UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea Mandate Renewed as Human Rights Fail to Improve
9th July 2019 marked the one-year anniversary of the historic peace deal that ended more than 20 years of latent conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Yet, despite positive promise, little has changed in Eritrea and the country remains bogged down by isolationism and high rates of illegal emigration in the face of indefinite national service tantamount to slavery. On 2nd July, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, reported that human rights had not improved and expressed regret that the peace deal failed to bring widespread abuse and violations to an end. On 4th July, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) voted to extend Kravetz’s mandate for another year, and called on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to present an oral update on Eritrea in March 2020. Of note, no African country on the HRC voted for the mandate renewal - eight countries abstained while Eritrea and four others actively voted against it. No Special Rapporteur has beenallowed to visit the country since the mandate began in 2012.
In separate developments, in mid-June 2019 the Eritrean government dismantled twenty two Catholic hospitals and clinics, allegedly in response to the church’s criticism of President Isaias Afwerki’s rule. Catholic nuns were allegedly evicted from the hospitals and were forbidden to take any equipment with them as the military smashed windows and doors and harassed staff. Speaking about the incidents, sources outside Eritrea suggested that the government was ill at ease with the church’s involvement in efforts to further the peace process with Ethiopia and was keen to control the social sector. Three months later, in early September, seven secondary schools run by religious groups were seized by the government. The government said that the seizures were in line with regulations they introduced in 1995, which restrict the activities of religious institutions.
A damning report issued by Human Rights Watch in August 2019 found that many Eritreans have spent their entire working lives at the service of the government in either a military or civilian capacity, which has had visible and lasting impact on the rights, freedom and lives of Eritreans. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Eritrean government runs a programme for the indefinite conscription of recruits to the National Service - a compulsory but indefinite programme for all citizens aged between 18 and 50 years old that includes military service. Introduced in 1995, it has been likened to modern day slavery by human rights actors.
In more positive developments, Eritrea and Sudan agreed to reopen border crossings following talks in Asmara in early July 2019. Sudan had closed the border in 2018, citing concerns over illegal crossings and human trafficking. Sudan is a major corridor through which illegal Eritrean migrants are often smuggled out of the country.
On the 18th anniversary of their arrest, Amnesty International called for the immediate release of 28 Eritrean prisoners who have never been charged or heard of since. The 11 politicians and 17 journalists were arrested in an infamous 2001 crackdown after criticising President Isaias Afwerki, who has governed since Eritrea became an independent country in 1993. The politicians were arrested for writing an open letter to the president asking him to hold elections and respect the constitution, which was ratified in 1997 but never implemented.
Seif Magango, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said:
It is a travesty that this appalling injustice persists almost two decades on, more so now that Eritrea is a member of the UN Human Rights Council… Like hundreds of other prisoners of conscience in arbitrary detention in Eritrea, these 28 men and women are prisoners of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally.
Civic Space Developments