2015 in Review: Demystifying Human Rights

News Opinions
Human Rights in Eritrea
In this piece of “2015 in Review” series, we consider Eritrean human rights within the backdrop of the attrition war and attempts to isolate Eritrea, assessing the meaning of seminal events and forecasting the road ahead.

By Simon Keleta,

In June 2015, Eritreans around the world read with astonishment that the Eritrean state was accused of slavery, rape, and crimes against humanity.

Eritreans are the longtime witnesses and victims of some of the modern world’s worst atrocities. During the liberation struggle and the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, Eritreans were the victims of unrelenting, genocidal scorched-earth policies compounded by barbaric military campaigns that saw little international outcry from “human rights defenders”.

For this reason, Eritreans do not take lightly loaded words and phrases like “slavery,” “rape,” and “crimes against humanity” being thrown around with reckless abandon.

Such accusations came from a report by the United Nation’s (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COIE) presented to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The report made accusations “sexual slavery” against women and deemed Eritrea’s national service program as “an institution where slavery-like practices occur.”

The COIE concluded that “on the basis of this body of evidence, the Commission found that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government. Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity.” Note the word, “may constitute” essentially necessitating a mandate extension to investigate further.

Putting the facts together, it quickly became clear to many that the almost 500-page report was politically motivated and a part of the ongoing war to isolate Eritrea and bring about regime change. The accusations are too numerous and outrageous for our concise series but have been covered and will continue to be covered in other issues of Profile.

Notably, the accusations were made despite the COIE never having visited Eritrea. According to their report, the COIE sent President Isaias seeking permission for entry but “received no answer” with “lack of cooperation of the State of Eritrea.”

Let us not overlook the critical ramifications of this seemingly harmless “lack of cooperation” allegation. The sneaky claim served as the primary basis for the COIE to justify its deferral to the inherently hyperbolic testimonies of asylum-seekers, with a conflict of interest, about human rights abuses in Eritrea.

The COIE report stated that “without access to Eritrea, the commission obtained first-hand testimony by conducting confidential interviews with witnesses residing in third countries.” We were told that there were supposedly 550 of these “confidential interviews,” all of which were conveniently anonymous, making all testimonies unverifiable and impossible to substantiate.

And from which “third countries” did interviews come, exactly? One can only speculate. If previous reports by the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea (SRE) are any indication, however, all or most testimonies most likely came from refugees in the two states in active conflict with Eritrea— Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Recognizing the fact that anonymous testimonies were unverifiable, the COIE conveniently lowered its evidentiary standards, explaining that it “based its findings on a ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ standard of proof. This standard is met when…it can be concluded that it is reasonable to believe that the incident or event occurred as reported.”

In other words, “the standard is met when we say it says it’s met.” How can that possibly be “reasonable”?

Additionally, it’s by no mere coincidence that the COIE just so happened to select the exact same standard of evidence used by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrants—the lowest possible standard, never used before outside the ICC.

Curiously, Article 58 of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding convention to which Eritrea is not signatory, states that the issuance of an arrest warrant by the PreTrial Chamber need only need be based on “reasonable grounds to believe that the person has committed a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court.”

Therefore, the “lack of cooperation” claim served to justify, in just these three simple words, the use of unverifiable evidence (i.e. anonymous asylum-seeker testimonies) and the lowest possible standards of evidence acceptable for an ICC arrest warrant.

Little was said about why the Eritrean state wouldn’t ostensibly cooperate. According to Section of II(A) of the Annex of HRC Resolution 5/1 Annex, nominated “special mandate holders” should be based on their: “(a) expertise; (b) experience in the field of the mandate; (c) independence; (d) impartiality; (e) personal integrity; and (f) objectivity.”

Evidence showed that members of the COIE were neither independent, impartial, nor objective. The most obvious example of this was member Sheila Keetharuth. Alone, she served as the SRE, nominated in 2012 through the lobbying of regime-change activists openly calling for sanctions against Eritrea.

Notably, Keetharuth is also a former employee of Amnesty International (AI), which has had a long and troubled relationship with the State of Eritrea since it was expelled in 2006 for failing to make public its finances.

According to leaked memo on Eritrea sent from London headquarters to AI employees in Dar es Salaam on August 1, 2011, “our intended goal is that by December this year [2011], the regime of lssayas Afewerky should be shaking and ready to fall and we are working on the final details now of an ICC Warrant for crimes against humanity for the President.

Additionally, the COI’s founding draft resolution, tabled in June 2014 by Somalia under coercion by a US delegation seeking another so-called “African Initiative” within in the halls of the HRC, called for “a commission of inquiry comprising three members, one of whom should be the Special Rapporteur”. Thus, Keetharuth was automatically put on the COIE, a clear break of HRC procedure.

By calling for the pre-appointment of the SRE outside of the procedures clearly outlined throughout Section II(A) of the Annex of Resolution 5/1, the resolution and extra-procedural appointment of Keetharuth to the COI violates that HRC resolution. The SRE effectively skirted the nomination procedure that goes through the scrutiny of stakeholders (e.g. the Eritrea state, inter alia), consultative groups, and the HRC President.

After only about six-months of investigating, the COIE alleged of “crimes against humanity”. By year’s end, it was obvious to Eritreans that the COIE was politically motivated and sought to take President Isaias Afwerki to the ICC.

Through popular Eritrean resistance in the form of worldwide mekete, Tigrinya for “resolute rebuff,” the Eritrean people put up a valiant fight in 2015, worthy of recognition for the fact that it actually led to reassessment of the Eritrean human rights narrative pushed by the global, anti-Eritrea media machine that assumed it’s story would go without challenge.

Over the past year, Eritreans around the world campaigned and demonstrated against the COIE and its report, boldly telling the UN HRC and the COIE, “Hands of Eritrea!” Going viral on social, print and even televised media, the efforts seemed to coalesce in the #HandsOffEritrea campaign.

On June 22nd, anti-COIE demonstrations in Geneva that sparked the campaign’s founding could be seen by any honest observer of Eritrea as a major success to add to the story of the Eritrean people’s struggle for justice in 2015. Organized within only five days following the COIE’s unexpected and shocking accusations, 8,000 to 10,000 would-be demonstrators loaded planes, trains, and automobiles, urgently making their way the Palais des Nations of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to protest the report.

Despite the wholly ad hoc nature of the Hands Off Eritrea demonstration, the sheer size and decibels from indignant protesters before the curious ears and eyes of pedestrian onlookers, HRC members and journalists made it virtually impossible for a reluctant Western media to remain silent on the event.

No less a publication than France’s Le Monde covered the Hands off Eritrea demonstration and its associated hashtags and slogans like #SheilaShould, which creatively voiced demands directed at SRE in glib tweets.

As is often the case with positive news on Eritrea, however, the reports, including Le Monde’s, spun coverage to downplay and discredit the auspicious development. In this case, it was the unquestioned parroting of unsubstantiated allegations by COIE members that they were “subject to threats” from protestors.

Like an orchestra of musicians reading sheet music, US-aligned HRC members, in the ensuing final presentation of the COIE, expressed a melodic chorus of disdain towards the phantom “threats”, one soloist after another, allowing for the wholesale write-off of the entire protest, and ultimately discarding its central message.

Clever strategy. How else could the HRC justify ignoring the show of mass indignation?

Giving passing mention of the #HandsOffEritrea campaign while repeating allegations of threats, Al Jazeera English also used its coverage to subtly discredit the anti-COIE protests through an article with a divisive headline reading “Eritreans divided” and content that made the protests appear to represent only a section of the Eritrean diaspora rather than the majority.

In order to fool us into believing this fiction, the author, Fatima Naib, compared the June 22nd anti-COIE protests to another demonstration, covered by her at length, that was ostensibly in support of the COIE that had yet to even occur on the slated day of June 26th.

Naib then posted a second article using images of protesters— not in Geneva—but in Addis Ababa holding TPLF-issued placards that read “Isaias to ICC”.

After confronting Naib, Eritreans on Twitter personally questioned her about why she gave biased coverage. Rather than responding with professionalism, or, better yet, just ignoring them, she instead left them with a rather flippant response: “Because I can. Deal with and get over it :)”.

In terms of television, Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” program, which invited SRE Keetharuth as a guest, displayed the nationalist hashtag #HandOffEritrea underneath Keetharuth’s grimacing face as she gave an emotional, combative and long winded tirade on the seeming certainty of abuses in Eritrea and forced the show’s host to ask her to stop lecturing for viewers.

Without doubt, the largest, fasting-growing and most critical local mekete effort outside of Geneva was that in the UK, which manifested itself in creative news ways in 2015.

During the first half of the year, determined civil society initiatives by indignant Eritreans and friends of Eritrea dovetailed into a more than six-month series of discussions that forwarded a mostly legal and academic assessment of Eritrean human rights.

Hosted by the Solicitors International Human Rights Group, Society for Advanced Legal Studies and the Universal Peace Federation, these increasingly impactful events—inviting independent, globally-respected investigators of Corporate Social Responsibility who investigated mining companies alleged by COIE to abuse Eritreans—quickly snowballed, proving so effective in garnering the attention of UK lawmakers that they culminated in a “bridge building” discussion on Eritrea officially scheduled in the House of Lords for June 18 and supported by Baroness Oona King, Lord Nicholas Rea and Lord Avebury.

At the session, Professor Asmarom Legesse, the founder of the Asmara-based, human rights non-governmental organization Citizens for Peace who is revered by many peoples throughout the Horn of Africa, was set to present his scathing and well-researched twelve-page critique of the COIE report.

With things looking auspicious, it would later be the last-ditch, desperate efforts of Baroness Kinnock that ultimately terminated the event in its final antecedent hours and consigned it to the local Coronet Pub, leading a snickering Professor Asmarom to later joke that the “pub is the last bastion of British democracy.”

In the wake of Professor Asmarom’s muzzled voice, a group of Eritrean youth and elders going by the name “FenQ’l” held a multi-month continuous, 24/7 sit-in demonstration, through rain and shine, directly across the street from the UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s residence on 10 Downing Street. They held three demonstrations, the last of which drew a massive crowd and marked seventy days of continuous protest under the tumultuous chant of “Hands off Eritrea!”

Thus, the hand of global mekete in 2015 is important for one reason: it actually worked. Rather than serving as some anachronistic, “feel good” gathering of nationalists seeking affirmation of an ongoing romantic liberation struggle, “Hands off Eritrea” forced observers and the media to make very real reassessments of the checkered narrative on Eritrea human rights.

These efforts coincided with major changes at home and abroad, to be further covered in the next part of our series, that helped to help buttress Eritrean sovereignty and usher in a more auspicious 2016.