GENEVA — The leaders of Eritrea are responsible for crimes against humanity, a United Nations commission of inquiry said Wednesday, calling for international action to hold them to account, including referral to the International Criminal Court
The inquiry found that “officials at the highest levels of state,” including the ruling party and military commanders of the East African nation, “have committed and continue to commit” crimes including enslavement, imprisonment and disappearances, torture, rape and murder.
One of the most egregious offenses, the United Nations commission found, was the forced conscription of young people in a never-ending national service program that has driven thousands of young Eritreans to flee, many to Europe.
Eritrea, a small country on the Horn of Africa along the Red Sea, is known as the North Korea of Africa. It is one of the continent’s most secretive, isolated and repressive countries.
Its leader, Isaias Afwerki, an intellectual turned guerrilla fighter turned president, was once considered one of the smartest and most charismatic rebels in the world. During Eritrea’s war for independence from Ethiopia two decades ago, Mr. Isaias brought Christians and Muslims, nomads and farmers, and men and women together in the trenches; he even oversaw underground tampon factories for his female fighters.
These days, though, many Eritrean analysts question his leadership. Mr. Isaias’s “stubborn refusal to modify his repressive rule has put the country in this position,” said Dan Connell, an American journalist who knows Mr. Isaias personally and has written several books on Eritrea.
Mr. Connell said he had been hearing stories of fear and repression for years. “Denied a chance to express themselves at home, Eritreans continue to vote with their feet, which is as strong a confirmation of the commission’s findings as any,” he said Wednesday.
Mike Smith, the chairman of the United Nations panel, said that the report found that the abuses inflicted by the government were “a major impetus” for the exodus of Eritreans: More than 47,000 applied for asylum in Europe last year.
The three-member panel of inquiry urged the Security Council to recognize the human rights deprivations in Eritrea as a serious threat to international peace and security and to refer the allegations in the 94-page report to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The panel also called for travel bans against those accused of the crimes and human rights abuses, and the freezing of their financial assets.
The panel said it had compiled dossiers of evidence against an unspecified number of individuals and would make these available at the appropriate time to courts of law and other relevant institutions, “to ensure there is justice for the Eritrean people.”
The Eritrean government swiftly denounced the report as “an unwarranted attack not only against Eritrea, but also Africa and developing nations,” and said the commission’s findings were deeply flawed and unsupported by any evidence.
“From the very get-go, they have shown that they lack independence, impartiality and objectivity,” Yemane Gebreab, an adviser to Mr. Isaias, told reporters Wednesday in Geneva.
Some analysts have said that the report seems one-sided, and that the international community bears some responsibility for Eritrea’s descent.
The government of Eritrea went to war with its larger neighbor and former ruler, Ethiopia, in 1998, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers on each side. The dispute started over the town of Badme, a dusty border outpost that both sides claimed. More than 10 years ago, an international arbitration commission ruled that the town belonged to Eritrea. But the Ethiopians have yet to pull out. Western powers tend to side with Ethiopia and have turned a deaf ear to Eritrea’s appeals. The Eritrean government has used the stalemate as an excuse to keep the country on war footing and to deny civil liberties.
The United Nations commission based its report on testimony from 833 Eritreans living as refugees in 13 countries. The panel did not visit Eritrea, noting that the government failed to grant investigators permission to visit.
Few outsiders make it into Eritrea these days. Those who do are oftencharmed by the 1930s Art Deco architecture and other remnants of the country’s past as Italy’s prized African colony. But there has been little development in Eritrea for decades; traveling through the country feels like a visit to a vintage shop.
Many Eritreans are frightened to speak to outsiders, especially about politics, and government agents carefully watch visitors, especially journalists and diplomats. And many visitors to Eritrea, and foreign residents of the capital, Asmara, see a different situation than the one described in the report, said Mr. Smith, the chairman.
“Human rights abuses of the type that we describe don’t generally happen in the streets of Asmara,” he said. “They are happening in detention centers across the country, they are happening in military camps, and they are happening training centers where foreigners simply don’t have access.”
Some 300,000 to 400,000 people have been forced into labor, Mr. Smith estimated, working in a system characterized by harsh living conditions and abuse, including the rape of female recruits.
Those fleeing the country risked their lives crossing borders patrolled by troops with orders to shoot to kill, and again by crossing deserts and relying on human smugglers to get them across the Mediterranean.
“People have to have a lot of motivation to do that kind of thing,” Mr. Smith said.
The panel said that the Eritrean authorities had not responded to its requests to visit the country and that panel members based their report on interviews with Eritreans living outside the country. Many of the Eritreans described a system of arbitrary detention without warrant or judicial process and said they were tortured after their arrest.
“I haven’t seen my husband in seven years and don’t know if he is alive or not,” one woman told investigators for the panel. For four years after her husband’s arrest outside their house, she took food and clothes to the place he was being detained until he again disappeared. “I searched for him, but the authorities finally told me just don’t bother coming back, there’s no point.”
In addition to witness testimony, the panel had received some 45,000 letters and petitions, nearly all critical of its investigation. An evaluation of the letters found that many of the writers had not read the report, some signatures had been forged and others were added without the knowledge of the individuals concerned.
They were the direct result, the panel said, of “an organized government campaign to attempt to discredit the inquiry.”