In Paris this week on an official visit, Azerbaijan’s autocratic President Ilham Aliyev has already scored one photo op. Anyone reading yesterday’s Azeri media could see dozens of photos of Aliyev posing with leaders of top French companies, including Airbus, Suez, and Credit Agricole.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (L) shakes hands with his French counterpart Francois Hollande as they visit a local French school under construction in Baku, May 11, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

Today, President Hollande will receive President Aliyev and host an official dinner at Palais de l’Elysee. Again, Parisian photo ops abound. But amid the flashing cameras, one has to wonder where Azerbaijan’s repression of critics and the jailing of opponents fits in the new relationship between Paris and Baku?

In the past few years, Azerbaijani authorities have aggressively gone after the country’s once vibrant civil society, jailing dozens of activists, journalists, and political opponents. It also adopted draconian legislation making it virtually impossible for independent non-governmental organizations to operate.

One year ago, as Azerbaijan’s economy started to suffer from falling oil prices, several of those detained on political grounds were released. That was an important first step, but hopes for progress were short-lived.

Many of those released face travel bans or obstacles to their activities. Dozens are still locked up on political grounds, including opposition activist Ilgar Mammadov, despite repeated calls by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe for his immediate release. And more activists have been thrown in jail. Recently, one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, Mehman Huseynov, was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly defaming the police, in response to his brave public denouncement of the police abuses he suffered.

When visiting Paris, Brussels, or other European capitals, President Aliyev hopes to get more business opportunities and investment in Azerbaijan. But he prefers to ignore that the people of Azerbaijan want human rights protections, transparency, and good governance. Those standing up for these values are routinely exposed to attacks and harassment.

Yet what more clear message that Azerbaijan’s crackdown cannot be ignored by potential investors than last week’s decision by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international coalition promoting better governance of resource-rich countries, to suspend Azerbaijan – precisely because of its actions against civil society.

President Hollande should reject a narrative that only finance and economy matter in Azerbaijan. Human rights should be as central to France’s foreign policy as other topics.

Hollande should publicly call for the release of Ilgar Mammadov and all those detained in retaliation for their activism and criticism. A failure to explicitly support human rights principles would be the worst message to those unjustly waiting behind bars.

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

Arvind Ganesan is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Business and Human Rights Division. He leads the organization’s work to expose human rights abuses linked to business and other economic activity, hold institutions accountable, and develop standards to prevent future abuses. This work has included research and advocacy on awide range of issues includingthe extractive industries; public and private security providers; international financial institutions; freedom of expression and information through the internet; labor rights; supply chain monitoring and due diligence regimes; corruption; sanctions; and predatory practices against the poor. Ganesan’s work has covered countries such as Angola, Azerbaijan, Burma, China, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, India, Indonesia, the United States, and Nigeria. His recent research has focused on predatory lending practices and governance issues on Native American reservations in the United States. He has written numerous reports, op-eds, and other articles and is widely cited by the media.

Ganesan has also worked to develop industry standards to ensure companies and other institutions respect human rights. He is a founder of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights for the oil, gas, and mining industries and is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) for the internet and telecommunications industries, where he also serves on the board. Ganesan has helped to develop standards for international financial institutions such as the World Bank, and regularly engages governments in an effort to develop mandatory rules or strengthen existing standards such as the Kimberley Process. He serves on the board of EGJustice, a nongovernmental organization that promotes good governance in Equatorial Guinea, and is a member of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)’s steering committee.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Ganesan worked as a medical researcher. He attended the University of Oklahoma.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Video

Video: Miners at Risk for Death and Injury in Georgia

The safety of workers in Georgia’s mines is at serious risk due to insufficient government regulation and resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety in jeopardy.

(Tbilisi) – The safety of workers in Georgia’s mines is at serious risk due to insufficient government regulation and resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety in jeopardy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 60-page report “‘No Year without Deaths’: A Decade of Deregulation Puts Georgian Miners at Risk” documents how weak labor protections and limited government oversight have allowed mining practices that undermine safety to flourish. Georgian labor law does not sufficiently regulate working hours, rest time, weekly breaks, and night work, and does not provide for government oversight of all labor conditions.

“Thousands of workers will be at heightened risk until Georgia regulates working hours and creates a system to inspect the broad impact of working conditions,” said Corina Ajder, Finberg fellow at Human Rights Watch. “It is entirely in Georgia’s power to protect workers and improve conditions for their health and safety.”

A worker stands inside one of the manganese tunnels. Chiatura City, Georgia.

© 2014 Daro Sulakauri

Manganese, a mineral used in steel production, is among Georgia’s top exports. The largest manganese producer, Georgian Manganese (GM), operates 11 mines and a processing plant, employing about 3,500 workers. Workers at GM mines told Human Rights Watch that because they work 12-hour shifts underground, including at night, for 15 straight days, they are often exhausted, and they have faced penalties for failure to make quotas.

Miners said that in a rush to meet quotas or without sufficient rest, workers had suffered deep cuts, were buried under rocks as roofs collapsed, lost limbs, suffered concussions, or narrowly avoided serious accidents.

During shifts, the company requires miners to live in a dormitory, in part to maximize production. GM maintains that the arrangement ensures that miners get the rest they need in living conditions that enhance safety. But this requirement unfairly interferes with their freedom of movement and their family and home lives.

“On the 9th or 10th night of work, everyone is exhausted, and a lot of workers fall asleep,” Merab, a manganese worker, said. He was injured on his 14th consecutive night underground. “Someone was sitting next to me and fell asleep and accidentally turned on a piece of equipment. I was cut, and my ribs were showing.”

Coal miners for Saknakhshiri LLC also cited working conditions that heighten risks to safety and labor rights. Miners said that a compensation system based on performance, or quantity of coal extracted, imposed production targets that could not be reached safely, encouraging workers to omit time-consuming safety measures.

Human Rights Watch cited other practices at odds with workers’ rights. These include long hours, inadequate breaks, and no weekly rest days, non-payment of overtime hours, failure to provide copies of written contracts, and unfair wage deductions.

Years of deregulation have left Georgian workers without adequate protection, Human Rights Watch found. In an effort to attract foreign investment, Georgia in 2006 abolished its Labor Inspectorate and dramatically reduced worker protections in the labor code. One study found that deaths at work soared by 74 percent, most of them in mining and construction. Since 2013, when a new government took power, Georgia has gradually introduced more labor protections, including establishing a labor inspectorate with a limited mandate in 2015.

In 2018, Georgia was shaken when 10 miners died in 2 accidents within months in Tkibuli, in western Georgia. Following calls from nongovernmental groups, in February 2019, parliament gave more powers to the Labor Inspectorate to address health and safety in the workplace. Even after these amendments, which go into effect in September, the Inspectorate has a limited mandate. It cannot address the broader impact of long working hours, production pressures, and difficult working conditions, for example.

Mining’s contribution to the Georgian economy and employment opportunities do not offset the serious labor rights concerns in the industry, Human Rights Watch said.

In responding to the findings, Georgian Manganese said that the “human and social rights of our employees, their health and safety have always been of utmost importance for our company.” It acknowledged that “we may have some shortcomings in our work” and said it was “ready to tackle them accordingly.” Saknakhshiri LLC said it had established a dedicated safety department in 2017 and that “labor safety has been always a priority in the company.”

Human Rights Watch is aware of ongoing efforts to address remaining gaps in the law, including with regard to overtime, days off, holidays, and minimum wages, and to strengthen the Labor Inspectorate. But no draft law has yet been introduced in parliament, and there is no clear timeline for these urgently needed reforms.

The Georgian government has made commitments in agreements with the United States and the European Union (EU) to strengthen its labor laws and oversight and enforcement systems. Georgia benefits from preferential tariffs on exports to the US, including manganese, provided that it respects and enforces internationally recognized labor rights. Manganese producers, including those employing miners Human Rights Watch interviewed, benefit directly.

Under the Association Agreement with the EU, Georgia pledged to bring its labor legislation in line with EU laws and take steps toward establishing a full Labor Inspectorate before 2020.

International human rights standards guarantee everyone the right to just and safe working conditions, reasonable limitations on work hours, fair pay, freedom of movement, and respect for and protection of family and private life. International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, many of which Georgia has not yet ratified, detail standards with respect to acceptable working conditions, as well as proper oversight and enforcement.

Georgia’s international partners, including the EU, and the US State Department have criticized Georgia’s labor inspectorate system. In April, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights said, after a visit to Georgia, that it was concerned that the regulatory framework remains inadequate since it “will not cover the whole spectrum of labor rights.”

The Georgian government should move ahead to reform its labor law to protect workers against long hours and pressures that put them at risk. The government should put in place a full-fledged, independent, and adequately staffed Labor Inspectorate with a mandate to inspect all working conditions in line with international standards.

Mining companies in Georgia should respect workers’ rights and the safety of their employees, and work with employees and their representatives to carry out reforms that will improve safety. Georgia’s trading partners, including the EU and the US, should insist on full respect for labor rights.

“Georgia’s gradual approach to re-regulation ignores the everyday risks miners are taking without adequate protection for their rights,” Ajder said. “The government should move quickly to correct the errors of the past.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The safety of workers in Georgia’s mines is at serious risk due to insufficient government regulation and resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety in jeopardy. Georgian labor law does not sufficiently regulate working hours, rest time, weekly breaks, and night work, and does not provide for government oversight of all labor conditions.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River following one of the worst coal-ash spills in US history into the river in Danville, Virginia, February 5, 2014.

© 2014 AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File

A proposed new rule by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could mean that coal ash pollution – a byproduct of burning coal for electricity – won’t be properly cleaned up and that even if it is, the public will foot the bill.

The EPA is required to assess whether industries need to set aside money for potential pollution cleanup. It is now proposing not to impose financial requirements on the electrical power industry, despite the enormous cost of cleaning up decades of coal ash pollution.

Human Rights Watch submitted a comment today opposing the agency’s proposal.

Coal ash, which contains a slew of toxic metals such as arsenic and lead, is one of the largest industrial waste streams in the United States. Prior to an EPA regulation in 2015, most US states let utilities dispose of coal ash in unlined pits that allow these metals to leach into groundwater. The pollution poses a significant health risk for the 115 million US citizens who rely on groundwater sources for drinking.

The extent of coal ash contamination was first revealed in March 2018, when a new federal regulation required power plants to test groundwater near coal ash ponds and publish the results. According to the advocacy group EarthJustice, 91 percent of the units reporting data had found groundwater contamination, many at levels far exceeding federal safety standards.

US law requires the EPA to assess the chance of an industry’s cleanup costs being passed onto the public, and if this seems likely, to require companies to set aside cleanup funds. But the agency’s assessment of the electric industry significantly underestimated the financial risks.

First, it only looked at cases where pollution was generated after 2015, when coal ash sites became regulated. For example, North Carolina ordered Duke Energy to clean up all its coal ash pollution in the state after 39,000 tons of toxic waste from coal ash contaminated the Dan River in 2014. The company estimates this will cost US$10 billion, and is now seeking to pass some of the cost on to consumers by hiking electricity prices.

Second, it didn’t adequately consider the financial precariousness of the coal-powered industry, as competition from natural gas has led dozens of these plants to recently shut down, with many more slated for closure.

If utilities that rely on coal aren’t forced to set aside funds, there are serious concerns they won’t have the resources to pay clean-up costs. The public will then be on the hook for the bill, or face continued health risks from the pollution.

Either way, the public loses.

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

To Whom It May Concern,

 

We are writing to urge the Environmental Protection Agency to reverse its position and mandate financial assurances for the electric power industry in the proposed rule regarding Financial Responsibility Requirements under Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) Section 108(b) for Facilities in the Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution Industry. Without federally mandated financial responsibility requirements there is substantial risk that clean-up efforts for widespread coal ash contamination will be underfunded and would pose a significant health risk for the 115 million U.S. citizens that rely on groundwater sources for drinking.

Human Rights Watch is an independent nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights abuses in 90 countries around the world, including the United States. A significant issue that Human Rights Watch monitors is compliance with the rights to safe water and a healthy environment.

CERCLA, also known as “Superfund,” was passed in 1980 to ensure that industries engaged in activities with high risk of pollution maintain sufficient financial resources to clean up any pollution they cause. As such, it mandates that the EPA direct industries to “establish and maintain evidence of financial responsibility consistent with the degree and duration of risk associated” with their activities. 

We are alarmed that the EPA is proposing a rule contrary to that intent that would not require any financial assurances from the electric power industry that companies have the funds to clean up pollution harmful to humans, despite the extensive evidence of coal ash pollution that has recently come to light and the recent or planned closure of dozens of coal-powered electric plants.[1] We are concerned that absent financial assurances, companies will be unable to adequately fund these clean-ups, leading either to prolonged public exposure to pollution or that companies will shift the liability for clean-up to taxpayers or consumers, including those impacted by that pollution.

Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal for energy, contains hazardous pollutants including arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, radium, and selenium.[2] These toxins have been shown to significantly increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, reproductive failure, stroke, and lasting brain damage in children.[3] In 2017, coal-fired plants generated over 110 million tons of coal ash, making the toxic substance one of the largest industrial waste streams in the United States.[4] Billions of tons of legacy coal ash waste remain in unlined pits and continue to contaminate groundwater, and the risk of catastrophic spills poses a serious threat to both ground and surface water.

In accordance with the 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals Rule, coal-fired electric utilities were required to publicly report groundwater monitoring data near coal ash storage sites for the first time on March 1, 2018. According to EarthJustice, an independent nonprofit organization that closely tracks coal ash pollution, 91 percent of reporting coal-fired plants have contaminated groundwater with toxic substances at levels exceeding federal safety standards.[5] The EPA itself has identified 24 sites where coal ash ponds or landfills have contaminated private wells.[6]

The case of North Carolina highlights both the health risks of coal ash pollution and the staggering cost of cleaning up legacy waste. In 2014, a drainage pipe under a Duke Energy coal ash pond erupted, spilling 39,000 tons of toxic waste into the Dan River. Hundreds of families continue to rely on bottled water due to water contamination.[7] Groundwater tests near another Duke-owned coal ash pit in the state showed contamination levels of manganese, an element that has been linked to neurological damage , at 7,100% higher than state groundwater standards.[8] On April 1, 2019, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) ordered Duke Energy to fully excavate its remaining coal ash pits in the state and move the toxic waste into lined landfills – a clean-up effort that the company estimates will bring the utility’s total cost of cleaning up coal ash to $10 billion.[9]

The Duke spill was the third largest in U.S. history, yet when the EPA analyzed coal ash pollution cases and their reliance on public funds for clean-up, the EPA excluded it, along with the vast majority of coal ash clean-up cases. It significantly weakened its analysis by only including pollution generated under the “modern regulatory framework,” meaning after the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule was enacted in 2015.[10] This questionable methodology ignored the costs of cleaning up decades of pollution that were only disclosed because of that rule. Even in the short timeframe the EPA considered, it found two cases where public funds were needed to pay for clean-ups, but it did not consider those to be sufficient to mandate financial assurances. 

This decision is especially surprising in light of the financial precariousness of the coal-powered electric industry and the potential liabilities this development might impose on taxpayers. Coal consumption is at its lowest point in four decades, as plants are opting to shift to natural gas as a cheaper alternative.[11] Power companies have announced plans to shutter dozens of coal-fired plants in the next five years.[12] Reflecting the industry’s financial insecurity, last month, the largest commercial insurer in the United States, Chubb, announced that it will stop insuring new coal-fired power plants and place restrictions on coverage for electric companies generating more than 30 percent of energy from coal.[13] But just as the EPA underestimated potential clean-up costs by unduly narrowing its timeframe for assessing previous contamination cases, it underestimated the financial risks specific to coal-fired plants by assessing the financial health of the electric-power industry as a whole to the detriment of taxpayers and public health. 

The subsequent determination that no financial assurances are necessary raises serious concerns that companies will not ensure that they have sufficient financial resources to clean up their pollution, in some cases that have been generated for decades. This approach will likely mean that necessary clean-ups will be delayed, incomplete, or never carried out in the first place. It also increases the chance that the cost of cleaning up coal ash will fall to taxpayers and consumers. The EPA already identified two cases in the past four years where the public funded coal ash clean-ups, and Duke Energy has already received approval to pass on $546 million of its clean-up costs onto its consumers in North Carolina.[14] These taxpayer-subsidized clean-ups could largely be avoided if the EPA required companies to ensure they could pay for potential clean-up. This approach would also eliminate the double penalty people impacted by pollution would otherwise pay: first the cost to their health and second the fact that their taxes would have to pay to clean up that damage. 

The “Polluter Pays” principle is enshrined in US law under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and CERCLA. It represents a reliable, pragmatic way of ensuring that harms to the environment and human health are remedied promptly and effectively. It is also a key environmental principle. Principle 16 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, endorsed by 178 countries including the United States, called on national authorities to internalize environmental costs “taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution.” 

States have a duty to ensure that businesses do not contribute to human rights abuses, which include endangering public health with toxic pollution, and that the harmful impacts of their activities are effectively remedied. Businesses have a separate responsibility to provide for or cooperate in the remediation of any adverse human rights impacts they cause or contribute to, through legitimate processes. 

Ensuring that polluters pay is important not only to increase the likelihood of effective clean-ups but also to disincentivize pollution in the first place. Shifting the cost to the public or consumers allows companies to reap the financial rewards of lax environmental practices and further burdens those who already bear the risks of the pollution. 

In light of the above, Human Rights Watch believes that the EPA’s proposal not to mandate financial responsibility requirements for the electric power industry risks endangering public health and allowing polluting businesses to escape accountability. It would also likely transfer significant costs to U.S. taxpayers.  

We respectfully urge the EPA to reverse its proposed rule and require financial assurances for the electric power generation, transmission, and distribution industry. 

Thank you for the opportunity to share our views.

 

Sincerely,

 

Arvind Ganesan

Director

Business and Human Rights


[1] “50 U.S. coal power plants shut under Trump,” Agence France-Presse, May 9, 2019, https://phys.org/news/2019-05-coal-power-trump.html; “The Cleanup Toolkit: Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination,” EarthJustice, July 23, 2019, https://earthjustice.org/features/map-coal-ash-contaminated-sites.

[2] Environmental Protection Agency, “Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals From Electric Utilities,” Federal Register, April 17, 2015, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2015/04/17/2015-00257/hazardou....

[3] Environmental Protection Agency, “Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Waste (Draft),” April 2010. See also Physicians for Social Responsibility and EarthJustice, Coal Ash the Toxic Threat to Our Health and Environment (2010) and Clara G. Sears and Kristina Zierold, “Health of Children Living Near Coal Ash,” Global Pediatric Health, vol. 4: 1-8, 2017.

[4] American Coal Ash Association, 2017 Coal Combustion Product (CCP) Production and Use Survey Report (Farmington Hills: 2017), https://www.acaa-usa.org/Portals/9/Files/PDFs/2017-Survey-Results.pdf.

[6] ibid.

[7] Bruce Henderson, “They’ve Used Bottled Water to Drink, Cook, Bathe for 1,000 Days. When Will Taps Flow Again?” The Charlotte Observer, January 11, 2018, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article194196774.html.

[8] Sue Sturgis, “Is a Duke Energy Power Plant Making Nearby Residents Sick?” Facing South, May 1, 2014, https://www.facingsouth.org/2014/05/is-a-duke-energy-power-plant-making-... World Health Organization, “Manganese in Drinking-Water: Background document for the development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality,” 2011, p. 13, http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/dwq/chemicals/manganese.pdf (accessed October 19, 2018).

[9] “NCDEQ Orders Duke Energy to Excavate All Remaining Coal Ash Impoundments,” North Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, April 1, 2019, https://www.myncma.org/ncdeq-orders-duke-energy-to-excavate-all-remainin....

[10] Environmental Protection Agency, Financial Responsibility Requirements Under CERCLA Section 108(b) for Facilities in the Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution Industry [RIN 2050-Ag93; FRL-XXXX-XX-OLEM] Pre-Publication Document, July 2, 2019, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-07/documents/pre-publica....

[11] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “U.S. coal consumption in 2018 expected to be the lowest in 39 years,” December 28, 2018, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=37817.

[12] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “More U.S. coal-fired power plants are decommissioning as retirements continue,” July 26, 2018, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=40212

[13] Jonathan Boyd, “Coal dinged by insurance refusals,” Investment Europe, July 1, 2019, https://www.investmenteurope.net/news/4002909/coal-dinged-insurance-refu....

[14] Bruce Henderson, “NC Orders Duke Energy to Dig Up Millions of Tons of Coal Ash at Six Power Plants,” The Charlotte Observer, April 1, 2019, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/politics-government/article228681....

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 Facebook's logo is seen on an android mobile phone.

© 2018 Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The $5 billion fine imposed last month by the U.S. government on Facebook for mishandling users’ personal information will do little to rein in the company’s exploitative data collection regime and manipulative practices. For a company that recorded $22 billion in profits in 2018, it promises to do little to guarantee a change in behavior.

In addition to the fine, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered changes to Facebook’s privacy practices. But it declined to hold the company’s leaders accountable for repeated failures to comply with past orders, raising doubts about whether the latest order will be any different. 

The settlement also releases Facebook from liability for a wide range of privacy and consumer protection claims, letting the company off the hook for data collection practices that may have unlawfully targeted children and patients, among other possible violations. 

From 2012 to 2015, Facebook appears to have deployed elaborate design tricks known as “dark patterns” to bury key privacy settings in hard-to-reach corners of its website and mobile interface. The social media giant engaged in a pattern of deceptive conduct that misled users about who would be seeing their data, for how long, and for what purposes. 

The deception worked: the FTC found that a “very low percentage” of users activated these settings. This privacy loophole is how Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British political consulting firm, was able to harvest Facebook data to target voters during the U.S. 2016 elections. 

Facebook’s deception did not stop there. According to the FTC, the company also encouraged users to supply their phone numbers for security purposes without disclosing that they would be used for advertising, and misled millions of people about a facial recognition feature on their accounts that worked by default. The FTC states that Facebook’s privacy lapses were so rampant, and its recordkeeping so poor, that it struggled to comprehend the “full scale of unauthorized collection, use, and disclosure of consumer information.”

These practices raise serious privacy concerns, of course, but also strike at the right of users to form their beliefs and opinions free from undue coercion or inducement—a right so fundamental that international law forbids it from being suspended even in grave crises. 

In his dissent, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra argued that the settlement fails to address the root cause of the company’s privacy violations: an advertising-driven model that draws on its extensive collection and analysis of user data to “manipulate us into constant engagement and specific actions aligned with its monetization goals.” 

David Kaye, the United Nations’ independent expert on freedom of expression, has warned that this form of manipulation harbors enormous potential to interfere with the “mechanisms and processes” of developing our innermost thoughts and beliefs. 

The FTC’s complaint adds to mounting evidence that Facebook’s systematic attempts to undercut users’ privacy are inseparable from their strategy to maximize user engagement. As the company collects more data about its users, it develops deeper understandings of their interests, preferences, and moods that enable it to target ads and other content in a way that induces more clicks and “likes.”

My group, Human Rights Watch, has also raised concerns that governments and non-government entities have exploited these microtargeting capabilities to stoke disinformation, hatred, and violence. The Cambridge Analytica scandal underscores another threat: in the wrong hands, these ever-growing repositories of user data leave us vulnerable to voter manipulation and other forms of social engineering.  

As part of the settlement, the FTC has ordered Facebook to routinely conduct privacy risk assessments for new products and services, obtain independent audits of its privacy practices, and establish Board-level oversight. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has welcomed these measures, and announced the company will be rolling out a revamped privacy program that holds developers accountable to its policies on user data and establishes “more technical controls to better automate privacy safeguards.” 

But these measures tinker around the edges of Facebook’s exploitative practices. They do not set substantive limits on the kinds of information Facebook can collect about its users, or with whom it shares this information. They also give Facebook broad latitude to determine when it should seek user consent for new forms of data collection. That amounts to letting the fox guard the chicken coop.

Fortunately, a separate antitrust investigation opened in June gives the commission another opportunity to examine how the company’s business model—and its dominance on social media—undermines user rights. Comprehensive regulation that protects consumers’ privacy is also long overdue. In this “move fast, break things” era, lawmakers and regulators should take swift, rights-oriented action should take swift, rights-oriented action before our digital world is well and truly broken.

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

Marzuki Darusman and Christopher Sidoti, chair and member of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, speak at a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 5, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo

The United Nations-mandated Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released a new report earlier today detailing the Myanmar military’s longstanding but opaque web of control over the country’s economy. The mission urged the international community to take immediate steps to financially isolate the military.

The 111-page report arrives a year after the Fact-Finding Mission’s extensive documentation of the security forces’ atrocity crimes, which called for top generals to be investigated and prosecuted for crimes against humanity and genocide. Yet Myanmar’s security forces continue to commit violations against Rohingya, Kachin, Rakhine, and other ethnic minorities, while the government has shown no willingness to hold perpetrators to account.

The report reveals the structure and network of the main military conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) – which together own at least 120 businesses spanning Myanmar’s industries. Led by current and former high-ranking military officials, including Commander-in-Chief Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the two groups generate vast revenues without effective oversight or regulation, in turn affording the military unrestricted profits and influence to perpetuate an unending cycle of abuse and impunity.

Not only have military commanders evaded justice for their widespread crimes, but they have done so while sabotaging the country’s economic and democratic growth. The military’s power in these spheres needs to be minimized if Myanmar ever hopes to achieve genuine democratic governance, including bringing the armed forces under civilian control.

The report names 14 foreign firms that have supplied the Myanmar military with arms since 2016, and calls on the UN Security Council to order a comprehensive arms embargo.

The European Union, United States, Canada, and Australia have imposed sanctions on key Myanmar military officials, but greater action is needed to create pressure with real costs. The Fact-Finding Mission’s report offers new evidence that the Security Council and concerned governments should use to launch a campaign of coordinated targeted sanctions on enterprises linked to the Myanmar military, starting with MEHL and MEC, a long-time call from Human Rights Watch. Stemming the flow of investment and profits to these companies, and by extension the abusive commanders they support, is crucial for undercutting the military’s rights violations and promoting justice for the victims of decades of military abuse.

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

President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, center, attends the parade during the 50th anniversary of Equatorial Guinea independence day in Malabo.

© 2018 Arda Kucukkaya/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The past few years have been unsparing for African leaders who cling to power. In April, protesters in Sudan toppled President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, just after protests in Algeria brought down Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been president for two decades. These two historic events are the latest in a groundswell of people rising up against entrenched leadership across the continent, from the Gambia to AngolaZimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In defiance to that trend, Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang today marks his fortieth year as president of Equatorial Guinea, making him the longest-serving president in the world.

His four decades in power should not be mistaken as a sign of peaceful stability or prosperity. Human RightsWatch and other independent groups have for years documented the Equatorial Guinean government’s relentless repression of civil society and political opposition groups, and the staggering corruption that has siphoned off the country’s oil wealth.

Twelve years after he seized power from his uncle in a coup, Obiang allowed a 1991 constitutional amendment that formally legalized political opposition groups. Twenty-eight years later, they face constant state harassmentand hold only one seat in the 170-member bicameral parliament. In just the past year, authorities arrested dozens of people suspected to be associated with political opposition groups, and held many for months in prison. For example, Joaquin Elo Ayeto has been in an overcrowded prison cell since February, apparently for making comments critical of government spending.

The government also frequently attempts to silence non-political critics. This month, the Ministry of Interior ordered the suspension of the country’s leading organization promoting human rights and good governance, the Center for Development Studies and Initiatives (CEID), following multiple attacks against one of its leaders. In 2017, authorities imprisoned an artist who draws cartoons lampooning the president for nearly six months, while a teacher sat in prison for seven months without charge after a voicemail he sent to a friend lambasting government corruption was posted online.

Obiang’s intolerance for dissent has also enabled him, his family members, and other associates to evade accountability for abusing their positions of power to amass enormous personal fortunes, even in the face of numerous international investigations.

The discovery of oil off Equatorial Guinea’s coast in the 1990s transformed the country from one of the poorest in Africa to the one with the highest per capita income—at least on paper. But this economic leap has not translated into commensurate gains in health, education, or other improvements on human rights for the Equatorial Guinean people. The country has among the world’s worst vaccination rates and, according to UNESCO. In 2015, more than half of school-aged children were out of school—the fourth highest rate in the world, behind only South Sudan, Liberia, and Eritrea. Around half of its population lack access to safe water.

In contrast, the political elite lead lives of eye-popping luxury. Recently, a Swiss anti-money laundering case turned up two yachts allegedly owned by the Equatorial Guinean government but used as pleasure boats by the president’s eldest son, Teodorin Obiang. Together, they are worth $250 million—more than the combined spending on health and education in 2011, the most recent year for which we have data.

Teodorin’s penchant for high spending has drawn scrutiny by international investigators, and in 2017 a French court convicted him in absentia of stealing more than 100 million Euros from the public treasury and spending it on a mansion, fleet of sports cars, and other luxury goods in France. But he is not one bad apple. The rot of corruption is at the core of Equatorial Guinea’s government and economy.

The government frequently showcases gleaming government buildings and six-lane highways to demonstrate economic development, though many of these projects have little social value and allow the political elite to reap millions from public contracts. As international investigations have shown, the president and other senior officials have stakes in businesses that wildly benefit from these contracts.

That self-dealing leaves little for social programs. According to the International Monetary fund, in 2011, Equatorial Guinea spent around 5 percent of its budget on education and health, compared to an average of 14 percent for countries with similar GDPs.

Speaking out against the corruption and mismanagement can land the average person in jail. Teodorin, however, seems to be rewarded for his misdeeds.  Just after the French court ruled the case against him can go to trial, he was promoted to vice president.

Over forty years, Obiang has held power by silencing dissent, enabling him to keep the benefits of the nation’s oil wealth for his inner circle. With one son and possible successor as vice president and another son as minister of mines, one is left wondering: when is the change that’s sweeping across Africa going to come for Equatorial Guinea?

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

Video: Coup Trial Travesty of Justice in Equatorial Guinea

An Equatorial Guinea court’s conviction of 112 defendants on May 31, 2019, in a trial rife with due process violations, including confessions extracted through torture, represents a gross miscarriage of justice, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a video about the trial.

(Washington, DC) – An Equatorial Guinea court’s conviction of 112 defendants on May 31, 2019, in a trial rife with due process violations, including confessions extracted through torture, represents a gross miscarriage of justice, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a video about the trial.

The American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch Project, sent five monitors to observe the trial. Juan Mendez, the former United Nations special rapporteur on torture and member of the TrialWatch Advisory Board, prepared a public preliminary report based on their notes, which describes a litany of abuses including coerced confessions and due process violations before and during the trial. The video includes interviews with Mendez and two lawyers who observed parts of the trial.

“Independent lawyers observing the trial described it as a kangaroo court,” said Sarah Saadoun, business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that Equatorial Guinean authorities feel free to sweep dozens of people off the street and sentence them to decades in prison with no more evidence than a confession extracted through torture, should trigger outrage and alarm bells.”

Defendants in a mass trial in Bata, Equatorial Guinea.

© 2019 Anonymous

The defendants were among approximately 130 people arrested following a coup attempt against President Teodoro Obiang that took place in December 2017. A panel of eight judges convicted them following a trial that began on March 22, 2019 at the Bata Provincial Court and handed down sentences ranging from 3 to 97 years, with 25 defendants receiving sentences of more than 70 years. The prosecution offered little or no evidence to support its case against most defendants; in some cases, it presented confessions that defendants testified in court were obtained under torture. The court, which included two judges appointed mid-trial by President Obiang, placed severe restrictions on the defense, including prohibiting them from presenting evidence of torture and curtailing lawyers’ access to clients.

The government arrested around 30 men from Chad, Cameroon, and Central African Republic in December 2017, alleging they were mercenaries who had crossed the border into Equatorial Guinea with ammunition to stage a coup. The state television station reported that the military killed one person in clashes preceding the arrest.

Following the initial arrests, the government arrested dozens more people it alleged had participated in the coup attempt, including Equatorial Guineans. The trial consisted of approximately 130 defendants, including 55 tried in absentia, but the exact number of defendants, and who was ultimately tried, is difficult to ascertain as official court documents vary. According to one of the trial monitors, many of the defendants maintain they are the relatives of those the government suspects were involved, and defense attorneys allege their clients were targeted for political reasons and had nothing to do with the coup attempt.

Throughout their detention, defendants were held incommunicado, without access to their lawyers or relatives. They described squalid and overcrowded prison conditions. Many alleged they were subjected to torture until they confessed, including being beaten, tied up, subjected to electric shocks, and denied access to bathrooms and medical help.

One defendant, Desiderio Ondong Abeso, testified that he was “tortured like a crocodile” with his arms tied behind his back. Two defendants died while in detention. A lawyer who observed the trial told Human Rights Watch that authorities have not provided an explanation for their deaths and their lawyers contend it was as a result of torture.

The judges prohibited defense attorneys from raising torture allegations in the court, the monitors who observed the trial said, and imposed such severe restrictions on them as to effectively deny them any ability to defend their clients. They were first allowed to meet with their clients only 72 hours prior to the trial and were given limited access to case files.

Prosecutors had charged all the defendants with identical crimes and introduced new charges 11 days before the end of the trial. The judges permitted defense attorneys to speak for only a few minutes during the examination of defendants and severely limited them from raising objections or cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses.

Political and military interference was apparent from the outset of the trial. On April 1, two weeks after the trial got underway, the president issued an executive decree appointing two new judges and two new prosecutors, all from the military. A week later, the monitors observed a military official in the audience who was relaying messages to the judges and the prosecution.

“The government has every right to try those involved in a coup attempt, but not carte blanche to torture, throw away due process rights, or target political opposition,” Saadoun said. “The abuses observers documented fit a pattern of Equatorial Guinean courts trampling on rights that demands the attention of the United Nations and African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Children pan for gold along the mercury-contaminated Bosigon River in Malaya, Camarines Norte.

© 2015 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

(London) A major jewelry industry group has made significant improvements to its process for certifying its members when it comes to ensuring human rights risks are addressed in supply chains, 27 civil society groups said today in an open letter to the industry group. But the organizations highlighted serious concerns with how the certification process will be carried out and urged the industry group, the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), to address them.

The Responsible Jewellery Council includes over 1,100 member companies along the jewelry supply chain. In April 2019, the RJC published a new version of its certification standard, the “Code of Practices,” following consultation and input from industry and civil society groups. All RJC members are required to comply with the standard and are audited against it two years after joining.

“It is good news for human rights protection that the Responsible Jewellery Council will now require member companies to put into practice the international norm on responsible sourcing,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate child rights director at Human Rights Watch. “But it is a source of concern that the Responsible Jewellery Council has put implementation for the diamond industry on a slower track, risking coming across as soft on that part of the industry.”

The revised standard now requires Responsible Jewellery Council members to exercise due diligence over their supply chains in accordance with the leading international norm on responsible mineral sourcing, the Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Under the OECD guidance, companies must take the following five steps: set up management systems for due diligence; identify human rights risks in their supply chains; respond to the risks found; carry out an independent, third-party audit; and report publicly about the steps taken.

The RJC’s current phase-in plan for carrying out the new certification standard foresees that diamond and colored gemstone companies’ existing practices will not be fully assessed against the standard until April 2021 at the earliest. Certification can be granted for up to three years, meaning that some members may not be fully checked for compliance until 2024.

Furthermore, a review of the standard and its assessment process is scheduled for after April 2021, creating additional uncertainty over whether and when diamond and gemstone companies will be checked for full compliance. Companies in other jewelry supply chains only have a transition period of one year, until April 2020.

Other concerns highlighted by the groups include what they consider to be inconsistent reporting requirements under the new standard. One provision calls for public reporting, while another one provides for reporting solely to stakeholders. The groups also expressed concern that the certification process remains opaque and “could allow member companies to pursue irresponsible business practices.”

The groups recommended requiring companies to publish audit summaries, including information on all facilities visited, areas of non-compliance, a description of any identified risks, and the specific measures taken to assess and mitigate risks. They also said that the Responsible Jewellery Council should ensure that all members up for certification beginning in April 2020 are audited against the new Code of Practices, including the full five-step framework required by the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidance.

“The Responsible Jewellery Council should make its audit program stronger and more transparent,” Kippenberg said. “It is essential for consumers to understand what steps have been taken to ensure that the jewelry they buy wasn’t made at the expense of the workers’ human rights and safety.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Barkan, located in the occupied West Bank, is an Israeli residential settlement and industrial zone that houses around 120 factories that export around 80 percent of their goods abroad. In the background is the Palestinian village of Qarawat Bani Hassan.

© 2004 David Silverman

There is a bitter irony to the White House's newly released economic development plan for the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Titled "Peace to Prosperity," the plan was devised by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, along with David Freedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Jason D. Greenblatt, a special envoy for international negotiations. It seeks to raise $50 billion, mostly from Arab countries, around half of which would be used to develop the Palestinian economy, while the rest would go to Palestinians living in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon.

But the plan avoids addressing key obstacles to economic development: the closure of Gaza and, in the West Bank, Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international humanitarian law, and a two-tiered discriminatory system that treats Palestinians and the settlers separately and unequally. The lack of economic growth is not just a byproduct of these abuses, but the result of deliberate Israeli policies.

When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, it cut the territories off from their previous trading partners. In 1968, Moshe Dayan, then the Israeli defense minister, said "[W]e can create economic integration... We should connect the two [Palestinian and Israeli] entities, if we, on our part and for ourselves, do not want to sever connections with these areas." But integration did not connote equality. On the contrary, Israel has continued to expand settlements and further entrench its discriminatory system against Palestinians, even when Israel partly reversed integration after 1994, following the Oslo Accords.

Over the past five decades, Israel has used its control over Palestine's borders, land, and water to build lush residential communities for more than 600,000 Israeli settlers and 19 industrial zones, in violation of the laws of occupation, while severely limiting Palestinians' access to their own natural resources and the permits needed to develop them. In 1987, Ariel Sharon, who was then the industry and trade minister, told the Knesset that his policy is to "strictly examine" requests by Palestinians to build factories, and "comprehensively take into account Israeli industries, the needs of the Israeli market, and the potential for export." He added that the threat of Palestinian competition "mandates the establishment of [Israeli settlement] industry."

As a practical matter, this has meant, for example, that the Israeli government grants its citizens and foreigners permits to build factories in the West Bank on land it has unlawfully seized – often awarding generous subsidies to encourage investment – while systematically denying such permits to Palestinians, even for land they own. This inverts Israel's international law obligations, discriminating against the people for whose benefit the occupying country is required to administer the territories and privileging those whom the laws of occupation prohibit from living there in the first place.

The case of West Bank stone quarries illustrates how Israel's discriminatory restrictions cost the Palestinian economy $241 million annually, according to the World Bank. Israel licenses 11 settlement-operated quarries in the West Bank, which supply around one quarter of its gravel market, despite this exploitation of resources in occupied territory violating international humanitarian law. One of these quarries is owned by Hanson, a subsidiary of Germany-based Heidelberg Cement. Israel's Civil Administration granted the Heidelberg subsidiary a permit to quarry on land that it seized from the Palestinian village of Zawiyeh.

The ease with which these settlement quarries operate contrasts with Israel's virtual ban on issuing Palestinian permits for quarries for the last three decades. Israeli authorities, for example, stopped renewing permits for quarries around Beit Fajar, a town of about 13,500, 10 kilometers south of Bethlehem. In 2010, 80 percent of the town's jobs were in the stone industry spread among 150 stone workshops and 40 quarries. But in recent years, the authorities stopped renewing permits for the few quarries they had allowed to continue operating. Quarry owners who continue to operate often face hefty fines and the confiscation of expensive equipment, in addition to difficulties transporting their product due to delays at the hundreds of checkpoints and road obstacles scattered across the West Bank.

Many Palestinian industries have a similar story. Israeli policies stunt their development, while helping unlawful settlement industries to thrive. According to the World Bank, Israeli restrictions in Area C of the West Bank, the area under exclusive Israeli security control, cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion per year.

If the White House wants to bring peace through prosperity, it should press Israel to end its unlawful and discriminatory policies that are helping to strangle the Palestinian economy.

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

Bangladeshis work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 19, 2018. 

© 2019 AP Photo/A.M. Ahad

The German Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy is trying to weaken measures that would track how well companies in the country identify and respond to possible human rights abuses in their supply chains. The coalition government should stand firm at a meeting of secretaries of state taking place today and adopt a monitoring system that holds German companies to rigorously high standards when it comes to sourcing materials responsibly. The companies should ensure that their supply chains are free of human rights abuses from start to finish – in line with internationally recognized norms.

“The Economics Ministry is putting forward a proposal that would make it far too easy for companies to be categorized as complying with international human rights standards when they are not doing the job,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “There is a risk that the monitoring system will be misused as a political tool to avoid tougher government measures on companies – most importantly, the passage of a much-needed law on supply chains.” A supply chain is composed of all steps needed to make a product – from obtaining raw materials to shipping, manufacturing, and retail.

The parties making up Germany’s coalition government have agreed between themselves that if the country’s large companies don’t voluntarily address supply chain and other human rights abuses sufficiently by 2020, the government will consider creating laws that require them to do so. Companies would have to identify, mitigate, and account for the human rights impact of their activities.

Whether the government moves forward with proposing a law on supply chains depends therefore, in large part, on how thoroughly the government is monitoring companies’ performances. However, the proposed monitoring system has already been derailed by disagreements among government officials. A questionnaire for self-reporting on the topic was supposed to have been sent out to companies based in Germany with more than 500 employees for them to respond to between May and July. But this process has stalled, and the questionnaires have yet to be distributed because the Economic Affairs Ministry disagrees with the plan.

The ministry is proposing a monitoring system that would allow the government to categorize more companies as complying with government standards for responsible sourcing. It suggests that rather than only two categories – “compliant” and “non-compliant” –, there should be four, including those “with compliance plans” and “partially compliant.”

Germany’s 2016 National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights foresees a “robust” monitoring system to assess company performance, which is far from the Economic Ministry’s current proposal.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 450 million people work in supply chain-related jobs. Human Rights Watch has documented labor rights abuses such as child labor, forced labor, hazardous working conditions, attacks on trade unionists, and other serious human rights abuses in global supply chains.

For example, child laborers and adults in Ghana, the Philippines, and many other countries risk ill-health and death when mining gold in unstable pits and processing ore with toxic mercury. Human Rights Watch has also documented labor abuses in global garment supply chains, including excessive or forced overtime work, denial of breaks, pregnancy discrimination, and attacks on trade unionists.

While a number of German apparel companies have joined the German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, many of these companies still do not adopt basic human rights due diligence good practices, such as supply chain transparency. In addition, changes in apparel companies’ purchasing practices and the introduction of quality grievance redress measures for workers in their global supplier factories are critical to mitigate labor abuses in global supply chains. Human Rights Watch has also documented that German companies such as the jeweller Christ and the clothing brand KiK, do not have human rights safeguards in their supply chains.

“The Economics Ministry’s delaying tactics and whitewash proposals are a disgrace,” Kippenberg said. “The government should show that respect for international human rights norms at home and abroad and Germany’s economic interests are not mutually exclusive, and that support for good practices can enhance economic growth.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am