Sovereignty, International Law and the Commission of Inquiry Eritrea

On June 27, 2014, the UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) mandated a Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea (CoIE) to conduct an investigation on whether the Government of Eritrea (GoE) has violated the human rights of its own citizens. On June 4, 2015, after a year-long investigation,  the CoIE issued its report concluding “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.”  The Government of Eritrea (GoE) categorically rejected the report calling it “indecent hyperbole” whereas, by and large, the Eritrean opposition has essentially taken a “tell us something we don’t know” position.  In this edition, Alnahda will try to answer these questions: How systematic and widespread are the alleged violations? How reliable are the methodologies used in the investigations and what are the standards of proof? Are they even within the mandate of the CoIE? What are “crimes against humanity” and why was the CoIE equivocal by saying “may”? Why is what goes on inside Eritrea the business of the United Nations, anyway? Why is this being reported now just when the Government of Eritrea started making some headway in re-engaging Europe? How credible is the UN and does it apply the same standards to all nations? What is likely to happen next?

I. Systematic, Widespread

1. Whereas the Government of Eritrea’s categorical rejection of the report has dissuaded its supporters from even reading the report because there is nothing new in “Eritrea’s enemies” fabricating stories, the supporters of the Eritrean opposition, who have been hearing horrific testimonies by Eritreans since 2002 on mushrooming media (particularly Paltalk and independent media), have also refused to be shocked by the CoIE report.

2.  The CoIE reports, in excruciating detail, of arbitrary depravation of life, torture, sexual torture, collective punishment and child abuse and other crimes too numerous to list here that Eritreans suffered at the hands of fellow Eritreans. Since people may be overwhelmed by the size of the report (almost 500 pages) here are few excerpts:

3. A witness of the rapes and killings told the Commission: “The soldiers raped the women and the girls. And if they refused, they killed them. A lot of women were killed that way. During the last war with Ethiopia, this has increased. They find the women guarding goats or fetching water and food. That is when they rape them. I can tell you about four women who were raped. One was 15 years old; they gorged her eyes out and left her on the street. Another one was sexually violated. They placed big stones on her.”

4. One detainee reported: “It is called the butchery because there is blood everywhere. I saw one pregnant girl (two-four months) lose her baby from the beating. She was caught trying to go to Sudan. I was in the queue after her to be punished. I could see her getting hit with a thin slock stick (“sordanage” in Arabic) all over her body by four men. She began bleeding. She was taken to the nurse. I do not know what happened there, but I heard they took the baby out.”

5. A witness reported his friend died from torture involving trauma to his testicles in Shela Tessane: “I was in Shela Tessane for about two months. We were beaten every other day. Towards the end of the time there, my friend was beaten on the testicles with a stick. When he came back everything was bloody. He could hardly walk, his testicles swelled to bigger than the size of a fist. He was in a lot of pain … He died shortly after arriving in Adarsal. We were transferred there quickly so the guards at Sheila Tessenei would not get in trouble for his death. I do not know what they did with his body. His family has not called. I later heard his family was still looking for him. They did not know he was dead.”

6. A witness described the severe internal damage she suffered as a result of being beaten inside her vagina: “I was beaten with a plastic rod with metal inside. I decided that I would not reveal the information that they wanted. I knew that if I mentioned the names, then their families would also be in trouble. The interrogation got tougher…” The victim has suffered significant complications from the internal beatings. Later at the Sawa military training camp, a doctor reported the extreme bleeding she was experiencing as a consequence of womb damage, rendering her medically unfit for the military training: “They have messed up my life. I have not been able to bear a child. I got pregnant five times but I have not been able to bear a child for the eight years after I got married.”

7. A former guard at a detention centre confirmed the targeting of sexual and reproductive organs during beatings and interrogations: “They targeted their physical differences and tortured them violating their breasts, private parts, inside and outside.”

8. A former conscript explained that around 2004 a Muslim conscript was arbitrarily killed for continuing to pray during military training despite warnings to stop: “On one occasion, a Muslim was killed in front of us for praying. After we were all gathered, the leader read a page of information to us. Basically it said this man has been caught praying against our orders three times and is being sentenced to death. Anyone who does not obey military orders will also be killed. The Muslim man was then shot twice and killed.”

9. A man explained that his father, who was an ELF fighter, has been detained for the last 28 years in Sembel. He was detained by the Ethiopians in 1989 but his imprisonment continued after independence. He explained that his father “is …. in a special cell with many other persons who didn’t believe in the Government’s ideology. After independence we tried hard to free him, but all ex-ELF were detained by the President. One day, I visited him but I could not see his face very clearly because he was far. My mother told me she once visited him. Also many people saw him when he went to the hospital. He is very old now; we received a picture of him from a guard.”

10. A daughter told the Commission that her mother was arrested because she deserted the national service: “They told her that she could only be released if she brought me to them. She called me from the Police station. She was made to sign a document undertaking that I would go to Wi’a. She was then released. I surrendered and they sent me to Wi’a.”

11. A widow of one of the 16 people who were killed in this incident told the Commission that: “On Sunday morning many soldiers came at about 7 a.m. We did not know we were surrounded. We were loading our camels, making tea and milking our livestock. The soldiers came closer, and without saying anything to us they started shooting. My little daughter of two years old … my older children and my husband were next to me. My husband was shot. We all escaped and the camels fled when they started shooting. We do not know what happened to us, because it happened very quickly. In this incident 16 people died. My husband died immediately, one was wounded and managed to escape. Those wounded were shot at again and again. They were targeting the men while the children and the women were escaping. 16 men were killed and two women escaped but one woman who was pregnant (first pregnancy) died in the course of the flight.”

12. The CoI report is 458 pages long. The first 90 pages provide context (history of Eritrea and EPLF/PFDJ.) This means that the rest of the pages, excluding the annex, are chock-full of stories likes those excerpted above from 160 written submissions and 550 interviews of survivors and witnesses.

13. When CoIE says it is “systematic”, it means that there was a method to this madness: this is not a case of a lone wolf or individuals who have gone rogue: but that it is the normal way the government of Eritrea maintains order and obedience in Eritrea. It goes on to show that recruitment of spies is systematic; violation of rights is systematic; repression is systematic; disappearances and incommunicado prisons are systematic; and so are extra-judicial killings. And when it says it is widespread, it means it is all-encompassing, all over the country and throughout every institution: prisons are widespread; mental illness in prisons is widespread; disregard for human dignity is widespread; torture is widespread; sexual abuse is widespread; so is spying, restricted movements; checkpoints. And, of profound consequence, impunity for officials is widespread.

14. Thus, is it any surprise that the CoIE report itself was received by “systematic and widespread” denial by government officials and their supporters? The government did not say that crimes against women tend to increase in militarized societies (including democracies like the US where the rates of sexual violence against women in the armed forces are alarming); it didn’t say there are some rogue elements and they have been brought to justice; it didn’t say that our justice system is like all our institutions: severely lacking. No, it made a categorical denial and equated accusing the government with accusing the people. In fact, every reply that has been written in defense of the government has been by “the people and government of Eritrea” (henceforth TPAGOE) which technically means that those who gave the testimony are appalled by and dismissing their own testimony.

15. Here’s the government’s argument. Since the government of Eritrea sees itself as “by the people and of the people” (not in the Lincolnesque sense but in the sense all of us are related to a government official), then to accuse government officials of grave crimes is to accuse the people of Eritrea and their “civilized culture” which would never condone these crimes at an individual level, much less at a systematic and widespread level. Ergo, it is all lies. While this is highly flattering to the people of Eritrea, the problem with this argument is that when The Government was told by The People that it is against Eritrean culture to judge people guilty without hearing both sides of the argument, that the accused should be brought to a court of law, the Government (in the person of Yemane Gebreab) said “we have our own culture of dealing with these things.” And part of this culture was to arrest Eritreans who were reminding the Government of their culture.  So, what is being criticized here is NOT The People and their great culture but The Government and its perverse culture.

16. What is even worse, sometimes the Government takes advantage of The People’s less-than-stellar culture, one of which is to demonize and ostracize VICTIMS of rape.  In addition to raping and sexually torturing women, they also have a system (widespread, systematic) where they, in exchange for their “lax attitude” towards the National Service “obligation” of women, deny women “moving permits” forcing them to be “chained to the kitchen.”

17. Actually, a culture cannot progress unless it brutally assesses itself and jettisons horrid practices. It is cheap pandering for the Government of Eritrea to celebrate Eritrea’s “civilized culture” when that culture includes female genital mutilation and shaming rape victims. Of all the Big Lies told about PFDJ (by PFDJ), one is its claim that it is an advocate of women’s rights.  It is dishonest for the Front to celebrate “women’s participation” when it has a long history of being very dismissive of women—a simple example: the EPLF called the female fighters of ELF “Kifli Mefre” (Reproductive Division)–and they continue to be dismissive of women–such as the current practice of referring to new female military recruits as “goats.”

II. Methodologies, Standard of Proof, Mandates

18. Of the many ironies, the Government of Eritrea, which has no standard of proof when disappearing, arresting and killing its own citizens, is extremely demanding when it comes to methodologies and standard of proof used to condemn it. Who did you speak to and whom did you exclude? How do we know that you are not making it all up? How do we know that those who provided testimonies are not making it all up? Who made you the Prosecutor, Judge, Jury and Executioner? These are some of the questions asked by the government whenever a UN-mandated organization or a human rights group accuses it of massive human rights violations.

19. The CoIE says that it received 160 submissions and conducted 550 interviews in Switzerland, UK, US, Italy, Germany, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Moreover, Australia, Chad, Israel agreed to be visited but weren’t visited. On the other hand, Egypt, Kenya, Kuwait, Morocco, South Africa and Sudan didn’t bother to respond to requests for visits, while Algeria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia refused the CoIE’s request.

20. The 550 interviewees were either victims or witnesses. This is clear from the testimony: it is not hearsay. It is not, “I heard so-and-so tell so-and-so…” It is people talking about what happened to them or their immediate family members; or people who witnessed something horrible happening with their own two eyes and heard it with their own two ears.

21. How do we know that many, most or all were not making it up to strengthen their amnesty/asylum cases? Well, this is where investigators use standards of proof. One is corroboration: if you have thirty people, in different parts of the world, describing things similarly or identically (when, where, how), it becomes credible.

22. The standard of proof that the CoIE is using is not “beyond reasonable doubt”, but “reasonable grounds to believe.” Why is it not “beyond reasonable doubt?” Ironically, the only way for the CoIE standards of proof could have been higher is if the Government of Eritrea, as it was urged to do by Human Rights Council, had granted access to the investigators. Because the Government of Eritrea refused to co-operate and rejected repeated requests of CoIE to enter the country and grant it access, it could not visit prisons and interview prisoners and ex-prisoners and the youth in National Service inside Eritrea.

23. In the past couple of months, the Government of Eritrea has produced videos with one message: “Don’t Trust the Media: Come and See for Yourself.”   Seeing is believing, it said.  The much-vaunted “come and see!” campaign that the government uses as a come-hither for tourists is really “come and see what we want you see when we want you to see it.”

24. There are two arguments that the Government of Eritrea has made: (a) we have nothing to hide; we are just opposed on principle to having foreigners coming in and telling us what to do; (b) Eritrea has a large Diaspora and the CoIE cherry-picked whom to interview because it had already written its conclusion that the government is guilty.

25. The first one, which is the Sovereign State argument, will be addressed separately below.   The second one, dealing with the claim that not all stakeholders were consulted (argument made by, among others, the Organization of Eritrean Americans and guests to AlJazeera’s The Stream TV show) seems to have missed the mandate of the Commission on Inquiry (which you can find here):

26.  Excerpts from the mandate beginning with #  7. [The Human Rights Council] Decides to establish, for a period of one year, a commission of inquiry comprising three members, one of whom should be the Special Rapporteur, with the other two members appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council; 8. Also decides that the commission of inquiry will investigate all alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea, as outlined in the reports of the Special Rapporteur; 9. Calls upon the Government of Eritrea to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur and the commission of inquiry, to permit them and their staff members unrestricted access to visit the country, to give due consideration to the recommendations contained in the reports of the Special Rapporteur, and to provide them with the information necessary for the fulfilment of their mandates, and underlines the importance for all States to lend their support to the Special Rapporteur and the commission of inquiry for the discharge of their mandates; 10. Urges the international community to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur and the commission of inquiry; 11. Also urges the international community to strengthen efforts to ensure the protection of those fleeing from Eritrea, in particular the increasing number of unaccompanied children.

27. This takes us to the “reports of the Special Rapporteur” which is referenced in the mandate and which had been published a year earlier. The report itself was a follow-up to a previous report—one following the Special Rapporteur’s November 2012 appointment.

28. In the report, the Rapporteur focused on two areas: the indefinite nature of the National Service and arbitrary arrests.   The only time that government officials engaged the Rapporteur in New York, they came all ready—to discuss the Millenium Development Goals.   Now, all the stakeholders at the Organization of Eritrean Americans, and the Top Tweeters that feel excluded from telling their positive stories about Eritrea: what are they going to tell her as it specifically relates to the National Service and Arbitrary Arrests? Consider the Rapporteur’s claims:

29. On National Service: she says it is indefinite; it is hard labor; it includes under-age children (under 18 years old) who are either rounded up and not released even when parents show proof they are under age or are overachievers who are attending 12th grade in Sawa prematurely; that draft evaders are severely punished; that reprisals are taken against parents of draft evaders (paying money, losing license renewal); that women in National Service are sexually abused and intimidated.

30. On arbitrary arrests and detention, the Rapporteur says it includes “incommunicado detention; extrajudicial killings; torture; inhumane prison conditions; infringement to freedoms of movement, expression and opinion, assembly, association and religious belief; sexual and gender-based violence; and violations of children’s rights.”

31. What is it that the stakeholders who are claiming they are excluded can say that would change the CoIE’s standard of “reasonable grounds to believe”?  Are they going to say “I was in prison and I never saw anyone tortured nor have I ever heard of it?” Are they going to say “I was in prison and the conditions were humane?” Are they going to say “I was at National Service and I have never heard of sexual violence?” Are they going to say “I was at National Service and I have never heard of anyone who was underage?” Are they going to say “I know many draft-dodgers and I have never heard of reprisals taken against parents?” Are they going to say “I have never heard of round-ups?”   Are they going to say that “I know everyone who has been in prison and everyone was taken to court, had a chance to defend himself/herself, was sentenced and has family visitation rights?” Are they going to say, “here I am in Eritrea: saying whatever I want about the government, in front of a large group of people, and I haven’t been arrested”? Are they going to point to private press that criticizes the government? Are they going to say, “when I call home or visit home I never sense any fear: people are free to say whatever they want about the government and they do in print and radio and TV?”

32.  Most of the “stakeholders” who feel excluded from the CoIE’s reports are “arbitrary beneficiaries” of the government’s “arbitrary application of its own laws.”  As written, the National Service Proclamation applies to all Eritreans aged 18 to 40—whether in Eritrea or Diaspora.  Since they are justifying the legality of the government’s extension to indefinite period, and extension of the age, and since they are accepting the government’s definition of an Eritrean as anyone born to at least one Eritrean parent, it applies to them.  And to their children. And their parents in exile.

33. The other stakeholders, Eritrean youth who live in the Middle East and have to rely on the government’s power to grant passports, don’t have this privilege: their children are enlisted in National Service when they go home to visit.   So, yes, there are the privileged and the non-privileged classes in Eritrea and the privileged includes all Eritreans in the West who can visit Eritrea due to their agreement with the policies of the Government of Eritrea and for whom the National Service is a documentary to be watched but not experienced.

34. There is also another question related to the mandate of the CoIE: why did the CoI determine that its mandate is to investigate all crimes committed in Eritrea by the government since 1991 and not since the Special Rapporteur was appointed in 2012? Because the HRC told it to investigate all allegations, not specifically those it cited. When a government is explaining all its criminal activity by using the all purpose “no-war-no-peace”, does it not make sense to investigate the government’s behavior when peace reigned in Eritrea?

35. The accusation of “it’s outside your mandate”—which the government has also used against the Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG)– is a disingenuous argument.

36. First of all, the whole reason that the CoIE put the qualifier “may” in its assessment of the government’s likelihood of having committed “crimes against humanity” is precisely because it didn’t think that investigating that was within its mandate.

37. Secondly, and related to this in a very worrying sign to the government (and thus, its hyper-reaction), mandates are continuously expanded as (a) the government refuses to deal with allegations against it and (b) commits new crimes.  The existing sanctions against Eritrea are a perfect example of that:  it refused to deal with allegations against it in regards to Somalia and then added new violations of international law with respect to Djibouti and hosting Ethiopian opposition in Eritrea despite explicit UN resolution not to do so. It was its stubborn stupidity with regards to Djibouti and hosting Ethiopian armed groups, more than its activities in Somalia for which there was scant evidence, that got it sanctioned.

III. Sovereignty vs International Law

38. The most compelling argument the Government of Eritrea has against the Commission of Inquiry are (a) the UN’s unique history with Eritrea; (b) the nature of the UN and its selective application of its own resolutions (c) the issue of sovereignty. Working in tandem, they can be potent to affect a rally-around-the-flag campaign. Let’s look at each

39. Eritrea’s Minister of Information, Mr. Yemane Gebremeskel, tweeted that UN-mandated Commission of Inquiries are not new to Eritrea: there was also a UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry sent to investigate the wishes of Eritreans in 1947 and we all remember how biased it was and how it was set up to serve the wishes of the United Sates. Here, the government of Eritrea is stoking the people’s narrative and saying: the UN was wrong then, it is wrong now, and it was wrong the whole time between then and now.

40. There is also no question that the United Nations is very selective in its condemnation of nations: some countries that have horrific human rights records (Saudi Arabia, China, Ethiopia, Israel) barely get criticized and some countries (Iraq, Cuba, Eritrea) do. So, goes the criticism, there is no rule of law; it is just about who you know and who likes you.

41. Well, this is all true and it is something that very many countries complain about but they haven’t isolated themselves and declared war on the UN and the US the way Eritrea has. The UN, “a family of nations” has a “some-countries-are-more-equal-than-others” policy. Five nations have veto powers. Is this “fair”? No. And what is Africa doing about it? It is trying to secure two representative countries to have veto power. It is discussing these and other issues at heads of states meetings that our head of state boycotts. Self-isolation is not the way to change the world.

42.  Perhaps the most powerful argument is that a State is sovereign and all issues that happen within its boundaries are the business of the people who reside within those boundaries and its nobody’s business. This has an emotional appeal for revolutionary fighters who make up the Government of Eritrea, the ones who were driven for decades by the idea of an independent, sovereign Eritrea—but they seem unaware that the world has changed and that internationalization of laws has diluted the sovereignty of states.

43. As the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has ruled: “To allow national law to have precedence over the international law of the Charter would defeat the purpose of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Charter. International human rights standards must always prevail over contradictory national law. Any limitation on the rights of the Charter must be in conformity with the provisions of the Charter.”

44.  In fact, the genesis of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur, the Commission of Inquiry, and its report that we are discussing now is a claim made by one Eritrean citizen on April 14th 2003. Via “Article 19”, an organization named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and using Africa Charter as the binding law, the Eritrean citizen, Mussie Ephrem, filed a claim against the Government of Eritrea, on behalf of the 11 parliamentarians (G-15) and the 13 journalists who were arrested in 2001, to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

45. For four years, between the busy schedule of the Commission, and the foot-dragging of the Government of Eritrea, not to mention its absurd arguments that Eritreans can find legal remedy at home and don’t need international organizations, Mussie Ephrem had to wait.

46.  The Government of Eritrea gave the African Commission the same answers then that it is giving now: The arrest of the G-15 was done against a backdrop of war (now renamed no-war-no-peace). The Government was told then, as it is being told now, that “the African Charter does not allow States Parties to derogate from it in times of war or other emergency.”

47. The Government of Eritrea claimed that the G-15 were not arrested because they disagreed with the president. They were arrested because they violated Article 259 (attacks on the independence of the state), Article 260 (impairment of the defence powers of the state) and Article 261 (high treason) of the Transitional Penal Code of Eritrea. This was the first time Eritreans heard about the charges: not unusual, we only hear about things when the Government is forced by foreign institutions to do so. The Government of Eritrea was told then, as it is being told now, that if a State’s laws fall below the standards of an international norm (in this case, African Charter), then it cannot use its laws as a sovereignty shield.

48. Finally, the Government of Eritrea argued that there is nothing arbitrary about the arrest of the journalists: they broke the law they were arrested.  Also, we are at war. Also we have court backlog.   The Government of Eritrea was told then, as it is being told now, “The Eritrean detainees have not been charged, or brought to trial. This in itself constitutes arbitrariness.” How long somebody is detained without charges constitutes arbitrariness and a decision whether the government’s actions are “reasonable.” (If it wasn’t reasonable in 2007 when the arrested were in prison for 6 years can it be reasonable  now when they have been there for 14 years?) Being in a state of war doesn’t grant a State the right to derogate from international norms. Court backlog? It was told: fix it, don’t use it as an excuse. Furthermore, “holding an individual without permitting him or her to have contact with his or her family, and refusing to inform the family if and where the individual is being held, is inhuman treatment of both the detainee and the family concerned.”

49.  Mussie Ephrem won.  In 2007, the Government of Eritrea was found guilty of violating articles 1, 5, 6, 7(1), 9 and 18 of the African Charter and was urged by the African Commission to release the G-15 and the journalists arrested in 2001; to lift the ban on the press; to grant the arrested immediate access to families and legal representatives and compensate them for the wrongful arrest.

50.  What happened next? Same thing that happens: the Government of Eritrea (a) ignored the recommendations; (b) went on to arrest even more people. The campaign that was started by Mussie Ephrem, was carried on by others, including (which testified in one of Eritrea’s Universal Period Reviews) and culminated in the work of Elsa Chyrum and the many Eritrean activists who have been instrumental in facilitating the work of the Rapporteur in encouraging traumatized Eritreans to speak up.

51.  Now, the case of the G-15 and journalists that Mussie Ephrem initiated, has been–due to the Government of Eritrea’s refusal to moderate its behavior–expanded to include the case of Forto 2013, the Djibouti prisoners of war, the “systematic and widespread” arrests and rule of fear that contributed to tens of thousands of Eritreans fleeing their Eritrea. That is what the CoI was tasked with investigating and it did.  And that’s why it is happening now.

52.  As it is its wont, the Government of Eritrea, just this week, has arrested dozens of Eritreans who, if past is prologue, will not be tried, will not have the ability to defend themselves: some will disappear, some will be held incommunicado and some will be tortured.  It doesn’t appear to have been deterred from its reckless path.

53. The President of the State of Eritrea has made it abundantly clear that he considers Eritreans hostages to his geo-political ambitions.  He told reporter Robert D Kaplan that “he would be more likely to satisfy U.S. demands on human rights in the context of a growing military partnership, but would not do so if merely hectored by the State Department.”

IV. What Is Next

54. Just like a citizen’s right is not absolute; a state’s power (Sovereignty) is not absolute; it only goes so far when a country chooses to join regional and international organizations and agrees to comply with their laws as a pre-requisite for joining them.

55. In addition to the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, the Government of Eritrea is likely to be pressured to receive the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression; the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief; the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions.

56. These are all part of the Universal Periodic Review that the Government of Eritrea is committed to. Moreover, the veneer of its claim to being the protector of women’s rights (because x% of students who graduated are female) is in serious jeopardy because of its shocking and grossly negligent behavior in throwing young girls to predatory men.

57. The Civil and Penal Codes that it is celebrating having drafted in May 2015 will most likely be found considerably below international norms and it will not be able to use them as a shield to say that the swelling number of its prisoners are there because they broke the law.

58.  Eritrea is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC), a very unpopular institution in Africa.  It is likely that the HRC will expand the mandate of the CoI to investigate whether the Government of Eritrea has committed crimes against humanity—judging by the panic that has befallen government officials, it appears that they believe the mandate will be expanded. Being found guilty of crimes against humanity would radically change the perception of the government from an ogre to mass murderer. If that were to happen, I don’t know whether that will moderate the behavior of the Government or whether, thinking that it is too late, it will continue to isolate and brutalize Eritreans even more. (I suspect the latter.)

59. As a political institution, the CoIE seems more adept than the Government of Eritrea: consider how the first 90 pages of the report are essentially prebutting (pre-rebuttal) of what the Government will say. The CoIE essentially accepts the Eritrean narrative when it comes to its history (independent from Ethiopia); the justness of the Eritrean armed struggle; the promising growth of Eritrea in 1991-1997; the Ethiopian role in instigating the 1998 border war; the unfairness of the UN indifference to Ethiopia’s refusal to comply with terms of agreement it signed; Eritrea’s stellar performance in health-related MDGs. It essentially diffuses all the arguments the Eritrean government uses to justify its victimization of the people. The only defense the Government of Eritrea will have is the same one it always had: to call an increasingly growing number of its own citizens liars, opportunists and fifth columnists.

60.  This is an extremely sad report. It is sad at every level: that a predatory government is victimizing Eritreans; that Eritreans are being exiled by the tens of thousands; that the most vulnerable members of our society—young women and children—continue to bear the brunt of the abuse. It is also sad that the government will be entirely predictable about this: it will, forgetting that every Eritrean family has been victimized by its policies, continue with its “systematic, widespread” denial—even if the spokespersons themselves (Ambassador Hanna Simon, Ambassador Beyene Russom, etc) have immediate family members who were subjected to arbitrary arrest.

61. It is hard to see a breakthrough.  The easiest and least costly solution for Eritrea would be for President Isaias Afwerki to resign.  But when you have a Head of State who believes “we have never made a mistake”, what are the chances of that happening?  One man held a party hostage; one party held a country hostage. One man. One man and his disciples.

62. The institution that would normally produce change agents–university students, legal professionals, journalists, civil society, parliamentarians– is non-existent.  The University of Asmara hasn’t produced law graduates since it closed and virtually all its graduates have left the country. (The “Legal College” was opened in 2010.) There have not been journalist graduates from the University of Asmara, just National Servicemen who intern at the Ministry of Information and learn soul-crushing propaganda. The Eritrean parliament—rubber stamp as it was–hasn’t met since 2002. There is no independent civil society, just “mass organizations” which take their orders from ruling party executives.  Even the military is not a professional institution but a massive political-spoils system with one stakeholder: president Isaias Afwerki.

63.  In short, moderating influences don’t exist–only radicalization is encouraged by the government of Eritrea. The case of artist Freselam is a perfect example.  How does the son of two Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front veterans, and himself a military serviceman, and a winner of Eritrea’s version of American Idol, get so radicalized that he considers Ethiopia a safer home than the country of his birth? How and why did his country fail him?

64. The case of the children of Petros Solomon and Aster Yohannes (both EPLF veterans, both disappeared in Eritrea’s prisons) are other examples: they (and their grandmother, and the brother of Haile” Derue” Woldensaie and me) were pictured with the Special Rapporteur and the caption under the picture read that all pictured were advocates of regime change.  When and where did the elderly mother of Aster Yohannes and when and where did her young children advocate regime change?  Is even asking about the whereabouts of your disappeared parents an advocacy for regime change?

65.  The fact is that when Isaias Afwerki ordered the arrest of the G-15, he also ordered his own arrest.  They are held incommunicado, some living, some dead. He, meanwhile, is a pariah, feared by his own citizens, hated by the continent.  Since he knows that a free and fair jury system will find him guilty of massive crimes against the People of Eritrea, he only has two choices: to have faith in the kindness of people and their unbound capacity for forgiveness or to assume that the people are as vindictive as he is.  He believes the latter and, for as long as he is the president of Eritrea, the country will, like a pin-ball, be bouncing from one disaster to another. But it will be making happy clown music the whole way down the precipice.


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