The Eritrean government is responsible for systematic and gross human rights abuses on a "scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere," according to a United Nations report released on Monday.
The actions could constitute crimes against humanity, the U.N. inquiry concluded. The situation has sparked a massive exodus from Eritrea, which was the second largest source of migrants, after Syria, who are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe.
Eritrea’s only response in the report was a statement in which it said the U.N. should not single it out for criticism. “Country-specific resolutions and mandates are in breach of the United Nations principles of impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity,” the government said in its statement, quoted in the report.
In its report, the United Nations commission of inquiry on the human rights situation in Eritrea detailed extrajudicial killings, widespread torture, sexual slavery and forced child labor. The probe named the main perpetrators of the violations as the Eritrean Defense Forces, in particular the Eritrean army, the National Security Office and the country's police force.
The ministries of information, justice and defense were also accused in the report, in addition to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) party and President Isaias Afwerki.
Press representatives at the Eritrean embassy were not available for immediate comment Monday morning. In the past, the country has denied accusations of human rights abuses.
The U.N. commission found that measures undertaken to "ensure the survival of the young state" after independence from neighboring Ethiopia in 1991 "degenerated into the use of totalitarian practices."
Attempts to shore up the rights of citizens were "suppressed, then extinguished, by the Government on the pretext of threats to its existence," the U.N. commission's report states.
The 484-page report details how Afwerki's government, in power for 22 years, has routinely arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured or killed its citizens. "It is not law that rules Eritreans, but fear," the report said.
A system of indefinite conscription of all Eritreans forced many to toil in slave-like conditions in the military and other state jobs, sometimes for decades, the U.N. said. Sexual violence against women and girls was also "widespread and indeed notorious in military training camps," the report said.
The probe was ordered by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2014, and investigators will present their findings to the body on June 23. The three-member commission, which included the U.N.'s top expert on the human rights situation in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, said in a statement that the violations in the country were occurring on a "scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere."
In mid-2014, the U.N. refugee agency counted nearly 360,000 refugees worldwide from Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a brutal 30-year independence struggle.
"In desperation, they resort to deadly escape routes through deserts and neighboring war-torn countries and across dangerous seas in search of safety," the report said, adding that fleeing Eritreans "risk capture, torture and death at the hands of ruthless human traffickers."
To escape the conditions, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans embark on long, dangerous journeys, many attempting to reach Europe or Israel by land or sea. They are often abandoned in the desert to die by unscrupulous smugglers or drown in the Mediterranean after journeys in unsafe vessles.
The investigators urged the international community to welcome fleeing Eritreans, offer them protection and make their migration routes safer and, above all, not send them "back to danger."
They described a society of mass surveillance, in which neighbors and family members were drafted to inform on each other, and where people could be held for years in horrific conditions without ever knowing what crime they committed.
The report also noted that the government systematically silenced anyone perceived as criticizing it or its policies. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom group, Eritrea's media is one of the most censored in the world.
The government also tortured followers of non-authorized religious denominations and violated due processes of law, the U.N. commission said. What was meant to be the supreme law of the country, the Constitution of 1997, had never been implemented, the report said. The National Assembly stopped convening in 2002. Even while the assembly was still sitting, laws were passed by government decree.
Al Jazeera and agencies