Asylum seekers behind a metal fence in the ‘Hangar 1’ detention center, in Röszke, Hungary. September 9, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The massive refugee crisis demands an unprecedented global response. At two summits on September 19 and 20, 2016, at the United Nations, world leaders should take bold steps to share responsibility for millions of people displaced by violence, repression, and persecution.

Leaders will gather in New York to discuss providing greater support to countries where refugees first land, just as many of those countries are at breaking point. There is a grave risk to the bedrock foundation of refugee protection, the principle of nonrefoulement – not forcibly returning refugees to places where they would face persecution and other serious threats. People are fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Honduras, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, among others.

“Millions of lives hang in the balance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This is not just about more money or greater resettlement numbers, but also about shoring up the legal principles for protecting refugees, which are under threat as never before.”

This year, Human Rights Watch has documented Turkish border guards shooting and pushing back civilians who appear to be seeking asylum; Jordan refusing entry or assistance to Syrian asylum seekers at its border; Kenya declaring that it will close the world’s largest refugee camp in November and pushing Somalis to return home despite potential danger; and Pakistan and Iran harassing and deregistering Afghan refugees and coercing them to return to a country in conflict.

The UN General Assembly has convened the September 19 summit “with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach” to refugees. The final statement, already drafted, is a missed opportunity to widen the scope of protection and limits expectations for concrete, new commitments. However, it affirms refugee rights and calls for more equitable responsibility sharing. Given the scale of the refugee crisis and populist backlash in many parts of the world, this affirmation should be the basis for collective action, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 20, US President Barack Obama will host a “Leader’s Summit” to increase commitments for aid, refugee admissions, and opportunities for work and education for refugees. Governments are expected to make concrete pledges toward goals of doubling the number of resettlement places and other admissions, increasing aid by 30 percent, getting 1 million more refugee children in school, and granting 1 million more adult refugees the right to work. Though the participants have not been announced, 30 to 35 countries are expected to attend. Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Sweden, and Jordan will join the United States as co-facilitators.

Boost Humanitarian Aid to Countries of First Arrival
The vast majority of the world’s 21.3 million refugees are in the global south, where they often face further harm, discrimination, and neglect. Human Rights Watch called on countries of first arrival like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Thailand, Kenya, Iran, and Pakistan, to commit to proposals to provide refugees with better access to work and education.

The world’s richest nations have largely failed to help countries on the front lines of the displacement crisis. As of September 9, UN aid appeals were 39 percent funded, with some of the worst-funded in Africa; the appeal for refugees from South Sudan stands at 19 percent. The regional refugee response plans for Yemen and Syria are funded at 22 and 49 percent.

Increase Numbers Resettled in Other Countries
Resettlement from countries of first arrival is a key way to help refugees rebuild their lives and to relieve host countries, but international solidarity is glaringly absent. In 2015, the UN refugee agency facilitated resettlement of 81,000 of a projected 960,000 refugees globally in need of resettlement. The agency estimated that over 1.1 million refugees would need resettlement in 2016, but projected that countries would only offer 170,000 places. Representatives of 92 countries pledged only a slight increase in resettlement places for Syrian refugees at a high-level UN meeting in March.

In the European Union, the arrival by boat in 2015 of more than 1 million asylum seekers and migrants – and more than 3,700 deaths at sea – laid bare the need for safe and legal channels for refugees to move, such as resettlement.  However, many EU countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary, are focused primarily on preventing spontaneous arrivals, outsourcing responsibility, and rolling back refugee rights.

A July 2015 European plan to resettle 22,500 refugees from other regions over two years has resettled only 8,268 refugees, according to figures from July 2016. Most EU countries underperformed, and 10 failed to resettle a single person under the plan.

End Abusive Systems, Flawed Deals
The EU struck a deal with Turkey in March to allow the return to Turkey of almost all asylum seekers on the deeply flawed grounds that Turkey is a safe country for asylum; it is on the verge of falling apart. Australia forcibly transfers all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to offshore processing centers, where they face abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect.

The EU and Australia should renounce these abusive policies. EU countries should swiftly adopt a proposed permanent resettlement framework with more ambitious goals and a clear commitment to meet them, Human Rights Watch said. They should share fairly the responsibility for asylum seekers arriving spontaneously, and help alleviate the pressure on Greece and Italy.

Governments also undermine asylum with closed camps, as in Kenya and Thailand, and by detaining asylum seekers, as do Australia, Greece, Italy, Mexico, and the United States.

While by many measures the US leads in refugee resettlement and response to UN humanitarian aid appeals, it has been particularly slow and ungenerous in admitting Syrian refugees. And it has had notable blind spots, as with its border policies for Central American children and others fleeing gang violence and its use of Mexico as a buffer to keep them from reaching the US border.

The Obama Administration met its goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year in the face of opposition from more than half of US governors and a lack of resettlement funds from Congress, but the US has the capacity to resettle many times that number. It should commit to meeting the Leaders’ Summit goals, which would mean doubling this year’s 85,000 total refugee admissions to 170,000.

Several other countries with capacity to admit far more refugees, including Brazil, Japan, and South Korea, have fallen woefully short. Japan admitted 19 refugees in 2015, South Korea only 42 aside from North Koreans, and Brazil only 6.

Russia resettles no refugees. The Gulf States do not respond to UN resettlement appeals, though Saudi Arabia says it has suspended deportations of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who overstay visitor visas. Most Gulf states, except Kuwait, have also fallen short in their response to Syrian-refugee-related UN appeals to fund refugee needs, according to an Oxfam analysis.

“Every country has a moral responsibility to ensure the rights and dignity of people forced to flee their homes,” Roth said. “When more than 20 million people are counting on a real international effort to address their plight, lofty pronouncements are not enough.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, has specialized expertise on the United Nations, particularly UN peacekeeping, and the Balkans. Hicks is responsible for coordinating Human Rights Watch's advocacy team and providing direction to advocacy worldwide. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 2005, Hicks served as director of the Office for Returns and Communities in the UN mission in Kosovo. She has also worked for the International Human Rights Law Group (now Global Rights), the Deputy High Representative for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the former Yugoslavia, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and as clinical professor of human rights and refugee law at the University of Minnesota Law School. Hicks is a graduate of Columbia Law School and the University of Michigan.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

There has been an alarming deterioration in the human rights situation in Cambodia over the last year. In advance of July elections, the Hun Sen government has arrested the leader of the opposition, dissolved the main opposition party, prosecuted and jailed human rights defenders and politicians, and closed or censored independent newspapers and radio stations. Cambodia’s judiciary is controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who uses the courts as a political tool to imprison critics.

Mr. President, we welcome the joint statement delivered yesterday by New Zealand on behalf of more than 40 states calling for further consideration if the situation does not improve in the lead up to the elections and for a briefing by the High Commissioner before the June session, and the High Commissioner’s statement that such a briefing would be merited. The Council has so far failed to take meaningful action. Cambodia is on the path to once again becoming a one-party state. The gains over the past 25 years are at serious risk. Billions of dollars in development aid, including support for judicial reform and building the rule of law, are in the process of being rendered meaningless by an overt power grab. July’s election will lack legitimacy without the participation of the opposition. The High Commissioner should be mandated to report on the entire election period. The Council should demand the release of all political prisoners and reinstatement of all politicians and parties. The Council should not stand by idly as Cambodia descends into authoritarianism.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In this Council, we often talk about the importance of implementation.

We can pass all the resolutions we like, but none of it matters if it doesn’t translate into actual progress for people on the ground.

Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of resolution 30/1 in October 2015 represented a moment of hope, of opportunity, the prospect of justice and accountability for the tens of thousands of victims of the country’s brutal civil war.

In that resolution, Sri Lanka pledged to set up four transitional justice mechanisms to promote “justice, reconciliation and human rights” in the country. These included an accountability mechanism involving international judges, prosecutors, and investigators; a truth and reconciliation mechanism; an office of missing persons; and an office for reparations.

Thus far only the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has been set up – just ahead of the current session in Geneva.

There is little progress on the three other promised mechanisms.

Nor has the government delivered on its promise to repeal the abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act. The Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, after his visit last year noted that the “use of torture is deeply ingrained in the security sector.”

The government-appointed Consultation Task Force conducted extensive nationwide consultations on the transitional justice mechanisms. Its January 2017 report, containing detailed recommendations drawn from all affected communities including the security services, provided an important blueprint for the way forward, but has languished on the shelf, again representing a missed opportunity, and translating hope into mistrust.

Mr. President, we all want Sri Lanka to be a success story. We all need Sri Lanka to be a success story. But it risks becoming a Council failure, fueling disillusionment and discontent, if human rights are sidelined in the name of perceived political expediency, if the Council’s attention moves onto other issues while the promise of justice remains unfulfilled.

The Sri Lankan government should present a time-bound implementation plan to carry out its pledges to this body, and the Council needs to maintain scrutiny until Sri Lanka’s commitments are met in full.

Sri Lanka’s long-term peace and stability hinges upon the international community’s willingness to support the government in addressing the past so that it may look to the future. 


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protracted conflicts, unaccountable militias and the deterioration of general public services, are hardly making headlines, but in Libya, civilians are acutely suffering from them.

Throughout the country, armed groups, some affiliated with one of the two competing governments, attacked civilians and civilian properties, abducted, disappeared, forcibly displaced, tortured and seized homes of civilians in reprisal for alleged affiliations with armed militant groups. Thousands remain in long-term arbitrary detention. Human Rights Watch documented scores of extra judicial executions of fighters and civilians in 2017, most notably in eastern Libya.

Over 160.000 people remain internally displaced because of conflict. Thousands who left their homes during fighting in Benghazi are unable to return, due to threats and reprisal crimes including killings by forces affiliated with the Libyan National Army. Militias from Misrata continue to block 40,000 forcibly displaced people from Tawergha from returning to their homes, after nearly seven years of dispersal around the country.

Tens of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers who flock to Libya in the hope of departing for Europe face arbitrary detention, abuse, sexual assault and forced labour.

Since the collapse of the central authority in 2014, key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, have been dysfunctional in most parts of the country. Prosecutors, judges and lawyers risk attacks, threats and harassment. The International Criminal Court has a mandate to investigate serious crimes in Libya, but more is needed to address ongoing grave abuses in the country.

A political settlement and any semblance of rule of law seem elusive.

Since the end of the original Commission of Inquiry for Libya in 2012, Council members have consistently fallen short of taking measures that are well within their mandate to at least curb the raging impunity in Libya, such as establishing the mandate of an independent expert. Given the gravity of the situation on the ground in Libya, how can this Council justify the lack of a dedicated monitoring and reporting mechanism? The human rights of Libyans, as well as the Council’s credibility, is at stake when Council members and observers allow narrow interests to trump accountability. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A woman votes at a polling station inside a school in Tripoli, Libya, June 25, 2014. 

© 2014 Reuters

(Geneva) – The United Nations should urge the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and competing authorities in eastern Libya to create conditions conducive to a free and fair vote before rushing to hold general elections in 2018, Human Rights Watch said today.

For elections to be free and fair, they need to be held in an environment free of coercion, discrimination, or intimidation of voters, candidates, and political parties, Human Rights Watch said. Three key elements should be respected: protection of free speech and assembly; rules that are neither discriminatory nor arbitrary in excluding potential voters or candidates; and the rule of law, accompanied by a functioning judiciary that is able to deal fairly and promptly with disputes concerning the elections. The judiciary should be prepared to fairly resolve disputes around campaigns and elections, such as on registration, candidacies, and results. Election organizers need to ensure that independent monitors have access to polling places.

“Libya today couldn’t be further away from respect for the rule of law and human rights, let alone from acceptable conditions for free elections,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to be able to guarantee freedom of assembly, association and speech to anyone participating in the elections.”

The UN has publicly supported holding elections in 2018. It is essential for UN officials and the Security Council to join forces to press all Libyan parties to ensure that the conditions for a credible nationwide election can be met before organizing one, Human Rights Watch said.

During a meeting brokered by President Emmanuel Macron of France in July 2017 between Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, of the Government of National Accord, and Khalifa Hiftar, commander of the Libyan National Army forces based in eastern Libya, both agreed in principle to hold speedy elections, within the first half of 2018. Currently, there is no comprehensive plan or guarantees, to secure protection for freedom of association and assembly and the rule of law.

Serraj later told the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, during a meeting in Tripoli that his government was “pushing ahead” for 2018 elections. Agila Saleh, head of the Libyan House of Representatives, based in eastern Libya, which supports Hiftar’s group, has called for parliamentary and presidential elections “as soon as possible to end disputes over the legitimacy and competition for political positions in Libya.”

The UN Security Council and the European Union back the Government of National Accord, which is supported by armed groups and militias in western Libya, but has limited control over territory. The other, rival, Interim Government based in the eastern cities of al-Bayda, Tobruk and Benghazi, is also supported by the Libyan National Army, which controls large swaths of eastern and southern Libya, with the exception of the eastern city of Derna.

Violence following the last Libyan general elections in 2014 led to the collapse of central authority and key institutions, notably law enforcement and the judiciary. The result was two opposing governments competing for legitimacy. Armed groups have, since then, kidnapped, arbitrarily detained, tortured, forcibly disappeared, and killed thousands of people, with impunity. The protracted conflicts have decimated the economy and public services, and internally displaced 165,000 people.

Jeffrey Feltman, under-secretary-general for political affairs, pledged the UN’s support for organizing “inclusive” elections in 2018. The special representative to the UN secretary general and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, Ghassan Salamé, has often publicly expressed his wish for general elections in 2018, while acknowledging the lack of a constitutional framework and suitable conditions in Libya.

In an effort in September to reinvigorate a stalled political process amid violent conflicts, Salamé announced a new Action Plan for Libya. The plan included consensus for limited amendments to the existing Libyan Political Agreement, followed by a national conference, a constitutional referendum, and legislation to provide for parliamentary and presidential elections. The EU, EU member states – including France – and the United States, have all endorsed the Action Plan. No date has been announced for these steps.

Restrictive laws have undermined freedom of speech and association in Libya, and armed groups have intimidated, harassed, threatened, physically attacked, and arbitrarily detained journalists, political activists, and human rights defenders. The penal code stipulates criminal penalties for defamation and for “insulting” public officials and the Libyan nation or flag and imposes the death penalty for “promoting theories or principles” that aim to overthrow the political, social, or economic system.

Laws on peaceful assembly unnecessarily limit citizens’ ability to freely express themselves through spontaneous and organized demonstrations and protests, with unduly harsh penalties. Authorities should ensure that any restrictions on public gatherings are strictly necessary for protecting public order.

The criminal justice system has all but collapsed. Civilian and military courts in the east and south remain mostly shut, while elsewhere they operate at reduced capacity. Armed groups have threatened, intimidated, and attacked judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and government officials. Law enforcement and criminal investigation departments around the country are only partially functional, often lacking the ability to execute court-issued summons and arrest warrants. Libya’s courts are in no position to resolve election disputes including on registration and results.
Prison authorities, often only nominally under the Ministries of Interior, Defense, and Justice of the two rival governments, hold thousands of detainees in long-term arbitrary detention without charges. Armed groups operate their own informal detention facilities. Under article 44 of the Libyan Political Agreement, the Government of National Accord should ensure that the authority to arrest and detain anyone is strictly limited to statutory law enforcement bodies, in compliance with Libyan and international law.

The High National Elections Commission, responsible for organizing elections, was established in January 2012 by the National Transitional Council. It announced the official start of the election process on December 7, with voter registration. By February 15, more than 2.4 million people had registered, its statistics show. As of March 8, 6,267 Libyans living abroad had registered. The commission extended the deadline several times, most recently until March 31. The International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 141,000 Libyans lived in the diaspora in 2015, although recent figures could be much higher.

Voter registration should be inclusive, accessible, and ensure that the largest number of eligible Libyans inside and outside the country can register, Human Rights Watch said. Provisions should also be made to register people held in long-term arbitrary detention without a criminal conviction since there is no legal basis for disqualifying them. The elections commission should also ensure regular transparent audits of its voter register to rule out any inaccuracies.

The legal framework for holding elections remains opaque. The election commission can only hold elections if the House of Representatives passes an elections law. Libya has only an interim Constitutional Covenant, adopted in 2011. A draft constitution proposed by the Constitution Drafting Assembly in July has yet to be put to a national referendum. The election commission has yet to clarify the legal framework for participation by political parties, and how independent and international monitors can be brought safely to all areas where voting is planned.

As a party to international human rights treaties, Libya is bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which guarantee freedom of speech, expression, and association. Libya is also bound by the 2002 African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa, which state that democratic elections must be held under “democratic constitutions and in compliance with supportive legal instruments,” and under a “system of separation of powers that ensures in particular, the independence of the judiciary.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Security forces pursue peaceful protesters in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on December 31, 2017. 

© 2017 John Bompengo
In December, violence broke out in Ituri province in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Militias launched deadly attacks on villages, killing scores of civilians, torching thousands of homes, and displacing more than 100,000 people, including nearly 60,000 refugees who fled to Uganda. 

Human Rights Watch has received terrifying accounts of massacres, rapes, and decapitation. In February, after an attack on Seseti village, a survivor described finding 15 bodies, including three children, the following morning. “They cut off the heads and arms of some… and even slit open their bellies,” he said. “We were too afraid to stay and bury them properly, so we just dug a small hole… and quickly left.”

This is just the latest outbreak of violence in which the response by the Congolese government and security forces has been grossly inadequate. Militia and in some cases army attacks on civilians have also continued in the central Kasai and in the eastern North and South Kivu and Tanganyika provinces, leaving 4.5 million people internally displaced – more than anywhere else in Africa – and 2 million children at risk of starvation.

Much of this violence is linked to the country’s broader political crisis, as President Joseph Kabila has stayed in power beyond the constitutionally mandated two-term limit by delaying elections and systematically quashing dissent. Security forces have killed over 300 people during largely peaceful protests since 2015. Hundreds of opposition supporters and democracy activists have been thrown in jail.

Security forces heightened their repression by firing teargas and live bullets within and around Catholic churches during peaceful marches following Mass on three Sundays since December, killing at least 18 people.

Government officials and the electoral commission president claim elections will be held on December 23, but have also cited numerous constraints that could cause further delays. Kabila himself has yet to declare that he will step down.

In light of the country’s dire human rights situation – which is likely to deteriorate in the absence of credible elections, and pose increasing risks to regional security – we urge this Council to consider further action to address the situation in Congo, including a Special Session if the situation worsens. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In the last six months, settlement expansion has continued unabated, in violation of Israel’s obligations as an occupying power and to the detriment of Palestinian residents, who live under a discriminatory, two-tiered system.

In the last year, Israeli authorities have passed a law legalizing the confiscation of private Palestinian land and declared their intent to maintain settlements forever.

Settlements are unlawful under IHL, and the transfer of the occupying power’s civilian population to the occupied territory is a war crime. Settlements are established on land unlawfully seized and rendered off limits to Palestinians. They stunt Palestinian economic development and trigger crippling restrictions on the right to freedom of movement, access to health and education and a host of other rights.

Businesses operating in settlements or facilitating settlement activity cannot do so without contributing to serious abuses.

In January, the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report detailing his methodology in implementing this Council’s decision to establish a database of businesses operating in Israeli settlements.  The High Commissioner’s office committed to publishing the names of the 206 businesses identified once it completed corresponding with them.

The High Commissioner’s meticulous engagement provides an opportunity to help states fulfill their obligations outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and to help businesses fulfill their human rights responsibilities. We encourage the High Commissioner to publish the names of those companies with which he has completed engagement before the end of his tenure, and urge the Council to ensure that his Office has the resources to ensure that the database is regularly updated.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Sri Lankan Tamil women hold up photographs of their missing family members as they wait to hand over a petition to the UN head office in Colombo on March 13, 2013.

© 2013 Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

(Geneva) – The Sri Lankan government should announce a time-bound plan to carry out its pledges to the United Nations Human Rights Council since October 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. At an interim update before the Council this week on progress towards fulfilment of its human rights commitments, UN member countries should press Sri Lanka to ensure justice and accountability for the tens of thousands of victims of the country’s brutal civil war.

In October 2015, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 30/1 by consensus in which Sri Lanka pledged to set up four transitional justice mechanisms to promote “justice, reconciliation and human rights” in the country. These included an accountability mechanism involving international judges, prosecutors, and investigators; a truth and reconciliation mechanism; an office of missing persons; and an office for reparations. Thus far only the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has been set up – just ahead of the current session in Geneva. The high commissioner for human rights, in a report to the Council, expressed similar concerns. The Council will discuss the high commissioner’s report this week.

“The Human Rights Council needs to make it clear to the Sri Lankan government that it expects it to stop playing games and start delivering on its commitments,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “The Sri Lankan government needs to move beyond pre-session PR and present a meaningful and concrete plan to deliver results for the victims who have been awaiting justice for far too long.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed the December action by the government to accede to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).

Creating the Office of Missing Persons, while a positive step, is just the latest body set up in Sri Lanka to look into enforced disappearances. Reports of prior government-established commissions, some of which have been made public in recent years, have not led to accountability.

“The Office of Missing Persons now represents their last best hope to learn the fate of their loved ones,” said Fisher. “It must do its work quickly and properly. Families of the disappeared have appeared before commission after commission, and many have camped out in the open over the past year in protest of government inaction.”

The justice and accountability mechanism in the 2015 resolution is a key demand from victims and families affected by Sri Lanka’s 27-year civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Both sides to the conflict, which ended in May 2009 with a decisive government victory, committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including extrajudicial killings, deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, enforced disappearances, and torture. The government should publicly set out when this mechanism will be set up instead of hiding behind various politically expedient excuses, Human Rights Watch said.

The government has also failed to deliver on its other pledges under the 2015 resolution. A government-commissioned task force led by independent activists carried out a nationwide consultation down to the grass-roots level and delivered a detailed report on the expectations of victims and affected communities. However, the report and its recommendations have languished and it is unclear whether the government will take them into account in either the Office of Missing Persons or the other transitional justice mechanisms.

Another key outstanding pledge, namely security sector reform including the repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), also remains unfulfilled. Sri Lanka has a long history of abuses by security forces, both during and after the civil war. The security forces have long used the PTA to detain suspects for years without charge, facilitating torture and other mistreatment. The government’s claims to be working on repealing and replacing the PTA with a rights-respecting law have yet to come to fruition.

Additionally, Sri Lanka’s state of emergency laws and regulations under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) create a legal framework for abuse by the security forces in the name of national security interests. The government recently resorted to emergency rule in response to anti-Muslim riots in the Kandy district. The government was largely successful in quelling the riots, arresting dozens of people suspected of instigating and participating in the violence, but the episode highlighted the lack of action in limiting the PSO’s broad powers. The government had pledged to review these regulations under Resolution 30/1 but they still permit the authorities to detain people for up to 14 days before being produced in court.

“A lack of justice and impunity for past abuses fuels current abuses in Sri Lanka,” Fisher said. “The government’s delay in undertaking promised reforms is a slap in the face to the victims and their families who have waited for years for answers. The government should stop hiding behind politically expedient excuses and act on its pledges.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

(Beirut) – With Russia’s continued support, the Syrian government is using unlawful tactics in its assault on Eastern Ghouta, including what appears to be the use of internationally banned weapons, Human Rights Watch said today. There are significant concerns about how government forces will treat residents in areas that come under its control, given past reports of reprisal executions.

The UN Security Council should urgently demand a United Nations monitoring team be granted immediate access to areas of Eastern Ghouta, now under government control. The team should document any crimes already committed; their presence may deter further violations. They should also visit sites to which the government is transferring Eastern Ghouta residents, as there are significant concerns about their treatment. If Russia again vetoes council action, the UN General Assembly should call for the immediate deployment of monitors.

“Instead of just watching while the Syrian-Russian military alliance annihilates Eastern Ghouta, the UN Security Council should act to put a stop to these unlawful attacks,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Russia again tries to protect the Syrian government by preventing council action, the General Assembly should demand monitors for Ghouta’s residents. For weeks these people endured starvation and bombardment and now they’re at risk of detention and even execution.”

Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Syria’s capital, Damascus, and home to an estimated 400,000 civilians, has been under attack by the Syrian-Russian military alliance since February 19. Syrian government forces have besieged Eastern Ghouta since 2013, severely restricting humanitarian aid in violation of the laws of war and preventing civilians from leaving. The alliance has bombarded Eastern Ghouta, failing to distinguish between civilian and military targets, hitting residential areas, hospitals, schools, and markets. According to the Ghouta United Relief Office, at least 1,699 residents have been killed since February 19.

On March 17, Human Rights Watch received a distress call from a member of the Syrian Civil Defense who told Human Rights Watch that he and 19 colleagues, five of whom are wounded, have been surrounded by government forces. According to him, in addition, there are 90 members of the Syrian Civil Defense and their relatives trapped in a second location, and they are all requesting safe passage to non-government-held areas. He said they fear retaliation, including summary execution, when the government takes the area.

After government forces retook Aleppo, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations received reports of reprisals and mass executions. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the Aleppo reports and has not yet documented reprisals against Eastern Ghouta residents who have come under government control, but it has previously reported mass executions of civilians by Syrian government forces in areas that have come under their control.

The UN General Assembly’s landmark decision in December 2016 to establish a quasi-special prosecutor mechanism for Syria was prompted by outrage at the way Russia prevented the council from taking action to protect civilians during the brutal Syrian-Russian operation to retake Aleppo.

On February 24, the Security Council passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, to allow in humanitarian aid and stop indiscriminate attacks on civilians, as required by international law. But the resolution was never fully implemented and the council has taken no action. Russia, which shares responsibility for violations committed by joint operations of its military alliance, has used its veto 11 times to shield Syria from accountability.

There is evidence that Syria’s operation with Russia in Eastern Ghouta involves the use of internationally banned weapons, including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and chemical weapons.

Human Rights Watch spoke to three witnesses who said that on March 7, 2018, the military alliance attacked residential areas in al-Hammouriyeh with ground-launched and air-dropped cluster munitions, among other munitions. According to local doctors and first responders, at least 20 residents died in the attack. Human Rights Watch examined photos of weapon remnants taken by a local media activist at one of the strike sites and identified the munition as an OTR-21 “Tochka” surface-to-surface, short-range tactical ballistic missile. A first responder told Human Rights Watch that there were several consecutive attacks with cluster munitions that day, including in al-Hammouriyeh, but that he could not recall precise details of their location because he had responded to many such attacks. He said the Syrian Civil Defense rescued more than 40 victims that day.

There is evidence that cluster munitions have been used in several attacks on Eastern Ghouta in March. Photographs shared by Syria Civil Defense of weapons remnants from a reported attack on March 11 show unexploded AO-2.5RT submunitions delivered in RBK-500 cluster bombs. A witness to an air attack on Hammouriyeh on March 7 gave Human Rights Watch a photograph of a AO-2.5RT submunition he said was left over from the attack. Human Rights Watch has documented Syrian government use of banned cluster munitions since 2012.

Syria Civil Defense reports that at about 11:48am on March 16, air-dropped incendiary munitions were used on the Eastern Ghouta residential area of Kafr Batna, killing at least 61 and wounding more than 200. It said that most victims were women and children who were burned alive. Photographs and video provided to Human Rights Watch by doctors, and publicly available, show at least 15 bodies with serious burns.

Photographs reported by the Syrian Civil Defense to have been taken immediately after the attack show multiple small fires burning brightly, indicating the possible use of ZAB submunitions which are delivered by Soviet or Russian-made RBK-500 bombs.

Since November 2012, Human Rights Watch has documented civilian harm from Syrian government use of air-dropped incendiary weapons. Attacks using air-delivered incendiary weapons in civilian areas are prohibited under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which Syria has not ratified.

Doctors in Eastern Ghouta told Human Rights Watch that they have treated symptoms of chlorine use from multiple attacks, including on February 25 in Chifouniya, March 7 in al-Hammouriyeh, and on March 11 in Arbin. Human Rights Watch has not independently corroborated the use of chlorine in these strikes but has previously documented use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria, including during the government’s operation to re-take Eastern Aleppo. Syria acceded to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.

As Syrian government forces entered the town of al-Hammouriyeh on March 14, there was a frenzied aerial bombing campaign, witnesses said. Among the casualties was Ahmad Hamdan, a media activist and resident of al-Hammouriyeh, reported to have been killed by an airstrike. One witness told Human Rights Watch that on March 14: “I was trying to escape with my family, and I saw an entire family get blown up in front of my very eyes. I immediately turned back and took my children back to the basement.”

As government forces retake territory in Eastern Ghouta, civilians have started to evacuate. On March 15, Syrian and Russian media livestreamed the evacuation of what was claimed to be 12,000 residents from al-Hammouriyeh crossing to government-held areas. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage which showed many people leaving. According to one witness and media reports, residents who have moved into areas under government control are being transported to sites around the enclave, including camps and schools, where they are being screened.

International law unequivocally prohibits summary and extrajudicial executions. In situations of armed conflict, combatants are legitimate targets as long as they take part in hostilities, but deliberately killing injured, surrendered, or captured soldiers (those hors de combat) would constitute a war crime. Any evacuation must be safe and voluntary, and protected by guarantees of security and non-reprisals. Civilians are entitled to protection whether they choose to leave or stay in an area, and parties to the conflict should not block civilians from leaving. Parties must allow impartial humanitarian relief reach civilians in need, regardless of whether the civilians have an option to leave.

The Syrian government should verifiably guarantee that the fundamental rights of individuals who were living under the control of non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta will be respected and protected, in particular when they are subject to security screenings and in detention. Authorities should ensure that the screening process is limited to a period of hours rather than days, and that anyone held longer is treated as a detainee and afforded all protections to which detainees are entitled under international law. No one should be presumed to be a combatant based on age or gender absent individualized evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The authorities should allow UN and other independent monitors access to all screening and detention centers.

“For every hour that a potential Russian veto prevents any decisive action by the UN Security Council, civilians on the ground in Eastern Ghouta are facing a real threat of reprisals,” said Fakih “The least the Security Council can do now is to deploy monitors to offer some protection for civilians. If the council can’t do so, the General Assembly should act as it did for Aleppo.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The United Nations logo is pictured in front of the United Nations Headquarters building during the 71st United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 22, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

It’s easy to assume that the United Nations Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) would support civil society groups and their work.

So imagine my shock when, as a journalist covering the UN in 2016, I saw the rough way the NGO Committee treated the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a highly regarded New York-based media freedom group applying for UN accreditation.

Astonishingly, most NGO Committee member countries were openly hostile to civil society applicants. Ultimately, the NGO Committee rejected CPJ’s application, a four-year process that CPJ head Joel Simon described as “Kafkaesque.”

The NGO Committee’s antipathy towards independent rights groups is hardly a surprise. Many of the 19 committee members are a rogues gallery of human rights violators: Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Greece, Guinea, India, Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, the US, Uruguay and Venezuela.

As governments worldwide shrink the space for civil society, it’s vital that the UN remain a forum where nongovernmental organizations can advocate for human rights and dignity, which the UN was created to protect. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said civil society is "a key element in solving global problems.”

A few months after the NGO Committee rejected CPJ, the US brought its case to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to which the NGO Committee reports. ECOSOC voted to overturn the decision.

CPJ’s story is not unique. In the coming months the US will bring two more applications to ECOSOC, one a group focusing on human rights in Iran and another on North Korea. The NGO Committee has repeatedly deferred them, in one case since 2011. Canada and Australia have also appealed rejections to ECOSOC.

Human Rights Watch has documented China’s use of its membership in ECOSOC and the NGO Committee to prevent groups critical of China from getting UN accreditation.

ECOSOC should ensure swift decisions on nongovernmental organization applications and impose term limits for committee members. CBC news reported that Russia has been on the NGO Committee since 1946, while China, Cuba and Sudan have been on it for over 20 years.

Elections for the NGO Committee are set for April. Governments that value the role of nongovernmental organizations in promoting respect for human rights should seek seats. It’s essential that the committee become a body that works with, not against, civil society.

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

Human Rights Watch welcomes the adoption of the outcome of the Universal Periodic Review of the Republic of Korea, which reflects recommendations to protect freedom of expression and assembly and the rights of vulnerable workers, women, foreigners, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups, including single parents. The outcome also addresses continued support of the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, including OHCHR work on human rights abuses in North Korea and the formulation and adoption of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law.

We note that the South Korean government accepted 121 such recommendations and urge it to fully implement them.

However, we are concerned that the South Korean government chose to “note” rather than to accept 97 recommendations for being “incompatible with the domestic law and conditions, some already in effect, and some noted because of social controversy or discrepancy with the position of the Government, which hinders their immediate adoption.” Rejected recommendations include calls for the Republic of Korea to abolish the death penalty, and the national security law, and to decriminalize defamation. The government also noted the recommendation to abolish the crime of abortion, which is at issue in a pending case in the Constitutional Court, and the recommendation to “repeal article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Code which criminalizes consensual sexual relations between people of the same sex in the army.” The government also noted all recommendations mentioning the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals.

We are concerned that although the South Korean government said it developed a plan on gender equality in 2015 which prohibited gender-based discrimination, it also developed a national standard on sex education that reinforces gender stereotypes and discriminatory norms and does not include sexual minorities or instruction on methods of contraception. Last November, in response to a petition to legalize abortion, the government pledged to “systematize education on contraception methods for youth.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Leila Swan's statement for Human Rights Watch at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on September 22, 2017.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Over the last several years, Ghana has taken positive steps in the field of mental health by establishing the Mental Health Authority, training mental health professionals, conducting awareness-raising on mental health, engaging with prayer camp leaders to prevent abusive practices and even releasing 16 people shackled in one prayer camp last year. However, based on a visit in October 2017 and meetings with senior government officials, some of the Authority’s most important mandates are still not implemented. For example, the visiting committees in charge of conducting monitoring of psychiatric hospitals and prayer camps, and the Mental Health Tribunal, mandated to receive complaints over abuse in mental health facilities, are not yet fully operational.

Despite important progress, conditions in psychiatric hospitals and prayer camps have not significantly improved since Human Rights Watch extensively documented a range of abuses in 2012. Psychiatric hospitals remain overcrowded and unsanitary. Persons with real or perceived psychosocial disabilities continue to live in psychiatric hospitals and prayer camps against their will and with little to no possibility of challenging their confinement.  

The Minister of Finance has not yet established the levy to fund mental health services, provided for in the Mental Health Act. Some provisions in the Mental Health Act presume the incapacity of persons with psychosocial disabilities, limiting their ability to make decisions about where they live and what treatment they receive, and undermining their rights under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We appreciate the many recommendations in the Working Group Report that address the ongoing human rights abuses against people with psychosocial disabilities. Further, we call on the government to:

  • Enforce the ban on chaining and other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment through effective monitoring of psychiatric facilities and prayer camps by setting up the Mental Health Review Tribunal and visiting committees. And to,
  • Invest in community mental health services to support people with psychosocial disabilities on the basis of their free and informed consent, as well as adequate support for housing, independent living, and job training; by specifically, setting up the levy to fund mental health services as a matter of priority.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

During its 2014 Universal Periodic Review, Argentina committed itself to examining a series of recommendations regarding women’s access to reproductive rights in the country. These included recommendations to take steps to ensure that no woman or girl is subject to criminal sanctions for abortion, enact legislation that would provide women legal access to a range of reproductive health services, and ensure that access to legal abortion is available on equal terms in all regions across the country.

Abortion is illegal in Argentina, except in cases of rape or when the life or health of the woman is at risk. But even in such cases, women and girls are sometimes subject to criminal prosecution for seeking abortions, and often have trouble accessing reproductive services, such as contraception and voluntary sterilization.

In this year’s State of the Union, President Mauricio Macri said that, despite his personal views on the matter, he supported Congress’ inclusion of abortion as an issue to be debated in 2018. Human Rights Watch welcomes this statement and considers it opens the door to a candid, long-overdue debate that could lead Argentina to take steps towards decriminalizing abortion and better protecting the rights of Argentine women and girls.

Key international human rights are at risk when abortion is criminalized, including the rights to life, health, nondiscrimination and equality, privacy, information, not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and to decide the number and spacing of children. Authoritative interpretations of treaties ratified by Argentina have long established that highly restrictive or criminal abortion laws violate the human rights of women and girls. In recent concluding observations, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, for example, has urged states to decriminalize abortion in all cases. In 2016, the CEDAW committee urged Argentina to legalize abortion not only in cases of rape and risk to the life or health of the pregnant woman but also other circumstances such as incest and when there is a risk of severe fetal impairment.

We respectfully urge the government of Argentina to accept the UPR recommendations on this matter and prioritize taking steps to fully implement them during the next UPR cycle.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am