on 17 May 2017
Three years ago, I found myself at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), playing a game with an eight year old girl – I would say the name of an animal and she would draw it. She was an Eritrean refugee and had come to the HRC with her parents as part of a delegation who were there to give testimony at a side event. Her entire family had been detained by the government, locked up with others in a shipping container. She shared memories of the entire place smelling awful, of being freezing cold at night and roasting hot during the day and of how she and her other siblings joked about which family member was covered with the most lice. A serious issue was turned into a game as their parents did their best to shield their children from the full force of the horrors they were experiencing.
In Eritrea prisoners are still confined in appalling conditions . In fact thousands of prisoners of conscience are currently detained arbitrarily and indefinitely in facilities where conditions are life threatening and torture is rife.
On 17 March 2017, two Pentecostal Christians reportedly died in hospital after undergoing a hunger strike to protest the abuse they suffered while detained at Wi’a military camp. The only means of resistance they had left was their own bodies. Following their deaths, military commanders are said to have confiscated their medical cards. Their tragic story is emblematic of many others, whose suffering and deaths generally fail to register internationally due to the closed nature and pervasive control of the ruling regime.
Not Isolated Cases
The Eritrean government is one of the most repressive in the world and its policies are responsible for around 5000 Eritreans fleeing their nation on a monthly basis. According to United Nations, an estimated 9% of the Eritrean population has fled in recent years. This number does not include those who died or disappeared en route.
In its June 2016 report, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea (COIE) found “reasonable grounds to believe” that crimes against humanity have been committed by state officials in a “widespread and systematic manner” since 1991, including the crimes of persecution against religious groups, and rape, repeated rape, and gang rape by detention officials.
Eritrea’s constitution technically protects freedom of religion or belief, as do regional and international legislation to which the nation is party. However, the ruling party has failed to respect this or any other human right. A campaign of arrests targeting selected religious communities has been ongoing since 2002, when the government effectively outlawed all practices not affiliated with the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox Christian denominations and Sunni Islam. Other religious groups face insurmountable challenges in gaining registration and therefore recognition. If found practicing their faith, adherents of non-recognised groups are arrested and detained without charge or trial and can face torture or