With support from UNESCO’s Global Media Defence Fund, CRNI has recruited a new network of Legal Experts around the world, both practicing lawyers and academics, these bolstering our existing roster of Regional Representative cartoonists. In a series of interviews we get to know a selection of these experts better; today’s subject is Dr. Daniel R. Mekonnen, an Eritrean lawyer now based in Switzerland. Dr. Mekonnen has a particular interest in human rights law, human trafficking & refugees and global peace & security. He is the Executive Director of the Eritrean Law Society (ELS), a role he is currently dispatching while living in exile.
1. Our cartoonists are consistently expressing anxiety about criminalisation. In your view, are they right to be worried?
Yes, certainly in the countries with which I am most familiar – Eritrea and Ethiopia. The case of Eritrea is well known, ranked for several consecutive years as the worst country on Earth (sometimes way below North Korea) in terms of freedom of expression. There is more than enough reason to be worried for a cartoonist based in Eritrea, if indeed there are any “independent” cartoonists remaining, and I don’t believe so.
In the case of Ethiopia, the situation is relatively-speaking better than that of Eritrea. At present, in the context of the armed conflict in the northern part of the country, the situation has deteriorated considerably. That instability is good reason for cartoonists to be worried.
2. What is the greatest impediment to freedom of expression in these countries?
Two major factors can be cited:
- repressive government policies which are the antithesis to rights to freedom of expression, and
- weak or nearly non-existent judicial institutions that may be of no use to victims of injustice.
3. Describe the work of your firm; in particular tell us about any efforts on behalf of minority or marginalised people.
I work mainly in the area of documentation of human rights violations. I also support displaced victims of human rights violations in their asylum applications in Africa, Europe and North America.
4. Do you consider yourself a human rights defender (HRD)? If so and you are at liberty to describe the experience, have you been the victim of harassment or threat because of your work?
Indeed so – I am a human rights defender and a can describe such experiences. For instance, between June 2014 and June 2016 I helped in the coordination an enormous task of collecting and submitting more that 100 written testimonials to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. In that context, in June 2015 I received an open death threat via Twitter comment that was issued by an entity closely associated with the Eritrean Government. For a limited period of time, I was under temporary police protection in Geneva. The matter was sufficiently corroborated by the UN Commission cited above.
5. Have you been involved in any note-worthy cases concerning cartoonists, artists or journalists?
In October 2020 I joined with eminent jurists and activists of international reputation, such as the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate Iranian Shirin Ebadi, former Attorney-General of Canada Irwin Cotler, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, former African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights chair Pansy Tlakula, and other personalities in co-signimg a formal criminal complaint that was submitted to the Swedish prosecutorial authorities, pertaining to certain categories of crimes against humanity committed against Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, who is a victim of enforced disappearance since September 2001. The complaint was initiated by Reporters Without Borders.
In 2019 I wrote an expert opinion that helped the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit in resolving a very complex asylum case with a history of five successive rejections since 2009, including by the Upper Trier Tribunal of the UK Immigration and Asylum Tribunal (the highest judicial organ in the UK on matters of immigration and asylum).
In 2017, I co-edited a major book titled, Uncensored Voices: Essays and Poems and Art Works by exiled Eritreans, a collaborative publication of PEN Austria, Swiss-German PEN Center and PEN Eritrea in Exile (all members of PEN International).
6. Have you a favourite cartoonist? If so who, and what do you admire about them?
When I was in Eritrea my favourite cartoonist was Shewit. I liked his artistic wit. I lived in South Africa for seven years and while there I liked Zapiro. In addition to his humour he had exemplary courage in speaking truth to power.
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