Ethiopia: Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights situation in Eritrea, Mr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker

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Update on Eritrea to 46th Session of the Human Rights Council:

Esteemed Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my honour to present my first oral update to the Council since taking up the role of Special Rapporteur last November 2020. In my update today, I will focus on the (a) the human rights of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in the context of the ongoing Tigray crisis in Ethiopia, which added a new complicated dynamic in monitoring the human rights of the Eritrean people, and (b) the progress made in relation to the benchmarks set out in the reports of my predecessor.

Since I started my mandate on 1 November 2020, I am monitoring the ongoing Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, which erupted on 4 November 2020, and its impact on the Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers. There were over 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray before the crisis, living largely in four refugee camps, including Hitsats, Mai-Aini, Adi Harush, and Shemelba. I have received information from credible sources that, as of November 2020, the situation of these refugees and asylum seekers has become more precarious and worrisome.

I also received first-hand accounts of allegations of grave human rights and humanitarian law violations, including extra judicial killings, targeted abductions and forced return of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers to Eritrea, allegedly by Eritrean forces. I am particularly concerned about the two refugee camps, which hosted over 25,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray region, Hitsats and Shemelba, and which were allegedly destroyed in attacks carried out by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops between November 2020 and January 2021, despite their protected humanitarian status under the 1951 Convention on the Protection of refugees.

I am also concerned about allegations of possible implication of Eritrean troops in cases of serious human rights violations, including acts of abductions, forceful or unvoluntary return of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, and their imprisonment in different prisons in Eritrea. Such allegations need to be investigated promptly and thoroughly by independent mechanisms. On 28 January 2021, in my letter to the Government of Ethiopia, I called on the Ethiopian authorities to protect the human rights of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in the Tigray region, and to ensure respect for their rights under human rights law, international humanitarian law and international refugee law. In this oral update, I request the Eritrean authorities to give me full access to refugees and asylum seekers allegedly held in various prisons inside Eritrea.

Turning to the issue of the human rights situation in Eritrea, since October 2020, I have seen no concrete evidence of progress or actual improvement in the human rights situation in the country. Eritrea has not yet put in place an institutional and legal framework to uphold minimum human rights standards in a democratic society. The country lacks rule of law, a constitution and an independent judiciary to enforce the protection of and respect for human rights. Eritrea continues to have no national assembly to adopt laws, including those regulating fundamental rights and the right of the Eritrean people to participate freely in the public life of their country.

On religious freedoms, I welcome the release of a large group of Christians. Reports indicate that, in recent weeks, Eritrea has released 70 jailed Christians of evangelical and orthodox who were held in three prisons. Sixty-four of the Christians had no charges and some of them were jailed for worshipping in public. On 27 January 2021, six female prisoners detained for worshipping in public in September 2020 in Dekemhare, south-east of Asmara, were also released. On 1 February 2021, 21 female and 43 male prisoners were released from Mai Serwa and Adi Abeito prisons near Asmara. The prisoners had been held between two and 12 years.

I also welcome the release, on 4 December 2020, of 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the three conscientious objectors, Paulos Eyasu, Isaac Mogos and Negede Teklemariam, who had been held for 26 years, and whose cases were highlighted by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea in her statement during the presentation of her report to the Human Rights Council in June 2020, and her interactive dialogue with the UN General Assembly on 26 October 2020.

While I welcome the release by the authorities of the Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, I have to note that Eritrea continues to impose restrictions on religious freedoms. I urge the Eritrean authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all of those who remain in prison because of their faith or belief.

Turning to the issue of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, there has been no progress. The situation of detainees and political prisoners is particularly concerning. It is also not acceptable for Eritrea to arbitrary detain political opponents in secret prisons without charge or trial in violation of human rights standards. For example, since the last report of my predecessor, some prisoners such as Dawit Isaak, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist, and of ten of his colleagues remain for two decades in incommunicado detention. These are other examples of numerous cases of individuals who are currently languishing in Eritrean prisons, with no prospect of release. It is difficult to speak of progress in Eritrea while their cases remain unresolved. The practice of arbitrary and incommunicado detentions in Eritrea has serious impact on the life of many Eritreans. In the context of COVID-19, I call on Eritrean authorities to release those particularly vulnerable, including older detainees and those who are sick.

I am also concerned of the imapact of the national serice on the right to educaiton of Eritrean students. The national service requirements oblige all secondary school students in the country to complete their final year at the Warsai Yekalo Secondary School, located in the Sawa military camp, and to undertake mandatory military training for approximately five months of that year. I am concerned that the conditions in the camp have impact on the right to education. It is reported that approximately 60 to 65 per cent of students at Sawa do not obtain the results needed for further studies and are either drafted directly into military service or sent to vocational training programmes. It is also alleged that military officials in Sawa subject students to ill-treatment and harsh punishments, including corporal punishment, and students undertake forced labour. I call on Eritrean authorities to put an end to such treatments and comply with their international human rights obligations.

Finally, since my appointment, I have not yet had the opportunity to meet with Eritrean officials. On 18 December 2020, I requested an invitation to undertake an official visit to Eritrea in my capacity as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea. I proposed that I visit Eritrea from 21 to 31 January 2021 to hold consultations with relevant officials from the Government and a range of actors with a view to assessing the human rights situation on the ground, and to exploring jointly future avenues for constructive engagement for the sake of the protection and promotion of human rights in the country. I have not yet received a response from the Eritrean authorities. I remain willing to engage constructively with the Government of Eritrea on urgent human rights concerns. I hope the Eritrean authorities will cooperate with my mandate and I am still awaiting their response.

Thank you.

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