(New York) – The latest revisions to China’s Criminal Law impose up to seven years in prison for “spreading rumors” about disasters, Human Rights Watch said today. The revised law, which took effect November 1, 2015, does not clarify what constitutes a “rumor,” heightening concerns that the provision will be used to curtail freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet.
“The revised Criminal Law adds a potent weapon to the Chinese government’s arsenal of punishments against netizens, including those who simply share information that departs from the official version of events,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are once again criminalizing free speech on the Internet, which has been the Chinese people’s only relatively free avenue for expressing themselves.”
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee approved the addition of a provision to article 291(1) of the Criminal Law (Criminal Law Amendment Act (9)), which states that whoever “fabricates or deliberately spreads on media, including on the Internet, false information regarding dangerous situations, the spread of diseases, disasters and police information, and who seriously disturb social order” would face prison sentences – with a maximum of seven years for those whose rumors result in “serious consequences.” The vagueness of the provision means that individuals doing nothing more than asking questions or reposting information online about reported local disasters could be subject to prosecution.
In the past, the Chinese government has detained netizens who questioned official casualty figures or who had published alternative information about disasters ranging from SARS in 2003 to the Tianjin chemical blast in 2015, under the guise of preventing “rumors.”
The revision was made in the context of a wider effort to rein in online freedom since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013:
- In August 2013, the authorities waged a campaign against “online rumors” that included warning Internet users against breaching “seven bottom lines” in their Internet postings, taking into custody the well-known online commentator Charles Xue, and closing popular “public accounts” on the social media platform “WeChat” that report and comment on current affairs;
- In September 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the state prosecution) issued a judicial interpretation making the crimes of defamation, creating disturbances, illegal business operations, and extortion applicable to expressions in cyberspace. The first netizen who was criminally prosecuted after this took effect was well-known blogger Qin Huohuo, who was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2014 for allegedly defaming the government and celebrities by questioning whether they were corrupt or engaged in other dishonest behavior;
- In July and August 2014, authorities suspended popular foreign instant messaging services, including KakaoTalk, claiming the service was being used for “distributing terrorism-related information”;
- In 2015, government agencies such as the State Internet Information Office issued multiple new directives, including tightening restrictions over the use of usernames and avatars, and requiring writers of online literature in particular to register with their real names;
- In 2015, the government has also shut down or restricted access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which many users depend on to access content blocked to users inside the country and also help shield user privacy;
- In March 2015, authorities also deployed a new cyber weapon, the “Great Cannon,” to disrupt the services of GreatFire.org, an organization that works to document China’s censorship and facilitate access to information;
- In July 2015, the government published a draft cybersecurity law that will requires domestic and foreign Internet companies to increase censorship on the government’s behalf, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance; and
- In August 2015, the government announced that it would station police in major Internet companies to more effectively prevent “spreading rumors” online.
Activists in China are regularly prosecuted for speech-related “crimes,” Human Rights Watch said. The best known of these crimes is “inciting subversion,” which carries a maximum of 15 years in prison. But authorities have also used other crimes such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” as in the case of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been detained since May 2014 for a number of social media posts questioning the government’s policies towards Uighurs and Tibetans.
While providing the public with accurate information during disasters is important, the best way to counter inaccurate information would be to ensure that official information is reliable and transparent, Human Rights Watch said.
Above all, journalists should have unimpeded access to investigate and inform the public about these events, and the wider public should have the freedom to debate and discuss disaster response.
“The casualties of China’s new provision would not be limited to journalists, activists and netizens, but the right of ordinary people and the world to know about crucial developments in China,” Richardson said. “The best way to dispel false rumors would be to allow, not curtail, free expression.”
Faced with alarming rates of drug use and overdose deaths, President Trump has vowed to take decisive action, telling Congress that as a result of his administration's efforts, "our terrible drug epidemic will slow down, and ultimately stop."
But the healthcare policies he is proposing would do exactly the opposite, with potentially devastating consequences for communities in rural counties that form the backbone of his support.
Trump is right about a resurgence of problematic drug use: deaths from prescription opioids as well as heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, have increased 200 percent in the last decade, and the crisis shows few signs of slowing down. Drug overdose deaths in rural counties far outstrip those in metropolitan areas.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has identified 220 counties that are at high risk of an HIV outbreak similar to the one in Scott County, Indiana in 2015 due to high rates of poverty, injection drug use and lack of health services. The majority of them are in rural areas that voted for Trump, with more than half located in Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Trump promised Congress that "we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted." The president's 2018 budget proposes $500 million for expanded drug treatment. But no details are provided as to what this means. Even if the money survives the budget process and goes to build more drug treatment centers or to expand existing ones, the people who most need the treatment might not be able to afford it.
The fact is that in the United States, insurance is what provides access to healthcare. The GOP's proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), supported by the president, would threaten to undo the progress that is already underway to expand coverage for opioid dependence.
The ACA requires drug treatment to be a covered service for most private insurers and under Medicaid expansion. In the 31 states that expanded Medicaid (and the District of Columbia), 1.3 million people have used their new benefits to get treatment for drug dependence.
The GOP law would eliminate the mental healthcare parity requirement and would phase Medicaid expansion out altogether by 2020.
This could have devastating impact for people caught up in the opioid crisis. In Louisiana, for example, 14,000 people have accessed drug dependence treatment under Medicaid expansion, just since the program began in July 2016.
Leigh Ann de Monredon, chief medical officer for primary care at Odyssey House Louisiana, a health clinic that also provides residential drug treatment in New Orleans, said the ACA had resulted in a "sea-change" in access to care: More people can afford residential treatment as well as medications that are part of the standard of care for opioid dependence.
"We can now give them medications like Suboxone or Vivitrol, and our relapse rates are much lower," de Monredon said. The clinic also offers preventive care services, so that "our doctors can identify potential drug problems before they become addictions."
The GOP plan would also reduce tax credits and subsidies for purchasing insurance. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that within a decade, 24 million people will lose their insurance, 14 million of them by 2018. Low-income, older adults living in rural areas would be hardest hit. This population is already experiencing higher mortality rates, due in part to the increase in depression, suicide and drug overdoses among white, middle-aged men and women.
For many of them, putting health insurance out of reach, particularly mental health care, would be a matter of life and death.
The ACA is not perfect, but it is doing exactly what Trump has promised to do for his supporters and all Americans: expand access to drug treatment for people who struggle with problematic drug use. Taking away their insurance coverage will leave them without medical care and at risk of jail, death from overdose, and infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis.
The policies Trump is supporting today will, if enacted, ensure that his promises remain unfulfilled.
Fatima, 62 years old, fled persecution and the destruction of her city of Aleppo, Syria, with the dream of reuniting with her daughter and grandchildren in Germany. She survived the treacherous journey to Greece, but border restrictions in the Western Balkans stranded her there. She died last week in Athens, still waiting to reunite with her family.
As with many of the older asylum seekers we interviewed in Greece, Fatima, a slight woman wearing a flowered silk scarf and delicate gold-framed glasses, deeply desired to have her family around her again.
“I miss gathering in the evening after jobs and school. It will be the best day of my life to gather all my children and all eat together again,” she told me in a wavering voice, through some tears, in December 2016.
She invested much of her life’s work in her children.
International human rights and European Union law supports family reunification in cases like Fatima’s. An EU regulation that sets out which state is responsible for examining an asylum claim, called the Dublin III Regulation, states that when an older person depends on the assistance of a child or sibling who legally resides in an EU country, the “Member States shall normally keep or bring together the applicant with that child.”
Yet when Fatima, who had multiple chronic illnesses, told Greek officials that she wanted to be reunited with her daughter – who had given her much-needed care in Syria – she was told that she could not apply for family reunification but only for relocation. They did not explain why. She did as she was told, but under the EU relocation plan, she could have ended up in any EU country rather than with her daughter. Other older asylum seekers in Greece told us that they encountered the same problem.
Separated from her daughter, unable to return to Syria and her hope of family reunification hampered by a flawed process, Fatima was stuck in Greece. Last week, she died, far away from both her home and her daughter. Other older asylum seekers in Europe have also died before reaching their final destination since the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis.
European countries should live up to their commitments on family reunification, and the European Commission should remind them that this should be a priority for older refugees. Otherwise, many more older refugees will pass away without realizing their dream of being united with loved ones.
Philippine lawmakers finally took action this week to improve the government’s response to the country’s HIV epidemic, filing a draft law to replace the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998.
Senate Bill 1390, if enacted, aims to improve access to HIV prevention services, including sex education and HIV testing, and to ensure better access to health and support services. It lowers the age – from 18 to 15 – that children can get tested without parental consent. It allows children under 15 to get tested with just the consent of a social worker. It also prohibits health insurers from denying coverage to people living with HIV.
The bill aims to counter an alarming reality: The Philippines has one of the highest rates of new HIV infections in Asia. According to Department of Health data, as many as 27 Filipinos – mostly people under 24 – contract the virus every day. “This emergency situation needs an emergency response,” said Senator Risa Hontiveros, one of the bill’s authors.
In a December report, Human Rights Watch criticized the government for not taking effective steps to reduce infection rates among men who have sex with men, the group with the most new infections. It said the government had failed to make condoms available to these men and should help them access health services. It should also help them fight stigma and discrimination.
The bill’s major flaw is its lack of specificity about the crucial role of condoms in HIV prevention. Lawmakers should address this by directing the Department of Health to improve condom access, particularly among men who have sex with men. Doing so would help push back conservative lawmakers who hope to prevent promotion of condom use as part of safer sex education. It will also counter the recent decision by the Departments of Health and of Education to withdraw a proposal to make condoms accessible to high school students.
Senate Bill 1390 would be a major step for official efforts to control the HIV epidemic. Now it’s up to Philippine legislators to see the wisdom of a better official response to the HIV epidemic and to pass a version of the bill including provisions on condom use.
Last month, three UN human rights experts released a joint letter to the Bangladesh government about the country’s failing response to deadly arsenic in drinking water.
Arsenic in water is colourless, tasteless, and odourless. But exposure to even low doses can have deadly health consequences, although the resulting illnesses—cancers and cardiovascular and lung diseases—take years to develop.
The UN experts—the special rapporteurs on the right to health, on extreme poverty, and on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation—cite research published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation in 2012 that estimates an annual death toll of 43,000 people from arsenic-related illnesses in Bangladesh.
After the extent of arsenic in drinking water in Bangladesh was understood in the mid-1990s, successive governments, international donors, and non-governmental organisations oversaw a concerted effort to test shallow wells. From 1999 to 2006, 5 million wells across the country were tested with field kits and the results communicated to their owners.
This national screening found that wells used by an estimated 20 million people yielded water with arsenic above the national standard. Subsequent studies showed that many people switched to a safe well when there was one close by.
But since 2006, such efforts have dissipated. In many cases, the red paint that used to mark wells as contaminated faded years ago.
A nationwide study of drinking water quality published in 2015 found a similar result to the earlier screening — 20 million people exposed to arsenic above the national standard. The result essentially shows no progress. What’s going wrong?
Government wells are vitally important in arsenic affected areas of Bangladesh. Deeper wells drilled down approximately 150 meters into the ground often supply water without arsenic. They can provide drinking water for hundreds of people.
Deep government wells are a potentially life-saving public good, but they are too expensive for most families in rural villages in Bangladesh to install by themselves.
Some politicians are diverting these life-saving public goods to their political supporters and allies.At the end of a long explanation of who, ideally, should get the water, a government policy states: “50% of the sites for allocation (of new wells) should be finalised after discussion with the relevant member of parliament of that area.”
As one government official told me on condition of anonymity: “If the member of parliament gets 50% (of the new allocation) and the upazila (sub-district) chairman gets 50%, there’s nothing left to be installed in the areas of acute need.”
What does this diversion look like at the village level? I visited one village where more than 90% of all wells were contaminated, but the government wells were behind compound walls in backyards, or even installed inside private houses, used by single families.
As another government official told me (also on condition of anonymity): “This (political interference) happens all over Bangladesh.”
As some members of parliament tap public goods to reward political favours in electorates all over the country, Bangladesh is expending considerable resources in areas where the risk of arsenic contamination is relatively low and where water coverage is relatively good. Put simply, the government’s deep wells that could provide safe water aren’t being put where they are most needed.
The government’s engineering experts are aware of this—in fact, some technical reports have called for targeting areas with the greatest need—but the government has failed to take corrective action.
As the letter by the special rapporteurs to the government notes: “The absence of adequate institutional structures and measures to control arsenic has left millions of the affected population to their own devices.” Underlying the problem, the Bangladesh government has not replied to the joint letter by the three UN special rapporteurs.
Perhaps government denials are to be expected. In response to our report last year that found that 20 million people still drink arsenic-laced water, the local government minister told Bangladesh media that that no one in Bangladesh currently suffers from arsenic.
Effectively addressing arsenic in drinking water requires acknowledging the enormity of the problem and reviving the commitment that the government and international donors displayed after the problem first came to international attention.
While there are technical challenges to be overcome, the real difficulty is poor governance.
The government needs a national plan to end arsenic exposure through drinking water and to install new wells in the areas where the risk of arsenic contamination is high. It should end the pernicious influence of politicians on their allocation.
(Brussels) – Governments should pledge political and financial support for sexual and reproductive health to counter the United States’ “Global Gag Rule,” Human Rights Watch said today. The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden are hosting a summit in Brussels on March 2, 2017, to strengthen support for the “She Decides” funding initiative, which will support organizations affected by US restrictions and resulting cuts.
On his first full day in office, US President Donald Trump issued an expanded “Global Gag Rule,” or “Mexico City Policy,” which strips foreign nongovernmental organizations of all US health funding if they use funds from any source to offer information about abortions, provide abortions, or advocate liberalizing abortion laws. US law already prohibits using US funds for abortion in foreign family planning assistance.
“Governments, nongovernmental groups, and the private sector should stand with women and girls to protect their right to health,” said Nisha Varia, women’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Trump administration’s damaging policy restricts women’s choices, pushes censorship of information about critical health options, and will reduce a wide range of health services in many countries that desperately need them.”
The US is the largest donor to health initiatives globally. When previous versions of the Global Gag Rule were imposed by past US Republican presidents, it applied only to US family planning funds, or roughly US$575 million of the current US global health funding. The Trump administration’s version has dramatically expanded its restrictions to include all US global health assistance. These funds, up to US$9.5 billion, support not only family planning, but also maternal and child health, nutrition, and the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases, malaria, tuberculosis, and neglected tropical diseases.
Foreign organizations that receive US health funds will have to choose between losing their US funding or complying with the rule’s restrictions, which prevent healthcare providers from sharing full and accurate health information with their patients or providing them with potentially lifesaving care. The last time the Global Gag Rule was in effect – affecting a far smaller amount of funding – healthcare providers that often provide a wide range of health services in under-resourced areas had to close clinics and cut staff.
Human Rights Watch has documented the harm caused by a lack of comprehensive health care for women and girls. For example, unintended pregnancies contribute to child marriage in Nepal, Tanzania, and Malawi and often lead to ending a girl’s education. In Kenya, Human Rights Watch documented that girls who give birth before they are physically mature may get obstetric fistulas, resulting in lifelong health problems and stigma. In countries where abortion is highly restricted, such as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Haiti, Human Rights Watch has documented that women risk their lives with unsafe abortions and that doctors feel helpless as the restrictive laws drive higher maternal morbidity and deaths.
“Access to comprehensive health care, including contraception, and to safe and legal abortion, results in fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer abortions, and fewer women and girls dying from pregnancy and childbirth,” Varia said. “While it’s too early to determine how much US funding will be cut, a large gap could have devastating consequences for women’s health and lives if other donors don’t step up their funding.”
The Dutch government established the “She Decides” international fundraising initiative to support organizations providing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care. Governments that increase their bilateral assistance on sexual and reproductive health care can announce this as support for the “She Decides” initiative. Private donors can contribute to a “She Decides” fund that crowd-sources donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations.
Belgium, Canada, Cape Verde, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden have already announced their support for the “She Decides” initiative, and several other governments have indicated they will announce their support at the March 2 multi-stakeholder summit in Brussels.
A European parliament resolution, adopted on February 14, called on the European Union and its member states to “counter the impact of the gag rule by significantly increasing sexual and reproductive health and rights funding…using both national as well as EU development funding.” Several countries that have a strong record of supporting women’s health in their foreign assistance have yet to announce their plans, including Australia, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
Almost 225 million women and girls have an unmet need for contraception. While maternal mortality dropped 44 percent between 1990 and 2015, it remains a serious problem. The World Health Organization estimates that every day, approximately 830 women and girls die from preventable causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. It also estimates that nearly 7 million women in developing countries are treated for complications from unsafe abortions annually, and at least 22,000 die from abortion-related complications every year.
Comprehensive sexuality education, access to contraception, and access to safe abortion is particularly important for girls, as complications due to pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for girls ages 15-19 globally. With less funding for sexual and reproductive health information, services, and supplies, the death toll could climb higher.
Draft legislation introduced in the US Congress – the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act – would permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule. While there is no reason to expect the legislation would be adopted under the current administration, it has gathered increased support as a long-term strategy.
“President Trump’s expanded Global Gag Rule is anti-woman, anti-family, anti-health, and anti-free speech and threatens to roll back hard-fought health gains around the world,” Varia said. “Donors should protect the investments they have been making in global health by pledging new funds to help fill the gap.”
Louisiana’s Republican Senator Bill Cassidy scheduled his town hall during pre-Mardi Gras parades, in a location outside of New Orleans, with seating limited to 200 people. But that didn’t stop about a thousand of his constituents from attending, many standing in the parking lot for hours before the doors opened, chanting: “This is what democracy looks like!”
Once the town hall started, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, dominated the agenda.
In Louisiana, the only Deep South state to offer expanded Medicaid coverage through the ACA, the stakes could not be higher. Nearly 40 percent of Louisiana residents are low-income, living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line – or US$40,320 for a family of three – and qualify for Medicaid expansion under the ACA. An estimated 600,000 people in Louisiana have obtained health insurance under the ACA, cutting the uninsured rate in half. About 73 percent of adult and child Medicaid enrollees in Louisiana are in working families.
Senator Cassidy’s proposed Obamacare “replacement” bill returns most decision-making for health care coverage from the federal government to the states. He tried explaining his bill with a slide show, but was thwarted by people loudly insisting he listen to their concerns and answer their questions. A woman with cancer wanted to know how she would get health insurance if the ACA were repealed. (Cassidy’s bill covers pre-existing conditions, but only if one never loses or changes insurance. Any gaps in coverage eliminate the protection.) Another person pleaded that Cassidy commit to ensuring “we don’t lose anything we already have.”
But the question that cut straight to the heart of government responsibility came from a woman who first asked for silence in the room – and got it. “I live in Louisiana,” she said, “but first and foremost I am a citizen of the United States. I have a right as a citizen to health insurance, but prior to the ACA, the state of Louisiana did not care if I had any or not. So why should this decision be returned to the states?”
To Senator Cassidy and those in Congress leading the charge to repeal the ACA, the message from the town hall was clear: Health care is not an option, it is a human right, and the people of Louisiana won’t give it up without a fight.
As Malawi’s government promotes investment in mining and resource extraction, ordinary Malawians have been struggling to access information on the impact of mining operations on their lives: Is mining polluting their drinking water? Their fields? Last week, Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika took a positive step by signing into law a bill that enables people to request and obtain vital information such as water-quality testing results.
Malawi’s civil society organizations have advocated for such a law for many years. Last September, Human Rights Watch released a report showing how Malawians have been left in the dark about the risks mining activities pose to their daily lives.
For example, Rosbelle, a mother of seven children, told us that a couple of years ago, the Eland Coal Mining company started mining coal near her village in rural northern Malawi. The company promised villagers a new school and jobs, and Rosbelle had high hopes for her children’s future. But in 2015, Eland Coal Mining – a subsidiary of a Norwegian-owned company – ended its operations and abandoned the mine. There was no rehabilitation of the mine site, and left behind were piles of coal and open mining pits filled with water. Since then, Rosbelle has worried that the water that she and her children drink might be polluted by toxic substances often found at improperly cleaned-up mining sites. Eland Coal Mining did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment.
When I spoke with Rosbelle last year, she said that, at a minimum, the “government should come and talk to the community about mining” and “educate us including about the risks.” But the authorities have never told them about the dangers of mining and whether the water from the local river and boreholes is safe to drink. Her village and other mining communities, as well as local organizations, have repeatedly asked the government to release the results of water testing, without avail.
For the new law to make a meaningful difference, Malawians need to know how they can use it. Accessing information under the law should be a simple process for everyone – including for people who cannot read or write. Training sessions for communities and government officials will also be important. Civil society organizations and journalists can play an important role by raising awareness about the right to information and holding the government and mining companies to account. The new law, if carried out effectively, could be a boon to mining communities like Rosbelle’s that have long sought answers to questions literally of life and death
(Kyiv) – Ukrainian civilians are exposed to risks to their health and safety – even grave danger – as they face endless waits when they need to go back and forth across the contact line between government-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine and the separatist-held Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Human Rights Watch said today.
Lack of adequate sanitary and other infrastructure at crossing points, and exposure to landmines can make an already grueling crossing – often involving long waits in freezing or hot temperatures – dangerous for civilians, Human Rights Watch found. Fighting, which has recently flared up in the vicinity of the contact line, means civilians waiting at crossing points, including overnight, are exposed to shooting and shelling. All parties to the conflict should uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law to take necessary measures to protect civilians. Authorities on both sides of the contact line should ensure that civilians are not exposed to undue hardship or unnecessary suffering.
“Civilians living in eastern Ukraine have many ties on both sides of the line of contact, such as family, friends, or property or may need to access government-provided services,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The parties to the conflict recognize that civilians need to cross from one side to the other, and so they should facilitate that and avoid measures which make crossing a threat to their health or even lives.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 civilians on both sides of the contact line in November and December 2016, and visited all four functioning crossing points in the government-controlled part of the Donetsk region and the so-called grey or neutral zone. That area stretches along the 500-kilometer line of contact between the crossing points – controlled on one side by the Ukrainian government and on the other by the de facto authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) – and is only a few hundred meters wide in most places. Human Rights Watch also interviewed people who use the only crossing point in the Luhansk region open solely to pedestrians, and spoke with staff of several groups that help people affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Every person interviewed who had tried to cross said that they experienced significant hardships, especially long waits, made more difficult by freezing winter weather, rain, or summer heat. Long waiting times are the result of an insufficient number of crossing points and personnel operating them. More than half of the people interviewed said they had experienced long delays more than once, including having to spend the night at a crossing point. Crossing points often lack basic facilities such as toilets and waiting areas.
People interviewed also said that military personnel on both sides behaved improperly, such as arbitrarily refusing to allow crossing, using rude and abusive language, and taking bribes.
Civilians travel across the line of contact for many reasons. People who live in government-controlled territory said they need to see family members, to ensure their property was safe, or to return to their homes after spending the week working on the other side of the line. People in areas controlled by separatists said they regularly needed to cross to collect their pensions and other social payments, to visit family members, to seek medical care, and to take care of such essential administrative issues as registering with the pension fund or registering the birth of a child. Civilians also cross to buy groceries, household items, and medicines that are too expensive or unavailable in areas where they live, and to visit cemeteries where loved ones are buried.
In a January 10 letter to Ukrainian officials, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over restrictions on movement in and out of areas not under Ukrainian government control and urged Ukrainian authorities to take urgent measures to ease hardships for thousands of people crossing the line of contact in eastern Ukraine.
Official statistics, which Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service provided to Human Rights Watch, show that between 3,000 and 7,000 people crossed each point every day both ways in December 2016 and January 2017. The State Border Guard Service said at a February 8 meeting, that the number of crossings peaks between the 15th and 25th of every month, when people from the non-government-controlled territory cross to collect pensions and other social benefits.
Recent heavy fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in the area of Avdiyivka, a government-controlled town of about 22,000 in the Donetsk region close to the line of contact, has underlined the vulnerability of people living next to and crossing the line of contact, Human Rights Watch said. Nearly two dozen people were killed on the government’s side, including at least three civilians, between January 29 and February 3 alone. According to the town’s authorities, 114 houses and eight apartment buildings were damaged in Avdiyivka. Other surrounding towns near the line of contact also suffered damage. On February 2, a crossing point near the government-held town of Mariinka was attacked. No one was waiting overnight that night, but some facilities were damaged and the checkpoint lost electricity.
On the DNR side, the city of Donetsk and the neighboring Makiivka were shelled by Ukrainian forces between January 31 and February 3. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine confirmed nine civilian deaths on both sides of the line of contact in the Donetsk region between January 29 and February 9.
The Ukrainian government has the right to control movement in and out of separatist-controlled areas, but all parties to the conflict should allow and facilitate civilians’ access to areas on both sides of the contact line without arbitrary and unreasonable delays, Human Rights Watch said. While the Ukrainian government has no obligation to provide financial assistance to government structures operating under the control of separatists, its human rights obligations to the civilian population do not cease on account of the ongoing conflict.
“The protection and well-being of civilians should be a priority of both Ukrainian authorities and Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Cooper said. “Civilians should not continue to bear the brunt of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.”
For detailed findings, please see below.
The Eastern Ukraine Crossing Points
Human Rights Watch conducted research missions along the line of contact in November and December.
In November, two Human Rights Watch researchers who are native Russian speakers interviewed more than 50 people who live on both sides of the line of contact, including in Donetsk, Makiivka, Starobesheve, Severodonetsk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Mariinka, and Krasnogorivka. One researcher interviewed people in the government-controlled territory at the crossing point near the town of Mariinka, the second researcher entered the Mariinka crossing point from the separatist-controlled area, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and interviewed civilians on that side and in the zone between the two sides’ checkpoints – the no man’s land commonly referred to as the “grey” or “neutral” zone. While this zone is officially controlled by the Ukrainian government, very few functioning governmental institutions are left there due to the armed conflict.
A Human Rights Watch researcher interviewed 32 people on December 20-22 at all four open crossing points on the government-controlled side of the line of contact, in Mayorsk, Mariinka, Novotroitske, and Gnutovo (Pishchevik). The researcher visited the Mayorsk and Mariinka crossing points at night, while they were closed, and Mariinka, Novotroitske, and Gnutovo (Pishchevik) during the day.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with staff members of seven Ukrainian non-governmental groups and international organizations that provide assistance to internally displaced people and civilians living next to the line of contact.
In its meeting with Human Rights Watch on February 8, Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service, said that the agency is taking steps to improve the situation for the civilians living on both sides of the line of contact, including increasing the number of border guards at each crossing point, prosecuting officials who take bribes (59 were charged in 2016), and installing cameras providing live feeds from all the crossing points to the anti-terrorist center in Kramatorsk and the State Border Guard Service headquarters in Kyiv.
The State Border Guard Service acknowledged that some serious shortcomings persist and noted that the cooperation of all parties to the conflict, not just the Ukrainian authorities, is required for the situation to improve meaningfully for civilians crossing the line of contact.
Insufficient Number of Crossing Points
There are five functioning crossing points along the 500-kilometer line of contact, which separates the territories under the control of the Ukrainian government and the separatist forces in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Mayorsk, Mariinka, Novotroitske, and Gnutovo (Pischevik) are in the Donetsk region; and the pedestrian only Stanitsa Luhanska crossing is in the Luhansk region. The crossing points are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter.
When either side shuts down a crossing point temporarily for security or other reasons, people travel to those that remain open, increasing congestion and reducing people’s chances of making it to the other side by the time a crossing point closes. Many of those who do not manage to cross stay overnight, either on the road close to crossing points – including in the neutral zone – or in a nearby town, and try their luck the next day.
The statistics the State Border Guard Service provided to Human Rights Watch said that between 15,000 and 27,500 people crossed the line of contact each day in December. On February 13, almost 18,000 people crossed.
Most civilians living on both sides of the line of conflict whom Human Rights Watch interviewed said the insufficient number of crossing points was a serious problem. In particular, they said that since there is only one crossing point in the Luhansk region, people often have to wait a full day or sometimes longer, and that winter weather caused additional suffering as people are forced to wait several hours outside with only one or two small shelters on the Ukrainian-controlled side.
While some people pass through crossing points in private vehicles and take shelter in their cars, those on foot face the cold, rain, or heat. In a June 2015 decree, Ukrainian authorities banned direct public transit services to the separatist-held territories, so passengers disembark at the Ukrainian government crossing points and line up on foot with their luggage. Then they board other means of transportation on the other side. Some pay so-called ferrymen who transport passengers in large vans from side to side.
Several local and international aid workers said that having only five functioning crossing points along the 500-kilometer line of contact is not enough to allow massive numbers of displaced civilians and others affected by the armed conflict to move across without needless restrictions.
Some people said that instead of waiting long hours to cross the lone crossing point at Stanitsa Luhanska on foot, they had tried other crossing points in the Donetsk region, which significantly increased their travel time and costs. People, including aid workers, who regularly cross in the Donetsk region also said that the four crossing points open to vehicles are insufficient to allow crossing without significant delays and hardship.
The State Border Guard Service officials told Human Right Watch that in March 2016 they opened a second checkpoint in the Luhansk region, near the town of Zolote, but it remains closed to civilians because Russia-backed separatists in the Luhansk region are unwilling to operate it from the other side.
Human Rights Watch interviewed several people and aid workers who regularly cross at Stanitsa Luhanska in the Luhansk region. All said that they frequently spent between two and five hours on each side. An aid worker in the government-controlled Severodonetsk said that his mother and 80-year old grandmother waited six hours in October when they tried to cross there.
Of eight people interviewed near government-controlled Mariinka in November, five said that they had to spend a night near a crossing point on either side due to long lines and because the crossing point’s operating hours are insufficient. One man travelling from Kramatorsk to Donetsk through the crossing point near Mariinka said that at least on one occasion it took him two full days to cross. “Ask anyone here, they will also say that it happened to them,” he said. Of the 25 people Human Rights Watch interview in the DNR, 19 said they got stuck overnight at the crossing point at least once.
A worker with an international aid group said that the Mayorsk crossing point was the most problematic from both sides. The crossing point usually has long waiting lines, the aid worker said, and people often sleep at the crossing point while waiting for it to open. When a Human Rights Watch researcher visited the Mayorsk crossing point on the Ukrainian side around 6 p.m. on December 20, she found six elderly women in one of two tents set up by Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergencies. The women said they did not make it through the crossing point before it closed that day and would have to spend the night in the tent so they could try crossing the next day. Most of the women were over sixty years old, two had disabilities. One of them, a 76-year-old woman who came from Horlivka in the DNR but did not manage to cross back in time, cried when talking to a Human Rights Watch researcher, saying “How did I deserve this? All I did my entire life was work and hope for a peaceful retirement. Now they [Ukrainian officials at the Mayorsk crossing point] call me a terrorist. How did I deserve this?”
Several local residents and international aid staff working in the government-controlled area of the Donetsk region said that at least three elderly civilians had died while waiting in line to cross in recent months. According to a recent media report, on January 22, a man travelling from Donetsk to Dnipro died in the grey zone next to a separatist crossing point near Mariinka, where no ambulance would go. About 300 vehicles waited to pass through the government-controlled crossing point from both sides that day, according to information on the website of the State Border Guard Service. Human Rights Watch did not independently verify these reports.
Since the start of the armed conflict in 2014, there have been hundreds of casualties as a result of mines, cluster munition remnants, and other explosive remnants of war (ERW). According to the UN, landmines and other ERWs contaminate at least 74,000 acres of eastern Ukraine’s territory. Last year, the HALO Trust, a UK mine clearance organization, identified 97 mine-hazardous areas in the region, and these are only initial estimates.
Some of the people crossing from the separatist-held territory of the Donetsk region said that they start their journey via “ferrymen” at between 2:30 and 4 a.m., despite a 5 a.m. curfew in the region, to get a spot in line closer to the Ukrainian checkpoint, which only opens at 8 a.m. (9 a.m. DNR winter time).
In November 2016, a Human Rights Watch researcher crossed the line of contact from separatist-controlled Donetsk to government-controlled Mariinka, in a large van operated by a “ferryman” as a shuttle taxi.
The driver scheduled pick-up time at 3 a.m., explaining that he starts collecting passengers, who had all booked a place in his van by phone, just after 2 a.m. from various parts of Donetsk and its close suburbs to be able to make it through the DNR crossing point and get a spot in the line for Ukraine’s crossing point near Mariinka. He explained that if he arrived there by 3:30 a.m., while he would not be at the very beginning of the line because of the people who had not gotten through the day before and had stayed overnight, he would be close enough to get through sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. “if all goes well.”
Several of the passengers confirmed to Human Rights Watch that this was how other shuttle taxi drivers operated every day as well – collecting passengers in the middle of the night, parking in the line by 3:30 a.m., and spending the rest of the night in the neutral zone. Driving during curfew is forbidden by DNR authorities, but, according to the driver and several passengers interviewed, “paying off the right people” ensures unhindered passage for shuttle taxis.
By 6 a.m., an hour after the end of the curfew, the neutral zone was already crowded with vehicles and pedestrians, including the elderly and small children. The van made it to the government check-point in five-and-a-half hours, by about 9 a.m. Ukrainian time (10 a.m. DNR time). The route, therefore, took over six hours. Before there were restrictions, the drive from Donetsk to Mariinka took approximately 30 minutes.
Everyone interviewed underscored that crossing the line of contact created disproportionate hardships for elderly people, young children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, who may require additional assistance or who experience difficulties during long waits in cold and crowded conditions with no bathroom facilities in the neutral zone.
While Ukrainian authorities allow priority crossing to women in advanced stages of pregnancy, nursing women with infants, and people with disabilities, many people who might claim priority do not know they can because the information is not posted. Border guards and civilians also said that when people with priority try to cross, it often provokes others in line to become aggressive or even violent and to refuse to let them through.
Lack of basic facilities
Due to the excessively long lines at crossing points, there is an urgent need to install and maintain basic facilities to alleviate civilians’ hardships, especially during the winter and summer months. On the separatist-held side of the crossing points, basic facilities such as potable water and shelters were often absent altogether. In the neutral zone, where people spend the most time waiting to cross, there are no basic facilities.
While facilities are better developed on the government-controlled side, with significant support from several international humanitarian aid groups, there still are not enough well-maintained toilets at all crossing points, shelters that provide protection from rain and sun in the summer, and snow and cold weather in the winter, and potable water stations. On the Ukrainian side, the responsibility to maintain these facilities lies with the local administrations of the government-controlled Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The lack or unsanitary state of these basic facilities causes serious difficulties for civilians with health conditions and limited mobility and those with young children.
In the Luhansk region, aid workers and residents said that while the Ukrainian side had a shelter and a tent, where civilians can warm up and get a hot drink, the crossing point on the other side did not have such facilities.
Civilians interviewed at the Mariinka crossing point complained about the state of toilets, which were provided by international aid groups but are not maintained or cleaned by the local authorities. All civilians interviewed flagged that the problems were particularly aggravating in the neutral zone. Due to the lack of adequate toilet facilities there, some civilians resort to relieving themselves in open fields, which is not only humiliating, but can be life-threatening due to the landmines.
While waiting in the neutral zone for the Ukrainian crossing point to open, Human Rights Watch observed how, in the absence of toilets, numerous men turned to face the roadside and urinated with their back to the crowd. Women, including some elderly ones, who had trouble walking, had to descend from the road into the field, walk a distance and squat in the field, still in full view of the crowd as there are no bushes or trees to hide behind. Some women described this experience as “degrading.” They also said they were afraid of stepping on a landmine, but the long waiting time and lack of sanitary facilities left them little choice.
In January 2015, the Ukrainian government began enforcing travel regulations that require civilians to obtain a special pass to move between separatist-controlled and government-controlled territories. Civilians can apply online, and the electronic permit is valid for one year. Civilians can also apply for the e-pass in person in several government-controlled towns – Kramatorsk, Velyka Novosilka, Mariupol, Bahmut, and Starobilsk – and by phone.
If there is even a minor discrepancy between the information on one’s e-pass and the passport information – such as one letter in the person’s name, one digit in the person’s passport number, or the pass has expired, Ukrainian border guards do not let those people through in either direction.
Those who are stopped have to make corrections either online or in person and can travel again only when the corrected e-pass is issued. If they have any suspicions about a person’s information, appearance, or luggage, the guards send the person to officials of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) who are stationed at the crossing points.
The online application takes only a few minutes to fill out, but processing takes up to 10 working days. The process is quite straightforward if one has a computer, knows how to use it, and has electricity and internet connection. Otherwise, the process can be burdensome. There is also no procedure in place to allow people to apply for an emergency e-pass if it is needed for medical emergency or other extraordinary situations.
Recommendations to all sides of the conflict – Ukrainian government, de facto authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics:
- Increase the number of entry/exit crossing points along the line of contact, particularly in the Luhansk region where only one functioning crossing point exists at the moment that civilians can only cross on foot;
- Increase staffing and boost technological and other infrastructure at entry/exit crossing points to facilitate transit, especially during winter months;
- Ensure that all crossing points are equipped with adequate toilet facilities, shelters from inclement weather, warming stations, and potable water stations;
- Investigate and address allegations of corruption and extortion among border guards and other officials present at crossing points; formalize and widely publicize crossing procedures as a means to combat corruption; and
- Ensure priority crossing to vulnerable groups of people on both sides, such as elderly people, people with disabilities, young children, pregnant women, and others. Make information about priority crossing publicly available and visible at crossing points.
To Ukraine’s Security Service:
- Improve the e-pass system to avoid delays; ensure people without access to electricity, computers or the internet, elderly people, and people with disabilities are able to obtain e-passes without undue difficulties, including by increasing the locations where e-passes can be obtained in person; ensure those crossing the line of contact for humanitarian or medical reasons are not prevented from crossing only because they do not have a valid e-pass.
About 8,000 people die from cancer in Armenia every year, many spending their last days in excruciating pain.
But Armenia is taking an important step towards ending their suffering, and the government recently adopted a national strategy to introduce palliative care services, which focuses on treating pain and other physical symptoms, and provides psychosocial support for people with life-limiting illnesses. The strategy specifies reforms in policy, education, and medicines’ availability, and designates the responsible state institutions.
In July 2015, Human Rights Watch released a report showing the impact of untreated pain and lack of support services on the lives of cancer patients in Armenia. I interviewed many people who were dying – in horrible pain. Among them was Lyudmila, a 61-year-old kindergarten teacher. Her words were deeply personal:
“The pain attacks start unexpectedly and I start screaming and become a different person. … When it starts I can’t speak, I have pain attacks every night…. It’s inhumane pain, unbearable pain for a human being…”
Her experience was not an exception.
When curative treatment is no longer effective, patients with advanced cancer in Armenia are simply sent home. Abandoned by the health care system at arguably the most vulnerable time of their lives, people with life-limiting illnesses face pain, fear, and anguish without professional support. The support they need is palliative care.
Morphine, the mainstay medication for treating severe pain, is inexpensive and easy to administer, but fewer than 3 percent of those who need morphine in Armenia get it. That’s because the government has put in place nearly insurmountable bureaucratic barriers around the prescribing and dispensing of morphine.
The Armenian government has long recognized the need for palliative care, but regrettably it has taken officials over three years to develop and adopt the strategy and action plan.
The strategy recognizes the need to amend regulations restricting access to pain relief medications, and the government plans to review them in 2018. But thousands of cancer patients in Armenia have waited long enough.
Armenian authorities should urgently overhaul the regulations and promptly take the necessary steps to ensure that cancer patients can get the pain treatment they need – and to which they have the right.
Buy a pack of cigarettes today and chances are you’ll see a prominent warning that the product may be harmful to human health. But many cigarettes should include a second warning too: “This product may be made with child labor.”
Most smokers probably don’t realize that the tobacco in their cigarettes may be tainted by child labor. But as recent Human Rights Watch research shows, this is a particular problem in Indonesia, where kids as young as 8 work in hazardous conditions on small-scale tobacco farms to help support their families. They are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides, and many suffer nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, which can happen when people absorb nicotine through their skin. The tobacco farmed by children is bought up by multinationals like Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, as well as big Indonesian firms, who buy either directly from the farmers or through intermediary traders or suppliers. The tobacco then ends up in cigarettes smoked in Indonesia and all over the world.
While most multinationals bar their suppliers from using children to perform the most dangerous tasks on tobacco farms, none of them ban youngsters from all work involving direct contact with tobacco – the only policy that we believe would properly protect children from nicotine exposure. Moreover, when multinationals buy their tobacco from traders on the open market in Indonesia, they do no due diligence to trace the leaf back to the farms where it was grown, so they have no way of knowing whether child labor was involved. This goes against the the United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which state that companies should adopt effective measures to identify any abuses present in their supply chains and address them.
But children don’t need to keep getting sick, and change is possible. Investors can push companies in the right direction.
This week, the nonprofit group Facing Finance published its fifth annual Dirty Profits report, which informs investors about human rights abuses in the supply chains of major multinational firms. Investors can use tools like these to raise their concerns with other investors or the company itself, or introduce shareholder resolutions demanding that companies stamp out abuse in their supply chains.
In the next few months, just as tobacco growing gets underway again in Indonesia, multinational tobacco companies will hold their annual shareholder meetings. It’s the perfect time for investors to speak out, and urge companies to do more to end child labor.
“We can’t kill our way out of the drug problem.”
So says Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros, who this week declared President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs” a failure. Hontiveros is instead calling for a public health solution to the bloodshed that has killed at least 7,022 people since July 1, 2016.
Hontiveros is seeking legislative support for a draft law that will create “an integrated and comprehensive public health approach” to addressing illegal drug use. The move comes too late for the 2,555 suspected drug users and dealers killed by police, as well as the 3,603 killings by “unidentified gunmen” since last July. But if Hontiveros can marshal the backing needed to enact her draft law, it might propel a rethinking by the authorities and the public of Duterte’s bloody “drug war.”
Hontiveros is publicly recognizing what an increasing number of governments around the world have already concluded: Destructive “wars on drugs” inflict far more grievous harm on societies than the damage from the drugs themselves. For decades, governments have criminalized the personal use of drugs, as well as their possession, production, and distribution. They have poured billions of dollars into pursuing, killing, prosecuting, extraditing, and imprisoning mostly low-level dealers and users.
Yet, as Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly shown, this type of policy has done little to reduce drug use and instead has had devastating human rights consequences: undermining the rights to health and privacy; serving as an excuse for torture, extrajudicial killings and grossly disproportionate punishment; and galvanizing the organized criminal groups that kill, corrupt, and twist the law to their own ends.
Hontiveros has rightly identified the need for a public health approach to drug problems in the Philippines. But more needs to be done. Human Rights Watch has called on governments around the world to decriminalize all personal use and possession of drugs. We have also urged governments to adopt alternative policies concerning the drug trade to reduce the enormous human rights costs of current approaches, including by reducing the use of the criminal law to regulate drug production and distribution. And we’ve called for reform to global drug treaties and practices that impede exploration of these alternatives.
Philippine lawmakers can both stop the grisly body count of Duterte’s “drug war” and reform the country’s drug policies.
“Before my husband was even buried, my brother-in-law was making moves [to take over my property]…,” a widow living in a homestead outside Bulawayo with her three children told me, “I only realised about three weeks later that I was being left out.”
She is not alone in this experience. We interviewed more than 60 widows from throughout Zimbabwe and found that in many cases, their inlaws would claim all of their property and resources after their husbands died, in many cases leaving them homeless, landless, and penniless.
This is a silent epidemic of genderbased violence. And the results can be catastrophic.
Many widows lose everything they have worked for. Their children may have to drop out of school.
They depend on the charity of others when they used to be standing on their own two feet, staying with relatives, trying to find income opportunities. Those who can still work must start from nothing, resulting in poverty that follows them for the rest of their lives.
Many other widows I spoke to from all over Zimbabwe during research for the Human Rights Watch report “You Will Get Nothing” on the rights of widows said that inlaws evicted them from their homes, and forced them off the lands they worked for their livelihoods.
This cuts off women’s economic empowerment at the root, by taking away the stability of a home and livelihood, on top of grief over the loss of a spouse.
Over 70 percent of women in Zimbabwe are involved in the agricultural economy.
The loss of a field is the loss of the most valuable incomegenerating asset most women have.
This happens to thousands of women each year in Zimbabwe.
Relatives move in when the woman is grieving and vulnerable. Many widows are older women who may not have the information or the financial resources they need to fight a husband’s family.
Many families claim that it is their right to take the family’s property under customary law. But it is greed, not culture, that drives this practice.
Property grabbing is a problem in other southern African countries as well. Botswana and South Africa have both taken legal steps to end the practice.
The introduction of the Marriages Bill is an opportunity for Zimbabwe to take practical legal steps, too. It should make registration available for marriages of all types.
Widows I spoke with who were in unregistered customary unions were the most vulnerable.
Courts ask their inlaws to verify their unions in court. Even if they know their rights, and get themselves to court, the widows are often at the mercy of their inlaws to confirm that they were married.
Women whose marriages were registered and who are able to get legal help still face challenges, but are more likely to be successful in the courts.
Bethel’s inlaws tried to use her unregistered status as leverage for a bribe from her.
She was fortunate to obtain free legal services from a local organisation to rebuff them, and keep her home.
Where the law does not protect, it should be amended so that it protects everyone.
As a Zimbabwean, I have been working on human rights for many years. It is time Zimbabweans started seeing widows differently.
Their equal property rights are not optional, nor is this a “family matter.” Zimbabwe should put a spotlight on widows’ rights.
Property grabbing violates women’s rights, harms children, and hinders development.
For the good of this country, Zimbabwe should seek to change laws and support widows, because they are entitled to the same rights as every other person here.
(New York) – Burmese government forces committed rape and other sexual violence against ethnic Rohingya women and girls as young as 13 during security operations in northern Rakhine State in late 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. The Burmese government should urgently endorse an independent, international investigation into alleged abuses in northern Rakhine State, including into possible systematic rape against Rohingya women and girls.
Burmese army and Border Guard Police personnel took part in rape, gang rape, invasive body searches, and sexual assaults in at least nine villages in Maungdaw district between October 9 and mid-December. Survivors and witnesses, who identified army and border police units by their uniforms, kerchiefs, armbands, and patches, described security forces carrying out attacks in groups, some holding women down or threatening them at gunpoint while others raped them. Many survivors reported being insulted and threatened on an ethnic or religious basis during the assaults.
“These horrific attacks on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Burmese military’s long and sickening history of sexual violence against women,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, senior emergencies researcher. “Military and police commanders should be held responsible for these crimes if they did not do everything in their power to stop them or punish those involved.”
Between December 2016 and January 2017, Human Rights Watch researchers in Bangladesh interviewed 18 women, of whom 11 had survived sexual assault, as well as 10 men. Seventeen men and women, including some women who survived assaults, witnessed sexual violence, including against their wives, sisters, or daughters. Altogether Human Rights Watch documented 28 incidents of rape and other sexual assault. Some incidents involved several victims. A report released by the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) on February 3 found that more than half of the 101 women UN investigators interviewed said they were raped or suffered other forms of sexual violence. The report, based on a total of 204 interviews, concluded that attacks including rape and other sexual violence “seem[ed] to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.”
After attacks by Rohingya militants on border police posts on October 9, 2016, the Burmese military undertook a series of “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine State. Security forces summarily executed men, women, and children; looted property; and burned down at least 1,500 homes and other buildings. More than 69,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, while another 23,000 have become internally displaced in Maungdaw district.
Several women described how soldiers surrounded their villages or homes, then gathered the villagers in an outdoor area, separating men from women, and detained them for up to several hours. Soldiers often shot villagers, and raped and gang raped women and girls. “Ayesha,” a Rohingya woman in her 20s, told Human Rights Watch: “They gathered all the women and started beating us with bamboo sticks and kicking us with their boots. After beating us, the military took [me and] 15 women about my age and separated us.… [The soldiers] raped me one by one, tearing my clothes.”
During raids on homes, security forces frequently beat or killed family members and raped the women. “Noor,” in her 40s, said that 20 soldiers stormed her home and grabbed her and her husband: “They took me in the yard of the home. Another two put a rifle to my head, tore off my clothes, and raped me.… They slaughtered [my husband] in front of me with a machete. Then three more men raped me.… After some time, I had severe bleeding. I had severe pain in my lower abdomen and pain in my whole body.”
The sexual violence did not appear to be random or opportunistic, but part of a coordinated and systematic attack against Rohingya, in part because of their ethnicity and religion. Many women told Human Rights Watch that soldiers threatened or insulted them with language focused on their status as Rohingya Muslims, calling them “you Bengali bitch” or “you Muslim bitch” while beating or raping them. “We will kill you because you are Muslim,” one woman said soldiers threatened. Other women said that security forces asked if they were “harboring terrorists,” then proceeded to beat and rape them when they said no. A woman in her 20s who said soldiers attempted to rape her in her home, added that they told her, “You are just raising your kids to kill us, so we will kill your kids.”
Burmese authorities have taken no evident steps to seriously investigate allegations of sexual violence or other abuses reported by nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch. A national-level investigation commission on the situation in Maungdaw district headed by the first vice president and comprised of current and former government officials released an interim report on January 3, 2017. The commission claims to have addressed rape allegations and “interviewed local villagers and women using various methods … [but found] insufficient evidence to take legal action up to this date.” Also contrary to the findings of human rights groups, the commission rejected reports of serious abuses and religious persecution, and said there were no cases of malnutrition.
On December 26, 2016, the Information Committee of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi issued a press release addressing “the rumours that some women were raped during the area clearance operations of security forces following the violent attacks in Maungtaw Township.” Accompanied by an image stating “Fake Rape,” the release claimed that the investigation commission had interviewed two women who gave conflicting testimony as to whether they had been raped, and that village leaders later refuted their accounts. However, video footage of the commission’s visit shows an interviewer asking one of the women about violence against other women she witnessed, not her personal experience. Nothing in her video testimony suggests she lied in her interview. The interview appears confrontational, and out of keeping with accepted guidelines on how to conduct interviews with victims of sexual violence. The problematic circumstances under which authorities conducted these interviews, as well as the risks to the women, including when authorities exposed their names and identities to the media, raise serious doubts about the credibility of the Information Committee’s press release.
“The government should stop contesting these rape allegations and instead provide survivors with access to necessary support, health care, and other services,” Motaparthy said.
Rohingya victims of sexual assault face limited access to emergency health care including to prevent unwanted pregnancy from rape and infection with HIV, and to treat other sexually transmitted infections. Though the Burmese government has permitted some aid to go through to northern Rakhine State, it continues to obstruct international assistance from reaching the civilian population. It is unknown how many rape survivors remain in the area and whether they have received appropriate health care. None of the women Human Rights Watch interviewed had access to medical facilities until they reached Bangladesh. Many reported that in Bangladesh, they lacked information about services available, or could not arrange child care or pay transportation costs to clinics.
“The government’s failure to investigate rape and other crimes against the Rohingya should make it clear to Burma’s friends and donors that an independent, international inquiry is desperately needed to get to the bottom of these appalling abuses,” Motaparthy said.
Rape and Sexual Assault Against Rohingya Women and Girls in Northern Rakhine State
The following incidents took place between October 9 and mid-December 2016. Pseudonyms are used to protect those interviewed, as well as to protect their relatives who remain in Burma from possible government reprisals.
Cases of Rape and Gang Rape
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine Rohingya women who said that Burmese security force members had raped or gang raped them during attacks on their villages in Rakhine State. Several women described how security forces forcibly entered their homes, looted their belongings, and subjected women to invasive body searches before raping one or more women or girls in the family. Fatima, a Rohingya woman in her 20s, described an assault by soldiers against her and her young children in Kyet Yoe Pyin village in mid-November. She said:
Four soldiers attacked and suddenly entered the house. One grabbed the children, two of them grabbed each of my arms.… They were armed with rifles, pistols, small and long knives, and some were wearing ammunition belts.
My eldest [5-year-old] daughter screamed and said, “Please leave us.” … So they killed her … with a machete. They slaughtered her in front of me.
When they killed her, I became very upset. [The soldiers] said many things to me that I could not understand and put a gun to my head.… They kicked me in my hip and back, and beat me on the head with a wooden stick.
[Then] one of the soldiers tore off my clothes. Two soldiers raped me, one by one. They were about 30 to 35 years old. They touched too many places in a very painful way – they touched my chest, they touched my vaginal area. They did it quickly, they only opened their zippers – they didn’t take their pants off. When another soldier tried to rape me, I resisted. Then they burned my leg with plastic, they put it out on my leg.
Noor, in her 40s, said that about 20 soldiers stormed her home in the border town of Shein Kar Li in early December, and grabbed her and her husband:
Two of them held my arms tightly. I couldn’t move. They took me in the yard of the home. Another two put a rifle to my head, tore off my clothes, and raped me.… While they held me, my husband was also held. They slaughtered him in front of me with a machete. Then three more men raped me. I began bleeding severely. After some time, I didn’t know what was happening, I fell unconscious.… I regained consciousness the next morning. I took my gold jewelry, went to the nearby ghat [stairs leading to the river], and gave it to the boatman [so that I could cross to Bangladesh]. I walked there very slowly, as I was in pain. I had severe pain in my lower abdomen and pain in my whole body.
Witnesses also described security forces gathering women together in public areas – in paddy fields or school courtyards – and detaining them before selecting some women to rape. Ayesha, a woman in her 20s from Pyaung Pyit village, said:
They gathered all the women and started beating us with bamboo sticks and kicking us with their boots. In total they beat about 100 to 150 women, young boys, and girls. After beating us, the military took me and 15 women about my age and separated us [from the group].
They took us to a nearby school, kept us in the burning sun, standing in the field in front. They made us turn to face the sun. Then three soldiers took me to a nearby pond.
When they prepared to rape me, they opened their pants. All I could notice was their underwear. When one finished raping me, I resisted with my leg, and one of them punched me in the eye.… One of them kicked my knee and I got hurt. They also bit my face and scratched me with their nails.
I started bleeding. When I started severely bleeding from my genital area and leg, they left me. I became senseless. When I came to, I found my clothes torn around me. I found my skirt and wrapped my body in that.
Ayesha said that her abdomen and vaginal area had become red and swollen, and that she remained in pain for at least a week after the attack.
One woman in her 30s from Kyet Yoe Pyin village said that four soldiers raped her, then one raped her again by inserting the barrel of his rifle into her vagina.
Rape of Girls
Five people told Human Rights Watch they saw security forces raping or sexually assaulting girls as young as 13, or saw girls taken away, heard their screams, and learned soon afterward that they had been raped. Some of these victims were their family members.
Sayeda, a woman in her 40s from Kyet Yoe Pyin village, said that in mid-November soldiers gang raped her 16-year-old daughter in front of her, then burned her house:
After evening prayer time, the military came and surrounded our house, then entered. Three soldiers grabbed me and my [seven] daughters, and took us to the paddy field. They beat us with their rifles.
On the spot in front of me, four military raped [my eldest daughter]. Then one soldier took her to another place. When the soldiers attacked her, I grabbed my other daughters and ran. We ran into the bushes. Other people later told me she died. I didn’t see her body.
Amina, a woman in her 20s from Hpar Wut Chaung village, said that soldiers raped and killed her 13-year-old sister during a raid on their home in early December, as well as killing five other siblings. She said:
When they entered [our house], our brothers were sleeping on the veranda, and we [five sisters] were in the bed. They shot and killed my [brothers] and held the girls so they couldn’t move.
They instantly shot my younger sister in the head. While [another sister was] running away, they shot [her too].
They took my other [13-year-old] sister to another room and raped her there. We heard [her screaming]. She screamed, “Someone save me! He’s trying to take my clothes off!” What I saw from outside is that 10 more people entered that room with my sister.
Amina and her father managed to escape and fled to a neighboring village. There, her next-door neighbor who also fled told her that she had found Amina’s sister dead, without any clothes on.
Several women told Human Rights Watch that security forces subjected them to invasive body searches during village raids, either in their homes or while villagers were gathered in open fields. Soldiers put their hands underneath women’s clothes and painfully pressed their breasts and genital areas – searches that constitute sexual assault. They beat or slapped some women, and threatened them with machetes and guns. They also snatched gold jewelry women wore, and took money they kept in their blouses. Some women said they were searched twice.
Taslima, a woman in her mid-20s from Dar Gyi Zar village, said that in early November, after she fled to the nearby village of Yae Twin Kyun, soldiers came to the house where she was staying and dragged her and other women from the village out into the yard:
When [the military] entered the house, one soldier searched my body for gold and jewelry, and asked for money. When I didn’t give it to them, soldiers grabbed me and searched my body. They searched under my clothes … they pressed my chest very badly. They found where I hid my money in my chest. They also touched my hips and sensitive area [genital area].
She said they then dragged her outside: “There were about 10 to 12 women standing in the yard, around the same age as me. They touched us all, very bad touches. They used [their rifles] and machetes to threaten us.”
Sara, from Sin Thae Pyin village, said that in late November about 15 soldiers entered her home where she was with her mother-in-law and her 15-year-old niece. She said that they first searched the cupboards but, finding no valuables, they then searched the women’s bodies:
When they searched our bodies, a soldier was searching my chest, he put his hands inside my clothes. So I started to cry. When I started to cry, they hit us. They slapped me and my mother-in-law, and my sister-in-law’s elder daughter. They took my clothes off and attempted to rape me, but I screamed very loudly, so they left.
Several women said that soldiers subjected them to intrusive body searches or other non-consensual touching. Several men and women described witnessing these searches.
Access to Care and Services
Survivors of sexual assault need access to emergency and long-term medical services, legal assistance, and social support to address injuries caused by the assault; to prevent pregnancy, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections; and to collect evidence to support prosecution of perpetrators.
International organizations including the International Organization for Migration and Médecins Sans Frontières maintain or fund clinics in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh, where the women interviewed by Human Rights Watch have fled. These facilities can provide essential and life-saving care, other medical treatment, and psychological counseling to sexual assault survivors. Survivors may also be referred to Bangladeshi government hospitals for more serious or long-term care.
However, while several women interviewed said they had received care at these facilities in Bangladesh, including psychological support, only one had visited medical facilities within 24 hours of being assaulted. The boatman who transported her from Burma to Bangladesh referred her to a clinic after noting the severity of her injuries, and she went there directly after crossing the border. The remaining women sought care several days after they were assaulted, after they had moved within Burma seeking safety, or after they had found a place to stay and basic necessities in Bangladesh. This placed them beyond the window during which providers can effectively administer emergency contraception (120 hours) and post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV (72 hours), as recommended by the World Health Organization. One woman said villagers in Burma provided her with contraceptive medication, while others took only paracetamol, a mild painkiller, after they were assaulted.
A lack of knowledge about services and how to access them has stopped women from getting care, even in Bangladesh. Many other women said they did not seek medical care, including at government or humanitarian-supported facilities in Bangladesh where they could receive treatment for free, because they believed incorrectly that they would have to pay for services, or because they did not know they could access them. Some women also cited financial difficulties paying for transport to facilities, or said that they had no one to watch their children while they visited. None of the women Human Rights Watch interviewed had returned to medical facilities for follow-up visits, though some said they still experienced pain or they had not completed a course of medication and needed prescription refills.
Fatima said, “Now I have urine problems. When I was at [the clinic] they gave me medicine but I didn’t properly recover my [normal urine flow].… After that I didn’t go back … because I was worried about paying for medicine.” Mumtaz said, “I still feel pain in my shoulder and chest [where they beat me] … also in my lower abdomen and back. Now my medicine is finished but I have no money to consult with the doctor, and [I can’t] leave my child home alone.”
Those interviewed also said they did not return for follow-up psychological counseling, even when they continued to experience nightmares about violent incidents or other signs of trauma. Many of the women interviewed said they did not know what counseling was. One woman who received an initial counseling session said she would not return because she felt too overwhelmed by the hardships she faced, and did not feel up to returning. “I won’t visit again. I feel weak, too tired to go,” she said.
Most of the women interviewed said they had come to Bangladesh only with their children, or with other female family members, and struggled to provide for themselves and their children. Their husbands or other male family members had either been killed by the Burmese military or had been separated from them during the violence. Many women no longer knew their husbands’ whereabouts or if they were still alive. Several interviewees who fled with only their children struggled to meet their basic food and shelter needs. They said they survived through limited charity distributions, by begging, or by sending a young child to the local bazaar to beg.
Concerned governments and international agencies should continue to support medical and psychosocial care for survivors of sexual violence in Burma, including those who have fled to Bangladesh. More efforts are also needed to encourage and educate those who may need services about how they can access them.
“I am staring death in the face. We are dying one by one,” Rose Adhiambo told us. “My friend, a cancer patient like me, was buried today. I am stuck in this private hospital now with bills that I cannot pay.”
Rose, a 46-year-old widow living in the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 and received chemotherapy at the public state-run hospital. But two months ago, state-paid doctors went on strike demanding the implementation of an agreement between their union and the government. The agreement, signed in 2013, aimed to improve health facilities in public hospitals, including better working conditions for doctors.
Because of the strike, Rose, like many Kenyans, was forced to raise large amounts of money to pay a private hospital for her life-saving treatment. Now, although Rose has completed treatment, the hospital will not release her until she pays her bills.
And the strike continues. Talks between the government and doctors have been unsuccessful. On February 3, Kenya’s courts granted seven more days for negotiations, and have threatened to arrest doctors if there is no resolution. The clock is ticking.
Doctors allege that access to healthcare in Kenya has seriously deteriorated due to massive corruption in the sector. Evidence favors their argument: In 2016, a leaked internal audit report revealed that top officials in the Ministry of Health stole more than KES 5 Billion (almost US$50 million) during the 2015/2016 financial year. Since the strike, doctors have told countless stories on social media of awful working conditions – power going out during surgeries with patients open on the operating table; no post-exposure prophylaxis after being pricked by a needle while treating someone with HIV; watching a patient die because the local assemblyman took the ambulance to sell his tomatoes at market.
The government argues that, notwithstanding that it signed up to the 2013 bargaining agreement, it has been declared “illegal”, and doctors cannot use it to negotiate. The government hasn’t resolved the stand-off.
The impact of the strike was clear when we visited the state-funded Kenyatta National Hospital last week. There were no doctors, and dusty, abandoned stretchers littered the wards. The media has reported that many people have died because of the strike, since the alternative to public hospitals, private ones, are too expensive for most Kenyans. Some, like Rose, have ended up detained in the very hospital that was treating them, although detention for debt is a violation of international law.
“Cancer is tough, but I could pay my bills at the public hospitals,” Rose says. “Now, I depend on well-wishers, and contributions from the church, but [the private hospital] is really expensive. How will I manage? Why won’t the government end the strike?”
The government should protect Kenyans’ rights to health and life, and work with doctors to reach a solution. Otherwise, people like Rose, will suffer and even risk death as the strike persists.