UN investigator says Eritreans experienced torture and sexual violence during national service

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers report that during compulsory national service they experienced torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, sexual and gender-based violence, forced labor and abusive conditions, a U.N. independent investigator on human rights said in a report circulated Monday.

Mohamed Babiker said Eritrea has a policy of indefinite national service, including a civil service component and a military service component. He said it has ignored numerous calls from human rights bodies to ensure legal limits for the duration of such service and to protect the human rights of all participants.

While Eritrea maintains its national service program is “unfairly judged,” Babiker said he continues to receive “numerous and credible reports of grave human rights violation in the context of forced national/military service.”

Conscientious objection is not allowed in Eritrea, he said, “and deserters and draft evaders continued to be subjected to arbitrary detention in highly punitive conditions, enforced disappearance and torture.”

Human rights groups describe Eritrea as one of the world’s most repressive countries. Since winning independence from Ethiopia three decades ago, the small Horn of Africa nation has been led by President Isaias Afwerki, who has never held an election.

Babiker said Afwerki has refused to implement the 1997 constitution and governs the country without the rule of law and without any division of powers, checks or balances or constraints on his power.

The special investigator said his interviews with Eritrean asylum-seekers and refugees point to indefinite national service as the main driver of people leaving Eritrea.

“The national service program, which was ostensibly put in place for the furtherance of national development, is in practice undermining development by forcing young persons to leave the country,” Babiker said in the report to the U.N. General Assembly covering the 12-month period through April 24.

The report was circulated days after an Eritrea-themed cultural festival in a suburb of Stockholm turned violent when about a thousand anti-Eritrean government protesters stormed the event, and at least 52 people were injured, Swedish media reported. Sweden is home to tens of thousands of people with Eritrean roots.

Eritrea has been accused of widespread human rights violations in neighboring Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Afwerki triggered a war by sending his troops across the border to aid Ethiopian forces in November 2020 after months of political tensions between Ethiopia’s national administration and Tigray’s leaders, who once dominated the government. Fighting ended last November, with a death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

Last year, a U.N. commission of inquiry said it found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Ethiopian government troops, Tigray fighters and Eritrea’s military. In March, the U.S. said it determined that all sides in the brutal conflict committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Between mid- and late 2022, Babiker said, he identified an upsurge in forced recruitment of Eritreans “as well as the use of increasingly coercive practices to mobilize the population and force individuals to participate in military action in Ethiopia.”

“Eritrean conscripts continued to be forced to participate in national/military service under threat of severe punishment to themselves and their families,” he said.

Babiker said witnesses reported “the government had resorted to evicting families from their homes, including children, pregnant women and older persons, locking in their belongings, confiscating their livestock and even detaining family members.” This left families destitute, he said.

He said he received information that in the second week of August 2022, Eritrean soldiers targeted families of draft evaders in seven villages. The relatives reportedly “were tortured, evicted from their homes and had their farming equipment, livestock, grain and vegetables confiscated.”

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