Human Rights Committee Examines Civil and Political Rights in Eritrea

The Human Rights Committee reviewed implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Eritrea
“The dialogue with the Human Rights Committee was the initial turning point for the future engagement, and for the fulfillment of the country’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” – Mr. Tesfamicael Gerahtu


The Human Rights Committee concluded on Wednesday (13) its review of the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Eritrea, in the absence of a report, and with the delegation present.

The delegation of Eritrea included representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Permanent Mission of Eritrea to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Eritrea at the end of its one hundred and twenty-fifth session on 29 March.

The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 19 March, to discuss the progress report of the Special Rapporteur on follow-up to concluding observations and the progress report of the Special Rapporteur on follow-up to views.

Opening Statement

Tesfamicael Gerahtu, [from] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Eritrea, in his address to the Committee recalled that the border war with Ethiopia of 1998 had disrupted the rapid socioeconomic political and social transformation and that the unjust United Nations sanctions had greatly affected the overall development of the country.

The war declared on Eritrea was the violation of the territorial sovereignty and the sanctions a violation of the Eritrean people’s right to development. The continued existential external threats, aimed at thwarting Eritrea’s state and nation-building, necessitated an extended mobilization, harnessing of national capacities, and a burden-sharing, to ensure national survival and preserve the social fabrics of the country.

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Eritrea had focused its efforts on addressing the challenges and had achieved modest progress in many areas, and had continued with the process of nation-building, regardless of limited capabilities.

Eritrea, Mr. Gerahtu resolutely stated, never violated the commitment to the human rights and the dignity of its citizens, nor did it compromise the implementation of the law in the exceptional situation that had endangered national security and national survival. The Government continued to address all the challenges, including those in the area of human rights.

Turning to the human and people’s rights situation in Eritrea, Mr. Gerahtu stressed the importance of considering the country’s history and the struggle for liberation in which many sacrifices had been made. The mainstreaming of human rights at all levels and all sectors was one of the main priorities in the nation-building process, as was the engagement in international cooperation that was dignified and based on mutual understanding and mutual benefits.

Eritrea had presented three Universal Periodic Review reports and had reported to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; it was preparing its reports on the rights of the child and on the rights of migrants and would continue to gradually implement its reporting obligations, in spite of the challenges.

The Joint Declaration of Peace, Friendship and Comprehensive Cooperation, signed by Eritrea and Ethiopia, became the epicenter of the new dynamic of regional peace and stability in the Horn of Africa. Peace, that was engulfing the whole region, was a result of the sacrifices made in the last 20 years and should not be taken for granted, cautioned Mr. Gerahtu.

The most important priority at the moment was to consolidate trust and confidence, including in the areas of migration, economy, security, cooperation, and regional peace, security, and development.

In the future, the focus would be on turning the peace dividend into viable strategies that would multiply the benefits for generations to come. This new development orientation was an important achievement and it would see Eritrea doubling its efforts to achieve viable peace, friendship, and cooperation.

Over the past two years, development efforts focused on the three development zones in the country, as well as in the Eritrean diaspora, with the aim to maximize the comparative advantages of each zone, ensure synergy, and build the national capacity. In that vein, the county had prioritized microeconomic stability, comprehensive reorganization of Government institutions and capabilities, and consolidation of the political process of nation-building.

In this context, Mr. Gerahtu stressed the importance of having an objective and realistic appraisal of the situation and prospects, and an understanding of the time, resources, and organization needed to address the gaps in development that had arisen from two decades of challenges.

The dialogue with the Committee, concluded Mr. Gerahtu, was the initial turning point for the future engagement, and for the fulfillment of the country’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Questions by the Committee Experts

Committee Experts welcomed the recent opening of the country and its participation in the constructive dialogue and emphasized that the Committee’s priority was to support to efforts of all countries, including Eritrea, to make progress in the area of civil and political rights. Recognizing challenges and sharing concerns was essential to achieving this goal and making targeted recommendations that would help the country in advancing the situation on the ground. The Head of the Delegation mentioned the peace dividend in his introductory statement, they remarked and asked how it would contribute to the better protection of civil and political rights.

1) As for the applicability of the Covenant, the Experts asked whether it could be invoked before the courts and how it was being disseminated among the State officials and the public in general, and whether remedies were available to victims of human rights violations and how. Could the delegation inform on the situation of the 18 journalists imprisoned since 2001?

2) The Experts wondered whether there was a Constitutional vacuum in the country at the moment, and urged the Government to see the drafting of the new Constitution as an opportunity and a good starting point to address all lacunae in the system of human rights protection, especially for civil and political rights. Experts recommended the inclusion of as many different stakeholders, and the people of Eritrea, into the drafting process. What was the status of the adoption of the criminal code and the constitution of the new National Assembly?

3) Experts encouraged Eritrea to set up a national human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles, which they said was an important step in improving the promotion and protection of human rights in the country, and it could serve as a mediator between the international bodies and the Government. Which entities were responsible for relations with international and regional human rights bodies, and why the reluctance to extend an invitation to human rights special procedures, for example, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association?

4) When were the security officers allowed to use lethal force, they asked, raising concern about the excessive and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officers. What actions were being taken to investigate and prosecute all the abuses, including the reports of 28 deaths in demonstrations in Asmara. [Warning: Fake News]

5) In terms of past human rights violations, the Experts stressed that accountability and justice were fundamental in preserving peace and asked whether all allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during and after the war had been investigated and perpetrators prosecuted. Could the delegation inform on the mechanisms adopted to address past violations? What legal safeguards were in place to ensure the protection of the lives of civilians in conflict? The death penalty was still on the books but did not seem to have been implemented since 1998, Experts remarked, asking whether Eritrea would accede to the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

6) The delegation was asked whether a state of emergency had been declared since 1991, the definition of terrorism, criminalization of same-sex relationships, and whether the country had a comprehensive anti-discrimination law. Was there an independent complaint mechanism in cases of discrimination? The delegation was asked if abortion was legal and if modern contraceptives were accessible, steps taken to prevent domestic violence, and the judicial approach to marital rape. Were the children sent to military camps able to continue their education?

7) The Committee welcomed the advancements in political representation of women which now stand at 26-28 per cent and took positive note of the 30 per cent quota for women at all levels of public life and numerous seminars and awareness-raising activities on civil and political rights. What was the position of women in the labour market, their representation in decision-making positions, and whether the principle of equal pay for equal work applied? What were the rights of women in divorce and marriages, particularly under Sharia and customary law?

8) The Experts asked the delegation to comment on the report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights in Eritrea and the link between the state of human rights and the exodus of Eritrean citizens. Was it necessary for religious communities to be registered in order to freely exercise their religion?

Replies by the Delegation

At the beginning of their replies, the delegation explained that Eritrea was a dualist state, therefore, domestication of international treaties was required to enable their implementation, while national laws had supremacy in the domestic legal order.

Customary laws existed for centuries, and the existing community court system applied both customary and civil laws, while Sharia law only governed the marriage of Muslims. Everyone had the right to address the civil courts. There were regular activities to raise awareness and educate the people about their human rights, which included dissemination of the provisions of the Covenant, other international human rights instruments Eritrea was a party to and national laws.

Potential external security threats were the main reason why the new Constitution was not implemented, said a delegate, explaining that three years ago a body had been set up to draft the new Constitution, based on the country’s history over the previous two decades. The drafting of the Constitution, the reconstruction of the national legislation and re-establishing of the National Assembly were the most important steps in the process of nation-building, the delegate stressed. The National Charter provided the road-map for the nation-building process, said the delegation, adding that the national development was driven by laws, proclamations, and the institutional framework – put together, those established the firm basis for the successful transformation of the Eritrean society.

Until now, Eritrea had not yet considered setting up a national human rights institution, the delegation admitted and explained that the country was trying to build a framework for an infrastructure that would coordinate the implementation of human rights policies and international obligations.

The reports on the crimes against humanity and international crimes were unwarranted, far-fetched, and did not reflect the ground reality in Eritrea, asserted the delegation. The country was peaceful, stable and committed to equal opportunities and rights, and there was no complacency in the courts. All levels of authority were covered equally, from soldiers to higher-level officials, and investigated by a special court.

The delegation stated, with regard to terrorism, that the country had to take measures to combat religious fundamentalism. There was a religious harmony in the country that went back centuries, the delegation said and reaffirmed that religious freedom was guaranteed by law.

Equal rights and opportunities, non-discrimination, and equality were important issues in the country. Gender equality was provided for by the law, and women enjoyed equal rights in nationality, land, labour, and rights of participation. In addition to the 30 per cent quota for representation at all levels of public lives, women and girls were highly present at all levels of education, with the enrollment rates continually on the rise and the significant drops in the illiteracy of adult women.

Rape was criminalized and all reported cases were dealt with immediately; the underage marriage was also prohibited. Abortion was legal only in case of rape, incest, and if the pregnancy presented a danger to women’s health. Health promotion and information programmes had been put in place to reduce teenage pregnancy, and campaigns in schools aimed to raise awareness about the importance of reproductive health. A national committee against female genital mutilation was actively combating the practice across the country, and with the involvement of religious leaders; still, much remained to be done to achieve the goal of full eradication. Same sex relationships were not acceptable in the Eritrean society.

The right to life was enshrined in the culture and the law of Eritrea. The death penalty was stipulated in the law and it only applied to most serious crimes, including as high treason, espionage, grave desertion, and aggravated homicide. At the moment, there was no consensus in the country on the abolition of the death penalty, although a de facto moratorium had been introduced.

The delegation rejected the allegations of torture by the military and security forces, including torture of pregnant women, and underlined the fundamental role of women in the courageous struggle for the liberation and their contribution to the security of the State over the past two decades.

Questions by the Committee Experts

1) In the next round of questions, Committee Experts asked about the legal framework concerning torture, its definition, and the number of investigations into allegations of torture. The Committee raised concern about enforced disappearances and asked whether there was a registry of disappeared persons. Could the delegation comment on the reports of widespread arbitrary arrests and detentions and explain whether people could be arrested for unauthorized movement and asking inappropriate questions? What fundamental legal safeguards were available to detained persons and could they challenge the lawfulness of detention? What was the fate of the former minister of finance who had been arrested in September 2018?

2) The Experts asked about the freedom to practice religion and whether those individuals who practiced unregistered religion could be arrested and deprived of citizenship. What conditions had to be fulfilled in order for a religion to be registered?

3) Another concern was the restriction on the right to freedom of movement as allegedly, people aged 15 to 50 were not allowed to leave the country, and those who attempted to flee were arrested. Would those regulations be revised? The Experts further inquired about the duration of military service, from what age was it applied, and whether the consciousness objectors were relieved from the service. The number of victims of human trafficking was still huge – what measures had been taken to prevent the crime and provide reparations to victims?

4) How was the independence of the judiciary ensured in practice? Several questions were asked about the military courts, as the Experts showed interest in their composition, the representation of defendants, and the right to appeal. Ad hoc military courts had allegedly replaced the official military courts in most cases – were they still operational? As for the special courts, the Experts raised concern that its judges did not have adequate judicial education, there was no right to legal representation nor to appeal, while records of the procedures and pronounced sentences were not being published.

5) The Experts cited independent reports which claimed that there were 300 unofficial places of detention, which was a matter of grave concern. They recalled the minimum standards for the treatment of detainees and the right to fundamental legal safeguards, and asked for detailed information on places of detention, the number of detainees, and conditions of detention.

6) Surveillance and monitoring on the grounds of national security created an atmosphere of fear among the people, the Experts remarked and asked about safeguards in place to ensure the surveillance was in compliance with the provisions of the Covenant. What offences were being prosecuted as a threat to national security? The delegation was asked to explain the laws and regulations governing the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, as well as the rules for the registration and work of non-governmental organizations, and the law on the media and press freedoms.

Other questions raised included birth registration of the children of non-citizens particularly in rural areas, the status of the prohibition of corporal punishment, and the juvenile justice system.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation stressed that torture of any kind was prohibited and all cases of torture were strictly sanctioned. Police officers were trained in the prevention of torture and in the rights of detainees. Corporal punishment was banned in schools since 1996 and actions were taken against the perpetrators.

The judiciary was independent, with judges and public prosecutors having a legal mandate to conduct monitoring visits to prisons and detention centres. There were separate detention centres for juveniles only in the capital; in the rest of the country, juvenile offenders were held in the same facilities, and although the number of offenders was small, Eritrea would give adequate attention to the issue.

The delegation stressed that the reports of the arrest of former Government officials were false and said that everyone was free to express their views and critique the Government. There were cases of arrests of journalists, said the delegation, noting that all were arrested for threatening national security.

The vulnerability of the youth to human trafficking and organized crime was one of the Government’s main concerns. The Eritrean President had written to the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2013 about the horrible crimes of human trafficking. The country remained very engaged on the issue. The country’s legal framework did not recognize collective punishment; therefore, family members of the criminals were by no means punished for the crimes committed by the members of their family. Complicity to a crime was a different matter, naturally.

The delegation emphasized that the national security and the public interest could limit the exercise of the press freedoms. According to the 1996 proclamation, the ownership of the media was reserved for the Government; however, this did not prohibit broadcasts of the international media, so more than 600 satellite television and radio channels were available throughout the country. Every individual had the right to express his freedom of opinion without any restriction unless it put at risk the freedom of others, public order, respect, and national security.

All children were registered at birth, in conjunction with the compulsory vaccination. The children were not recruited into the armed forces, not even during the liberation struggle when they had been in school. The age of recruitment was 18. The Sawa school was fully administered by the Ministry of Education. The secondary school students from the area spent their last year there, during which four months were spent on military training. There were summer work programmes that involved the participation of secondary school students in community work for a month, with all costs being covered by the Government.

With regard to the concerns expressed about alleged extrajudicial executions, the delegation stated that this was not a practice in Eritrea. Violations of the law perpetrated by military personnel were the responsibility of the military courts, which tried military cases. Army officers were properly trained and must respect the code of conduct, particularly in the field of human rights; this had always been the case, the delegation said. The special court addressed cases of embezzlement, theft, and corruption, and was staffed with legal experts who had the rank of colonel or higher.

Eritrea honoured religious freedoms, stressed the delegation, rejecting the reports and information cited by the Committee as completely invalid and not reflecting the reality in the country. Revoking citizenship was one way to address the subversive activities of certain individuals and not their religious beliefs. More than 33 non-governmental organizations and associations and 19 trade unions were operating in the country and could organize meetings and events.

Responding to questions raised on the indefinite military service, the delegation said that this was only the case during the war, which was perfectly understandable. Efforts were being made to adapt it to the times of peace, and this included the promotion of civic education, training, and employment. A new remuneration system had been introduced in 2016 that had integrated all those serving in the military service into the new civil service salary system. That was a gradual process that required substantial effort and would take another three or four years to complete.

The country did not have a sophisticated security system, said the delegation, affirming that all the people participated in all matters related to national survival. There was no system to control the population and no atmosphere of fear, assured the delegation. There was no censorship on the Internet and no limitations on its use. In fact, the authorities encouraged the proliferation of Internet cafes in the country, particularly in rural areas. Those cafes were heavily used by the young generation.

Turning to the conditions of detention, a delegate noted that there were 11 detention centres in the country and that the conditions were very dignified. The goal was to empower the detainees to easily reintegrate into society once they served their sentences. There were educational and recreational institutions, as well as shops and dedicated spots for religious practice. The goal was to implement the Nelson Mandela Rules (United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners) but lacked lawyers and the means to implement them.

Eritrea was active throughout Africa to respond to the challenge of migration and human trafficking, said the delegation, adding that – as confirmed by former United States President Barack Obama – there was an international conspiracy to kidnap Eritrean children and women. Illegal migration was a very politicized issue and had been for over 20 years, with reports of the young generation vanishing from the country. If all those were true, there would be no people living in the country at the moment; and yet, the reality was different and the youth was the epicenter of the development of Eritrea today.

Finally, the delegation said that the country had not yet reached the end of the process to achieve the nation-building that the Eritreans wanted. It had experienced a difficult period marked by strong hostility against Eritrea, including in some international reports that went against the truth. Some wanted to take advantage of the scourge lived by Eritrea to point the finger at the country. There was extreme politicization of human rights in Eritrea, which was unfair. Nevertheless, the country would not spare any effort to promote the development in a climate of mutual respect and mutual aid.

Concluding Remarks

Tesfamicael Gerahtu, [from] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Eritrea, in his concluding remarks, thanked the Committee Experts for the important discussion and said that Eritrea had made great efforts to protect and promote human rights despite its limited financial and human resources. It would take time for Eritrea to fulfill all its obligations, he said, noting that the Government was taking a pragmatic approach to the issue.

Ahmed Amin Fathalla, Committee Chairperson, concluded by recognizing the progress in Eritrea and welcomed the opening of the communications between the Committee and the country. The Chair urged Eritrea to intensify the efforts and complete the drafting of the new Constitution, set up a national human rights institution, and enable a more active and pluralistic political life in which everyone could participate.