When it was announced that the government of Fiji would chair this year’s climate talks in Bonn, Germany, expectations were high. As a small island, Fiji sees climate change as an existential threat.

Indigenous peoples demand their rights at climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, November 2016,

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

The talks wrapped up on Friday, and during the last two weeks, advocates for gender equality and indigenous peoples made their voices heard and won hard-fought battles to better respect their rights. Notably, governments agreed to create a platform to promote the participation of indigenous peoples in United Nations climate responses, and adopted a Gender Action Plan that aims to better integrate gender equality in climate change policies.

There was also increased attention given to environmental rights defenders and indigenous people who have been killed, attacked, and threatened for their activism. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that governments often fail to conduct serious and timely investigations.

Just when the talks were nearing their end, human rights were pushed to the fore when Fijian prime minister and president of the climate talks, Frank Bainimarama, convened a high-level event about the importance of rights in climate negotiations. Why was this such a big deal? Because never before has any government presiding over the talks hosted an official event on human rights.

Bainimarama has also long been among those who have been silent on human rights issues. But on Thursday, he announced that integrating human rights in the implementation of the Paris Agreement was an important element of Fiji’s presidency, which will continue through the coming year. Costa Rica’s environment minister, Edgar Gutiérrez-Espelata, also proposed concrete ways to integrate rights into the current negotiations about the so-called Paris Rulebook. For example, governments could reference human rights obligations in climate change action plans and climate negotiators could agree to build capacity among states on promoting human rights in climate action.

Of course, such commitments are worth little unless governments are willing to turn rhetoric into reality. If they are serious about fighting climate change, governments should also do more to integrate the protection of human rights in climate policies, while defending the rights of people working to protect the environment.

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

The top of a water tower is seen at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Choices by Flint and Michigan’s government officials led to massive contamination of drinking water – some tests showed water had more than 100 times the legal level of lead. The poisoning of Flint’s water was an unmitigated disaster.

Now, as government attorneys argue in court to dismiss the massive lawsuit leveled against these officials, the state of Michigan and city of Flint want to argue that clean water is not a constitutional right. This would mean they would not be liable for the lead-poisoned water, when they decided in 2014 to draw the city’s water supply from the Flint River without having the water propertly treated. It would also mean they are not liable for the impact the dangerously tained water had on people in Flint, including the 9,000 children known to have been exposed to it.

While US standards allow for small levels of lead, from a public health perspective there is no safe level of lead.

The US government and its state and municipal authorities have stubbornly refused to acknowledge people’s right to water. In 2014, a US federal judge in Michigan ruled that there was “no enforceable right” to water after the city of Detroit started massive shut-offs of household water supplies if people did not pay their water bill. 

For years at the United Nations, the US tried to distance itself from the global recognition of this human right. In 2015, it finally joined the consensus at the UN General Assembly in acknowledging that the right to water entitled everyone “to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” But it hasn’t ratified the major treaty addressing the right to water and has sidestepped the idea that the right could apply to US citizens.

Water is a human right. And the disaster in Flint is just one of many ways the right to water has been jeopardized in the US. The victims of Flint have a right to remedy for the harms suffered. Government authorities at the national, state, and local levels need policies that both guarantee safe drinking water.

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

Then President Anote Tong of Kiribati in Paris to advocate with world leaders around climate change. Kiribati’s islands may become uninhabitable as ocean levels rise due to climate change.

© Matthieu Rytz

The whole thing started on Panama’s San Blas islands, which are expected to be covered by rising sea water due to climate change. I went there on assignment from the New York Times to cover the issue, and I was so upset by it. And I thought, where else on the planet are people experiencing this? So I looked at a world map, and I heard about Kiribati. I wasn’t even aware of its existence. Here was a country whose ocean territory was as wide as the United States, in the middle of the Pacific, and I never heard of it. I was just amazed. I went there for two weeks to work as a photographer. I didn’t plan to make a movie.

How did you meet President Tong?

I had chartered a plane to take aerial photographs, and the pilot was a close friend of his, and he introduced us. I was quite shy. He was a head of state that knew that within a century, he won’t have a state anymore. What’s a bigger challenge than that? I just spontaneously asked him about making this movie. And he said yes. I had never made a movie before, never even done a short film. So I figured, “OK let’s do this, let’s figure out how to make a film.” It was the start of a four-year journey.

Throughout the movie, Tong eloquently speaks to world leaders about climate change and his country. What was it like to film this?

Anote's Ark

Anote's Ark

What if your country was swallowed by the sea? This film explores the idyllic Pacific nation of Kiribati which will be submerged within decades due to climate change. As President Anote Tong passionately embarks upon a race against time to save his people and 4,000 years of Kiribati culture, islanders are already feeling the pressure to relocate.

When I learned he would meet with the pope, I flew to the Vatican and met him. I did that whenever he met heads of state, was at the UN Human Rights Council, or any important moment. I basically covered every important meeting he had for the whole three years. I can tell you, in this political arena, the action is really fast and extremely boring. You go there, shake hands with Obama, and that’s it. It’s waiting hours and hours for the next meeting.

What’s your relationship like with Tong?

I was a one-man show, and because I was just a regular guy with a camera, I got more and more access. It got to the point where I was sharing dinner and having wine with him. Now we have almost like a grandfather-grandson relationship.

When I look back over the past five years, I see how I tried to keep my professional distance from the story, and I wonder, what just happened? How in the world did a Swiss white guy just become so close to the president of Kiribati?

What is Tong like in person?

You go to his home, what you’ll discover is that he is a traditional fisherman, living in a simple house with his grandchildren. There is only cold water. He spends his days on the lagoon fishing, and at night he spends time with his family and tells stories. He’s an elder respected by the community, and he drinks Kava, a traditional drink, and has a very important relationship to the spiritual world. So, he’s a mix of a traditional fisherman and something like a shaman. You would never ever think of him as the same guy hanging out with the pope. It’s an incredible contrast.

Trailer for the movie Anote’s Ark, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2018.

Your story also focuses on a Kiribati woman named Tiermeri  Tiare, known as Sermary, who was able to get a visa to live in New Zealand with her family. Why did you choose her?

Through Sermary you can understand the legacy of the people in Kiribati and what they’re going through. They have this program called “Pacific access category.” Every year they pick 75 people from Kiribati, a bit like a lottery, and those people can migrate to New Zealand. I basically got in touch with one of my friends in Kiribati who had contacts with the high commissioner, and from them I got the list of people who had won. All people still living in Kiribati who in a year or two would be in New Zealand. Sermary She was the first person I called. I just knew she was perfect.

Sermary and her children in Kiribati. Sermary and her family, who move to New Zealand, are featured in the movie Anote’s Ark.

© Matthieu Rytz

In the movie, you see Sermary struggling to adjust to life in New Zealand. In one scene you see how, right after she landed in Auckland, she’s completely overwhelmed by the airport’s parking lot.

There is only one road in Kiribati, and it’s 23 kilometers long. That’s the only place on Kirbati with a few cars. In another scene we cut from the movie, Sermary and her friend drive out of the airport and into an Auckland suburb. Sermary looks at the houses and asks,  “Why are there so many classrooms in this country?” In Kiribati, the only buildings with walls are classrooms, built by the church. People there don’t live in houses. And I think that’s an important perspective. All their lives they didn’t have walls. And they don’t have worry about the rent or buying food. There’s nothing to buy on the islands, although they do trade some coconuts for tea or sugar. When I was there, I wanted a cup of tea, and the vendor asked me for half a coconut. I only had an Australian dollar and offered it to him, but he had no use for the money. And I thought, ”Wow.” Leaving this culture is an incredible life change.

Before she left for New Zealand, Sermary’s home flooded for the first time in an unusual storm. But when she talked to her friends of the rising water and the need to leave Kiribati, no one agreed. President Tong also spoke of people in Kiribati not believing climate change endangered their islands. Were you surprised to find those views there?

An aerial view of one of Kiribati’s islands.

© Matthieu Rytz

For me, this is the very point of the movie. Tong says again and again, “Climate change should not be a political issue.” Meanwhile, politicians play their electoral games. In Australia, in Kiribati, politicians deny the existence of climate change to win some votes, and they’re playing with the future of this planet. The story of Kiribati is a warning to the rest of humanity. It’s too late for Kiribati. It’s too late for Manhattan, too. It’s just a question of time. And a very important question is, how are you going to deal with that? For me, the main point about the movie is not “Kiribati is going under water so I should take action and buy a Tesla and it’s going to be better.” It’s way deeper than that. What we need now is a real paradigm shift. It’s a question of re-connecting to our land and the nature around us. And that’s something Tong is deeply concerned with. We are basically disconnected and the climate is in crisis.

Anote’s Ark is a quiet film with many meditative shots of water, as opposed to the dramatic floods shown in other climate change films. Why did you choose to make the film this way?

Men construct a seawall in Kiribati, located in the Pacific Ocean. Kiribati’s islands may become uninhabitable as ocean levels rise due to climate change.

© Matthieu Rytz

Because I respect nature. For me, the first director of this film is nature and the island itself. It has its own voice. Climate change movies in general are dramatic and fast and show destruction. It’s easy to show these powerful images. But they don’t resonate for me. For me, climate change is much more subtle. Like erosion. It takes time, but it’s happening. Take the example of Manhattan. Every day, every single day, some rock is worn away. It’s not dramatic. And it will eventually destroy everything. It’s deep and subtle and unstoppable.

Meanwhile, though, Kiribati has a new president who has undone many of Tong’s climate-oriented policies.

This new government doesn’t really believe that people of Kiribati will have to move away from the islands, but rather that God will eventually take care of them. I think they took that position to get elected. I went with my partner to Kiribati over Christmas, and I took my projector and my laptop and started showing the movie in different communities. The people loved the movie. But I was stopped by immigration and the police and they took my laptop and projector, and we were deported. I cannot go back now. But the thing is, when this happened the UN Ambassador from Kiribati in New York sent an official letter to the Sundance Film Festival, claiming the content movie was a lie. Obviously, Sundance didn't take this request into account and instead premiered the film. 

How is Sermary now?

Sermary plays with her baby in Kiribati. Sermary and her family, who move to New Zealand, are featured in the movie Anote’s Ark.

© Matthieu Rytz

Sermary is good. The Kribati have such a powerful community, they just stay together and hang out together in Auckland. I was with them two weeks ago, and it was beautiful. It could be better of course, but they have a good life there. If I had scripted the movie, and said at the end, Sermary would have a baby in New Zealand, and we would film her saying to her baby,  “Are you a Kiwi?” I would say it’s too much. But that happened. I didn’t want the movie to have a positive end, but it’s just life, and it goes on.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

For me, the next question will be climate justice, and who has access to these funds and resources. Which is why this movie belongs in a human rights film festival.

You can see Anotes Ark at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in NY June 15-18 https://ff.hrw.org/film/anotes-ark?city=New%20York

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Trailer for the movie Anote’s Ark, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2018.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A workers unloads a truckload of logs in Howe Sound near Squamish, British Columbia, Canada April 25, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
Today, a US federal court heard arguments in a lawsuit against Greenpeace that raises serious concerns about freedom of expression.

In May 2016, Resolute Forest Products, a Canada-based logging company, filed a CAD$300 million lawsuit against Greenpeace and Stand.earth, as well as five staff members, under a US racketeering law enacted in 1970 and used to prosecute the mafia. This legal strategy has lead nongovernmental organizations and others to accuse Resolute of trying to silence environmental activists.

The lawsuit was apparently filed in response to one of its campaigns aimed at stopping what it considers is unsustainable logging in the Boreal forest, one of the world’s largest forests and carbon sinks. Resolute alleges not only that it has suffered immense financial harm as a result of Greenpeace’s campaigning, but that Greenpeace itself is a “global fraud” focused wholly on raising money for itself through fraudulent and deceitful campaigns.

Why should we pay attention to this lawsuit?

Because a number of environmental and human rights groups claim that it is emblematic of an abusive legal strategy to muzzle activists that speak against destructive corporate practices, known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs. Greenpeace sees the suit as a brazen attempt to either bully it into silence or secure its financial ruin.

Greenpeace US and others were also sued over their activism surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Other environmental activists in Canada, Ecuador, South Africa, and elsewhere are saying that SLAPPs are being used to undermine their work.

SLAPPs are meant to drain activists’ resources and intimidate them into silence. When saddled with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, organizations are forced to divert their attention away from their environmental work and to use scarce resources to defend themselves in court. SLAPPs can also take an emotional toll on the activists named in lawsuits.

In a 2017 report on SLAPPs, the former United Nations expert on freedom of assembly wrote that SLAPPs pose significant threats to the rights of activists to freedom of expression, of assembly, and of association. The UN expert raised particular concerns about the potential use of the US racketeering law at issue in the Resolute case, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), as a vehicle for abusive SLAPP suits. This is because RICO allows corporations to label advocacy groups as “criminal enterprises” and claim enormous amounts in damages.

Freedom of expression is a pillar of democracy. Countries should examine their laws and ensure that they do not facilitate the abuse and proliferation of SLAPP lawsuits. In the face of serious threats to our environment, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and chemical pollution, it is critical for environmental activists and groups to be able to organize and freely express themselves without the threat of baseless lawsuits.

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

A fisherman paddles his banca amidst ruins of house stilts destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan on a coastal village in Tacloban city in central Philippines November 2, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

“Will this be our fate – just to count the victims of climate change or be counted among them?”

Those words open a petition filed with the Philippine Commission on Human Rights after one of the most powerful typhoons on record – Super Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda – devastated the Philippine archipelago in 2013.

The petition, drafted and signed by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and other groups, requests that the commission conduct an “investigation of the responsibility of the carbon majors” – the largest companies producing crude oil, natural gas, coal, and cement, who are also the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters – “for human rights violations resulting from the impacts of climate change.” The inquiry will result in findings and recommendations.

The commission held its first hearing on this petition in March and its second hearing will be held on May 23 and 24. Human Rights Watch presented this week and explained the responsibility of corporations when it comes to respecting human rights. Our testimony underlined the potential of a right to a healthy environment to address the grave inequities suffered by people and communities exposed to environmental degradation and to bring these people relief and justice.

Recent scientific research has quantified and traced the carbon majors’ cumulative share of carbon dioxide and methane emissions since the industrial revolution. Given the causal connection between the accumulation of such greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and climate change, this body of scientific evidence is key to the commission’s examination of the responsibility of carbon majors for climate change impacts in the Philippines, one of the countries most affected by climate change.

The petition has great significance for millions of people who are, and will be, impacted by climate change. It could also have great significance for humanity’s sense of justice and responsibility towards the totality of life on the planet.

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

Yesterday, a court in Ecuador found Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader who opposes mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon, not guilty of inciting violence. The verdict ends a 17-month ordeal that Wachapá should never have endured.

Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader.

© Agustín Wachapá/Twitter

Wachapá was charged with inciting violence after a December 2016 clash between police and opponents of a mining project. Wachapá was president of a Shuar indigenous association that opposed the mining project at the time of his arrest, but he denied taking part in the confrontation, and the prosecutor had no evidence proving otherwise. After the clash at the mine, then-President Rafael Correa publicly denounced several indigenous leaders who opposed the mining project, singling out Wachapá on a nationally broadcast TV address.

Days after Correa’s broadcast, the Interior Ministry submitted a criminal complaint against Wachapá, prompting a prosecutor to charge him with “incitement to violence.” Wachapá was arrested and spent four months in pretrial detention in a maximum-security prison, 300 kilometers from his family. He was granted provisional release after paying a US$6000 bail in April 2017.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the case and found that the only arguably relevant evidence against Wachapá was a message he posted to Facebook after the confrontation. Though the language of that post is ambiguous, it was not defensible for the prosecution to bring serious criminal charges solely on the strength of this one weak piece of evidence.

Wachapá isn’t alone. A recent Human Rights Watch report shows that prosecutors in three prominent cases in Ecuador – including Wachapá’s – failed to produce sufficient evidence to support serious charges or justify years-long criminal investigations against indigenous leaders and environmentalists.

Human Rights Watch also found credible evidence that high-level officials of Correa’s administration have interfered in court cases touching on government interests. It was the interior vice-minister who filed the criminal complaint against Wachapá. Wachapá’s lawyers said he sat in the courtroom for every hearing, except for the final trial hearing.

Yesterday’s verdict ends the legal harassment of the indigenous leader – something he never should have gone through. The Attorney General’s office should investigate the handling of this case and take steps to ensure that no one is subjected to arbitrary arrest or incarceration. It should also ensure no one is prosecuted in the absence of credible evidence linking them to a crime.

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

Women climate change activists demand respect for rights at Paris Agreement signing ceremony outside the United Nations in New York, April 2016.

© 2016 Katharina Rall/Human Rights Watch
As this month’s climate talks in Germany come to an end, some participants are feeling a little queasy. Environmental activists and indigenous peoples worry about their ability to actively participate in the annual UN climate talks, in Katowice, Poland in December.

UN human rights experts share their concerns. Earlier this week five experts - including the special rapporteurs on environment and human rights, on freedom of assembly, and human rights defenders - raised the alarm about a new Polish law that could hamper civil society’s involvement at the climate summit, known as the COP24. It will bring together state parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC), and thousands of experts, journalists, businesses and nongovernmental groups.

The UN experts cite concerns about the ban on spontaneous assemblies in Katowice during the talks, which will make it difficult for groups to respond to developments at the negotiations. In a letter sent to the Polish government last month they said that by “curtail[ing] the possibility of spontaneously expressing views about the unfolding of the climate talks and organizing peaceful assemblies to this effect”, the new law appears to go beyond the rights restrictions necessary to ensure security and safety at the conference.

The UN experts also noted that the law “appears to give sweeping surveillance powers to the police and secret services to collect and process personal data about all COP24 participants”. This is a serious issue for the safety of climate activists at the summit.

Some environmentalists are under attack because of their work, and they worry that the Polish law could be used to spy on them and lead to retaliation. This is not only a threat to their individual rights, but could hamper the success of the summit. Activists play an important role in the global climate debate by providing relevant information to policymakers and the media, but they can only do that if they can effectively exercise their rights.

Last month, Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, acknowledged the concerns about the law in a letter to observer organizations, and committed to “engage with the COP24 Polish presidency in an effort to ensure that non-party stakeholders are able to participate in COP24 as they have in past COPs”. However, her letter doesn’t address the specific risks the law could pose to public participation.

The Polish government has yet to respond to the UN rights experts. But a reply from the Polish environment minister to similar concerns raised by the Bureau of the Aarhus Convention, a regional human rights and environmental body, has done little to dispel them.

The government contends that the dates of the conference are known, so that activists could “book” demonstrations in advance.  But at climate negotiations, events unfold quickly and progress is often not clear until the last moment. Unless nongovernmental groups can respond spontaneously and organize peaceful protests when necessary, their rights are seriously undermined.

The Polish government also compares the ban to the situation in 2015 in Paris, where the terrorist attacks immediately preceding the climate conference led to a ban on demonstrations in the city. But unlike in Paris, the Polish ban is not a reaction to a concrete security threat.

Similarly, the Polish government claims that the surveillance powers for the police are necessary “due to the temporary increase in terrorist, extremist and common crime threats.” In addition to collecting information about anyone posing a threat to public safety and order, the new law authorizes the police to collect data about anyone registered as participants in COP24 without their consent until January 31, 2019.

But, the UN experts said, providing this authority without judicial review “appears to be unwarranted and unbalanced”. This is particularly true in light of the existing counterterrorism provisions in Poland that grant extraordinary surveillance powers to the Internal Security Agency for anyone suspected of terrorist activity, especially foreigners.

During meetings in Bonn this week, the Polish government emphasized its commitment to work closely with civil society to confront the global climate crisis and achieve the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement. To make this a reality, Poland should urgently amend or repeal the law to ensure that non-party stakeholders can fully exercise their rights during COP24. The UNFCCC Secretariat and other governments involved in the negotiations should work with the Polish government to provide the space for a vibrant civil society at the climate talks.

As the statement of the UN experts notes: “All eyes are on the Polish Government to see how, as the host and the president of COP24, it will honour its human rights obligations and uphold its responsibility to ensure free and unfettered access for broader participation.”

Katharina Rall is an environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. Her work focuses on human rights violations in the context of climate change and environmental health.

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

Groups of miners in the diamond fields in Marange in 2006. When the scramble peaked in October 2008, more than 35,000 people, including children and women, were either mining or buying diamonds in Marange.

© 2006 Associated Press

Thousands of villagers around east Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields took to the streets on Monday to protest the looting of diamond revenue and were met by armed soldiers and police who fired tear gas canisters to disperse the demonstrators, according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

The police argued that the protest had not been authorized under the repressive Public Order Security Act (POSA), which severely limits freedom of association, public debate, and criticism of the government.

Human Rights Watch has documented how Zimbabwe’s armed forces have coerced children and adults into carrying out forced labor, and tortured and harassed local villagers when they seized control of the diamond fields. Armed forces personnel also killed more than 200 people in Chiadzwa, a previously peaceful but impoverished part of Marange, in late October 2008.

In March 2016, former President Robert Mugabe, while providing no evidence, told the state broadcaster that diamonds worth more than US$15 billion had been looted in Marange. No one has been held to account for the alleged looting. After years of alleged diamond revenue looting by state-owned companies, with no benefits to the local communities, the villagers’ protest is an indication that patience is wearing thin.

According to the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, which works closely with Marange community activists, representatives of the Marange communities petitioned the Parliament of Zimbabwe in March to “ensure diamond mining contributes to development of the health, educational and road infrastructure of the Marange community, especially areas affected by diamond mining.”

The Zimbabwe authorities have failed to ensure greater revenue transparency from diamond mining. Mechanisms for regulating diamond mining are needed to ensure the rights of local communities to information, and to protect them from forced evictions and from negative health and environmental impacts of mining.

The government’s heavy-handed response to the situation in Marange is counterproductive and likely to fuel violence. Authorities should investigate the violence, hold those responsible for any abuses to account, and open channels for genuine and constructive dialogue to address the communities’ concerns. The global rough diamond industry regulatory body, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, should also ensure it is adequately equipped to investigate allegations of serious human rights abuses and the looting of Marange diamonds.

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

Xolobeni community members and environmental activists march and chant slogans in front of South Africa's Pretoria High Court, April 24, 2018. 

© 2018 Dewa Mavhinga/Human Rights Watch

This week, the Pretoria High Court has presided over a case brought by the Xolobeni community against the government that could have far reaching implications for mining communities across South Africa.

Members of the community in the Eastern Cape province asked the Pretoria High Court to rule that the South African Department of Mineral Resources cannot issue a mining license without the community’s consent. The Xolobeni community also argued that the government has to respect the rights of the people who have lived on the land for generations, even if they do not have a formal land title.

Since 2007, members of the Xolobeni community on South Africa’s Wild Coast have pushed back against the idea that the government can allow mining operations to occur in their area, without them having a say in it. They are concerned that mining would lead to displacement, destruction of the environment and their livelihoods.

As the judge listened to the legal arguments in a packed courtroom, outside, hundreds of community members and environmental activists marched and chanted slogans in support of their cause. They were joined by civil society organizations from around the country.

The presence of many environmental activists is an important testament to their commitment and courage, given the attacks some of them have faced.

Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, one of the activists from Xolobeni, was killed two years ago. No one has been identified or arrested, far less convicted for his murder, and his family says the investigation has stalled.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, one of the plaintiffs in the case and another courageous leader of the Xolobeni community, has faced harassment and death threats. She told Human Rights Watch that the community hoped for victory. “But if the High Court does not rule in our favor we will take the matter up to the Supreme Court of Appeal and, if need be, to the Constitutional Court,” she said.

A judgment from the Pretoria High Court is expected in three to four months. The South African government should ensure that all the activists involved in this case and around the country are safe and that their rights are protected.

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

Indigenous people arrive in Quito after marching for 10 days to protest new mining and water law initiatives, as well as a constitutional reform project that would have allowed for indefinite re-election of the president. August 12, 2015.

© 2015 José Jácome/EFE
Last month, Latin America and Caribbean countries adopted a landmark regional agreement on environmental rights – the first to offer specific protections for people who stand up in defense of their right to a healthy environment.

On Earth Day, the effort is a good reminder of the dangers and challenges that still face environmental defenders around the region.

The treaty, adopted in Escazú, Costa Rica, will require states that ratify it to take measures to recognize and promote the work of environmental defenders, as well as measures to prevent and investigate attacks or threats against them.

Take the case of Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader in Ecuador. In December 2016, after a clash between police and opponents of a mining project, then President Rafael Correa singled out Wachapá – who was president of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers– on his nationally broadcast TV show, depicting him as violent. Shortly after the broadcast, Ecuador’s Interior Ministry filed a criminal complaint against Wachapá and a prosecutor charged him with “incitement to violence.”The case has loomed over Wachapá’s head ever since, even though the prosecution has presented no meaningful evidence to sustain the charges. The court is expected to deliver a verdict on his case on May 16.

Or the case of Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist and co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous organizations of Honduras, who was murdered in 2016. By then, Cáceres had endured years of death threats for defending her people’s lands.

The Escazú Agreement recognizes that the work of environmental defenders, like Wachapá and Cáceres, is important for democracy and sustainable development. It requires parties to guarantee that people defending their environment and communities can work safely without restrictions or threats.

The work of Human Rights Watch, together with our partners, was critical in securing these protections for environmental defenders in the treaty. We worked with environmentally-oriented representatives from Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, in the elaboration of text for dedicated protections to environmental defenders. We helped form a coalition of non-governmental partners—including human rights and environmental organizations from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries in the region -- that advocated on the importance of those protections.

The inclusion of these protections is an important step in protecting our environmental defenders, whose work keeps land healthy, for the people who depend on it and for us all.


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

A girl works in an artisanal diamond mine in Sosso Nakombo, Central African Republic, near the border with Cameroon, in August 2015.

© 2015 Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch

This week, a gathering of governments, companies and civil society groups at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris will assess companies’ efforts to curb serious abuses in their minerals supply chains.

Money from mining minerals like gold or cobalt – used in smart phones and laptops – has fuelled armed conflicts and the mining itself can result in dangerous pollution.

This annual meeting is a chance to review the implementation of the OECD’s Guidance on sourcing minerals responsibly, now widely recognized as the standard by which companies should conduct themselves.

Jewelry Brands Should Come Clean

Jewelry Brands Should Come Clean

You should know what is #BehindTheBling. This Mother's Day tell global jewelry brands to ensure their jewelry is responsibly sourced and address human rights abuses in their supply chains.

This is crucially important. Many companies still fall short of the Guidance and risk contributing to human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch has documented how civilians have suffered in armed conflict situations when armed groups have fought over access to mines. Communities near mines have faced ill-health and environmental harm as mines have polluted waterways with toxic chemicals. And children have risked their lives when working in small-scale mines in Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines.

We recently scrutinized 13 well-known jewellery companies for their sourcing practices and found that none of the companies were fully in line with the OECD Guidance. Most of the companies we analysed did not sufficiently assess human rights risks, had no or only partial traceability for their gold and diamonds, and failed to provide comprehensive public reports on their responsible sourcing efforts.

While this week’s meeting can and should discuss whether progress has been made, it cannot measure how the OECD Guidance is being put into practice. What is needed is government oversight. So far, governments have provided little, prompting Human Rights Watch and other civil society groups to call for change and outline what such a monitoring mechanism could look like. The OECD secretariat has taken a positive step by putting the issue on the agenda of this week’s meeting and requesting governments to provide information.

It is time for governments to make a commitment to check what companies on their territory are doing to protect human rights in their supply chains. They should name the companies that are making progress, as well as those that aren’t.

Communities affected by abuses in mining deserve their protection.

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

Top (left to right): Le Thu Ha, Nguyen Bac Truyen, and Nguyen Trung Ton
Bottom (left to right): Nguyen Van Dai, Truong Minh Duc, and Pham Van Troi


© Private

(New York) –  Vietnam should drop all charges against rights campaigners Le Thu Ha, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Van Dai, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc and release them immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. The People’s Court of Hanoi is scheduled to hear their case on April 5, 2018.

The six activists were charged with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the penal code.

“The only crime that these activists have committed is to campaign tirelessly for democracy and defend victims of human rights abuses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Vietnamese government should thank them for their efforts to improve the country instead of arresting and putting them on trial.”

The only crime that these activists have committed is to campaign tirelessly for democracy and defend victims of human rights abuses.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Le Thu Ha, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Van Dai, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc are accused of being affiliated with Brotherhood for Democracy, which was founded in April 2013 by Nguyen Van Dai and fellow activists. With the stated goal “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized and just society for Vietnam,” Brotherhood for Democracy provides a network for activists both in and outside Vietnam who campaign for human rights and democracy in Vietnam.

Members of the group conducted informal trainings on civil society, human rights, and democracy, and learned skills such as safety and security on the internet. They participated in anti-China and pro-environment protests, and in humanitarian activities such as helping victims of natural disasters and veterans with disabilities. The Brotherhood for Democracy provided legal assistance to fellow activists who were arrested and charged for their pro-democracy activities and co-signed petitions calling for democracy and human rights in Vietnam. They also visited the family of political detainees and prisoners to show solidarity.

All six activists have participated in numerous human rights activities, including campaigning for victims, teaching human rights standards, advocating for religious freedom, and supporting political prisoners and their families. Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc joined other civil social groups to campaign against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

The police arrested Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha in December 2015 and charged them with conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. Both were held in detention for almost 20 months without access to legal counsel. In July 2017, the police changed the charge to “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the penal code. The other four were arrested in July 2017 under the same charge.

Except for Le Thu Ha, each of the other five accused had previously served prison sentences for their peaceful pro-democracy and human rights activism.

According to Quang Binh Online, the mouthpiece of the communist party branch of Quang Binh province, “to take advantage of the maritime environmental incident in the central coast in April 2016, together with other hostile forces and reactionary elements, Brotherhood for Democracy strived to propagandize, distort, stir up and incite people to participate in protests in the name of ‘justice,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘march and protest for the environment.’ These subjects tried to inflate and exacerbate sensitive issues that receive attention of public opinion; causing irritation, doubt and discontent among the masses. The polluted environmental incident accidentally became ‘an opportunity’ and ‘a cause’ for these subjects to exploit and raise a hullabaloo to influence public opinions both inside and outside the country, [making people] mis-understand the policies and guidelines of the Party and the State, and the course of socio-economic development of local regions.”

Since the Formosa environmental catastrophe in April 2016, there have been numerous protests in Vietnam to demand a clean environment and fair compensation for victims who lost their livelihoods. Vietnamese authorities have responded by arresting and imprisoning activists who protested, including Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Tran Thi Nga, Ho Van Hai, Tran Hoang Phuc, Hoang Duc Binh, Nguyen Van Hoa, and many others.

“It is no coincidence that the trial of these six activists is planned on the two-year anniversary of the Formosa environmental disaster,” said Adams. “Instead of silencing critics, the Vietnamese government should order an impartial outside assessment of its clean-up effort and deal directly with citizens in the affected areas to provide fair and transparent compensation for their losses.”

Nguyen Van Dai

Nguyen Van Dai, 48, is a human rights lawyer who supported the formation of many rights groups in 2006, including the Vietnam Independent Union, the pro-democracy Bloc 8406, and the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam. He took on most of the legal defense for embattled Protestant churches, including the case of Mennonite pastor and former political prisoner Nguyen Hong Quang. He has written a number of articles about democracy and press freedom. He also opened informal classes at his law office for students who wanted to learn about human rights.

For his activities, Nguyen Van Dai has been subject to numerous accounts of harassment, intimidation, interrogation, house arrest, detention, physical assault, and imprisonment. He was disbarred and arrested in March 2007 for “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88 of the penal code. In May 2007, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. In November 2007, an appeals court reduced his sentence to four years.

After completing his prison sentence, Nguyen Van Dai immediately resumed his human rights activism. In April 2013, he helped found a group called Brotherhood for Democracy, with the goals “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized, and just society for Vietnam.”

In May 2014, while in a café in Hanoi along with several rights activists, a group of men appeared, threw a glass at him, and beat him. In January and March 2015, groups of men attacked his house and tried to break down the door. In early December 2015, Nguyen Van Dai gave a talk about human rights enshrined in Vietnam’s Constitution, followed by an open discussion at the Van Loc parish in Nam Dan district, Nghe An province. In the afternoon, he left for Hanoi, accompanied by three fellow activists. Their taxi was stopped by a group of about a dozen men in civilian clothing and wearing surgical masks. Nguyen Van Dai told a reporter at Radio Free Asia that the men dragged him out of the taxi, beat him with wooden sticks on his thighs and shoulders, and then dragged him into their car where the beating continued. The perpetrators eventually stripped him of his jackets and shoes and abandoned him on a beach. The three other activists were also severely beaten by different groups of men. Ten days after the attack, police arrested Nguyen Van Dai when he was on his way to meet an EU delegation in Vietnam for the annual human rights dialogue.

Nguyen Van Dai was charged with conducting propaganda against the state and was held in police detention for 19 and a half months without access to lawyers or legal counsel. In July 2017, the police changed the charge to carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration under article 79 of the penal code.

Nguyen Van Dai was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2007, the Vietnam Human Rights award by the Vietnam Human Rights Network in 2007, and the Human Rights Prize by the German Association of Judges in 2017.

Truong Minh Duc

Truong Minh Duc, 58, is a journalist who wrote and published in various mainstream newspapers in Vietnam, including Vanguard (Tien phong), Youth (Thanh nien), Law (Phap luat), and Kien Giang (the newspaper of his hometown). His writing exposed corruption and wrongdoing committed by local authorities involved in land ownership. He called people to help those in difficult situations. In 2006, he joined the pro-democracy Bloc 8406 and the Populist Party, which “aims to participate in the struggle to advance social democratic process and to build a new Vietnam with peace, freedom, prosperity and progress.”

Truong Minh Duc was arrested in May 2007 and charged with “abusing rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interest of the state” under article 258 of the penal code. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Since completing his prison term in May 2012, Truong Minh Duc resumed writing about rights issues. He advocates for fellow prisoners of conscience who continue to face harassment in prison simply because they refuse to repent. He joined the Free Viet Labor Federation (Lao dong Viet) from 2014-2016 and the Viet Labor Movement (Phong trao Lao dong Viet) in 2016 to campaign for workers’ rights. He is also a member of the Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience (Hoi Cuu Tu nhan Luong tam Viet Nam), and the Brotherhood for Democracy, founded in 2013 “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized and just society for Vietnam.” He campaigned against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

Due to his human rights activities, Truong Minh Duc encountered harassment, intimidation, house arrest, interrogation, and physical assault. In September 2014, when Truong Minh Duc went with three other activists to the Ministry of Public Security in Hanoi to inquire about the prohibition of labor rights campaigner Do Thi Minh Hanh’s trip abroad, a group of men in civilian clothes attacked and beat him until he lost consciousness. In November 2014, he was severely beaten by a group of eight men, one of whom he identified as a police officer named Hoa, who interrogated and beat him two months earlier at the police station of My Phuoc ward, Ben Cat district (Binh Duong province). In November 2015, the police of Dong Nai province detained and assaulted Truong Minh Duc and labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh for helping workers at Yupoong Company exercise their rights.

In July 2017, the police arrested Truong Minh Duc and charged him with carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration under to article 79 of the penal code.

Truong Minh Duc was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2013 and the Vietnam Human Rights award by the Vietnam Human Rights Network in 2010.

Nguyen Trung Ton

Nguyen Trung Ton, 46, is an independent Protestant pastor and a blogger whose writings focus on the lack of religious freedom and other rights issues in Vietnam. He has written about local land confiscation and corruption that has driven many peasants into landless situations. He criticized the government’s spending of tax money on festivals instead of building infrastructure, schools, or helping the poor. He supported fellow religious activists including independent Hoa Hao Buddhist leader Le Quang Liem and Mennonite pastor Duong Kim Khai. Nguyen Trung Ton has written about police harassment and assaults against him and his family.

Nguyen Trung Ton has encountered harassment, intimidation, house arrest, interrogation, and physical assault on numerous occasions. In May 2003, men in civilian clothes attacked his home, which he had turned into a house church. In June 2006, he was summoned by the police after attending a church worship service and was assaulted during interrogation. In August 2009, during an independent praying session at a private house, men in civilian clothes accompanied by local officials attacked and beat Nguyen Trung Ton’s family and fellow religious activists. In June 2010, his teenage son Nguyen Trung Trong Nghia was beaten on his way to school by five anonymous men after his father exposed police abuses.

Nguyen Trung Ton was arrested in January 2011 for conducting propaganda against the state and was sentenced to two years in prison. After completing his prison term in January 2013, Nguyen Trung Ton immediately resumed his campaign for human rights and democracy. He wrote a prison memoir that was published in Dan Lam Bao (Citizen Journalism). He advocated for political prisoners to be released. He joined the Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience (Hoi Cuu Tu nhan Luong tam Viet Nam) and the Brotherhood for Democracy, founded in 2013 “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized and just society for Vietnam.” He campaigned against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

In February 2017, Nguyen Trung Ton and a friend took a bus from Quang Thing commune, Thanh Hoa province to Ba Don town, Quang Binh province. Upon arrival, a group of seven or eight young men in civilian clothing dragged them into a van, took their belongings, stripped their clothes off, covered their heads with their jackets, and beat them repeatedly with iron tubes. The perpetrators later abandoned Nguyen Trung Ton and his friend in a deserted forest in Ha Tinh province. Nguyen Trung Ton was seriously injured and had to undergo an operation at a local hospital.

In July 2017, the police arrested Nguyen Trung Ton and charged him for carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration under article 79 of the penal code.

Nguyen Trung Ton was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2013.

Pham Van Troi

Pham Van Troi, 46, is a blogger who has used various pen names to write about human rights, democracy, land rights, religious freedom, and territorial disputes between China and Vietnam. He was an active member of the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam, one of the only human rights organizations to ever operate in Vietnam, until all of its leaders were arrested. He also wrote for the dissident bulletin To Quoc (Fatherland). Since 2006, he has encountered numerous cases of harassment, house arrest, physical assault, and interrogation.

Police arrested Pham Van Troi in September 2008 and charged him with conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. In May 2009, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Pham Van Troi had been wrongfully detained. Despite its conclusion, he was sentenced in October 2009 to four years in prison.

According to the indictment reported by state media, Pham Van Troi wrote “‘A denouncement of the security policy of the State and the Communist Party of Vietnam’ in November 2006 with content that distorts the truth and slanders the State as an oppressor of democracy. In addition, Troi gave interviews via telephone and slander that the police and the masses repressed and beat him.”

After completing his prison term in September 2012, Pham Van Troi immediately resumed his campaign for human rights and democracy. In April 2013, he helped found a group called Brotherhood for Democracy “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized, and just society for Vietnam.” He advocated for political prisoners and detainees including for Tran Anh Kim and Nguyen Van Dai to be released. He campaigned against Formosa, the Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

Pham Van Troi was placed under intrusive surveillance. Activists and former political prisoners who visited him were harassed, detained, and beaten. In December 2016, men in civilian clothes threw rocks at his house and broke his window.

Police arrested Pham Van Troi in July 2017 and charged him for carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration under article 79 of the penal code.

He was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2010.

Nguyen Bac Truyen

Nguyen Bac Truyen, 50, was an entrepreneur who began to participate in humanitarian activities in the early 2000s. He provided aid to victims of national disasters, orphans, and children in remote areas. His company was among the first in Vietnam that adopted a paternity leave policy. He also wrote and published in overseas news websites about repression, injustice, and human rights violations committed by the government. In 2005, he joined the newly founded People’s Democratic Party (Dang Dan chu Nhan dan) to campaign for political pluralism in Vietnam.

Nguyen Bac Truyen was arrested in November 2006 under article 88 of the penal code for conducting propaganda against the state. According to the indictment reported by state media, prior to the 14th APEC Summit (in November 2006), he “distributed leaflets, gathered people to organize protests, and wrote letters to demand a meeting with the American president upon his visit to Ho Chi Minh City.” In May 2007, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City convicted Nguyen Bac Truyen and sentenced him to four years in prison. In August 2007, the People’s Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three years and six months in prison.

Since being released in May 2010, Nguyen Bac Truyen began to publish writings about his fellow political prisoners and the difficulties and discrimination that former political prisoners face. He has been an outspoken member of the Vietnamese Political and Religious Prisoners Fellowship Association (Hoi Ai huu Tu nhan Chinh tri va Ton giao Viet Nam), which provides support to prisoners and their families. He gave interviews to Radio Free Asia and the BBC about his prison experiences and compiled a detailed list of political prisoners in Vietnam to international human rights organizations. Nguyen Bac Truyen advocated for independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers who suffer repression simply because they did not join the state-sanctioned church. He collaborated with the Redemptorist church in Ho Chi Minh City to carry out humanitarian activities to invalid veterans who fought for the southern army before 1975. He campaigned against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

Because of his pro-rights activities, Nguyen Bac Truyen has encountered harassment, intimidation, intrusive surveillance, interrogation, and physical assault on numerous occasions. In August 2010, police in Ho Chi Minh City detained and questioned him after he publicly called on Vietnam's politburo to release political and religious prisoners. In February 2014, a group of fellow activists went to visit Nguyen Bac Truyen and his wife Bui Thi Kim Phuong in Lap Vo district, Dong Thap province. Traffic police and men in civilian clothes stopped the group and attacked them. Three activists were arrested and charged with “disrupting public order” and sentenced to prison. Two weeks later, Nguyen Bac Truyen went to Hanoi to meet with foreign diplomats to campaign for those who were arrested. On the way to the Australian embassy in Hanoi, a group of men in civilian clothes assaulted him and broke his nose. In September 2016, Nguyen Bac Truyen and his wife were on their way home when a group of men in civilian clothes attacked them and used helmets to beat them.

Police arrested Nguyen Bac Truyen in July 2017 and charged him with carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration according to article 79 of the penal code.

Nguyen Bac Truyen was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2011 and the Vietnam Human Rights award by the Vietnam Human Rights Network in 2014.

Le Thu Ha

Le Thu Ha, 36, became interested in human rights and social issues when she was a student. After graduation, she became an English teacher and participated in civil society activities. In 2013, she joined a group called Brotherhood for Democracy “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized, and just society for Vietnam.” She helped translate reports of human rights violations into English for the group. She participated in pro-environment protests against mass tree cutting in Hanoi in March 2015. She joined a small group of activists to broadcast news about human rights abuses on a YouTube channel called “Television of Conscience” (Luong tam TV), established in August 2015 by Brotherhood for Democracy and Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience. She called for the repeal of penal code 258 that punishes peaceful activists for “abusing the rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the state.” Le Thu Ha also went to court during the trials of political activists to show solidarity.

In April 2015, police prohibited Le Thu Ha from leaving Vietnam for a human rights conference in Sweden. In September 2015, she was detained and interrogated for participating in the “Television of Conscience.”

In December 2015, police arrested Le Thu Ha and charged her with conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. She was held in police detention for 19 and a half months without access to lawyers or legal counsel. In July 2017, the police changed her charge to carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration under article 79 of the penal code.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Mining machinery left behind at Eland coal mine at Mwabulambo after closure in 2015. Locals said that before the mine was closed, they were not informed about the closure or how the company intended to mitigate risks stemming from the abandoned mining site.

© 2016 Lauren Clifford-Holmes for Human Rights Watch
Information is key to protecting the health and the livelihoods of people in areas affected by economic development. And that is why a 10 percent cut in the Malawi Human Rights Commission's budget announced recently is such bad news.

The commission plays a key role in the implementation of a new law that gives every citizen of Malawi the right to access information from the government.

Lucia, a 52-year-old mother of five children, is among the people who are waiting for the government to make this right a reality. She lives in a village in rural Malawi, where a coal mining company moved in nearby.

"I didn't know anything about the mining before the machines came in," she said. "They didn't give us any information, they just started digging."

When I was doing research for Human Rights Watch's report on the human rights impacts of mining in Karonga district in northern Malawi, I talked to many women like Lucia who grow cassava, maize and rice to feed their family.

The government has never told them whether pollution from the mines is affecting their fields or what they need to do to protect the health of their children. The government has tested the nearby water only a few times and has never told the community the results.

Information about water quality and soil pollution is crucial for protecting the rights to health, water, food and a healthy environment. This is especially important for people who live in poor and rural areas and are exposed to increased risks, such as communities located near Malawi's mining areas.

But although President Peter Mutharika signed the Access to Information Act more than a year ago, people are still struggling to get access to information that they desperately need.

The Human Rights Commission, an independent institution created to safeguard the rights of Malawians, is to monitor how the government implements the Access to Information Act, which gives every citizen of Malawi the right to access information from the government.

There have been several delays in the implementation of the new law. Now this cut in the 185,000,000 Malawian Kwacha (US$255,000) 2017/2018 budget, just as the commission has taken on this new responsibility, will be a blow to the residents of rural mining regions.

When we talked with the residents in Karonga, we also found that some families had been relocated by the companies without receiving adequate compensation for their houses, fields and land. The families – and in particular women – were not informed about the relocation process or about the compensation the government had required the companies to provide them.

Malawi's extractive industries are still in their infancy. The government and investors should respect rights and minimize the risks faced by communities and natural ecosystems, even as they push for economic development.

As far back as 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development recognized that access to environmental information, public participation in decision-making over natural resources, and access to justice are key elements of sustainable development. More recently, the UN expert on human rights and the environment has stated that the right to freedom of expression includes the obligation of governments to provide public access to environmental information.

The job of providing information to residents of these areas is going to grow as Malawi pursues economic development. In November, a Mining Ministry official called for increased investment in the mining industry to boost development. He also asked the media "to report things," even if negative. "As government we analyze them and see how we can intervene in order to make sure that mistakes are not repeated," he said.

Several ministry officials have openly admitted that they are not actively providing information to affected communities about the risks of mining. Some said that the government essentially leaves companies to regulate themselves, which violates Malawi's obligations under international human rights law and which has proven disastrous in neighboring countries in southern Africa.

If the Malawian government is serious about improving the lives of its citizens through economic development it needs to step up its efforts to implement the Access to Information Act. That includes adequately funding the Malawi Human Rights Commission so that it can carry out its role as an oversight body of the new law. Malawian nongovernmental organizations are calling for a specific budget for this added task.

The government should also ensure that local communities obtain the information they need to use the provisions of the new law. This would send the right signal to Malawi's development donors, who should support these efforts to realize the rights of marginalized communities.

Katharina Rall is a researcher in the Environment and Human Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

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

Esther Mambwe and her family were evicted from Kalengo section by a commercial farmer in 2016. “We didn’t know anything about this [commercial] farm until one day we saw a muzungu [white man] carrying something and he said he was making a boundary,” Mambwe said.

© 2017 Samer Muscati for Human Rights Watch
As activists and policymakers from across the globe gather in Washington D.C. for the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, it’s a good time to reflect on how commercial agriculture leaves peasants landless in Zambia.

Esther M. (not her real name), a 50-year old mother of nine, is among them. In 2016 commercial farmers displaced her from land where she had lived for more than three decades. She told Human Rights Watch researchers last year that the commercial farmer gave her no compensation and left her homeless. She feared having to move again if another commercial farmer leased the land she had relocated to. She doesn’t have the money to take her case to court or any administrative body for redress.

Esther M. was among the people interviewed for a  2017 Human Rights Watch  report on how commercial farming has destroyed the livelihoods of rural smallholder farmers in Serenje district of Central Zambia. Commercial farmers in the region had displaced residents– and even forcibly evicted some—from land they had lived on for decades. For the most part, there was no meaningful consultation with the community before the commercial farmers moved in and if they paid any compensation, it was a pittance at best. Women and their families who had farmed the land were left in dire straits without their only source of livelihood.

Many of the rural people displaced by commercial farming in Zambia have deep ties to their homes and land and a legitimate expectation of secure tenure rights. Many families have lived on and used the land for generations under customary tenure – which is recognized by law. Customary land rights are generally not formally registered, though residents may have documentation from their chief that reflects their occupancy and use.

 “Where will we go? This is where I was born, my parents were born here and died here,” Melanie K., who was facing displacement, told Human Rights Watch. “I have ten children and my sister has six. Where do I take them if they remove me from this farm?”  

Poor government planning exacerbates the problem. The government has designated huge tracts of land in some chiefdoms in Serenje district for commercial farming, leaving little land available to relocate displaced residents. In the Muchinda chiefdom, for example, where land is generally owned and controlled by women under the Lala inheritance customs, more than four farm blocks measuring more than 200,000 hectares have been designated for commercial farming. Some residents have been displaced multiple times when commercial farming operations move in or expand.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food took notice of what is happening.  In a  report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on her 2017 visit to Zambia she said: “The Government’s policy of turning export-oriented large-scale commercial agriculture into the driving engine of [Zambia’s] national economy, in a situation where land protection is weak, runs the risk of pushing peasants off their land, which in turn could push them out of production, with a severe impact on their right to food.”   

The World Bank conference echoes the Bank’s broader goals – ending extreme poverty and promoting prosperity, but is centered around land governance. Zambia’s government has not been able to reduce poverty and instigate prosperity for people in rural communities. According to one 2017 World Bank document, “coverage of programs targeted to help the poor and vulnerable [in Zambia] remain small relative to the need, as well as compared to regional and international standards.”

Government officials have acknowledged some “administrative setbacks” in monitoring commercial farming operations and protecting the rights of rural residents. They have taken some measures to remedy the situation. In 2017, the lands commissioner, Mr. Kopa Muma, directed provincial officials to ensure that they take sufficient care in allocating land to avoid harming residents. He required provincial officials to report cases in which residents are displaced to his office.

This is a small first step. But the government can do more. It should pay heed to women like Esther M. who implored: “We need help from the government to … find a place where we can raise our children.” The government should do much more to protect rural people’s rights and hold commercial farmers accountable. Zambian authorities and commercial farmers should follow international and national standards in developing plans for and carrying out resettlement and compensation that respect the rights of displaced families.

Commercial farmers should respect the rights and freedoms of communities still living on land allocated to them, including the residents’ right to consult independent counsel.

Commercial farmers should immediately and transparently take adequate measures to assist the residents they have already displaced without following international and national standards.

Companies should not profit by trampling the rights of poor peasants and leaving them impoverished and landless. It needs to stop.

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