In Paris this week on an official visit, Azerbaijan’s autocratic President Ilham Aliyev has already scored one photo op. Anyone reading yesterday’s Azeri media could see dozens of photos of Aliyev posing with leaders of top French companies, including Airbus, Suez, and Credit Agricole.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (L) shakes hands with his French counterpart Francois Hollande as they visit a local French school under construction in Baku, May 11, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

Today, President Hollande will receive President Aliyev and host an official dinner at Palais de l’Elysee. Again, Parisian photo ops abound. But amid the flashing cameras, one has to wonder where Azerbaijan’s repression of critics and the jailing of opponents fits in the new relationship between Paris and Baku?

In the past few years, Azerbaijani authorities have aggressively gone after the country’s once vibrant civil society, jailing dozens of activists, journalists, and political opponents. It also adopted draconian legislation making it virtually impossible for independent non-governmental organizations to operate.

One year ago, as Azerbaijan’s economy started to suffer from falling oil prices, several of those detained on political grounds were released. That was an important first step, but hopes for progress were short-lived.

Many of those released face travel bans or obstacles to their activities. Dozens are still locked up on political grounds, including opposition activist Ilgar Mammadov, despite repeated calls by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe for his immediate release. And more activists have been thrown in jail. Recently, one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, Mehman Huseynov, was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly defaming the police, in response to his brave public denouncement of the police abuses he suffered.

When visiting Paris, Brussels, or other European capitals, President Aliyev hopes to get more business opportunities and investment in Azerbaijan. But he prefers to ignore that the people of Azerbaijan want human rights protections, transparency, and good governance. Those standing up for these values are routinely exposed to attacks and harassment.

Yet what more clear message that Azerbaijan’s crackdown cannot be ignored by potential investors than last week’s decision by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international coalition promoting better governance of resource-rich countries, to suspend Azerbaijan – precisely because of its actions against civil society.

President Hollande should reject a narrative that only finance and economy matter in Azerbaijan. Human rights should be as central to France’s foreign policy as other topics.

Hollande should publicly call for the release of Ilgar Mammadov and all those detained in retaliation for their activism and criticism. A failure to explicitly support human rights principles would be the worst message to those unjustly waiting behind bars.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Arvind Ganesan is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Business and Human Rights Division. He leads the organization’s work to expose human rights abuses linked to business and other economic activity, hold institutions accountable, and develop standards to prevent future abuses. This work has included research and advocacy on awide range of issues includingthe extractive industries; public and private security providers; international financial institutions; freedom of expression and information through the internet; labor rights; supply chain monitoring and due diligence regimes; corruption; sanctions; and predatory practices against the poor. Ganesan’s work has covered countries such as Angola, Azerbaijan, Burma, China, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, India, Indonesia, the United States, and Nigeria. His recent research has focused on predatory lending practices and governance issues on Native American reservations in the United States. He has written numerous reports, op-eds, and other articles and is widely cited by the media.

Ganesan has also worked to develop industry standards to ensure companies and other institutions respect human rights. He is a founder of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights for the oil, gas, and mining industries and is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) for the internet and telecommunications industries, where he also serves on the board. Ganesan has helped to develop standards for international financial institutions such as the World Bank, and regularly engages governments in an effort to develop mandatory rules or strengthen existing standards such as the Kimberley Process. He serves on the board of EGJustice, a nongovernmental organization that promotes good governance in Equatorial Guinea, and is a member of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)’s steering committee.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Ganesan worked as a medical researcher. He attended the University of Oklahoma.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The exterior of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Mass., is seen in this April 26, 2007 file photo.

© 2007 AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, file

Thermo Fisher Scientific, a large US-based medical technology manufacturer, announced this week it would stop selling human identification technology in China’s Xinjiang region. After more than a year of unanswered questions from Human Rights Watch, members of the US Congress, and others – culminating in a damning New York Times exposé of its sales in Xinjiang – Thermo Fisher chalked the decision up to “fact-specific assessments.”

Xinjiang, in northwestern China, has been synonymous with gross human rights violations for decades. Since late 2016, the Chinese government has accelerated abuses under its “Strike Hard” Campaign, which entails mass arbitrary detention of Turkic Muslim minorities, Orwellian surveillance, and harsh restrictions on cultural, religious, and linguistic rights. 

Thermo Fisher’s decision leaves many key questions unanswered: What about sales of that technology to Chinese police in other parts of the country? The police’s abusive collection of DNA materials from people unconnected to crimes is not confined to Xinjiang. What about other companies’ technology that has been misused? Will the numerous other companies that may – wittingly or not – be enabling China’s surveillance state rethink their business? And what will Thermo Fisher do to prevent these types of sales from happening again?

In the past two years, Human Rights Watch has documented Chinese authorities’ alarming enthusiasm for facial and voice recognition technology, compulsory collection of biometric data, “big data” platforms, the social credit system, QR codes, and apps used by security forces to monitor people’s everyday life, and many other high-technology tools – all in a context where people enjoy virtually no privacy rights or ability to challenge government violations. Companies operating in China should be under no illusions that the authorities might deploy technology to commit serious abuses. As Thermo Fisher now notes: “[W]e recognize the importance of considering how our products and services are used – or may be used – by our customers.”

International companies across China would do well to urgently evaluate how their products and services are being used, and who their customers are. Any firm that cannot show it has assessed the human rights impact of its commercial activities and mitigated harm in what United Nations experts have labelled a “no rights zone” should do so now – even if that might mean not doing business with Chinese authorities at all. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

This week, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that it was unconstitutional for states to impose excessive fines, extending a federal constitutional protection to states. This may embolden courts to examine states and localities that impose crushing fines on those unable to pay.

In Timbs v. Indiana, Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to selling heroin and as part of his sentence was ordered to forfeit his vehicle that he purchased for US$42,000. Timbs challenged the ruling because his vehicle was worth more than four times the maximum fine for his crime. An Indiana court ruled the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines did not apply to states, but the Supreme Court disagreed.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that “[e]xorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” allowing authorities to “retaliate against or chill” political speech, or impose them as “a source of revenue.” As evidence this is “scarcely hypothetical,” she cited an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief that describes a growing reliance of state and local governments on fines and fees as a source of revenue.

The Supreme Court ruling limits excessive forfeiture by states and has the potential to change the way states use excessive criminal fines and fees to raise revenue. Human Rights Watch has documented the devastating effects of excessive fines and fees, which have a disproportionate impact on the poor and communities of color. When a person cannot afford court-mandated fines and fees, they can face arrest warrants, extended sentences, and incarceration, often putting them further in debt.

In one case in Georgia, Thomas Barrett was fined $200 and sentenced to probation for stealing a $2 beer. He was required to pay a private company for probation supervision on top of his fine. He couldn’t buy food and started selling his plasma to keep up with payments. When he fell more than $1000 behind, he was jailed. In some cases, these fees are up to 10 times the fine. Fines and fees can be levied for a host of things including police and court activities, victims’ restitution, retirement and training programs.

State governments should stop relying on user fees for revenue and courts should assess whether someone can actually pay a fine or fee before imposing them. In light of the Timbs decision, states need to take these steps at a minimum to protect the constitutional right of defendants against excessive fines.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Mountaintop removal mine on Coal Mountain in Wyoming County, West Virginia

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

The House Natural Resources Committee has a new item on its oversight agenda. On Feb. 12, it asked the Interior Department to hand over all documents relating to its decision to cancel a half-completed study examining the potential health risks of surface mining activities in central Appalachia.

The request put the spotlight back on an incident that reeks of political interference with important public health research. The committee’s demand is an important step toward figuring out what happened.

The study was a key element in the fight over mountaintop removal, a form of surface coal mining that involves removing as much as 400 vertical feet of a mountain and dumping the waste rock into nearby valleys. Individual mines can operate for more than a decade, flattening mountains and filling valleys over hundreds of acres.

They often operate up to the edge of valleys where families have lived for generations. Many of those living in these mines’ shadows long have worried that the constant blasting and other activities generate air pollution and contaminate the groundwater they drink and use for bathing and household needs.

In December, Human Rights Watch published a report highlighting the situation for several families living near Coal Mountain in Wyoming County, W.Va. They reported their water turned brown and began reeking of rotten eggs after a mountaintop mine began operating near their homes. “I’m worried about my babies, if it’s safe to bathe them,” one woman said. Her husband, who was born in the valley, is a coal miner and they have two young children.

Since 2009, public health researchers, including some from West Virginia University, have put forward hard numbers that reinforce these health concerns. Over a dozen peer-reviewed studies show significantly higher rates of cardiovascular disease, lung and other types of cancer, birth defects, and overall mortality in counties with mountaintop removal compared with Appalachian counties with other types of mining or no mining at all, even after they controlled for factors such as poverty, smoking, obesity and education. 

The coal industry responded by putting pressure on West Virginia University, publicly challenging the research, and spending $15 million to pay for alternative research that produced studies that concluded mountaintop removal had no adverse health effects. In 2016, West Virginia asked the Interior Department to fund a study that would parse through the battling studies to determine the health risks of the practice — a step that could lead to stricter regulations.

The Interior Department awarded a two-year, $1 million grant to the National Academy of Sciences, a research agency founded by Abraham Lincoln to provide “independent, objective advice” to the government. In the first year, participants in the effort, who work as volunteers and included public health scientists, engineers and other experts, scrutinized the studies, interviewed many of their authors, and held four public meetings. But on Aug. 18, 2017, just as they were entering the phase of drawing conclusions, Interior ordered a screeching halt, robbing affected communities of an important tool to understand and address potential risks to their health.

What prompted the department’s decision is what the Natural Resource Committee is trying to solve. But what we already know is alarming. First, Interior’s stated justification — that this was part of an agency-wide review of all grants over $100,000 — is dubious. It did not stop any other studies at the time (although six months later it halted an oil and gas study). Moreover, emails the department produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, although heavily redacted, suggest that the “review” targeted only this study.

An internal department document stated the study was canceled because “costs would exceed benefits,” although it didn’t elaborate on why. 

At the behest of Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), then the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee and now its chair, the department’s inspector general investigated the decision and concluded that “departmental officials were unable to provide specific criteria” to determine to cancel the study.

Was the study a victim of political horse-trading? The publicly available information offers only scant clues. But the department’s withdrawal of funding without any transparent or objective process is itself a cause for alarm, given federal agencies’ considerable control over grant funding.  

“My concern is not only that science is politicized now, it’s that science will be politicized for the future,” Paul Locke, the chair of the ill-fated study, told me.

The Natural Resource Committee should keep digging until it solves the mystery of this canceled study. But it also should introduce legislation to prohibit agencies from withdrawing funding from important studies for political reasons in the future.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Private probation companies in Tennessee may be putting people’s safety and rights at risk, said a state government audit released late last year.

It concludes that the Private Probation Services Council, the state body that oversees private probation, is not protecting people from abuses as it is supposed to do.

“Without effective oversight,” the audit said, “probationers are left vulnerable to unscrupulous practices.”

In an investigation released last year, Human Rights Watch also concluded that lack of regulation and oversight of Tennessee’s private probation companies led to human rights abuses, with a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty.

These companies contract with counties to provide supervision services for minor offenses at no cost to the government. Instead, they charge probationers both for supervision and for associated probation conditions, like drug tests, court-mandated classes or treatment.

The council is not protecting the people it was designed to protect

We found that when people could not afford these fees, they faced extended probation sentences or additional conditions, often raising their debts even higher. Probationers said that probation officers would threaten them with jail time if they could not pay. Some sold their possessions or skipped paying rent to pay the fees.

The Tennessee legislature created the Private Probation Services Council to protect against abuses and ensure professional conduct by private probation companies. The council is supposed to create rules for private probation and to make sure companies are following them.

In 2016 the council required private probation companies to have a written policy on “indigent offenders” but without any guidance on what to do if a person was unable to pay. The audit also found that council did not perform sufficient background checks or monitor continuing education requirements for private probation officers.

The audit found that the council has no way to verify the documentation the companies are supposed to provide. The only way the council finds out about possible problems is through complaints sent to it directly. 

General Assembly must make sure citizens are protected from abuse

Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of people supervised by private probation companies in Tennessee, none of whom were aware of any process to reduce or waive fees for people who couldn’t afford them. Very few knew that they could complain to the council about aggressive behavior or threats by probation officers. That might explain why auditors only found 18 complaints in over four years, 16 of which the council dismissed or closed without action.

People have turned to the courts for redress. In a class action lawsuit in Rutherford County, a probation company and county agreed to pay $14.3 million to people who said they’d been punished by probation companies simply for being poor. A similar lawsuit was filed earlier this year against two companies operating in Giles County.

These problems won’t stop until the council takes its responsibilities seriously, and the General Assembly takes steps to ensure that the council follows through on its mandate. Courts have already blocked Tennessee from suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid court costs or traffic fines. The General Assembly should expand that ruling to make sure courts and private probation companies aren’t using abusive practices to wring court costs and probation fees from people who cannot afford them.

Instead, they should take steps to ensure that people have realistic ways to discharge their penalties and get the appropriate supervision and support without falling into a debt trap. The council should also pass and enforce rules to prevent abuses and create an effective process to address complaints.

 

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

William Bourdon

© Private

(Paris)—Equatorial Guinea named a French anti-corruption lawyer in an arrest warrant against 16 people, in apparent retaliation for his involvement in a money laundering trial against the president’s eldest son, ten human rights and anti-corruption groups said today. The warrant accuses the 16 targets of laundering money and helping to finance “terrorism and the proliferation of arms trafficking in Central Africa.”

Named in the warrant are also people already in police custody accused of participating in a December 2017 coup attempt. They have been unable to communicate with their families or lawyers since their arrest, raising serious concern about their risk of torture and other ill treatment and in some cases their right to life, the organizations said.

“The Equatorial Guinean government has used every trick in the book to shield the president’s son from credible allegations of stealing more than €100 million (US$113 million) in public funds to live a life of luxury in Paris,” said Tutu Alicante, director of EG Justice, an organization that advocates human rights and transparency in Equatorial Guinea. “Now it seems they are fabricating charges to retaliate against those who helped a French court convict him for his crimes.”

The groups are Human Rights Watch, EG Justice, Sherpa, Amnesty International, Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), FIDH under the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Corruption Watch UK, Rights and Accountability in Development, TRIAL Internacional, and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) under the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

Equatorial Guinea’s National Security Ministry released a media statement on January 23 accusing the 16 people of money laundering and financing terrorism. The list included William Bourdon, the lawyer who founded the French anti-corruption legal advocacy group Sherpa, and spearheaded lawsuits in France against close relatives of several heads of state accused of embezzling public funds. The statement does not provide any evidence for its allegations.

“What we are seeing in Equatorial Guinea right now is not new but part of the government’s longstanding pattern of silencing critical voices. Officials regularly harass, intimidate, and arbitrarily detain human rights defenders, lawyers, political opposition members, and anyone else who dares speak out against government abuses.” said Marta Colomer, Amnesty International West Africa Campaigner.

In 2008, Sherpa filed a criminal complaint on behalf of Transparency International – France against Teodorin Nguema Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president who at the time was the forestry minister, alleging he spent more than €100 million (US$113 million) stolen from the public treasury in France on a mansion, a fleet of supercars, art, jewelry, and other luxury goods. French law allows civil groups to file criminal complaints.

In 2017, the French court convicted Nguema Obiang in absentia, gave him a three-year suspended sentence and a €30 million (US$34 million) fine. The Equatorial Guinean government aggressively defended Nguema Obiang, going so far as to appoint him vice president soon after the court ordered the case to proceed to trial and suing France in the International Court of Justice, claiming that it had violated Nguema Obiang’s diplomatic immunity. The charges brought against the instigators of the trial appear to be an attempt to retaliate against them and further discredit the trial.

Onofre O. Otogo Ayecaba 

© Private

At least two of the people named in the arrest warrant, Onofre O. Otogo Ayecaba and Hector-Santiago Ela Mbang, were taken into police custody in Equatorial Guinea on December 28, 2017, a day after a failed coup. They were arrested along with dozens of others accused of participating in the coup. Their trial related to the coup is expected to take place over the coming weeks, although there are credible concerns that both men have been killed in custody.  

A lawyer representing Ela Mbang and nine other detainees told the organizations that no lawyers or family members have been permitted to communicate with them since their arrest, nor have their lawyers been kept apprised of legal developments in the case. Then on February 11, an independent news source reported that the family of Otogo Ayecaba received his body from the authorities.

Soon after Ela Mbang was arrested, he was made to go on state television and appear to implicate specific people in the coup. His lawyer said the government did not acknowledge detaining his client. He said he fears that Ela Mbang may now also be dead and that his name is on the arrest warrant to lay a foundation for the government to claim that he is not in custody, but is at large.

Hector Santiago Ela-Mbang

© Private

Credible allegations of torture and death in another recent case involving political opposition members heighten concern for these detainees. In December 2017, shortly after the coup attempt, police arrested 147 members of a political opposition group called Citizens for Innovation (CI), many of whom allege that they were tortured in detention. Two members died in detention, which lawyers familiar with the case allege was due to torture.

Some of the remaining 13 people included in the warrant from January 2019 are seeking asylum outside the country, while the whereabouts of others are unknown.

“Given the government’s dismal track record of abuse, the international community should be sounding alarm bells over the treatment of these detainees,” said Sarah Saadoun, a business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign embassies in the country should demand to see the evidence justifying the arrest warrant and insist that lawyers be given access to the detainees already in custody. The embassies should monitor the case closely to ensure they receive fair trials.”

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A boy and a girl work in a small gold mine in Amansie West district, Ghana.

© 2016 Juliane Kippenberg for Human Rights Watch

In the coming weeks, Switzerland’s Council of States has a big decision to take: should Swiss companies be required to introduce human rights and environmental safeguards for their global actions? This month, prompted by pressure from a civil society initiative on Responsible Business, it will consider a bill to do just that.  

Swiss businesses often source their commodities and products from far-flung countries, which puts them at risk of getting caught up in human rights abuses. One example is the supply chain for gold: again and again, human rights abuses are revealed in the gold sector. A report by the Swiss government recently confirmed that the gold mining industry can cause significant harm.

During my investigations in Ghana, Mali, Tanzania and the Philippines, I have seen children and youth dig for gold under the most dangerous conditions in small, informal mines. They work near unstable shafts and use toxic mercury to extract the raw gold from the ore. Some suffer health damage; some have even died in mine accidents. In Eritrea and Papua New Guinea, Human Rights Watch has documented how human rights violations such as forced labor and rape are linked to industrial gold mining.

To ensure that companies do not contribute to human rights abuses through their actions, they should undertake human rights due diligence — that is, take steps to identify and respond to human rights impacts in the supply chain. We recently assessed the steps taken by 13 major jewellery brands, including Rolex, Chopard, and Harry Winston (owned by the Swiss company Swatch). We found that most companies lacked transparency, traceability, and strong human rights assessments.  Rolex does not make any of its sourcing practices public, and Harry Winston publishes only scant information on its due diligence. While Chopard is far more transparent about the origin of its gold and sources from small mines that are regularly checked for human rights compliance, its diamond supply chain is opaque.   

There are numerous voluntary standards and certification systems to better protect human rights in global supply chains. But implementation depends on the will of individual companies, and so has severe limitations. Standards also sometimes fall short of what is called for in instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Guidance by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for the minerals supply chain.

An example from the gold sector is the Code of Practices of the international jewellery association, the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC). The RJC’s standard falls below what is needed for effective due diligence. Therefore, RJC certification is no guarantee of clean supply chains. Several Responsible Jewellery Council certified companies, including Harry Winston, are doing nowhere near enough for supply chain transparency and human rights protection. The intergovernmental OECD  published a detailed study last year that shows how standards by the Responsible Jewellery Council and other mineral supply industry associations are lagging behind  international guidelines and are not adequately enforced.

Switzerland now has the opportunity to make companies in all sectors responsible for their actions. In June 2018, the National Council passed a bill obliging larger companies based in Switzerland to ensure that their activities abroad respect human rights and the environment. To comply with this, companies need to conduct human rights due diligence. In particularly grave circumstances, companies can also be held liable for the actions of subsidiaries. The National Council adopted the bill in response to the Responsible Business Initiative, a civil society initiative for a corporate responsibility law. The bill reflects key elements proposed by the Responsible Business Initiative, though it is not as comprehensive as the initiative on some issues.

In February, the Responsible Business Initiative and the bill will be considered by the Council of States’ legal commission. The commission should seize this great opportunity and recommend the adoption of a strong bill, obliging companies to protect human rights and the environment in line with international standards.

The adoption of the proposed compromise bill on corporate human rights responsibility would be a big step in the right direction. If this does not happen, the electorate could bring about change through a referendum led by the Responsible Business Initiative. As long as governments leave it up to companies to take voluntary steps, systematic human rights due diligence by companies will remain the exception.
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Gutting payday loan rules will harm vulnerable families

© Seth Anderson/Flickr

Proposed plans to get rid of rules designed to protect largely low-income consumers from abusive high-interest loans risk the well-being of some of America’s most vulnerable households.

The United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently announced the proposal to rescind rules that would have meant payday and auto-title lenders had to make sure that customers could repay loans under the terms of the contract. Loans not meeting this requirement would be considered unfair and abusive.

When people get trapped in predatory loan agreements, they can end up sacrificing their own and their families’ welfare in order to make the repayments. This rule would have helped prevent people from becoming trapped by these types of predatory payday and auto-title loans.

Many payday lenders exploit cash-strapped people, often with limited access to other forms of credit, by offering them small, short-term and high-interest loans. Some borrowers have reported paying triple-digit interest rates, in some states over 600 percent, on their payday loans.

Payments then balloon in size and people have difficulty keeping up, forcing some to choose between their loans and basic needs. Research has shown that payday lending disproportionately affects African American, Latino, and poor communities.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rules on payday lenders, finalized in 2017, created a national standard and safety measures to prevent this trap of predatory interest rates for payday and auto-title loans, while still giving access to small dollar loans. The rule was created after an extensive public comment period, with the participation of both payday lenders and the public.

Since the final rule was announced, industry lobbies have pushed for a rollback, saying that the rules would limit the access of low-income communities to much needed credit. The answer to limited credit access is not to allow more loans offering extortionate interest rates and unrealistic conditions that ultimately leave borrowers worse off. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau should instead be focusing its efforts on preventing abuse and empowering low-income communities to access fair credit with reasonable interest rates.

Stripping the very rules that protect the vulnerable does nothing to serve communities in need or advance consumer protections.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Dear Members of the European Parliament,

On February 12, 2019, the European Parliament is scheduled to vote on a legislative resolution on the draft Council decision on the conclusion of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SFPA) between the European Union and the Kingdom of Morocco, the Implementation Protocol thereto and the exchange of letters accompanying the Agreement.

On January 16, the Parliament approved related legislation governing trade in agricultural goods, the EU-Morocco Agreement on the amendment of Protocols 1 and 4 to the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the SFPA fails to meet the requirements of international law, and in particular of international humanitarian law (IHL), and therefore calls on you to seek an opinion from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on the compatibility with the European Treaties, and specifically with international humanitarian law governing occupied territories, of the proposed SFPA and of the EU-Morocco Agreement on the amendment of Protocols 1 and 4, pursuant to Article 218.11 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

We are specifically concerned that the EU’s trade agreements with Morocco may violate international humanitarian law (IHL) in the way that they relate to Western Sahara, and thus run counter to Article 21(1) of the Treaty on European Union, which states, “The Union's action on the international scene shall be guided by … respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.

As you know, the ECJ has held that trade agreements between the EU and Morocco have no legal basis to include the Western Sahara, a Non-Self-Governing Territory over which Morocco has no recognized sovereignty; it further held that trade agreements with Morocco, if they are to be applicable to Western Sahara, require obtaining the consent of its people. The court emphasized that this requirement applied “without it being necessary to determine whether such implementation is likely to harm [the third party] or, on the contrary, to benefit it.” (Paragraph 106)

Specifically, in its judgment (Case C-104/16 P) of December 21, 2016, the court determined that the 2012 “Agreement between the EU and Morocco concerning reciprocal liberalisation measures on agricultural products and fishery products” provided no legal basis for including Western Sahara within its territorial scope. 

With an eye toward complying with the court’s ruling, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the European Commission conducted a process of consultation in Rabat and Brussels with elements of the population of Western Sahara and with other interested parties,[1]  and the European Parliament conducted its own fact-finding visit to the territory on September 3-4, 2018.[2]

The European Parliament resolution adopted in January 2019 on the EU-Moroccan Agreement claims that during this consultation, “majority support was expressed, by the parties participating, for the socio-economic benefits the proposed tariff preferences would bring.” (Paragraph 11). It states, “[A]ll reasonable and feasible steps have been taken to inquire about the consent of the population concerned, through these inclusive consultations” (Paragraph 8), while also claiming that because “the [ECJ] did not specify in its judgment how the people’s consent has to be expressed… some uncertainty remains as regards this criterion” (Paragraph 12). The resolution nevertheless claims, in urging adoption, “that this agreement does not imply any form of recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.” (Paragraph 5).

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to determine whether the consultative process conducted by the EU institutions complies with the ECJ’s requirement of obtaining “consent” and whether the parties that the EU institutions consulted meet the court’s definition of “the people of Western Sahara.” However, we are concerned that the agreement falls well short of Morocco’s obligations pertaining to occupied territories under international humanitarian law. 

The ECJ ruling rejecting the applicability of EU-Moroccan agreements to Western Sahara is based on viewing Western Sahara as a Non-Self-Governing Territory whose people have the right to self-determination. However, the relationship between Morocco and Western Sahara is also one of occupation and, as such, treaties affecting the territory must comply also with IHL.[3]
The two legal frameworks share fundamental principles in underscoring that the resources of the territory in question belong to the people of that territory, and that stringent standards apply to a third party’s disposal of those resources. In the ECJ’s self-determination framework, the people of Western Sahara must provide their consent before the EU may enter into agreements with Morocco on the utilization of those resources. In the IHL framework, the exploitation of occupied territory may be carried out only for the benefit of the occupied population (Article 55 of the Hague Regulations of 1907).[4] 

In practice, in order for Morocco, as an occupying power, to lawfully exploit Western Sahara’s resources, it would have to establish a fund with transparent bookkeeping that shows the resources utilized or exported, the revenue derived, and the channeling of those revenues to the sole benefit of the people of Western Sahara.

The Development Fund of Iraq, established by United Nations Security Council resolution 1483 soon after the United States-led coalition forces occupied Iraq in April 2003, is an example of such a mechanism that was structured to comply with IHL, despite deficiencies in its implementation. The Fund was held by the Central Bank of Iraq and independently audited by accountants approved by the International Advisory and Monitoring Board. Most significantly, the revenue collected could be used solely to benefit of the people of Iraq. No comparable mechanism exists with regard to resources of Western Sahara and the proposed agreement does not envision the establishment of one.

In material terms, the implications for Western Sahara of the proposed fisheries agreement with Morocco are significant.  The European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee acknowledged that “more than 90% of the catch by the EU fleet is taken in the waters adjacent to Western Sahara.”

The ECJ, in Case C-266/16 of February 27, 2018, raised a more basic question: whether the refusal by Morocco to consider itself an occupying power (or, for that matter, a “de facto administrative power”) in Western Sahara meant that the EU could not even consider these frameworks as a basis for signing agreements with Morocco about trade in products originating in that territory:

As regards the expression ‘waters falling within the … jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Morocco’ in that provision, the Council and the Commission considered, among a number of possibilities, that the Kingdom of Morocco might be regarded as a ‘de facto administrative power’ or as an occupying power of the territory of Western Sahara and that such a description could be of relevance in order to determine the scope of the Fisheries Partnership Agreement [of May 22, 2006].

The Court held that there was no point in considering whether either of these two frameworks, as an expression of the “joint intention of the parties” to the Fisheries Partnership Agreement … “would have been compatible with the rules of international law that are binding on the European Union” since “the Kingdom of Morocco has categorically denied that it is an occupying power or an administrative power with respect to the territory of Western Sahara….It follows from all the foregoing that the waters adjacent to the territory of Western Sahara are not covered by the expression ‘waters falling within the sovereignty or jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Morocco’, in Article 2(a) of the Fisheries Partnership Agreement” (Paragraphs 72 and 73).

However, it remains the case, factually, that Morocco is in occupation of the territory and therefore the relevant international humanitarian law applies.

In its resolution approving the EU-Moroccan agreement on the Amendment of Protocols 1 and 4, the European Parliament affirmed that “it is essential to ensure that the Agreement complies with the judgment of the [ECJ] of 21 December 2016 in Case C-104/16P.” 

In light of this affirmation, and the concerns outlined in this letter, Human Rights Watch urges you to ensure that any EU agreement with Morocco respects the rights of the people of Western Sahara and does not contribute to violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

We call on you to adopt a resolution requesting an opinion from the Court of Justice on the compatibility of the SFPA and the agreement on the Amendment of Protocols 1 and 4 with the EU Treaties and specifically with international humanitarian law.

I thank you for your attention and consideration to this urgent matter.

Sincerely yours,

Lotte Leicht
European Union Advocacy Director
Human Rights Watch


[1] Report on benefits for the people of Western Sahara and public consultation on extending tariff preferences to products from Western Sahara, European Commission, June 15, 2018. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52018SC0346R%2801%29

[2] Mission report following the visit to Western Sahara on 3 and 4 September 2018, Committee on International Trade. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2014_2019/plmrep/COMMITTEES/INTA/CR/2018/10-10/1163925EN.pdf

[3] These two legal frameworks are not mutually exclusive. As Melchior Wathelet, Advocate General at the European Court of Justice, observed in his 2018 opinion on the fisheries agreements with Morocco, “certain situations may come exclusively within international humanitarian law; or exclusively within the law applicable to the exploitation of the natural resources of non-self-governing territories; while other situations may come at the same time within both of those branches of international law.” – Paragraph 267, Opinion of the Advocate General on Case C‑266/16, January 10, 2018. http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=198362&pageIndex=0&doclang=en&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1

[4] This view is corroborated by Paragraph 268 of the Advocate General’s opinion referred to in the previous note: “the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources and Article 55 of the 1907 Hague Regulations converge on one point, namely that the exploitation of the natural resources of Western Sahara (as a non-self-governing territory and an occupied territory) cannot be carried out for the economic benefit of the Kingdom of Morocco (other than the costs of occupation in so far as Western Sahara may reasonably provide for them) but must be carried out for the benefit of the people of Western Sahara.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In December 2016, authorities seized a yacht reportedly worth $100 million from Teodorin Obiang, the president’s eldest son and vice president, as part of an ongoing Swiss investigation into money-laundering.

© 2009 Madmack66 (Wikimedia Commons) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

The son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Nguema Obiang, who is also vice president, kept a US$100-million superyacht in the Netherlands and 25 exotic cars in Switzerland. The yacht is worth more than Equatorial Guinea’s entire health budget in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. Teodorin has spent his entire adult life as a public official in a country with dismal health and education records despite its vast oil wealth.

More than two years ago, Swiss prosecutors seized the yacht and cars as part of their investigation into whether Teodorin bought them using Swiss bank accounts and businesses to illegally launder money he stole from the public treasury. The case presented a rare opportunity to puncture the absolute impunity for corruption Teodorin enjoys at home, while returning some of his vast sums of money to the people to whom it belongs. It could also have sent an important message to kleptocrats everywhere that foreign governments will not permit them to hide or spend stolen funds on their territory. Such a message would have been especially powerful from Swiss prosecutors given the country’s reputation for financial secrecy. Instead, they settled for crumbs, while allowing Teodorin to keep the pie.

In October, Teodorin Obiang, the president’s eldest son and vice president, was convicted in absentia in France of laundering tens of millions of euro that he looted from the public treasury.

© Getty Images

On February 7, the prosecution announced that Equatorial Guinea agreed to pay €1.3 million (US$1.5 million) to cover the cost of the investigation and Teodorin would forfeit the cars, which will be sold and the proceeds directed to a “social program” in Equatorial Guinea. In exchange, they would end the investigation without bringing criminal or civil charges and release the yacht.

The prosecutors noted they are permitted to close cases when the “person under investigation has done everything expectable to repair any damage from alleged actions.” It is unclear from the statement whether the settlement includes an admission of guilt, but by allowing Teodorin to avoid further legal scrutiny and keep his prized yacht it only reinforces the sense of impunity that hangs over the case.

The Swiss case follows several other international money laundering cases against Teodorin. A French court convicted him in absentia in 2017 of spending more than €100 million (US$113 million) in public funds in France. Three years earlier, the United States Department of Justice settled a money laundering case against him after he agreed to forfeit a US$30-million California mansion.

At the very least, Switzerland should ensure the proceeds from selling the cars go to programs that promote transparency in Equatorial Guinea and help civil society hold their officials accountable for corruption.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Pakistan’s government is failing to enforce laws that could protect millions of garment workers from serious labor rights abuses. Human Rights Watch documented a range of violations in Pakistan’s garment factories. They include a failure to pay minimum wages and pensions, suppression of independent labor unions, forced overtime, insufficient breaks, and disregarded regulations requiring paid maternity and medical leave. Human Rights Watch also identified problems in the government’s labor inspection system. Pakistan authorities should revamp labor inspections and systematically hold factories accountable for abuses. Domestic and international apparel brands should take more effective measures to prevent and correct labor rights abuses in the factories that produce clothing for them.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

January 15, 2019

 

Jeffrey P. Bezos, Founder and Chief Executive Officer

David Zapolsky, General Counsel and Senior Vice President

Amazon.com, Inc.

 

Dear Mr. Bezos and Mr. Zapolsky,

We are a coalition of organizations dedicated to protecting civil rights and liberties and safeguarding communities. We write today to reiterate our demand that Amazon stop providing its face surveillance product, Rekognition, to the government. Protecting communities and retaining customer trust requires that Amazon act immediately.

Since we sent our first letter in May 2018, Rekognition has been the subject of widespread attention and opposition. Over 150,000 consumers have signed petitions demanding Amazon stop providing Rekognition to governments. Dozens of members of Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus, have recognized Amazon’s responsibility to protect people from the harms of face surveillance. Institutional shareholders have sounded the alarm about Rekognition’s impact on Amazon’s business. More than 400 Amazon employees, including senior engineers, have made it clear that they do not want to build products like Rekognition that will harm vulnerable communities.

The dangers of face surveillance can only be fully addressed by stopping its use by governments. Face surveillance provides government agencies with an unprecedented ability to track who we are, where we go, what we do, and who we know. Face surveillance gives the government new power to target and single out immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color in our communities. Systems built on face surveillance will amplify and exacerbate historical and existing bias that harms these and other over-policed and oversurveilled communities. In a world with face surveillance, people will have to fear being watched and targeted by the government for attending a protest, congregating outside a place of worship, or simply living their lives.

Instead of acting to protect against the very real dangers of face surveillance, your company is ignoring community concerns and further pushing this technology into the hands of government agencies. It was recently revealed that Amazon has discussed Rekognition with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a deal that if realized would supersize the government’s ability to target and separate families living in our communities. The F.B.I. is also piloting the use of Rekognition. All the while, you have refused to provide meaningful answers to Congressional inquiries, including basic information about the company’s government customers.

Amazon’s inaction in response to widespread concerns about face surveillance stands in contrast to the steps taken by its competitors. In December 2018, Google announced it will not sell a face surveillance product until the technology’s dangers are addressed, with its CEO Sundar Pichai warning that the tech industry “just can’t build it and then fix it.” And Microsoft’s President Brad Smith rightly acknowledged the risks associated with face surveillance and the company’s obligation to act internally to address potential harms. It is wholly irresponsible to wait for society to develop an “immune response” to technologies like face surveillance, as Mr. Bezos has suggested. As your employees wrote, “we already know” Rekognition will “ultimately serve to harm the most marginalized.” The dangers are clear, and so are the steps to address those dangers.

By continuing to sell your face surveillance product to government entities, Amazon is gravely threatening the safety of community members, ignoring the protests of its own workers, and undermining public trust in its business. Amazon must stop providing a face surveillance product to governments.  We look forward to your written response to this letter.

Signed,

American Civil Liberties Union

ACLU Foundations of California

ACLU of Massachusetts

ACLU of Washington

New York Civil Liberties Union 

18MillionRising.org

A New PATH

Access Now

ALIGN (The Alliance for a Greater New York)

American Friends Service Committee

American Muslim Empowerment Network-Muslim Association of Puget Sound

American Muslims of Puget Sound

Arab American Institute

Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC

Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Asian Law Caucus

CAIR San Francisco Bay Area

Californians United for a Responsible Budget

Campaign for Accountability

Casa Latina Center for Media Justice

Center on Policy Initiatives

Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice

Color Of Change

Council on American Islamic Relations, Massachusetts

Council on American-Islamic Relations, California

CREDO Action

Data for Black Lives

Defending Rights & Dissent

Demand Progress

Densho

El Centro de la Raza

 Electronic Frontier Foundation

End Solitary Santa Cruz County

Entre Hermanos

Fair Chance Project

Families for Justice as Healing

Families Belong Together

Fight for the Future

Free Press

Freedom for Immigrants

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Government Accountability Project

Government Information Watch

Grassroots Collaborative

Harrington Investments, Inc.

Harvard Law School National Lawyers Guild

Human Rights Watch

Immigrant Defense Project

Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility

International Committee for Robot Arms Control

John T. Williams Organizing Committee

Justice for Muslims Collective

LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy)

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

Library Freedom Project

Lucy Parsons Labs

Make the Road New York

Media Alliance

Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Mijente

Muslim Justice League

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

National Immigration Law Center

National Immigration Project of the NLG

National Lawyers Guild - New York City Chapter

National Lawyers Guild - Massachusetts Chapter

New Economy Project

New York Communities for Change

Oakland Privacy

OCCORD (Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development)

OneAmerica

Our Revolution Arlington

Partnership for Working Families

Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College

RAICES

Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project

Restore the Fourth Silicon Valley

Rising Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood

Starting Over, Inc.

SumOfUs

Tenth Amendment Center

The Greenlining Institute

The Legal Aid Society (NYC)

The Project on Government Oversight

Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment

Unitarian Universalist Mass Action

War Resisters League

Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

X-Lab

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

January 15, 2019

 

Satya Nadella, Chief Executive Officer

Brad Smith, President

Microsoft Corporation

 

Dear Mr. Nadella and Mr. Smith,

We are a coalition of organizations dedicated to protecting civil rights and liberties and safeguarding vulnerable communities. We commend Microsoft for acknowledging the grave risks associated with face surveillance and the need for action. We write today to call on Microsoft to commit that it will not provide its face surveillance product, Face API, to governments.

Microsoft has acknowledged the dangers of face surveillance and its responsibility to build and disseminate technology that does no harm. In a speech and blog post published on December 6th, Mr. Smith observed how widespread face recognition can lead to a surveillance society where bias and discrimination are exacerbated, privacy is virtually non-existent, and our democratic freedoms are eviscerated. Mr. Smith also acknowledged Microsoft’s responsibility to take internal company steps to address these issues.

The dangers of face surveillance can only be fully addressed by stopping its use by governments. This technology provides the government with an unprecedented ability to track who we are, where we go, what we do, and who we know. With that power comes the ability to target and single out immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color in our communities. Systems built on face surveillance will amplify and exacerbate historical and existing bias that harms these and other over-policed and over-surveilled communities. In a world with face surveillance, people will have to fear being watched and targeted by the government for attending a protest, congregating outside a place of worship, or simply living their lives.

In his December 6 post, Mr. Smith acknowledged many of these dangers, but then proposed wholly inadequate safeguards. Reducing bias, providing notice to consumers, and requiring court orders for individual tracking will not prevent the grave consequences of face surveillance, particularly on vulnerable communities. Those safeguards will do nothing to stop the government from developing face surveillance systems that allow for general and widespread monitoring and tracking. Microsoft should not be helping to build this future.

Microsoft should listen to its employees, the public, and also take heed of competitor commitments. In June, Microsoft’s own employees called on the company to “take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits” in deciding how to do business with governments. In recent months, there has been widespread public concern about face surveillance, with dozens of members of Congress, shareholders, and over 150,000 members of the public blowing the whistle on the dangers of face surveillance both to communities and to public trust in companies. In contrast to Microsoft, which is currently selling its Face API product, Google announced in December 2018 that it has not, and will not, sell a facial recognition surveillance product until the technology’s dangers are addressed.

Microsoft has a responsibility to do more than speak about ethical principles; it must also act in accordance with those principles. This means that Microsoft must ensure that there is a meaningful debate about face surveillance before it is in the hands of government. There cannot be a meaningful debate about ethical use of this technology if it is already spreading to government agencies. We call on Microsoft not to provide a face surveillance product to governments.

We look forward to your written response to this letter.

Signed,

American Civil Liberties Union

ACLU Foundations of California

ACLU of Massachusetts

ACLU of Washington

New York Civil Liberties Union 

18MillionRising.org

A New PATH

Access Now

ALIGN (The Alliance for a Greater New York)

American Friends Service Committee

American Muslim Empowerment Network-Muslim Association of Puget Sound

American Muslims of Puget Sound

Arab American Institute

Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC

Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Asian Law Caucus

CAIR San Francisco Bay Area

Californians United for a Responsible Budget

Campaign for Accountability

Casa Latina Center for Media Justice

Center on Policy Initiatives

Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice

Color Of Change

Council on American Islamic Relations, Massachusetts

Council on American-Islamic Relations, California

CREDO Action

Data for Black Lives

Defending Rights & Dissent

Demand Progress

Densho

El Centro de la Raza

 Electronic Frontier Foundation

End Solitary Santa Cruz County

Entre Hermanos

Fair Chance Project

Families for Justice as Healing

Families Belong Together

Fight for the Future

Free Press

Freedom for Immigrants

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Government Accountability Project

Government Information Watch

Grassroots Collaborative

Harrington Investments, Inc.

Harvard Law School National Lawyers Guild

Human Rights Watch

Immigrant Defense Project

Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility

International Committee for Robot Arms Control

John T. Williams Organizing Committee

Justice for Muslims Collective

LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy)

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

Library Freedom Project

Lucy Parsons Labs

Make the Road New York

Media Alliance

Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Mijente

Muslim Justice League

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

National Immigration Law Center

National Immigration Project of the NLG

National Lawyers Guild - New York City Chapter

National Lawyers Guild - Massachusetts Chapter

New Economy Project

New York Communities for Change

Oakland Privacy

OCCORD (Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development)

OneAmerica

Our Revolution Arlington

Partnership for Working Families

Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College

RAICES

Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project

Restore the Fourth Silicon Valley

Rising Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood

Starting Over, Inc.

SumOfUs

Tenth Amendment Center

The Greenlining Institute

The Legal Aid Society (NYC)

The Project on Government Oversight

Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment

Unitarian Universalist Mass Action

War Resisters League

Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

X-Lab

 

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am