Yesterday, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea. But the renewing the mandate shouldn’t have been up for discussion in the first place, given the unanimous support for it in 2018 and, more importantly, Eritrea’s dire and unchanged rights situation.
Yet despite all that, the traditional drafters of the Eritrea resolution, Somalia and Djibouti, declined to even present a resolution because of their improved political relations with Eritrea. Likewise, several member states blocked the European Union from presenting a text. Eventually a group of countries – Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands – stepped in to ensure this important international oversight mechanism wasn’t lost.
In recent months, the Eritrean government lobbied hard, misrepresenting its election to the HRC as international endorsement of its abusive rights record.
In the end, the message was loud and clear: neither a state’s membership on the HRC, nor improved geopolitical relations, will bring an end to much-needed international scrutiny, without concrete improvements on human rights.
Eritrea has an opportunity to turn the page – if it wishes to do so. The renewed mandate, under an agenda item which is not seen as condemnatory, and a benchmarks report produced by the Special Rapporteur which identifies clear reform priorities, offer Eritrea the chance to engage with UN special procedures in a positive manner and show the Council it is willing to meet its membership obligations.
The Eritrean government should start by proactively and constructively engaging with the Special Rapporteur and providing her and other mandate holders from the UN and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights with access to Eritrea. Over the next year, it should move ahead with key reform priorities – starting with releasing political detainees, improving due process rights, and conducting a substantive reform of the country’s notorious indefinite national service system.
Only once Eritrea shows a true commitment to upholding its Council membership obligations and moves ahead with pressing reforms should it be rewarded with a shift in approach at the Council.