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Submission to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Dear Commissioner King:

Human Rights Watch has examined human rights violations in Eritrea since independence in 1991, but especially the steady deterioration of human rights since 2001. In that year, the government closed all independent newspapers, arrested their journalists, and arrested government officials and others critical of President Isaias Afwerki. Since then, the rule of law has been notably absent. Instead, President Isaias exercises totalitarian, often brutal, control.

Eritrea remains closed to human rights organizations, including every United Nations Special Rapporteur who has applied for a visa. Because of Eritrea’s exclusionary policy, our information about human rights violations comes primarily from the very large number of Eritreans who have fled the country because of government oppression. Although their individual accounts differ in details, their overall descriptions of the government’s sweeping restrictions on basic rights are remarkably consistent.

The information that Human Rights Watch has obtained describes autocratic governance that violates essential safeguards in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. We discuss our findings in greater detail in an annex to this letter.

Eritrea denies rights based on political opinion and religion. (Art.1). It subjects its citizens to exploitation and degradation through “national service” that traps conscripts for well over a decade and in some cases, forever. (Art. 5). Conscripts as well as civilians are frequently subject to inhuman and degrading punishment, including torture, without recourse. (Art. 5).

Arrests are arbitrary and not subject to judicial review or appeal; until recently, close family members were fined or imprisoned when another member fled the country. (Arts. 6,7). The then-15-year-old daughter of a former minister who fled the country has been jailed incommunicado for over five years, since 2012, as was the minister’s then-84-year-old father; neither has been given a hearing before an impartial tribunal. Journalists and government officials arrested in 2001 have never been brought to trial and remain in incommunicado detention despite two African Commission resolutions urging their release or at least a fair trial. Angara Vintage Ruby Diamond Halo Studs in White Gold 7GY7rbg
Unconfirmed reports from a former prison guard state that over half of the 21 officials and journalists included in the Commission resolutions have died during their nearly 17-year captivity.

Citizens have been imprisoned without trial and abused for practicing religion not sanctioned by the government. (Art. 8). No independent media or nongovernmental organizations have been allowed to exist. (Arts. 9, 10). Unsanctioned departure from the country is punishable, so thousands flee surreptitiously each month. (Art. 12). For several years, Eritrea had a “shoot-to-kill” policy for citizens trying to flee; the policy appears to have been implemented less consistently in recent years, but has not been altogether abandoned, according to interviewees.

This equation of human societies rewarding security failures stands in stark contrast to how the rest of the living world deals with failure. In the natural world, failed experiments are eliminated through the process of natural selection, while successful adaptations are rewarded and replicated through survival and relatively higher reproduction. We focus far less on success than on failures in society. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard was roundly criticized for its performance after the relatively small 40,000-gallon Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco, but its admirable performance in containing and cleaning 9 million gallons of oil spilled after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was almost completely ignored. 43 In fact, the massive Townsend after action report on Katrina identified seventeen “Critical Challenges,” 125 recommendations, and 243 action items, covering everything from search and rescue to transportation infrastructure to human services, but none of them addressed oil spill cleanup, the one unqualified success after Katrina. 44 At the time, the oil spilled from Katrina was one of the largest oil spills on record, approximately two-thirds the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. Yet so forgotten were the oil spills caused by Katrina that by the time of the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mike Huckabee was able to argue publicly that “not one drop of oil was spilled” due to Katrina. 45

Both the engineering literature and the “organizational learning” literature place a strong emphasis on learning from failure. David Garvin, a leader in studies of organizational learning, argued that BP capitalizes on “constructive failure” which he defined as a failure that provides the critical learning components of “insight, understanding, and thus an addition to the commonly held wisdom of the organization.” 46 The image of BP as an organization to emulate was shattered in April 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and led to an ecological and economic catastrophe. No doubt, the BP disaster will provide the company with all the components of “constructive failure” as Garvin defined them, but at a cost of greater than $1 billion to the company and with the uncertain economic and environmental impact on the Gulf of Mexico, it’s hard to see this kind of learning from failure as something to aspire to.

In part, this discrepancy lies in the selective forces at work or not. In nature, selection is cleanly parsed out in life and death. In society, the selective agents are not so sharp. In both statute and practice, BP was allowed to operate without the necessary backup systems and safeguards; 47 there was no pressure to improve performance in this part of their operations. We would like to think that our congressional representatives could do a better job of rewarding better performance among security and safety agencies, but the complex politics of congressional appropriations (which are often more closely tied to seniority of representatives than the merits of the funded projects) have created an enormous disconnect between performance and reward that is not likely to be repaired soon.

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