Eritrea: Commission of Inquiry as a Justice Tool for a Terrorized population with a Muffled voice


This brief report outlines the response of the campaign group- Stop Slavery in Eritrea to the recent report of the UN Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in Eritrea. The campaign group is made up of former national service recruits and has been working to highlight the abusive and indefinite nature of the National Service in Eritrea.

Brief Summary of the COIE Findings

The Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea was established in June 2014 to investigate further human rights violations, which were outlined in the reports of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea in the preceding years. The work of the Special Rapporteur provided an overview of the most serious human rights concerns in Eritrea, including cases of extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, inhumane prison conditions, indefinite national service, and lack of freedom of expression and opinion, assembly, association, religious belief and movement.

After presenting its first report and alleging that crimes against humanity may have been committed in Eritrea, the mandate of the COIE was extended for a further year to investigate human rights violations in Eritrea, including where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity, with a view to ensuring accountability.

On June 8, 2016, after two years of investigation and testimonies from one thousand Eritreans[1], the commission concluded that crimes against humanity have been committed in detention facilities, military facilities and other locations inside Eritrea since 1991. The catalogue of crimes include: enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, persecution, rape, murder, torture, and other inhumane acts.

Amongst others, the report cites extrajudicial mass executions carried out by the PFDJ against disabled veterans in 1994, against Muslim members in 1997, against conscripts in Adi Abeito Prison in 2004, and killings in Wia military training camp in 2005.

The report also says that between 300,000 to 400,000 Eritreans may have been enslaved in the Government’s indefinite national/military service programs, under harsh working conditions, a general climate of fear and vulnerability to being abused by military commanders, resulting in the deprivation of their physical and mental liberty.

In addition the report notes targeted persecution by the government in various occasions against the Kunama and Afar ethnic groups, as well as religious groups; the Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Pentecostals, all subject to such persecution. Moreover, the report found that rape has been committed in a systematic way both against men and women in detention facilities and military camps, with the perpetrators of these crimes exploiting the abusive environment and through force as well as the threat of it.

According to the report, these crimes have been committed in a persistent, widespread and systematic manner, as part of the government’s policy to instil fear and maintain control over the civilian population; with the view to ensuring the continuity of the ruling party- PFDJ’s- grip on power. The PFDJ, the National Security Agency, and Commanding officers have been identified by the commission as entities bearing responsibility for the crimes against humanity.

Crucially, the report identified that the crimes against humanity have been committed in the context of the absence of independent judiciary, national assembly, and other democratic institutions; creating a context of lawlessness and an associated culture of impunity that enabled undeterred perpetration of the crimes. Subsequently, there cannot be realistic hope that the judicial system in Eritrea may bring the perpetrators of these crimes to face justice in a fair and transparent manner.

Criticisms of the COI Findings

Criticisms of the COIE have mainly focused on its methodology, in particular its alleged efforts on gathering information from asylum seekers and refugees in vulnerable conditions, and its failure to consider testimonies from “pro-government” diaspora Eritreans, as well as consult with experts and journalists who have travelled to and reported on the country. 

Below, we will outline our response of these criticisms from our perspectives as former conscripts of the national service and victims who followed the COI work closely.


Due to refusal by the government of Eritrea to cooperate with and provide access to the Commission, the COIE was forced to rely on interviewing witnesses in third countries to gather first-hand information on the human rights situation in Eritrea.  Many detractors point to the fact that the witnesses were self-selected and that they were predominantly refugees and asylum seekers, who have the incentive due to their asylum needs, to provide exaggerated information of their experiences while in Eritrea.

Self-selection is inherently unavoidable, if not desirable, in such inquiries where the objective is to determine if human rights violations are being committed. This objective would necessitate the gathering of direct information from people who say they have been directly or indirectly victimized. If one is not a direct or indirect victim, one’s testimony does not carry as much weight as there is no information one can provide which would be relevant to the purposes of the investigating human rights violations.

The second part of this criticism that could be construed to relate to disproportionality of focus on refugees and asylum seekers actually lacks any basis. The COIE speaks of crimes committed since 1991, and one would expect its temporal focus to naturally dictate it to have an appropriate spread of witnesses across this period of focus, and this has actually been noted by the COI. Should it fail to do this, it would amount to failure of professional and competency. However, there is nothing in the report to suggest this has been the case, infact it can be safely concluded that the situation was quite to the contrary.

We believe that inquiries into human rights violations, which pretend to apply methodologies developed for academic research should be criticized and condemned inadequate. This is based on our conviction that states and other political organizations who are subjected to such inquiries have the capacity to mobilize, through coercion, threats of reprisals or other means of pressure as well as counter-testimonies to directly contradict genuine information provided by victims. Moreover, academic research methodology may be rendered particularly skewed in cases where state-led efforts at discrediting such inquiries may result in the submission of thousands of letters with the view to providing ‘dominant evidence’ through the sheer number of signatories. How can an investigation against alleged human rights violations guard against basing its findings on testimonies provided by such alleged perpetrator-led campaigns, especially where the alleged perpetrator is known to rule through instilling fear and terror on the civilian population and where any form of dissent or alternative opinion to that of the government could lead to years in detention and possibly disappearance?  The point is, a degree of bias must be involved, and the bias ought to, justly, be the prioritization of victim testimonies, and the provision of a secure environment for the victims to speak freely.

True to its nature, the Eritrean Government did mobilize orchestrated campaigns against the COIE’s first report, and to influence its subsequent investigations. This campaign was a highly organized effort that resulted in the submission of more than 42,000 letters to the COI. Unsurprisingly, the letters not only lacked variance in content, but also only generically refuted the information, which was provided by victims. Indeed, an analysis of the recurrent key words and phrases contained in the submissions stands out for the striking lack of specificity, substance and any information that directly counter the evidence provided by the victim testimonies. The key themes in the submissions included (with our rebuttals):

  1. Not visiting Eritrea, but instead interviewing Eritreans in the hostile neighbours of Ethiopia and Djibouti

    (Note: the Commission did not conduct interviews in Djibouti, as the country had not given access to the COI, and that the commission interviewed Eritreans in 13 countries across the world, not just Ethiopia.)
  2. Illegal UN Sanctions- (irrelevant to the mandate of the COIE)
  3. Historical injustices by the UN against Eritrea and the COI being part of the UN and international hostility toward Eritrea

    That there is a historical injustice, is a fair point, and one that the average Eritrean would agree with. However, this is irrelevant to the COI. The COI is not about the historical relations between the UN and Eritrea. It is not a UN body. Rather it is a fact-finding mechanism set up by the Human Rights Council, building on the documentation of gross human rights violations by the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea in the preceding years. Moreover, the establishment of the COI was a response to a decade, if not more, long calls by Eritrean human rights activists for the international community to investigate human rights violations in Eritrea and hold perpetrators to account.
  4. The interviewees were mostly asylum seekers and refugees who had to provide an exaggerated version of their stories or fabricate stories.

    More on this has already been said above, but a few more additions are due. The COIE does not have the mandate to select victims. The COIE does not assist asylum seekers in any way in their asylum requests. It has no capacity to influence in anyway their processes and the decisions of authorities to grant requests for asylum or otherwise.  The witnesses were all people who voluntarily came forward to provide their testimonies and be heard.
  5. That there is no rape, and rape is not a culture in Eritrea –

    This stance has actually been deliberately Sensationalized, The COIE rather found rape in the context of detention facilities, military camps and by military commanders over women who serve as their domestic servants.
  6. Non implementation of the border decision and Continuous threat from Ethiopia – 

    Eritrea indeed has been a subject of international injustice, not least in the failure of the international community to ensure the implementation of the decisions of the EEBC. However, this is a separate matter and could not reasonably absolve the government of its responsibility to protect the rights of Eritreans. 
  7. There is no shoot-to-kill policy – (generic refutation, and not substantiated by direct or indirect experience)
  8. Free education and health care – (irrelevant information to the purpose of the investigation)
  9. Eritreans leaving the country for economic reasons 

    Poor countries neighbour Eritrea, yet, there is no similar exodus of the youth from these countries, which share Eritrea’s economic depravity and are also not in a state of armed conflict. The fact that many Eritreans state the indefinite national service and the severe human rights conditions as the main reason they fled the country also attests to the peculiar nature of the Eritrean case.
  10. I have a relative, friend who is a member of national service…(indirect source of knowledge, circumstantial)
  11. I visit Eritrea regularly (see above)
  12. I was born and raised in ……….(diaspora) (see above )

    The information provided in the submissions failed in the two most important principles of evidence used in investigations: relevance (where evidence “tends to prove, or disprove, a fact in issue.”), and weight (source of witness’ knowledge; direct evidence- that is evidence that tends to prove a fact directly v circumstantial evidence, that is evidence that tends to prove a fact inferentially).

On the former, should anyone be naïve enough to think such testimonies as the aforementioned counter information provided by direct or indirect victims, it may be worthwhile to think about the following scenario. If a testimony from a victim said, one was arrested and detained without charges, without access to legal assistance or going through trial proceedings, and if one said they were tortured in detention; the counter-testimony ought to directly contradict this evidence rather than in such generic statements as ‘these things do not happen’ or ‘arbitrary detention and torture do not happen to those who commit crimes’. This is more so, where detention facilities are named and the crimes that occur in them recorded, the counter-evidence ought to directly negate the information and their accuracy. But, there was hardly any such information provided in the campaign submissions. Rather, refutations of the testimonies’ of victims are made in irrational terms, either by questioning the identity or motives of the victim witnesses, or by painting a rosy picture of Eritrea experienced during casual holiday visits, or by invoking the socio-economic and cultural progress Eritrea has achieved in the past quarter of a century.

On the latter, i.e., weight- there is an important point to note here, one that may not be apparent to the external observer: those who fervently criticized the COIE’s first report are predominantly ‘Eritreans who had left the country before or immediately after 1991’, as noted by the COIE. This is an interesting, if unsurprising, finding, and one that serves to illustrate the chasm in vantage points between those who support the COIE report and those who don’t. To illustrate this chasm one simply needs to look at the variables of average years of stay in independent Eritrea and participation in Military/National Service and contrast the results with the opinions on the COIE report. More pointedly, the “evidence” in the ‘counter’ submissions were not based on personal or direct experiences of the issues being refuted. Meaning, they were at best circumstantial and at worst irrelevant. Furthermore, The significant number of fake signatories in the submissions, as well as the apparent involvement of the government in organizing the campaigns, as illustrated by the striking thematic similarity, jeopardizes the credibility of the information in the letters.

The commission’s findings have exposed an Eritrea where, behind the walls of detention facilities, in military centres and other locations, there is a persistent, systematic and widespread violation of human rights. The picture of Eritrea that the pro-government testimonies and the few external observers, including the journalists who after limited access to Asmara report, somewhat fondly, portrays a depiction of  Eritrea that can also be somewhat recognisable. Yes, there is an appearance of normalcy, order and calm. Asmara is beautiful and calm, its people peaceful and welcoming. And the same can be said of Keren, Massawa, Agordat, Barentu, Tessenei, Mendefera, Dekemhare, Adi Quala, and Senaafe, but this is merely the façade behind which a regime of constant surveillance, terror and totalitarianism reigns.  And, paradoxically the two versions are not mutually exclusive, and that is what makes the Eritrean issue peculiar to the external observer.

Is ‘crimes against humanity’ exaggerated?

Some detractors have attempted to situate the human rights violations in Eritrea in the overall context of the volatility of the Horn of Africa Region, and the persistence of human rights violations in all countries in the region. The same detractors have also pointed to the fact that similar, if not worse, human rights violations have been perpetrated in the South Sudan and Ethiopia. This is admittedly a fair point. The former will have its own commission of inquiry soon. The case of the latter may well indicate a blatant international political bias in favour of the government in Ethiopia, according to some opinions. This is also a fair point too.

Firstly, what makes the situation in Eritrea so peculiar is the absence of any semblance of rule of law, and the fact that this vacuum, and the culture of impunity it has engendered, has enabled the perpetration of severe human rights violations. The government has taken consciously drastic measures at supressing dissent, and has deliberately avoided or eschewed all steps that would have contributed to the nurturing of democratic institutions inside Eritrea. A superficial look at key events that occurred from 1991 onward points to the PFDJ’s systematic efforts to securing its grip on power through suppression and political violence.

The Mai Habar massacre of disabled veterans (1994), the arrest and enforced disappearance of Muslim teachers (1997), the indefinite detention of the Jehovah’s Witness (1990s), the closure of Pentecostal churches and arbitrary detention of their leaders (2002), the arbitrary arrest and detention of members of the Eritrean Parliament (the G-15) and of journalists (2001), the brutal crackdown against protests by University of Asmara Students followed by their detention in Wia, reprisals against the family members of defecting officials, of which the case of Ali Abdu’s daughter is well-known (Ciham Ali Abdu was detained at the age of 15 following her father’s, the former minister of information, defection) the prevalence of minders and the general climate of fear, the list goes on.

The most obvious way in which the PFDJ has violated the basic freedoms of physical and mental liberty of the Eritrean youth is the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of young people forcefully recruited to the national service. These gross violations have been accompanied by a series of political decisions by the president taken with the sole purpose of concentrating power at the hands of his executive branch and its small, inner circle of military and political commanders. The official government institutions and their ministers have been hollowed out, with the rationale for their superficial existence merely to serve as a bureaucratic façade and to maintain a semblance of modern state. Military commanders run parallel and above civilian regional governors and ministers, controlling key state apparatus including activities and areas of economic value and prisons. In addition to these, is the dissolution of the national assembly after 2002 and the fact that no national assembly has convened since that year. If these hard facts and the contexts in which they occur do not show patterns good enough to demonstrate the perpetration of human rights violations as a matter of policy, nothing ever will.

It is this context, along with the purposive nature of these violations- to instil fear in and assert and maintain control over the civilian population- that makes the Eritrean case stand out. There are no valid grounds to confine a significant proportion of the country’s youth to endless manual labour while depriving them of their physical and mental liberty. There is no valid reason to arbitrarily arrest and detain members of parliament and independent journalists without access to fair and transparent trials. There is no justifiable reason to expose the families of those who are detained and/or disappeared to reprisals and other measures designed to instil terror in them and deprive them of the protection of the law.

It is important to understand that the Eritrean government had consistently refuted appeals from the international community to engage with international human rights mechanisms and improve the situation in the country.  Since her appointment in 2012, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, presented successive reports documenting serious human rights violations in Eritrea. The response of the Eritrean government to the allegations outlined in the Special Rapporteur reports and similar reports by other NGOs was to simply rebuff them as fabrications and lies. The government refused to even acknowledge, let alone engage with, the Special Rapporteur. And, despite the government’s claim of cooperating with the ‘ordinary’ UPR and treaty body mechanisms, there had been no improvements on human rights in the country. The reports of the COI were similarly rejected by the government as being based on “potentially fallacious testimonies” and as “yet another instrument in the tool box of harassment that Eritrea’s arch-enemies have woven.”[2]

Given the repeated denials of facts in the reports, and Eritrea’s defiance of international laws and obligation, as a state, to protecting the human rights of its civilian population, ensuring accountability through international mechanism has become the only recourse. On the recommendation by the COIE of referral to the ICC, it should be taken into consideration that from our perspectives, the essence here is to ensure accountability for the violations taking place by ending the culture of impunity and consequently improving respect for human rights in Eritrea.

In conclusion we would briefly like to discuss the recent attempts by credible international media, notably, the BBC[3], to downplay the severity of the crimes identified in the COI report. We do this to show the danger of that approach and our concerns thereof.

Recently, few journalists, following the obtaining of a rare access to film inside Eritrea, have been calling for a fresh look into the country, suggesting the situation in Eritrea may be more complex than that outlined by ‘both sides of the divide.’ Despite their appeal to certain quarters such calls are naïve and misguided. These journalists make the said claims not having visited places beyond Asmara and the bigger cities, or the many detention facilities and military camps. What these journalists, who may be awed by the splendour of Asmara, and misguided by the purged testimonies of people living inside Asmara who live under constant surveillance and minder intrusion, is ignoring a crucial fact of the commission’s findings- that crimes against humanity of the kind described in the report do not happen in the streets of Asmara, but behind the walls of detention facilities and military training centres.

To us, average Eritreans, the findings in the commission of inquiry are not surprising.  Rather the findings affirm what we have already experienced and known all along. Wia, Sawa, Mietir, Kur Menae, Under Tessenei, Adi Abeito, Hashferay, Alla, Karsheli- these are not names we merely read or saw in the COIE report. They are places where we cried in despair. They are places where we fought against hope. They are the symbols of the systematic injustices by the PFDJ where many of us, our friends, relatives and family members have on different occasions suffered. They are not about a politically motivated vilification and marginalization of Eritrea. Rather, they are about finally offering a long overdue hearing to the cries for justice of the ordinary Eritrean victim.

[1] Interview with 833 Eritreans and 160 written submissions

[3] Has Eritrea's migration problem been exaggerated?, available here