Human rights as a political tool: Eritrea and the ‘crimes against humanity’ narrative

For those who follow the politics of Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, the verdict of the second report by the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI), that Eritrea has indeed committed crimes against humanity in a widespread and systematic way, was a foregone conclusion. The COI, established by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in June 2014, presented its first Report in June 2015 and received a revised HRC mandate until June 2016 in order to further investigate violations of human rights in Eritrea, including where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.

The verdict was announced, or maybe staged is the better way of describing the process, at a press conference held on 8 June in Geneva, followed by a press conference from the Permanent Mission of the State of Eritrea at the same location challenging its findings. I have no intention to enter the acrimonious debate that followed via social media on who can prove or disprove which findings – even though in order to make such a grave accusation and demand the referral of Eritrea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), one would expect a comprehensive investigation, and not an in essence one-sided document whose authors did not include experts who do not share their views.

A few words about the methodology of the report as a whole seem in order here: While not allowed access to Eritrea itself, the report is predominately based on interviewees with self-nominated participants in the diaspora. Their testimony is indeed disturbing and at times heart breaking. But it remains the testimony of a number of individuals, the main core made up of 550 witness statements. They in different ways left Eritrea, often experiencing abuse on their journeys, and have learned to navigate international refugee law and asylum systems. This does not make their testimonies wrong, but would call for a nuanced understanding or interpretation in any social science discipline. Human rights advocacy might not be social science, but one would at least expect inconsistencies to be followed up. A prime example of those has travelled the internet widely, when a representative of Canadian mining company Nevsun, accused in the 2015 COI report to use slave labour to dig underground tunnels at Bisha mine in Eritrea, made the point that Bisha is in fact an open-pit mine.

For the new report, a high number of other self-nominated Eritreans came forward in order to contest the first report’s findings. The authors refused to engage with those and partly explained it by the fact that they had been actively recruited by the Eritrean government who also put pressure on some to give this testimony. This may be the case, and maybe actually interviewing some of them would have provided more clarity. It may equally be the case that some of those whose testimony made it into the report were recruited by human rights activists who have their own means of advocacy and persistence, and for example hire public lobbying companies in order to spread their narrative of Eritrea (I was for a while bombarded by emails from such a company with sensational news until I contacted them and asked to be removed from their list). One can also make the case that an inquiry into human rights abuses has no obligation to consult those who reject that such violations are taking place. Fair point.

What is harder to justify and exemplifies the flaws in the COI report is the fact that all additional experts that were consulted came from the spectrum of human rights advocates in a broad sense, and included hardly anybody with recent first-hand experience of Eritrea. Chairperson of the COI, Mike Smith, explained at the press conference that one did not see the torture and other violations when visiting Asmara. That is of course true, but many people exist who live, have lived or continue to visit Eritrea, have multiple connections within the country and could have contributed to the COI’s understanding. They were deliberately ignored, and the result is a document that describes a country many Eritreans do not recognise.

Perhaps most problematic in the COI report is the claim that those crimes against humanity were in fact committed since Eritrean independence in 1991. This claim brings, perhaps in unintended ways, the highly political character of this exercise premised on absolute prioritisation of human rights, regardless of history or context but in line with wider geopolitical agendas, clearly out into the open, as it shows complete disregard for (or ignorance of?) Eritrea’s post-liberation history.

In essence, the new report updates but adds little of substance to last year’s report, but in removing the ‘potential’ preceding the crimes against humanity dictum opens the door to refer Eritrea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the United Nations Security Council. In that, it has many similarities with the discourse around human rights violations and in that case ‘genocide’ in relation to Sudan and Darfur in particular. The eventual indictment of Sudanese president Bashir by the ICC and its aftermath should make one pause for a moment: Not only was the arrest warrant highly political, but more critically a sustained political solution to the various conflicts and fault lines in Sudan is as far away as ever.

As a side, the way the numbers game is being played in such performances is also quite interesting: In relation to Darfur, numbers were always contested and at the time of Bashir’s indictment the ‘fantastical’ claim of 5000 people dying every months was made and used as ‘proof’ for genocide. The figure 5000 has also made the rounds in relation to Eritrea in the claim that 5000 people per months are escaping the country – with little evidence of what time period we are talking about and how those exact figures can be obtained, other than through indirect means. Maybe 5000 has become a magic figure in relation to when to trigger a ‘crimes against humanity’ claim? In Eritrea this is now being supplemented by the widely repeated claim of 400.000 people being ‘enslaved’ in the country – and as some mud always sticks, the benchmark for substantiating that figure gets lower and lower.

COI chairperson Mike Smith had also indicated in his press conference that Eritreans would not cross borders freely, but under danger and often dependent on people smugglers. I have always advocated to give all Eritreans exit visas once they completed 18 months of national service, but even if that were the case, they would in all likelihood still employ people smugglers, as few (if any) European countries would give them entry visas thus they still needed to come as refugees. In contrast to citizens from a different African country, the Gambia, who top the list of those having entered Italy illegally this year, Eritreans are predominately given asylum and thus it pays to be Eritrean or rather pose as such. There are multiple reasons to leave Eritrea – or any other African country for that matter, and many reason why people actually return, including to Eritrea.

In an ideal world, everybody who has committed human rights abuses would be held to account eventually. Looking at the Horn of Africa as a region, grave human rights violations persist in all countries, and are committed by all sides, governments and opposition groups alike. The Horn is also a region where mutual interferences into each other’s affairs and proxy wars are an important part of foreign policy conduct. Eritrea itself has a long history of its own rights being violated by international bodies and the UN, not least in being denied independence – even if the Eritrean government uses past grievances too easily as an excuse for repressive policies.

A potential referral to the ICC, or the alternative suggestion to set up an African Union tribunal like the one that recently convicted former Chadian president Hissène Habré, would not only and unjustly continue a politics of ostracizing Eritrea. It would also do little to either release political prisoners or give them a fair trial, nor to stop the exodus out of Eritrea.

Mary Harper in a recent BBC report from within Eritrea sums it up nicely when she says it might be high time to look at the country afresh, and that Eritrean reality is far more complex than the picture painted by both sides of the divide. A useful next step of the COI would be to acknowledge that the picture painted in its report is by necessity one-sided – and with it step back from the moral high ground human rights campaigners too often seem to take by definition of their mandate. Chances for such a move are slim. But any progress for the future of Eritrea and its people will ultimately depend on a more balanced and creative policy approach that moves beyond the vilification and isolation of Eritrea, and acknowledges the deeper fault lines of politics in the Horn.

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