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Human Rights in Eritrea: Why Do They Matter

February 2008

A version of this piece originally appeared in

A public lecture on “Human rights in Eritrea: why do they matter” was held at the University of Pretoria on the 15th of January 2008. The lecture was organized by Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) and the Center for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria. It aimed at raising the awareness of international actors in general and African youth in particular about the growing human rights violations in Eritrea.

The guest speaker was Dan Connell, a lecturer in Journalism and African Politics at Simmons College, Boston, USA [and founder of Grassroots International]. In his broad lecture, which covers the historical background of Eritrea’s political situation, Mr. Connell descried Eritrea’s current human rights situation much worst than what is happening in Zimbabwe. In Eritrea, unlike in Zimbabwe, “one fears to have a conversation in public place as he could be overheard because he might be disappeared soon after”, said Mr. Connell. He stated that there are indeed “far more repressive mechanisms at play” and even he has never seen such kind of violations of human rights in “an independent Africa”. “The sophistication of the machinery of repression and absolute control over the daily lives of citizens” in Eritrea forces Mr. Connell to think of “European colonial powers which used arbitrary powers” over their subjects.

“The continuing confrontation” between Eritrea and Ethiopia over their common border “provides the Eritrean regime the rationale for continuing to oppose the implementation of the constitution, convening national elections, and for sustaining the climate of fear and repression that continues to characterize [Eritrea]”, said Mr. Connell.

On the concept of human rights and political liberties, Mr. Connell stated that they are “worth of fighting and even dying for” for what they give us, to the people. “They give us”, said Mr. Connell, “the ability to shape our individual and collective identity…the space to participate in crucial decisions that affect our society and the capacity to hold those in power accountable for what they do”. Mr. Connell elaborated his concept of human rights and the tensions that exist between the rulers and the ruled over human rights issues by drawing examples from the United States history and its current governing practices. He concluded that democracy and human rights issues are important “to create stable order within nations and among them” and they therefore “are not only a national challenge but a global one” and asked the participants to commit themselves “to the rights of everyone in all the spheres, and not just those that fit our particular needs and wishes at the moment”.

Asked on why the international media is giving much less coverage to Eritrean human rights abuses than Zimbabwe, Mr. Connell responded “one of the reasons may be because there are more whites in Zimbabwe than there are in Eritrea”. Mr. Connell believes that “the most constructive thing that the international community could do to ease the situation in Eritrea and open the possibility of greater internal challenge would be to end the confrontation between Eritrea and Ethiopia”, that is to settle the border issue.

Asked on concrete steps way forward, Mr. Connell responded that “the EMDHR is “really important” and mentioned that “it is playing a constructive role in promoting that set of values…via a radio, putting materials on the website, smuggling materials into the country…”. Besides he further stressed on the need for “the divided and scattered Eritrean opposition…to somehow come together and demonstrate that they can all work together in a coherent and democratic way and provide some sort of a series alternative”. And finally he called upon the participants by stating “if there is anyway for any of us to help promote [unity of Eritrean opposition groups] we should take every opportunity to do so.”

The Master of Ceremonies (MC) of the event was Mr. Martin Nsibirwa, LLM Program Manager in the Center for Human Rights, who presented, among others, an introductory note about the aim of the program and the CV of Mr. Dan Connell.

Prior to Mr. Connell’s lecture, the Director of the Center for Human Rights, Prof. Frans Viljoen, also gave a brief welcoming speech in which he underlined the disturbing human rights reports which continue to come out from Eritrea. The next speaker was Mr. Haileab Kidane representing the EMDHR.

Mr. Haileab highlighted that the “list of human rights atrocities in Eritrea” cannot be covered on one hour event. He rather described the EMDHR as an organization that came out in response to these notorious atrocities. From Mr. Haileab’s speech, at the beginning of the EMDHR’s establishment, members were challenged by the question: what could result into “a sustainable change” in Eritrea? They wished and agreed to organize themselves and establish a “non-partisan and apolitical organization” which is committed at “providing various platforms” in which Eritreans could come together and engage themselves in discussions, dialogues and other activities so that they would be able “to solve their problems by themselves”.

Mr. Haileab informed the participates that Mr. Connell can tell Eritrea’s story in greater depth as he had been “right at the spot, smelling the same dust…from history” particularly in respect to issues that were happing during the liberation struggle. “Today”, he said, “when normally others went for the grabs of power and riches, [Dan Connell] stayed by the side of the people [of Eritrea]”. He then thanked Mr. Dan Connell for accepting the invitation of the EMDHR to come and share his knowledge about Eritrea.

Mr. Haileab also forwarded his gratefulness to the University of Pretoria, particularly to the staff members of the Center for Human Rights for continuing to be mentors and advisors since school days.

Eritreans living in Pretoria, international students at the Center for Human Rights, and various individuals from different NGOs, diplomatic missions and South African governmental bodies participated during the event. The Eritrean Embassy to South Africa was invited to participate in the event, but never made it.

EMDHR Head Office

Pretoria, South Africa

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