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Eritrea: UN expert urges world not to turn its back on people fleeing unending human rights abuses

GENEVA, Switzerland, October 27, 2017/APO GroupThe people of Eritrea are suffering unending brutal human rights violations, and thousands continue walking for days in a desperate bid to reach the borders with neighboring countries, the UN General Assembly has heard.

Special Rapporteur Sheila B. Keetharuth listed multiple severe violations of people’s human rights, pleading with the international community to show compassion to those who risked death to cross the border, where shoot-to-kill orders were allegedly carried out by the military.

“I appeal to the international community not to turn their backs on Eritrean refugees for short-term political gain in response to populist electoral demands or promises, which can translate into actual restrictions, harassment, and human rights violations,” she said while updating the General Assembly on the country’s bleak human rights picture.

“At best, efforts to reduce the number of Eritrean refugees arriving will lead only to a temporary drop in numbers, but they will not stop people crossing deserts and seas in search of safe havens. No barrier will be insurmountable for someone fleeing human rights violations.”

The Special Rapporteur said that with no apparent changes in Eritrean policy at home, citizens were still dying in custody or enduring indefinite detention with no access to their families and lawyers.

The rights to freedom of expression and religion were also being violated, the Special Rapporteur said, citing reports that followers of both recognized and non-recognized religious denominations were still being detained in the capital, Asmara.

“Arrest and detention is used to punish, intimidate, create an atmosphere of fear, or to ‘disappear’ those who are deemed dangerous because they do not toe the line,” said Ms. Keetharuth, urging the Government of Eritrea to end its long-standing practice of arbitrary detentions and respect the rights of all prisoners.

Eritrea still has no constitution to provide protection for fundamental human rights, no independent judiciary, no legislative assembly

“Eritrea still has no constitution to provide protection for fundamental human rights, no independent judiciary, no legislative assembly – in fact, no institutions that could ensure checks and balances or protect against the misuse of power by the state,” she said.

Many arrests followed the same pattern, she said. Detainees were not told why they were being held, were not taken to court where they could challenge their detention, and were denied access to lawyers and visitors. Even close family members could only hand food and clean clothes to prison guards. Detainees were not told whether or when they would be freed, and no information was made public on specific cases.

Countless Eritreans were seeking to leave in search of a place where their rights would be respected, but even that was fraught with risks, the Special Rapporteur said.

Ms Keetharuth highlighted that Eritreans were still being forced into indefinite national service, despite a maximum of 18 months being set by the country’s laws.

Recent figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) show 20,000 people have crossed into a neighbouring country so far this year, nearly as many as in the whole of 2016, with 46 per cent of those transported by the IOM aged 18-24.  

The Special Rapporteur said that, rather than trying to reduce the number of Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees they were receiving, other countries should ensure their human rights were protected.

“The international community needs to restore the rights and dignity of Eritrean refugees by closing human rights protection gaps in national refugee policies,” she said.

Calls by the Commission of Inquiry to ensure accountability for past human rights violations and crimes against humanity had not resulted in any new measures, she added.

The Special Rapporteur, who has proposed a series of benchmarks to assess Eritrea’s progress, urged the Government to show its “genuine commitment and serious determination” to achieve progress by taking concrete steps to improve people’s lives.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

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