(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)
Australia has joined international condemnation of the African nation of Eritrea for alleged human rights violations.
A report to the UN’s Human Rights Council has found thousands of civilians are fleeing Eritrea every month because of the actions of their government.
It’s calling on the Eritrean government to take bold steps to address human rights abuses, to stop the outflow of refugees.
Dragana Mrkaja reports.
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In her latest report to the Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteur for Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, has again listed a series of serious concerns.
She says one of the main reasons people are fleeing from Eritrea is the system of compulsory military service, introduced after the war against Ethiopia that led to independence in 1991.
Ms Keetharuth says in many cases, national service has become a form of indefinite forced labour.
“Initially, the majority of Eritreans embraced the idea of an 18 month long national service, to support the development and reconstruction of the country after the independence struggle. Many Eritreans returned from abroad to serve the country. However, in the meantime, the authorities have transformed the national service into a system by which they force people to work for the State for lengthy periods, sometimes until retirement age, without adequate remuneration.”
Ms Keetharuth is also critical of secret detention centres which she says are used for those who refuse to undergo military service, as well as political prisoners, journalists, returned asylum seekers, and members of some religious groups.
The Special Rapporteur says there’s a disconnect between the goals of individual Eritreans and the expectations their government is forcing upon them.
She says it’s time for the international community to force the government to abide by international human rights standards.
“I call on the Council and on the international community to address the recurrent human rights violations in Eritrea, spawning a monthly exodus of 2,000 to neighbouring Ethiopia alone and almost 2,000 to Sudan in May 2014. The mass flight of Eritreans, young and old, would subside if the cycle of impunity for persistent human rights violations were to be broken.”
Australian UN representative Ruth Stone expressed shock over the findings of Ms Keetharuth’s latest report.
“Australia remains deeply concerned by the widespread and systematic human rights violations raised in the Special Rapporteur’s report, including extra judicial killings, torture, infringement of freedom of movement, expression and opinion, sexual and gender-based violence, violations of children’s rights, harsh and life threatening prison conditions and incommunicado detention.”
The Special Rapporteur says her report is based on credible sources, even though she’s been refused permission to visit Eritrea.
Sheila Keetharuth says she’s also had limited access to Eritrean refugees in some countries.
“Access to Eritrean refugees and migrants on the territories of neighbouring countries to collect first-hand information has also not been very forthcoming. I therefore appeal to the 14 member states that have not responded or that responded negatively to my visit request to grant me access to facilitate the delivery of the mandate that the Human Rights Council entrusted to me.”
However, Eritrean representative Tesfamicael Gerahtu has rejected the Special Rapporteur’s findings.
He says it’s just the latest evidence of what he describes as an agenda against Eritrea.
“We do not want to go into the detail of responding to this highly sensational and seemingly appealing statement, as we have done so many times in responding to the various issues that have been raised. “
Mr Gerahtu says the Eritrean people have been fighting for decades against occupation of their territory, and is already facing a series of UN sanctions.
He says the government is doing all it can to address human rights concerns.
“Politically motivated allegations disguised as human rights issues have also constituted another front, posing challenges to my country. Eritrea readily acknowledges, like all other countries, that it faces human rights challenge that the government constantly fights and seeks to address. The categorisation applied of clause violation of human rights in Eritrea is, however, totally unacceptable.”
Eritrea wasn’t alone in the Human Rights Council, with the representative of Sudan warning against double standards and politicisation.
Sudan said the Eritrean government had shown it was making efforts to protect human rights.
Nevertheless, the majority of countries that spoke on the issue were supportive of the Special Rapporteur and her findings.
Australian representative Ruth Stone urged Eritrean officials to work with Ms Keetharuth to resolve the concerns she’s raised.
“Australia encourages Eritrea to improve its engagement with the Special Rapporteur in order to arrive at long lasting human rights solutions that comply with international standards.”
Australia is home to about 3000 people from Eritrea – most of them refugees.