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Eritrean government systematically committed crimes against humanity

The Eritrean government has systematically committed crimes against humanity over the last 25 years. Only three weeks after Eritrea marked 25 years of independence from Ethiopia, a UN report has pulled no punches.

Up to 400,000 people have been enslaved over the past 25 years in Eritrea's system of indefinite "national service," the head of a UN human rights inquiry into Eritrea said on Wednesday.

"We probably think there are 300,000 to 400,000 people who have been enslaved," Mike Smith said at a news conference.

A rule of law vacuum

Eritrea has a "rule of law vacuum," the second report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights said on Wednesday.

UN investigators said they had uncovered "vast evidence" that Eritrean officials - especially in the security services - had been guilty of enslavement. Enforced disappearances, torture, rape and murder had also been used to terrify and control the civilian population and crush the opposition, the COI said.

"Crimes against humanity have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner in Eritrean detention facilities, military training camps and other locations across the country over the past 25 years," the commission said in a press release.

"Particular individuals, including officials at the highest levels of state, the ruling party - the People's Front for Democracy and Justice - and commanding officers bear responsibility for crimes against humanity," it said.

No justice likely

Smith said there was no chance Eritrea's judicial system would bring the perpetrators to justice through a legitimate trial and called on world nations to use other means, including the International Criminal Court in The Hague, to ensure accountability.

Since it was established in June 2014, the COI has interviewed more than 800 Eritrean exiles and received more than 45,000 written submissions, some defending Eritrea's record.

Eritrea has repeatedly denied UN investigators access to the country. A statement from presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab accused the panel of being "entirely one-sided."

"Eritrea rejects the politically motivated and groundless accusations and the destructive recommendations of the COI," Gebreab said in the government statement. "It believes they are an unwarranted attack not only against Eritrea, but also Africa and developing nations."

Fleeing the regime

Refugees from the repressive state have made up one of the largest contingents of people risking the dangerous journey to seek a new life in Europe. According to the UN, around 5,000 Eritreans risk their lives every month to flee the country. Smith added that he also believed Eritrea was operating a shoot-to-kill policy on its borders to stop people fleeing the country.

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Post-1991 downward spiral

The 1991 split of Eritrea from Ethiopia followed a 30-year war of independence that saw Eritrean rebels fighting against better-equipped Ethiopian troops backed first by Washington and then by the Soviet Union.

Since independence, President Isaias Afwerki - a former rebel leader - has ruled with an iron fist. For example, the country ranks below North Korea as the worst in the world for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders.

With an annual per capita gross national income of $480, Eritrea is one of the world's poorest nations, according to the World Bank.

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jbh/sms (AFP, Reuters)

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