A boy looks at a writing on the ground during a protest in support of women's rights, in New York City, U.S. on October 7, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters
“Why would anyone do that?”

My son asked this as he looked at the photo of Al Franken, Senator of our home state of Minnesota, posing with his hands over radio host Leeann Tweeden’s breasts as she slept, a stupid grin on his face. My son stood silently, shaking his head, as I described Tweeden’s account of Franken forcibly kissing her.

My teenage son isn’t naïve. He and his younger brother know about the outpouring of #MeToo stories. For years, they’ve heard about how women face violence, harassment, and discrimination in all corners of the world. I’m their mom, I work on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, and I talk about it.

But the Franken story hits close to home.

A few months ago, I took my sons to Washington, and like many tourists do, we took a Capitol tour guided by Senate staff – in our case a Franken employee. Franken’s staffer pointed out statues of women suffragists and Rosa Parks. The kids and I talked about Franken, and took pride in our Senator supporting women’s rights causes.

And now this.

If these are the only incidents, it may be that Franken’s actions were less menacing than what victims have described about Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and too many other men in positions of power. But they’re horrifying nonetheless.

What Tweeden describes represents the lower-level, ongoing harassment women frequently face – harassment that wears us down and forces some women to give up on the career of their dreams, change jobs, or leave the workforce altogether.

Franken has apologized. There will be an ethics investigation, and perhaps more. It matters that Franken and men like him, and the institutions they work for, examine their actions and take responsibility. Beyond any single case, we need systems to prevent sexual harassment, support survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable. 

My colleagues and I at Human Rights Watch work every day to fight harassment, violence, and discrimination against women around the world. We push for policy reforms and justice. We face the challenge of government apathy, or officials being perpetrators themselves. Sometimes we face well-meaning people who just don’t get it.

Many of us are also parents, facing the daily challenge of raising our kids in a sexist world. How can I ensure that my sons are not among the next generation of abusers?

As my son stared at the photo of Franken, I searched his face. To my relief, I saw signs that he gets it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 17, 2017, 10:31 pm

Police officers stand guard at the Supreme Court during a hearing to decide whether to dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 16, 2017. 

© 2017 Samrang Pring/Reuters

(New York) – Cambodia’s government-controlled Supreme Court on November 16, 2017, dissolved the main opposition party and imposed political bans of five years on 118 of its members, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Hun Sen’s actions to remove the main opposition party and its members is a naked power grab, canceling the votes of millions of Cambodians in previous elections and rendering next year’s national elections meaningless,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Democracy died in Cambodia today and it’s hard to see it reviving so long as Hun Sen, in power for 32 years, remains as prime minister. This is a watershed moment, requiring a strong and concerted international response. It’s time for action, not words.”

Democracy died in Cambodia today and it’s hard to see it reviving so long as Hun Sen, in power for 32 years, remains as prime minister. This is a watershed moment, requiring a strong and concerted international response. It’s time for action, not words.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The court ruling should lead to quick action by Cambodia’s donors and trade partners to impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on Prime Minister Hun Sen and senior members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and armed forces.

The removal of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) means there will be no significant opposition party to challenge the CPP in 2018 national elections.

The European Union, Japan, and other donors should immediately suspend all financial and technical election assistance for the 2018 elections unless the CNRP is fully reinstated and permitted to compete.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 17, 2017, 9:15 pm

Protesters chant slogans to mourn the death of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China on July 15, 2017. 

© 2017 Bobby Yip/Reuters

(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately and unconditionally release from detention rights activist Huang Qi and bookseller Yiu Mantin, who are seriously ill, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also allow the two, who have been held in violation of their basic rights, to seek proper treatment wherever they wish, in China or abroad.

In recent years, a number of prominent dissidents have become seriously ill in detention, been denied adequate care, and died either in detention or shortly after being released. On November 7, 2017, dissident writer Yang Tongyan died less than three months after being released on medical parole, and on July 13, Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo died three weeks after he was transferred to a hospital.

“Neither of these peaceful advocates should have been detained in the first place, and to continue to do so even when they are gravely ill is cruel and inhumane,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Authorities should immediately release Huang Qi and Yiu Mantin and allow them to seek medical care freely.” 

The considerable reputational damage brought by the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in state custody just months ago has not deterred Chinese authorities from keeping seriously ill dissidents in prison.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

Huang, 54, a veteran activist and founder of the human rights website 64 Tianwang, has been detained since November 2016 for “illegally leaking state secrets abroad.” Huang suffers from several health conditions for which he was not given adequate treatment, including possible imminent kidney failure, signs of emphysema and inflammation in the lungs, Huang’s mother said in a public letter appealing for Huang’s release. Huang’s lawyer has applied for medical parole on his behalf three times, but authorities denied each application without giving a reason. In November, Huang told his lawyer that he had been repeatedly beaten by fellow detainees at the Mianyang City Detention Center. At least one officer at the center was aware of the violence but failed to intervene to stop it. Huang was also denied basic necessities such as toothpaste and toilet paper. Huang was previously imprisoned from 2000-2005 on subversion charges and from 2008-2011 for “illegally holding state secrets.”

Yiu, 76, a Hong Kong publisher and chief editor of Morning Bell Press, has been serving a 10-year sentence on smuggling charges in a Guangdong jail since October 2013. Yiu was preparing to publish a book critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping shortly before he was arrested. Yiu suffers from heart disease, liver disease, asthma, and other health issues. He has fainted several times since being detained. Prison authorities transferred Yiu to a prison-affiliated hospital about two years ago due to his poor health. Yiu’s wife said prison authorities had not given her any medical examination records about Yin since 2015 and she is uncertain about his condition. Yiu’s lawyer has repeatedly sought medical parole for him but it has not been granted.

Conditions in China’s detention facilities and prisons are poor and usually marked by minimal nutrition and rudimentary health care. Human Rights Watch has also long documented police torture and ill-treatment of detainees in police-run facilities. There have been repeated instances where seriously ill detainees were not sent to hospitals until their conditions had deteriorated significantly.

Failure to provide prisoners access to adequate medical care violates the right to the highest attainable standard of health found in international human rights law. The UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners provides that “[s]ick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals.” China’s Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that medical parole can be granted to criminal offenders who are “seriously ill,” but in practice, authorities have rarely granted it to political dissidents.

Since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, several dissidents and activists have been denied adequate medical treatment and died in detention or shortly after being released. They include:

  • Cao Shunli: In March 2014, Cao Shunli, 52, an activist who had tried to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review, a process run by the United Nations Human Rights Council, died in a Beijing hospital after being arbitrarily detained in September 2013. Her family members had repeatedly warned that she was becoming gravely ill and had fought to have her released on medical parole, but authorities only transferred her when she fell into a coma. She died days later.
  • Goshul Lobsang: Tibetan activist Goshul Lobsang, 42, died in March 2014, five months after being released on medical parole. After his arrest in June 2010, Goshul Lobsang was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges relating to the 2008 protests in Tibet. During his three years in detention, Goshul Lobsang was reportedly subjected to severe torture and deprived of sleep and food.
  • Tenzin Choedak: In December 2014, Tibetan environmental activist Tenzin Choedak, 33, died in a Lhasa hospital, three days after he was released in extremely weak condition. Tenzin Choedak had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2008 on the charge of acting as a ringleader during the unrest in Tibet earlier that year. While in prison, Tenzin Choedak reportedly suffered chronic diseases and brain injury because of severe torture.
  • Tenzin Delek Rinpoche: In July 2015, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, a revered Tibetan lama who was serving a life sentence for “inciting separation of the state” following a trial that fell far short of international standards, died in detention after months of increasingly serious allegations that his health was deteriorating. Throughout his 13 years in detention, credible reports repeatedly emerged that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was being tortured.
  • Zhang Liumao: In November 2015, activist Zhang Liumao, 43, died at the Guangzhou No. 3 Detention Center after he was arrested three months earlier on suspicion of “picking quarrels and proving trouble,” a catch-all charge frequently leveled against activists. The state media reported that Zhang died of complications from cancer, but Zhang’s family lawyer, who examined Zhang’s body, said that it was bruised and bloody with apparent signs of torture.
  • Liu Xiaobo: In July 2017, after serving nearly nine years of his 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion,” Nobel Peace laureate and public intellectual Liu Xiaobo died from liver cancer in a Shenyang hospital. Less than a month before his death, the authorities said they had “released” him on medical parole, but they heavily guarded him and his wife, Liu Xia, isolating them from family and supporters, and denied Liu’s request to seek treatment outside the country. Very little is known about the conditions of Liu’s imprisonment. Although the authorities allowed his closest family, including Liu Xia, some visits, they silenced the family by holding Liu Xia under house arrest.
  • Yang Tongyan (pen name: Yang Tianshui): Dissident writer Yang Tongyan, 56, was released on medical parole after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in August 2017, four months short of serving the full term of a 12-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” After being denied permission to travel abroad for treatment, Yang died on November 7, less than three months after his release. During Yang’s imprisonment, his lawyers had applied for his medical parole several times, but they were all denied.

“The considerable reputational damage brought by the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in state custody just months ago has not deterred Chinese authorities from keeping seriously ill dissidents in prison,” Richardson said. “The ruthlessness and arrogance of the Chinese government should be met with international condemnation.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 17, 2017, 8:25 pm

Two boys who were under the care of foster parent Yulia Savinovskikh until August 2017.

© 2017 Yulia Savinovskikh

When Yulia Savinovskikh had a double mastectomy in July, she was aware of the likely physical side effects of the surgery. But she felt the procedure was worth it; after three pregnancies, her breasts were causing her pain and other health problems. What she wasn’t expecting – and the most painful of all – was the removal of two foster children from her care and their placement in an orphanage.

On August 27, without warning, state guardianship agency officials removed two boys, ages 4 and 5, who had been living with Savinovskikh and her husband for three-and-a-half and two years, respectively. One of the children has cerebral palsy; the other has a serious medical condition which requires close supervision.

Guardianship agency officials cited an anonymous complaint about Savinovskikh’s so-called “immoral behavior” and a transgender blog she wrote as among the reasons for the children’s removal. Officials claimed her mastectomy was evidence that she was planning to undergo sex reassignment surgery to transition to male.

Although not citing the law specifically, officials appear to have taken the decision to interfere in Savinovskikh’s private and family life and those of the foster children because of the 2013 discriminatory law banning so-called “gay propaganda” to children, envisaging that after her alleged transition Savinovskikh and her husband would live as a gay couple.

Setting aside the fact that officials had no evidence Savinovskikh planned to transition, any such decision she might have taken would have no bearing on her fitness as a parent.

Savinovskikh was in the process of adopting the children when officials placed them in an orphanage for children with disabilities. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuse and neglect of children with disabilities in Russian state orphanages and has called on the government to ensure that whenever possible children can enjoy their right to grow up in families, like Savinovskikh’s.

In September, Savinovskikh unsuccessfully appealed to the Ministry of Social Policy to bring the children back home with her.

A November 14 report by the Russian Civic Chamber, a citizens’ consultative body, criticized the guardianship agency officials’ actions as “lacking proper evidence” to merit removing the children and recommended they be returned, but subject to a psychological evaluation to ensure that Savinovskikh is “mentally fit” to care for the children.

Savinovskikh passed a medical evaluation when she first became a foster parent, and the requirement that she undergo an additional one to prove her suitability to continue to be a successful guardian to children who were wrongly removed from her care is arbitrary, discriminatory, and only compounds the injustice of officials’ actions.

The Russian government should act in the children’s best interests, as human rights law requires them to do, and which the evidence demonstrates is not to have them in an institution but in a family-based environment where they will receive the support and nurturing they need – like they did in Savinovskikh’s care.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 17, 2017, 5:18 pm

An interior view of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow, Russia, January 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters
(Moscow) – Draft legislation pending in the Russian parliament to impose restrictions on foreign media would further undermine media freedom in Russia, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament should reject the law as incompatible with fundamental standards on free speech, which are at the heart of a democratic society.

On November 15, 2017, the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, adopted, with record speed, a draft law that stipulates that the government may designate any media organization or information distributors of foreign origin that receive any funding from foreign sources as “foreign media performing the functions of a foreign agent.” The State Duma chairman, Viacheslav Volodin, stated bluntly that the bill aims to retaliate against a US Department of Justice’ September request that the Russian state-funded television channel, RT, comply with registration requirements under the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).

“The US government’s misguided decision to request for RT to register under FARA gave the Kremlin a platform to retaliate, and they have done so with a full throttle attack on media freedom,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But sadly, the bill will not simply hurt foreign media, but worse, unjustifiably limit Russian citizens’ right to access information and ideas.”

The November amendments define the term “media outlets” broadly to include any foreign entity that distributes “to unlimited audience, print, audio, audiovisual and other messages and materials.” The definition appears to be broad enough in theory to be applied to a wide range of groups and people, not just media outlets or individual bloggers, but academic or nongovernmental organizations and social media platforms.

On November 15, the draft was sent for approval to the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament.

The bill further stipulates that should a foreign media outlet be designated a foreign agent, it must comply with the requirements of Russia’s “foreign agents’ law.” The draft however fails to explain the basis on which the Russian government will choose which foreign media it designates foreign agents, nor does it describe the registration procedure. The law also fails to identify which government agency would be tasked with overseeing its implementation. 

While a motivation behind the amendments may be the application of FARA to RT, the November bill imposes asymmetrical measures. RT is not the first, nor only, media outlet connected to a foreign government subject to US registration requirements – Chinese, Japanese, and Korean media entities are also current registrants. FARA, first enacted in 1938 and reformed in the 1960s to identify and regulate lobbyists working for foreign governments, applies to organizations and individuals that operate under direction and control of a foreign principal. But the US law does not equate receiving foreign funding, in part or in whole, with being under the direction and control of a foreign principal.

On November 15, following the adoption of the draft law by the State Duma, Russia’s Ministry of Justice sent notices to several US-government-funded media operating in Russia under Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, such as the television network Nastoyashee Vremya (Current Time) and Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty, the Russian language service of RFE/RL), informing them that the authorities might designate them “foreign agent” media. The notices did not elaborate on specific restrictions that would be applied.

Adopted in 2012 and amended in 2014 and 2016, the “foreign agents’ law” requires Russian independent groups to register as “foreign agents” if they receive any foreign funding and engage in broadly defined “political activity.” The law requires such organizations to clearly mark all publications “foreign agent,” and to file extensive reports on their funding and activities, in addition to the extensive reporting they already file to the tax, Justice Ministry, and other agencies. The penalties for violating the law range from administrative fines for entities to criminal sanctions, including imprisonment, for individuals.

“The text of the media bill may be vague, but the Russian authorities’ intentions could not be clearer,” Williamson said. “This legislation is tailor-made to be selectively and politically enforced, and to silence voices they do not want Russian people to hear.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 17, 2017, 4:00 am

Two people pray at the grave of a loved one in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 26, 2017.

© 2017 Agoes Rudianto/Reuters

An Indonesian organization representing victims of the mass killings of 1965-66 has located 16 suspected mass graves in central Java that may contain the remains of up to 5,000 victims.  

The 1965 Murder Victims Research Foundation, a nongovernmental advocacy group that has already located 122 other suspected mass graves, on Wednesday provided the coordinates of sites near the central Java  town of Purwodadi to Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and asked it to investigate.

In 1965-66, the Indonesian military, paramilitary groups, and Muslim militias were given free rein to kill “communists.” Over several months, at least 500,000 people – possibly as many as one million – were slaughtered. Victims included members of the Communist Party of Indonesia, ethnic Chinese, trade unionists, teachers, activists, and artists. Last month the US government released declassified documents on the mass killings, showing that US diplomatic personnel were fully aware of the scale and savagery of the killings.

in April 2016, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered government officials to document the location of suspected mass graves. The Indonesian government announced one month later that it would form a team to investigate a list of 122 alleged mass grave sites of 1965-1966 massacres compiled by victims’ advocacy groups. However, the government has so far failed to do so.

While official accountability efforts have stalled, there has been increasing efforts by the Indonesian military,  paramilitary groups and Islamist militants to stoke “anti-communist” paranoia in response to calls for accountability for the mass killings. Elements of those groups led a violent “anti-communist” demonstration in Jakarta in September while the Indonesian military launched a propaganda offensive aimed at reinforcing the official narrative that the killings were a justified response to an attempted communist coup.

President Jokowi can defy these intimidation tactics and support efforts toward accountability for the killings. He can do that by ordering a careful exhumation of suspected mass grave sites by forensic experts with the skills and experience to ensure that exhumation is done in a way that preserves crucial evidence and allows for identification of bodies. By starting the process of identifying the victims of the 1965-66 massacres, Jokowi can take a meaningful first step toward addressing the toxic legacy of those killings.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 17, 2017, 12:16 am

Human rights activists chant slogans during a protest to condemn the disappearances of social activists in Karachi, Pakistan January 19, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

“Any act of enforced disappearance is an offence to human dignity,” states the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Yet in Pakistan, hundreds remain forcibly disappeared, their families awaiting answers.

Giving people a rare glimmer of hope, Senator Farahatullah Babar called for a new commission on enforced disappearances on Monday. That same day, the Supreme Court ordered the government to provide the details of allegations against people who have gone missing – and are suspected to be “disappeared” by the government – in “black and white.”

Yet in the past, the government has failed to comply with court judgments and commissions on this very issue. Pakistan has yet to respond to a Supreme Court directive on October 26 demanding a detailed report on enforced disappearance cases. In a scathing indictment, Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan said, “The highest judicial office of the country has no answer to give to the loved ones of the missing persons who have been doing the rounds of the courts.”

A previous Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, set up in March 2011 for six months, was recently extended to September 2017. During Pakistan’s latest Universal Periodic Review, where UN member countries weigh in on each other’s human rights records, Pakistan said that after examining of 2,416 disappearances that happened between March 2011 to November 2016, the commission traced 1,798 of the people to either being at home or detained on criminal or terrorism charges. The remaining 618 cases were closed.

Still, the government has not held anyone responsible for disappearances accountable. Nor have new cases of disappearances declined. The commission received nearly 300 complaints of enforced disappearances from August to October 2017, one of the largest number of cases received in any three-month period since 2011.

Senator Babar’s dissatisfaction with the existing commission stems from its failure to fully use its powers to combat disappearances, including “fix[ing] responsibility on individuals or organisations responsible” and filing police reports “against named individuals … who were involved either directly or indirectly in the disappearance of an untraced person. ”

Pakistan faces serious security threats, and abducting people and making them vanish does not make the country any safer. The government should act on the demands of Senator Farahatullah Babar and the Supreme Court to end the longstanding injustice to hundreds, if not thousands of its citizens.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 16, 2017, 9:35 pm

Ilgar Mammadov detained during a protest rally in Baku, 2013.

© 2013 Turkhan Kerimov (RFE/RL)

Today, the Azerbaijani government has another chance to free a wrongfully imprisoned political activist and thereby halt a process that could potentially lead to its expulsion from Europe’s top human rights body, the Council of Europe. 

The activist is Ilgar Mammadov. In early 2013, when he was planning a long-shot run for Azerbaijan’s presidency, he and another political activist, Tofig Yagublu, went to the Azerbaijani city of Ismayilli, where demonstrations and riots had broken out to protest local corruption. The pair spent less than an hour there to gather information about the events. Soon the authorities, looking for scapegoats for the protests, prosecuted Mammadov and Yagublu for allegedly instigating the riots. The charges were baseless and the trial was grossly unfair, but they were nevertheless convicted.

Yagublu was released by presidential pardon in 2016, but Mammadov has been in prison since his arrest nearly five years ago.

Since his arrest, Mammadov brought several cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Today the court ruled that Mammadov’s right to a fair trial had been violated due to “serious shortcomings in the manner in which the evidence used to convict [him] had been admitted, examined and/or assessed.”

This is the second European Court judgement on Mammadov’s predicament. In 2014, in case No. 1, the court ruled that Mammadov’s pretrial detention was unlawful and aimed at “silenc[ing] and punish[ing] him for criticizing the government.” The Council’s Committee of Ministers issued more than a dozen resolutions requiring the Azerbaijani government to release Mammadov, and when Azerbaijan refused to do so, the council’s Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland, launched a rare inquiry into this failure.

The government pledged to reform pre-trial detention practices, but remained utterly defiant on Mammadov’s unlawful detention.

Responding to this defiance, in October 2017 the Committee of Ministers voted to trigger legal proceedings against Azerbaijan. This means, if Mammadov is not released, the European Court will be asked to further deliberate on his detention and its judgement in case no.1, and ultimately could result in a challenge to Azerbaijan’s membership of the Council of Europe.

President Aliyev has indirectly threatened to withdraw Azerbaijan from the Council of Europe, and has predictably tried to blame the current crisis on Jagland, when of course it is the government’s obstinance that has got us to where we are today.

The new court ruling is a new leaf, a new reason for Azerbaijan’s government to do the right thing, and to free Mammadov. It should not miss this chance.



Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 16, 2017, 12:28 pm

Burmese security forces have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State.

(New York) – Burmese security forces have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 37-page report, “‘All of My Body Was Pain’: Sexual Violence Against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma,” documents the Burmese military’s gang rape of Rohingya women and girls and further acts of violence, cruelty, and humiliation. Many women described witnessing the murders of their young children, spouses, and parents. Rape survivors reported days of agony walking with swollen and torn genitals while fleeing to Bangladesh.

“Rape has been a prominent and devastating feature of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Burmese military’s barbaric acts of violence have left countless women and girls brutally harmed and traumatized.” 

Rohingya women refugees who crossed the Naf River from Burma into Bangladesh continue inland toward refugee camps. Tek Naf, Cox's Bazar district, Bangladesh. 


© 2017 Anastasia Taylor-Lind
Since August 25, 2017, the Burmese military has committed killings, rapes, arbitrary arrests, and mass arson of homes in hundreds of predominantly Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State, forcing more than 600,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has found that these abuses amount to crimes against humanity under international law. The military operations were sparked by attacks by the armed group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 security force outposts and an army base that killed 11 Burmese security personnel.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 Rohingya women and girls who had fled to Bangladesh, including 29 rape survivors, 3 of them girls under 18, as well as 19 representatives of humanitarian organizations, United Nations agencies, and the Bangladeshi government. The rape survivors came from 19 villages in Rakhine State.

Burmese soldiers raped women and girls both during major attacks on villages and in the weeks prior to these attacks after repeated harassment, Human Rights Watch found. In every case described to Human Rights Watch, the rapists were uniformed members of Burmese security forces, almost all military personnel. Ethnic Rakhine villagers, acting in apparent coordination with Burmese military, sexually harassed Rohingya women and girls, often in connection with looting.

Fifteen-year-old Hala Sadak, from Hathi Para village in Maungdaw Township, said soldiers had stripped her naked and then dragged her from her home to a nearby tree where, she estimates, about 10 men raped her from behind. She said, “They left me where I was…when my brother and sister came to get me, I was lying there on the ground, they thought I was dead.”

All but one of the rapes reported to Human Rights Watch were gang rapes. In six reported cases of “mass rape,” survivors said that soldiers gathered Rohingya women and girls into groups and then gang raped or raped them. Many of those interviewed also said that witnessing soldiers killing their family members was the most traumatic part of the attacks. They described soldiers bashing the heads of their young children against trees, throwing children and elderly parents into burning houses, and shooting their husbands.

Humanitarian organizations working with refugees in Bangladesh have reported hundreds of rape cases. These most likely only represent a small proportion of the actual number because of the significant number of reported cases of rape victims being killed and the deep stigma that makes victims reluctant to report sexual violence, especially in crowded emergency health clinics with little privacy. Two-thirds of rape survivors interviewed had not reported their rape to authorities or humanitarian organizations.

Many reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and untreated injuries, including vaginal tears and bleeding, and infections.

“One tragic dimension of this horrific crisis is that Rohingya women and girls are suffering profound physical and mental trauma without getting needed health care,” Wheeler said. “Bangladeshi authorities and aid agencies need to do more community outreach among the Rohingya to provide confidential spaces to report abuse and reduce stigma around sexual violence.”

Burmese authorities have rejected the growing documentation of sexual violence by the military.  In September, the Rakhine state border security minister denied the reports. “Where is the proof?” he said. “Look at those women who are making these claims – would anyone want to rape them?”

Human Rights Watch previously documented widespread rape of women and girls during military “clearance operations” in late 2016 in northern Rakhine State, allegations the Burmese government crudely rejected as “fake rape.” In general, the government and military have failed to hold military personnel accountable for grave abuses against ethnic minority populations.  Multiple biased and poorly conducted investigations in Rakhine State largely dismissed the allegations of these abuses.

Burma’s government should end the violations against the Rohingya immediately, cooperate fully with international investigators, including the Fact-Finding Mission established by the UN Human Rights Council, and allow humanitarian aid organizations unimpeded access to Rakhine State.

Bangladesh and international donors have acted quickly to provide relief for the refugees, and are expanding assistance for rape survivors. Concerned governments should also impose travel bans and asset freezes on Burmese military officials implicated in human rights abuses; expand existing arms embargoes to include all military sales, assistance, and cooperation; and ban financial transactions with key Burmese military-owned enterprises.

The UN Security Council should impose a full arms embargo on Burma and individual sanctions against military leaders responsible for grave violations of human rights, including sexual violence. The council should also refer the situation in Rakhine State to the International Criminal Court. It should request a public briefing from the UN special representative of the secretary-general for sexual violence in conflict, who just returned from the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.

“UN bodies and member countries need to work together to press Burma to end the atrocities, ensure that those responsible are held to account, and address the massive problems facing the Rohingya, including victims of sexual violence,” Wheeler said. “The time for consequences is now, otherwise future Burmese military attacks on the Rohingya community appear inevitable.”

Selected accounts from Human Rights Watch interviews

  • Fatima Begum, 33, was raped one day before she fled a major attack on her village of Chut Pyin in Rathedaung Township during which dozens of people were massacred. She said: “I was held down by six men and raped by five of them. First, they [shot and] killed my brother … then they threw me to the side and one man tore my lungi [sarong], grabbed me by the mouth and held me still. He stuck a knife into my side and kept it there while the men were raping me. That was how they kept me in place. … I was trying to move and [the wound] was bleeding more. They were threatening to shoot me.”
  • Shaju Hosin, 30, saw one of her children killed when she fled their home village of Tin May, Buthiduang Township. She said: “I have three kids now. I had another one – Khadija – she was 5-years-old. When we were running from the village she was killed, in the attack. She was running last, less fast, trying to catch up with us. A soldier swung at her with his gun and bashed her head in, after that she fell down. We kept running.”
  • After her village was attacked, Mamtaz, Yunis, 33, and other women and men fled to the hills. Burmese soldiers trapped her and about 20 other women for a night and two days without food or shelter on the side of a hill. She said the soldiers raped women in front of the gathered women, or took individual women away, and then returned the women, silent and ashamed, to the group. She said, “The men in uniform, they were grabbing the women, pulling a lot of women, they pulled my clothes off and tore them off…. There were so many women … we were weeping but there was nothing we could do.” 
  • Isharhat Islam, 40, was raped by soldiers during military operations in her village Hathi Para (Sin Thay Pyin) in October 2016 and then again during the recent military operations. She described the stigma she faces, saying, “I have had to deal with disgust, others looking away from me.”
  • Three of Toyuba Yahya’s six children were killed just outside her house in Hathi Para (Sin Thay Pyin) village in Maungdaw Township. Then seven men in military uniform raped her. She said that soldiers killed two of her sons, ages 2 and 3. by beating their heads against the trunk of a tree outside her home. The soldiers then killed her 5-year-old daughter. She said: “My baby … I wanted him to be alive but he slowly died afterward … My daughter, they picked her high up and then smashed her against the ground. She was killed. I do not know why they did that. [Now] I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. Instead: thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. I can’t rest. My child wants to go home. He doesn't understand that everything has been lost.”
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 16, 2017, 5:00 am

A woman takes part in a SlutWalk protest, in central Seoul July 16, 2011. About 100 protesters, mostly women, attended the SlutWalk protest march which became a movement of rallies around the world after a Toronto policeman suggested in January 2011 that women could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like a "slut."

© 2011 Reuters
The allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein together with social media’s #metoo phenomenon, where hundreds of thousands of women and girls spoke out about their experiences of being sexually harassed or assaulted, have struck a real chord in South Korea. Some South Korean women started sharing online their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, which triggered discussion and brought out accumulated anger and frustration. Yesterday, the South Korea government promised new measures to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.

This is desperately needed.

South Korea has a serious problem with harassment and violence against women. It was recently ranked an abysmal 116 out of 144 countries when it came to gender equality. Footage emerged this week of nurses at a hospital allegedly forced to dance in skimpy outfits for visiting officials. In a recent survey, 80 percent of South Korean men said they had physically or psychologically abused a girlfriend. The country has the unhappy distinction of having the third-highest rate, at 52.5 percent, of female murder victims in the world – a fact attributed to the murder of women by intimate partners and the government’s failure to effectively enforce laws against domestic violence.

The government should do much more to address the problem. A 2015 survey by the South Korea government found that over 78 percent of sexual harassment victims in the workplace said they did not take any action to seek protection or redress but rather “put up with it.” Many women said they did not believe it was likely they’d get help even if they raised the case. The government’s sex education guidelines have been criticized by experts and civic groups for falling well short of what is needed to stem this crisis. An indication of just how out of touch the guidelines are is their suggestion, intended for high-school teachers, that women may risk rape if they go on dates with men that pay for an expensive meal as they may expect sex.

The government pledged this week to require all employers to provide anti-sexual harassment training, make it easier to report abuse, and hire specialized staff to handle complaints. It also promised tougher penalties for both perpetrators of harassment and abuse, and for employers who fail to respond appropriately to the new regulations.

These are positive steps but much more is needed. The government should follow through on its promise, consult with survivors, take strong measures to deter retaliation against complainants, and make these reforms part of a broader effort to promote gender equality and end tolerance of abuses against women.

From Hollywood to Seoul, it’s time for a change – because women are tired of putting up with abuse.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 16, 2017, 4:18 am

Students attend a protest to mark the 55th anniversary of the military's suppression of student protests in 1962 at Yangon University, Yangon, Burma on July 7, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

A Burmese ministry’s ban on assemblies and processions in central Yangon deprives people of their basic right to peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s friends and donors should remind the government of its stated commitments to protect basic rights such as freedom of assembly, association, and expression.

The ban, reportedly set forth in a directive issued in early November 2017 by Yangon Region Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Aung Soe Moe, instructs police in 11 townships in Yangon to deny all applications for processions or assemblies to avoid “public annoyance and anxiety.” The directive sets aside one small area of Yangon for all protests.

The directive should be withdrawn and the police should instead be instructed to ensure that assemblies take place in safety, and to manage traffic to minimize any disruption.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

“There is no legitimate reason for imposing a ban on all protests in major sections of Burma’s largest city,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This directive was issued by a military officer and should be seen by the civilian government as a direct challenge to its commitment to basic rights for Burmese citizens. The government needs to reverse this ban and uphold the rule of law and refuse to capitulate to arbitrary actions by the military.”

Under international human rights law, governments are obligated to facilitate peaceful assemblies within sight and sound of their target audience.

The directive, which precludes protests near Yangon’s City Hall, most government offices, and many foreign embassies, makes it impossible for those protesting against government policies or acts of foreign governments to demonstrate anywhere near the target of their protests.

While governments can impose reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions on specific assemblies, they have the burden of showing that doing so is necessary to protect a legitimate interest, and that the restriction is a proportionate response to the perceived risk. The stated justifications for the ban, which include public nuisance and traffic congestion, are insufficient to justify the broad and open-ended burden placed on the right to peaceful assembly. As United Nations human rights experts have made clear, a certain level of disruption to ordinary life caused by assemblies, including disruption of traffic, annoyance, and even harm to commercial activities, must be tolerated if the right to peaceful assembly is not to be deprived of substance.

More importantly, a blanket ban on all assemblies in a given area is by nature disproportionate because it precludes consideration of the specific circumstances of each proposed assembly.

The directive also appears to conflict with Burma’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, enacted in October 2016. That law, while flawed, was a step forward in protection of freedom of assembly in Burma. Unlike the assembly law it replaced, which required organizers to get government “consent” for any assembly or procession, the 2016 law requires only that organizers give notice of a planned assembly or procession 48 hours in advance. It does not authorize the police to deny permission for the protest or procession, and only the Ministry of Home Affairs – also controlled by the military – is authorized to issue bylaws, regulations, and orders governing the implementation of the law.

“Central Yangon should not become a protest-free zone,” Adams said. “The directive should be withdrawn and the police should instead be instructed to ensure that assemblies take place in safety, and to manage traffic to minimize any disruption.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 10:39 pm

The United States Senate’s reluctance to address past US use of torture was on shocking display during the confirmation of an official who had provided legal cover for so-called, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” in the years after the September 11 attacks. This sends a dangerous signal about accountability for torture under President Donald Trump.

Yesterday, by a 50-47 margin, the Senate approved Steven Bradbury as general counsel of the federal Department of Transportation. Bradbury had written memos authorizing the use of torture and other coercive methods of terrorism suspects as a top government lawyer under then-President George W. Bush.

Only two Republican senators, John McCain and Rand Paul, voted against Bradbury’s confirmation, and both cited torture as the reason. The confirmation marks a, “dark chapter in American history,” said McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

Bradbury had authorized depraved and illegal torture methods including waterboarding and 180-hour sleep deprivation, including with captives’ hands chained above their heads. These methods inflicted horrendous pain and suffering on detainees, stained the US reputation worldwide, and fueled the recruitment drives of Al-Qaeda and other armed groups.

In addition to evidently discounting the enduring damage the torture program caused, some senators perhaps embrace Trump’s reckless praise of torture during his election campaign. Either way, too many senators were unconcerned by Bradbury’s disregard of the absolute prohibition on torture – not only under US law, but also international treaties ratified by the US, such as the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture.

Some senators argued that Bradbury’s new Transportation Department post lacks the national security sensitivity of his former position as acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2005 to 2009, when he wrote his torture memos. But by writing legal documents that wrapped a mantle of false legitimacy around flagrantly unlawful practices, Bradbury failed to uphold respect for human rights and the rule of law that should be required of any US government official.

Instead of downplaying Bradbury’s past, the Senate should be clamoring for criminal investigations into Bradbury and other government officials who played a key role in the US government’s systematic use of torture.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 9:56 pm

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a meeting with garment workers, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 8, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Samrang Pring

Cambodia’s Supreme Court should resist government pressure to rule on dissolving the country’s main opposition party, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia’s international donors and supporters should state clearly that dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) will delegitimize national elections scheduled for 2018.

On November 16, 2017, the Supreme Court will rule on a case brought at the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen in October to dissolve the CNRP. The Cambodian government has accused the CNRP of trying to stage a “color revolution” – a reference to popular uprisings around the globe – but has provided no evidence of illegality in its court filings.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen seems afraid that he will lose elections scheduled for 2018, so he is using the nuclear option to destroy the opposition,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law.”

Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Hun Sen has announced that upon dissolution of the CNRP, its parliamentary seats will be redistributed to other political parties. He has pressured CNRP members who won seats in June commune elections to switch to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), stating that any other seats won by the CNRP will be taken by the ruling CPP. The CNRP made significant electoral gains during both the 2013 national elections and the 2017 commune elections.

Hun Sen, who has held office for more than three decades, Defense Minister Tea Banh, and other senior government and military officials have made numerous public threats to use force against any Cambodian who protests the dissolution of the CNRP. More than half of CNRP members of parliament have fled Cambodia in recent weeks, fearing arrest or violence.

In calling for the court to dissolve the CNRP, the government has equated efforts and plans by the opposition to win the next election with treason. On September 3, authorities arbitrarily arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha at his home in Phnom Penh and took him to a remote prison near the Vietnam border, where he has been held without adequate access to his lawyers. Kem Sokha has been charged with treason for discussing the training on democracy and party-building his party received from United States government-funded organizations. These organizations have also long provided similar training to the CPP.

Kem Sokha’s arrest followed multiple trumped-up criminal cases and convictions against the CNP’s founding president, Sam Rainsy. Sam Rainsy has been forced into exile to avoid long prison terms in cases that have been rubber-stamped by the Supreme Court.

The planned dissolution of the CNRP is part of a massive, broader crackdown by Hun Sen and the CPP against all forms of peaceful dissent. In recent months, the government has forced the closure of the Cambodia Daily, independent local radio stations, and FM stations that re-broadcast Radio Free Asia and Voice of America’s Khmer language service. At least 20 of the approximately 36 opposition and civil society activists arbitrarily arrested since May 2015 remain imprisoned; many of them were prosecuted in summary trials that fell far short of international standards.

“Hun Sen is in the process of destroying pluralism, free speech, and all other human rights gains since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991,” Adams said. “Donors and diplomats have a choice: do nothing while the chances for democracy are extinguished, or send the message that there will be serious political, economic, and diplomatic consequences if Hun Sen returns Cambodia to a de facto one-party state.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 7:33 pm

A 16-year-old worker harvests tobacco on a farm in Kentucky.

© 2013 Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch
Working on child labor, it often feels like there isn’t much good news. So when I learned recently about a new policy that could potentially protect millions of children from dangerous work on tobacco farms around the world, I couldn’t quite believe it. With a major change to an industry-wide due diligence program, the Sustainable Tobacco Program (STP), now at least 180 tobacco companies are pledging to prohibit all children under 18 from handling green tobacco on farms in their supply chains.

The STP is used by major multinational manufacturers and leaf dealers as well as other tobacco companies operating in 52 countries, which combined are contracting with hundreds of thousands of farms worldwide.

Why is this potentially great news for kids? My Human Rights Watch colleagues and I have interviewed hundreds of children and their families working in tobacco farming in five countries: Kazakhstan, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe. We have consistently found that many children who handle tobacco are at serious risk of nicotine poisoning, also known as Green Tobacco Sickness, an illness caused by absorption of nicotine through the skin, which can cause vomiting, nausea, dizziness, headaches, loss of appetite, and insomnia. The long-term effects of absorbing nicotine through the skin are unknown; the dangers of nicotine exposure through smoking are well-known and serious.

When we started looking into the dangers for children in tobacco farming, the companies’ approaches to hazardous work for children varied widely, and no company prohibited children from handling green tobacco.

Since 2014, we have called on tobacco companies to prohibit all children from work where they handle tobacco, including dried tobacco, which still contains nicotine. We have spoken to dozens of children – and adults – who faced health problems, such as respiratory issues, when sorting or preparing dried tobacco leaf for selling.

While companies haven’t yet gone far enough in implementing this ban on children working with tobacco, the new requirements could protect millions of children from nicotine poisoning. The policy first came into effect in the most recent tobacco-growing season, so its actual impact is unknown. Training, implementation, and monitoring in a complex global supply chain will be challenging, but achievable. As we continue to investigate conditions for child tobacco workers around the world, I hope my colleagues and I will see this as a real step to ending hazardous child labor.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 5:49 pm

Protesters demonstrate against Brazil's congressional move to criminalize all cases of abortion, including cases of rape and where the mother's life is in danger, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil November 13, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Erika Kokay was the only member in a special committee of Brazil’s congress to vote against a constitutional amendment last week banning abortion under all circumstances. Eighteen fellow deputies, all men, voted in favor. They celebrated by chanting, “Yes to life, no to abortion!” The amendment, if enacted, would ban abortion even for pregnancies resulting from rape, or when the life of the woman is in danger.

This week thousands of women took to the streets in 14 Brazilian cities to tell congress to vote this amendment down. In São Paulo, I joined more than 7,000 demonstrators, including my sister and a friend pushing her 2-year-old boy in a stroller. We held hand-made signs reading, “All Against 18,” “Free Womb,” and chanted, “For women’s lives.”

We were there to remind the congressmen who had shouted, “Yes to life,” that they had ignored the 47,000 women around the world who die each year due to unsafe abortions, according to World Health Organization data.

The situation in Brazil is no different, where more than 900 women have died from unsafe abortions since 2005. Doctors told Human Rights Watch about treating women who used dangerous methods to induce abortions, such as placing water purification chemicals in their vaginas.

An estimated 416,000 women had abortions in 2015 in Brazil, the vast majority of which were illegal.

Brazilian law allows abortion only if the life of the woman is at risk, if the pregnancy resulted from rape, or if the fetus has anencephaly – a fatal congenital brain disorder.

Eliminating even the very limited instances where abortion is legal in Brazil would only endanger more women and girls, especially the poor, who are most likely to resort to unsafe procedures that can lead to hemorrhage, infection, and death.

Instead of banning abortion, congress should make it much more widely accessible.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 5:27 pm

In August, when 23-year-old Ksenia Pakhomova became head of the Kemerovo regional campaign office for leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, she had no idea the price she would pay.

Her 70-year-old grandmother threatened at work. Her mother losing her job. Her boyfriend expelled from university – all linked to her work on Navalny’s campaign.

Ksenia Pakhomova, head of the Kemerovo Navalny campaign office.

© 2017 Ksenia Pakhomova

The problems began in early October, when the supervisor at a local museum, where Pakhomova’s grandmother worked, twice-threatened to fire her if she didn’t convince her granddaughter to, “stop participating in politics.” The supervisor implied that the management of the museum, run by municipal authorities, was under pressure and had no choice.

A few days later, the Kuzbass State Technical University expelled Pakhomova’s boyfriend, Aleksandr Stepantsov, supposedly for his failure to complete an assignment of which he and his classmates had been previously unaware. Stepantsov was studying for his Master’s degree on an academic merit scholarship. With the help of a petition from the All-Russian Student Union, the university later rescinded their decision.

Next, Natalia Pakhomova, Ksenia’s mother, was suddenly fired from her job as director of a local arts school, a position she had held for only two-and-a-half weeks. A city official cited, “numerous complaints from parents,” but according to Ksenia, a school administration representative told her mother in a private conversation she was dismissed because of her involvement in Navalny’s campaign. Natalia Pakhomova has since filed a court case for wrongful dismissal.

Human Rights Watch has done extensive research on systematic harassment and intimidation of Navalny supporters, including of schoolchildren and university students. In July, a third-year law student in Kaliningrad was expelled after he organized a public protest in solidarity with nationwide anti-corruption demonstrations.

Pakhomova herself faced ruthless harassment. In August, the Kemerovo regional office of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) called her in for a conversation, during which an officer asked her intrusive questions about another opposition activist. A few weeks later, someone hung flyers with her picture and telephone number on apartment building entrances and bus stops in Kemerovo, saying that she, “offers sexual services.”

Russian authorities should let Navalny’s campaigners work without undue interference. Ruthless harassment against them and their families has to stop.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 3:54 pm

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, speaks at the 36th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, September 11, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Geneva) – Countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council should press Sri Lanka for a time-bound action plan on reforms during its third Universal Periodic Review, which begins November 15, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. Successive Sri Lankan governments, including under President Maithripala Sirisena, have failed to ensure accountability for serious rights violations and other important commitments.

Under the Universal Periodic Review, each UN member state provides updates and undergoes scrutiny of its human rights situation every four years. At the Human Rights Council, other countries are given a chance to express their concerns and make recommendations for improvement.

“The Sirisena government made key pledges at the Human Rights Council in October 2015 to ensure justice, accountability, and security sector reform,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “The failure of the government to fulfill most of these promises has brought its commitment to reform into question and dashed hopes of victims and affected communities.”

Sri Lanka is in danger of not just standing still on rights, but backtracking on essential reforms.

John Fisher

Geneva Director

The Sri Lankan government has taken several positive steps since the last review in 2012. Human rights activists and journalists do not fear arrest for expressing their views and criticism. Allegations of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances against the Tamil minority have dropped considerably. In May 2016, the government ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Since 2015, Sri Lanka has invited several UN and other international experts to provide recommendations.

However, a number of urgent human rights issues are pending, many arising from the 2015 council resolution that promised to create four transitional justice mechanisms to address abuses linked to the three-decade conflict that ended in 2009. Thus far, the government has only established the Office of Missing Persons, but even there has procrastinated.

The government’s budget outline for fiscal year 2018 contains no reference or allocation for the remaining three mechanisms. Other resolution undertakings, such as security sector reform and land reform, remain largely unfulfilled. In particular, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not yet been repealed; although the government claims it has not enforced the act for the last six months, many PTA suspects remain in prison and those finally released after years of detention without charge have not received redress. Protests across the country in recent months have demanded reform and justice including for PTA detainees.

During the review, governments should also raise concerns about women’s rights and protections around sexual orientation and gender identity. Sri Lanka has discriminatory marriage and divorce laws that unfairly impact women from minority backgrounds. Laws that criminalize homosexual conduct remain in effect and are regularly used by the authorities to jail, bribe, and abuse men and women.

“Sri Lanka is in danger of not just standing still on rights, but backtracking on essential reforms,” Fisher said. “UN members need to look beyond the increasingly hollow promises of reform, and insist that the government present an action plan and timeline for honoring its commitments.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 6:45 am

Marchers hold signs and banners as they participate in a marriage equality march in central Sydney, Australia on October 21, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Sydney) – The Australian government should introduce marriage equality legislation without delay, following results of the national postal survey in favor of marriage equality, Human Rights Watch said today. 61.6 percent of respondents voted for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. The postal survey had high response rates, with 79.5 percent of eligible voters returning the poll.

On September 10, 2017, in a speech for the Yes campaign for same-sex marriage, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “If a majority votes yes, then we will ensure a private members’ bill is presented to the parliament which will legalize same-sex marriage and our expectation is that should be accomplished by the end of the year. It will sail through the parliament.”

“The Australian people have spoken,” said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the lesbian, gay bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch. “Now, the Australian government and parliament should end this period of political indecisiveness and adopt marriage equality legislation immediately. Gay, lesbian and bisexual Australians have been waiting for a long time for marriage equality, and now is the time to deliver.”

The postal survey, from September 12 to November 7, asked Australians “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” According to the government, the survey cost up to 122 million Australian dollars (US$93 million).

But the postal survey in effect submitted the human rights of the LGBT population to a popularity contest, putting gay, lesbian and bisexual people in a vulnerable position, Human Rights Watch said. For two months, their lives and identities were open to public debate, scrutiny, evaluation and sometimes abuse.

During this period, some groups opposing marriage equality used scare tactics to lure voters to their side. Opponents stoked fears that a “yes” victory would pose a threat to religious freedom. The opponents circulated posters and advertising campaigns with misleading information and sometimes outright lies.

If marriage equality legislation is adopted in parliament before the end of 2017, Australia will become the 25th country with marriage equality. Similar legislation is also being prepared in other countries, including Chile and Taiwan.

The Netherlands was the first country in the world with marriage equality with a bill that came into force in 2001.

“Rights of minorities aren’t something that should be put to a popular vote," Dittrich said. “Politicians should act quickly now to bring Australia into line with other like-minded nations on marriage equality.” 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 5:00 am

A road sign welcomes people to the town of Deir al-Zor in Syria, September 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – A group of civilians is stranded in the last remaining pocket under Islamic State (also known as ISIS) control in the city of Deir al-Zor, Human Rights Watch said today. All parties to the conflict, including the Syrian-Russian alliance and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that are surrounding the area should provide safe passage to the civilians to allow them to safely flee the fighting.

The Syrian-Russian military alliance has retaken control of most of Deir al-Zor city from ISIS. Two residents and three Syrian media and human rights monitors have confirmed to Human Rights Watch that a group of civilians is stuck in the Hweijet Qate` neighborhood, an island in the Euphrates river that remains under ISIS control. They said residents are unable to flee because ISIS members were preventing them from leaving, and Syrian government forces were shelling the area. The SDF has not made any efforts to actively provide a safe passage and has shelled the ISIS-controlled area previously, they said.

“All parties to the conflict should ensure that the protection of civilians remains central to the fight against ISIS,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Safe passage out for these stranded civilians should be a priority.”

The Russian-Syrian offensive on the city, which began in September 2017, has resulted in the death of at least 687 civilians, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, while thousands more have been displaced.

Hweijet Qate` was the last remaining area under ISIS control, as of November 14, in Deir al-Zor city, residents and activists said. ISIS fighters are interspersed among civilians, local organizations and activists reported. Syrian government forces control the southern banks of the Euphrates, while the SDF, consisting of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and other groups, controls areas north of the river.

On November 3, Syrian human rights and media organizations issued a call for assistance to the civilians in Hweijet Qate`, who they said were under threat from shelling by the SDF and the Syrian government, as well as the government forces advancing on the neighborhood.

On November 5, a resident of Hweijet Qate` told Human Rights Watch that some families remained on Hweijet Qate` in the midst of Syrian government bombardment from the southern banks of the Euphrates. “We have women and children here, their situation is very difficult,” the resident said. “It is cold and most of the children are without sustenance.” 

Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently confirm the number of civilians remaining on Hweijet Qate’. On November 10 and 11, a local media activist reported that Syrian government forces’ shelling on Hweijet Qate` killed six people, including four women. Two more people were reported injured. On November 12, DeirEzzor 24, an opposition-affiliated online news outlet, posted a video it said was filmed from SDF-controlled areas showing shelling of Hweijet Qate` with heavy artillery. It said that the shelling was from Syrian government forces.

On November 10, Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF’s Media Center, told Human Rights Watch that the Syrian Democratic Forces had agreed to allow passage for civilians into SDF-controlled village, al-Husseinyeh, but that no civilians from Hweijet Qate` had yet arrived:


“As for those trapped on the island, all attempts to move them or allow them to move into our area has failed. Unfortunately, the difficulty is that the regime is still insisting on taking those people hostages, and striking randomly at the island.”


At least some of the stranded civilians had arrived from al-Huweiqa neighborhood, on the Western bank of the Euphrates after the Syrian government retook the neighborhood, said Justice for Life, a Syrian human rights monitoring group. 

On November 3, two trapped residents in al-Huweiqa told Human Rights Watch by phone that they could see the Syrian government forces approaching, while airstrikes continued non-stop in the vicinity. Human Rights Watch staff could hear airplanes in the background during the conversations. A resident that had escaped to the neighborhood on November 1 said that approximately 250 civilians were in the neighborhood, including children. He also estimated that about 100 civilians had been injured. He said that while the majority of the people there were civilians, ISIS fighters were among the group as well. By November 9, government forces had retaken al-Huweiqa, Justice for Life reported. 

The laws of war require all parties to the conflict to take all feasible steps to evacuate civilians from areas of fighting or where fighters or other military targets are deployed and not block or impede the evacuation of those wishing to leave. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that ISIS uses civilians to protect its forces from attack. Deliberately using the presence of civilians to protect military forces from attack is the war crime of “human shielding.”

All parties to the conflict should facilitate civilians’ right to flee from active conflict and anticipated persecution and should allow aid to reach them, Human Rights Watch said. Parties should take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event minimize, civilian casualties in the fighting, including refraining from the use of munitions, including barrel bombs, that are inherently indiscriminate or result in disproportionate harm to civilians. Both the SDF and the Syrian-Russian alliance should ensure that they do not persecute residents of previously ISIS-controlled areas on the basis of perceived ISIS affiliation, through prolonged, arbitrary detention, inhumane treatment, or extrajudicial executions.

“Those fleeing ISIS should not have to fear their future at the hands of the Syrian government or the SDF,” Houry said. “It is essential to respect due process and avoid any collective punishment for those who lived under ISIS.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 5:00 am

© 2017 Jun Cen for Human Rights Watch

© 2017 Jun Cen for Human Rights Watch

(Hong Kong) – The Chinese government should take immediate steps to stop public hospitals and private clinics from offering conversion therapy, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today. Those facilities’ “treatments,” which aspire to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual, are inherently discriminatory and abusive.

“It’s been more than 20 years since China decriminalized homosexuality, but LGBT people are still subjected to forced confinement, medication, and even electric shocks to try to change their sexual orientation,” said Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “If Chinese authorities are serious about ending discrimination and abuse against LGBT people, it’s time to put an end to this practice in medical facilities.”

The 52-page report, “‘Have You Considered Your Parents’ Happiness?’: Conversion Therapy Against LGBT People in China,” based on interviews with 17 people who endured conversion therapy, describes how parents threatened, coerced, and sometimes physically forced their adult and adolescent children to submit to conversion therapy. In these facilities – including both public hospitals, which are government-run and monitored, and private clinics, which are licensed and supervised by the National Health and Family Planning Commission – medical professionals subjected them to “therapy” that in some cases entailed involuntary confinement, forcible medication, and electroshocks, which can constitute a form of torture.

The Chinese Psychiatric Society officially removed “homosexuality” from its Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders in 2001. China’s 2013 Mental Health Law requires that the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders comply with diagnostic standards. Because same-sex attraction is not a disorder, the law renders conversion therapy illegal. The law further requires that the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorder respect individuals’ basic rights and human dignity.

However, Chinese authorities have not taken proactive measures to stop healthcare facilities or practitioners from offering conversion therapy, such as issuing clear guidelines prohibiting conversion therapy; monitoring facilities to determine whether conversion therapy is taking place; and, where it is, holding such facilities accountable.

While the Chinese Psychological Society has issued professional guidelines that prohibit discrimination due to sexual orientation during psychology counseling practice, professional associations have not prevented medical practitioners from conducting conversion therapy. All 17 people interviewed by Human Rights Watch were emphatic that they would not have submitted to conversion therapy were it not for intense family and societal pressure. None provided free and informed consent. Three said they tried to escape from the facilities in which they were being held. One, Luo Qing, described attempting to flee: “I was getting really close to the unguarded door, but before I could get to the door, the two security guys caught up and got me. The next thing I know is that I was on the floor.”

Five people described to Human Rights Watch undergoing electroshock “therapy” as part of their conversion “treatment.” They were given some sort of stimulus – typically images, videos, or verbal descriptions of homosexual acts – while simultaneously being subjected to pain or discomfort produced by electroshocks. Patients were then meant to associate their homosexuality with unpleasant or painful sensations with a view towards quelling their sexual impulses towards people of the same sex. Four of the five said they were unaware that they would be subjected to such treatment, compounding their trauma. As Liu Xiaoyun (a pseudonym) said, “As they turned it up, I started to feel pain instead of just numb. It felt like… having needles stabbing my skin. Then after a few minutes, my body started trembling… it was not until later did I realize that was an electroshock machine.”

Eleven of Human Rights Watch’s interviewees were also forced to take medications orally or by injection as part of their “treatment.” None were told the purposes of the medications or their potential risks. Medical personnel ensured that individuals took the medications even when they resisted.

Almost all of the people interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported being subject to verbal harassment and insulting language by doctors and psychiatrists, including terms such as “sick,” “pervert,” “disease,” “abnormal,” and “dirty.” Zhang Zhikun recounted his conversation with a doctor: “This is… what the doctor told me: ‘[Homosexuality] is promiscuous and licentious. If you don’t change that about yourself, you will get sick and you will die from AIDS. You will never have a happy family… Have you ever considered your parents’ happiness?’”

Under the National Health and Family Planning Commission guidelines, all provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions are required to investigate activities occurring in hospitals and clinics that violate of the 2013 Mental Health Law. But when Human Rights Watch contacted the bureau responsible for monitoring implementation of the law, an agent said they were unaware of any abuses related to conversion therapy.

None of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed who had undergone conversion therapy had chosen to file a complaint. Some said this was because they were afraid their sexual orientation would be made public.

Two court cases have challenged specific aspects of conversion therapy, and courts have sided with the plaintiffs, in one case ruling that a hospital forcibly confined the plaintiff, and in another case, awarding damages to the plaintiff for his physical and psychological harm from electroshock treatment. But the rulings have not yet had an obvious deterrent effect on practitioners of conversion therapy.

China has no laws protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, a gap which may prevent additional victims of conversion therapy from seeking justice.

China is a party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all of which contain provisions that require the prohibition of aspects of conversion therapy.

“It’s time for China to join the global consensus: acknowledge that forced/medical conversion therapy is abusive and discriminatory and ban it,” Reid said. “Only then does decriminalization become meaningful legally and socially, and give LGBT people across China actionable protections against this grim practice.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 15, 2017, 2:23 am