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

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

© 2017 Reuters

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

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

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

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

John Fisher

Geneva Director

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This memorandum, submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) ahead of its upcoming review of Rwanda, highlights areas of concern Human Rights Watch hopes will inform the CAT’s consideration of the compliance of the government of Rwanda (“the government”) with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture). It contains information on persistent violations by Rwandan authorities and those empowered by them that violate the government’s obligations under the Convention against Torture, and it proposes specific recommendations that we hope to see the CAT formulate for the Rwandan government. Human Rights Watch looks to the CAT’s upcoming review to address these problems in depth.

We consider this review to be a key opportunity to bring the international attention and engagement we believe are crucial to ensure that detainees are protected from torture, ill-treatment and unlawful detention and those responsible for abuses are held to account.


Acts of torture in Rwanda (Articles 2 and 11)

Human Rights Watch has closely monitored human rights in Rwanda for over 20 years. Torture and ill-treatment have been persistent problems in Rwanda and have been perpetrated with near impunity.

Between 2010 and 2016, scores of people suspected of collaborating with “enemies” of the Rwandan government were detained unlawfully and tortured in military detention centers by Rwandan army soldiers and intelligence officers. Some of these people were held in unknown locations, including incommunicado, for prolonged periods and in inhuman conditions. Human Rights Watch issued a report on this in October 2017.[1]

Torture and illegal detention are designed to extract information from real or suspected members or sympathizers of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)—a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, some of whose members participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994—and, to a lesser extent, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group in exile, and the Forces démocratiques unifiées (FDU)-Inkingi, a banned opposition party.

In the cases documented by Human Rights Watch since 2010, most detainees were held near the capital, Kigali, or in northwestern Rwanda. Many were held at multiple locations during their detention, including at the premises of the Ministry of Defence (known as MINADEF), at Kami military camp, at Mukamira military camp, at a military base known as the “Gendarmerie,” at detention centers in Bigogwe, Mudende, and Tumba, and at private homes used as detention centers. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any Rwandan laws or statutes allowing for the military or other authorities to detain people at these locations.

Severe beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation and mock executions were used to force suspects to confess, or to incriminate others. Former detainees were held for up to nine months in extremely harsh and inhuman conditions, with insufficient food and water to meet their basic needs. Human Rights Watch received allegations that some detainees were killed, but we were unable to verify these reports.

In many cases, after several months of illegal detention—and often only after detainees had signed a statement under torture—the Rwandan authorities transferred them to official detention centers, including civilian prisons, and they were then charged and put on trial. The period of their detention in military centers was erased from the public record.


Use of confessions where allegations were obtained through torture (Article 15)

In many cases, defendants who had been unlawfully detained and tortured did not receive a fair trial. Many were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including life imprisonment, sometimes partly or entirely based on confessions or witness testimonies obtained under torture. Many are still in prison. Others were acquitted and released after lengthy pretrial detention.


Impunity of perpetrators of torture (Articles 12 and 13)

Despite being told not to reveal the abuses they faced in detention, many of the defendants told judges they had been illegally detained or tortured in military detention centers. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any judges ordering an investigation into such allegations.

Military and intelligence officials responsible for torture benefit from the general climate of impunity. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any disciplinary or judicial action against military or intelligence officials for illegal detention or torture in military centers.


Acts of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Rwanda (Article 16)

For at least the last twelve years, Rwandan authorities rounded up poor people and arbitrarily detained them in so-called “transit centers” (also called “rehabilitation centers”) across the country. The conditions in these centers were harsh and inhuman.

Homeless people, street vendors, street children, sex workers and other poor people, were taken off the streets and detained in these centers for prolonged periods. Detainees had inadequate food, water, and health care; suffer frequent beatings; and rarely leave their filthy, overcrowded rooms. None of them were formally charged with any criminal offense nor saw a prosecutor, judge, or lawyer before or during their detention. Human Rights Watch remains concerned about this lack of due process and consider these detentions unlawful. 

While these centers are officially meant to “rehabilitate” people through professional training or education, most of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed did not receive such training and were treated as prisoners.

There are at least 28 of these centers across Rwanda; however, since 2015, Human Rights Watch research focused on four locations: Gikondo (Kigali), Muhanga (Muhanga district), Mbazi (Huye district), and Mudende (Rubavu district).

Conditions at the different locations are similar. Police or other groups responsible for security rounded up the detainees and transported them to the centers. Most detainees were not allowed to leave their room, except to go to the toilet only twice a day. In most cases, food was no more than one cup of corn a day, and several former detainees complained about the lack of drinking water or the opportunity to wash.

Beatings were commonplace. In Gikondo and Muhanga, many interviewed said they were beaten by police or by other detainees, often with sticks. In Mudende the beatings were daily. Two adults detained in the center in Mbazi told Human Rights Watch in 2016 that they were beaten as soon as they arrived.

Human Rights Watch received information about several people who died during or just after their detention in Mudende, allegedly as a result of injuries from beatings, poor conditions, and lack of medical care. Human Rights Watch shared information about one such case with the Justice Ministry in 2016, which expressed willingness to thoroughly investigate the allegations. Human Rights Watch is not aware that any investigation was launched.

Children as young as 10 were detained in these centers, as well as infants who accompanied their detained mothers.

The existence of these centers reflects a government perception of certain groups of people as offenders or sources of nuisance, rather than victims or vulnerable people.

One month after Human Rights Watch published a report on the Gikondo transit center in 2015[2], the Kigali City Council adopted a new directive on the Kigali Rehabilitation Transit Center – the official name for the Gikondo transit center – laying out the center’s objectives and procedures. The directive addresses the lack of a legal framework for the center. It also lists the rights of those taken to the center, including the rights not to be subjected to corporal punishment, harassed, or discriminated against; access to hygiene and health care; and the right to visits.

However, rather than eliminating arbitrary detention, the directive seems to embed detention practices that could conflict with Rwanda’s obligations under international human rights law. Under the directive, the center is to receive people whose behavior disturbs public order and security – a broad and vague notion that could be applied to categories of people for whom arrest and detention are not an appropriate or lawful response. The directive also states that most detainees should leave after a maximum of 17 days, but it leaves open the possibility that some could be held indefinitely if they do not pass a “test.”

Furthermore, conditions inside Gikondo have not fundamentally changed since the directive was adopted. There has been some progress in terms of health and hygiene, and it appears that women are not beaten as regularly as before, but research conducted as recently as September 2017 suggests that conditions remain very poor and people are still arbitrarily detained.


The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture

In October, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT), a monitoring body of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, (ratified by Rwanda in 2015), conducted a state visit to Rwanda. They had to suspend their visit and leave sooner than planned, however, citing obstruction from the Rwandan government and fear of reprisals against interviewees. This was only the third time in ten years that the SPT has suspended a visit.[3]

A press release issued by the government after the SPT suspended its trip listed sites the SPT had visited, which included Kami and Gikondo.[4]


National Legal Standards

Rwanda’s constitution states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or physical abuse, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”[5] Torture is a crime under Rwanda’s 2012 penal code, which uses a definition largely inspired by the wording of the Convention against Torture. Torture is punishable with up to two years in prison, increased to seven when there are permanent consequences, or life imprisonment when torture results in the death of a victim. Maximum sentences are applied when the offender is a security service officer or a civil servant.[6]



Human Rights Watch encourages the CAT to use the upcoming review to ask the Rwandan government to:

  • Immediately cease arbitrary and unlawful detention and torture in military detention centers;
  • Commission an independent investigation into allegations of torture, enforced disappearances, unlawful and arbitrary detention and arrests, even without an official complaint by victims or their families, and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice;
  • Explain what steps it has already taken to investigate credible and well-documented allegations of torture and ill-treatment by military intelligence officials, the status of investigations, if any, and the findings;
  • Invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to conduct a fact-finding mission to examine the use of torture in military detention facilities;
  • Immediately close “transit centers” and ensure that anyone deprived of their liberty in these centers is detained only on grounds explicitly provided for in law and in accordance with full respect for due process rights;
  • Investigate cases of abuse and misconduct by the police at “transit centers” and prosecute officials responsible for the illegal detention and ill-treatment of detainees at these locations.



[1] “‘We Will Force You to Confess’: Torture and Unlawful Military Detention in Rwanda,” Human Rights Watch report, October 10, 2017,

[2] “‘Why Not Call This Place a Prison?’: Unlawful Detention and Ill Treatment in Rwanda’s Gikondo Transit Center,” Human Rights Watch report, September 24, 2015,

[3] United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, “Prevention of Torture: UN human rights body suspends Rwanda visit citing obstructions,” news release, (accessed November 3, 2017).

[4] Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Rwanda, “Statement on Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture Mission Termination”, (accessed November 3, 2017).

[5] Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda of 2003, revised in 2015, art. 14.

[6] Organic Law instituting the penal code, No. 01/2012/OL of 02/05/2012, arts. 176 and 177.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Mohammed Taher, 50, a Rohingya refugee holds his son Mohammed Shoaib, 7, outside a medical center at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on November 5, 2017. His son was shot in the chest before crossing the border from Burma in August. 

© 2017 Reuters/Adnan Abidi

(New York) – The Burmese military’s latest claim that its forces did not commit abuses during recent operations against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State is contrary to a large and growing body of evidence, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 13, 2017, a Burmese army “investigation team” issued a report finding that there were “no deaths of innocent people,” while at least 376 “terrorists” were killed during fighting.

The Burmese authorities’ failure to credibly and impartially investigate grave violations amounting to crimes against humanity demonstrates the need for the government to allow the United Nations-appointed fact-finding mission into the country to conduct independent investigations.

The military’s grave crimes committed with impunity are exactly what the International Criminal Court was created for.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

“The Burmese military’s absurd effort to absolve itself of mass atrocities underscores why an independent international investigation is needed to establish the facts and identify those responsible,” said Brad Adams. “The Burmese authorities have once again shown that they can’t and won’t credibly investigate themselves.”

Extensive witness accounts, satellite data, and other sources have shown that Burmese security forces committed widespread abuses during a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim population. The campaign began following August 25 attacks on government outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Government forces have responded with mass killings, rape, arbitrary detention, and arson since. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch found that more than 288 primarily Rohingya villages were either substantially or completely destroyed since late August.

The Burmese army investigation team, led by the defense services inspector general, Lt.-Gen. Aye Win, said that it interviewed 3,217 villagers from October 13 to November 7, collecting 804 witness accounts. Those interviewed reportedly included “Bengalis,” a derogatory term used to describe the Rohingya, whom the Burmese government considers to be foreigners from Bangladesh. There is no indication that the investigators conducted interviews in Bangladesh, where more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled following the beginning of security force operations.

The report says that the military acted in accordance with “orders and directives of superior bodies, especially the rules of engagement [ROE] in connection with the rights of self-defence and in discharging duties during the armed conflicts and anti-terrorist operations.” It denies allegations that security forces indiscriminately shot Rohingya villagers fleeing their homes, rape and other sexual and gender-based violence, looting, destruction of homes and mosques, and threats to drive Rohingya from their homes. It also denies that security forces deployed “heavy weapons” in its operations, such as grenades and “launchers.”

The military’s denials and conclusions stand in stark contrast to the findings of the UN, Human Rights Watch, other human rights organizations, and the international media. In September, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, described the situation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” A subsequent investigation found evidence of arson, extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and attacks on places of worship.

In late 2016, Burmese security forces committed widespread abuses against the Rohingya following an ARSA attack on three police outposts on October 9, 2016. A report issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on February 3, concluded that the attacks against the Rohingya “very likely” amounted to the commission of crimes against humanity. In response, in March the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing an independent international fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Burma, especially in Rakhine State. Since then, the Burmese government has not granted access to the country to the members of the commission.

The Burmese government has since established a number of separate commissions to investigate the violence that erupted in Rakhine State since October 9, none of which have been credible or impartial. A previous army-led investigation into allegations of abuses late last year by its forces led by the same general, Lt.-Gen. Aye Win, found only that two minor incidents of abuse occurred during security operations.

The UN Security Council should refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said. The Security Council and concerned governments individually should impose targeted economic sanctions and travel restrictions on military leaders implicated in the violence. UN member countries should also pursue processes at the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly for gathering criminal evidence to advance prosecutions in the ICC and other courts.

“The military’s grave crimes committed with impunity are exactly what the International Criminal Court was created for,” Adams said. “The UN Security Council should refer Burma to the ICC, but until that happens UN member states should ensure investigations take place and evidence is preserved for future criminal proceedings. If the Burmese military continues to operate with impunity, we are likely to see future rounds of violence against the Rohingya.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Today, the United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. Their discussion comes days after the Saudi-led coalition announced it would “temporarily” close all sea, land, and air entry into the country.

The Saudis claim that humanitarian aid will still be allowed into Yemen “in accordance with the Coalition’s updated procedures.” But UN humanitarian flights were put on hold on Monday. UN boats are not allowed to sail. All commercial flights remain grounded. 

This, in a country where more than 7 million people are on the brink of famine, the International Committee of the Red Cross expects a million will be suffering from cholera by year’s end and the health system has all but collapsed.

The truth is that the coalition’s existing restrictions on imports have already left Yemenis without the humanitarian assistance they desperately need. The coalition has delayed and diverted fuel tankers, closed a critical port, shut down the country’s main airport for more than a year, blocked rights groups from entering the country, and repeatedly interfered with UN flights carrying humanitarian workers. Adding more restrictive “updated procedures” just adds insult to injury.

The laws of war allow for military blockades but not when they have a disproportionate impact on the civilian population compared to any military advantage. And they cannot be intended to starve the population. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric warned yesterday that the Saudi-led blockade “has had a tremendously negative impact on a situation that is already catastrophic.”

Houthi-Saleh forces, who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country, have also violated the laws of war by blocking rather than facilitating humanitarian aid to civilians, adding significantly to the harm suffered by the civilian population.

So, what’s to be done? 

One solution is for the UN to respond to this unlawful obstructionism by leveraging the sanctions authority it already has. Security Council members should use today’s discussion to warn that sanctions can be imposed for interfering with the delivery of humanitarian assistance and to ask the UN’s Yemen Panel of Experts to provide a special update singling out the individuals responsible for blocking aid. Security Council resolution 2216 explicitly allows for people to be sanctioned if they “obstruct the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Yemen.”

It’s time to put that threat into action.

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

Your Excellency,

We, the undersigned human rights and civil society organizations, urge your government to vote in favor of Resolution A/C.3/72/L.41 on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, presented before the Third Committee in the framework of the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

By the end of Hassan Rouhani’s first term as president, expectations that his government would enact human rights reforms have not yet materialized. Hassan Rouhani’s recent re-election now reinforces the Iranian authorities’ responsibility to deliver on his electoral promises and take action on long-awaited human rights reforms. This resolution provides an opportunity for the international community to take stock of the positive steps taken recently by Iran, as well as to express serious concern at the many fundamental human rights issues that have remained unaddressed, and call on the Iranian government to abide by its international human rights obligations. Support for this resolution will reaffirm the international community’s core recommendations for how Iranian authorities can best meet their international human rights law obligations.

At this session of the UNGA, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Asma Jahangir, presented her report on a range of laws, policies and practices in the country that continue to seriously undermine the fundamental rights of the people of Iran, by violating the rights to life, freedom from torture, freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion or belief, the right to a fair trial as well as the rights to education, health and work. The Special Rapporteur also exposed systematic patterns of discrimination based on gender, religion or belief, and belonging to an ethnic or linguistic minority. The concerns outlined in this report are a stark reminder of the persistence of chronic human rights challenges that are deeply rooted in Iranian laws, policies, and practices.

Indeed, Iran remains amongst the top executioners in the world, and has executed at least 440 people since the start of 2017. In August this year, the parliament approved a long-awaited amendment to the country’s drug law and the Guardian Council subsequently approved it in October. Though the newly amended law has increased the quantity of drugs required to impose a mandatory death sentence, it still retains mandatory death sentences for a wide range of drug-related offenses, contrary to international law. Throughout 2017, the judiciary continued to execute drug offenders at a high rate despite parliamentarians’ call for a moratorium pending the amendment’s approval. While the amendment provides for retroactive applicability, it remains unclear how the authorities intend to commute the death sentences of those already on death row in accordance with the newly amended law.

The Iranian authorities have also continued to arbitrarily detain hundreds of individuals for the peaceful exercise of their rights. Among them are human rights defenders including minority activists, environmental rights activists, trade unionists, as well as journalists, political figures, online media workers arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and religion or belief.


Persecution and judicial harassment of media workers have included a ban on financial transactions in Iran for 152 current and former British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Persian Service journalists working abroad and the harassment of their family members residing in Iran.

In the past year, Iran has failed to seize opportunities to cooperate meaningfully with UN human rights mechanisms in order to address these challenges. The country has continued to deny independent monitoring from key human rights experts. Notwithstanding Iran's 2002 standing invitation to the United Nations’ Special Procedures, and despite their numerous and repeated requests to visit the country, none of the 10 thematic mandate-holders who have sent a visit request have accessed the country for the past 12 years. This is also the case of the two successive country rapporteurs. Additionally, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the Office of the High Commissioner’s “offers to begin a technical dialogue on the death penalty have been systematically overlooked, as have all other proposals of engagement.”[1] The recent High Level Political Forum was another missed opportunity as Iran eventually withdrew its participation in the Voluntary National Review of the state’s efforts to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.

Iran has largely failed to engage in substantive efforts to implement recommendations made to it by the treaty-bodies during recent reviews. As an example, since Iran participated in its review by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in January 2016, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran has reported that at least nine juvenile offenders have been executed in the country, despite the Committee and other UN bodies’ repeated condemnations of Iran’s continued practice of sentencing to death and executing juvenile offenders. Iran has also made little progress on recommendations it voluntarily adopted during the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review.

This lack of openness to and engagement with UN bodies is aggravated by the fact that the Iranian authorities have systematically worked to undermine the efforts of Iranian civil society to promote and protect human rights in Iran. Civil society monitoring, reporting and human rights advocacy are routinely stifled. The Iranian authorities have also engaged in intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders who have interacted with UN human rights mechanisms and international organizations.

The continued attention of the international community is required at this time if Iran is to end this pattern of abuse and noncooperation. By voting in favor of this resolution, the UN General Assembly will send a strong signal to the Iranian authorities that the international community looks to see genuine human rights improvements in the country in line with Iran’s treaty obligations and voluntary pledges.




Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation


All Human Rights for All in Iran


Amnesty International


Arseh Sevom


Article 18


Article 19




Association for the Human Rights of the Azerbaijani people in Iran (AHRAZ)


Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan of Iran-Geneva (KMMK-G)


Balochistan Human Rights Group


Center for Human Rights in Iran


Center for Supporters of Human Rights


CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation


Committee to Protect Journalists


Conectas Direitos Humanos


Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort (ECPM)


Freedom from Torture


Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRAI)


Human Rights Watch


Impact Iran


International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)


International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)


International Service for Human Rights


Iran Human Rights


Iran Human Rights Documentation Center


Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO)


Kurdistan Human Rights Network


Minority Rights Group International


OutRight Action International


Siamak Pourzand Foundation


Small Media


United for Iran


World Coalition Against the Death Penalty


World Organization Against Torture (OMCT)


[1] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Al-Hussain, opening statement to the 33d session of the UN Human Rights Council, 13 September 2016, available at

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A poison hazard danger sign is seen in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, Syria on April 5, 2017.

© 2017 Abdussamed Dagul/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As members of the UN Security Council debate this week about whether to renew their Syria chemical weapons investigation, they might want to read Wilfred Owen’s World War One poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” It describes an attack in which a man dies from exposure to a chemical agent on the battlefield, “stumbling and flound’ring like a man in fire:”

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.”

Owen’s gut-wrenching scene from a century ago is worth revisiting because the scene he so vividly depicted has been repeated over and over again in Syria for at least four years. Many of the victims have been civilians, including children. They have died from exposure to sarin, sulfur mustard and chlorine.

The horrors of chemical attacks in the First World War and the 1980s Iran-Iraq war are among the reasons countries have, since the 1920s, sought to end them. This culminated when the vast majority of countries came together and agreed to create the Chemical Weapons Convention, the global ban on these hideous weapons that came into force in 1997. 

In the wake of the August 2013 sarin attack on two Damascus suburbs that left hundreds of civilians dead, Russia and the United States set aside their differences and required Syria to dismantle its chemical stockpile and join the treaty. The Security Council unanimously endorsed the US-Russian plan, which brought Syria into the world’s most adhered-to weapons ban.

While the Syrian government handed over much of its chemical weapons stock for destruction, it did not stop using these weapons, as documented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is in charge of ensuring that the treaty is observed.

Security Council members need to restore the lost consensus that followed the terrible August 2013 attacks and renew the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, a team of investigators staffed by the UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Its job is to identify those responsible for chemical attacks in Syria that have continued since Syria joined the chemical weapons treaty so they can be held to account for their crimes.

Last month, Russia vetoed a proposed renewal of the Joint Investigative Mechanism  due to a dispute over whether the renewal vote would be held before its report was released on whether the Syrian government was responsible for an attack earlier this year.   The JIM has confirmed that the Syrian government was responsible for that attack, a sarin attack at Khan Sheikhoun in April. But in the same report it also confirmed that ISIS was responsible for a sulfur mustard attack in 2016. The group is investigating other attacks where the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed the presence of chemical agents.

It’s not too late to renew the Joint Investigative Mechanism before its mandate expires this month. Disliking its conclusions is no reason to shut it down. The Security Council and its members have an obligation to let it continue with its work and then to impose sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for the chemical attacks. 

The United Nations Security Council should make clear to those contemplating the use of chemical weapons that the international community can track them down and prosecute them.  Shuttering the JIM would send a message to combatants in Syria and elsewhere that getting away with chemical murder is easy. It would also send a terrible message that the Security Council is unwilling to enforce one of the world’s clearest norms prohibiting a method of warfare. Does the Security Council really want that on its conscience?

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

A North Korean soldier stands guard at the entrance of a women’s prison near Chongsong, North Korea, May 31, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

(Geneva) – The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women should press the North Korean government to stop security officials and prison guards from physically and sexually abusing female prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 8, 2017, the UN committee will meet with North Korean government officials during its 68th plenary session.

In April 2016, the North Korean government submitted a combined report, encompassing its required second, third, and fourth reports, that covers the period of 2002 to 2015. Since North Korea ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2001, this is only the second time the government has reported to the CEDAW committee.

In written replies to the committee, North Korea claims that “all legal proceedings are carried out in full compliance with the law.… The process of investigations and preliminary examinations is tape-recorded or video-taped, interrogation of the examinee is conducted with the attendance of a clerk and if need be, two observers, thus preventing investigators and preliminary examiners from committing abuse of power or violations of human rights. Prosecutors exercise strict supervision of detention rooms and reform institutions to ensure that no human rights violations are committed.”

However, Human Rights Watch has interviewed eight women who experienced psychological, physical, and sexual abuse while in detention during the reporting period covered by the CEDAW committee review. Abusers include police interrogators from the People’s Security Agency (PSA), State Security Department (SSD, or bowibu) agents, and prison guards in detention facilities.

“The CEDAW committee needs to ask the toughest questions about North Korea’s whitewashing of the treatment of women in prison,” said Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights. “There is clear evidence that women are being physically and sexually abused with impunity, no matter how vigorously Pyongyang denies this.”

The flexibility of sentences for many offenses – which women said typically range from approximately six months at a short-term forced labor camp (rodong danryeondae) to five or seven years at a long-term “ordinary crimes” prison camp (kyohwaso), with the latter option involving a lengthy investigation and highly stigmatizing public trial in their hometown – increases the vulnerability of female prisoners to sexual coercion and abuse.

North Korean women told Human Rights Watch of abuses including:

  • A female farmer, who escaped North Korea in 2015, told Human Rights Watch that an interrogator from the SSD raped her in a pretrial detention facility (kuryujang), where she had been sent after China forcibly returned her to North Korea in late 2012 following a prior attempt to escape.
  • Another former farmer, who was sent back from China to North Korea in the spring of 2010, said that the PSA agent in charge of questioning her in a police pretrial detention facility near Musan city, in North Hamgyong province, touched her body underneath her clothes, raped her several times, and asked her repeatedly about the sexual relations she had with the Chinese man to whom she was sold. She said: “My life was in his hands, so I did everything he wanted and told him everything he asked. How could I do anything else?” She added, “Everything we do in North Korea can be considered illegal, so everything can depend on the perception or attitude of who is looking into your life.”
  • Other women who had been prisoners said that male SSD agents or police officers questioned them alone in closed-door rooms without witnesses, and touched their faces and bodies, including their breasts and hips, over or sometimes inside their clothes. The women often felt unable to resist unwanted touching because interrogators largely determined the women’s future; the next steps in their criminal case depended on how the interrogators reported their crimes in their file.

Women who escaped the country after 2011 following abuse in detention as well as former high-ranking North Korean officials told Human Rights Watch that women detained by authorities are sometimes sexually abused or raped by officials, who engage in these abuses with impunity. The North Koreans interviewed said that when government officials sexually harass or assault women in custody, the women have no effective way to demand accountability or stop the abuse, despite North Korea’s written claims to the CEDAW committee that “complaints and petitions machinery is put in place in reform institutions,” and that such institutions “are required to receive complaints and petitions” and “settle them in a fair manner.” The interviewees also said that if such abuse becomes publicly known, the women – not the abuser – face social stigma and shame.

The voices of women who have suffered these grievous violations provide an alternative to the delusional picture put forward by the North Korean government.

Heather Barr

Senior Women’s Rights Researcher

Human Rights Watch’s interviews with women who have experienced abuse in prison are part of broader research into gender-based abuses against women in North Korea. In 27 interviews, North Koreans described the prevalence of stereotyped gender roles, and the widespread acceptance of acts of violence against women and girls in the family and wider society. Interviewees also said gender-based discrimination forces many women to engage in quasi-illegal market activities to sustain their families, putting them at heightened risk of arrest and detention, as well as sexual coercion by government officials.

Women often face criminal sanctions after being forcibly returned by China to North Korea. Two former inmates at Chongori prison camp (kyohwaso), who left North Korea after 2013, told Human Rights Watch that by 2010, up to 80 percent of the 1,000 female detainees in their prison were being held for illegally leaving North Korea. Many of the women in the prison were forcibly returned from China to North Korea, after being sold to Chinese men in forced marriage arrangements in order to bear children, or trafficked into the commercial sex industry.

The North Korean government denies that women forced to return to North Korea are subjected to punishment: “Between 2005 and 2016, there were a total of 6,473 women who returned after travelling abroad without valid travel permits. It was found upon their return that the majority of them illegally crossed the border because of economic difficulties they were suffering at that time or as victims of plots of human trafficking groups. Therefore, they were not subjected to any legal punishment and are now enjoying stabilized life thanks to the all-embracing, benevolent politics of the State.”

“Lack of access to the country and the difficulties of escaping North Korea limit the number of interviews Human Rights Watch can conduct, but our research and the voices of women who have suffered these grievous violations provide an alternative to the delusional picture put forward by the North Korean government,” Barr said.

Human Rights Watch’s findings also echo those of a 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea that found crimes against humanity were committed against persons detained in political prison camps (kwanliso) and ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso), as well as women who had been forcibly returned by the Chinese government. Such crimes include torture and physical abuse, sexual molestation and humiliation, rape, and forced abortions and infanticide of women who became pregnant while in China. The COI also found that “sexual and gender-based violence against women is prevalent throughout all areas of society.”

The CEDAW committee is a body of 23 independent experts that reviews the compliance of each state party with its obligations under the treaty. The CEDAW treaty defines discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

The convention is intended to provide the basis for realizing equality between women and men by ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life, as well as education, health, and employment. States parties agree to take all appropriate measures, including legislation and temporary special measures, so that women can enjoy all their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

All states parties are required to submit an initial report one year after ratifying the convention, and regular reports every four years to the committee on how they are complying with the requirements of the convention. The committee examines each report, which is followed by alternative report submissions by civil society and national human rights commissions, a pre-sessional working group meeting, drafting of a list of issues, a written response from the state party, a plenary session to discuss all information with the state party, and concluding observations addressing concerns and recommendations by the committee at the end of the session.

“Women face dire abuses in North Korea, often at the hands of government officials,” Barr said. “The UN should pressure North Korea to respect the rights of women and girls, and not let Pyongyang get away with refusing to even acknowledge that abuses are occurring.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Since August 25, 2017, when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group, attacked about 30 police outposts and a military camp in northern Rakhine State, Burmese security forces have carried out mass arson, killings, rape, and looting, destroying hundreds of villages and forcing more than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Thousands more Rohingya as well as ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and other non-Muslims have also been displaced in Rakhine State as a result of the violence.

There have also been numerous reports of abuses committed by ARSA militants. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify those accounts, in part because of the lack of access to northern Rakhine State.

Human Rights Watch has called on the United Nations Security Council and concerned countries to adopt an arms embargo and targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against Burmese military commanders implicated in abuses.

The following questions and answers address issues related to justice and accountability for these abuses.

What international crimes have been committed in Burma?

The UN, various governments, and nongovernmental human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have reported on serious abuses in northern Rakhine State against ethnic Rohingya. Human Rights Watch research, based on interviews with dozens of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and other accounts, and analysis of satellite imagery, have found that the abuses by Burmese security forces amount to crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.

Crimes against humanity are defined under international law as specified criminal acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” Burmese military attacks on the Rohingya have been both widespread and systematic. Statements by Burmese military and government officials have indicated an intent to attack this population. The crimes against humanity reported include: 1) forced population transfers and deportation, including by burning Rohingya villages, 2) murder, 3) rape and other sexual violence, and 4) persecution as defined by various international tribunals.

Was Burma’s government previously accused of international crimes against the Rohingya?

The UN and others found that in 2012 local authorities and ethnic Rakhine with the backing of security forces committed numerous serious abuses against the Rohingya population. Human Rights Watch found that these abuses amounted to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

In October 2016, Burma’s security forces carried out large-scale attacks against the Rohingya in Rakhine State as part of “clearance operations” in response to ARSA attacks on three police border posts. Human Rights Watch documented extrajudicial killings, the rape of women and girls, and the burning of at least 1,500 structures.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented many abuses in a “flash report” released on February 3, 2017, finding that these operations involved extrajudicial killing; enforced disappearance; torture and other ill-treatment, notably rape and other crimes of sexual violence; arbitrary arrests and detention; forced displacement; and destruction and looting of homes, food, and other property. The report concluded that the attacks against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity.

Can those responsible for abuses be brought to justice in Burma?

The Burmese security forces for decades have committed abuses with impunity, including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, and a range of war crimes in ethnic minority areas. The Burmese government has an obligation under international law to investigate and appropriately prosecute serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. However, under Burma’s constitution, the civilian government does not have authority over the military. Historically, courts in Burma have tried soldiers for human rights violations only infrequently and have never held soldiers to account for war crimes. Civilian courts have rarely had jurisdiction over soldiers implicated in criminal offenses. Further, the civilian government’s support both for the operations against the Rohingya and its discounting of alleged abuses make it extremely unlikely that civilian authorities will press for the credible investigation and prosecution of security personnel implicated in serious abuses.

Even before the most recent abuses, domestic investigations into alleged crimes committed by security forces in Rakhine State have lacked credibility, independence and rigor. Human Rights Watch and others have identified serious weaknesses with national inquiries led by Burma’s vice-president and the military, including poor investigation methodology, compromised leadership and bias by commissioners, a history of security force aversion to accountability, and a pattern of blanket denial of rights abuses.

The Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine, which published its report in August 2017, had been asked by the Burmese government to look at root causes of conflict in Rakhine State. However, it did not have a mandate to investigate human rights abuses or address questions of justice and accountability.

In sum, any credible path to justice for those responsible for serious crimes will likely need to take place outside of Burma.

What steps has the UN taken to address abuses in Burma?

In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution creating a Fact-Finding Mission for Burma because of credible and serious allegations of human rights abuses in late 2016. The Fact-Finding Mission has the mandate to “establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses, in Myanmar […] with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims, and requests the fact-finding mission to present to the Council.” While the Fact-Finding Mission will document violence and shed light on patterns of abuse, it does not have the mandate to investigate violations to a criminal standard, though its findings may help guide efforts to build case files that could later be used in prosecutions. 

Can the International Criminal Court address these crimes?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was created as a court of last resort to address grave crimes in violation of international law, such as crimes against humanity in Burma, where there is no possibility of national justice.

The ICC should have jurisdiction over the worst crimes committed in Burma. However, there are obstacles. The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes committed by states parties to its founding treaty, the Rome Statute, but Burma is not a member. Burma could submit itself to the ICC's jurisdiction, but the government's current posture makes such an event extremely unlikely.

UN member states may call on the Security Council to refer a situation to the ICC. But political dynamics in the Security Council – notably China’s and Russia’s likely objection to referring the situation in Burma to the court – make achieving an ICC referral challenging. In 2014, council members tried to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, but Russia and China vetoed the initiative. China, in particular, has had close political and economic relations with successive Burmese governments. Similarly, a number of states have called for the council to consider an ICC referral for North Korea following the recommendation of a UN-mandated commission of inquiry, which found that the North Korean authorities were responsible for crimes against humanity over decades. However, so far there has been no resolution put forward, at least in part reflecting the council’s political dynamics.

Still, China and Russia have in the past been moved to support ICC referral efforts. The Security Council has referred two situations to the ICC: Darfur, Sudan, in 2005, and Libya in 2011. On Darfur, Russia and China abstained. On the Libya referral, both voted in favor. On a Burma referral, the Security Council will need to provide political and financial support to the ICC.


Are there parallel paths to justice?

Potentially, yes. Growing frustration among UN member states with the Security Council’s paralysis on justice has encouraged governments to become more creative in making justice a reality for victims of grave international crimes. This has led to two notable developments, which may be relevant for Burma.

In late 2016, the UN General Assembly created the “Syria Mechanism” “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence” of grave human rights violations in Syria since March 2011 and prepare case files for eventual prosecution in national, regional, or international courts or tribunals that have jurisdiction to try these crimes.

On a similar track, in March 2017 the UN Human Rights Council strengthened the capacity of the Seoul field office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – created by the Human Rights Council in 2014 to continue documentation of abuses in North Korea – to include “experts in legal accountability” to assess “all information and testimonies with a view to developing possible strategies to be used in any future accountability process.” These processes can help bring victims closer to justice in seemingly intractable situations and could offer a blueprint for other situations in which the path to justice through the Security Council remains blocked.

Unlike the commissions of inquiry for Syria and North Korea, these bodies can investigate violations to a criminal standard and prepare case files for eventual prosecution. The evidence gathered could be used to support eventual justice efforts, including before the ICC and in universal jurisdiction cases in other countries. More broadly, the information they analyze can contribute to developing a common understanding of both the criminal network and the key individuals involved in its operation. This makes it less likely that they will escape justice, including by contributing to a domestic political environment that is more favorable to seeing those responsible held to account.

Are prosecutions and trials possible in other countries?

Crimes against humanity are crimes of universal jurisdiction, meaning they may be prosecuted before national courts in countries outside of Burma, even though neither the victim nor the alleged perpetrator is a national of that country.

For instance, with respect to crimes committed in Syria, there has been a recent increase in universal jurisdiction cases in Europe. Sweden and Germany have been leading efforts to prosecute people suspected of committing war crimes in Syria. They have completed six such cases. Both countries have had an influx of refugees, which has made it easier for investigators to access witnesses, victims, and material evidence. In September, Sweden was the first country to prosecute and convict someone affiliated with the Syrian army.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf River at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh November 1, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Two months into one of the most vicious ethnic cleansing campaigns in recent history, the United Nations Security Council is still missing in action. For all its pledges to protect civilians, engage in preventive diplomacy, and never again allow mass atrocities to take place without a rapid response, the council has been a passive bystander while hundreds of villages in Burma were burned to ashes, thousands killed, and more than half a million ethnic Rohingya Muslims fled for their lives.

The best the Security Council could muster has been some inconsequential comments to the press, a few private meetings, and an anticlimactic public briefing from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who, to his credit, rang the alarm bell, but elicited no immediate reaction from council members. For victims, this silence was deafening.

None of the obvious tools to end or mitigate mass atrocities have been used. No Security Council delegation sent to Burma; no resolution demanding an end to the military’s abuses; and no threat of targeted sanctions and an arms embargo.

The Security Council’s abysmal failure to address an all too predictable crisis, years in the making, will doubtless be the subject of much reflection. The UN leadership in Burma has itself been accused of suppressing voices pointing to the many early warning signs. The inevitable reckoning will echo past UN failures, whether in Bosnia, Rwanda or Sri Lanka.

One country, more than any other, bears responsibility for the Security Council’s shameful silence: China. The Chinese government has decided to stand by the Burmese military, even as Burmese security forces engage in crimes against humanity. China continues to object to the council even mentioning human rights concerns. But even with China’s veto power – and Russia largely supporting the Chinese stance – other countries can and should act.

The United Kingdom and France are finally leading an effort to pass a Security Council resolution. The UK, which has traditionally led on Burma in the Security Council, has been too cautious and slow in responding to the crisis. Permanent members the United States and France have been more proactive, but their efforts have lacked urgency. Japan, which is very influential, has not helped move negotiations and remains far too unwilling to challenge Burma.

Every Security Council member should recognize how history will judge their actions – or inaction.

With a draft resolution now on the table, it is not too late for the Security Council to make a difference. Countries appalled by mass atrocities and that want to be on the right side of history should not allow China and its allies on the council to water down the resolution so that it’s meaningless. The credibility of the Security Council, and the Rohingya community’s future, hang in the balance.

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

A poison hazard danger sign is seen in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, Syria on April 5, 2017.

© 2017 Abdussamed Dagul/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

(New York) – The United Nations Security Council and Chemical Weapons Convention member countries should take strong measures to ensure accountability after a UN-appointed inquiry found the Syrian government responsible for an April 2017 chemical attack that killed nearly 100 people, Human Rights Watch said today.

The inquiry, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism, said that it is “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017.” The inquiry also found that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) had used sulfur mustard, a blister agent, in the village of Umm Hawash on September 15 and 16, 2016.

“The Joint Investigative Mechanism report should end the deception and false theories that have been spread by the Syrian government,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria’s repeated use of chemical weapons poses a serious threat to the international ban against the use of chemical weapons. All countries have an interest in sending a strong signal that these atrocities will not be tolerated.”

The Security Council should move swiftly to ensure accountability by imposing sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for chemical attacks in Syria. Member countries should suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the Chemical Weapons Convention and formally bring Syria’s violation of the treaty to the attention of the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.

The Joint Investigative Mechanism report should end the deception and false theories that have been spread by the Syrian government. Syria’s repeated use of chemical weapons poses a serious threat to the international ban against the use of chemical weapons. All countries have an interest in sending a strong signal that these atrocities will not be tolerated.

Ole Solvang

Deputy emergencies director

On October 26, the Joint Investigative Mechanism submitted its report on the Khan Sheikhoun attack to the Security Council. Human Rights Watch reviewed a copy of the report.

This report is not the first time the Joint Investigative Mechanism has found that the Syrian government used chemical weapons. The inquiry previously found that government forces carried out chemical attacks on at least three occasions in 2014 and 2015. It also previously found that ISIS used chemical weapons in one case.

The ban on chemical weapons, with 192 member states, is the strongest weapons ban under international law. Human Rights Watch concluded in a report in May that the Syrian government’s widespread and systematic use of chemical weapons could amount to crimes against humanity.

In its report, the Joint Investigative Mechanism said that it was deeply disturbed by the continuing use of chemical weapons: “If such use, in spite of the prohibition by the international community, is not stopped now, a lack of consequences will surely encourage others to follow – not only in the Syrian Arab Republic but also elsewhere. This is the time to bring these acts to an end.”

The UN Security Council created the Joint Investigative Mechanism in August 2015 “to identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors, or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons…in the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Russia supported the resolution creating the Joint Investigative Mechanism, though earlier this week it vetoed a resolution that would have extended its mandate once it expires next month.

Security Council members, including Russia, should renew the inquiry’s mandate so that it can continue its investigations into other alleged chemical weapons attacks, Human Rights Watch said. In a July report, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said that a fact-finding mission was investigating the most credible allegations among 60 incidents of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.

In one of those cases, an attack near the town of al-Lataminah on March 30, five days before the Khan Sheikhoun attack, it has already confirmed the use of sarin, a deadly nerve agent. When its report is finalized, it will send the case to the Joint Investigative Mechanism so it can seek to identify who is responsible for the attack, if the mandate is renewed.

“Russia called for an independent investigation and here is the result,” Solvang said. “The question now is whether Russia will support accountability for the violation of these international norms or whether it will sacrifice principle to protect its Syrian ally.”

Quotes from Human Rights Watch’s report “Death by Chemicals”:

A young teacher who lived about 300 meters from the bakery told Human Rights Watch that she woke up from the sound of a loud explosion that blew the windows in her house open:

It felt like the air had weight. It got harder to breath; tears were running down our faces, and our eyes were burning. My son, who is one year and ten months, was running around. I couldn’t see because of the tears. He was screaming “mom, dad!”

Fatima Abdel-Latif al-Youssef, who lived about 100 meters west of bakery, said:

My cousin went to the balcony. She is 16, and she was choking. I tried to help her. We poured water on her but she passed out. My aunt passed out. At that point I also passed out, but I came to later. My uncle's wife, who lives in the same building, knocked on the door of the apartment. She said, “let me in, help me!” I tried to drag her in, but I couldn’t carry her because I am small and she was heavy. I left her on the floor by the door to go up to the second floor, to get my uncle to come and help me…[He] went down to help her, but he never came back.

Fatima and her cousin, who lived in the same home, said that seven people in the house died during the attack due to chemical exposure.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Anti-Balaka fighter in Gambo, Mboumou province, Central African Republic, on August 16, 2017. 

© 2017 Alexis Huguet
(Nairobi) – Violence threatening civilians has surged in recent months in the Central African Republic’s south-central and southeastern regions. To protect people at risk, the United Nations Security Council should renew the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission before it ends on November 15, 2017, and approve an October 18 request by Secretary-General António Guterres for 900 more troops.

United Nations peacekeepers have been instrumental in protecting civilians in many instances; the 15-member Council should give the peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, the additional resources the UN says it needs to protect civilians from attacks, including sexual abuse.

“The rate of civilian killings in the Central African Republic in 2017 has been alarming, and in many areas across the country civilians are desperate for protection,” said Lewis Mudge, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Security Council should give the mission the resources it needs to protect civilians, including sufficient troop numbers to respond to the resurgence of violence threatening civilians and to protect camps for displaced people.”

In August, September, and October, Human Rights Watch documented the killings by armed groups of at least 249 civilians since May, most in the south-central and southeastern parts of the country. The figure does not represent the total number of civilians killed nationwide, nor the many killings in remote and difficult to access areas.

Human Rights Watch also documented 25 cases of rape by armed groups in Basse-Kotto province in the same period, part of a pattern of systematic rape and sexual abuse of women and girls by armed groups over the past five years.

Human Rights Watch found in the cases it documented that if UN peacekeepers had a presence or could be deployed quickly, they were able to help stop attacks on civilians, or limit violence and save lives. In other cases, the absence of troops in the area left civilians unprotected. Ten peacekeepers have lost their lives during 2017 in attacks by armed groups in the country.

The current fighting has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes since May, bringing the total number of internally displaced people in the country, based on UN figures, to 600,300, and the total number of refugees to 518,200, the highest since mid-2014.

Most of the abuses Human Rights Watch documented were by factions of the Seleka rebels, including the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) and the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC), and by anti-balaka forces. Some killings were carried out by armed men who were not apparently part of either group.

Central African Republic: Areas where Human Rights Watch documented attacks by armed groups against civilians, May-October 2017.

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

In Basse-Kotto province Human Rights Watch documented the killing of 188 civilians between May and August, as result of attacks on civilians during hostilities between UPC and anti-balaka forces, as well as the 25 rapes. UN peacekeepers had no presence in the area when the attacks began, but arrived in the town of Alindao days after the hostilities began and were able to halt the attacks on civilians.

“They hit me and threw me on the ground,” said “Francine,” 34, of the UPC fighters. “Then they started to rape me. My [5-year-old] child was watching and wanted to help me. But they shot him in the side, and he died.”

On July 29, fighters from the MPC Seleka faction attacked a displacement camp in Batangafo and surrounding neighborhoods, killing at least 15 people, including three with disabilities, and burning approximately 230 homes and makeshift huts in the camp. One of the victims with disabilities, Gerard Namsoa, 56, could not flee when his home was set on fire. “He tried to crawl out, but he could not escape in time,” one of his relatives said.

On May 13, anti-balaka forces attacked the Muslim neighborhood of Tokoyo in Bangassou, Mboumou province. Nine survivors who fled to Bangui estimated that fighters killed at least 12 civilians, including the town’s imam, Mahamat Saleh, as they tried to seek safety in the mosque. Peacekeepers transported Muslims from the mosque to the Catholic Church, where they continue to provide protection. Approximately 1,500 Muslim civilians are there, according to UN sources and the residents who recently fled.

Civilians in the eastern region of the country had been spared from many targeted attacks in recent years, but they are now more vulnerable after the withdrawal of Ugandan army troops and United States military advisors in early 2017. Those forces had been deployed to the region for operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan-led armed group.

In Zemio, a town previously protected by Ugandan troops, at least 28 civilians have been killed since late June, including during an attack by a local armed group on the town on June 28 and another attack by the same group on a displacement camp in the town on August 17. Both attacks, carried out by local armed Muslims without a clear link to the Seleka, are thought to have been pre-emptive efforts due to the growing presence of anti-balaka in the area. A MINUSCA contingent has been stationed in the town since 2015, but it was unable to protect civilians during these attacks. Since the attacks, most town residents have fled to neighboring Congo.

MINUSCA first deployed to the Central African Republic in September 2014 and currently has 12,342 armed members. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter it is authorized to take all necessary means to protect the civilian population from threat of physical violence and to “implement a mission-wide civilian protection strategy.”

In areas most prone to violence, the UN should expand its patrols and, consistent with the mission’s mandate, use appropriate force to protect civilians under imminent threat, Human Rights Watch said. The Security Council should ensure the mission has all the resources it needs so it can protect civilians, including the 900 additional troops requested by the Secretary-General.

To address entrenched impunity for war crimes, the national government, the UN, and donors to the Central African Republic should increase their support for the Special Criminal Court (SCC) – a new judicial body with national and international judges and prosecutors that has a mandate to investigate and prosecute grave human rights violations in the country since 2003. The new court offers a chance to hold accountable commanders on all sides of the conflict who are responsible for war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

Ensuring that those responsible for abuses are brought to justice – regardless of rank or position – is critical to ending the cycles of violence and abuse in the Central African Republic.

Lewis Mudge

Senior Africa Researcher, Human Rights Watch

The UN mission should continue its technical and logistical support to the SCC to ensure that it can quickly become operational and carry out effective investigations and prosecutions. National and international bodies should also ensure ongoing support to strengthen the national judicial system.

“Ensuring that those responsible for abuses are brought to justice – regardless of rank or position – is critical to ending the cycles of violence and abuse in the Central African Republic,” Mudge said. “The government in Bangui, the UN, and the country’s donors should do what it takes to get the Special Criminal Court the resources, personnel, and technical support it needs.”


The Central African Republic’s current crisis began in late 2012, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozizé and seized power through a campaign of violence and terror. In response, anti-balaka groups were formed and began carrying out reprisal attacks on Muslim civilians in mid-2013. African Union and French forces pushed the Seleka rebels out of the capital, Bangui, in 2014.

After two years of an interim government, relatively peaceful elections were organized and Faustin-Archange Touadéra was sworn in as president in March 2016. Since then, violence and attacks against civilians have continued, with Seleka factions and anti-balaka groups still controlling large swathes of the country, especially in the eastern and central regions.

Numerous armed groups, including the UPC and MPC Seleka factions, signed a ceasefire agreement on June 19. Another ceasefire was signed on October 9, again between several armed groups, including the UPC, the MPC, and some anti-balaka groups.

Human Rights Watch documented recent killings in and around Alindao, Mobaye, and Zangba, Basse-Kotto province; in Batanagafo, Ouham province; in Bangassou, Mboumou province; and in Zemio, Haut-Mboumou province. In some cases, displacement camps and aid workers came under attack.

The Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC)

The UPC is controlled by Ali Darassa Mahamant, a former commander in the Chadian rebel group the Popular Front for Redress (Front populaire pour le redressement, FPR). Darassa joined the Seleka and officially created the UPC in September 2014. Until early 2017 he was based in Bambari, in Ouaka province. In February, MINUSCA asked Darassa to leave Bambari. He now has a base in Alindao.

The UPC has close links to ethnic Peuhl, and armed Peuhl often fought with the UPC during attacks.

The Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC)

Mahamat Al Khatim is the military commander of the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC), which controls territory across the center-north of the country. The group is often allied with another Seleka offshoot, The Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC). FPRC and MPC fighters have killed civilians in past attacks, such as when they razed a camp for displaced people in Kaga-Bandoro in October 2016, killing at least 37 civilians and wounding 57.

The groups have also fought the UPC over the past year and, at times, have allied themselves with anti-balaka fighters.

Alindao, Basse-Kotto Province

On May 9, 2017, UPC fighters and local Muslims attacked Alindao, focusing on the Paris-Congo and Banguiville neighborhoods. Residents told Human Rights Watch that they had seen anti-balaka in these areas, which most likely prompted the attacks. Survivors and witnesses said that the attackers searched door-to-door, looking for men to kill and, in some instances, women or girls to rape.

One survivor from Paris-Congo saw Seleka kill a member of her family, 65-year-old Edouard Ngakoto, after the fighters entered the neighborhood:

Edouard told us all to get under the bed. We heard the Seleka break our door down with axes and machetes. The attackers came inside and yelled for all the men to leave the house. Edouard left so they would not find me too. I watched as the Seleka pulled him outside and I heard him scream as they hit him with machetes…Then they chased me and some of my children out of the house and started to burn it… As we were running I saw his body. He had been hit in the head with a machete and they cut open his stomach with a knife.

On May 9, in Alindao, UPC fighters attacked a group of civilians, fatally shooting Bruno Bagaza, 48, a Red Cross volunteer who was wearing his uniform. They then hacked Bagaza’s 16-year-old nephew, Grace-à-Dieu , to death by machete. “The Seleka did not listen to the men as they pleaded for their lives,” a witness said. “They killed them and threw their bodies in the well.”

A relative of Bruno Bagaza said:

It was tense. Bruno put on his Red Cross emblem and we stayed at the house. The shooting got closer and soon people came and broke down the door. There were seven Peuhl Seleka, armed with Kalashnikovs and machetes. They yelled at Bruno, “You are an anti-balaka commander!” Bruno said that he was not, but one of them just shot him in the chest. They pulled his body outside and threw it down a well in the yard… The Peuhl then went back into the house and saw Grace-à-Dieu. They pulled him outside the house and killed him with machetes. He was yelling, “Forgive me! Forgive me! I do not even know what I have done!” One of the Seleka hitting him said, “Today we are going to finish all of you.” When he was dead they threw his body down the well.'

That same day, Seleka fighters shot and killed 75-year-old Dieudonne Kpambagnin in his home in the Paris-Congo neighborhood. His son said:

They were all in uniform and they had Kalashnikovs. They told my father to give him money, but he said he had none. They then told us to go into the house. They asked again for money and my father said, “I don’t have any, if you must, just shoot me.” A fighter saw a strongbox that has some coins for the church and he shook it. He said, “You said there was no money…what is this?” My father tried to explain it was for the church but one of the Seleka told him to get on his knees. Once he was on his knees he shot him in the head.

The UPC and Muslim civilians burned hundreds of homes in Banguiville and Paris-Congo. As of October 5, approximately 18,000 people were living in a displacement camp at the town’s Catholic parish.

Sexual Violence in Basse-Kotto

Survivors of sexual violence interviewed by Human Rights Watch said fighters assaulted them in their homes, during door-to-door raids, or as they fled the violence. Survivors said Seleka UPC fighters raped at least 30 other women and one man who were with them in their homes or as they fled. In several cases, the rapes were exacerbated by additional violence, including torture or killing of family members. Fighters raped some survivors in front of their children or other relatives.

“Irène,” 36, said she was outside her house in Alindao’s Banguiville neighborhood on May 9 when Seleka UPC forces appeared, pointed their guns at her, and demanded that her husband leave the house. He tried to flee but fighters shot him in the legs. When the couple’s 5-year-old daughter began crying the Seleka tied her to a post outside the house. Irène said that two of the fighters raped her, and she was made watch as their commander raped her husband, then killed him and their daughter:

When one took me by force, my husband said, “No, that’s a poor woman. Don’t do anything to her.” One came and told him to be quiet and that he should undress... Their commander said, “Me, I’m going to sleep with her husband.” When I lowered my head, he told me to lift my head and watch. When I cried out, “There’s no reason to hurt us both,” one of them said, “Shut up.” Then they put cloth over my mouth. Two came and took my two legs. They held them open. When the first one finished raping me, he called another one to bring a piece of clothing. He took [the clothing) and put it inside my vagina to clean out where the first man had been. I didn’t know what to do but scream. It hurt too much.

My daughter was crying. One said, “Why is the child crying like that?” I heard them shoot the child… I heard them fire and then it was silent. I didn’t hear her anymore.

They shot my husband in the head with two bullets… Before they raped me, I saw them start to torture him. They took a piece of wood and hit him with it. They took a military knife and cut his arms. They wrote their names on his arms. I started to cry and cry. 

“Mélanie,” 31, also said that Seleka UPC fighters raped her and killed her husband in Banguiville on May 9. Seleka fighters stormed their house, forced Mélanie’s husband to undress, bound him with rope, and took him away, she said. Seleka fighters then attacked her:

Two of them stopped me. They raped me. The other women who were with me, others [fighters] started to rape them. There were six others – they were also all raped… When [the fighters] finished, they told me to leave quickly. I fled to go to the fields. I was really suffering… I had wounds on my vagina – I couldn’t walk.

Mélanie found her husband’s corpse the next day with his throat cut and bullets in his stomach.

Mélanie said she did not get immediate health care because the hospital in town had been ransacked and was not functioning. When she did get care in Bangui, she tested HIV-positive, which she attributes to the rape, though Human Rights Watch cannot confirm her HIV status prior to the assault.

Most of the survivors of sexual violence interviewed said they did not get essential post-rape medical or mental health care until they reached Bangui, days or weeks later, and some had not received any post-rape care. Delays in access to care were often due to services not functioning, lack of knowledge about services, or lack of funds to pay for medical care and associated costs.

Alindao Displacement Camp

At least 32 people have been killed in and around Alindao since the May 9 fighting, many after they left the displacement camp in the town to look for firewood or food.

“Gervais,” 32, said two UPC fighters on a motorcycle stopped him and two friends on August 21 on the road to nearby Mingala while they were looking for food. The fighters accused the men of being thieves and took their money and phones. One of the fighters then took the two other men, Rodrigue Balipou, 36, and Oban Bakoumbou, 30, on foot to the nearest UPC base, while “Gervais” waited as the other fighter fixed the motorcycle. “I saw my two friends leave and then I heard shots,” Gervais said. “I was scared. They already took our money, so I knew the only reason they kept us was to kill us. I decided to run. As I did the Seleka fighter shot at me, but I was able to hide.” Gervais said he has not seen Balipou or Bakoumbou since and presumes they are dead.

The Alindao displacement camp in the Central African Republic houses about 18,000 people, most of whom fled their homes when UPC fighters attacked the town in May 2017. 

© 2017 Lewis Mudge/Human Rights Watch

The UPC’s political coordinator, Hassan Bouba, denied that UPC members carried out any abuses on or since May 9 and blamed anti-balaka forces for violence and attacks on civilians. Anti-balaka fighters had attacked the UPC and civilians in the Paris-Congo and Banguiville neighborhoods in the weeks before May 9, he said, but Human Rights Watch heard no reports of those incidents in Alindao. “We never attacked Paris-Congo or Banguiville,” Bouba told Human Rights Watch on September 8. “The anti-balaka have forced people from their homes and said they would kill them if they don’t go to the camp at the Catholic church. The anti-balaka burned the homes in Alindao.”

On October 10, President Touadera named Bouba a presidential adviser.

A MINUSCA contingent in Alindao has assisted people in retrieving their killed relatives’ bodies. However, the lack of security means people fear leaving the camp, rebuilding destroyed structures, or moving back to their neighborhoods.


On May 13, at about 5 a.m., anti-balaka fighters in Bangassou attacked the town’s Muslim neighborhood, Tokoyo. Nine residents interviewed in Bangui said they had heard rumors of an attack for several weeks.

“When the shooting started I took my kids and we ran to the mosque,” said one survivor, “Rachida,” 35. “I saw anti-balaka shooting at us. They had both homemade guns and Kalashnikovs.” The imam, Mahamat Saleh, was shot dead while fleeing, along with at least 11 other civilians, Rachida and several others said.

Red Cross volunteers digging a mass grave outside the Central Mosque in Bangassou, Mboumou province, Central African Republic, after the May 13 attack by anti-balaka, which killed 12 civilians. 

© 2017 Gerard Ouambou

An estimated 2,000 people spent three days at the town’s Central Mosque, surrounded by the anti-balaka and protected sporadically by MINUSCA forces, the residents said. Some Muslim men fought back with their own guns but the anti-balaka continued shooting at the mosque compound. People who sought shelter at the mosque said that the MINUSCA presence in the town and their use of force against the anti-balaka prevented a massacre.

On May 16, MINUSCA troops escorted the people from the mosque to the town’s catholic parish, where about 1,500 people continue to receive protection.

Around June 7, the anti-balaka destroyed the Central Mosque, residents said.


Zemio had been spared violence until this year, when Ugandan forces under the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the elimination of the LRA (RCI-LRA), an African Union (AU) mission, ended their mission and left the country. While the AU recently renewed its mandate, the military component of the RCI-LRA is over. MINUSCA maintains a small contingent in Zemio after the departure of the Ugandan forces.

As word spread of the mosque attack in Bangassou on May 13, tensions began to rise between the Muslim and the non-Muslim parts of town, multiple residents said. These tensions culminated in an attack on the non-Muslim neighborhoods by armed Muslim men on June 28 that left 12 civilians dead.

One Zemio resident said:

I was at work in the market that morning. I heard the shooting. I saw people running and then I saw people from the Muslim neighborhoods attacking. I closed my shop and ran home to get my family. I could see the attackers – they were dressed in a variety of clothing: some were in military clothes, others in civilian clothes. They were attacking people and pillaging and burning homes. They were shooting at any man they saw. I just kept running. I took my family into the surrounding woods to hide. That evening I went back into town. Our house and shop had been destroyed. I saw bodies in the street.

Another resident said he fled into the surrounding woods when the attack began, but returned to town later that day:

At around noon I went back into the town with some other men to see the damage. The attackers had moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. I saw the body parts of a man I know, Mbolix – he had been cut into pieces by a machete. We collected the parts and put them in a bag to bury it. I went to my grandmother’s house and she had been burned to death inside it. She was around 72-years-old. I was traumatized.

After the attack, much of the town’s population set up a displacement camp around the hospital. Tensions increased further as anti-balaka groups in the town began to fight with Muslims. On July 11, armed men entered the hospital and threatened Muslim patients, residents said. They shot at the patients and struck a baby in the head, killing her instantly, said non-governmental organizations and residents.

On August 17, armed Muslims attacked the displacement camp, killing at least seven civilians. “When the shots got close, it was chaos,” said one camp resident, “Thierry.” “People ran any way they could to get into the bush. I had to jump over bodies as I fled.” Another resident, “Alphonse,” said he was outside the camp when the attack started and ran back to look for his family. “The shooting was too much, so I hid,” he said. “I saw the anti-balaka in the camp, trying to tell the population to hide. Then the Muslims came and started shooting at the anti-balaka. But they did not care about who they aimed at, they just shot at any man they could see.”


Batangafo, in Ouham province, has also had a spike in attacks on civilians. On July 29, MPC fighters attacked the neighborhoods around the displacement camp in town, and then attacked the camp itself, burning more than 220 huts. The violence, which started as tit-for-tat fighting between the anti-balaka and MPC over stolen motorcycles, left at least 15 civilians dead.

One witness, a niece of 62-year-old Robert Kangabe, the chief of Zibobaga neighbourhood, said that her uncle had a physical disability and could not easily walk:

When the attackers came toward us, everyone ran. My uncle had to walk with a cane and could not run. I stayed with him because we thought the Seleka would not kill him, because he is old and cannot really move. The Seleka broke down the door, entered our house and searched for money. As they did, one of the fighters pulled my uncle up and walked him outside. My uncle said, “I am not anti-balaka, I can’t be, I am the chief of the quartier.” But they told him to walk away. He started to walk slowly and they shot him twice in the back.

Another resident of Batangafo, “Pierre,” ran to the displacement camp when the attack began. His brother, 57-year-old Jacob Goumalao, refused to run as he wanted to stay and protect his belongings. “I watched the Seleka approach Jacob’s house from about 200 meters away,” “Pierre” said. “They were Seleka from town, they were dressed in uniforms. I could see them asking Jacob for money, but he said he did not have any. So they shot him twice in the chest and searched him.”

“Edith,” 47, said she hid in a family compound in the Tarabanda neighborhood on the outskirts of the camp. When the Seleka began the attack on the displacement camp, about 50 people fled to the family compound, she said. They were hiding in a few buildings, mostly women and children, when the Seleka entered the compound and announced they were looking for men. A relative of Edith’s, 51-year-old Victor Ouingaïfonan, was hiding in one of the homes.

MPC fighters and armed Muslim civilians tried to kill “Emmanuel” with machetes in Batangafo, Ouham province, Central African Republic, on July 29, 2017. 

© 2017 Lewis Mudge/Human Rights Watch

“They pulled Victor from where he was hiding and took him outside,” Edith said. “One Seleka shot him in the chest. He was still breathing so another Seleka walked up and cut his throat. He did not even have time to beg for his life, they just shot him right away.” The Seleka then pulled Dieudonne Wabone, a 60-year-old blind man, outside. “They then found Dieudonne hiding among the women,” Edith said. “As he was pulled outside, he said, ‘My sons, look at me. I am old and blind. I was just on the way to the camp to look for food. Why kill me?’ The Seleka did not respond, they just shot him in the chest.”

“Emmanuel,” who said he survived a Seleka attack on July 29, said:

I was running from the camp to the hospital when I came across a group of Seleka. They were pillaging homes. There were six of them. When they saw me, they surrounded me and told me to empty my pockets. I gave them my phone and a little money I had on me. I tried to explain that I was not anti-balaka but they did not even try to understand. One then struck me in the head with a machete. I fell on my stomach and he struck me on my back. They started to stab my arms and kick me until I passed out. At some point they left, they must have thought I was dead.

The head of the MPC in Batangafo, Abdullahi Mamat, said that he had arrived in Batanganfo around August 23 and knew nothing of the attack. However, he said he was sent there after the previous commander, Yaya Moussa, “made mistakes.”

Sources told Human Rights Watch that the MINUSCA contingent, using force, protected civilians in the area on July 29 after several hours.

On September 1, a Human Rights Watch researcher noted the presence of armed anti-balaka in the Batangafo displacement camp. Residents of the camp said the anti-balaka routinely arbitrarily detain people and demand payment for their release.


On August 5, forces apparently from the UPC and Muslim civilians attacked and killed six volunteers working with the Red Cross in Gambo, Mboumou province. MINUSCA was not present in Gambo, but sent some troops to the area just after the killings.


On October 10, at least 20 Muslims were killed by self-defense groups – Christian and animist groups who are often aligned with anti-balaka – in Kembe, in Basse-Kotto. MINUSCA troops were sent to Kembe just after the attack. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana addresses a news conference after his report to the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 13, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

When you start from zero, as North Korea does on human rights, anything can seem like progress. So it’s noteworthy that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for North Korea said this week that the country is “selectively” engaging with the international community on concerns over its horrific rights record.

Tomas Ojea Quintana told the UN General Assembly that North Korea is engaging with some UN human rights mechanisms, even though it remains totally unwilling to have direct contact with the special rapporteur himself, or with the UN human rights office in Seoul. 

What do North Korea’s baby steps look like? First, there is the leadership’s ongoing engagement with UN human rights treaty bodies, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women. Then there’s the fact that North Korea invited Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of people with disabilities, to visit. Her trip marked the first time that North Korea permitted a UN Human Rights Council independent expert to conduct a country visit. These steps—small but still significant—show that Pyongyang is pursuing a charm offensive towards the UN.

But given the atrocities still unfolding inside North Korea—which a UN-mandated commission of inquiry said were likely crimes against humanity—grave concerns remain, and Quintana rightly said it’s vital that those responsible are held to account.

Soon, the EU and Japan will submit a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly that keeps the pressure on North Korea on human rights, while also developing strategies on how to hold accountable those who committed or ordered grave abuses. It is critical the international community continue to press on accountability, even if justice seems like a long way off. North Korea’s victims have suffered long enough, and those responsible should have to answer for their crimes.

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

Russia's deputy UN envoy, Vladimir Safronkov delivers remarks during the Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria at the United Nations Headquarters, in New York, US. April 7, 2017.

© Reuters/Stephanie Keith

(New York) – Russia should not block the extension of the inquiry into who is responsible for chemical weapons use in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today.

The mandate for the inquiry, called the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), will expire on November 17, 2017, even though it has yet to investigate several alleged chemical attacks in Syria. The United States has circulated a draft resolution at the UN Security Council to extend the mandate of the joint UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry for another year. But Russia has threatened to block the renewal, citing concerns over the inquiry’s upcoming report on one attack.

“Russia is basically holding the inquiry’s continued work hostage to its findings on a specific attack,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “There’s a word for that – blackmail.”

Thoroughly investigating these reports is crucial because they suggest a clear pattern of nerve agent use. A Russian veto would effectively prevent a credible investigation into who was responsible for this and other similar attacks.

The Joint Investigative Mechanism is expected to release on October 26 its report on an April 4 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, a town in northern Syria, which killed about 90 civilians. While investigations by the UN-mandated Syria Commission of Inquiry and Human Rights Watch have concluded that the evidence strongly indicate government responsibility for the attack, Russian officials have claimed that armed anti-government groups were most likely behind the attack.

In a briefing on October 13, the Russian ambassador to the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, Mikhail Ulyanov, said, based on a transcript posted on the website of Russia’s mission to the UN: “We are going to review [the Khan Sheikhoun report] in most carefully to determine the quality of its work moreover since in November the UNSC will have to determine whether it is appropriate to further extend the JIM mandate. [sic]”

A Russian veto of the mandate extension would be inconsistent with Russian officials’ past statements about the importance of investigating chemical weapons use, Human Rights Watch said. Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have on multiple occasions condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria and have insisted on a full and impartial investigation of the Khan Sheikhoun attack to find and punish those responsible.

 “The JIM’s October report is the result of the impartial investigation that Russia has called for,” Solvang said. “There is no point calling for an independent investigation if you are going to kill it for reaching conclusions you do not like.”

Russia supported the creation of the JIM and the extension of its mandate in the past, but has become increasingly critical of its work after the investigation attributed responsibility for three chemical attacks in 2014 and 2015 to the Syrian government.

Russia has twice used its veto to block Security Council resolutions related to chemical weapons use in Syria. In February 2017, Russia, together with China, vetoed a resolution imposing sanctions on Syria after the JIM found the Syrian government responsible for chemical attacks in 2014 and 2015. In April, Russia vetoed a resolution condemning the attack in Khan Sheikhoun and expressing the Security Council’s determination to hold those responsible for the attack accountable.

The Syrian government’s repeated and systematic use of chemical weapons poses an unprecedented threat to the global ban on chemical weapons, which, with 192 member states for the Chemical Weapons Convention, is the strongest ban on a weapon in international law. An official investigation to identify those responsible for such attacks serves as a crucial deterrent and a basis for Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and UN Security Council action to hold those responsible for attacks accountable and prevent future attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

Other countries should uphold the norm against the use of chemical weapons by urging Russia not to block the extension of this crucial investigation. As a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Russia should ensure that it is not facilitating violations by another party to the convention, namely Syria.

As of September 15, 2017, 114 countries have endorsed the Accountability Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Code of Conduct, pledging not to vote against a credible draft resolution aimed at preventing or ending serious crimes under international law, as well as supporting timely Security Council action to address such grave abuses. Further highlighting global momentum in favor of restraint in using a Security Council veto, 96 countries support a French and Mexican initiative calling for permanent Security Council members to voluntarily pledge not to use the veto in situations of mass atrocities.

The UN Security Council created the Joint Investigative Mechanism in August 2015 “to identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons…in the Syrian Arab Republic.” At the time, Russia said the establishment of the JIM would close the gap in identifying those responsible for the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria. An OPCW Fact-Finding Mission has the mandate to determine whether chemical weapons are used in Syria, but does not have the mandate to determine who used them.

In reports in August and October 2016, the JIM found the Syrian government responsible for the use of chemical weapons in three attacks and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) for one. The UN Security Council extended the mandate twice, in October 2016 and November 2016.

There is plenty more work for the JIM, Human Rights Watch said. In a July report, the OPCW said that the fact-finding mission was investigating the most credible allegations among 60 incidents of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. In one of those cases, an attack near the town of al-Lataminah on March 30, five days before the Khan Sheikhoun attack, it has already confirmed the use of sarin, a deadly nerve agent. When its report is finalized, it will send the case to the JIM so it can seek to identify who is responsible for the attack.

Human Rights Watch concluded in a report in May that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons had become widespread and systematic and could amount to crimes against humanity.

Russia has been much less critical of the JIM’s finding that ISIS used chemical weapons. For example, commenting on the August 2016 JIM report that found that both the Syrian government and ISIS had used chemical weapons, the Russian ambassador to the UN told reporters that he had “very serious questions” about the two cases the investigation attributed to the Syrian government, but he was pleased the report had confirmed that ISIS had used chemical weapons. The investigation appears to have applied the same methodology to investigate all of these incidents.

“If Russia blocks the renewal of this mandate, it is hard to see how those responsible for chemical attacks in Syria would not take that as a green light to continue using chemical weapons,” Solvang said. “Blocking the renewal mandate would send a message to other members of the Chemical Weapons Convention that ignoring the ban on these weapons is perfectly fine.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am