and violations of children’s rights. Information gathered for the present report confirms that the above- mentioned violations continue unabated.

21. Arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detentions were carried out in the aftermath of the attempted coup d’état on 21 January 2013, dubbed the “Forto incident”. Over 50 people, including public figures were arrested and detained, with no information as to their whereabouts, nor have they appeared before any court of law.

22. There is still no information regarding the 11 members of the G-15, nor the 10 independent journalists who were arrested in 2001. The Special Rapporteur reiterates her request for specific information on their whereabouts and their state of health, especially in the context where some of them may have died in custody.

23. While freedom of the press and the media has been repressed, an underground newspaper, The Echoes of Forto, has been in circulation in Asmara, since September 2013, the anniversary of the 2001 arrests of the journalists from the independent press.

24. Guilt by association continued, with parents asked to pay substantial fines of 50,000 Nafka (ERN) for each family member who has left the country, although the parents often have no knowledge of their children’s plans. In the high-profile case, in which the former Minister of Information failed to return to Eritrea after a trip abroad, his elderly father, his 15-year-old daughter and his brother were arrested and detained; they remain in detention to date.

As a result, the UN Human Rights Council decided last week, "to establish, for a period of one year, a commission of inquiry comprising three members", which will "investigate all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea, as outlined in the reports of the Special Rapporteur".

The resolution also stated that the Council:

Calls upon the Government of Eritrea to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur and the commission of inquiry, to permit them and their staff members unrestricted access to visit the country, to give due consideration to the recommendations contained in the reports of the Special Rapporteur, and to provide them with the information necessary for the fulfilment of their mandates, and underlines the importance for all States to lend their support to the Special Rapporteur and the commission of inquiry for the discharge of their mandates;

Urges the international community to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur and the commission of inquiry;

Also urges the international community to strengthen efforts to ensure the protection of those fleeing from Eritrea, in particular the increasing number of unaccompanied children; A/HRC/26/L.6

Requests the Secretary-General to provide the Special Rapporteur and the commission of inquiry with all information and the resources necessary to fulfil their mandates;

Requests the commission of inquiry to present an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-seventh session and to the General Assembly at its sixty-ninth session, and a written report to the Council at its twenty-eighth session;

Decides to transmit all reports of the commission of inquiry to all relevant bodies of the United Nations and to the Secretary-General for appropriate action;

It is to be expected that Eritrea's response will be nothing but, as usual, belittling the resolution and the council. After all, that is what President Isaias does best.

Indeed, President Isaias’ appears addicted to the belittlement of multi-state cooperation platforms, whether the African Union, the United Nations or IGAD. His equally shamelessly ridicule of other sovereign states and their leaders also found expression in many his interviews. For example, recently he ridiculed IGAD’s efforts to mediate South Sudan's groups. According to the President, IGAD’s widely recognized and supported efforts at mediation were a waste of time which could be dismissed as merely unimportant “business”.

After all, Eritrea's long-held and repeated policy of rejection of any rule-based engagement with neighbors or the international community. The international community has long observed Eritrea's endless denial, diversion and confusion tactics. It has become evident that, like any bully, Eritrea rapidly backs down when faced by firm action. Indeed, it is clear from past experience that the government in Asmara only responds to the threat of superior strength. Nothing less will produce change.

After all, several analysts often drawn comparisons between Eritrea and North Korea not least from its firm determination to remain a one party system with no room whatever for alternative political opinion or dissent. The idea of building a democratic order, with free elections and other necessary institutions, has always been no more than a topic to provide the President and others in his regime with the opportunity to cry out the rhetoric of ‘imperialist fouls’.

The President of Eritrea made this clear in one of his recent interviews, when he said that to think there would be ‘‘democracy and a multi-party system in Eritrea” would be a delusion that belongs in outer space and that people who thought there could be an alternative to his Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice were wasting their time. He made it quite clear the PFDJ would remain the only party in Eritrea, saying “we do not want to see any parties exist here other than the PFDJ…they do not exist…it is unthinkable”. He added: “if there are parties who wish to operate in this country, there is no place for them; they can go elsewhere, either in the moon or another planet.”

It is not a secret that President Isaias views those Eritreans who have fled from the misery of their own country to face problems and persecution as refugees elsewhere as if "they are no more than thieves who have not paid their dues to their people and government” and that he believes the country will not suffer from their absence or be affected by their departure.

These are clear indicators of just how repressive and detached the regime has become and indeed of how increasingly disillusioned the people of Eritrea have become with a government that merely treats them as no more than inanimate objects.

It is high time the international community steps up the pressure on the tyrannical regime in Eritrea. The establishment of a commission of inquiry is a long overdue step to mitigate the suffering of Eritreans and advance a transition into a democratic and responsible regime in Asmara.