46th Session of the Human Rights Council, 24 February 2021
By: Diletta Deli / GICJ
On 24 February, Mr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, established under HRC resolution 41/1, held an interactive dialogue with the HRC presenting his first report since taking up the role in November 2020.
Mr. Babiker focused his oral update to the Council on two main issues: the condition of Eritrean refugees in the context of the ongoing Tigray crisis in Ethiopia and the progress made in relation to the human rights situation within Eritrea.
On the Tigray conflict, the Special Rapporteur expressed serious concern about the precarious situation of the over 96,000 Eritrean refugees living in the Ethiopian region. He reported allegations of grave human rights and humanitarian law violations perpetuated by the Eritrean forces, including extra judicial killings, targeted abductions and forced returns, reiterating the need of thorough investigations by independent mechanisms. On this, Mr. Babiker called on the Ethiopian authorities to protect the rights of the Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region and on the Eritrean government to give him full access to the refugees allegedly held in prisons across the country.
Turning to Eritrea, the Special Rapporteur lamented no tangible evidence of progress in the human rights situation in the country, explaining that the government has yet to put in place an institutional and legal framework to uphold minimum human rights standards. He reiterated that the country still lacks rule of law, an independent judiciary and an open civic space, expressing particular concern about the situation of political prisoners who have been arbitrarily detained by the Eritrean government. Similarly, while Mr. Babiker welcomed the recent release of 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses and a large group of Christians, he also highlighted that Eritrea continues to impose restrictions on religious freedoms, urging the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those who are still in prison due to their faith. Further, the Special Rapporteur called on the government to invest in youth programmes and to revise the national service, which is having a negative impact on the right to education of Eritrean students, in addition to exposing them to ill-treatment and harsh corporal punishments. Finally, Mr. Babiker reiterated his willingness to engage constructively with the country on urgent human rights concerns, encouraging the Eritrean authorities to collaborate with his mandate.
Statement by the Country Concerned
The representative of Eritrea, Mr. Tesfamichael Gerahtu, expressed disappointment for the rapporteur’s lack of recognition for the security challenges imposed by the TPLF in the implementation of the 2019 peace agreement with Ethiopia. He described TPLF as a criminal group attempting to destroy Eritrea’s image through fake accusations and urged the Council to not take the allegations made by TPLF sympathizers in the Tigray region seriously. Mr. Gerahtu then stressed the government’s commitment to sustainable development, inclusive growth and distribution of wealth, acknowledging that further progress is needed while reiterating the political willingness of the Eritrean authorities. Finally, the representative criticized the impartial and politicized nature of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate, calling for its termination.
The Position of Member States
The European Union, together with the United States, the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Ireland, Australia, Switzerland and Denmark (on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries) said to be deeply worried about the involvement of Eritrean military forces in the conflict in the Tigray region and in particular about their responsibility for the widely reported violations, calling on the government to immediately withdraw its forces from Ethiopia, respect humanitarian and human rights law, as well as allow independent experts to thoroughly investigate the abuses. Moreover, while welcoming the release of prisoners, the representatives expressed concerns about the lack of freedom of expression, freedom of believe and the continuous human rights violations reported in Eritrea, stressing in particular arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and the indefinite national service. Finally, they reiterated their support for the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and urged the Eritrean authorities to collaborate.
The Russian Federation, echoed by China, Venezuela, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Philippines and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea welcomed the efforts of Eritrea to forge good relations with its neighbours as well as its commitment to economic growth and social development. They called on the HRC to continue promoting constructive and respectful dialogue with the Eritrean authorities, renouncing to politicized approaches. The representatives also disagreed with imposing external mechanisms without the consent of the country, reminding that sovereignty, integrity, and non-interference should be the prevailing values of the Council.
Ethiopia, together with South Sudan and Sudan, commended Eritrea for its measures towards the betterment of the socio-economic rights of its citizens, as well as for its efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The representatives also appreciated the government’s constructive engagement with the international community in relation to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which in their opinion is the best tool to follow up on the human rights situation of the country.
Djibouti confirmed its commitment in maintaining its collaboration with the Eritrean Government so to continue with positive developments in terms of peace and economy, which inevitably positively affect citizens of both countries. However, the representative expressed concern over the 13 Djiboutian prisoners that are still unaccounted for and held under Eritrea custody.
The Contributions of Non-Governmental Organizations
Several Non-Governmental Organizations participated in the discussion and delivered statements, including: Center for Global Nonkilling; Elizka Relief Foundation; East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project; Christian Solidarity Worldwide; Reporters Sans Frontiers International; International Fellowship of Reconciliation; Jubilee Campaign; CIVICUS; Advocates for Human Rights; Ingenieurs du Monde; United Nations Watch; and a joint statement by the International Organization for the Elimination for All Forms of Racial Discrimination (EAFORD) and Geneva International Centre for Justice.
The NGOs commended the work of the Special Rapporteur and reiterated their support to the mandate, regretting Eritrea’s lack of cooperation. They expressed serious concern over the numerous violations documented in the country and in particular over the cases of torture, arbitrary arrest, and incommunicado detention faced by political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders. The speakers highlighted the involvement of Eritrean soldiers in the cases of human rights violations reported in the Tigray region, and defined as unacceptable the practice of forced return of refugees, many of whom had to flee Eritrea due to their political and religious beliefs and are now held in unknown conditions. The NGOs called on the HRC to urge the government to take concrete actions to end the widespread abuses, and on the international community to ensure the continuation of an independent mechanism to investigate, identify perpetrators of, and regularly report on human rights violations in the country.
In the final remarks, the Special Rapporteur reiterated his willingness to engage with the Eritrean authorities and stressed the importance of establishing a collaboration with the government, as this will also help verifying information and affect the performance of the mandate. Mr. Babiker then repeated that unfortunately no progress has been made in relation to the benchmarks set out by his predecessor, Ms. Daniela Kravetz, and explained that on the contrary a new complicated dynamic emerged with the situation in Tigray. The Special Rapporteur clarified that monitoring the rights of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia will be an integral part of his mandate and the results of such analysis will be presented in his next report. On this, he called on Eritrea to withdraw its military forces from the Tigray region and on Ethiopia to uphold its international obligations to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in its territory.
The Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) and the International Organization for the Elimination for All Forms of Racial Discrimination (EAFORD) delivered a joint statement which commended the important work of the Special Rapporteur and welcomed his update, noting the continued refusal of Eritrea to collaborate. GICJ regrets that there has been little evidence of progress thus far and that the country still lacks the institutional and legal framework needed to uphold minimum human rights standards. In particular, GICJ is disappointed to hear that the Eritrean authorities continue to commit widespread human rights violations and to impede their citizens’ right to exercise political and social freedoms. In such a context, GICJ believes that the work of the Special Rapporteur remains fundamental and its mandate should be supported, urging Eritrea to uphold its obligations and to resume cooperation with international mechanisms. Eritrean authorities must take responsibility for the human rights violations reported in the country, as well as for the abuses committed by its military forces in the Tigray region, and urgently take proactive steps towards improving the situation.
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