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Critique of The Human Rights Commissions On Eritrea

Mrs. Sheila Keetharuth, the controversial UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea

Prepared for a Meeting at the House of Lords, United Kingdom1

On 18 June2015

By Asmarom Legesse, Ph.D. (Harvard)
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology

Boston & Northwestern Universities and Swarthmore College

Allow me to express my gratitude for giving me the opportunity to address members of this august body and to Lord Rea and Lord Avebury for their efforts and attempts to hold the meetings at the House of Lords and especially despite Lord Avebury’s grave illness. The first meeting that was scheduled was cancelled at short notice, due to the concerted effort of Baroness Kinnock and to the dismay of the Eritrean Diaspora. We remain however always deeply indebted to Lord Avebury for his sustained support over the years.

The Commission of Inquiry (COI) and the Mandate of the Special Rapporteur 

I preface my remarks by indicating that this paper is concerned with the research carried out by Sheila Keetharuth as the Special Rapporteur for the United Nations, pursuant to the mandate of the Human Rights Council, the research became the basis of the Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights in Eritrea. The two versions of the report are referred to as COIR, full version or abridged.

Under the heading of ―Mandate and Methodology‖, the mandate is defined as follows:

In compliance with resolution 26/24 the commission of inquiry investigated the human rights violations described by the Special Rapporteur in her reports, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and incommunicado detention, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, violations committed during compulsory national service, including those affecting children’s rights, and restrictions on the freedoms of expression and opinion, assembly, association and religious belief and movement.

The list of human rights violations that were included in the mandate are the result of prior research conducted by Keetharuth. The source of the said list, whether empirical or mandatory, is clearly focussed on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and takes no consideration of the extensive work of the Government of Eritrea in the area of Economic, Socialand Cultural Rights.

Judging from specific manner that Keetharuth carried out her mandate, it is clear that she framed her role not as an investigator, indicated in the mandate, but an advocate, indeed not even as an advocate but as a prosecutor, whose single-minded and sole purpose was to gather evidence that would incriminate the Government of Eritrea. There is no indication that she cared about justice, or fairness, particularly in regard to the underlying conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea which is at the deepest root of what she is investigating. Keetharuth does not purport to have conducted an objective study for the simple reason that there are no pros and cons in the inquiry or in the resulting analysis. If there are any pros in her presentation they are oblique and dismissive references that completely belittle Eritrea’s achievements concerning Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Millennium Development Goals, two important UN documents regarding fundamental human rights that are largely ignored by Ms. Keetharuth. De jure, her role was defined as an ―investigator‖ a role which requires some objectivity and impartiality. De facto, her role is that of a ―prosecutor‖ a role which does not require that the work be impartial, no obligation to reconcile divergent but potentially complementary perspectives reflected in human rights treaties. If the Special Rapporteur’s role is indeed that of prosecutor, the accused would then be presumed innocent until proven guilty and would be entitled to have ample opportunity for defence. At an early stage of her research, Ms Keetharuth welcomed Eritrean scholars and academics to a breakfast meeting held in New York City. From that meeting we came to the realization that she was convinced of Eritrea’s guilt and we assumed that the rest of her work would be devoted to buttressing that preconceived premise. That turned out to be an accurate assumption.

At the end of the project, in closing the period of its mandate, the Commission conductedits televised meetings as if it were a court, with a powerful prosecution team in place but no defence team anywhere. At the end of the long sessions Eritrea—the ―country concerned‖—was given very limited time to respond, an opportunity which was not commensurate with the time allotted to the prosecutors. That cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be construed as fulfilling the requirement of due process of law and the right to defence. We believe however that her mandate, as presented at the start of the document, was to investigate, not to prosecute, in which case the issue of impartiality becomes critical.

The aspect of the study that needs to be verified is the evidence the Special Rapporteur obtained from asylum seeking refugees. It does not seem that established asylees were as important a part of her study. In any case, she provides no statistics on the ratio of these two critical populations. As a result, it is not possible to determine the extent to which the sample was skewed in favour of asylum

Keetharuth avoided contact with the mainstream Eritrean communities around the world. Most of these communities have branches of the National Union of Eritrean Women 2, an association, founded in 1979, which fought for women’s rights in Eritrea for decades and continues to do so today. Keetharuth makes numerous allegations about the status of women in Eritrea without ever approaching or observing any of the tens of thousands members of the National Union of Eritrean Women in the Diaspora. At the same time, Keetharuth and the COI have collaborated with or gathered testimony from an Eritrean opposition group, based in Pretoria, South Africa, funded by US agencies. They provided Keetharuth with lists of informants. This is a subversive group unabashedly devoted to bringing about regime change in Eritrea and to destabilize the Eritrean Government by launching a well-crafted campaign of disinformation. Why then is she disappointed that she was not ―invited‖ to the country.

Keetharuth has systematically searched for evidence that can help her to incriminate the Government of Eritrea. At the same time she ignored all evidence concerning the Government’s effort to realize the people’s right to food security, universal primary education for boys and girls, universal healthcare in nationwide hospitals and clinics, universal vaccination programs for children that have greatly reduced child mortality rates. Numerous dams and micro dams were built and water resources and water closets were provided in most villages. These facilities contributed greatly to the hygienic standards of the population and the prevention of water-borne diseases. Furthermore irrigation and drip-irrigation projects using water drawn from wells or captured in dams allowed communities to continue agricultural production in spite of the inevitable periods of droughts.Huge silos were built that can store grains to be used in lean years. The achievements of Eritrea include great effort made toward the eradication of poverty, in contrast to nations that are devoted to unrestrained capitalism, where the disparity between extreme wealth and extreme poverty has reached obscene levels, and inflation puts basic commodities beyond the reach of the poor, while their wages remain stagnant. All the rights described here, are given top priority in Eritrea, and are enshrined in the Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. What is proclaimed in this convention is the most basic of all human rights, i.e. the right to life, livelihood and health. These and other achievements are the reason why Eritrea is expected to be one of the first African countries destined to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. The country did not register such achievements by persecuting and terrorizing its citizens, as the country is claimed to have done in the COI report—a document filled with hyperbolic language.

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