Source: fluechtlingshilfe

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker has been the United Nations (UN) Special Representative for the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea since September 2020. The Sudanese is an associate professor of international law, dean of the School of Law at the University of Khartoum and founding director of the Human Rights Centre there. As a practising lawyer, he has conducted international human rights and international humanitarian law investigations in many African countries. The Swiss Refugee Agency (SFH) was able to speak with him.

Interview: Jeannine König, Team Leader Public Relations, Communication Department

Jeannine König: Dr Babiker, in your new annual report, which you presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June, you state that there are no signs of progress with regard to the human rights situation in Eritrea. On the contrary, compared to last year, you found a deterioration in several areas. Can you tell us the most important ones?

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker: “I had hoped that the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in November 2022 between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front would not only bring progress towards peace in Ethiopia, but also improvements in the human rights situation in Eritrea and the elaboration of certain accountability measures. However, the Eritrean authorities continue to conduct conscription campaigns in which young people are rounded up en masse and forced to serve with violence and collective punishment of the families of military conscripts.

The repression of freedom of religion or belief has also intensified over the past year. There have been several waves of mass arrests of religious leaders and followers. In September 2022, 150 Christians and Christian women were reportedly arrested at a meeting in Asmara. Some women and children were released, but 98 people remained detained in Mai Serwa prison. In October 2022, three Catholic priests were arbitrarily arrested and released at the end of December. Another 39 women and five men, all Christians, were arrested in raids in January 2023 and taken to Mai Serwa. In March 2023, 30 Christians who had gathered to worship in Keren were arrested. In April, an estimated 400 evangelical Christians, 27 Jehovah’s Witnesses and over 40 Orthodox monks – followers of the late Patriarch Abune Antonios – were arbitrarily detained.”

“National service remains one of the Eritrean government’s main instruments of social and economic control.”

Jeannine König: Eritrea has long had a policy of indefinite national service, which includes a civilian service component and a compulsory military service component. In your report, you note that the practice of recruitment into national service has deteriorated compared to last year. What is the situation today?

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker: “National service remains one of the Eritrean government’s main instruments of social and economic control. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans continue to be forced into this state-sponsored system of forced labour and military service, often forced to serve for decades in exploitative and undignified conditions, without the right to choose their occupation and for a pittance. This has led to a degradation of the rights to work and a decent standard of living for all Eritreans. These recruitment patterns, which I described in my last report to the Council, have worsened over the past year: there has been an increase in forced recruitment in mid to late 2022, and coercive practices have increasingly been used to force Eritreans, including children and the elderly, into military service. These include collective punishment of entire families: eviction from their homes, confiscation of their property and homelessness, imposition of fines, denial of access to food vouchers, and detention of family members to force those who wished to evade conscription to turn themselves in to the authorities. Children continued to be rounded up and conscripted. As mentioned earlier, I had hoped that conscription would decrease after the signing of the peace agreement, but it continued in 2023 as new campaigns were launched in the first half of the year.”

Jeannine König: What are the most common human rights violations related to national service?

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker: “As I have already said in various forums, in my expert opinion, the risk of being subjected to national service should be a reason for international protection. National Service in its present form is inextricably linked to forced labour and practices similar to slavery. As described in numerous United Nations reports, including those prepared under my mandate and the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, a high prevalence of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and related violations of the rights to family life, to decent work and to an adequate standard of living have been documented in the context of national service. In addition, other aspects justify the granting of protection and assistance to Eritrean refugees: the indefinite nature, the exploitative and inhuman or degrading conditions, the persistent human rights violations, as well as the total lack of accountability in relation to abuses committed in the context of national service.”

Jeannine König: You also mention the collective punishment of family members of conscientious objectors. What does this consist of specifically?

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker: “For more than a decade, thousands of young Eritreans have been trying to avoid national service because they see older generations having to do years of forced labour and military service. They do not want to suffer the same fate as their parents and older brothers and sisters. For this reason, thousands of them flee the country every year. The Tigray conflict has exacerbated this situation as Eritrean men, women and children try to avoid being drafted to the front lines in Ethiopia. Men and women who are recruited or of military service age go into hiding. Children are dropping out of school earlier and earlier to avoid the “giffas”, the raids. In response, and in the absence of military conscripts, the authorities put pressure on conscientious objectors by punishing their family members. According to many testimonies, when soldiers came to villages or houses to arrest those considered conscientious objectors but could not find them, they instead arrested and detained their relatives to force them to comply. In other cases, soldiers evicted relatives of conscientious objectors from their homes, leaving them homeless and in a precarious situation. Neighbours were threatened with the same fate if they helped the affected families. The families were also fined and denied the food vouchers they need to access food at controlled prices. I was told of one village where the soldiers took the livestock and destroyed the fields because relatives were not handed over.”

Jeannine König: You write that national military service also has an impact on economic, social and cultural rights. How is this causal link to be understood?

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker: “National service has had serious negative impacts on economic, social and cultural rights, including the rights to quality education, decent work, an adequate standard of living – including adequate housing – and private and family life. I have spoken to Eritreans who have been in forced service for over 20 years, or forced labour for over 15 years. Throughout this time, they could not choose a profession or career of their choice, they did not earn enough to support an individual, let alone a family, and they could only visit their family for a few days, usually only once a year – if their superiors gave them permission to do so at all. To avoid military service, women and girls often marry very early and become pregnant, sometimes while still children. As a result, two generations of Eritreans have now grown up without their fathers, and women have to bear the heavy burden of raising children and economically supporting the family alone. The low wages received by those serving in both the military and civilian service pose a major financial challenge to families. This situation seriously compromises the right of Eritreans to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including the rights to adequate food, clothing and shelter, and to a steady improvement in living conditions.

In addition, the national service programme deprives young Eritreans of hope for a better future and discourages them from continuing their education. The requirement that all boys and girls complete their final year of secondary school at the Sawa Military Academy in order to complete their military training forces many students to drop out of school before transferring to Sawa. Ongoing abuse of students by military officials in Sawa, including sexual harassment and sexual violence against women and girls, negatively impacts the right to an education in a safe and conducive environment. Furthermore, the quality of education that students receive in Sawa is inadequate and the majority of them do not achieve the grades required for higher education. Thus, they are directly recruited for military service. Children drop out of school early to hide, flee the country or contribute to the family economy and livelihood.”

“Eritrean refugees need and deserve increased protection.”

Jeannine König: What do you recommend to the European states with regard to dealing with refugees from Eritrea? In your report you mention two positive examples: Germany and the Netherlands.

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker: “Eritrean refugees need and deserve increased protection. States hosting Eritrean refugees should actively develop strategies and take measures to protect Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers. This is directly linked to the recognition of their need for international protection and the granting of refugee and other protection status to Eritreans. In the Netherlands, in 2022, the Dutch Council of State, the highest administrative court in the country, recognised that the military component of national service is a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and therefore a sufficient ground for granting protection. In Germany, the Federal Administrative Court has ruled that Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers may no longer be forced to obtain papers from the Eritrean embassy in order to gain access to German travel documents. This is to protect them from pressure and coercion by embassy and consulate staff.

I would like to emphasise that returning Eritrean asylum seekers to their country of origin is fraught with danger because there is a high risk that they will be exposed to human rights violations upon return. The practice of the Eritrean authorities to arbitrarily detain, interrogate and in some cases torture or disappear returned asylum seekers has been extensively documented within my mandate and by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea. During the Tigray conflict, I documented several cases where refugees who had been forced back from Ethiopia were forcibly recruited and sent to the frontline in Tigray. The return of Eritreans to the region is also inappropriate because of the prevailing insecurity and instability. Given this situation and the dire human rights situation in the country, Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers should be given protection in destination countries, as well as access to all human rights and needed services. These include the rights to work, to education, to access health services and to an adequate standard of living.”

Jeannine König: Refugees from Eritrea often have to pay taxes to the Eritrean government in other countries. What do you recommend to European states regarding this practice?

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker: “Eritreans residing abroad have to pay a so-called “diaspora tax” or “reconstruction and rehabilitation tax”, which amounts to 2 per cent of their total income, retroactively from the time they leave Eritrea. While every state has the right to tax its nationals – including those residing abroad – this system is by its very nature a coercive measure and leads to the abuse of vulnerable Eritreans. Failure to pay the tax results in Eritreans living in the diaspora and their family members being denied access to all documents, certificates and basic services. In addition, Eritreans abroad are also extorted through pressure on their families in Eritrea. For example, relatives in Eritrea are told that business permits, settlements of inheritances or land titles depend on the payment of tax by relatives abroad. As a result, Eritreans in the diaspora and their families in Eritrea are directly or indirectly denied access to their basic human rights. This access is made conditional on the payment of tax and the signing of a ‘repentance form’ in which they must ask for forgiveness for betraying their country. In some cases, the tax payment demand is accompanied by threats and harassment.

I encourage European states to thoroughly investigate these coercive practices, including possible criminal liability arising from the methods used, and urge them to protect Eritreans from coercion by Eritrean diplomatic missions and officials. A first measure is to ask States to stop requiring Eritreans who may be in need of international protection to obtain documents from Eritrean embassies and consulates. This way, Eritreans in need of protection would at least not be pressured to go to Eritrean diplomatic missions to obtain protection and fully exercise their rights in host countries.”

Jeannine König: You could not visit the country because the Eritrean government did not cooperate and denied you access. Where did the information for your report come from?

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker: “Since the mandate was created in 2012, neither my predecessors nor I have been granted access to the country by the Eritrean government. This is very regrettable, because of course it would be ideal for carrying out my work if I could assess the situation on the ground, talk to Eritreans currently living in the country and get in touch with local authorities and institutions. Due to the lack of access, I have had to resort to a variety of methods and sources to continue my mandate of monitoring the human rights situation in Eritrea. I gather first-hand information by talking to victims, witnesses of human rights violations committed by the Eritrean authorities and by interacting with Eritrean refugees, Eritreans from the diaspora and other confidential sources. I also work with a wide range of actors who provide valuable information and support to my mandate, including civil society organisations, United Nations agencies, members of the diplomatic community, human rights activists, academics, researchers and other experts. I also collect documents and materials from a variety of confidential and open sources. I check each piece of information and compare it with several independent sources. I also assess the reliability of sources individually and conduct an impartial analysis of the information collected in accordance with the UN Special Procedures Code of Conduct for Reporting to the Human Rights Council. These methods serve to ensure the quality of the information collected and reflected in the report, as well as the independence and objectivity of the mandate.”

Jeannine König: Are there any signs of hope that a dialogue between the government of Eritrea and the UN authorities can be established soon?

Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker: “Although Eritrea is a member of the Human Rights Council, cooperation with the United Nations and in particular with the UN human rights mechanisms is poor. Even under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which the Eritrean government believes is the appropriate way to engage with the state on human rights issues, Eritrea has accepted only half of the UPR recommendations in 2019 and has not implemented most of the recommendations it has accepted so far. As part of my mandate, I have consistently tried to engage in constructive dialogue with the Eritrean government, sending several letters and formal communications. However, the Eritrean authorities have not responded to my requests for meetings, comments and information for the preparation of the report and, of course, permission to visit the country. I still hope that they will reconsider their position and agree to engage in a dialogue on the human rights situation. My only interest is to contribute to the improvement of the human rights situation of all Eritreans.”