The Eritrean Human Rights Cause at a Critical Juncture: Reflections on Progress, Pitfalls and Prospects
(Side Event on the Fringes of the 38th Session of the UN Human Rights Council)
25 June 2018
The following is a full text of the Opening Remarks, given earlier today by the Director of the Eritrean Law Society (ELS), Dr. Daniel Mekonnen, at a side event (panel discussion) organised on the fringes of the 38th Session of the UN Human Rights Council.
Good morning everyone,
Thank you all for coming to our side event.
This side event is part of our on-going struggle to ensure accountably for crimes against humanity in Eritrea. Before we get started, I have a couple of announcements to make.
First of all, please note that we will be video-recording this meeting in the form of online steaming (done by our colleague from CIVICUS), and for that purpose we are obliged to state this clearly at the beginning of our meeting, so that if there is anyone who does not want to be recorded, they can have the opportunity to leave the meeting room if need be; but as in other previous experiences we don’t really expect any problem in this regard. So, we are just mentioning this as a matter of procedural requirement.
My second announcement is an apology for the unexpected absence of one of our confirmed speakers. We were looking forward to be joined by a family member of the Late Haji Musa Mohammed Nur (a prominent Eritrean figure and a nonagenarian who died while in detention without trial in March 2018). Unfortunately, the person is unable to come due to obstacles he experienced at the very last minute, so we will have only two speakers. And this may mean that we will have more time for questions and comments.
Now, let me take a few more minutes to further explain the objectives of this side event and also provide a summarised background note on what we want to achieve and what we will do this morning.
As already noted, our aim is to ensure accountability for gross human rights violations in Eritrea. This side event is happening at a time when the UN Special Rapporteur (SR) on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea (our dear colleague Sheila Keetharuth) is concluding her 6-year term as a mandate holder. Because of this, we would like to take this occasion as a watershed moment to reflect on the achievements of the SR’s mandate, and evaluate ongoing obstacles and prospects for bringing an end to gross human rights violations in Eritrea. And of course, we also emphasize on the need to renew the mandate of the SR and appoint a new expert. That said, let me now briefly recap the main achievements of the SR and the challenges we have observed over the last 6 years since the mandate was established in 2012.
Our general understanding is that in her 6-year term the SR has accomplished tremendous amount of work of an epic proportion. There wouldn’t have been, for example, a commission of inquiry (COI), without the ground-breaking reports the SR has produced in the first two years since her appointment (between 2012 and 2014). Indeed, through her mandate, the SR has played unprecedented role in spotlighting the situation of human rights in Eritrea, and in ensuring that the matter receives heightened level of consideration by the international community. The SR has also played a crucial role in galvanising the activities of pro-human rights Eritrean diaspora groups, leading to increased level of cooperation in the area of documentation of gross human rights abuses. She has played indispensable role in the documentation of voluminous amount of information that will be very helpful for future accountably efforts, be it in Eritrea or elsewhere. The very landmark report of the COI, of June 2016, on the specific issue of crimes against humanity, was to a great extent made possible due to the work that has been done previously by the SR. So in general, we can say that the SR is completing her term with a great deal of accomplishment that has earned widespread appreciation from pro-human rights groups.
Challenges and Prospects
On the other hand, there were also challenges. In our understanding, the main challenges experienced in this process are attributable essentially to factors that were beyond the control of the SR. We identify here at least four major challenges. And these are only tentative and non-exclusive observations.
Firstly, from the very beginning to the end, the SR operated under one persistent challenge, which is lack of cooperation on the part of the Eritrean government, in particular obstinate refusal of access to the country. This was very challenging but due to high level of engagement on the part of Eritrean diaspora actors and human rights organizations, the impact of this problem was effectively counter balanced.
Secondly, the mandate holder operated in an extremely hostile political environment that included intensive campaign of vitriol and hate speech, as well as other forms of violent physical attacks by supporters and apologists of the Eritrean government. Some of these unlawful attacks actually took place in the heart of Geneva, under the nose of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The fact that the SR is successfully completing her mandate in spite of such heightened level of threats and intimidations is greatly appreciated.
The third major challenge is related to the fact that the SP operated in the context of a global order in which universal human rights norms are under a new form of retreat or attack, including in established democracies, mainly due to the rise of populist political parties and leaders.
Fourthly and finally, in terms of adopting stringent follow-up mechanisms, there were critical shortcomings on the part of some UN organs, in particular the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. According to several recommendations adopted in different times by the SR and the COI, by now we should have reached a level where tangible prosecutorial measures should have been taken either by the International Criminal Court (ICC) or other mechanisms against individuals deemed most responsible for the commission of crimes against humanity in Eritrea. The fact that this did not happen two years after the conclusion of the work of the COI is troublesome.
That is why it becomes imperative to explore other possibilities of accountability under the principle of universal jurisdiction, something we are trying to do in today’s side event, as we have done in the past and as we will do also in the future. This remains our only viable option, at least for the near future, and that is why we want to raise and discuss it every now and then when there are opportunities to do so.
By way of clarification, it would be important to explain briefly what we mean by the principle of universal jurisdiction. It is a well-known principle of international law, which enables a given country to prosecute perpetrators of core international crimes (such as torture or any other category of crimes against humanity) regardless of where such a crime was committed, provided the crime is not prosecuted in the county where it was committed and if the perpetrator of such a crime happens to be in the national territory of a country, which is interested in prosecuting the crime in question. This is the essence of the concept.
Today, we will have two speakers who will enlighten us on how this principle of universal jurisdiction is being applied by European courts or law enforcement agencies, with some lessons that can be gleaned for the Eritrean experience. Our speakers are Dr. Philippe Currat and Mr. Björn Tunbäck.
NB: The side event was co-sponsored by the following stakeholders listed in alphabetical order: African Centre Against Torture (ACAT), Amnesty International, CVICUS, DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), Eritrea Focus, Eritrean Global Solidarity for National Dialogue (EGSND), Eritrean Law Society (ELS), Eritrean Lowlanders League (ELS), Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), Europe External Programme with Africa (EEPA), European Solidarity Towards Equal Participation of People (Eurostep), Horn of Africa Civil Society Forum (HoACS), International Criminal Bar (ICB), Network of Eritrean Women (NEW), PEN Eritrea, Release Eritrea, Reporters Without Boarders (RSF), Stop Slavery in Eritrea Campaign, and Women Against Torture (WAT).