#NotThatBadInEritrea?

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The New York Times ran a curious op-ed on the subject of Eritrea last week.

Titled “It’s Bad in Eritrea, but Not That Bad“, it suggests that the recent report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), finding evidence of crimes against humanity in Eritrea, is biased and inaccurate. The author, Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council, agrees that the situation is “frightful”, but calls the report “shoddy” and claims it “entrenches the skewed perspective long dominant in policy circles and the media in the West”.

Bruton has two main problems with the COI: First, that on the basis of incomplete information it over-interprets all human rights violations as evidence of systematic and top-down policy. And second, that its call to refer the alleged crimes to the International Criminal Court risks further isolating Eritrea and undermining prospects for reform.

While the latter point is laughably non-specific to the case of Eritrea (welcome to the peace vs. justice debate, round 73!), the former sounds like a reasonable concern. Indeed, distinguishing human rights abuses that are directed vs. tolerated can be challenging. And like many commissions investigating uncooperative regimes, this one made its findings on the basis of diaspora testimony, without doing any on the ground research.

But the role of a COI is not to make a legal determination of guilt. It’s simply to establish whether there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that serious violations of human rights have occurred. And the standard for crimes against humanity is whether the abuses are widespread OR systematic. The fact that the COI found evidence of widespread, serious human rights violations is, on its own, enough to justify its conclusion that there are reasonable grounds to believe crimes against humanity have been committed, and should be investigated.

Bruton makes another point in criticism of the COI, though, which gets to the heart of why the report is so controversial. Namely, that while Eritrea faces censure from the international community, neighboring Ethiopia escapes criticism for similar behavior. It’s clear from the online response to the report that pro-regime Eritreans feel this disparity keenly.

Human rights abuses in Ethiopia should undoubtedly receive more attention, but this is hardly an argument for giving Eritrea a pass. According to one estimate, between 2012 and 2015, 1 in 50 Eritreans fled their homeland for asylum in Europe. That’s a remarkably high proportion, indicating that perhaps things ARE #ThatBadInEritrea.