Eritrea’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) takes place as human rights abuses continue

UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

Eritrea’s human rights record was examined by the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group for the third time on Monday, 28 January 2019. Although the Eritrean government has stated in its report its willingness to intervene and state that they have addressed the recommendations of the previous UPR, many Eritreans and NGOs that work on Eritrea have reported continued serious violations of human rights. 

The UPR report is a State driven process (conducted by the state itself), created in 2006, under the guidelines of the UN Human Rights Council, which offers  the opportunity for every member state to declare what actions have been taken to improve human rights situations in the country and to comply with their human rights obligations. Other member states make recommendations which can be accepted by the states under review. 

Since the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018, all eyes have been on the country to see if any improvement in human rights can be noted. As the representative to the UN for DefendDefenders, Nicola Dagostini, said,Eritrea’s UPR review comes in a very important historical and political moment. She stated: “Eritrea’s UPR is taking place as the country starts a three-year term as a Council member [for the UN Human Rights Council].This status comes with responsibilities, including an obligation to cooperate with the UN human rights system and to address key human rights issues.”

Already in the 2016, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea concluded that Eritrea had somewhat improved its engagement with the international community, but nevertheless there was no evidence of progress in the field of human rights.  The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Ms. Sheila Keetharuth, stated in her final report to the Human Rights Council on 26th June 2018“It is not acceptable that we are still seeing these types of human rights violations continue in Eritrea and that the Government has shown little willingness that it would tackle such abuses. It is vital for the country’s future that these wrongs are put right. That means creating fundamental institutions based on the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a democratically elected parliament and providing space for diverse political parties, an independent media and civil society organisations.”

The main concerns for the international community stem from the severe human rights abuses, the deficit of democracy, the lack of constitutional reform and finally the system of national service (defined as enslavement by the UN Commission of Inquiry in 2016). As appears from the UPR question to Eritrea posed by Germany in advance of the review, the questions on the minds of many member states are “when and how does the Government of Eritrea plan to implement the constitution and hold free and fair national elections? Alternatively, how will the Government conclude the process of drafting a new constitution, as mentioned in Eritrea’s mid-term report, in an inclusive and expeditious way?” Additionally, the United States of America commented“There are reports of people imprisoned for their religious beliefs, including cases of some who have died while in custody. What will the Eritrean government do to ensure freedom of religious practice to people beyond the four officially recognized groups?”

Another area of interest that has been indicated by the NGOs and civil society as the most worrying is the limitation of the press freedom and freedom of information. This concerns among other things indefinite detention and inhumane treatment of journalists and a very limited access to international media. Ms. Sheila Keetharuth, in her final report before the Human Rights Council, said that she had recorded a total of 90 journalists detained since 2001;and according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accounts, at least eleven journalists are still in detention.  The Information Forum for Eritrea in its report has underlined the strong suppression of the right of opinion and assembly; mentioning as an example the protests in October 2017, when the Government of Eritrea denied a permit for a paeceful protest against the closure of the Al Diaa Islamic School in Asmara and military police arrested and imprisoned protestors, in violation of the right to freedom of assembly.

Finally, according to the report of Defenddefenders regarding on the situation of Human Rights Defenders in Eritrea, “the operating environment in the country remains extremely harsh (…).Heavy surveillance coupled with arbitrary arrests and detention without access to a lawyer or court ensures that dissenting opinions against the state are discouraged and quashed.”

The review of Eritrea will result in an outcome report which has not yet been published. 

UPR reports on Eritrea from civil society and other sources can be found on the website of UPR info.