BACKGROUND: The Government of Eritrea is responsible for systematic and widespread human rights violations that amount to crimes against humanity, according to a UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI). According to the CoI's 8 June 2016 report, crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, persecution and murder are being committed by the Eritrean government and its ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).
Ongoing border disputes with Ethiopia and Djibouti and perceived threats to the sovereignty of Eritrea have resulted in the commission of gross human rights violations by the PFDJ for more than two decades. Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia on 24 May 1991, ending a 30-year liberation war. Border disputes subsequently sparked the Ethiopian-Eritrean War from 1998-2000 during which over 100,000 people were killed. Despite the establishment of a UN-associated Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, tasked with delineating the border between the two countries, land disputes centered around the town of Badme endure as Ethiopian forces continue to illegally occupy the area.
Although the CoI was denied access to the country by the PFDJ, the Commission interviewed 833 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers. According to the CoI, civilians are routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest and subject to forced disappearance. Sexual violence as a mode of punishment is pervasive in compulsory military service camps, with the CoI concluding these crimes amount to sexual slavery and torture. Additionally these crimes are reportedly authorized by high-level officials as an acceptable mode of punishment.
The government maintains strict control over its borders and civilians caught trying to escape Eritrea are sometimes extrajudicially executed. Despite this, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported more than 440,000 refugees have fled from Eritrea into neighboring countries, averaging as many as 5,000 people per month.
Minority religious groups are also targeted for persecution. Eritrea has four government-sanctioned religious groups allowed to openly practice their faith while others are forcibly suppressed, and in some cases adherents have been deprived of citizenship.
ANALYSIS: The Eritrean government has rejected the CoI's findings. The government's refusal to engage with the Special Rapporteur and the CoI hinders efforts to meaningfully address the human rights situation in the country. A culture of impunity and official encouragement of grave abuses reveals the Eritrean government's blatant disregard for its obligations under international law.
Despite the CoI report and mounting evidence of crimes against humanity, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has not formally discussed the human rights situation in Eritrea.
The government of Eritrea is manifestly unwilling to uphold its Responsibility to Protect.
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: In 2005 the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights adopted Resolution 91 on the human rights situation in Eritrea, calling upon the government to respect its obligations under all human rights conventions to which it is a party.
Since 23 December 2009 the UNSC has imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea for its border dispute with Djibouti and its alleged support of the extremist group al-Shabaab.
In response to reports of gross human rights violations, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 20/20 during July 2012, appointing Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea. The UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 26/24 on 14 July 2014, establishing the CoI to further investigate alleged violations. On 2 July 2015 the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 29/18 tasking the CoI to investigate if the crimes committed by the PDFJ, detailed by its first report, amounted to crimes against humanity.
In response to the second CoI report, on 10 March 2016 the European Union (EU) passed resolution RC-B8-0318/2016 on the Situation in Eritrea, highlighting human rights abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity, as well as enacting provisions to ensure that EU funding does not benefit the Eritrean regime.
On 1 July 2016 the Human Rights Council passed Resolution 32/24 condemning the "reported systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations being committed" by the PDFJ, including enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence and called for the government of Eritrea to end the use of torture and other inhumane acts. Resolution 32/24 also extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for one year.
NECESSARY ACTION: The government of Eritrea must immediately end the enforced conscription, torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings of its civilians.
The international community must address the human rights situation in Eritrea. The UNSC should impose sanctions and asset freezes on all senior PFDJ leaders and government officials responsible for the commission of grave human rights abuses.
Given the refusal of the Eritrean authorities to cooperate with UN-mandated bodies, the African Union, and states that have close relations with Eritrea, should assist the UN and the international community in upholding their collective responsibility to protect the Eritrean people from ongoing crimes against humanity.
Last Updated: 24 October 2016