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

(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution on June 23, 2017, directing the UN high commissioner for human rights to send a team of international experts to investigate alleged human rights violations and abuses in the central Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congolese government has agreed to cooperate, including by facilitating access. The final resolution incorporates language from proposals prepared by the African and European groups at the Council.

Still from a video posted on the internet on February 17, 2017 showing men in Congolese army uniforms fatally shooting at least 13 alleged militia members.

“The Human Rights Council-mandated international investigation brings hope of uncovering the truth about the horrific violence in the Kasai region since August, a step toward justice for thousands of victims,” said Laila Matar, UN advocate at Human Rights Watch. “The UN, the Human Rights Council, and above all the Congolese authorities now need to ensure unhindered access and all the support the team needs to independently produce a robust and credible report.”

Since large-scale violence broke out in the central Kasai region in August 2016, more than 3,300 people have been killed, according to a report by the Catholic Church. More than 1.3 million people have been displaced, and more than 600 schools have been attacked or destroyed. Two UN experts were murdered in March while investigating human rights abuses in the region.

The high commissioner is to update the Human Rights Council in March 2018 with the team’s participation and will submit a final report with the team’s findings next June.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over Congo, should consider investigating the crimes committed in the Kasai region and, evidence permitting, take steps to hold those most responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. In March, the prosecutor said she was “deeply concerned” about violence in the Kasais and that her office was carefully monitoring the situation. The High Commissioner told the Council on June 20 that he will “remain in touch” with the ICC regarding the situation in the Kasai region.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

John Fisher's statement for Human Rights Watch at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on June 14, 2017.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Roma children play in the Cesmin Lug Camp outside Trepca mine, on the outskirts of Mitrovica, June 22, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

The United Nations may be undermining its own efforts to promote human rights, at a time when rights are under threat worldwide.

That’s the view of a UN panel of experts, which investigated complaints of human rights violations by the UN mission in Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war – including widespread lead poisoning at UN-run camps. Displaced members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities lived there for more than a decade, and hundreds of them got sick, with many still suffering health consequences today.

The UN Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP), which conducted the investigation, recommended last year that the UN apologize and pay lead poisoning victims individual compensation.

However, last month UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ press office suggested a different – and watered-down – plan. It announced that the UN was creating a voluntary trust fund for community assistance projects to help “more broadly the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.” In other words, UN member states would choose whether to donate to the fund, which could be used to provide services that do not specifically target those affected by lead poisoning.

Victims’ lawyers, Roma rights organizations and UN accountability advocates criticized the UN’s decision. Human Rights Watch urged Guterres to follow the HRAP’s recommendations.

Now the former HRAP members have called on the UN to change course. In a June 8 letter to Guterres, they argued that the trust fund fails to provide compensation for violations of the right to life and the right to health. They also warned Guterres that “at a time of backlash against human rights it is vital that the UN be seen to live up to the promise of the [UN] Charter and the obligations it has promoted.” If the UN does not hold itself accountable, “the human rights system as a whole is weakened,” they wrote.

It is high time for the UN to make amends for the suffering inflicted on hundreds of families from Kosovo who were exposed to toxic lead in camps – and who the UN failed to relocate until well after the health effects became clear.

Guterres, who inherited this problem, has promised to build a culture of accountability. But the UN’s refusal to take responsibility here undermines its ability to press governments to remedy their own human rights abuses. 

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

Thank you Mr. President,

I wish to tell you a story about a 5-year-old girl who we’ll call “Marie” who lives in Kasai Central province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. On March 29, Marie was playing outside with her sister when they heard gunshots. Marie’s mother quickly told them to go inside and hide under the bed. After the gunshots stopped, they came out from under the bed.

Still from a video posted on the internet on February 17, 2017 showing men in Congolese army uniforms fatally shooting at least 13 alleged militia members.

Marie described what happened next: “Mama was sitting on her chair, feeding the baby, when we heard people knock down the door. [Soldiers] entered the house and [...] shot Mama. She cried out, and one of the soldiers insulted her, saying she was ‘trash.’ The bullet hit Mama in the chest, and the same bullet hit the baby she was holding in her arms. I started to shout and cry. My older sister tried to hide under the table, but they shot her too. Then I ran out of the house. But while I was fleeing, they shot me in the stomach.” Marie survived, but her mother and two siblings all died that day.

This is one of the many tragic stories our colleagues and Congolese partners have documented in the Kasais. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people have been killed since last August. Human rights teams have uncovered at least 42 mass graves, most of which are believed to be the work of the Congolese military. Some 1.3 million people have been displaced - more than anywhere else in the world during the same period. More than 600 schools have been attacked or destroyed, and more than 1.5 million children affected.

Members of the Congolese security forces have been directly responsible for numerous rights abuses. The Congolese government has a long record of meddling in politically sensitive court cases, and the justice system has so far failed to conduct credible investigations into alleged crimes.

How much longer will the Human Rights Council remain indifferent to this worsening situation?

The Congolese government has failed to meet its obligations to investigate the alleged abuses in the Kasais. The Council should urgently create and deploy an independent international investigation – a commission of inquiry or similar mechanism – to help ensure justice. If the Congolese government has nothing to hide, it shouldn’t object to such an investigation.

Marie and the other victims of violence in the Kasais depend on it.

Thank you.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Since the independent expert’s mandate was established in June 2011, the Ivorian government has made significant progress in recovering from over ten years of conflict and political insecurity, punctuated by serious human rights abuses. After emerging from the 2010-11 post-election crisis, the country has enjoyed more than six years of relative peace and stability, providing a platform for gradual improvement in the rule of law and economic and social rights.

A mutinying soldier at a checkpoint at the entrance to Bouake, Côte d’Ivoire. May 15, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
But this year’s January and May army mutinies, in which soldiers seized control of the country’s second largest city and neighborhoods in several other towns, exposed the fragility of Côte d’Ivoire’s peace and security and demonstrated the importance of continued monitoring of the country’s human rights situation.

The mutinies are symptomatic of longstanding failures to effectively reform the security sector and address a culture of impunity within the army. The government’s failure to hold soldiers accountable for grave crimes, including during the 2002-03 armed conflict and the 2010-11 post-election crisis, as well as ongoing criminality, checkpoint extortion and corruption, has contributed to an impression that the army is, “above the law.”

The mutinies, and the fear and insecurity they engendered, should underscore to the Ivorian government and its international partners the need to intensify efforts to professionalize the security forces and address impunity. This should include a strengthened military justice system and improved internal disciplinary mechanisms. It should also include a commitment to investigate and prosecute high-level commanders implicated in atrocities during the armed conflict and post-election crisis, sending a message that all members of the army are subject to the rule of law, no matter their status or political affiliation.

Human Rights Watch is grateful to the Independent Expert for his reporting since he began his mandate in 2014. Given the need for continued vigilance, and in view of the Council’s decision to terminate the mandate at this session, the proposed President's Statement should ensure continued monitoring by the OHCHR, including the presentation of a report by the High Commissioner, and should be subject to at least one open informal consultation.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This month marks 50 years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the “world’s longest-sustained military occupation in modern history,” according to the ICRC. Israel today controls these areas through systematic rights abuses: unlawful killings, forced displacement, abusive detention, unjustified restrictions on movement and the development of settlements and accompanying policies that institutionally discriminate against Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have also carried out serious violations, including arbitrary arrests and torture.

In light of the disturbing levels of non-implementation of UN recommendations by both Israel and Palestine, particularly in relation to accountability, noted in the High Commissioner’s report, the international community should take more active measures to hold parties to their obligations under international law. In particular, states should oppose settlements and refrain from actions that support settlements and their infrastructure, and all businesses, consistent with their human rights obligations, should end commercial activity in and with the settlements. To facilitate this, we urge the Office of the High Commissioner to establish the settlement business database without further delay. The OHCHR database would provide important guidance for identifying which businesses are operating in or with settlements and would be a useful tool in helping all states fulfill their responsibilities outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2334.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza also demands this body’s attention. Israel has kept Gaza mostly closed for the last decade—its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza affect nearly every aspect of everyday life, separating families, restricting access to medical care, electricity, water and educational and economic opportunities and perpetuating unemployment and poverty. As of last year, Gaza’s GDP per capita was 23 percent lower than in 1994. Seventy percent of Gaza’s 1.9 million population rely on humanitarian assistance. The international community should insist that Israel permit the free movement of people and goods to and from Gaza, subject to, at most, individualized security screenings and physical inspection.

The debate on the item number under which issues relating to the Occupied Palestinian Territories are addressed should not detract attention from the need to act on these pressing human rights concerns.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

As called for by 262 Congolese and 9 international NGOs ahead of this session, it is critical that the Council immediately launch a Commission of Inquiry into violations committed in Congo’s Kasai region, providing it with the independence, resources and expertise needed to document abuses, identify those responsible, and ensure justice for victims.

The Council should also address the serious human rights situations in Turkey and Ethiopia:

Turkey’s new political system has centralized enormous power in the president without the checks and balances fundamental to rule of law in a democracy. The referendum introducing it took place in a repressive climate under a state of emergency in place since the failed July 2016 coup. Emergency decrees resulted in the summary dismissal of more than 100,000 civil servants, of whom 50,000 are jailed pending trial. Today, Turkey is the world leader in jailing journalists – over 150 since last July – and charging them with terrorist offenses. They have also jailed leaders and members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish parliamentary opposition – and only yesterday a parliamentarian from the main opposition party – and repeatedly threatened to reintroduce the death penalty.

In Ethiopia, a state of emergency has been in place since October, following a year of protests where around 1000 were killed by security forces, tens of thousands detained, and key opposition figures charged under the antiterrorism law. Restrictions have resulted in a cessation of protests for now, providing a window of opportunity for the government, but there is little sign that they are moving to implement human rights reforms. Ethiopia has ignored repeated calls for international investigations, saying it can investigate itself, but recent investigations by the Human Rights Commission have not met even the most basic standards of impartiality, underlining the need for an international investigation.

Finally, we are deeply disappointed that, in our understanding, Greece was not willing to support an appropriately strong expression of concern at the deteriorating human rights situation in China, a situation that warrants serious attention by this Council, denying the EU the opportunity to address country concerns under item 4 with one voice, for the first time since the institution-building text was adopted ten years ago.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres shakes hands with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev during their meeting at the Ala-Archa state residence in Bishkek, June 11, 2017.

© UN Photo/Vyacheslav Oseledko

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ tour of five Central Asian countries, which ended Tuesday, appeared big on handshakes and praise but short on specifics about improving human rights problems.

In Kazakhstan, Guterres echoed the government’s own promotional pitch, naming the country a “pillar of stability” in the region, with no reference to the lack of free elections, the ban on street protests, and the jailing of activists and union leaders. His praise for Kyrgyzstan as a “pioneer of democracy” hit the wrong note, coming amid a crackdown on independent media and legal charges against outspoken nongovernmental organizations. And his warm words for those attending a meeting in Kazakhstan of the China-led Shanghai Co-operation Organisation undoubtedly pleased them.

Increasingly, media has reported on the perception that Guterres, in the job for just under half a year, is too often mum on human rights.

Central Asian leaders also pay close attention to what high-level visitors like Guterres focus on, also in public. Not only did Guterres fail to set clear expectations on human rights improvements across Central Asia, his praise for his largely authoritarian audience risks sending the message that trampling over human rights is fine.

It’s clear the UN secretary-general has complex priorities, and tackling human rights abuses is part of a larger strategy of engagement with difficult member states. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric recently explained Guterres’ overall strategy, saying the best way to support rights is by “ending conflict and countering the root causes including exclusion and inequality”.  But public messaging is vital too.

Guterres argued correctly at a regional conference in Turkmenistan on counterterrorism that actions against terror threats need to be consistent with countries’ “broader commitments to respect human rights and promote gender equality.” Yet he ignored heavy-handed measures by the region’s security forces that have stifled peaceful religious activity in the name of security.

Guterres didn’t meet civil society organizations even though, as Secretary-General, he has repeatedly spoken out about their importance. We hope that on future trips he will find time for human rights activists who are exposing the abuses the UN is committed to helping eradicate. They need to know he has their back.

In regions like Central Asia, the UN should state clearly that ending human rights abuses is an integral part of wider development and security strategies.

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

The challenges the government of Myanmar faces in ensuring that the human rights of everyone in the country are respected and protected means overcoming a long history of oppressive military rule. Yet the authorities continue to arrest and prosecute those who criticize the government and the military under the now-infamous section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act. The army and to a lesser extent ethnic armed groups still commit abuses during the fighting in Shan and Kachin States. And nearly 100,000 people remain in displaced persons camps spread across both states where the government restricts access to humanitarian aid.

In Rakhine State, nearly 120,000 primarily Rohingya Muslims remain trapped in abysmal conditions in camps in violation of their human rights. Rohingya in the northern part of the state endured widespread brutality from security forces after militant attacks on police outposts in October. Over 90,000 were displaced by the violence of whom over 70,000 fled to Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch and others documented numerous abuses that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded likely amounted to crimes against humanity.

Local officials’ capitulation to mob demands to shutter two Muslim schools in Yangon is the latest government failure to protect Myanmar’s religious minorities. Muslim communities that have had to resort to praying in the streets during the holy month of Ramadan face arrest and prosecution by local authorities.

In March, this Council took a strong stand against the violations in Rakhine State and elsewhere in Myanmar by adopting a resolution that established an international fact-finding mission into human rights violations by military and security forces and other abuses in the country.

We welcome the recent appointment of the fact-finding mission members, but the Burmese government has shown no willingness to cooperate. If they refuse to grant access to the mission, they will join the ranks of Burundi, Syria, and North Korea, all of which have rejected similar international investigations.

This fact-finding mission represents a crucial opportunity to address the systemic challenges that stand between the Myanmar of today and an open democratic society that so many have long sought to achieve. This opportunity should not be squandered. We urge Myanmar not to isolate itself by refusing access to the mission, and would ask the Special Rapporteur what Council members and observers can do to ensure the mission is granted unfettered access to all areas of concern and allowed to carry out its work freely.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Human Rights Watch welcomes the oral update of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

Since the Council last discussed Burundi, government repression and serious human rights abuses have continued unabated. Government security forces and members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as the Imbonerakure, continue to crack down on critics of Nkurunziza’s government. Hundreds of people have been killed, and many others tortured or forcibly disappeared since April 2015. Armed opposition groups have also attacked security forces and ruling party members, including police and Imbonerakure. More than 400,000 people have fled the country.

The Burundian government denies that state agents are responsible for grave human rights violations. The national justice system is heavily influenced by the ruling party and has been unable to deliver credible justice for these crimes. This impunity sends a clear message to the Imbonerakure. They know they can kill, rape and intimidate citizens and get away with it.

In early April, a video emerged on social media showing about 200 members of the Imbonerakure gathered in northern Burundi, singing songs encouraging  the rape of political opponents or their relatives.

Attempts by international and regional leaders to bring Burundi’s political factions together for talks continue to stall. Leaders should increase their efforts to bring all parties together in a credible dialogue process.

The country’s once vibrant independent media and nongovernmental organizations have been decimated. The Council should urge the Burundian authorities to allow national NGOs, journalists, and political parties to operate freely. Monitoring and documenting human rights abuses remains of the utmost importance.

Burundi stands in contempt of the Council resolution creating the COI. Enough is enough. Cooperation with Council mechanisms is not an optional extra, it is a condition of membership, and there should be consequences for persistent non-compliance. The situation in Burundi will not improve in a significant or lasting way until there is an end to the impunity that lies at the heart of the crisis.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Saif al-Islam, son of deposed strongman Muammar Gaddafi, sits behind bars during a court session in Zintan, Libya on May 2, 2013.

© 2013 AFP/Getty Images
(Beirut) – The authorities vying for legitimacy as Libya’s government should take all feasible steps to facilitate the surrender Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, a son of Muammar Gaddafi, to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said today. Independent international observers have not seen or heard from Gaddafi since June 2014, and do not know his current whereabouts.

The now disbanded Abu Baker al-Siddiq Brigade, which had been holding him in an unknown location in the western town of Zintan, said in an online statement on June 10, 2017, that it had released Saif al-Islam Gaddafi on June 9, citing an amnesty law passed by Libya’s parliament. Gaddafi is subject to an ICC arrest warrant to answer allegations of crimes against humanity in an investigation authorized by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970.

“The reported release of Gaddafi based on a flawed amnesty law does not change the fact that he is wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity,” said Richard Dicker, International Justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The Zintan brigade, which alleges that it released him, should urgently disclose his current whereabouts.”

The unanimous Security Council resolution requires the cooperation of Libyan authorities with any ICC investigation, including the surrender of suspects. Gaddafi is wanted by the ICC for his alleged role in attacks on civilians, including peaceful demonstrators, during the country’s 2011 uprising. On June 14, the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, issued a statement calling for Gaddafi’s immediate arrest and surrender.

The Abu Baker al-Siddiq Brigade had held Gaddafi in Zintan since capturing him during his attempted escape from the country in November 2011. The Brigade is allied with the Interim Government, one of three authorities vying for legitimacy in Libya, and the Libyan National Army forces in eastern Libya. In April 2016, the Interim Government ordered Gaddafi’s release based on the amnesty law. Human Rights Watch was unable to reach either the Zintan brigade or representatives of the Interim Government for comment.

The Brigade held Gaddafi incommunicado and subjected him to solitary confinement for long periods, which amounts to torture. In January 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed Gaddafi in an office at a base in Zintan. During the visit, Gaddafi said that he had not had access to a lawyer of his choosing and had been interrogated a number of times without legal counsel. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in November 2013 that Gaddafi’s detention was arbitrary.

An official from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by the Tripoli-based Presidency Council, told Human Rights Watch that the Presidency Council had no information on Gaddafi’s current whereabouts. A June 12 news report quoting the Interim Government’s deputy justice minister, stated that the ministry did not have “accurate and official information about the release of Gaddafi's son or not.” Separately, on June 11, the Zintan municipal and military councils condemned Gaddafi’s release.

Although it never had custody of him, Tripoli’s Court of Assize put Gaddafi on trial in Libya in March 2014, along with 36 other former Gaddafi officials and employees, on charges of serious crimes during the February 17 revolution that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. The authorities established a closed-circuit video link to enable Gaddafi to participate from Zintan, but he was only able to join for 4 of the 25 trial sessions, according to the UN. The court convicted and sentenced him to death in absentia on July 28, 2015. Al-Siddiq al-Sur, the chief prosecutor in the case, said that Gaddafi would have the right to a retrial once he was in the custody of the authorities in Tripoli.

The trial, which convicted 32 other Gaddafi-era officials, was undermined by serious due process violations including lack of meaningful legal representation for defendants, repeated violations of defendants’ right to communicate with their lawyers in confidence, and no opportunity for defendants to question prosecution witnesses in court. In February 2017, the UN issued a comprehensive report that concluded the criminal proceeding against Gaddafi and others failed to meet international fair trial standards. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also concluded in its November 2013 opinion that the gravity of the due process violations in Gaddafi’s case made it impossible to guarantee him a fair trial in Libya.

Following Gaddafi’s in absentia conviction in July 2015, Libya’s parliament passed a general amnesty law. The law stipulates that those who commit crimes of terrorism, rape, torture, corruption, and murder by race or ethnicity may not receive an amnesty. However, it fails to rule out amnesty for other serious human rights crimes, such as forced displacement, forced disappearances, and unlawful killings.

On June 11, 2017, the Tripoli-based acting General Prosecutor, Ibrahim Massoud, asserted that Gaddafi was wanted for a retrial and did not qualify for the amnesty, and that in any event, only judicial authorities were authorized to determine who met the criteria outlined in the amnesty law. Massoud also reiterated that Gaddafi was wanted by the ICC. Libyan law stipulates that if a defendant is convicted in absentia, a retrial is to take place once the defendant is apprehended.

The internationally-recognized Government of National Accord is struggling to assert control over the country’s institutions and territory. In western Libya, it competes for control and legitimacy with another self-proclaimed authority, the Government of National Salvation. Libya’s parliament supports a third authority, the Interim Government in the eastern town of al-Bayda, as well as the Libyan National Army forces under Khalifa Hiftar. The parliament has failed to confirm the GNA cabinet.

In May 2014, an ICC appeals chamber upheld an earlier decision rejecting Libya’s bid to prosecute Gaddafi domestically. The court held that Libya had not provided enough evidence to demonstrate that it was investigating the same case as the one before the ICC, a requirement under the ICC treaty for such challenges. The ICC also held that Libya was genuinely unable to carry out an investigation of Gaddafi.

Following Libya’s failure to surrender Gaddafi to The Hague, ICC judges held in December 2014 that Libya had failed to cooperate with the court and forwarded their finding to the UN Security Council for follow-up. Though the Security Council has a range of options to encourage Libyan cooperation including resolutions, sanctions, and presidential statements, it has not formally acted. However, individual Security Council members have consistently stressed Libya’s outstanding obligation to transfer Gaddafi to The Hague, including at the ICC prosecutor’s last Libya briefing to the Council in May.

Al-Hadba Corrections Facility in Tripoli, where Gaddafi-era officials were being held pending an appeal of their conviction, was overrun on May 26 by the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, an armed group under the command of Haitham al-Tajouri and allied with the GNA through the Interior Ministry. The Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade moved the detainees – including Abdullah Sanussi, the Gaddafi era intelligence chief, former prime minister and former head of foreign intelligence Abuzeid Dorda, and al-Saadi Gaddafi, a brother of Saif al-Islam –  to an undisclosed location, according to a family member of one of the detainees. But media reports said that Sanussi and other former Al-Hadba detainees were seen on June 12 in a Tripoli hotel controlled by al-Tajouri having a meal with family members and others.

In April 2017, the ICC unsealed a separate arrest warrant issued in 2013 for the former head of Muammar Gaddafi’s Internal Security Agency, Mohamed Khaled Al-Tuhamy, for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Libya between February-August 2011. His whereabouts remain unknown.

While the ICC has a mandate over crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011, the ICC prosecutor’s cases remain limited to officials from the former Gaddafi government. Human Rights Watch research in Libya since 2011 has shown rampant ongoing violations of international law, including mass long-term arbitrary detentions, torture, forced displacement, and unlawful killings. In the face of mounting atrocities, Human Rights Watch has called on the ICC prosecutor to urgently pursue an investigation into the ongoing crimes by all sides, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity.

In May, Bensouda said her office was examining the “feasibility” of opening an investigation into migrant-related crimes should the ICC’s jurisdictional requirements be met, and was committed to making the Libya situation a priority in 2017. Given the serious crimes committed in Libya and the challenges facing the authorities, the ICC’s mandate remains essential to ending impunity in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

United Nations Mission in Darfur peacekeepers stand guard in Shagra village, North Darfur, October 18, 2012. 

© 2012 Reuters

(New York) – A planned reduction of peacekeeping troops in Darfur risks leaving civilians without much-needed protection in the face of continued violence, Human Rights Watch said today.

The United Nations Security Council, which has to renew the mandate for the African Union/United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) before the end of June 2017, should ensure the mission continues to protect civilians from the full range of threats they face, including outside of the greater Jebel Marra area, where they intend to establish a presence.

When deciding how quickly to reduce the size of the force, the Security Council should leave flexibility for the mission to respond to evolving threats, and strengthen the mission’s human rights monitoring and reporting capacities.

“The planned cuts reflect a false narrative about Darfur’s war ending,” said Daniel Bekele, senior director for Africa advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “There is no reason to believe that government attacks on civilians and other abuses have ended since the same security forces remain in place; they have never been prosecuted for their crimes and can’t be relied on to protect civilians.”

Sudan’s forces have carried out fewer attacks on civilians in 2017, particularly since the United States announced it would lift economic sanctions on Sudan, but violence and abuses against civilians persist. The government routinely denies peacekeepers access on the ground and refuses to issue visas to mission personnel.

In late May and early June, Sudanese forces attacked villages in northern and eastern Darfur when rebels clashed with government forces, displacing thousands of people, credible sources reported. The AU-UN mission’s report for the first quarter of 2017 found an increase in human rights violations and abuses compared with the same period in 2016, and confirmed that Sudanese government restrictions seriously hamper the peacekeepers from protecting civilians.

The envisioned cuts are part of a strategic review process that began in 2014, amid Sudanese government demands that the mission come up with an exit strategy. A joint AU-UN strategic review of the mission proposed a reduction of nearly half the troops within a year, the closure of 11 bases, and the withdrawal of military forces from 7, citing improvements to the security situation. The changes would cut the military component’s physical presence from 36 team sites to 18.

The military component of the peacekeeping mission currently provides protection for civilian patrols more than 250 times a day and provides escorts to aid groups more than 20 times a week. The proposed reductions are likely to limit the ability to conduct patrols and escorts, and the areas where other aid groups can provide food, medical attention, and other essential aid.

The cuts would restrict traditional peacekeeping and emergency attention to the greater Jebel Marra area, despite clear signs that civilians in other parts of the region still need protection. In 2015 and 2016, Human Rights Watch and others documented large-scale attacks by the government’s Rapid Support Forces on hundreds of villages. The same forces reportedly fought rebels and attacked villages in May 2017.

About 2.7 million people remain displaced across Darfur, with over 1.6 million living in 60 camps, and hundreds of thousands as refugees in Chad. The Darfur region remains under a state of emergency. The peacekeepers’ own reporting describes how intercommunal conflicts and proliferation of militia groups and prevailing lawlessness all threaten civilians. The reduction of the peacekeepers’ footprint across Darfur will most likely limit needy communities’ access to life-saving aid as humanitarian groups won’t be able to reach areas in need without the protective presence of the peacekeeping forces, Human Rights Watch said.

The Security Council should ensure that any cuts are sequenced appropriately and still allow the peacekeepers to serve Darfur’s most vulnerable people. The Security Council should also make the mission’s human rights component a priority. The unit has a 43 percent vacancy rate and no staff in Khartoum since 2014, due to the government’s restrictions and refusal to grant visas.

The Security Council should urge the mission, which has not issued any public human rights reports in the last year and which has been accused of covering up abuses in the past, to resume public reporting so that council members have regular updates on the situation on the ground. It should also insist that the Sudanese government expedite the visas and access it has systematically denied the peacekeepers for years.

“It’s too early to talk about moving from peacekeeping to peacebuilding across Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of civilians confront the threat of violence every day,” Bekele said. “As the recent bloodshed and displacement of civilians shows, the UN needs to recognize that a temporary lull does not signal an end of the conflict or risk to civilians.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

UN investigators have confirmed the existence of at least 42 mass graves in the greater Kasai region since August 2016.


In mid-March, armed men walked Michael J. Sharp and Zaida Catalán through the savanna in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kasai region, sat them down and shot them. A low-resolution video captured the executions. Mr. Sharp, an American, and Ms. Catalán, a Swede, were United Nations sanctions monitors, charged with finding out who was responsible for human rights abuses and supporting armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

António Guterres, the United Nations’ secretary general, promised that his organization would “do everything possible to ensure that justice is done.” But more than two months have passed, and his words are beginning to ring hollow. Neither the United Nations nor the Swedish and American governments have done enough to get to the bottom of who killed Ms. Catalán and Mr. Sharp, who gave the orders and why. The four Congolese who had accompanied them — their interpreter Betu Tshintela; a motorbike driver, Isaac Kabuayi; and two unidentified motorbike drivers — are still missing.

Zaida Catalán

Instagram/Zaida Catalán

The killings of the United Nations investigators were exceptional on many levels. First, the personal: Both were young, remarkable individuals. Mr. Sharp was only 34, but he was the coordinator of the highly regarded group and had spent three years trekking through eastern Congo, persuading rebels to put down their weapons. Ms. Catalán, 36, was a passionate human rights and environmental activist who had been a youth leader of the Green Party in Sweden and spent years working for human rights and security reform in Afghanistan, Palestine and eastern Congo.

Then there was the historical significance. They were the first United Nations investigators monitoring sanctions to have been killed in the line of duty since the United Nations imposed the first sanctions on Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1966. Since then, hundreds of sanctions monitors have been deployed to report on everything from the Afghan Taliban to Iraq’s nuclear program to rebels in Sierra Leone.

Finally, and most tragically, their deaths are a reminder of how little attention is paid to the killings of hundreds of Congolese in the Kasai region since last August, which is what Mr. Sharp and Ms. Catalán were investigating. Human rights teams have uncovered at least 42 mass graves in the region, a majority of which are believed to be the work of the Congolese military. In the past 10 months, some 1.3 million people have been displaced by violence there — more than anywhere else in the world during the same period. More than 600 schools have been attacked or destroyed, and more than 1.5 million children are affected by the violence. But almost nothing has been done to provide justice for the victims.

The longer the United Nations waits, the harder any investigation will be as key evidence or witnesses could disappear. Reports have already emerged of soldiers digging up the mass graves to cover up the traces of their crimes.

At a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in March, the high commissioner for human rights called for an inquiry into the situation in the Kasai region. European countries agreed that such an inquiry was necessary, but efforts were stymied by Congo’s government and several African countries that said the Congolese justice system should be given a chance to conduct its own investigation into the violence.

Michael Sharp

© John Sharp

More than three months later, the Congolese government has failed to produce a credible investigation, and the United Nations human rights office in Congo has not had the access or cooperation needed to provide meaningful support. The high commissioner reiterated his call for an international investigation last week, and council members have another opportunity to establish an investigation during their current session.

As for Mr. Sharp and Ms. Catalán, the secretary general has appointed a board of inquiry, but it is primarily focused on whether United Nations security protocols were adequate and followed. It has neither the mandate nor the capacity to investigate who was responsible for the killings. The United States and Sweden have begun their own investigations, but they would most likely need to depend on Congolese government collaboration to interview witnesses, obtain phone records and visit the crime scene.

More needs to be done.

President Joseph Kabila, who was supposed to step down last year at the end of his second term, has shown little will to bring those responsible for the massacres of Congolese or the murders of the United Nations investigators to justice. Members of the security forces have been directly involved in the violence, and the Congolese government has a long record of meddling in sensitive judicial cases.

The impetus for justice will have to come from outside. Special United Nations investigations into the murders of Mr. Sharp and Ms. Catalán, as well as the broader violence in the Kasais, could engage in field investigations, gather evidence and identify suspects. Public reports with findings would be a basis to press for all those responsible for the killings and other abuses, regardless of position or rank, to face justice. Criminal investigations in the United States and Sweden or by the International Criminal Court could ultimately lead to arrests and prosecutions.

It is important to remember that on Congo, there are no excuses for international inaction. This is not Syria, where Russian support for the government and the threat of the Islamic State have created a geopolitical stalemate. Congo has few committed and powerful allies. In fact, a large part of its budget is supported by the very Western governments demanding accountability, and its army is backed up in the east by the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world. These paradoxes point to a critical, uncomfortable truth: In Congo, the biggest stumbling blocks can be apathy and a lack of political will. We can find out who killed Mr. Sharp and Ms. Catalán just as we can deliver justice for the hundreds of Congolese who have lost their lives in the Kasais. We just have to care enough.

Ida Sawyer is Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. Jason Stearns is director of the New York University-based Congo Research Group and a former coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on Congo.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am