Roma children play in the Cesmin Lug Camp outside Trepca mine, on the outskirts of Mitrovica, June 22, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

The United Nations may be undermining its own efforts to promote human rights, at a time when rights are under threat worldwide.

That’s the view of a UN panel of experts, which investigated complaints of human rights violations by the UN mission in Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war – including widespread lead poisoning at UN-run camps. Displaced members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities lived there for more than a decade, and hundreds of them got sick, with many still suffering health consequences today.

The UN Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP), which conducted the investigation, recommended last year that the UN apologize and pay lead poisoning victims individual compensation.

However, last month UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ press office suggested a different – and watered-down – plan. It announced that the UN was creating a voluntary trust fund for community assistance projects to help “more broadly the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.” In other words, UN member states would choose whether to donate to the fund, which could be used to provide services that do not specifically target those affected by lead poisoning.

Victims’ lawyers, Roma rights organizations and UN accountability advocates criticized the UN’s decision. Human Rights Watch urged Guterres to follow the HRAP’s recommendations.

Now the former HRAP members have called on the UN to change course. In a June 8 letter to Guterres, they argued that the trust fund fails to provide compensation for violations of the right to life and the right to health. They also warned Guterres that “at a time of backlash against human rights it is vital that the UN be seen to live up to the promise of the [UN] Charter and the obligations it has promoted.” If the UN does not hold itself accountable, “the human rights system as a whole is weakened,” they wrote.

It is high time for the UN to make amends for the suffering inflicted on hundreds of families from Kosovo who were exposed to toxic lead in camps – and who the UN failed to relocate until well after the health effects became clear.

Guterres, who inherited this problem, has promised to build a culture of accountability. But the UN’s refusal to take responsibility here undermines its ability to press governments to remedy their own human rights abuses. 

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

The fight against global toxic pollution has reached a critical milestone: the 50th country has ratified the United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury, triggering its entry into force in August.

A 12-year-old boy shows the mercury he carries in his trousers’ pockets for gold processing in Homase, Amansie Central district, Ashanti Region, Ghana.

© 2014 Juliane Kippenberg/Human Rights Watch

Mercury is a shiny liquid metal whose largest use globally is small-scale gold mining; other areas of use include manufacturing and industrial processes. But mercury is toxic. It attacks the nervous system, can result in life-long disability, and is very harmful to children. In higher doses, it can kill.

I have seen with my own eyes how children in Ghana, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Mali have been exposed to this toxic substance. Twelve-year-old “Kwame” in Ghana showed me a small bottle of mercury he always carried with him. He mixed mercury into the ore to create a gold-mercury amalgam, and then burnt this over a fire at home to retrieve the raw gold, breathing in its toxic fumes.

The Minamata Convention brings hope for people like Kwame. It obliges governments that ratify the convention to promote mercury-free gold processing methods; take special measures to protect children from exposure; improve health care; and put an end to particularly harmful practices in gold processing, including the burning of themercury-gold amalgam in residential areas. It also provides controls in many other areas, such as mercury use in products and manufacturing processes, and unintentional emissions stemming from coal-fired power plants.

Ghana has already ratified the convention, as have other important gold mining countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Mali, and Burkina Faso, as well as donors such as the United States and Japan. On May 18, the European Union and seven member states ratified the convention, bringing the total number of ratifications over 50, the number of ratifications required for the treaty’s entry into force.

The convention is named after the Japanese fishing town of Minamata, where mercury was discharged into the bay by a large chemical company from 1932 until 1968. Japan has recognized that more than 2,955 suffered mercury poisoning as a result, but subsequently compensated about 60,000 people. The real number of victims is thought to be even higher.

It is great news for Kwame and millions of others that the Minamata Convention is about to enter into force. Now comes the hardest part: Governments need to put it into practice. 

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

Sifola, age 13, stands in the home she shares with her husband and in-laws. Her parents took her out of school and arranged her marriage because they were struggling with poverty and wanted to conserve their resources in order to pay for her brothers’ schooling. Her family bribed local officials to forge a birth certificate that showed her age as over 18 in order to marry her off. March 31, 2015.

© 2015 Omi for Human Rights Watch

“Whatever land my father had and the house he had went under the water in the river erosion and that’s why my parents decided to get me married,” said Sultana C., who was married at age 14. Bangladesh is among the countries most affected by climate change, and many families there, like Sultana’s, are pushed by natural disasters into deepening poverty – increasing the risk of child marriage.

Over the next 10 days, policymakers from 195 countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to discuss how governments should implement the 2015 Paris climate agreement. On Monday, Morocco, which holds the presidency of the climate talks, hosted an event on children’s rights and climate change. They were joined by the ambassador from Fiji, which will hold the negotiation’s presidency later this year, and several United Nations child rights experts. This was the first time that the Climate Convention Presidency has officially hosted an event on human rights.

A focused discussion on children’s rights and climate change is urgently needed. Climate change’s impact on health, access to water, and education, among other areas, disproportionately affects children, whose bodies and minds are still developing. In the Turkana region of Kenya, Human Rights Watch found that climate change, along with other challenges, means children have become sick because their families are unable to provide them with sufficient food and clean water.

There is a growing push to address how environmental degradation harms children. UNICEF, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have all highlighted the negative impact of climate change on children, and the need for government action. Children who suffer environmental harm should also be able to hold governments and companies that are responsible to account.

Policymakers in Bonn need to take heed, follow the advice given at Monday’s presidency briefing, and place children’s rights at the heart of these climate talks. The children of today and of the future deserve a planet where their rights are fully respected.

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

Last Friday morning, Yuri Ivanov, a member and former director of Kola Environmental Center (KEC), arrived at his office and learned from the news that the Justice Ministry had listed KEC as a “foreign agent.” “It is not a big surprise for us,” sighed Ivanov when I called him. Indeed, anything is possible when it comes to the “foreign agent” hunt in Russia.

Cover of the children’s book “Sad fairytale about sea animals, oil and kerosene” by Sergey Tararaksin, published by Kola Environmental Center to raise awareness of environmental issues through children’s literature.

© Kola Environmental Center (KEC)

In 2012, the Russian government introduced a “foreign agents” law that uses the label to demonize independent groups who accept foreign funding and conduct very broadly defined “political activity.”

When the law came into force, ministry inspectors warned KEC that it was “on the verge” of violating the law because it accepted funding from nongovernmental groups in Norway. However, in 2014, a Justice Ministry audit found no “foreign agent” activity in the KEC’s work. Nevertheless, after a KEC partner group was labeled a “foreign agent” in March 2015, KEC management decided that as a precaution, it would turn down all foreign funding as of January 2016.

During the recent audit of KEC, the Justice Ministry ignored the fact that KEC has relied solely on private donations from Russian citizens for its funding since January 2016. Officials paid attention only to foreign funds that KEC received in 2014-2015 for what it suited them to treat as “political activity.” What was this political activity? It was, among other things, a project to teach school children about saving energy.

Another group, Environmental Watch in Sakhalin (EWS), also turned down all foreign funding a few weeks after its designation as a “foreign agent” in 2015. For this reason, it declined donations from Leonardo DiCaprio to save the Amur tigers that the actor had announced during his meeting with Putin. 18 months after it stopped accepting financial support from outside Russia, the Justice Ministry finally removed the stigmatizing status from EWS.

KEC is the second environmental group to be listed as a “foreign agent” this year, and Russia has now branded a total of 21 environmental groups as foreign agents since 2012.

Incredibly, Russia has designated 2017 as the “Year of Ecology.” It either has a wicked sense of humor, or a very poor grasp of the facts.

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

It looked like justice for Kosovo’s lead-poisoning victims was finally within reach. Former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson convened a meeting in December 2016, just as he and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were preparing to hand the reins to a new UN administration.

Internally displaced Roma children play on lead contaminated land near the Zitkovac camp in Zvecan. The camp was closed in 2006 and its inhabitants voluntarily relocated to Osterode camp.

© 2006 Andrew Testa

The meeting was to examine how the UN could make amends for the pain and suffering the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) had inflicted on hundreds of families from ethnic minorities who were exposed to toxic lead after being forced to live in UNMIK-run camps in northern Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war.

A Human Rights Watch investigation showed the long-term lead exposure that camp residents were subjected to. While the UN eventually closed the camps, irrevocable damage had been done. Lead is highly toxic and can impair the body’s neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible.

According to an account of the December 2016 session just published in the New York Times, the outcome of Eliasson’s meeting was a draft apology – a first step toward compensation for the victims, who were from Kosovo’s Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities. The draft appeared to be in the spirit of a report by the UN’s own Human Rights Advisory Panel, which recommended last year that UNMIK pay compensation and issue a public apology to victims and their families.

But last month, the Times reported, the new UN chief, Antonio Guterres, convened a high-level meeting at which the UN Office of Legal Affairs recommended not to accept responsibility or commit to pay victims individual compensation, even though the tragedy was clearly the UN’s fault.

By refusing to acknowledge its own abuses, the UN seriously undermines its ability to press governments on their human rights violations. This is especially true considering the UN’s own tribunal clearly advised them of the right thing to do.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told the Times that discussions were ongoing and that Guterres will make a final decision “very soon.” The victims in this case clearly want the UN to take its tribunal’s advice, and their long-overdue payment of adequate individual compensation cannot come fast enough. 

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

Marcos A. Orellana is the director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. He has worked most recently at the Washington DC-based Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). At CIEL, Marcos collaborated with many environmental and human rights groups and multilateral institutions around the world, participated at processes leading to environmental agreements, and conducted advocacy on environmental issues at regional and global human rights forums.

Marcos is adjunct associate professor at the George Washington University School of Law. He was, at various times, a fellow at the University of Cambridge, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Pretoria. He was also a visiting scholar with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington DC and instructor professor of international law at the Universidad de Talca, Chile. 

Marcos represented the eight-nation Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC) in the negotiations of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. He has also acted as legal counsel to the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs on international environmental issues, such as the Rio+20 process leading to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. At one point, he was legal advisor to several international institutions, including the United Nations Environment Programme and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Marcos, a Chilean, holds an LL.M and an S.J.D..

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

“Luz” started picking strawberries in Florida when she was just nine years old. Her wages helped her mother buy groceries and school supplies, but the work was hard and she often missed class. Exposure to pesticides also made her sick: “When I was in the fields, I took in the chemicals they put on the plants . . . My stomach was always heaving. Every single day.”

A young worker holds an orange in a migrant worker camp in Florida.

© 2009 ROMANO

Hundreds of thousands of children work on US farms because of child labor laws that allow kids as young as 12 to work as many as 50 or 60 hours a week in agriculture. Since 2000, Human Rights Watch has documented the dangers of this work, including pesticide poisoning, injuries from sharp tools and heavy machines, and fatality rates that are four times higher for child farmworkers than youth working in any other sector. Will the Trump administration take seriously its duty to protect these children from harm? The early signs are not good.

The Trump Administration’s choice of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) triggered widespread alarm, and with good reason. Pruitt has a long record of strident opposition to the EPA’s efforts to protect people from environmental hazards. Last week, he announced the EPA would allow continued use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, despite conclusions from EPA scientists that the chemical is particularly hazardous to children. Research studies have found exposure can cause learning deficits, impacts on brain development, reproductive health problems, and increased rates of cancer. Children are particularly at risk because their bodies and nervous systems are still developing.

According to the New York Times, chlorpyrifos is currently used on about 50 different types of crops and on about 40,000 farms. Research has found that health risks from the chemical can persist for up to 18 days after application to crops. Many child farmworkers have told Human Rights Watch about working in fields that were still wet with pesticides or breathing in pesticide drift while nearby fields were being sprayed.

Because of the dangers of chlorpyrifos, environmental groups went to court a decade ago seeking a ban on its use. In 2015, the EPA recommended a ban and a judge demanded a final decision by the end of last week. To many, Pruitt’s decision seems to signal he is just as hostile to the EPA’s exercise of its crucial mandate as he was before taking up the agency’s reins. Both the Trump administration and Congress should take urgent action to protect children from hazardous work in agriculture. This demands not only steps to address the dangers of pesticide exposure, but also to change the indefensible laws that allow children to work in the fields at younger ages, for far longer hours, and under more dangerous conditions than all other working children.  

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

People living in Ghana’s mining communities may now be better protected from deadly mercury poisoning.

On March 23, Ghana ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury – a real step forward for communities affected by mercury pollution. Mercury, a toxic liquid metal, is used in small-scale gold mines all over the world to separate the gold from the ore, and then released into air and water. Ghana is one of Africa’s top gold producers, and about a million people work in its small gold mines. Workers and nearby communities are directly exposed to mercury.

A 12-year-old boy in Ghana shows the mercury he uses to process gold

© 2014 Human Rights Watch

The Minamata Convention was adopted by governments around the world in 2013 to protect the environment and people. Mercury causes brain damage and other severe health conditions, and it can kill. The convention obliges governments to reduce mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, the largest source of mercury pollution in the world. It also requires governments to end particularly harmful practices, such as burning a gold-mercury amalgam in residential areas, and to protect children from exposure.

When I researched mercury use in Ghana, I watched miners mix liquid mercury in pans filled with ore in order to attract the gold particles. They then held this gold-mercury amalgam over an open fire to burn off the mercury and retrieve the raw gold. Even children were working with mercury. One of them, 12-year-old “Kwame,” told me: “I burn it on my own, where I get fire, at my mother’s house or any place.” Kwame carried a small bottle of mercury with him at all times. He and his fellow miners had never been told about its dangers.

Up till now, Ghana’s government had a lax attitude toward mercury, allowing its sale and use. I visited a store where mercury was sold in small wrapped plastic balls, in plastic bottles, and in large containers too heavy to lift. Ghana was also notably absent when the convention was negotiated. But this has started to change. With donor support, Ghana has begun training health workers on mercury’s harmful effects and taken some steps to address child labor in its mines.

Ghana’s ratification of the Minamata Convention is good news for ordinary Ghanaians, especially its children. Now the real work of putting it into practice should begin.

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

Last month, three UN human rights experts released a joint letter to the Bangladesh government about the country’s failing response to deadly arsenic in drinking water.

Two decades after the problem came to international attention, an estimated 20 million people in Bangladesh—mostly the rural poor—still drink water with contamination levels above the national standard.

Arsenic in water is colourless, tasteless, and odourless. But exposure to even low doses can have deadly health consequences, although the resulting illnesses—cancers and cardiovascular and lung diseases—take years to develop.

The UN experts—the special rapporteurs on the right to health, on extreme poverty, and on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation—cite research published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation in 2012 that estimates an annual death toll of 43,000 people from arsenic-related illnesses in Bangladesh.

After the extent of arsenic in drinking water in Bangladesh was understood in the mid-1990s, successive governments, international donors, and non-governmental organisations oversaw a concerted effort to test shallow wells. From 1999 to 2006, 5 million wells across the country were tested with field kits and the results communicated to their owners.

This national screening found that wells used by an estimated 20 million people yielded water with arsenic above the national standard. Subsequent studies showed that many people switched to a safe well when there was one close by.

But since 2006, such efforts have dissipated. In many cases, the red paint that used to mark wells as contaminated faded years ago.

A nationwide study of drinking water quality published in 2015 found a similar result to the earlier screening — 20 million people exposed to arsenic above the national standard. The result essentially shows no progress. What’s going wrong?

Government wells are vitally important in arsenic affected areas of Bangladesh. Deeper wells drilled down approximately 150 meters into the ground often supply  water without arsenic. They can provide drinking water for hundreds of people.

Deep government wells are a potentially life-saving public good, but they are too expensive for most families in rural villages in Bangladesh to install by themselves.

Some politicians are diverting these life-saving public goods to their political supporters and allies.At the end of a long explanation of who, ideally, should get the water, a government policy states: “50% of the sites for allocation (of new wells) should be finalised after discussion with the relevant member of parliament of that area.”

As one government official told me on condition of anonymity: “If the member of parliament gets 50% (of the new allocation) and the upazila (sub-district) chairman gets 50%, there’s nothing left to be installed in the areas of acute need.”

What does this diversion look like at the village level? I visited one village where more than 90% of all wells were contaminated, but the government wells were behind compound walls in backyards, or even installed inside private houses, used by single families.

As another government official told me (also on condition of anonymity): “This (political interference) happens all over Bangladesh.”

As some members of parliament tap public goods to reward political favours in electorates all over the country, Bangladesh is expending considerable resources in areas where the risk of arsenic contamination is relatively low and where water coverage is relatively good. Put simply, the government’s deep wells that could provide safe water aren’t being put where they are most needed.

The government’s engineering experts are aware of this—in fact, some technical reports have called for targeting areas with the greatest need—but the government has failed to take corrective action.

As the letter by the special rapporteurs to the government notes: “The absence of adequate institutional structures and measures to control arsenic has left millions of the affected population to their own devices.” Underlying the problem, the Bangladesh government has not replied to the joint letter by the three UN special rapporteurs.

Perhaps government denials are to be expected. In response to our report last year that found that 20 million people still drink arsenic-laced water, the local government minister told Bangladesh media that that no one in Bangladesh currently suffers from arsenic.

Effectively addressing arsenic in drinking water requires acknowledging the enormity of the problem and reviving the commitment that the government and international donors displayed after the problem first came to international attention.

While there are technical challenges to be overcome, the real difficulty is poor governance.

The government needs a national plan to end arsenic exposure through drinking water and to install new wells in the areas where the risk of arsenic contamination is high. It should end the pernicious influence of politicians on their allocation.

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

Canada has unveiled a new approach to fixing the drinking water crisis faced by indigenous First Nations peoples.

Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), reaffirmed the 2016 budget commitment to $1.8 billion over five years to significantly improve on-reserve water and wastewater infrastructure. Her ministry provided information on what has been spent so far in the 2016-2017 fiscal year: $275.7 million in targeted funding has been allocated to support water and wastewater initiatives, including 201 water and wastewater projects. This is an exciting number, but the needs are great, and in the past, INAC funding hasn’t always gone to the neediest communities. Bennett added that 29 of these projects are aimed at addressing 44 long-term drinking water advisories in 28 First Nations communities.

Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, February 24, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

The announcement was made during INAC’s and Health Canada’s joint progress update toward meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitment to end drinking water advisories in First Nations in five years.

Last June, Human Rights Watch released a report on the water crisis. A primary concern was that First Nations have not been made leaders in resolving the crisis, and we called for a First Nations-led approach. Only two weeks ago, a Globe and Mail article detailed explosive findings on certain drinking water systems supposedly fixed by INAC – calling them “poorly designed,” “undersized,” and saying they used “inappropriate technology.” These issues may have been avoided if First Nations had been included in setting the agenda.

Today, we are pleased to see INAC commit to First Nations leadership, saying, “The Government of Canada is working more closely with First Nation leaders and technical advisors and to support long-term First Nations-led approaches to address new and ongoing DWAs and other infrastructure and system operation needs.”

The government should also be transparent with First Nations about the progress they are making. Long-term fixes to crisis-level problems can feel unsatisfactory to communities if they’re not accompanied by detailed information. It’s promising that INAC released an easy-to-understand graphic illustrating the investments already made in water and sanitation projects in each province, with community-level progress where it has been made. A recent report released by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians flagged why this community-level data collection and engagement is key.

The drinking water crisis in First Nations is complex. Solving the crisis requires systemic change and long-term vision and commitment – there is no magic wand. This is why a commitment to First Nations-led approaches and full transparency are crucial. Now begins the hard work of making sure this shift in government approach leads to real change in First Nations. 

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

Last week, the Ontario provincial government announced it was “completely committed” to a thorough clean-up of mercury in the English Wabigoon River in northwestern Ontario. Mercury has had a devastating effect on the health and livelihoods of hundreds of residents from two First Nations communities – Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) – along this river.

Sign entering Grassy Narrows, Ontario, Canada.

© 2016 Richard Pearshouse/Human Rights Watch

A longstanding government policy to do nothing while the mercury supposedly washed out of the river has clearly not been working. About 10 tonnes metric tons of mercury were dumped into the river by a paper plant in the 1960s, and even today, fish in the river have the highest mercury concentrations in the province.

Last week’s news is a breakthrough: 55 years since mercury was first dumped in the river, Ontario finally appears serious about dealing with the contamination. Canada’s federal government – which recently announced it would tackle the mercury contamination “once and for all”  – should also pitch in to support the clean up. These communities and their many supporters in Canada and around the world – including Human Rights Watch – will be watching closely. Clear timelines and budgets should be set and kept.

Let’s not forget the health needs of these communities. Mercury is extremely toxic to humans. Despite this, health care in Grassy Narrows is the same as most other First Nation reserves in Canada: a small clinic staffed by nurses and visited periodically by a doctor. People who are aging with the effects of mercury also need better care. Activists in Grassy Narrows have called for a ‘mercury home’ on the reserve – which would allow people affected by mercury to receive care and support close to their community.

There’s also clear need to overhaul the Mercury Disability Board, a system of compensation set up by the federal and provincial governments in 1985. Japanese researchers who have been visiting the area since 1975 have diagnosed many people with actual or suspected Minamata disease (a neurodegenerative disorder caused by poisoning by a mercury compound), but only a fraction of these people are officially approved for compensation.

The promise to clean up the river will require many years of work. But in terms of the ongoing health impacts of mercury on people and their communities, there’s at least as much work to be done.


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

As Malawi’s government promotes investment in mining and resource extraction, ordinary Malawians have been struggling to access information on the impact of mining operations on their lives: Is mining polluting their drinking water? Their fields? Last week, Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika took a positive step by signing into law a bill that enables people to request and obtain vital information such as water-quality testing results.

Malawi’s civil society organizations have advocated for such a law for many years. Last September, Human Rights Watch released a report showing how Malawians have been left in the dark about the risks mining activities pose to their daily lives.

For example, Rosbelle, a mother of seven children, told us that a couple of years ago, the Eland Coal Mining company started mining coal near her village in rural northern Malawi. The company promised villagers a new school and jobs, and Rosbelle had high hopes for her children’s future. But in 2015, Eland Coal Mining – a subsidiary of a Norwegian-owned company – ended its operations and abandoned the mine. There was no rehabilitation of the mine site, and left behind were piles of coal and open mining pits filled with water. Since then, Rosbelle has worried that the water that she and her children drink might be polluted by toxic substances often found at improperly cleaned-up mining sites. Eland Coal Mining did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment.

Malawi’s government has failed to protect the rights and livelihoods of people living in nascent mining communities. Families living near coal and uranium mining operations face serious problems with water, food, and housing, and are left in the dark about health and other risks from mining.

When I spoke with Rosbelle last year, she said that, at a minimum, the “government should come and talk to the community about mining” and “educate us including about the risks.” But the authorities have never told them about the dangers of mining and whether the water from the local river and boreholes is safe to drink. Her village and other mining communities, as well as local organizations, have repeatedly asked the government to release the results of water testing, without avail.

For the new law to make a meaningful difference, Malawians need to know how they can use it. Accessing information under the law should be a simple process for everyone –  including for people who cannot read or write. Training sessions for communities and government officials will also be important. Civil society organizations and journalists can play an important role by raising awareness about the right to information and holding the government and mining companies to account. The new law, if carried out effectively, could be a boon to mining communities like Rosbelle’s that have long sought answers to questions literally of life and death

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

In his 2015 campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a commitment to end long-term boil-water advisories in all First Nations, Canada’s indigenous populations, in five years. For a country as water-rich as Canada, you would expect this to be an easy task. But, as Human Rights Watch documented in a report last year, the problem of contaminated drinking water is complex – from funding shortfalls to regulatory gaps. Turning it around requires money, engagement of indigenous communities, and a commitment to human rights in the process.

Roxanne Moonias, mother to an infant with a chronic illness, demonstrates one of the steps she takes to ensure her baby is not exposed to contaminants in the water. Roxanne lives in Neskantaga First Nation and says that it takes her an hour each time to properly wash and rinse his bottles.

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) Carolyn Bennett understands the challenges of meeting Trudeau’s goal. This week she told the media outlet CBC, “I don’t think you get anywhere without a hard target, and this is our hard target and we are committed to it.”

A new report looking at progress towards this commitment at the community-level, released last week by the David Suzuki Foundation and Council of Canadians, shows that some First Nations aren’t sure the goal will be met in their own communities. Based on interviews with operators and technicians – those working most closely with getting drinking water to their people – the report looks at nine communities in Ontario. It determines that at least three of these First Nations will struggle to meet the goal of ending their long-term boil-water advisory within the time allotted – without significant change in the government’s approach to the issue.

It may be that these significant changes are on their way. With just a few weeks left in the first year of the government’s five-year budget, Bennett has announced she will release an update on INAC’s progress and how it plans to reach the goal. There is much anticipation in what this announcement could mean. Will it be the game-changer communities, like those Human Rights Watch worked with for its report and those the David Suzuki Foundation profiled in its report, have been hoping for? 

“We will get there…” Bennett has promised. This week, I hope we learn how. 

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

(Nairobi) – Dropping water levels in Kenya’s Lake Turkana following the development of dams and plantations in Ethiopia’s lower Omo Valley threaten the livelihoods of half a million indigenous people in Ethiopia and Kenya, Human Rights Watch said today.

Based on publicly available data from the United States Department of Agriculture, Lake Turkana’s water levels have dropped by approximately 1.5 meters since January 2015, and further reduction is likely without urgent efforts to mitigate the impact of Ethiopia’s actions. Human Rights Watch research based on satellite imagery shows that the drop is already affecting the shoreline of the lake, which has receded as much as 1.7 kilometers in Ferguson Gulf since November 2014. The Gulf is a critical fish breeding area, and a key fishing ground for the indigenous Turkana people.



“The predicted drop in the lake levels will seriously affect food supplies in the Omo Valley and Lake Turkana, which provide the livelihoods for half a million people in both Kenya and Ethiopia,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Ethiopian government’s moves to develop its resources should not endanger the survival of indigenous people living downstream.”


In 2015, the reservoir behind the new Gibe III dam in Ethiopia began filling. Water that previously flowed unimpeded into Lake Turkana, replenishing seasonal drops in lake levels, has since been held behind the Gibe III dam. In 2015 the annual July-November flood from the Omo River into Lake Turkana did not occur, resulting in a drop of water levels of 1.3 meters from November 2014. The very limited artificial release of water from Gibe III in 2016 was not enough to replenish water levels in Lake Turkana. As of January 30, 2017, lake levels were approximately 1.5 meters lower than they were two years earlier according to the data.

People living in fishing communities along Lake Turkana who spoke to Human Rights Watch in August 2016, were generally aware of the risks posed by Gibe III but largely uninformed about the plantations and the devastating impact they could have on their livelihoods. When Human Rights Watch visited communities around Ferguson Gulf on the western lake shores that month, local residents had noticed changes from previous years in the lake levels.

People who depend on fishing for their livelihood said that their daily catch has been reduced. One 50-year-old woman living near Lake Turkana told Human Rights Watch in August 2016: “It has been difficult these days…the main issue has been hunger. There is reduced water in the lake.” While multiple factors contribute to the decline, including overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices, a further drop in lake levels will most likely reduce catches even further.



The Kenyan government has done little to address the impact from Ethiopia’s Omo Valley development, or to press Ethiopia to take steps to mitigate the damage and to consult with and inform affected communities about the impact of the project. The governments of Kenya and Ethiopia should urgently work with these communities to ensure upstream industrial works does not devastate their livelihoods, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition to the industrial developments in lower Omo, climate change is exacerbating the already significant problems the Turkana people face in getting sufficient food and water, and maintaining their health and security.

“The Ethiopian government has shown scant regard for the lives and livelihoods of already marginalized communities who are reliant on the Omo River and Lake Turkana for their livelihoods,” Horne said. “In its rush to develop its resources it has not developed strategies to minimize the impact on those living downstream.”

Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam, which opened on December 17, 2016, is a key component of a massive industrial project in the lower Omo Valley that includes a cascade of water-intensive mega dams, and sugar and cotton plantations. The sugar plantations have been under development in the Omo Valley since 2011. Based on Human Rights Watch estimates derived from satellite imagery, approximately 19,500 hectares of land has been cleared on the east bank of the river for sugar plantation development. An additional 10,500 hectares has been prepared for irrigation on the west bank. The sugar plantations are planned to be 100,000 hectares. According to the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation, the first of the four sugar processing factories should be ready to begin production in early 2017.


In Ethiopia, livelihoods of those living in the Omo Valley depend on cattle grazing and planting crops in the rich alluvial soil along the banks of the Omo River. This alluvial soil is replenished by the annual flood, which deposits water and nutrient rich sediment along the banks. A lack of floods in 2015 and an inadequate artificial flood in 2016 are making it more difficult to grow food along the Omo River.

Some communities have also reported restricted access to the Omo River and food shortages in 2016. Furthermore, the plantations necessitate clearing of land used by agro-pastoral indigenous groups including the Bodi and the Mursi. The Bodi have been the most heavily affected, with a significant area of their land cleared.

“The projections of the water drawdown on Lake Turkana, routinely rubbished by Ethiopia’s government, are coming true and lake levels have started dropping,” Horne said. “This should serve as a warning about what could happen if the Ethiopian government continues to ignore the needs of downstream communities in its rush to develop its resources.”

Impacts of Climate Change
Pastoralism, the Turkana peoples’ main livelihood along with fishing, is at risk due to increasing temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns, resulting in shrinking grazing land. According to Kenya’s Drought Management Authority data from January 2017, the 2016 October-December rains were the shortest in recent years in Kenya, leaving 2.7 million people depending on relief assistance. Turkana was one of the counties most affected.

Traditionally, in times of drought, many pastoralist communities dig in dry riverbeds for water and turn to the lake for fishing. However, Turkana county officials told Human Rights Watch that the combination of threats to the lake and climate change will make it very difficult for the Turkana people.

The Kenyan Climate Change Law passed in May 2016, if rigorously carried out, could improve coordination and governance of national and local policies related to climate change, and ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples are respected. The law mandates the participation of a representative from a “marginalized community” who has “experience in matters relating to indigenous knowledge” as a member of the new National Climate Change Council. Yet, the post has not been filled.

Predicted Impact of Omo River Dams on Indigenous Peoples
In 2012, independent hydrologists predicted that once Gibe III was operational, water levels in Lake Turkana in neighboring Kenya, which gets 90 percent of its water from the Omo River, would drop by up to two meters. They have also predicted a potentially devastating drop of up to 20 meters should Ethiopia’s Omo Valley development plans be fully carried out as planned, forecasting that the lake could recede into two small pools.

Further compounding the problem, in March 2016 the Ethiopian government announced plans for the development of a new US$1.6 billion dam, 2,200-megawatt Gibe IV, which will produce more power than any other dam in Africa outside of Ethiopia. As with Gibe III, an Italian company has been awarded the contract for Gibe IV and applied for financing for the dam through Servizi Assicurativi del Commercio Estero (SACE), the Italian export credit agency. There are plans for a fifth dam on the Omo River.

Irrigated sugar and cotton plantations in the hot and dry Omo Valley will use significant amounts of water that previously would have flowed into Lake Turkana. While the Ethiopian government claims an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out for the state-owned sugar project, an Ethiopian law requires EIAs be “accessible to the public.” Human Rights Watch has not spoken with anyone who has seen such an assessment. Such an assessment should outline strategies to mitigate the impact of water use on downstream communities and be made public. There is little evidence that the Ethiopian government obtained the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous people in the Omo Valley for any of these developments, a requirement under international law. The non-governmental organization, Survival International, filed a complaint on behalf of impacted Omo communities before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ (ACHPR) in 2012, arguing that the free, prior. and informed consent of the indigenous peoples of the Omo Valley was not given before construction began on Gibe III and the sugar plantations. According to the ACHPR Activity Report from January 2013, ACHPR requested the government of Ethiopia “to adopt Provisional Measures to prevent irreparable harm being caused to the victim of alleged human rights violations; the State has not respected that Order”. A final decision has yet to be made on the complaint.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Phnom Penh) – Cambodian authorities should immediately drop the politically motivated criminal investigation of human rights defenders Am Sam-at and Chan Puthisak, Amnesty International, Civil Rights Defenders, Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists said today.

Cambodian police detain protesters during a protest to free jailed activists in Phnom Penh, Cambodia May 9, 2016.

© Reuters/Samrang Pring

Cambodian officials have accused Sam-at, a respected human rights monitor at the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) for nearly 20 years, and Puthisak, a land rights activist from Boeung Kak Lake and former prisoner of conscience, of instigating violence at an October 10, 2016 demonstration. Para-police forces, who are regularly used to suppress demonstrations, violently dispersed what had been a peaceful protest in Phnom Penh. When Puthisak attempted to prevent para-police from confiscating a drum that was being used by a demonstrator, four or five para-police attacked him, repeatedly beating him on the head with their fists, according to a video of the incident. When Sam-at tried to stop the assault, the para-police attacked him, also beating him on the head. Both men sustained injuries that needed medical attention.

“The investigation of Sam-at and Puthisak by the Cambodian authorities is a typically absurd and undisguised case of judicial harassment,” said Champa Patel, Southeast Asia and Pacific director at Amnesty International. “As usual, unnecessary and excessive use of force by the para-police goes unpunished, and those who work to promote and protect human rights find themselves subject to criminal proceedings.”

The case against Sam-at and Puthisak is part of an extensive effort by the Cambodian authorities to discredit the legitimate work of human rights organizations...

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

On November 4, two members of the para-police filed a complaint with the Phnom Penh Court of First Instance, alleging that they were injured during the dispersal of the demonstration. The authorities are investigating Sam-at and Puthisak for instigating intentional violence, under articles 27 and 217 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code, which carry penalties of up to three years in prison. Both men are due for questioning on February 8, by Phnom Penh Court of First Instance Deputy Prosecutor Ngin Pich. There has been no indication that complaints filed against para-police by Sam-at and Puthisak after the incident on October 10, 2016 are being investigated.

The October 10 demonstration involved approximately 150 participants peacefully calling for respect for housing and land rights in Freedom Park, an area designated for demonstrations. The protesters were marching on a street adjacent to the park when the incident took place. Videos of the incident establish that the demonstration was peaceful and that Sam-at was wearing a blue human rights monitor vest when the para-police attacked him.

The case investigation of the two falls within a wider pattern of judicial intimidation in Cambodia. There are currently as many as 26 human rights and political activists in prison on charges which have all the hallmarks of being politically motivated. This includes 14 political activists who were jailed following a demonstration in July 2014, when para-police violently clashed with participants. No efforts have been reported on the authorities’ efforts to bring to justice the para-police responsible for the unlawful use of force.

“The case against Sam-at and Puthisak is part of an extensive effort by the Cambodian authorities to discredit the legitimate work of human rights organizations and to make clear the threat of prison for everyone working to promote and protect rights in the country,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “This campaign of intimidation against rights advocates has to stop now.”

Para-police, often referred to as “district security guards,” are auxiliary security forces that are regularly used to violently suppress demonstrations in Cambodia. No single legal document sets out the rules governing their functions and powers. Rather, their legal basis and the rules governing their activities are set out in a confusing combination of government statements and policies, and by instructions from the Ministry of Interior. They work in tandem with police, under the authority of district governors.

“The Cambodian government should be commending people like Sam-at and Puthisak for their work to promote and protect human rights rather than trying to intimidate them,” said Kingsley Abbott, senior international legal advisor at the International Commission of Jurists. “The case should be immediately and formally closed and a genuine investigation initiated into wrongful use of force by the para-police.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am