By Prof. Asmerom Legesse,
THE world is buzzing with media commentary in response to the report by the Commission of Human Rights on Eritrea. Allow me to offer my reflections on this report as a researcher and a defender of the rights of Eritrean victims of war.
The mandate of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) is defined as follows:
“In compliance with resolution 26/24 the commission of inquiry investigated the human rights violations described by the Special Rapporteur in her reports, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and incommunicado detention, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, violations committed during compulsory national service, including those affecting children’s rights, and restrictions on the freedoms of expression and opinion, assembly, association and religious belief and movement.”
Judging from manner that Sheila Keetharuth, the Special Rapporteur, carried out her project, it is clear that she framed her role not as investigator—as the mandate indicates—but as prosecutor, whose single-minded purpose was to gather evidence that would incriminate the Government of Eritrea.
There is no indication whatsoever that she cared about justice particularly in regard to the underlying conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea which is at the deepest root of what she is investigating.
If the Special Rapporteur is a prosecutor there should be a presumption that the accused would be entitled to have equal opportunity for defence. Otherwise the whole exercise becomes a travesty of justice.
It appears that Eritrea was given little opportunity to defend herself in the Commission’s proceedings and was judged to be guilty even before the mandate was given.
Human right law says the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty and that the law applies to individuals and state parties.
The most important aspect of the study that needs to be verified is the evidence the Commission gathered from asylum seeking refugees—who are, apparently, the majority of her informants. The problem with such evidence is that the informants, unlike asylees, have every reason to falsify their life histories and paint the worst picture of their experiences in Eritrea in order to win Asylum. That fact casts considerable doubt on the validity of the entire study.
Keetharuth was working closely with opposition groups who are plotting to bring about regime change in Eritrea, out of their base in Pretoria, South Africa, but had no contact with mainstream Eritrean communities around the world: Every one of these latter communities has a branch of the National Union of Eritrean Women, an association, founded in 1979, which fought for women’s rights in Eritrea for three decades and continues to do so today.
Keetharuth makes many allegations about the status of women in Eritrea without ever approaching any of the tens of thousands members of the women’s union in the Diaspora.
Keetharuth has swept under the rug all evidence concerning the Government’s effort to realize the people’s right to food security, universal primary education for boys and girls, universal healthcare, universal vaccination programs for children that have greatly reduced child mortality rates.
The nine nationalities in Eritrea are given support to preserve and develop their cultures and languages and to offer primary education in their vernaculars. These rights are given top priority in Eritrea, and are enshrined in the Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
What is proclaimed in this Covenant is the foundation of all human rights, i.e. the right to life. Without it, no other right can have any meaning. These are some reasons why Eritrea is expected to be one of the first African countries destined to achieve nearly all the Millennium Development Goals.
Choice of Human Rights Focus
Which body of human rights law does Keetharuth invoke? As far as the two key Covenants that are most relevant to our assessment of human rights are concerned, the world is divided.
The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is top priority for nations that stress individual rights; on the other hand, the Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural rights, is top priority for nations who are equally interested in collective rights. Keetharuth dwells largely on civil and political rights of 450 individuals and aligns herself totally with capitalist nations in placing issues of governance, freedom of speech and assembly above the economic, social and cultural rights.
The opposite is true for Eritrea because the country is deeply concerned with poverty eradication, food security, education, health, culture and the survival of its people.
Thus, the mass expulsions of 75,000 Eritreans from Ethiopia, mass displacement hundreds of thousands out of the border areas occupied by the Ethiopian army are of no concern to the COI’s investigation although they constitute massive violations of collective rights of the Eritrean people.
They caused much suffering by uprooting entire communities, breaking-up families, destroying family estates, alienating land, and undermining subsistence economies.
These are major forces behind emigration. Many of the young people fleeing out of the country today are the children of families whose lives were shattered by the Ethio-Eritrean war, as documented in my three published reports titled The Uprooted, 1998, 1999, 2000.
Because of the biased perspective on human rights law adopted by the Commission, the violations of the collective rights of hundreds of thousands Eritreans and of the nation as a whole have been obliquely dismissed:
“The international community and the United Nations bear an ongoing responsibility for the situation in Eritrea. In particular, the non-implementation of the Algiers Agreement of 12 December 2000 and of the ruling on the demarcation of the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea has provided an easy pretext for the Government to implement repressive practices supposedly aimed at the defence of the State”. COI, p. 17 (emphasis added)
This is a convoluted argument by the Commission that is filled with ill-will for the Eritrean people because it belittles the two greatest offenses committed by Ethiopia against the Eritrean people as pretexts for something else.
There are also important geopolitical factors that impact on human rights discourse. When states, such as Ethiopia, are allied to US and aided by the US, their human rights violations are largely ignored, minimized, forgiven and forgotten. However, states that do not accept USAID and maintain a neutral posture with regard to the “war on terror”, such as Eritrea, will have their infractions greatly inflated and presented as a “threats to world peace”.
They will relegated to the simple-minded category of ‘evil nations’. That American posture is directly mirrored in the COI’s report. It reveals that the UN cannot deviate from US policy, lest the financial support of the superpower for the UN be severed, as the US has threatened to do in the past.
The UN is biased in the manner it administers human rights law. One of the most astounding instances of selective administration of human rights is the case of human traffickers in the Sudan, Egypt (Sinai), Libya, where criminals have committed some of the most vicious violations of human rights ever seen in the world. What is the justification for investigating human rights violations against Eritrean refugees when the worst perpetrators of human rights against them are excluded from the study?
Most of the difficulties that Eritrea faces with the flight of youth out of the country cannot be remedied unless the enduring threat to the country’s national existence is removed.
If Eritreans have no country, no other rights matter. If the boundary decision were implemented today, there would be no need for Eritrea to maintain a large standing army, no need for extended military service, and no drivers for large-scale emigration. The belligerent posture assumed by Ethiopia continues unchecked by the United Nations. That is the elephant in the room that cannot be ignored, however hard the US, UN or the COI attempt to do so.