UNITED NATIONS (AP) UNITED NATIONS (AP) Alarming human rights abuses in Eritrea are spurring between 2,000 and 3,000 people to flee the east African nation every month, despite a "shoot-to-kill policy" targeting those attempting to leave, a U.N. investigator said Thursday.
Sheila Keetharuth, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, said the U.N. refugee agency was concerned about 305,723 Eritreans who have fled over the past decade.
"The most serious human rights violations are being committed" in Eritrea, Keetharuth said, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, extended incommunicado detention, torture, indefinite national service, and lack of freedom of expression, assembly, religious belief and movement.
She told the General Assembly's human rights committee that "excessive militarization" in the country and indefinite national service for all Eritreans aged 18 to 50, often without adequate remuneration, "causes countless Eritreans to desert from their positions and flee the country."
Eritrea, a former Italian colony, gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war. It has been feuding over its border with Ethiopia ever since, including a war from 1998-2000 in which about 80,000 people died. Eritrea has also disputed its border with the tiny port nation of Djibouti. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has been in power since the country broke away from Ethiopia in 1991.
Eritrea's U.N. Ambassador Arya Desta rejected the special rapporteur's report and Keetharuth's portrayal of the country, saying human rights issues are being used "as a tool of political pressure."
He accused unnamed countries of spearheading the imposition of "unfair and unjust" sanctions and of holding the entire population "in a state of 'no war, no peace.'" He insisted that "despite relentless hostilities to undermine our sovereignty" Eritrea has made strides in promoting and protecting the rights of its citizens, though he added, "We are cognizant of the fact that there are challenges and gaps in addressing human rights issues like in many countries."
Countering Keetharuth's claims, Desta "categorically" denied there is a "shoot to kill" policy for illegally crossing the border and said youths are not required to stay for extended military service and are offered wide educational opportunities. He insisted that the public media is open to anyone to express their views and access to the Internet, social media and satellite dishes is available "irrespective of their political contents."
Eritrea has barred Keetharuth, a human rights lawyer from Mauritius, from visiting the country but she said she spoke to Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, Djibouti and elsewhere in preparing her report. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also issued highly critical reports of human rights in Eritrea, calling it an oppressive state.
Keetharuth expressed extreme sadness at the sinking of two boats in early October off the coasts of Italy and Malta which claimed the lives of many refugees, including many Eritreans in the first incident off Lampedusa.
"It demonstrates the desperation of those who decide to flee, despite the extreme dangers along escape routes and an unknown future," Keetharuth said.
She said that nearly as many Eritreans 7,504 as Syrians 7,557 have arrived in Italy by sea from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 this year, citing figures from the U.N. refugee agency.
Keetharuth called for democratic national elections, an immediate accounting of those held incommunicado, including journalists who have imprisoned since 2001, demobilization of all those who have completed 18 months of national service, an immediate halt to the "shoot-to-kill" policy, and strengthened efforts to protect those fleeing from Eritrea, especially the increasing number of unaccompanied children.
Eritrea's Desta accused Keetharuth of attempting to politicize the Lampedusa tragedy while the country is mourning and welcomed the African Union's recent decision to investigate.