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Freedom of Religion: Eritrea’s Violation of Domestic and International Obligations Print E-mail
Tuesday, 04 October 2011 21:19
“In denying basic human rights and continuing to postpone implementation of the Constitution’s requirements for establishing multi-party democracy in place of the current one-party rule, and in refusing international human rights dialogue and access to the country, the Eritrean President and government have turned Eritrea into a virtually “closed” country in respect of its international community obligations and cooperation.”

Constitutional Rights Violated
The Eritrean Constitution, which was ratified by the Constituent Assembly on 23 May 1997, guarantees the right to freedom of religion, freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of association. In Chapter III on Fundamental Rights, Freedoms and Duties, Article 19 guarantees freedom of “Conscience, Religion, Expression of Opinion, Movement, Assembly and Organization”.

Article 14 on Equality under the Law states that “All persons are equal under the law” (Article 14.1) and that “No person may be discriminated against on account of race, ethnic origin, language, colour, gender, religion [highlighted here], disability, age, political view, or social or economic status or any other improper factors”.

Limitations are set on fundamental rights and freedoms “in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, health or morals, for the prevention of public order or crime or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” (Article 16.1). However, laws providing such limitations must be “consistent with the principles of democracy and justice” and must in any case not limit the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief as set out in Article 19.1 above. Any such law shall be “null and void” (Article 18.1). Any citizen claiming violation of a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution “may petition a competent court for redress” (Article 28.2).

Constitution of Eritrea (1997)

  • Every person shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief” (Article 19.1)
  • Every person shall have the freedom of speech and expression, including freedom of the press and other media” (Article 19.2)
  • Every person shall have the freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice” (Article 19.4)
  • All persons shall have the right to assemble and to demonstrate peaceably together with others” (Article 19.5)
  • Every citizen shall have the right to form organizations for political, social, economic and cultural ends” (Article 19.6)

In practice, the constitutional guarantees of the right to freedom of opinion and of religious belief is not implemented. Violations are systematically perpetrated by the authorities with impunity and without any possibility of legal protection or judicial redress.  Constitutional protections against arbitrary detention and unfair trial (Article 17) and against torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishments (Article 16) are also not respected in practice. There is no Constitutional Court to rule on the implementation of the Constitution or on violations of the Constitution’s human rights protections.

International standards violated on the right to religious freedom

Under international human rights standards and international treaties to which Eritrea is a party, Eritrea is under obligation to respect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including religious worship, assembly and association. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenants on Civil and Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, affirm that everyone is entitled to these rights without distinction of any kind, including religion.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship or observance”.  Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Eritrea acceded in 2002, adds: “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice” (Article 18.2). General Comment no.22 of the Human Rights Committee notes that “policies or practices having the same intention or effect [i.e. coercion], such as, for example… restricting access to education, medical care, employment or the rights guaranteed by article 25 … and other provisions of the Covenant are … inconsistent with Article 18(2)”.

States which have ratified the two International Human Rights Covenants are required to submit regular reports to the Human Rights Committee on the measures they have taken to give effect to the rights recognized in the Covenants. Eritrea has failed to submit its initial reports to the Human Rights Committee which were due on 22 April 2004.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Eritrea acceded in 1999,
states that “Freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion shall be guaranteed” (Article 8).

The right to religious freedom was elaborated in 1981 when the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion n or Belief. The preamble to this Declaration considers that “religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life and that freedom of religion or belief should be fully respected and guaranteed”. This is expanded in the various articles of the Declaration.

UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

  • “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching” (Article 1.1 ) "No one shall be subject to discrimination by any state, institution, group of persons or person on the grounds of religion or belief” (Article 2.1)
  • “Discrimination between human beings on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes an         affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the principles of the Charter of the United         Nations, and shall be condemned as a violation of the human rights and fundamental         freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as enunciated in detail        in the International Covenants on Human Rights, and as an obstacle to friendly and        peaceful relations between nations” (Article 3).
  • Article 4 affirms that States must prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, and must enact or rescind discriminatory legislation and “take all appropriate measures to combat intolerance on the ground of religion or belief”.
  • The Declaration is particularly emphatic on the right to religion or belief within the family and for children.

Article 6 sets out the relevant freedoms relevant to religion:
(a) To worship or assemble in connection with a religion or belief, and to establish and
maintain places for these purposes;
(b) To establish and maintain appropriate charitable or humanitarian institutions;
(c) To make, acquire and use to an adequate extent the necessary articles and materials
related to the rites or customs of a religion or belief;

(d) To write, issue and disseminate relevant publications in these areas;
(e) To teach a religion or belief in places suitable for these purposes;
(f) To solicit and receive voluntary financial and other contributions from individuals
and institutions;
(g) To train, appoint and elect or designate by succession appropriate leaders called for
by the requirements and standards of any religion or belief;
(h) To observe days of rest and to celebrate holidays and ceremonies in accordance with
the precepts of one’s religion or belief;
(i) To establish and maintain communications with individuals and communities in
matters of religion or belief at the national and international levels.

As expressed by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief19, persons deprived of their liberty have the right to freedom of religion or belief. Article 10, paragraph 1 of the ICCPR provides that “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” In its General Comment No. 22 (1993) on Article 18 of the Covenant, the Human Rights Committee has stressed that “[p]ersons already subject to certain legitimate constraints, such as prisoners, continue to enjoy their rights to manifest their religion or belief to the fullest extent compatible with the specific nature of the constraint”.

In 1986 the UN Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on
freedom of religion or belief to “examine incidents and government actions in all parts of the world which would fall within the provisions of the Declaration and to recommend remedial measures”. In 2005 the Special Rapporteur's report to the Commission on Human Rights listed communications sent to the Government of Eritrea in 2004 concerning arrests of members of the Kale Hiwot church, Full Gospel Church, Rema Church, and others. The government in February 2004 replied that Jehovah’s Witnesses had not been arrested because of their religion beliefs but because they refused to participate in the national service program.
Rema church and other church members were detained because they had refused to register and apply for permits. It said they were held for only 10 days because of the “leniency and tolerance of the government”, denied they had been ill-treated, and described the charges of ill-treatment as “only malicious defamations”. Amnesty International considers that the Eritrean government’s replies to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief failed to address the seriousness of the concerns about violations of right to freedom of religion and
belief.
The Special Rapporteur asked for replies to three other communications and to her
request in 2004 to visit Eritrea – to which she has still received no reply. The Special
Rapporteur on the question of torture, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, also sent urgent communications to the Government of Eritrea in connection with the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses arrested on 24 January 2004.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, considering Eritrea’s report on its
implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, expressed concern regarding the freedom of expression and religion in Eritrea in regard to children: “Noting that the State party's Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression and religion, [it] is concerned at reports that measures affecting children and young people were taken against students on religious grounds, indicating that these rights were not duly upheld”.

In April 2005 the Eritrean government representative told the UN Commission on
Human Rights, in response to criticisms of religious persecution, that the Seventh Day
Adventist Church would soon be given a permit.23 To date, the permit has not been issued to this religion or three other minority religious groups which officials claimed were about to be registered, including the Baha’i religion, and they all remain banned.

On the question of registration of religion, Amnesty International does not object to
administrative regulations for registration which are reasonable, practical and in conformity with international human rights standards. Amnesty International considers that the failure of the government to process the registration applications made by some minority religious groups and to register any of them for the last three years indicates a refusal to recognize the rights of the minority religious groups and their members to religious freedom. Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the imposition of registration requirements for minority religious groups of an extremely restrictive and punitive character has led directly to widespread arrests, torture, and illegal arbitrary detention of members of religious groups, as well as other violations of their basic human rights.

Eritrea’s denial of a wide range of basic human rights to Jehovah’s Witnesses violates
a number of principles in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The government’s actions against Jehovah’s Witnesses and other minority religious groups are in violation of the government’s obligations under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the principles set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Government’s dismissal of international criticism

The government has frequently reacted dismissively to criticisms of human rights violations, whether by Amnesty International or other international organizations, including media organizations concerned about detentions of journalists, 24 or by diplomats privately. Criticisms of religious persecution have been no exception. The government has rarely responded to Amnesty International members’ numerous Urgent Action appeals or replied to Amnesty International reports.

On 1 May 2003, a government statement replying to criticisms but without making any
reference to complaints about particular incidents and cases, merely cited what the
Constitution said about the right to freedom of religion."People are free to worship according to their wish, or to refrain from worshipping or practicing religion"
In December 2003 the Eritrean government described as "scandalous and misleading" the reference to Eritrea as one of 11 countries severely violating religious liberty in the US State Department's global report on International Religious Freedom in 2003, but it did not Comment on or attempt to refute any of the facts presented. Subsequently in September 2004, the US Government designated Eritrea as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
The US State Department 2005 report on religious freedom in Eritrea was also extremely critical.

In April 2005, the Director of the Office of the President said that “one cannot question the credentials of this country on religious rights and religious tolerance… If a sect assembles without permission, its members may be arrested for five hours and then let off with a warning”

In September 2005, the Acting Minister of Information, in response to criticism by the
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) relating to secret and arbitrary detentions of journalists since 2001, stated: “That is our own affair, a sovereign issue. It is up to us what, why, when and where we do things”.

The government has refused to cooperate with the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)
Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, both of which criticised the detentions of 11 members of parliament and called for their release. The IPU has to date received no reply to its request to send a mission to the country.

In denying basic human rights and continuing to postpone implementation of the
Constitution’s requirements for establishing multi-party democracy in place of the current one-party rule, and in refusing international human rights dialogue and access to the country, the Eritrean President and government have turned Eritrea into a virtually “closed” country in respect of its international community obligations and cooperation.

Amnesty International, Eritrea Religious Persecution, December 2003, AI Index:  AFR 64/013/2005, pp. 21-16

 

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