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Public Dialogue Human Rights in Eritrea
Translated from Tigrinya by Dr. Gebre Hiwet Tesfagiorgis, Jun 1, 2006

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The publication, Hidri, conducted a public dialogue (panel), which lasted for over six hours, on the topic, “Human Rights in Eritrea.” It was a forum in which panelists shared their thoughts and experiences and about 120 attendees made comments and expressed their views. The panelists were Weizero Fawzia Hashim (Minister of Justice), Professor Asmerom Legesse (Citizens for Peace), Brigadier General Abraha Kassa (Head of National Security), and Ato Yemane Gebremeskel (Director, President’s Office). Following is the first part of the public dialogue:

Question. Human rights, is a controversial concept, although its liberal interpretation currently dominates. Thus, I think it is necessary to start our dialogue with the meaning of the concept. What is meant by human rights? What does it entail? And how is it implemented?

Professor Asmerom Legesse. The concept of human rights was initiated through international conventions and emerged from the civil liberal democratic systems of Western Europe and North America. Basically, it focuses on individual rights, and not on social lives and rights. By linking it with the fame, dedication and heroism of individuals, Westerners portray human rights as a symbol of fame with individual elements. India’s Mahatma Gandhi, America’s Martin Luther King, and the Chinese youth who stood in front of rolling tanks at Tiananmen Square can be mentioned as examples. Individualism is the foundation of Western political philosophy.

When translated into Tigrinya, individualism is associated with selfishness and similar notions, and does not properly convey its positive aspects. At any rate, the efforts a human being makes to realize his dreams and goals, to accumulate knowledge and skills, and freely use his talents to improve his living conditions, are all incorporated in the concept of individualism.

When being drawn or drafted in chapters of international conventions, human rights starts with the words, “Every human being … has rights.” And there were significant oppositions from African and East European countries. Why? Because the chapters mention the rights of the ‘individual,’ but not of nationalities, villages or other groups. The provisions do not advocate for the right to self-determination of peoples either. That is why when the African commission for human rights was established, it was named, the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Wzo/ Fawzia Hashim. Human rights emerged in connection with the aftermath of the race-based Fascism and Nazism as well as the cold war of the post-World War Two era. The concepts enunciated in the Universal Declarations of Human Rights are extensive. Related to the Declaration, there are also conventions on cultural, economic and social rights. In addition, there is what is known as the Geneva Convention, dealing with treatment of prisoners of war and the like. For example, Article 29 of the Declaration of Human Rights has provisions, not only on rights of individuals, but also of communities. The two should not conflict, although the boundary should be clear.

Another point worth mentioning is that the Declaration has been influenced by the ideological differences prevalent at the time of its drafting. What was drafted reflects the interests of the powerful imposed upon the weak, and of the rich imposed upon the poor. And there are all kinds of inconsistencies in the implementation of these rights. In the current global situation of dominance by a single superpower, as there is no independent advocating or enforcing authority, we cannot say that human rights are safeguarded.

Br/ General Abraha Kassa. As stated in the question, the concept is controversial, and it will continue to be so. This is because there had been, and there still are, different interests. If there are colonizers and colonized (or rulers and ruled), aggressors and defenders, there is bound to exist differences in interpretation. As long as there is no justice, as long as economic and political liberations are not achieved, giving different interpretations to human rights will continue.

Human beings have wants and desires. They desire the world we live in to become heaven. This dream can be within or beyond reach. This desire can be stunted by rulers or the society, or by nature. Consequently, human beings continuously demand and struggle to realize their dreams. It was through long, arduous struggles for human rights, economic justice, and political liberation that human beings were able to reach the current understanding of human rights. And the various declarations and conventions on rights are outcomes of these protracted struggles.

However, the Universal Declaration of human Rights, reached in 1948, does not have any legal authority. It only has documents describing common standards by which to measure countries’ or peoples’ progress in upholding human rights. And each country implements the provisions in conjunction with its own constitution and its own laws.

Human rights starts from human dignity, as human beings are endowed with dignity. And the Declaration of Human Rights declares, in 30 articles, prohibitions of human suffering, servitude and bondage, unlawful detention, restriction of movement. It also provides for the rights of belief, expression, equality of opportunity, etc. With time, this conception of human rights extended from the focus on individual rights to the struggle for the rights of peoples, and incorporated the right to self-determination in 1966.

As Fawzia mentioned, individual rights should not conflict with community rights. You don’t safeguard your rights at the expenses of others’ rights. One cannot always do as he wishes. This is not possible even within a family let alone in a society, In other words, one should also consider national well-being. Individual rights should not conflict with the national or peoples’ interests and benefits. The interests of the individual should go hand in hand with the interests of the country and the people.

Ato Yemane Gebremeskel. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, like any other international treaty, reflects the interests of the drafters, and is likely to be liberal. Which countries drafted the 1984 Declaration that contains 30 articles? And for what purpose? In what kind of political atmosphere did the declaration emerge? If we pose and answer such questions, it will not be difficult to understand the gap between the letters of the document and the ideas behind it. What we need to understand is that most declarations and treaties reflect the values of the initiators. As a result, the Declaration of Human Rights focuses on individual rights, and rarely touches economic distribution or rarely considers community interests. Nevertheless, as Fawzia pointed out, Article 29 allows for limiting individual rights when conflict arises with community rights and interests.

At the present time, international law on human rights encompasses the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and the various subsequent conventions and laws related to economic, social and political rights. In addition, as was already mentioned, even though there are translational and interpretational problems, there are also humanitarian laws related to war, collectively known as the Geneva Convention. As we know, there are conditions and times where war can be justified by international law. The Charter of the United Nations allows an invaded nation to conduct war in self-defense. And if war starts, it is known that even innocent civilians can suffer and die. The humanitarian law contains provisions related to the conduct of war, treatment of war prisoners, and rights of innocent civilians.

The international law, that combines all these elements, has limitations not only those related to the liberal interpretation. Do these laws get implemented in their totality all the time? Do they have enforcement procedure? Do the rights exist in any society at any time or do they develop with time? For example, the right to self-determination is first mentioned later in the 1966 Convention on Civilian and Political Rights. It does not exist in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This means, while addressing individual rights, the Declaration slighted peoples’ rights. This shows that international law on human rights has temporal and geographic dimensions.

Question. Especially after the end of the cold war, human rights based politics has become paramount. There are policies, and campaigns and actions related to global issues of human rights, undertaken mainly by Western governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), advocates of human rights. How do you assess this situation?

Ato Yemane Gebremeskel. In the question, Western countries, NGOs and advocates of rights are presented as three independent players. This is not a true representation though, because it is the Western countries themselves or their agencies that finance the NGOs or the advocates of human rights. As such, their positions are not different from those of the Western countries. The question to raise here is: Why do Western countries use human rights as an instrument of their policies at this time? This issue has two aspects: First, international relations or economic co-operation, have never been dependent on human rights. International relations depends on concrete economic, strategic, political and security interests. Second, in the last ten years, however, emerging victorious in the cold war, and wanting its political and economic values to dominate, the Western hemisphere is observed using human rights as an instrument in certain countries.

Without going very far, we can present a concrete example. When Ethiopia, in contravention of the Algiers Agreement, reneged from demarcating the [Eritrea-Ethiopia] boundary, America and the European countries should have taken a stand against Ethiopia. Why? because the right of self-determination, and thus human rights, has been violated. We are also witnessing several dictatorial regimes receiving foreign aid.

There is an annual report on human rights of all countries prepared by the United States Congress. However, in that report, there is no account on the United States itself. Amnesty International’s report also has its own bias. At this time, Western countries try to link bilateral economic assistance with what, in their view, is good governance, multi-party system, elections, etc. Whether such conditions lead the country to progress or retrogress is of no interest to them. For example, they described the election conducted in Iraq as a big success, but the condition in which Iraq is found is obvious to every one.

Thus, when viewed in general, human rights are being used as criteria in those countries upon which one wants to place pressure, even though relations among countries are not founded on human rights.

Br/ General Abraha Kassa. All [political] systems provide for human rights in their constitutions and laws. There is no system that admits violation of human rights. In practice, however, it is a different matter. As the United Nations declarations lack legally binding enforciing authority, every country conducts affairs through its own constitution and laws. Consequently, it is impossible to have a common understanding. And our understanding varies according to different interests. The world is divided into the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor. As the powerful and the rich are getting more powerful and richer at the expense of the weak and the poor, there cannot exist a common view. As long as this situation exists, the talk about human rights will remain meaningless.

The players mentioned in the question, be it governments or NGOs, as Yemane mentioned, are not independent; they are from the same source. The assessments presented by such players can only be lacking balance, are results of double standards and are intended to put pressure. Let’s take, for example, the United Nations’ [Security Council]. Not all member countries have equal votes. There are five countries that have veto power. In addition, there is dominance by the United States of America. Thus, in a situation where a handful countries dominate, be it human rights or political and security issues do not receive equal treatment. As was already mentioned, even after the end of the cold war, conflict rather than peace is prevailing [globally]. And as a result of the conflicts, violations of human rights abound.

And do they truly want respect of human rights? The answer is, No. If they did, they would not assist oppressive regimes. And we observe violations of self-determination of peoples. When Eritrea conducted a bloody armed struggle until 1991, who came to her aid? From legal and rights points of view, we should have been assisted.

In France, there was disturbance last time due to discrimination on immigrants from Africa. Why are they discriminated? Why are their human rights violated? Similar discrimination exists in [Great] Britain and America. Why does this persist, why does it not find a solution?

Is there truly such a thing as free press? They [Western countries] use it when it serves their interest or for psychological warfare against others. When it comes to themselves, however, they keep silent or even hide from press exposure an event if it does not serve their purposes. The right of religion, likewise, is raised only when it serves their interest. For example, they did not raise a voice against Saudi Arabia in the past 40 years. Why, all of a sudden, are they raising the issue of religious rights at this time? Why do their standards shift? In America, detaining any suspect is now allowed, which did not exist in the past. There is a special court. Special detention centers, such as the Guantanamo, have been established. This shows that human rights depends on the conditions and is linked with national interest. For human rights to be observe, there must exist economic equality or justice; political freedom must prevail. Without equality, human rights cannot be observed.

While the world is still divided due to lack of justice and equality, efforts are being made to make it a free market under the guise of globalization. But, rich countries force other countries’ to be open, while keeping closed or protecting their own. In short, it is important to realize that without respecting the rights of others, without setting yourself as an example, to give exaggerated and distorted accounts of others is nothing but serving one’s interest.

Wzo/ Fawzia Hashim. When the Declaration of Human Rights was declared in 1948, African countries and most countries of the world were under Western colonial rule. Due to this situation, the rights enunciated did not take into account the peoples of the majority of the populations. And if we come to our own history, we didn’t see anyone who advocated the rights of the people of Eritrea. When considering rights, the rights to basic food, shelter and basic social services should have been accorded priority. The economic and social conditions of the African countries that gained their independence after the 1960s are getting worse. There is no initiative, beyond occasional aid assistance, to safeguard basic rights. The rich countries are observed not helping eliminate poverty, but exacerbating it. Thus, human rights should be viewed in conjunction with existential security.

Professor Asmerom Legesse. During the mass expulsion of Eritreans from Ethiopia, we [Citizens for Peace] visited several countries to bring the situation to their attention. And we were facing different situations. In some countries, like the Scandinavian, regardless of their relations with Eritrea, people were paying attention when we raised human rights, and they accorded opportunities to convince them. Countries like America and Canada, however, they relate the issues with their own interests. If the violator of human rights is their ally, they brush it off. But, if the violator is their enemy, they globally expose him. Here you have to ask: Where do countries place human rights in the hierarchy of their value system? And what is the meaning of human rights if it is linked to [national] interests? And what do we need to do in order to make our case?

The Universal Declaration basically is not law. The conventions and covenants, however, are laws. And if a government signs and ratifies a convention or a covenant, it is bound by that law; how is a different question. Eritrea is a signatory to the covenants on rights of: women, children, economic, social, and civil and political. And if a government is a party, it can be sued in accordance with the provisions [when it violates]. During our campaign, we were told, “Since you didn’t respect the provisions, you have no right to accuse others.” That means, we did not have any ground. Thus, we were presenting our pleas in the name of other countries and organizations.

The process goes in stages, from the signing to implementing the covenant laws. It is essential to check that the international laws are consistent with the national laws. If there are laws that are not acceptable, you reject them. That means, the country takes an exception. We can use international laws. To do that, we must accumulate capacity. If we do not accumulate skillful capacity, that means we will not be participants in the international activities on human rights. Above all though, what is meant by advocacy? It means collecting evidence. If evidence is collected in a scientific way, meets critical evaluation by outsiders, and is publicized throughout the world, it can be hugely beneficial. The report on those [Eritreans] evicted from Ethiopia, we had titled it, “Scientific Study.” When they saw this, Amnesty International sent reporters to confirm what was reported. And they were convinced. The report they published after that was totally based on our report. What we write is usually read by limited number of people. If they publicize the case though, it is heard throughout the world. The government of Ethiopia was upset by what had happened, and had declared that it will ban Amnesty from entering Ethiopia. Thus, if scientific evidence is collected, it is possible to attract global attention on human rights.

Ms. Fawzia Hashim. There is something that concerns me a bit. If they [Westerners] are not interested in the issue, will they even pay attention to your appeal? I think this is a basic question. With regard to the Geneva Convention, let alone now, even during our armed struggle, as it was a struggle for human rights, we treated Ethiopian war prisoners respecting their human rights, yet, we never heard words of appreciation from any one. As we advanced towards achieving the right to self-determination, we were in fact told not even to think about it. It is good to view this based on reality and the truth. It is true, as the Professor [Asmerom] stated, that in the present global situation, it is important to spread information, regardless of whether or not people will actually pay attention. The culture we have had, typified by the view, “Our work speaks for itself,” can perhaps be described as a bit naive when viewed from the expected results. The efforts done by the group the Professor has been describing did bring some results. However, in the face of the lose of property and generally uprooting of the population [Eritreans in Ethiopia], other than expressions of shock, what measure was taken against Ethiopia? Thus, in the absence of a consistent global policy, I have concern that the current handling of human rights may mislead us.

If we are to talk on the topic raised in the question, all those claiming to be advocates of human rights or non-governmental organizations, where did they disappear when tens of thousands of people were uprooted? It was our people who came to the aid of the uprooted. What else was concretely done? I do not mean that the effort made should be slighted; publicizing is good. However, can you change a policy that has already been determined? It seems to me that in order to establish your identity, it important to first be able to stand on one’s feet.

Ato Yemane Gebremeskel. The limitation of our ability in diplomacy is obvious, and our ability in public relations is likewise limited. Thus, there may be truth to the statements to the effect that we are at a disadvantage due to the fact that the portion of world community that should have heard our case has not. However, its truthfulness is limited. As a result of the campaign, perhaps the Scandinavian countries may have expressed sympathy. In practice, however, Finland, Sweden, and Norway have expanding donor relationships with Ethiopia since 1989. Sweden’s minister of foreign affairs had said that Sweden will stop aid if Ethiopia does not accept the border decision [Commission’s]. Aid provided to Ethiopia for humanitarian purposes is not the concern here, but budgetary aid is a different matter, as it can be diverted by the recipient to other purposes. This type of aid should have been either stopped or aligned with the objective progress in development process. But, the donors give a deaf ear to such appeals.

The relationships and campaigns you pursue can be beneficial if they are clear and informative. But it takes time for such efforts to influence governmental policies. There is always a time gap, as foreign policies are never based on human rights. Let me cite an easy example. Recently, Eritrea was listed as one of those countries that violated human rights. And measures were taken on Eritrea alone. The measure that should have been taken on Saudi Arabia, however, was postponed for six months, as [US] Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was about to visit the country. Uzbekistan, which has worse record, was not included in the list, reasoning that doing so would conflict with America’s national interest, as Uzbekistan had granted the US a base during the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. How does one assess this policy? As it is beyond our ability, I think it should be assessed.

Question. Let us delve into our main topic, the human rights condition in Eritrea. Taking the condition of silence and isolation during our liberation struggle as given, between 1991 and 1998, Eritrea had a positive image in Western presses as well as reports on human rights. Even somewhat exaggerated descriptions about us were presented. Later, however, especially after 2001, reports on Eritrea have shifted to the other extreme and are very negative. Why?

Br/General Abraha Kassa. Until 1998 Eritrea’s image was good. After that, however, there are allegations to the effect that the system is oppressive. What has changed? Our philosophy, our views, and our understanding have not changed. In fact, we have accumulated experience. After 1998, however, the world has taken side, and continues to do so. The smear campaign about us has no bounds. There are measures we have taken for our national security reasons, and they will continue. Unless our border is demarcated on the basis of the decision [the Commission’s], we are not going to stop the measures we take for purposes of national defense. Some of the measures we took for national defense were actually instigated by those who are now accusing us. When it is known that we are not going to slack in our defense, what is the purpose of their statements such as: “They have amassed the youth at the front, rendering them to servitude forever?” It is true that the no-peace, no-war situation exacerbates the suffering of our people. The situation was caused by them and by their failure to shoulder their responsibilities. As such, they are the ones who are violating our human rights. Their smear campaign is due to the fact that their attempt to interfere [in Eritrea’s affairs] did not succeed. Also we were alert to their attempts at interfering and weaken us using religion as a pretext. Beyond the smear campaign, we have uncovered and detained some youth to whom they issued visas to encourage them to illegally immigrate to their country. It was alleged, “There is chronic human unrest in Eritrea; and the Government of Eritrea banned humanitarian aid.” There is no one who cares more for the people of Eritrea than the government of Eritrea! They transformed everything into politics. Adding all these, it is alleged that Eritrea is violating human rights. Our essence has not changed. On the other hand, they have not fulfilled their obligation. They know that our view on human rights has not changed since 1998. They know the values we want to cultivate and disseminate. They also understand our philosophy. As their interference failed to succeed, we are in a state of attrition. That is why they are accusing us of violation of human rights.

Ato Yemane Gebremeskel. On this question, we need to talk not only about press but also the freedom of the press. We may think that the BBC, AFP, and Reuters are independent. But, if we look at BBC’s coverage of the violence that occurred in Ethiopia, there was a cover-up in the news. Why? The crisis in Zimbabwe, however, though not as severe as in Ethiopia, was reported daily. If we see the war in Iraq, both the first and the current one, as striking civilian targets raises the question of accountability by the Geneva Convention, the term ‘collateral damage’ was invented. If this action was performed by others, such reference would have been absent. Thus, the terms used to describe the actions of America and the actions of others are different. One denotes destruction, the other does not. There is also what they refer to as ‘embedded reporter.’ The reporter is made to move in vehicles at the tail end of the fleet, and in the final analysis, only contents the official reports are presented.

Thus, as was previously mentioned, unless the double standard changes, you cannot expect [policy] stands to change. Many of the actions we take are being exploited. And if they are essential to our [national] existence, we are obliged to take them. Had the ones now criticizing us been in our position, they would have done the same thing. In America, the terrorist act of September 11, 2001 resulted in the death of 3,500 people. What is this magnitude in the context of a population of 250 million? A human being is a human being, this is not to minimize what happened. In the last war, we paid the lives of 20 thousand. What legal actions to take, and how to implement them, in order to prevent such future loses and protect national security, is our right. When they are not willing to take a legal stand on issues that are critical to our national existence, they do not have the right to express views on the actions we take to secure our existence.

Professor Asmerom Legesse. It was said the image [of Eritrea] was good until 1998, but has been negative since 2001. However, there is the year 1999 in between. That was the year many reporters came to Eritrea. There was an Eritrea government official located at Embasoira Hotel facilitating the affairs of the reporters. Up to that point, the Woyane [reference to Ethiopia’s regime] enjoyed diplomatic success. Then, things began to change; Woyane’s lies began to be exposed. When a reporter from Kenyan started to expose Woyane’s lies, he was banned from entering Ethiopia. Thus, not all the said years were in darkness. During the period, 1976-1978, there was a wide coverage of the [Eritrean] armed struggle in American newspapers. Later, at independence, in 1991, there was not much media coverage. Thus, conditions do change; and governments’ handling of things also change. There is not always a solid consensus in a government; there tend to be differences of opinion within. If one closes the door on you, his opponent [political] opens it for you. Thus, we should be able to compete in the [political] arena.

In the arena of diplomacy, Ethiopia has age-old institutions. It has the manpower. And as there are several international organizations and institutions located in the country, it has the opportunity to influence world opinion. I do not think it is useful to simply conclude that the world has taken a side against us and do nothing. We must gather our diplomatic capacity and compete in the international community. The community encompasses human rights and other political organizations. There is always the possibility to shift political opinion to your favor. If you cannot do this, that means you are defeated. It is not a problem that can be solved quickly. If we gather our capacity, improve our relations, we can be at par with those who are campaigning against us.

Wzo/ Fawzia Hashim. The issue of human rights is the issue of the spirit. And our basic struggle is to respect human rights. To stand as a country and a people, we have the right to exist, which is basic to our human dignity. As we experienced throughout our history, ensuring one’s survival and national well being are basic. From the legal point of view, to have a different opinion and to write in newspapers is no problem. But, writing in order to smear individuals’ names goes contrary to basic human rights. In the burgeoning newspapers we had, as articles with questionable contents started to appear, they were let go, hoping they would eventually mature. As this developed into illegal ways, however, a legal action had to be taken to stop the illegal activity. And the legal action taken does not contravene the right to expression and writing.

Further, there is no one in Eritrea who has been detained on account of his faith. People have practiced faiths of their choice. When illegal activities started to appear, however, a guideline was issued to stop them. But, the activities continued. The action taken was not against the faith, but against the illegal activities perpetrated in the name of faith. We are witnessing disguised external pressure intended to weaken internal capacity. After the legal confirmation of our independence, the second phase of the national struggle is national reconstruction.

Br/General Abraha Kassa. It seems to me that it is helpful to distinguish between the fundamental from the non-fundamental [issues]. It has been said that the rights of the people of Eritrea are violated. And we are saying to them, “You are violating the rights of the people of Eritrea.” As a diversion, they are engaged in a smear campaign against us. And it is a campaign to cover their evil intentions. Our basic issue is the issue of sovereignty. Our people must live in peace. If our sovereignty is secured, if peace comes, our condition will improve. We have been making efforts in diplomacy; it is not because we failed to campaign or were absent at international gatherings. We will continue to pursue all beneficial avenues. The policies of those who accuse us of human rights violations are against us; we have to figure out how to deal with this challenge.

To be continued…

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