Use Ethiopia-Eritrea thaw to improve rights: UN expert

WEB_PHOTO_ERITREA3_08092015

An Eritrean woman walks past United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tents at the Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia on September 2, 2015.

An Eritrean woman walks past United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tents at the Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia on September 2, 2015.

WEB_PHOTO_ERITREA3_08092015

An Eritrean woman walks past United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tents at the Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia on September 2, 2015.

An Eritrean woman walks past United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tents at the Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia on September 2, 2015.

GENEVA - A diplomatic thaw between Ethiopia and Eritrea must be used to improve the devastating human rights conditions facing the Eritrean people, a United Nations special rapporteur said on Wednesday.

READ: On Ethiopia-Eritrea frontline, anger at Addis&39; olive branch

"While peace is being negotiated, while rapprochement is happening, one would make sure that the centrality of human rights is not ignored," said Sheila Keetharuth, the UN&39;s independent expert on rights in Eritrea.

Keetharuth&39;s comments came as neighbours Ethiopia and Eritrea took historic diplomatic steps towards easing decades of conflict and hostility.

"If this is the change which is happening on the ground, then I really believe it should be embraced," Keetharuth said.

"I encourage it but with a caveat that human rights needs to be central in all discussions," she added.

Keetharuth, whose term as special rapporteur is wrapping up, has sought to highlight serious abuses linked to Eritrea&39;s mandatory military service, which pays extremely low wages.

READ: Eritrea responds to arch-foe Ethiopia&39;s olive branch

A peace deal with Ethiopia "could be a game changer," she said since Asmara has used the supposed perpetual Ethiopian threat to justify the conscription.

A former province, Eritrea voted for separation from its much larger neighbour in 1993 following a three-decade independence war.

But just five years later, a new border war erupted between the two countries, killing around 80,000 people before it ended in stalemate in 2000.

Since then, a tense standoff has persisted with both maintaining a war footing, shots occasionally fired and with each side backing the other&39;s rebels.

Keetharuth underscored that despite reasons for optimism on the diplomatic front -- with a high-level delegation from Asmara in Addis Ababa for talks this week -- the rights situation in Eritrea "remains grim".

"The picture hasn&39;t changed," she said, highlighting arbitrary arrests, severe crackdowns on free expression and the brutal national service programme.