Eritrea may be the last place you would want to be locked in a steel box. Even in the balmy highlands, daytime temperatures rise to over 30 degrees under the near-equatorial sun; at night it freezes. The country's lowlands are about the hottest places on earth.

Mercifully, this week's damning report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights doesn't go into too many details about the use of shipping containers as overflow prison cells in at least 11 locations in the tiny Horn of Africa state. But statements such as 'A witness told the commission that most of the time 30 inmates were living in the container and people were forced to sleep in shifts while others stood and waited' are enough.

The report goes on to note soberly: 'The conditions in all detention facilities in Eritrea can only be defined as extremely harsh.'

Eritrea, a one-party state since winning independence from Ethiopia in 1991, needs a lot of prisons. 'Virtually everyone in Eritrea runs the risk of being arbitrarily arrested and detained,' the report states, 'men and women, children and elders, political opponents and supporters of the regime, religious believers and atheists, high-ranking officials and ordinary citizens.' Few detainees are brought before a court, or told what offences they are supposed to have committed. 

The report goes on to described 'a total lack' of rule of law. 'The commission also finds that the violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labour may constitute crimes against humanity. The commission emphasizes that its present findings should not be interpreted as a conclusion that international crimes have not been committed in other areas.'

There's much more in the 484-page report, including detainees' drawings of torture techniques. Predictably, the government of Eritrea has already dismissed the report as devoid of merit and a tool to destabilise the country. 

With so many abuses of human rights in the world, why should we pay attention to a state of 6.4 million people with no particular cultural and commercial ties to the UK? 

I confess to a personal interest: I have visited the country twice, once during the long war and famine and again just after independence. On my first visit, I saw horrors that still bother me, 30 years on. On my second, I was thoroughly uplifted by the spectacle of proud and tough plastic-sandled former guerillas apparently striving to build a decent society out of almost nothing. The dashing of those heroes' hopes seems especially cruel.

But a more general reason to take an interest may be the UN report's observation that Eritrea has no independent judiciary and no professional association of lawyers. Power to admit applicants to the bar lies with a committee of the Ministry of Justice, chaired by the Minister of Justice. 'Virtually no licences have been issued by this committee for several years.'

Worth recalling that, next time some politician or pundit comes up with a 'we'd be fine if it wasn't for the lawyers' line.