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Volunteering for human rights in Eritrea and Ethiopia
by Alice Michelazzi

25 November 2005

Asmara, Eritrea: The United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) Human Rights Office was established in May 2001 as a component of the Mission. Its mandate addresses human rights concerns resulting from the Ethiopia Eritrea conflict. The office’s main responsibility is the monitoring of the human rights situation in the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) and reporting to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) working for the Human Rights Office are deployed in the headquarters in Asmara and Addis Ababa respectively, as well as in the sectors where UNMEE has a presence. The UN Volunteers are involved in different human rights activities from monitoring and investigation to repatriation and visiting IDP and refugee camps. They undertake direct intervention in areas where cattle rustling and cross over of civilians occur between the two countries. The Human Rights Office works directly with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other humanitarian organizations during repatriation activities. It also organizes human rights training sessions for UNMEE civilian and military personnel as well as technical cooperation programmes in both countries.

Emmanouil Athanasiou joined UNMEE last July as a UNV Human Rights Officer, coming directly from Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, where he participated in the election observation mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He spent his first two months working at UNMEE’s headquarters in Asmara. We met just before he left for Adigrat in Central Sector (Ethiopia), his new duty station since mid-September. We discussed his experience in the Eritrean capital.

In Asmara, Emmanouil had the opportunity to get to know all the different tasks and issues within the Human Rights Office. The good thing is that he was able to work on various assignments. He was happy, though, to go to Adigrat in order to gain more field experience and work more on human rights protection and promotion. “I have always wanted to work in the field of human rights in Africa – it has always been my dream,” Emmanouil said. “Now I’m really excited as it came true. However, it is challenging as I am used to working on such issues in a completely different way. As a human rights lawyer, I am used to a more active and radical way of dealing with them.”

Emmanouil decided to become a UN Volunteer because he believes that volunteerism is the foundation of social responsibility and equal development. “For me, being a volunteer is contributing to global justice and a more secure environment,” he said. “I like what was said during the special session of the UN General Assembly on volunteerism, ‘helping people to help themselves.’ Trying to understand different cultures in order to promote human rights all over the world is a huge challenge for me personally but also a source of amazing inspiration,” Emmanouil added.

Patrick Amihere has been serving for the UNMEE Human Rights Office longer than Emmanouil. He currently works at the Addis Ababa headquarters, but, since his arrival, he has been serving in almost all the sectors. “When I first joined UNMEE, I was deployed to Sector West to cover the Human Rights Office in Barentu,” Patrick explained. “Upon completion of that brief assignment, I was posted to Eastern Eritrea at the port town of Assab where I served for almost three months.” Assab was a very challenging duty station for him due to weather conditions. A minimum of two litres of water a day was barely enough to make up for excessive sweating. “The monitoring field visits to Bure and Manda,” he continued, “required even more as the scorching heat would reach 40 degrees and above. I enjoyed working there, though,” he said.

Patrick’s work as a Human Rights Officer has been to gather information on the human rights situation in either Ethiopia or Eritrea (wherever he finds himself), conduct field missions to monitor and investigate human rights abuses as required by the Section, as well as conduct repatriation interviews whenever requested. In addition, he has prepared case and incident files for the Office and assisted in drafting reports with reference to human rights violations.
“ Working with the Human Rights Section of UNMEE has been challenging for me considering the limited nature of the Section’s mandate and the difficulties associated with carrying out the same,” Patrick admitted. “Nevertheless, there are rewarding tasks and responsibilities which help bear the difficulties of a hard job.” He explained that the Human Rights Office has been monitoring repatriation exercises carried out by partner humanitarian agencies and implementing capacity building programmes through trainings, seminars and workshops.

Patrick’s experience with UNV is not new, as he has served already with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Sri Lanka. “As my second UN Volunteer assignment, I consider this opportunity a very fulfilling one. It gives me the opportunity to serve humanity selflessly through the promotion and protection of basic fundamental rights,” said Patrick. “Furthermore, I can fully perform an act of kindness by freely giving my talents, time and effort hoping that Ethiopia and Eritrea will embrace peace and move ahead in meeting the Millennium Development Goals.”

Sonny Onyegbula is a UN Volunteer stationed in Mekelle, Ethiopia. His main duties revolve around promotional activities as well as ensuring that the technical cooperation mandate of UNMEE in relation to human rights is realized. His work focuses on capacity building and other promotional activities for government institutions, civil society organizations as well as professional bodies. Presently, he is facilitating trainings to be conducted for prisoners, prison officials, law enforcement agencies, human rights actors as well as judicial officials. Agreements have also been finalized to provide bi-monthly human rights lectures for law students and the entire Mekelle University community. The inaugural public lecture was held on 8 November 2005.

Sonny first arrived at the mission in December 2004 and had served partly in Asmara and Barentu. He came back for his second assignment with UNMEE in August 2005. According to him, volunteering was a natural progression for him as a human rights lawyer. He feels that he has an obligation to society to use his expertise to contributing to making the world a better place to live.

“This can be achieved by contributing to human rights education especially at university level and by making sure that those who have custodial powers over other persons are aware of the human rights standards that they must follow in carrying out their duties” he explains.

Sonny is grateful for the level of cooperation that he has received from government officials as well as other interlocutors in his area of responsibility. This has made his work easier and more fulfilling.

In total, there are six UN Volunteers working with the UNMEE Human Rights Office and they are deployed within the entire mission area (Ethiopia and Eritrea).

Alice Michelazzi of Italy is participating in an Italian-funded internship programme with the UNV country office in Asmara, Eritrea.

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)