Voices for the Voiceless with Daniel Mekonen

Daniel Mekonnen, Eritrean human rights lawyer and scholar, addresses the 8th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On the importance of the Geneva Summit:

“I feel very honoured to have the opportunity of speaking in front of you today, in this very important global event, to which we all came from all different corners of the world to discuss issues of paramount importance in the global fight to end impunity.”

“To us, in the Eritrean human rights cause, the opportunity of speaking in this global forum comes as one of very rare instances in which the dire state of human rights in Eritrea can be brought to a broader spotlight with amplified attention.”

On the human rights situation in Eritrea:

“The government in Eritrea has now become one of the most repressive regimes in the world, with alarming levels of human rights violations comparable only with very few instances throughout the world.”

“Whatever it takes, I will continue my fight for the establishment of an Eritrean political system based on the rule of law. And I am sure, with the help of all peace loving people of the world, people like you, this cause will ultimately prevail.”

On the precarity of human rights:

“But who in the world has ever got their rights for free? After all, rights are earned through a long and bitter struggle. That is why they are so precious.”

“This world belongs to all of us equally and without any discrimination.”

Full Remarks

Dear Colleagues, Distinguished Guests and Fellow Speakers,

I feel very honoured to have the opportunity of speaking in front of you today, in this very important global event, to which we all came from all different corners of the world to discuss issues of paramount importance in the global fight to end impunity.

First and foremost, I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the organizers of this event, and personally to Mr. Leon Saltiel, for inviting me to share my thoughts in this event.

By way of a brief introduction, let me say the following about myself. As you have heard, my name is Daniel Mekonnen, I originate from Eritrea, a country suffering from some of the worst types of human rights violations in the world. To us, in the Eritrean human rights cause, the opportunity of speaking in this global forum comes as one of very rare instances in which the dire state of human rights in Eritrea can be brought to a broader spotlight with amplified attention. Thus, it is a very important opportunity in our fight to end impunity in Eritrea.

To those who do not know more about Eritrea, let me briefly provide you with a very short summary of the post-independence history of Eritrea. My country achieved its de facto independence in 1991 after winning a long and bitter war of liberation against neighbouring country Ethiopia. It was officially recognised by the international community as an independent state in 1993. Up to 1997, Eritrea experienced a relatively peaceful transition towards a much-anticipated democratic system of governance. Things changed dramatically when the country became embroiled in a fresh border conflict, again, with its neighbouring country, Ethiopia. This so called “border conflict” was fought bitterly from May 1998 until May 2000. After that, the two countries signed a ceasefire and legally speaking I can say the conflict was resolved by a number of follow-up binding agreements and arbitral awards that were signed and rendered in the following two years. However, a number of residual matters, related to the border conflict, remain unresolved due to the obstinacy of the governments in both countries, resulting in a “no war no peace” situation for the last fourteen years.

In this context, the government in Eritrea became extremely repressive, justifying its brutal repression under the pretext of the so-called unresolved border conflict with Ethiopia. Nonetheless, everything said and done by the Eritrean government under the pretext of the so-called “border conflict”, or stalemate with Ethiopia, is morally and legally reprehensible. The government in Eritrea has now become one of the most repressive regimes in the world, with alarming levels of human rights violations comparable only with very few instances throughout the world. It was in this context that I left Eritrea in 2001; except for a brief return of three months between 2002 and 2003, I have remained in exile ever since.

Since the time I left Eritrea, I have worked continuously in defence of human rights in Eritrea and this includes my involvement in a number of initiatives, such as the formation and leadership of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), which was established back in South Africa when I was there, and which was perhaps the most progressive youth movement of its time, including of the post-independence era (at least by accounts dating back to the time when EMDHR was established). As a founding member of the Eritrean Law Society (ELS), the only professional association of Eritreans unfortunately working from exile, I have also played my part in exposing grave human rights violations committed by the Eritrean government. I do this through different measures, such as submission of alternative reports, or shadow reports, to different treaty monitoring bodies of the United Nations here in Geneva and the African Union.

I also mobilized Eritrean diaspora communities to stand up firmly against tyranny and condemn unequivocally gross human rights violations committed back in Eritrea. One of the most recent and most important examples in this regard is my involvement in the leadership and organization of a historic mass rally of pro-human rights Eritreans and their allies that took place on June 26, 2015, here in Geneva.

Organized under the banner of “End Impunity in Eritrea!” the Geneva Mass Rally attracted more than 5000 pro-human rights and democracy Eritreans and their supporters, from all over Europe and the rest of the world. With a strong message of condemning grave human rights violations in Eritrea, the mass rally turned out to be the biggest such event to be organized in a third country since the advent of the Eritrean government to power in 1991. Implemented without any financial or material support from any government or donor agency, the Geneva Mass Rally was a resounding success entirely planned and executed by diaspora-based Eritrean grassroots movements and activists; all of whom served on a non-remunerated voluntary capacity. Serving as the chairperson of the seven-member Coordinating Committee of that event, that organized the historic Geneva Mass Rally, is one of the most gratifying achievement in my entire professional and activist life.

Staged in front of the United Nations Office in Geneva, the mass rally of June 2015 was deliberately planned to coincide with the time when a United Nations mandated Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea was presenting a ground breaking report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The commission said horrendous violations (including a possible situation of crimes against humanity) are taking place in Eritrea. And remember, ladies and gentlemen, crimes against humanity is one of the three major categories of crimes under international law that fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I share my experience with you today without forgetting the many intimidations and serious death threats that I regularly receive from supporters of the Eritrean government in different mediums of communication, of course. The most recent example is one I received in June 2015, while I was preparing for the Geneva demonstration, which is still under investigation by the relevant authorities in Geneva, including by the department of police in the city.

As gratifying as it is, my work on human rights (what I call “cause lawyering”) is at times very challenging. But who in the world has ever got their rights for free? After all, rights are earned through a long and bitter struggle. That is why they are so precious. So, whatever it takes, I will continue my fight for the establishment of an Eritrean political system based on the rule of law. And I am sure, with the help of all peace loving people of the world, people like you, this cause will ultimately prevail. I also very much hope that one day I will be able to recount this speech in the capital city of Eritrea, in Asmara, in the ashes of tyranny.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I was born and raised in Eritrea, but I have also studied, worked and lived in as many as nine different countries, which include Ethiopia, South Africa, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland. In relation to my work on human rights, I have also travelled to many other places throughout the world with varying lengths of stay. I can therefore fairly consider myself a world citizen. By a world citizen, I mean “a peaceful and peace-making individual, both in daily life and contacts with others,” and whose inner urge or strong impulse is geared towards creating a fairer world in which every individual shall live a fair and dignified life.

So, true to my commitment to “world citizenship,” I try to relate everything I do to all fellow human beings regardless of their respective ethnic, religious, political or other backgrounds. Thus, my commitment to human rights emanates not only from the sad state of affairs in my country of origin, but also from my values that I mentioned above which are deeply entrenched in the person, in me.

Colleagues and Fellow Speakers,

I am presenting this speech at a time when the world is becoming extremely dangerous to many vulnerable groups, such as refugees and asylum seekers. Speaking as someone who finds himself in an exile of more than thirteen years, and as a person who has suffered a lot due to immigration related injustice, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers is one of the most pressing issues, and one that comes close to my heart. I would therefore be remiss if I concluded my speech without saying a few words about this particular global challenge.

So, by way of concluding, I would like to highlight the urgent need to democratize some extremely suffocating aspects of European immigration rules. When we speak about repressive regimes that are committing gross human rights violations in geographic areas far from places such as this forum, it should be without forgetting other forms of injustice that are taking place before our eyes in so close a distance. Only then will we be able to build a world free from all forms of prejudice and injustice. This world belongs to all of us equally and without any discrimination. When we say this, we shall say it with words and deeds!

Thank you for listening.

8th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 22, 2016

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