As expected, the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea (COIE) declared that “widespread” human rights abuses have been committed in Eritrea over the past 25 years and should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as crimes against humanity. While the report and allegations, based on the work of a three-person panel, are serious, both in their content and implications, numerous aspects of the process have been fraught with extensive problems and shortcomings.
First, although the full report is to be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in several weeks, an edited, advanced version of the report was distributed to the media, while Eritrea was left in the dark. This is problematic since it leads to an unfair “trial by media.” Furthermore, as has become customary with general coverage regarding Eritrea, the COIE’s allegations were quickly and widely disseminated across social media, accompanied by sensationalist, negative headlines. Within this context, it is impossible to have an objective, rational, constructive discussion about the report or the general situation in Eritrea.
Additionally, a clear and significant flaw with the COIE, broadly recognized, has been the research methodology and procedures it has employed. For any research, the strength and legitimacy of results and findings are intricately tied to how the research was undertaken, the kind of design utilized, the sampling techniques used to select elements for study, and how the data was collected and organized. Crucially, with the COIE plagued by an array of considerable and fundamental methodological and procedural problems, it fails to meet basic, minimal standards of objectivity, neutrality, non-selectivity, and legality, while the accuracy, reliability, and validity of its findings, results, and conclusions are called into question.
During one of his debates with Socrates, Thrasymachus alleges that “justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” For many observers, particularly Eritreans, the current COIE is an apt reflection of his point, appearing to be only the latest instance within a long series of misguided decisions and unjust policies undertaken and implemented by the United Nations (UN) and the broader international community. Although the UN champions high-standing ideals, principles, and values, its historic relationship with and treatment of Eritrea have been fraught with injustice.
In the immediate period following World War 2, the UN was one of the co-authors of the original crime against Eritrea, overlooking Eritreans’ rightful calls for independence and instead promoting an association that led to annexation. A Four Power Commission (consisting of the US, United Kingdom [UK], Russia, and France) was unable to settle the question of “the disposal” Eritrea, a former Italian colony. Subsequently, a new Commission of Inquiry was established “to ascertain more fully the wishes and the best means of promoting the welfare of the inhabitants of Eritrea” (Haile 1988: 20-21). That process, not dissimilar to the current COIE, was beset by shadowy backroom deals, political machinations and subterfuge, and even outright terrorism, and the Commission was not unanimous.
During the later report of the Commission to the UN General Assembly, several delegations spoke in favor of Eritrean independence and criticized the US-UK plan for federating Eritrea with Ethiopia (in order to safeguard Western geostrategic interests and to appease Ethiopia, a regional ally). Sir Zafrulla, the Pakistani representative, ominously warned: “An independent Eritrea would obviously be better able to contribute to the maintenance of peace (and security) than an Eritrea federated with Ethiopia against the true wishes of the people. To deny the people of Eritrea their elementary right to independence would be to sow the seeds of discord and create a threat in that sensitive area of the Middle East” (GAOR 1950: 346; Haile 1988: 21). However, these perspectives were discounted, justice and human rights were marginalized and disregarded, and Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia.
Thereafter, over a period of several decades, the UN continuously refused to listen to Eritreans’ relentless calls for self-determination during the long independence struggle. In 1981, ten years before Eritrea would ultimately gain independence, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) stated that:
Of all the people who, since the Second World War, have been the victims of Great Power rivalries and ambitions, perhaps the one with the greatest claim for consideration is the people of Eritrea. Nevertheless, no nation has yet been willing to raise the issue of the rights of this people in the United Nations. The truth is that the ‘Eritrean question’ is a source of embarrassment both to the UN itself and to almost all ‘interested parties’ (ICJ 1981 in Babu 1988: 47).
Moreover, since 2002, the UN and international community have ignored an illegal military occupation by Ethiopia, which is politically, militarily, and economically supported by the US, and upheld sanctions that are increasingly recognized as illegitimate, unfounded, and counterproductive. The illegal occupation has only served to stunt development and further destabilize the Horn of Africa through contributing to unnecessary rivalry, conflict, and regional insecurity while, according to Herman J. Cohen, former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and member of the US Foreign Service for over 38 years, international sanctions are the result of “pure bullying” against Eritrea since they have “no basis in fact,” and “there is every indication that Eritrea has absolutely no contact with al-Shebab [sic], much less provide any sort of assistance to them.”
It is important to note that the COIE, through refusing to acknowledge Eritrea’s continued constructive engagement with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and failing to genuinely consider Eritrea’s commendable progress within social, health, and education sectors, and its success upon several of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), completely ignores the fact that human rights, as outlined within numerous declarations and international instruments, are interrelated, interdependent, indivisible, and complementary (Donnelly 1999; Laplante 2007; Nelson and Dorsey 2003). Not only is the COIE’s portrayal of rights within Eritrea highly skewed, extremely inaccurate, and unreflective of realities on the ground, the COIE fails to recognize that Eritrea’s considerable and ongoing efforts to combat poverty, reduce inequality, promote social justice, and improve standards of living are important and tangible steps toward the fulfillment and protection of human rights.
For example, the UN and the High Commissioner for Human Rights have claimed that, “… poverty is the gravest human rights challenge in the world…” and that “…the impact of poverty far surpasses other scourges…” (UN Report n.d.). Furthermore, poverty and inequality, present real challenges to the overall universality of human rights, particularly in terms of being realizable or accorded to all. A concrete example of the close association between human rights and poverty is that individuals afflicted with poverty are unlikely to be capable of having adequate housing, food, water, or sanitation; will likely be unable to access education or health care; and will probably be socially excluded and marginalized from political power and societal processes (Van Bueren 1999). Moreover, individuals living in a state that is itself undeveloped or economically weak must come to terms with the reality that the state will be unable to provide these securities for them.
As a result of its various flaws, shortcomings and apparent political motivations, the COIE illustrates how, even though human rights have gradually proliferated and diffused to touch all regions of the globe, the process has been plagued by persistent claims of cultural imperialism, rampant moralism, western paternalism, and political selectivity. Often, the process assumes western standards as the benchmark against which everything is to be measured, reflects a paternalistic attitude, and perpetuates the hegemonic idea of the west’s superiority. Increasingly,then, human rights have both been regularly characterized and sometimes utilized as a powerful legitimizing instrument for subjugation, control, and neo-colonialism. Since formal, direct politico-military control is no longer viewed as legitimate or becoming, global powers have turned to other effective means of manipulation and control.
Among the most rewarding things about living in Eritrea is the time I get to spend with youths. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with an enthusiastic group of youths in a small town in Eritrea. During our conversation, which touched upon a range of topics, including human rights, one articulate young male stated, “You know, forcefully breaking an egg from the outside destroys any chance for life. But, if the content of the egg is able to grow and develop, it will naturally emerge from the inside, full of life.” How perceptive.
Ultimately, to borrow from Eric Hobsbawm, the diffusion of values and institutions cannot be simply brought about by a sudden, forceful imposition by external entities or forces. Complex, multidimensional concepts are not like imported goods or technologies whose benefits are plainly and immediately obvious and will be adopted in the same manner by all.
Yes, Eritrea is confronted by significant issues, challenges, and pressing concerns. However, what the COIE totally misses is that the best way to address these is not through confrontational, adversarial approaches, sensationalist allegations and imprecations, paternalistic preaching, or meting out unjust punishments, but through constructive engagement, tangible support, cooperation, and dialogue.