UN finds Eritrea may have committed crimes against humanity

Map of Eritrea [United Nations]

Eritrea may have committed crimes against humanity, a year-long UN human rights inquiry said in a report published yesterday (8 June) describing extrajudicial killings, widespread torture, sexual slavery and enforced labour.

“The commission finds that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government,” the 484-page report of the UN Commission of Inquiry said.

Slavery-like practices are routine and torture is so widespread that the commission said it could only conclude that the government’s policy was to encourage its use.

The UN commission said it asked Eritrea for access and information during its inquiry but “received no response”. Reuters was unable to immediately reach Eritrean officials for comment.

One of the commissioners said the commission’s mandate did not extend to “international crimes” so it could not confirm that Eritrea had committed crimes against humanity or recommend referral to the International Criminal Court.

It would be up to a UN Human Rights Council meeting later this month to decide on any further steps, the commissioner, Sheila Keetharuth, said.

Eritrea effectively enslaves people by a system known as “national service” that involves “arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labour, absence of leave,” the report said.

National service is supposed to last 18 months, but the commission spoke to one witness who had fled after 17 years. Witnesses reported people being executed for trying to avoid being drafted into service as recently as 2013, it said.

The commission said it had evidence forced labour had been used in the construction of the Bisha mine, a copper-gold project owned jointly by Canadian miner Nevsun Resources Ltd and Eritrea.

Nevsun could not immediately be reached for comment. In 2013, in response to similar allegations, Nevsun said it regretted if a state-controlled subcontractor it had been required to use had employed conscripts.

Eritrea maintains a vast detention network and regards anyone who tries to leave the country as a traitor. About 6% to 10% of Eritreans are now registered as refugees by the UN.

Eritrea has operated a shoot-to-kill policy on its borders to stop people fleeing. The commission said people were still being shot in 2014, including children. The government says it has ended the policy.

The government operates a “pervasive” surveillance network, while judges are not competent to ensure fundamental rights are upheld, the report said.

Mass killings had also been perpetrated against certain ethnic groups, it added.

Eritrea is a country in the Horn of Africa. With its capital at Asmara, it is bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti in the southeast.

Eritrea is a multi-ethnic country, with nine recognised ethnic groups. It has a population of around six million inhabitants. Most residents speak Afroasiatic languages, either of the Semitic or Cushitic branches.

The creation of modern day Eritrea is a result of the incorporation of independent kingdoms and various vassal states of the Ethiopian empire and the Ottoman Empire, eventually resulting in the formation of Italian Eritrea. In 1947 Eritrea became part of a federation with Ethiopia, the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Subsequent annexation into Ethiopia led to the Eritrean War of Independence, ending with Eritrean independence following a referendum in April 1993. Hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia persisted, leading to the Eritrean–Ethiopian War of 1998–2000 and further skirmishes with both Djibouti and Ethiopia.

In June 2015, a 500-page United Nations Human Rights Council report accused Eritrea's government of extrajudicial executions, torture, indefinitely prolonged national service and forced labour, and indicated that sexual harassment, rape and sexual servitude by state officials are also widespread.

In its 2014 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked the media environment in Eritrea at the very bottom of a list of 178 countries, just below totalitarian North Korea.

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