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Eritrea: Human Rights - Legitimizing Assault

Mike Smith (right), Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, with Eritrean regime-change activist Elsa Chyrum

Simon Weldemichael

Throughout history, human rights have become an effective apparatus of power within the international arena. International organizations that govern the international system work to advance the interests of a handful of powerful countries. They hold attractive banners aloft but in reality they execute ulterior goals and objectives. Concepts and terms such as human rights, the raising of living standards, freedom, liberalization and democracy are often used interchangeably to legitimize actions amongst the general populace. These catchphrases shield the true objectives and prerogatives of powerful, manipulative states from the masses.

The Commission of Inquiry (COI) accused Eritrea for violating human rights short after the country had celebrated its Silver Jubilee independence day. Eritrea paid a heavy sacrifice for her dignity and liberty. In Eritrea human rights are not a political card to be played, but a heroic goal to accomplish, and the country’s understanding of human rights is holistic one that includes cultural, social, economic and political rights.

Putting aside the theories of human nature, one can simply understand human rights as rights that one has essentially because one is human. They are universal rights held by all human beings. Although in practice not all people enjoy their human rights but they do hold them equally and inalienably. What precisely does it mean to have a right?

Simply, it can be understood as holding a correct opinion about somebody or something, proper, or being correct with regard to use, function, or operation. Alternatively, it also involves “the right thing to do.” As well, it can extend to the idea of entitlement and a substantial consideration on part of the righteousness of the required action and on the commitment to do what is right. In this sense, does the COI do what is right to the people of Eritrea? If the COI has the right to oversee human rights condition in Eritrea, then it also has an obligation to do what is right. In this regard, the COI itself infringes upon the basic principles of human rights for not doing the right and just action in its behavior towards Eritrea.

The allegations are all grave and serious. However, while the COI presents a series of allegations, its troubling research methodology cannot be overlooked. The COI, allegedly focused on ensuring credibility and reliability, based its work on a sample of 500 individuals from 16 countries, while ignoring the calls, appeals, and testimonies of tens of thousands. A legitimate question to ask is, can it be possible to reveal the truth by focusing on only 500 nameless individuals potentially compromised by asylum procedures in Europe? How can “the power of 500” stifle the perspective of millions residing inside Eritrea or across the Diaspora? Did the COI do its job out of genuine will, hoping to promote a better life for Eritreans?

During the active war period, Eritreans in their thousands stormed the streets of European capitals calling to stop and condemn Ethiopian invasion. Years later, when the UNSC passed unjust sanctions against Eritrea, thousands more demonstrated in protest and objection. Eritrean communities around the world have developed the habit of conducting festivals to show their emotional ties and support to the people and government at home. Despite all these clear, inarguable facts, the COI ignored the basics and rushed to a conclusion. This is nothing but additional proof that international institutions, at the mercy of powerful states, often only hear and see what they want to.

Recently, many foreign correspondents and tourists witnessed and experienced the true nature of Eritrea. A normal country, full of hard-working people striving to improve their lives and make positive changes. Unable to recognize this, the COI shamelessly resorted to alleging that Women were being raped on every Eritrean street corner and by saying, “It is important to note, however, that the types of gross human rights violations in Eritrea documented by the commission in its first report are not committed on the streets of Asmara.”[1]

The report mentioned women’s lowly position in Eritrea through out its pages. When I read it, I instantly considered what thousands of proud, empowered, intelligent, admirable Eritrean girls would say or feel about the preposterous claims. For example, the report goes on to say, highly contrary to the Eritrean reality, values and norms, that “Girls continue to be removed from school and/or forced into marriages arranged by their families in order for them to avoid the harsh conditions and the possibility of sexual abuse in national service training centers.”[2]

However, this statement is erroneous. I feel proud to witness the existing reality for Eritrean women based on empirical fact. Here, at the national College of Arts and Social Sciences where I am currently working, the percentage of female students enrolled at the 2nd to 4th year level is 48.54%. Moreover, all of these females completed their studies at SAWA, with the claims of sexual abuse or forced marriage being baseless and far from the truth. Anyone who is interested in truth and fact is invited to discover the alleged physical and emotional scars if any among the proud and confident female students of the campus.

Additionally, gender equality related polices of Eritrea can also give assistance in understanding women’s position in the country. For easier understanding, consider the following table,[3]

National gender policies related to International instruments
The National Democratic Program of Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in its article of
4B on Women’s rights clearly stipulated
The Constitution of the NUEW in its objectives states that it will work for the empowerment of
women’s equality and in particular fight to stop harmful traditional practices
GSE Proclamation No.1 on Civil Law
Proclamation No. 58 on Land Tenure
Eritrea after formally becoming independent and joining the UN in 1994, immediately ratified CEDAW in 1995, as it concurs with its basic principles of social justice and equality
The Constitution of Eritrea commits to social equality and article 21 states that every citizen has
the right of equal access to publicly funded social services, such as health and education
The Eritrean Gender Policy and National Gender Action Plan have been consistent in harmonizing it with the CEDAW and Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action
Proclamation to Abolish Female Circumcision, 158/2007 of GSE, in its preamble state that FGM is a violation of women’s basic human rights

These illustrate how gender equality is a foundational component of the country’s pursuits and efforts. As well, Eritrea performed admirably on several of the UN MDGs which are concerned with promoting gender equality and empowering women (e.g. the ratio of girls to boys in primary, secondary and tertiary education, the proportion of seats held by women in the government, maternal mortality, etc.). These results and efforts speak for themselves and should not be casually dismissed.

If the COI, composed of a three-person panel (i.e. Mike Smith, Victor Dankwa, and Sheila B. Keetharuth) and introduced as a non-remunerated, independent and expert panel, were genuinely focused on rights, should it not also extend its mandate to include the USA for its grave atrocities committed around the world, for its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and its systematic practice of torture in black-sites and dungeons? Or what about considering Ethiopia, which continues to occupy sovereign Eritrean territory and has been slaughtering thousands of its citizens?

A careful look at history reveals that the rhetoric and reality of the western world with their ample institutions have been diametrically opposite. In 1948, George Kennan, a prominent member of the US administration stated that “The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans [such as human rights], the better.”[4]  Fighting against terrorism, democratization, and human rights are being in used within the western doctrinal system to legitimate assaults. The western world, in the name of human rights, intends to control countries that seek to follow an independent path. Noam Chomsky, the celebrated scholar and esteemed public intellectual who has long critiqued the unjust policies of global powers, such as the US, reveals the facts behind external meddling and intervention,

Preservation of the fifth freedom [freedom to rob & exploit] quite regularly requires measures that tend to harm human rights and living standards, and with meaningful steps towards democracy, governments will tend to be more responsive to domestic needs, thus threatening our control of the human and material resources that must be at our command if we are to “maintain the disparity.”[5]

The historical record (e.g. during the Cold War and quite intensively after 1991) shows with great precision that, only when the fifth and fundamental freedom is threatened does the west get roused. Eritrea, despite the many challenges faced, has refused to kneel down and bestow its material resources to benefit foreign corporations. Self-reliance and confidence are the two real intolerable threats conceived by western world that require immediate action.

However, these are the colonizers that for centuries have hijacked and disregarded our human rights, turning human beings into commodities to be sold and exchanged. These are those that have swum in a sea of blood, dancing with the cries, yelling and distress of the wounded. These are the ones that caused the long and arduous struggle that cost more than 85 thousand lives. These are the ones that cheered at the federation and annexation of Eritrea to Ethiopia for their own interest.

As Eritreans, we do have many problems that need immediate attention and appropriate solutions. Equally however, one should not forget that external interventions often solve nothing, and instead aggravate and worsen predicaments. Simply, we are the only people to solve our problems. As Atobrhan Segid said:

‘aslamay kstanay wedi qola dega
mkri nay xela’e aythabo waga’

Foreign prescriptions often don’t provide medicine; rather, they may sow destruction. Our problems must be acknowledged and dealt with by us, working and struggling in unity. We don’t have a perfect society or institutions, but it’s our responsibility, not external politically motivated actors, to shape, mould, and strengthen them.

1. Human rights counsel, advanced edited version 9 may 2016 p.5
2. Ibid p9
4. Chomsky 1985: 48
5. Ibid page 50

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