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CECCO Submission to the COI on Human Rights in Eritrea (“COI” or “commission”)

Commission of Inquiry

Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations Submission to the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (“COI” or “commission”)


The Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations (“CECCO”) is a national body that represents the interests of seven Eritrean community associations in Canada. We serve over 30,000 Eritreans who reside in cities across the country. Since 2013, CECCO has researched and written extensively on the current situation in Eritrea. In 2014, we were invited to lend our expertise before the Canadian Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.

Upholding human rights is a challenge faced by all member states of the UN and to date no country to our knowledge, including Canada, has succeeded in fully honouring its international obligations as set out in the various conventions and treaties it has signed. For that reason, we view the practice of specific-nation inquiries like this one with a healthy dose of scepticism. The way forward in the international pursuit of human rights ought to be through encouragement and mutual criticism instead of finger-wagging or naming-and-shaming developing nations.

There are two ironies that exist within the commission’s method of work, and in a sense, will be the lasting legacy when future generations look back on its place in Eritrean history. The first part is its refusal to seek out Eritreans in the Diaspora whose testimonies might contradict the hypothesis of widespread human rights violations in Eritrea. The commission identified the Eritrean government’s lack of engagement as a ‘significant investigative challenge’, yet it probably did not appreciate the irony of its words—totally shutting out groups like ours from the fact-finding process in favour of seeking out and assigning weight to evidence that confirmed the existence of human rights violations.

That is the first part of the COI’s legacy, and that is what Eritreans will remember it for.

 The second part will be its misuse of anonymous interviews to determine the existence of widespread human rights violations. Ordinarily, results from a study in which nearly all of the queried testimonies were anonymous would be considered with great suspicion. Moreover, without direct access to Eritrea or the use of reliable statistical data, the COI has failed to provide the world with accurate information necessary to fulfill its own mandate under HRC resolution 26/24. In this case however, the findings of the report are being treated as both known and proven. They are being used not only to castigate Eritrea but also to propose criminal prosecution before the ICC. Our communities, on the other hand, engaged in open public discussions with refugees and provided verifiable testimonies. We did this because we wanted a transparent way of gathering evidence worthy of presenting to the international community. It should be recognized that anonymous interviews are personal in nature. When properly recounted, they may shed light on the existence of abuses in particular circumstance, but they can never prove systematic and widespread violations. Anecdotal evidence does not constitute evidence that is substantive enough to make positive inferences about widespread human rights violations. When dealing with widespread systemic abuses, one should investigate using reliable data, including statistical information, in such areas as demographics, development, the economy and the legal system.

Nevertheless, we scrutinized the hundreds of pages of evidence in the commission’s report and found serious incongruities between the findings and the reality on the ground, as observed by members of our communities who travel back and forth to Eritrea in growing numbers each year. On the issue of human rights violations, we found that this is not a country with severe abuses in terms of the physical integrity of persons. For young Eritreans, the economic challenges in the country as well as the fatigue from prolonged military service due to Ethiopia’s continued occupation of sovereign Eritrean territory may have contributed to them leaving in favour of resource-rich countries with welcoming asylum policies like the U.S and EU members states. In a recent report issued by the British Home Office, it was determined that defectors from the Eritrean army did not, in fact, face life-threatening danger in Eritrea and would be inadmissible for refugee status in other countries. The report also claims that those who leave the country illegally were not at risk upon return to their homeland provided they pay the 2% Reconstruction and Rehabilitation tax. On the issue of military service, we believe that resolving the long-standing occupation of Eritrea`s sovereign territory by Ethiopia, in violation of international law, would have the effect of accelerating the demobilization of national service conscripts and curb the volume of individuals risking their lives to travel to other countries.

When thinking about human rights, we assessed the situation in Eritrea by taking into account a broad range of rights including: economic, social, civil, political, and cultural. Since Eritrea’s independence, we have witnessed a genuine attempt to increase social inclusion of parts of the population that had been severely excluded prior to 1991. When visiting the country, we also observed the increase in political participation mechanisms—such as locally based community councils. As Canadians we pride ourselves on our social democratic institutions such as our universal health care system. For that reason, we applaud the emphasis Eritrea has made to focus on certain social and economic rights—such as lowering infant mortality rates and eradicating poverty. In other areas Eritrea has made remarkable progress where other African countries have made relatively few.

Despite its successes, there are still challenges. These challenges are not unique to Eritrea and are shared by other developing countries that have to strengthen institutions and educate the public about their civil rights.

On the political side allegations have been made by the COI around freedom of expression and political rights, including legislative elections and other kinds of participation. The commission’s report does not examine at much length the context and circumstances surrounding some of these challenges beyond the prima facie breach of human rights. It doesn’t give much weight for example, to the role of US foreign policy in the Horn of Africa and the brutal war of attrition fought from 1998-2000 with Ethiopia and its resulting consequences. For more than decade after the war Ethiopia has continued its illegal occupation and the threats of military intervention. In wartime, nations face a paradox between national security and the protection of human rights. The commission however dismisses this argument when made by Eritrea, as both facile and an excuse for the implementation of ‘repressive practices’. Eritrea’s government knows that an indeterminate state of emergency is not sustainable, and that it must find newer ways of dealing with threats from countries and groups that endanger its sovereignty. We believe that resolving the long-standing occupation of Eritrea`s sovereign territory by Ethiopia would have the effect of accelerating the demobilization of national service conscripts and set Eritrean back on its original path of nation building and institutional development. Contrary to the COI, we believe a safe and secure Eritrea, free from undesired intervention, would provide a robustly democratic and prosperous country and contribute to a stable and peaceful Horn of Africa. In the midst of these challenges there is progress. Despite having a court system that is still developing the institutional capacity and human recourses necessary to oversee the effective administration of justice, we recently saw Eritrea take a positive step this year by revising its Civil and Penal Codes.

The methodology and standard of proof adopted by the commission were also of concern to us. In its report the commission stated that, “the adopted standard of proof does not imply that on the basis of the information gathered, such conclusions should be the only reasonable one.” In light of our work with refugees here in Canada and our experience travelling back and forth to Eritrea, we believe that all reasonable conclusions about the evolving human rights situation in Eritrea ought to have been considered and applied under a higher threshold than the “reasonable grounds to believe” standard of proof of the COI methodology which draws conclusions relating to only one particular set of reported incidents.

The manner of selecting interviewees to study human rights in Eritrea also raises questions about the impartiality and objectivity of the COI report. The reliance on vulnerable asylum seekers in most of these studies and is one such example. We know first-hand from working with refugees that the relatively welcoming asylum policies of resource-rich countries like U.S and EU member states are an important factor in the exodus of Eritrean youth from their native homeland. The exodus is driven not only by economic aspirations of the youth but also by their discontent with the length of their individual military service and easy access to criminal smuggling networks. That said, the high threshold for becoming a convention refugee in these countries require Eritreans to demonstrate an objective unwillingness to return to their homeland because of a well-founded fear of persecution. The asylum-seekers are therefore aware of what journalists and immigration officers want to hear in order to improve their chances of receiving asylum. Encouraging them to participate in a study on human rights abuses that could have a material impact on their future asylum aspirations places them in a morally untenable position and pressures them to overemphasize the persecutory and tragic accounts of their lives in Eritrea. Given its continued hostility and the public campaign to destabilize the government in Asmara, we also express our concerns with the commission’s decision to conduct confidential interview with émigrés residing in refugee camps under the immediate supervision of the Ethiopian armed forces.

As community leaders and advocates we urge the Human Rights Committee to set aside the findings of the COI on the grounds that it lacks the necessary evidentiary merit to fulfill its own mandate. As ordinary Eritreans we also wish to express our frustration with what can only be described as a politically motivated investigation fuelled by a small but loud group that wish to deepen mistrust between Eritrea and the International community. Lastly, we ask that organizations like ours be given the opportunity to share our findings with you in the future as a sign of good faith and procedural fairness. We hope that this information and context can provide the foundation for a better understanding of Eritrea. As individuals who are deeply committed to the stable growth and development of human rights, we ask that you give our concern, and the concern of thousands of Eritreans around the world, your utmost attention.

Lambros Kyriakakos 
Coalition of Eritrean Canadian
Communities and Organizations 

January 15, 2016

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