The UN Special Rapporteur says human rights violations in Eritrea “are ongoing”. (Photo: David Stanley/Flickr/CC)

As relations between Ethiopia and its neighbour Eritrea show signs of improvement, the UN’s rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea has called for the momentum to be used to improve human rights conditions in the country.

“While peace is being negotiated, while rapprochement is happening, one would make sure that the centrality of human rights is not ignored,” said Sheila Keetharuth last week.

Keetharuth was presenting her final report on the situation of human rights in Eritrea to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, at the end of her tenure as the UN’s Special Rapporteur. Rights groups have called for a renewal of the rapporteur’s mandate.

In her final report Keetharuth said human rights violations in Eritrea “are ongoing” but also mentioned the thaw in relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia as a positive development.

Eritrea has used the conflict between the two as a reason to justify mandatory conscription.

Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following a 30-year conflict, but a border war five years later killed tens of thousands. Diplomatic ties between the two countries have been cut for almost 20 years.

On 26 June, for the first time in decades a high-level Eritrean delegation visited Ethiopia, to discuss the prospect of peace, as reported by Reuters.

Father Thomas Reese, of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told a US Human Rights Commission hearing in April that Eritrea remained “one of the worst examples of state-sponsored repression of freedom of religion or belief in the world”, where an estimated 1,200–3,000 people are detained on religious grounds.

In her report, Keetharuth highlighted the case of an “Evangelical Christian from an unrecognised church” who had died while in prison. She called on the government to investigate “all deaths in custody …. promptly”, adding that “families whose loved ones died in custody should be informed about the cause of death, prosecution of perpetrators and they should obtain reparations”.

Eritrea is 6th on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. In 2002, Eritrea passed a law prohibiting Churches other than the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and also Sunni Islam.

Ethiopia is also on the list, ranked 29th. According to Open Doors, “the government, suspicious about religion in general, continues to restrict religious freedom: religious broadcasting services and religious activities in schools are banned”. Other pressure on Christians comes from the predominant Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the largest and oldest Church, which wields national influence. Some members of other denominations have faced harassment or even attacks.

Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, has said he would be willing to hand over disputed territory to Eritrea as part of a peace deal. Since his appointment in April, Dr. Ahmed has overseen the release of thousands of political prisoners and the unblocking of hundreds of websites and TV channels, while also lifting the state of emergency in his country.

Dr. Ahmed is the first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group in the country’s 27-year history. The Oromo, although the largest ethnic group in the country, have long felt marginalised, and anti-government protests in the last three years have claimed hundreds of lives.

He was born in 1976 in the Jimma region of western Ethiopia, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother. When violent unrest broke out between the two religious communities, he actively engaged in a peace forum for reconciliation.

He previously served in the Ethiopian army, fighting against Eritrea, and joined the intelligence service before moving into politics in 2010.