Eritrea: UN names a Commission of Inquiry to investigate rights abuses

United Nations’ Human Rights Council appointed Mike Smith (Australia) and Victor Dankwa (Ghana) to serve in the Commission of Inquiry, together with Sheila Keetharuth (Mauritius), the council’s special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea.

The Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, said on Monday (September 29) that with forced conscription, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the human rights situation in Eritrea continues to remain “dire”. She said that the new Commission of Inquiry would help “pave the way” to accountability. Last Friday, the UN Human Rights Council appointed Mike Smith of Australia and Victor Dankwa of Ghana to join Ms. Keetharuth on a Commission of Inquiry to investigate all reports of human rights abuses in Eritrea in what the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights described as a “historic moment” for the thousands of possible victims. As part of its mandate, the Commission will investigate “the most egregious human rights violations,” including cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detention, torture, and lack of freedom of expression and opinion, assembly, association, religious belief and movement.

Photo – Sheila B. Keetharuth – Special Rapporteur on Eritrea human rights situation

The Special Rapporteur urged the Government of Eritrea, as well as the international community, to cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry. “I hope the Commission of Inquiry will pave the way to establish accountability for these violations,” said Ms. Keetharuth, “especially in view of the continued non-cooperation of Eritrea with my mandate and other UN mechanisms.” Ms. Keetharuth has been unable to visit Eritrea to investigate human rights abuses in the country. She said the creation of her Special Rapporteur’s mandate had increased international awareness about the large-scale violations of human rights in Eritrea, but she added “concrete steps are urgently needed to address such violations.” Ms. Keetharuth’ comments followed a five-day mission to Italy last week, when she visited Eritrean refugees and migrants and collected first-hand accounts of human rights’ violations.

Ms. Keetharuth pointed out that “Eritreans are escaping systematic and widespread human rights violations,” and cited indefinite forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and inhuman prison conditions, as well as political repression. Thousands of migrants, many youngsters, have fled Eritrea in search of asylum in Europe. According to the latest estimates produced by Italian authorities, Eritreans make up the largest number of those rescued by Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operations.

This year there has been an alarming rise in the number of asylum seekers and migrants from Africa trying to reach Europe. According to UN estimates, 2014 has seen more than 130,000 migrants and asylum-seekers land on Europe’s shores compared with 80,000 last year. It says a record 3,072 migrants have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, compared to some 2,360 in 2013. This includes some 500 people feared drowned in a single incident off Malta in mid-September when smugglers deliberately rammed their boat

In its first comprehensive report on such deaths, the International Organization of Migration said 40,000 migrants worldwide are believed to have perished since 2000, 22,000 of them seeking a better life in Europe. The IOM’s Director General William Lacy Swing said that the limited opportunities for safe migration force would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers, ”feeding an unscrupulous trade that threatens the lives of desperate people.” The IOM’s study “Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration”, was launched in the wake of the Lampedusa disaster just a year ago on October 3 when over 365 migrants, almost all Eritreans, died off the island of Lampedusa when a boat with over 500 passengers being smuggled into Europe caught fire and sank. Yesterday, some 50 of the survivors travelled to Lampedusa to mark the anniversary of the tragedy. They also met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome. Members of the Eritrean Diaspora and of the Diaspora-based Arbi Harnet (Freedom Friday) Project have also been marking the anniversary. They have noted that little has been done either at the source in Eritrea or to ensure refugees are adequately protected on their passage to Europe.

The IOM report, which calls for more concerted investigation and prosecution of human smugglers, also notes that responsibility for the migrants’ deaths is shared by their destination countries and the countries from which they originate as well as the countries through which they transit. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau, said this week that sealing international borders was impossible, and urged EU Member States to assist the frontline countries, such as Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain, to manage search and rescue missions.

* Originally published on the weekly bulletin of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, on Oct. 3, 2014.

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