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.

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“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.

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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

Malcoal mine in Kayelekera. The open-pit coal mine is among the four largest coal mines in the country and is located on the back of a mountain, close to a river. Malcoal was reported to have closed down operations at the end of 2015, but the mine was still operational as of July 2016. 

© 2016 Lauren Clifford-Holmes for Human Rights Watch

(Lilongwe) – Malawi’s recently passed information bill could help communities affected by the extractive industries get information about related environmental, health, and safety risks, Human Rights Watch, Malawi’s Natural Resources Justice Network, and the Centre for Law and Democracy said today.

Malawi’s parliament adopted the bill with amendments on December 14, 2016. It was sent to President Peter Mutharika the week of January 16, 2017. It will enter into force once signed by the president and published in the official Gazette. The Malawian Natural Resources Justice Network has been advocating for more than a decade for access to information that helps communities make informed decisions and hold duty-bearers accountable in the extractive industries.

“The new law means that people in Malawi’s mining communities should be able to get vital information they need to protect their lives and livelihoods,” said Katharina Rall, researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The president should sign the law, and the government should act quickly to put it into effect.”

In a 2016 report, Human Rights Watch documented that families living near coal and uranium mining operations face serious problems with water, food, and housing, and that the families in the area have been left in the dark about health and other risks from nearby mining operations. Human Rights Watch found that Malawi lacks adequate safeguards to ensure that development efforts are always consistent with protecting the rights of local communities, and that weak government oversight and a lack of information leave local communities unprotected.

Residents in mining communities and non-governmental organizations in Malawi said that they could not get sufficient information about planned mining operations and any associated risks, fueling concerns about serious respiratory diseases, and other health and environmental impacts. The government told Human Rights Watch that it monitors the impact of mining but that it does not release the results to affected communities.

“Mining communities we work with applaud parliamentarians for passing the Access to Information Bill, which could also help push the government to release information about the oil and gas exploration around Lake Malawi,” said Kossam Munthali, Chair of the Natural Resources Justice Network. “Without information on the government’s position, civil society groups are unable to assess the potential risk that oil exploration poses to the lake and land or to engage on this issue.”

Since 2011, the government has awarded six petroleum exploration licenses, three of which cover the lake. Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale expressed concerns over irregularities in the licensing and contracting process. Malawian non-governmental organizations have repeatedly asked the government for information about the status of the exploration and contracts but have not received a response.

In November, the Natural Resources Justice Network and Publish What You Pay Malawi, which represent the overwhelming majority of civil society organizations working on the extractives in Malawi, wrote to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee asking it to press the Malawi government to provide information to the public about the planned oil exploration in Lake Malawi National Park. The World Heritage Committee notified the Malawi government that it should comply with its obligation to submit its overdue progress report to UNESCO, that should include this information, by February 1, 2017.

The provisions of the new information bill, if adequately implemented, could ensure that Malawians would be able to request and obtain the information they need from all government authorities as guaranteed by the Constitution. An analysis by the Centre for Law and Democracy from February 2016 using the RTI Rating, a comparative tool for assessing the strength of right to information legislation, found that if passed, the law would be the 15th strongest in the world.

The bill states that the information law will prevail in cases of conflict with other legislation, preventing the government from citing other laws that prohibit disclosure of information, such as any current or future mining-related legislation. The bill also addresses concerns raised by Malawian non-governmental groups about previous drafts. The bill says that the Malawi Human Rights Commission, the national human rights institution, will handle the oversight and appeals function of the law. The bill tasks the commission with disseminating information about how citizens can claim their right to know and with carrying out monitoring and evaluation procedures.

“Among the most important components in a successful right to information system is effective and independent oversight,” said Michael Karanicolas, senior legal officer at the Centre for Law and Democracy. “Having allocated these crucial responsibilities to the Human Rights Commission, Malawi’s government should also make sure that the commission has additional resources and capacity, as required, to perform this role.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

2017, officially designated as Russia’s “Year of Ecology,” is off to a disastrous start. On January 16, the authorities labeled one of the country’s most prominent environmental groups, Bellona-St. Petersburg, a “foreign agent organization.”

Artem Alexeev, Bellona-St. Petersburg executive director, at the all-Russia conference, “Reality and perspectives of ecological movement in Russia,” November 1, 2016.

© Oleg Vilenchik for Bellona-St. Petersburg

At the end of 2016, the Ministry of Justice conducted an unscheduled audit of Bellona, and although the group has not yet received the official result of that audit, Bellona-St. Petersburg has been added to Russia’s growing list of “foreign agents.”

Since 2012, the Russian government has used its “foreign agents” law to demonize independent groups that accept foreign funding and carry out public advocacy, especially those that challenge government policies and actions. In 2013, the Ministry of Justice and the General Prosecutor’s Office conducted a joint audit of Bellona, but found no grounds to designate the group a “foreign agent.”

Bellona-St. Petersburg has been providing invaluable legal expertise, educational services, and legal assistance on the right to a healthy environment since 1998. It has undertaken ground-breaking research on nuclear waste in Russia’s north, investigated the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and regularly reports on violations of environmental laws in Russia. In 2000, Alexander Nikitin, currently chairperson of the board for Bellona-St. Petersburg, was prosecuted for high treason and divulging state secrets for his part in the organization’s research report, “Dismantling Russia's Northern Fleet Nuclear Submarines: environmental and proliferation risks.”

A Bellona-St. Petersburg representative told Human Rights Watch they are thinking of making a legal appeal against the Ministry’s decision and also contemplating the option of closing the organization rather than have it operate with the shameful stigma. In March 2015, the authorities branded as a “foreign agent” Bellona-St. Petersburg’s sister organization in Murmansk, Bellona-Murmansk, following the publication of its report on industrial pollution in northwest Russia. In October 2015, after months of bureaucratic quagmire, Bellona-Murmansk chose to shut its doors.

Since 2012, seven environmental groups have closed after being designated as “foreign agents”.

Last December, at his end-of-year news conference, President Putin argued that foreign governments use environmental groups to “slow down certain growing segments of Russia’s infrastructure.” Bellona-St. Petersburg is yet another victim of the government’s targeted crackdown on the country’s leading environmentalists.    

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

(New York) – The Vietnamese government engaged in a broad crackdown on freedom of speech, opinion, association, assembly, and religion in 2016, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017. Rights bloggers and activists faced constant police intimidation and harassment, were subject to incommunicado detention, and imprisoned for exercising their basic rights.

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

Farmers from Duong Noi village protest during the trial of Can Thi Theu, a farmer and land rights activist in Hanoi. The placards read "Can Thi Theu is innocent," "Justice for innocent Can Thi Theu" and "Make arrest - grabbing land is criminal," September 20, 2016.

© 2016 Nguyen Tien Thinh/Reuters

“Hopes that Vietnam’s new crop of leaders selected at the Communist Party Congress in 2016 would ease up on repression were dashed over the last year,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “If they want the country to live up to its full potential, the authorities need to engage in dialogue with critics instead of silencing them.”

In 2016, at least 19 people, including prominent bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh, also known as “Anh Ba Sam,” Nguyen Dinh Ngoc, also known as “Nguyen Ngoc Gia,” and land rights activist Can Thi Theu, were sentenced from 20 months to nine years in prison for their blogging or peaceful rights campaigning. The police also arrested at least eight others, including bloggers Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as “Mother Mushroom,” and Ho Van Hai, also known as “Dr. Ho Hai,” for allegedly “conducting propaganda against the state.” Others, such as Nguyen Van Dai and Tran Anh Kim, arrested in 2015, continue to be detained without trial.

If they want the country to live up to its full potential, the authorities need to engage in dialogue with critics instead of silencing them.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

2016 also saw frequent physical assaults against human rights bloggers and campaigners at the hands of anonymous men who appear to be acting with state sanction and impunity. Several dozen people, including former political prisoners Tran Minh Nhat and Nguyen Dinh Cuong, and activists Nguyen Van Thanh and La Viet Dung, reported that they were attacked by men in civilian clothes. No one was charged in any of the cases.

Police frequently used excessive force to disperse pro-environment marches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Many protesters reported that they were beaten and detained for hours. Others, including prominent blogger Pham Doan Trang and rights activist Nguyen Quang A, were put under house arrest or detained so they could not attend a specific event, such as a meeting with foreign diplomats and dignitaries or participating in a public protest.

“Vietnamese bloggers and activists frequently risk their freedom and personal safety to campaign for democracy and basic rights,” said Adams. “Vietnam’s international donors and trade partners have for too long prioritized commerce and good relations over support for these brave individuals and the holding of multiparty elections that would bring an end to one of the world’s longest running one-party dictatorships.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Washington, DC, January 12, 2017) – The rise of populist leaders in the United States and Europe poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections while encouraging abuse by autocrats around the world, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said today in launching the World Report 2017. Donald Trump’s election as US president after a campaign fomenting hatred and intolerance, and the rising influence of political parties in Western Europe that reject universal rights, have put the postwar human rights system at risk. 

Meanwhile, strongman leaders in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and China have substituted their own authority, rather than accountable government and the rule of law, as a guarantor of prosperity and security. These converging trends, bolstered by propaganda operations that denigrate legal standards and disdain factual analysis, directly challenge the laws and institutions that promote dignity, tolerance, and equality, Human Rights Watch said.

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

Human Rights Watch is excited to invite you to a screening of When Two Worlds Collide, a powerful documentary bringing attention to the fight of indigenous Peruvians to save the Amazon rainforest over the government efforts to auction off one of the planet's most valuable natural resources.  

This movie is deeply relevant to struggles for indigenous rights and environmental justice in North America, like the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock and the fight for clean, safe water for Canada's First Nations.

When Two Worlds Collide follows Alberto Pizango, an indigenous leader who stands up to the Peruvian government and is accused of conspiracy and inciting violence. The movie won the World Cinema Documentary Prize for Best First Feature at the Sundance Film Festival.

All attendees are invited to stay after the screening for a Q&A with the directors of the film, the founder of Amazon Watch, and the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division. The discussion will be followed by a reception with the panelists.

4 pm | Doors open – Meet & Greet with Jose Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s Americas Director
5 pm | Film Screening, followed by panel discussion
7 pm | Reception with drinks and tacos

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Update, January 23, 2017

A court in Atyrau, western Kazakhstan has upheld a five-year jail sentence for two activists serving time for their role in organizing protest rallies in opposition to a proposed land privatization scheme.

The court on January 20, 2017 ruled to leave Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan in prison at the end of a week of hearings that, according to media reports, were marred by procedural irregularities.

Human Rights Watch believes the original sentences were a miscarriage of justice and both men should be released immediately.

 

(Berlin) – The convictions and five-year sentences on November 28, 2016, for two Kazakhstan activists for exercising their right to peaceful protest is a miscarriage of justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

A court in Atyrau, western Kazakhstan, found Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan guilty of inciting social discord, spreading knowingly false information, and violating the law regulating public assemblies. In addition to the prison terms, the court banned each from engaging in civic activities for three years after their release and fined them approximately US$1,500.

“Jailing Bokaev and Ayan for nothing more than peacefully expressing dissenting views is an outrageous miscarriage of justice,” said Mihra Rittmann, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan should be freed immediately.”

Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan in the defendants box at their sentencing hearing in Atyrau. November 28, 2016.

© 2016 Galym Ageleuov

Bokaev, 43, is a well-known activist, outspoken on a range of issues, including human rights and the environment. He is a member of the Atyrau regional National Preventive Mechanism, a torture prevention monitoring group under Kazakhstan’s Office of the Ombudsman. Ayan, 32, is another Atyrau-based activist and lawyer who has actively opposed government-proposed amendments to the land code.

Bokaev and Ayan had sought permission for a protest on April 24, in Atyrau, against changes to the land code, including the proposal to increase from 10 to 25 years the time for which foreigners could lease land in Kazakhstan. Local authorities denied them permission, but hundreds of people – including Bokaev and Ayan – gathered that day on Atyrau’s central Isatai-Makhambet square. It was one of the largest protests in Kazakhstan in recent years.

Police aggressively responded to efforts by activists to organize subsequent protests on May 21 in other cities in Kazakhstan. In mid-May, over two dozen activists, including Bokaev and Ayan, were detained on administrative charges. On May 21, the police rounded up and held hundreds more people who tried to protest.

The prosecution of Bokaev and Ayan began on October 12, in Atyrau. Erlan Kaliev, a monitor for the nongovernmental group, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, who attended the whole trial, told Human Rights Watch that he documented procedural violations, and that the trial did not meet international fair trial standards.

The judge denied defense motions to summon witnesses to appear in court, refused the defense request to keep a written record of court proceedings, and had ordered the trial to be heard on its merits before reviewing a complaint regarding Ayan’s detention, in violation of Kazakhstan’s criminal procedural code. The judge also denied several defense motions to recuse herself, including for showing bias against the defendants.

Kaliev told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution’s case relied on state-commissioned expert analyses of Bokaev’s and Ayan’s statements, including in social media, and the decision by the Atyrau city mayor’s office to deny permission to hold a protest on April 24, but that the prosecutor did not show any hard evidence of criminal wrongdoing by either defendant.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, prepared a legal assessment on the activists’ case, noting that “should the organizers [of a peaceful protest] fail to notify the authorities…the organizers should not be subject to criminal sanctions, or administrative sanctions, resulting in fines or imprisonment.”

Kiai also noted that “It is…of utmost importance for the court, especially in a context of assemblies, to scrutinize criminal charges to avoid the punishment of the exercise of rights protected by international law, such as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”

Earlier, Kiai, following his visit to Kazakhstan in January 2015, concluded that the manner in which the government regulates peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan “deprives the right of its meaning.”

International human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, have called for the activists’ immediate release.

Kazakhstan’s international partners should remind Astana that neither participating in peaceful protest, nor expressing a dissenting opinion is a crime, and similarly urge the Kazakh government to release Bokaev and Ayan immediately.

“Authorities should put an end to their misguided and punitive approach to public assembly and recognize the fundamental right to gather and peacefully express one’s views,” Rittmann said. “Bokaev and Ayan shouldn’t have to spend even one more day locked up.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

November 23, 2016

Donald Trump
President-elect of the United States of America
Trump Tower
735 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10022
 
Dear President-elect Trump,
 
I write to you on behalf of Human Rights Watch to urge you to repudiate and rescind pledges and policy proposals you made in the course of the presidential election campaign that if implemented by your administration would violate fundamental human rights and be deeply damaging to millions of people in the United States and abroad.

While you have recently stepped back from some of these proposals, suggesting that certain campaign promises were merely ideas or opening bids in a negotiation, none has been clearly and unequivocally retracted. In particular, statements that indicate backtracking from US human rights commitments and the rule of law threaten the well-being of people within the United States and US standing in the world. Even leaving positions on issues ambiguous can have a lasting corrosive effect.

Accordingly, we believe it imperative that you explicitly retract the following proposals that would violate or threaten core human rights under US law or the international legal obligations of the United States.

Reinstating Torture and Targeting Civilians

Torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment violates US law, including the federal torture statute and the War Crimes Act. It also violates long-recognized protections under the laws of war, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions. 

Reinstating any sort of interrogation program that involves torture, including waterboarding, or ill-treatment will expose senior administration officials and US military personnel to criminal liability within the US and abroad. Any legal opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel or other department attempting to justify torture will be legally void. It will put legal counsel involved at risk of liability for conspiracy or related charges, and it will not serve to protect anyone purporting to rely on such an opinion that would so clearly not have been rendered in good faith. You recently suggested that after speaking with military leaders, you have come to realize that torture might not be as effective as you had previously thought. This is an important acknowledgment but you should state unequivocally that your administration will never use torture or cruel treatment and that it will abide by US and international law banning it.

Similarly, reverting to past practices of detaining people in US custody incommunicado or in secret facilities or rendering them to third countries where they are likely to face torture or other ill-treatment, would violate US obligations under federal and international law prohibiting arbitrary detention, torture, mistreatment, enforced disappearance and other abuses. All those responsible for such violations, including as a matter of command responsibility, would be subject to criminal prosecution both in the US and abroad.

Reinstating torture and other methods of coercive interrogation would also undermine US national security. Past use of torture by the US continues to serve as a rallying cry for anti-US armed groups. Experienced US interrogators have emphasized that information obtained through torture is notoriously unreliable, often producing time-wasting false leads, while lawful interrogation methods produce more accurate information. The US has more intelligent, effective, and principled ways of responding to national security threats than stooping to barbaric practices used by groups such as the Islamic State. Respecting fundamental rights has always been in the best long-term interests of the United States.

During the campaign you also suggested that families of terrorism suspects could be targets of lethal strike operations. Later, you sought to clarify your position by saying that you would not issue orders for US military personnel to disobey the law. Acknowledging legal limits on the use of force by US forces was a positive step, but as you undoubtedly know, family members of combatants may not legally be targets of attack unless they are directly participating in the hostilities. Attacking them violates international legal protections for civilians and is a form of collective punishment. Anyone ordering such attacks would be subject to prosecution for war crimes. You should reaffirm US commitments to the Geneva Conventions and other international laws of war.

Expanding Indefinite Detention at Guantanamo Bay

The detention of hundreds of men indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial over the past 15 years has done long-term damage to US credibility on human rights and compromised relationships with allies. Senior officials in the administration of George W. Bush came to recognize the harm to US standing caused by Guantanamo. The administration released several hundred detainees. The Obama administration further reduced the prison’s population, citing among other reasons, the danger that Guantanamo poses as a recruiting tool for extremist groups. Your administration should likewise be looking for ways to undo the damage done by Guantanamo by appropriately transferring the dwindling number of detainees still held there and shutting down the facility. You should also certainly not add any detainees to Guantanamo.

The US should instead detain and prosecute all individuals accused of terrorist offenses in accordance with international law. That means disbanding the fundamentally flawed military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, whose handful of convictions have mostly been overturned on appeal, and prosecuting current and future terrorism suspects in courts that comport with international fair trial standards. US federal courts have prosecuted hundreds of terrorism cases since 9/11 but Congress has misguidedly banned the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the US for detention or trial. Your administration should support lifting the ban so that the cases, stalled for years in the dysfunctional military commissions, can move forward in federal court. For example, it is a profound embarrassment — a victory for blind ideology over any interest in justice — that the suspects in the September 11, 2001 attacks have still not been tried because their prosecution has proceeded before the military commissions rather than in federal court. Victims and their family members, as well as the defendants, would be much better served by the federal-court system, which while not without its flaws, is well established and widely respected. The use of the discredited military commissions is particularly pointless because a major aim was to prevent revelation of US torture of the suspects, but the details of that torture have now largely been disclosed in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s public summary of its longer report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program.

Deporting Millions of Immigrants

Your proposal to deport or “incarcerate” two million or “even three million” people who have had some contact with the criminal justice system would put the US on course for massive rights violations. Experience has shown that when immigration agencies try to deport millions of “criminals,” often with minor or no actual convictions, people with deep ties in the US, who contribute to their families and communities, pay the price. The risks to due process and community safety are also severe. Expanding the flawed expedited removal mechanism to carry out deportations more rapidly, for example, would cause enormous damage to due process and risk numerous wrongful deportations. Your proposal to ramp up immigration enforcement using local police would have the effect of promoting racial profiling, fear, and distrust of police, ultimately damaging public safety.

“Extreme Vetting,” Onerous Asylum Seeker and Immigrant Registration Requirements, and Global Refugee Policy

Your proposals to require Muslim immigrants to register with the government and to subject certain nationals to new “extreme vetting” procedures would cause serious harm. Both proposals were put forward in vague terms during the campaign, yet it is difficult to see how either could be implemented without denying people the internationally protected rights to seek asylum from persecution and to protection against discrimination. The registration proposal in particular conjures images of some very dark chapters in US and world history. Any kind of registration program would likely do harm to millions of law-abiding people and families who live and work in the US, for no apparent reason other than prejudice. US immigration, refugee resettlement, and asylum procedures already include very rigorous forms of security screening.

The US has for decades been the global leader in refugee resettlement. We strongly urge you not to undermine that leadership by curtailing refugee resettlement into the United States. A sudden attempt to curb the number of refugees coming to the United States could upend the entire global system of refugee resettlement – discouraging other countries as well from accepting more refugees – at a time when the world is facing the greatest number of displaced people since the end of the Second World War.

Curtailing Women’s Rights in the US and Abroad

The United States is one of only a few countries, rich or poor, that has experienced a recent increase in women dying in childbirth. Women and men in the US need access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care, including birth control, prenatal care, care and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, obstetric care, and access to safe and legal abortion. Such care should be available to all, including low-income and marginalized populations.

You have proposed several measures that would dramatically undermine such access. This includes your proposal to repeal most of the Affordable Care Act, which expanded access to health care including sexual and reproductive health care — without putting forward any complementary proposal to ensure that millions of people who have benefitted under the act would not lose access to affordable health care. You also pledged that in nominating Supreme Court justices, your priority would be to put “pro-life” judges who would “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade on the bench, which would open the door for the criminalization of abortion in many states. You have accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding marriage equality on the ground that it is “settled” law, but the court’s recognition of reproductive freedom has been settled for more than forty years, with a series of cases reaffirming the privacy rights first protected in Roe v. Wade. In addition, you have said that you will support making the Hyde Amendment, which blocks Medicaid funding for abortion except when the pregnancy results from rape or incest or endangers the woman’s life, a permanent law. These proposals, if enacted, would cause harm to millions of women.

Beyond these direct policy proposals, you have for many years made statements about women that are deeply offensive and fly in the face of human rights principles of dignity and equality. While you deny having committed sexual assault, you have spoken of it with a callousness that deeply concerned people around the country, risked normalizing violence against women, and jeopardized the standing of the US in global efforts to combat gender-based violence. As president you should no longer disregard such violence and discrimination but will have a duty to make strong efforts to combat it by fully supporting laws, policies, and government institutions that promote women’s safety from violence.

With regard to respecting women’s rights at the international level, your administration should support the maintenance of institutions and the enforcement of laws and policies that promote global women’s issues. For years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States has shown strong leadership in attacking such damaging practices as child marriage, gender-based violence, and human trafficking. You are in a position to enhance rather than undermine that important legacy. Critical will be nominating a highly qualified proponent of women's rights to lead the State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues, and ensuring that the office has sufficient resources and authority.

Weakening Media Freedom

During your campaign, you suggested you would attempt to weaken libel laws to make it easier to sue the media. Existing libel laws are designed to protect freedom of expression and ensure that the US has a robust free media, which is essential to ensuring public accountability and strong democratic institutions. Any efforts to erode such freedoms, including by strengthening libel laws, would be profoundly harmful to journalists’ ability to hold government to account. Ultimately, they would harm a fundamental and enduring component of US democracy.

Encouraging Hate Speech and Bias Crimes

When asked, you have publicly disavowed support for white nationalists; however your appointment of Stephen Bannon as your chief strategist and senior counselor shows a reaffirmation, rather than a disavowal, of the racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric that characterized your presidential campaign. Bannon’s stewardship of Breitbart News is widely recognized as promoting White Nationalism’s message of hatred and intolerance and its accompanying racist and anti-Muslim discourse.

Regardless of whether you believe Bannon personally holds those views, his appointment to a high-level position sends the message that your administration will tolerate and perhaps even endorse or encourage views that might incite violence, discrimination, or hatred against marginalized populations. Particularly when coupled with the nomination to attorney general of Senator Jeff Sessions, who as you know was denied confirmation as a federal judge because of allegations of racism, Bannon’s appointment suggests your administration will also be slow to act, if at all, when hate crimes and other bias crimes are committed. You should rescind Bannon’s appointment, and state forcefully, publicly, and clearly that discriminatory acts and statements will have no place in your administration.

Backtracking on the Right to Health

We urge you to withdraw your pledge to “repeal and replace” most of the Affordable Care Act. This legislation has so far provided insurance coverage for 20 million uninsured Americans. The Affordable Care Act should not be repealed or substantially amended without ensuring that these gains are preserved — an assurance to which you have so far not credibly committed. The Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid and subsidized insurance plans are key steps toward addressing significant economic, racial, and gender-based disparities in access to health care in the US and parallel poor performance on several key health indicators. As with maternal mortality (see above), the US is one of few countries in the world where HIV prevalence rates have not gone down in recent years. Mortality rates among middle-aged non-Hispanic Whites have increased in recent years, driven in significant part by high incidence of accidental drug overdoses and suicides. Improving access to mental health services and treatment for substance use disorders, both key elements of the Affordable Care Act and its emphasis on preventative, comprehensive, and community-based health services, is critical to reversing this trend.

Undermining Environmental Protections

During your campaign, you have announced an intention to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA). Gutting environmental rules and regulations risks undermining bedrock protections of people and their environment. The EPA plays a crucial role in, among other things, studying pollutants harmful to human health, establishing rules to curb dangerous pollutants, monitoring to ensure compliance, and prosecuting certain polluters. To cite a few of its recent actions, the EPA has set limits on emissions of mercury, arsenic, and other toxic substances from power plants, established a stricter air quality standard on the noxious gas ozone, and launched numerous enforcement actions to protect communities from exposure to toxic lead. We urge your administration to demonstrate leadership by ensuring the EPA can to continue its work to protect public health and the environment.

Relations with Abusive Governments: Russia, Syria and Egypt

Your stated interest in collaborating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Putin in Syria is of grave concern given the massive crimes committed by the Syrian government against civilians, Russia’s continued military support to the Syrian government despite those ongoing crimes, and Russia’s own involvement in unlawful aerial attacks in Syria. In the last five and a half years, the Syrian government has repeatedly used an overly broad definition of terrorism that has allowed it to justify attacks against any opposition group or activist who opposes or is perceived as opposing the Assad government. It has also fought the war by targeting and besieging civilians in opposition-held parts of the country in violation of the laws of war. The Russian government has embraced these practices and contributed to Syria military equipment and technical, financial, and human support to assist Assad in his brutal campaigns. It has also joined in the bombing of civilians and civilian structures. In addition, Russia has provided President Assad political protection at the UN Security Council.

Over the course of the war, these widespread and systematic rights abuses have fueled instability, driving millions of civilians from their homes and creating a strong incentive for the emergence of extremist groups that now pose a threat well beyond Syria’s borders. In these circumstances, partnering militarily with Russia would likely ratchet up abuse against civilians, intensify the adverse consequences, undermine prospects for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, and discredit the United States throughout the region. Partnering with Russia and Syria on military operations could also make the US government complicit in their war crimes and crimes against humanity and expose US personnel to legal liability.

Similarly, the absence of any mention of Egypt's substantial human rights abuses and weak adherence to the rule of law when discussing the US-Egyptian partnership raises further concerns. In the last three years, authorities in Egypt have banned protests, arrested scores of LGBT people, prosecuted religious minorities, imprisoned tens of thousands, put thousands of civilians before military trials, embarked on a draconian campaign against civil society and the media, and, in 2013, shot at least 817 protesters at Rabaa Square in the course of twelve hours — a slaughter on a par with China’s crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Armed groups, from an Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula to various extremists in the mainland, continue to regularly kill members of the security forces, while the government’s overly broad counterterrorism response has led to the arrest of thousands of non-violent dissidents and many others erroneously targeted. Such intense repression, sooner or later, is bound to destabilize one of America’s most important regional allies. Sweeping these issues to the side is a deeply short-sighted approach.

Unless circumstances in Egypt change dramatically and the US is able to rectify long standing human rights vetting concerns that continue to be problematic, we believe suspending military and security assistance to Egypt is not only the right decision but also one that will make clear that Cairo’s repressive trajectory will make it difficult to continue a status quo US-Egyptian alliance.

***

As president, you will have the heavy responsibility to prevent enactment of dangerous pledges and proposals that were made in the course of the campaign. A first step will be to unequivocally retract such proposals, condemn hateful rhetoric and acts undertaken in your name, and commit to respecting the obligations of the United States under international human rights and humanitarian law.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

When countries met in Paris last year for landmark talks on climate change, they made a commitment to consider the impact of climate policies on the rights of individuals most immediately affected by climate change. That commitment has faced a major test at the climate talks here in Marrakech over the past two weeks.

Indigenous peoples demand their rights at climate negotiations in Marrakesh

Katharina Rall

So how did it go? Climate negotiators have often been hesitant to focus on human rights in making policy. But despite the slow pace of negotiations and worry about plans of the new US administration, there have been some small but significant discussions and commitments on this issue here – some encouraging steps.

On Tuesday, the president of Chile, three national environment ministers, the head of the UN climate change office, the UN human rights office, and various nongovernmental groups came together in a packed room to discuss how human rights could become more central to climate policies. President Michelle Bachelet of Chile stated that “[s]olving the climate problem cannot be done at the expense of the human rights of people” and called for urgent action to protect children from air pollution.

Activists emphasized the need to protect environmental human rights defenders, who face threats and violence in many places. And ministers from Costa Rica, Belgium, and Luxembourg said that human rights considerations should not only be integrated into the global response to climate change, but that countries need to make sure that the voices of affected groups are heard at the national level.

Human rights were also taken up in official negotiations and decisions for the “rule book” for the Paris Agreement. For example, in this week’s decisions on “capacity building” governments referenced human rights in their plans to support each other to increase domestic knowledge and expertise. Countries also discussed whether human rights considerations should be included in reporting guidelines for their Nationally Determined Contributions, the national climate change action plans, as a way to encourage governments to ensure that their climate actions at the national level respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

Human rights activists, women’s rights advocates, and indigenous peoples can celebrate these small victories. But bolder commitments to human rights will be needed at the international and national level. The lives and livelihoods of those who are most affected by prolonged droughts, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels will depend on it.

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