Human Rights Watch at Chatham House-A Peddlers Event

Sophia Tesfamariam
I was in the middle of writing about the latest Human Rights Watch event scheduled for 30 April 2009 at Chatham House, wherein HRW intends to peddle its latest distortion on Eritrea, when I received an interesting article from a friend. The article entitled, "If you think Dubai is bad, just look at your own country", written by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi was in response to a Johann Hari article titled "The Dark Side of Dubai" posted by The Independent. Mr. Qassemi was rightfully indignant because the British journalist had deliberately misrepresented Dubai in his sensational piece. In responding, Quassemi wrote:

"…I recently figured that if British journalists such as Johann Hari who come to Dubai don't send back something sensationalist it won't get printed and they won't get paid. After all, sleaze sells…I called a British journalist friend of mine and said: "I'm going to write an article about London, the same way your compatriots write about Dubai." By the time I was back at home I had come to my senses, it's not fair to London, a city so dear to my heart, or Londoners to be judged by the actions of a few. It's easy to generalize about a country when figures are manipulated to sensationalize and sell papers…"

Misrepresentations and sensational reporting is something that Eritreans are very familiar with… a recent piece authored by Damien McElroy on Eritrea and posted by the Daily Telegraph serves as just one of many such examples. Like Mr. Qassemi´s rejection of the distorted piece about Dubai, Eritreans around the world also rejected McElroy´s report on Eritrea and exposed his bias. I read the piece and understood the author´s outrage, as I too was outraged by what I read in the latest HRW report on Eritrea. It is indeed a shame that for all their fancy education and worldliness, these so-called "researchers" could only come up with "cut and paste", repackaged laundered information collected by questionable individuals and groups, whose motives have nothing to do with human rights for the Eritrean people. What would they even know about human rights in Eritrea? Why feign concern today after remaining silent throughout the decades as Eritrean suffered?

It should be recalled that 65,000 of Eritrea's best and brightest children sacrificed their lives for the liberation of Eritrea from Ethiopian colonization. The people of Eritrea were subjected to torture and killings. Their villages were destroyed by cluster bombs and napalm bombs. Eritrean girls and women were terrorized and raped by Ethiopian soldiers, students, young men and women were strangled with wire coat hangers and Ethiopia´s rulers instituted their scorched earth policies to starve the Eritrean people to submission. On 24 May 1991, the victorious Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) entered Asmara, the Eritrean capital bringing an end to a bitter 30-year long war for independence.

Thousands were injured and maimed and thousands of children were left orphaned. Eritrea's infrastructures were destroyed, villages burned and razed to the ground. Ethiopia used cluster and napalm bombs to destroy villages and committed genocide in Eritrea. All these heinous international crimes were taking place with the full knowledge, tacit approval and acquiescence of the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity (Now African Union) and the US-led international community. None of the so-called human rights groups that are today maligning the EPLF and the Government of Eritrea bothered to pen a single report to bring attention to the Eritrean peoples´ plight. Were they around back then? Of course they were.

Amnesty International was established in 1961, Human Rights Watch in 1978, the Carter Center in 1982, Children's Rights Inc. (Now Committee for the Protection of Children) in 1981, Human Rights Internet in 1976, and Institute for the Study of Genocide in 1981. The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l'Homme), the oldest international human rights organization in the world was founded in 1922 to encourage liberty, justice, peace, and equality--all principles subsequently enumerated in the UN´s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted in 1948. Again, where were they then?

The latest HRW report on Eritrea is not only short on facts and evidence, but also short on intellectual and professional integrity. While the bulk of HRW´s "research" consisted of "cut and paste" reports from known "opposition" sites, its biased and distorted report relied on 53 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Italy, the United Kingdom, and Djibouti, and one or two "observers" for its "facts". It then relied on phone conversations with unidentified foreign diplomats in Asmara and in neighboring Djibouti for confirmation of these said "facts". HRW admits as much. It said:

"…Although Human Rights Watch did not conduct a formal fact-finding investigation in Eritrea due to the high risk posed to interviewees, a researcher did visit the country informally to cross-check certain areas of information…"

An informal research by someone who probably entered the country illegally or under false pretenses is supposed to serve as further verification of the ill gotten "facts"…go figure!

The HRW report contains no independent verification from any other Eritrean groups in the Diaspora, none from Eritrean officials, none from the hundreds and thousands of Eritrean immigrants living in Western countries, but plenty from members of the Eritrean Quislings League, a dubious alliance of the jilted and scorned, of like-minded defectors, disgruntled runaway diplomats, pedophiles, rapists, self-professed "intellectuals and professionals", deceitful counterfeiters, information launderers and an assortment of shameless scandalous opportunists. Of course there is also "facts" manufactured by runaway "journalists" who are living in the west supported by various HRW grants.

HRW goes to great lengths to embellish the truth in its attempts to paint a bleak picture of Eritrea and its government. I don´t intend to give credence to the report by addressing every single issue raised but would like to address some of them. In a glaring example of its shoddy research and obvious bias HRW wrote:

"…During the war, Ethiopia expelled most Eritrean residents who had voted in the 1993 referendum and confiscated their property. In turn Eritrea detained thousands of Ethiopians still living in the country in harsh conditions before expelling them…"

This is a futile and egregious attempt to whitewash a crime that was witnessed by thousands. HRW, had it really done an honest and comprehensive research, would have known that, in what was described then as "Africa´s Kosovo", the shameless racist leader of the minority regime in Ethiopia, in 1998 and 1999 deported over 80,000 innocent Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin and confiscated over a billion dollars worth of their hard earned belongings.

Many deportees who arrived at the Eritrean border had spent all their lives in Ethiopia, been in possession of Ethiopian identity cards and passports, had voted as Ethiopian citizens, worked in government offices and owned established businesses all over Ethiopia. All social groups and ages were included in the policy of mass expulsion; from Ethiopian disabled war veterans to United Nations employees, Embassy employees, religious leaders, bedridden elders, rural farmers, students, humanitarian workers, pregnant women and infants and a former Supreme Court Judge. Some of the Eritrean deportees had Ethiopian spouses. Thousands were interned in Blatein, Dedesa and Jalmeda camps and many other secret dungeons.

Exposing his bigotry and racist attitude Meles Zenawi deported these Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin right under the watchful eye of the African Union, UN and EU Ambassadors, and arrogantly and defiantly said:

"…The Ethiopian government has the unrestricted right to expel any foreigner from the country for any reason whatsoever. Any foreigner, whether Eritrean, Japanese, etc., lives in Ethiopia because of the goodwill of the government. If the Ethiopian government says 'Go, because we don't like the colour of your eyes,' they have to leave..."

HRW should endeavor to check its facts before publishing such distortions.

In another section of its anti-Eritrea report, HRW writes:

"…Eritreans from all walks of life have been affected, including government officials, leaders of government-sponsored labor unions, businessmen, and government journalists. Few have been freed—and usually only when extremely ill and likely to die: otherwise they are incarcerated indefinitely with little prospect of release. Estimates of the number of Eritreans who currently languish in jail without charge or trial are difficult to confirm but range from 5,000 to 10,000, excluding national service deserters, who may number in the tens of thousands…"

Why report something that is not confirmed?

I don´t know what the number of Eritreans in Eritrean jails and detention centers is and I also do not know the number of those that are detained in the United States, but according to Adam Liptak´s 23 April 2008 NY Times article entitled "Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations":

"…The United States has less than 5 percent of the world´s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world´s prisoners…the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations…"

I am not sure what HRW means by "Eritreans from all walks of life", is that a phenomenon unique to Eritrea? Aren´t the 2,310,984 persons behind bars in the United States representative of "Americans from all walks of life"? Is it not true that men, women, pregnant mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, businessmen, ex-lawmakers, lawyers, doctors, nurses and others make up the US prison population? In fact, according to Department of Justice statistics, an estimated 207,700 women were held in prison or jails at midyear 2008. In addition, in the United States, home to HRW and many other human rights organizations, the number persons in local jails (detention) at midyear 2008 was 785556. The other mind boggling fact about this figure is that 65% of them have yet to be sentenced.

HRW wants to pretend that deaths and/or illnesses in jails and detentions are unique to Eritrea? How many people die in US jails every year? It would be irresponsible to guess, so once again, I will refer to the DoJ. According to the DoJ, 18550 people died in State prisons in the years US 2001-2006. For the same years, the deaths while in custody in local jails and juvenile detention centers across the country were 7051 persons. These numbers do not include the hundreds and maybe thousands that hare being held in held incommunicado in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan and the many CIA secret prisons around the world, including Ethiopia.

HRW wants us tell us that it is somehow wrong to detain "deserters", "draft dodgers" and members of the armed forces. Is anyone above the law? Is it fair to allow anyone to break the law, just because he or she has served the country in the past? If that is so, why do have an estimated 140,000 veterans held in state and federal prisons-State prisons holding 127,500 of these veterans, and federal prisons held 12,500? I don´t make up the numbers; they came from the Justice Department´s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). In a related story about military personnel, the Pentagon said it received 2,923 reports of sexual assault across the military in the 12 months ending Sept. 30 2008.

HRW also wants to insinuate that "Christians" are jailed in Eritrea. There are no Eritreans who have been detained because of their faith and no matter how many times the Christian cartel wants to repeat those lies, it will not make them fact. HRW, without checking the veracity of the "Christian Alert", "Press Release", "Action" messages from its NGO network chose to regurgitate a lie. But that is the caliber of the "research" that we have to deal with nowadays.


How would Americans react if I were to I were to say that over 20,000 Christians died while in custody in US jails in the years 2001-2006…Outrage? Anger? I can only imagine. But at least my assertions would be based on facts, elementary math and deductive reasoning. You see, if we use the 2007 estimates for religions in the US: Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%, other or unspecified 2.5%, unaffiliated 12.1%, none 4% , it would be accurate to say that the United States is about 80% Christian. If we were to say that the prison population is representative of the general population, then it would also be fairly accurate to say that 80% of the 25601 who died in prison could have been Christians.

So what is the main gist of HRW´s report? It is an attempt to paint a bleak and scary picture of Eritrea, to discourage European countries and others from repatriating Eritrean asylum seekers to Eritrea. It should be recalled that despite the UNHCR orchestrated campaign against the return of about 700 Eritreans in the summer of 2008 claiming that they would be "imprisoned" and "tortured", no such thing happened to the returnees. They were repatriated and have resumed their normal lives. HRW points fingers at Eritrea and its treatment of "asylum seekers", "deserters" and "refugees", without offering any evidence except the words of anonymous persons. Let us look at our own record… right here in the United States, the "world´s greatest democracy and champion of human rights".

Here is what Daphne Eviatar reporting for the Washington Independent wrote in a recent article:

"…Data from the official Immigration and Customs Enforcement database, obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that exactly 32,000 immigrants were being detained in immigration detention facilities on the evening of Jan. 25. Of these, almost 19,000 had no criminal conviction — not even for illegal entry or low-level crimes like loitering or trespassing. More than 400 of these immigrants had been imprisoned for more than a year. A dozen had been held for three years or more. And one man from China, despite no criminal record whatsoever, had been locked up for more than five years…Although the law requires that ICE either deport or release immigrants within six months of their case being decided, The Associated Press reports that ICE routinely misses this Supreme Court-mandated deadline…"

In addition, Jacqueline Esposito and Jumana Musa in a 14 April 2009 report on New American Media wrote:

"…This year, more than 440,000 people will be held in immigration detention. There is a common misperception surrounding those who are held in immigration custody. The reality is that the United States government detains women, children, the elderly, asylum seekers, victims of torture, long-time lawful permanent residents and, in far too many instances, American citizens…These detainees are held for months, or even years, while they await a final determination on their immigration status. Frequently, individuals are detained without a judicial hearing, or even access to an attorney. Because the government has ruled that immigrants in removal proceedings have no Sixth Amendment right to counsel --under the theory that immigration law is civil in nature while the Sixth Amendment applies to criminal proceedings -- more than 84 percent of people in immigration detention are not represented by a lawyer. In a nation that prides itself on the rule of law and due process protections, this is a startling and disturbing fact…"

There are several watch groups in the US that have reported rampant human rights abuse in these detention centers. Government reports show that detained immigrants are "frequently denied medical care, visitation by family and friends, access to counsel, and even telephones". Since 2003 alone, there have been 91 reported deaths of individuals held in immigration detention. Nina Bernstein in a 27 January 2009 NY Times article wrote about one such case:

"…He lived 42 of his 48 years in the United States, and had the words "Raised American" tattooed on his shoulder. But Guido R. Newbrough was born German, and he died in November as an immigration detainee of a Virginia jail, his heart devastated by an overwhelming bacterial infection… His family and fellow detainees say the infection went untreated, despite his mounting pleas for medical care in the 10 days before his death. Instead, after his calls for help grew insistent, detainees said, guards at the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, Va., threw him to the floor, dragged him away as he cried out in pain, and locked him in an isolation cell… was found unresponsive in the cell several days later, on Nov. 27, and died at a hospital the next day without regaining consciousness. An autopsy report last week cited a virulent staph infection as an underlying cause of his death from endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves that is typically cured with antibiotics…"

Michelle Brane, of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, described detention centers for families in the United States. For example, at the T. Don Hutto facility in Texas, a former prison, she reportedly saw infants and toddlers dressed in prison garb. Children who cried or asked for more food were punished by being separated from their parents and pregnant women went without prenatal care.

A 10 December 2008 Report by the American Civil Liberties Union reported on a litany of difficulties that made daily life harsh and punitive for immigrants and asylum seekers in detention. These included:

"…being held in the same unit or the same cell with violent criminals; having to submit to strip searches and cell searches; unhealthy food and dirty water; a lack of access to bathrooms; difficulties in receiving visits from lawyers and family members; a phone system that makes it excessively expensive to call loved ones; no access to a legal library; no access to an outside recreation area; no access to educational services and no access to newspapers or reading materials. These harsh realities of jail life, together with the fact that detained immigrants do not have a set date of release and do not know how long they will be in jail lead to an environment in which depression, stress and anxiety are very high…."

In a 2 February 2007 Washington Post report by "Border Policy´s Success Strains Resources" Sylvia Moreno and Spencer S. Hsu wrote:

"…Ringed by barbed wire, a futuristic tent city rises from the Rio Grande Valley in the remote southern tip of Texas…In the Texas facility, they say, illegal immigrants are confined 23 hours a day in windowless tents made of a Kevlar-like material, often with insufficient food, clothing, medical care and access to telephones. Many are transferred from the East Coast, 1,500 miles from relatives and lawyers, virtually cutting off access to counsel…With roughly 1.6 million illegal immigrants in some stage of immigration proceedings, ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] holds more inmates a night than Clarion hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines…"

The Report goes on:

"…Detainees are subject to penal system practices, such as group punishment for disciplinary infractions. The tents are windowless and the walls are blank, and no partitions or doors separate the five toilets, five sinks, five shower heads and eating areas. Lacking utensils on some days, detainees eat with their hands…"

The Government of Eritrea´s immigration and repatriation policies are clear and HRW ought to get its facts about them from the nearest Eritrean Embassy instead of relying on "cut and paste" information from dubious sources.

As for Chatham House, this is not the first time that it will be hosting an anti-Eritrea event. I am sure there are other populations, such as the people in Gaza, in the Gambela, Ogaden and Oromia regions of Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia that could use and warrant international attention and concern…I will refer to Mr. Qassemi´s brilliant article to remind the Brits that their record is not any better than that of the United States.

Mr. Qassemi wrote:

"…in wealthy first world Britain there are 380,000 homeless people, many of them mentally ill, starving and abandoned in sub-zero temperatures to live on the streets…"

"…Britain, the so called "jail capital of Western Europe" sentenced in 2006 alone a staggering additional 12,000 women to prison and that up to seven babies a month are born in jail where they spend their crucial first months…"

"…Britain, the human rights champion, not wanting to get its hands dirty, had resorted to secretly outsourcing torture to Third World states under the guise of rendition by allowing up to 170 so called CIA torture flights to use its bases. Or that Britain's MI5 unlawfully shared with the CIA secret material to interrogate suspects and "facilitate interviews" including cases where the suspects were later proven to be innocent…"

"…the Britain of family values is the only country in the EU that recruits child soldiers as young as 16 into its Army and ships them off battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, putting it in the same league as African dictatorships and Burma…"

"…Britain either recently did or has yet to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict or the UN's International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families…"

"…liberal Britain is responsible for the physical and racial abuse of hundreds of failed asylum-seekers at the hands of private security guards during their forced removal from the country…"

"…the countless cases of slave-like working conditions of immigrant labors such as the 23 Chinese workers who lost their lives in 2004 as they harvested cockles in the dangerous rising tides in Morecambe Bay…"

Finally, considering the fact that Britain locks up a higher proportion of asylum-seekers, who are not criminals and have not committed any crimes in Britain, than any of the other European countries, why are HRW and Chatham House pointing accusing fingers at Eritrea for detaining those that have?

Nothing is more annoying than a bunch of condescending folks sitting behind white linen covered tables, drinking bottled water in fancy boardrooms and conference rooms talking about countries, governments and issues they have no first hand knowledge about. It is even worse when they are there to denigrate an entire nation in order to advance narrow western geopolitical agendas using human rights as a pretext. Interesting how human rights work has degraded from being a noble struggle of the oppressed to what it is today, a white collar profession, where men and women sit in western capitals in business suits and fancy computers dictating a language only the elite speak.

Nobody, least of all Human Rights Watch, has the moral or legal authority to lecture Eritreans about human rights; the struggle for the liberation and independence of Eritrea was a struggle for the human rights of the Eritrean people. Human right, a matter of human dignity, just like charity, begins at home. The struggle in Eritrea is about human rights for all…

Those who live in glass houses should not be throwing stones!
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