UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Eritrea's foreign ministry is calling accusations by a U.N. commission that its government is responsible for systematic and widespread human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity "totally unfounded and devoid of merit."
A statement circulated Wednesday by Eritrea's Mission to the United Nations called the claims "wild," ''indecent hyperbole," and an escalation of a politically motivated campaign to undermine the progress the country is making in the area of human rights.
The three-member commission of inquiry, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council a year ago, said in Monday's report that Eritrea keeps its people in a state of fear through a "pervasive control system" in which dissent is stifled, a large proportion of the population is subjected to forced labor and imprisonment, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country.
A former Italian colony on the Horn of Africa, Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war. It has been feuding over its border with Ethiopia ever since.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power since 1991, has become increasingly authoritarian and repressive, cracking down on political dissidents, closing independent media and limiting civil liberties. Eritrea is under U.N. sanctions for supporting al-Shabab and other armed groups trying to destabilize countries elsewhere in the region.
Eritrean refugees are now one of the largest groups trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to seek a better life in Europe.
The commission warned against sending them back to a country that punishes anyone who tries to leave without permission.
"To ascribe their decision to leave solely to economic reasons is to ignore the dire situation of human rights in Eritrea and the very real suffering of its people," the report said. "Eritreans are fleeing severe human rights violations in their country and are in need of international protection."
The Foreign Ministry strongly disagreed, calling on all nations and people "who value fairness, justice and human rights to demand an end to the travesty that is being perpetrated by the 'Commission of Inquiry'."
"Today, despite the vile slanders and false accusations, despite a deafening international silence in the face of the illegal occupation of our land in violation of international law, despite economic pressures and encouragement of illegal migration, our resolve and confidence that we will build a dignified and prosperous nation remains unshaken," it said.