(CNN)The government of Eritrea is responsible for “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations, forcing hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee the country,” according to a United Nations investigation.
“It is not law that rules Eritreans — but fear,” says the U.N. report.
The United Nations interviewed more than 500 confidential witnesses about the nation in the Horn of Africa, hearing accounts of sexual slavery, extrajudicial killings and forced labor. The report details the specific rights violations and the methods employed by the Eritrean government to control its population.
The Eritrean government did not respond to the United Nations’ requests for access or information, according to the commission, but Eritrean presidential spokesman Yemane Meskeltook to Twitter to criticize the report’s methods, describing it as a “vitriolic narrative cobbled up from 550 confidential interviews.” Meskel went on to say the report was “a case of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ par excellence.”
The Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs later released a statement calling the report a travesty and saying that all accusations leveled against the government are “totally unfounded and devoid of all merit.” The statement claimed that the U.N. report will be used by some to “whitewash their transgressions against Eritrea and to seek pretexts for their acts of destabilization.”
According to the report, the Eritrean population is in “a state of permanent anxiety” because of the deprivation of human rights and the government’s invasion into all aspects of daily life. Here are some of the areas the United Nations highlighted:
Surveillance — right to privacy
According to the U.N. report, Eritreans live in constant fear they’re being monitored by security agents and that any information gathered may be used against them for “arrest, detention, torture, disappearance or death.” Witnesses told the United Nations they engage in self-censorship because it is impossible to know which of their activities are considered deviant.
Trapped — freedom of movement
The Eritrean government makes moving in and out of, or around, the country extremely difficult, to make sure members of the population fulfill their national service obligations. A “shoot to kill” policy was publicly implemented by the government in 2004 for a considerable period, and although the policy may have been revised, some of those interviewed for the U.N. report said they had been shot at. The report says Eritreans who travel near the border are severely punished and that anyone who returns to the country is detained and subjected to ill treatment and torture. Internally, individuals’ movements are restricted by a system of travel permits and identity cards, which must be produced on demand to verify their national service standing.
Silenced — freedom of expression
In 2001 the G-15 reform group and its supporters were either killed or disappeared, and since then Eritreans have been punished for asking any question of the government, the report says. It continues by saying that any attempt to peacefully demonstrate has been crushed by the government, with demonstrators detained and sometimes executed without trial.
Oppressed — freedom of religion
The Eritrean Orthodox Church, Catholicism, the Lutheran Church and Sunni Islam are authorized religions; since 2002 no other denominations have been allowed to formally exist. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been deprived of their citizenship, losing their right to work or to be recognized as persons before the law. The report says religious materials are regularly confiscated and followers killed or made to disappear.
The U.N. commission concludes that the “judiciary is not in a position to protect the fundamental rights of Eritrean citizens” and that there is no rule of law in Eritrea, making it impossible to receive a fair trial for any criminal charges.
The concern is amplified by testimonies of confessions forced by rape, beatings and torture through extreme forms of restraint, according to the report. Those arrested or detained often have no idea what law they’re accused of breaking, and many end up “disappearing,” according to the report, with relatives warned that any questions will lead to a similar fate.
National security, and in turn national service, is one of the root causes of suffering in Eritrea, the report says. The United Nations describes the situation as “the systematic violation of an array of human rights on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere in the world.”
In 1995 the Eritrean government issued a proclamation on national service that conscripted all 18-year-olds, and in 2002 the Warsai Yikealo development campaign was launched. This required all boys and girls to spend six months in military training by the time they were 18 years old.
The conditions at the military training camps are dire, the report says, with the sexual violence against women and girls so rampant that the United Nations says it amounts to sexual slavery. Outside military training, many underage students are subject to forced labor under the threat of death, with the commission concluding that “forced labor in this context is a practice similar to slavery.”
The forced labor, sexual slavery, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture led more than 357,000 Eritreans to flee their country by mid-2014, the United Nations says. It estimates 5,000 Eritreans leave each month, making them one of the largest groups of migrants trying to make their way across the Mediterranean.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea will present its findings to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, later this month.