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

May 21, 2020

Mr. Philippe Le Houérou
Chief Executive Officer
International Finance Corporation  

Sent via email

Re: Request for information and recommendations for protecting workers in response to Covid-19

Dear Mr. Le Houérou:                                       

Greetings from the undersigned organizations. We hope this letter finds you and the International Finance Corporation community well in this difficult time.

We welcome the IFC’s decision to provide US$8 billion financing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and note that the IFC will disburse $2 billion to support existing clients in the infrastructure, manufacture, agriculture, and services industries and $6 billion through Financial Intermediaries (FIs) under four different programs. We also appreciate the IFC’s April interim advice on supporting workers, preventing and managing health risks of Covid-19 in the workplace, and childcare in the Covid-19 era.

We are writing to request information about the occupational health and safety and social protection measures implemented by current IFC clients and those who may receive new financing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic (Appendix 1).

We are also writing to share recommendations for steps the IFC could take to help clients avoid, minimize, or revisit retrenchment decisions and to align with IFC Performance Standards and international labor and human rights standards. We strongly urge the IFC to build upon its interim advice with binding steps and monitoring to promote paid sick and family leave, job protection, employer-provided childcare and health care, occupational health and safety, and nondiscriminatory retrenchment.

We recommend the following steps:

1. Introduce greater transparency and civil society engagement: We welcome the IFC providing information that it expanded trade-financing limits for four Vietnamese banks to help them continue lending.

We urge the IFC to publish a Covid-19 responsive financing strategy that outlines how the IFC’s financing instruments will be used to advance specific goals to protect workers’ rights for each of the clients receiving Covid-19 responsive money. We believe these goals should include one or more of the following—minimizing job loss; promoting occupational health and safety; paid sick and family leave; access to child care and other social protection; improving equitable access to health and other essential services without discrimination; and temporarily suspending debt recovery proceedings of microfinance institutions that would put workers under additional economic distress.

We urge the IFC to proactively engage with a broad range of civil society groups, including trade unions and grassroots organizations, throughout the project cycle to provide more information.

We also urge the IFC to follow and build on the good practice of the World Bank and create a dedicated website to publish information about all clients receiving IFC Covid-19 response financing either directly or through FIs. For each of the clients receiving additional Covid-19 responsive financing, we believe the IFC should disclose the client name, amount received, and relevant loan documents providing information about the contractual obligations on clients to ensure that IFC money will be used to advance protections for workers.[1] In addition, we urge the IFC to also disclose on this page, those clients that are substantially revising their projects in response to Covid-19.

We welcome IFC’s latest reforms on transparency around new FI projects and urge that in the longer-term these disclosure requirements be extended to all FI projects.

2. Integrate specific goals related to job preservation, occupational health and safety, paid sick and family leave, childcare, and other social protection in Environmental and Social Action Plans and loan documents. Work with existing clients on these issues during reviews of loan disbursements, monitoring and ongoing engagement, including further revision of Environment and Social Action Plans.

More specifically:

a. Prioritize preservations of jobs, including by requiring retrenchment reviews and nondiscriminatory retrenchment plans. The IFC should ensure that clients prioritize preserving jobs and comply with Performance Standard 2, including an analysis of alternatives to retrenchment of workers and a plan to reduce adverse impacts of retrenchment on workers.[2]

Moving forward, the IFC should ask clients to immediately notify the IFC where any retrenchment is being contemplated and maintain communication throughout the process. We note that the interim advice currently suggests that clients examine if “costs can be saved by outsourcing noncore activities, streamlining activities, [or] re-organizing.” This implies job loss or at least the degradation of job quality and stability and should be revised.

The IFC should also review retrenchment decisions already made by clients since December 2019 (when global supply chains were first impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak) to ensure compliance with Performance Standard 2.

Ensure nondiscrimination in any retrenchment plans: The IFC should monitor to ensure that any retrenchment plan is nondiscriminatory, including based on union affiliation, does not target union representatives, members or supporters, and that any rehiring does not blacklist such workers.[3] Retrenchment plans should not discriminate amongst casual, temporary, short-term contract, and permanent workers when paying severance. 

The IFC can encourage the adaptation and replication of emerging good practices. For example, the Solidarity Center, a US-based nongovernmental organization, successfully supported four garment unions in Myanmar to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with their respective factories to outline a nondiscriminatory retrenchment procedure.[4]

The IFC should strongly encourage all its clients that have unions to explore signing collective bargaining agreements that have strong anti-discrimination protections, including during retrenchment. Without strong monitoring on these issues, the few firms that act responsibly during Covid-19 and sign collective bargaining agreements, find themselves in competition with those that do not.

b. Require occupational health and safety and social protection policies and programs in response to the Covid-19 pandemic: All clients should undertake a comprehensive review of their occupational health and safety policies and implementation and align them with international standards and good practice with respect to Covid-19,[5] including on personal protective equipment. This should cover worker accommodations where provided.

The IFC should also require clients to undertake a comprehensive review of their policies governing employer-provided health care, paid sick and family leave, childcare and other social protection, and their implementation, and provide this information to the IFC. Clients and sub-projects receiving financing under the Covid-19 response should, at a minimum, be required to provide paid sick and family leave and childcare coverage for workers if school closures and activity restrictions are present, and, where applicable, safely continue to provide worker accommodation and canteens at low or no cost.

The IFC should encourage the adaptation and replication of good practices of collective bargaining agreements such as those in Colombia, for instance, where SINTRAINAGRO negotiated comprehensive health and safety Covid-19 response measures for 22,000 banana workers with the industry association, Augura.

c. Incorporate consultation with civil society groups, unions, and grassroots organizations throughout the project cycle to gather information on company and local conditions at a time when field reviews are not possible, and in recognition of the information these actors provide during normal times.

3. Establish an emergency grant facility for access by existing clients to benefit workers, their families and communities: While the IFC’s top priority should be job preservation, it should also work with existing clients to assess the community health and social risks to workers, ex-workers, their families, and their communities, and provide additional resources that may be needed to specifically help address these needs. This is particularly relevant to IFC clients with workforces that have been retrenched or idled, especially when migrant workers are present; where the workplace or the nature of the job heightens the risks of contracting or transmitting Covid-19, which also puts their family members and communities at risk; or in cases where occupational hazards have had adverse health impacts causing underlying health conditions for current and former workers that make them more vulnerable to serious illness or death from Covid-19. Eligibility should be linked to satisfactory measures to reduce pre-existing hazards and those related to Covid-19, and, if applicable, retrenchment conducted in a manner consistent with the Performance Standards. For example, the Dutch development bank, FMO, has created an emergency grant facility for this purpose. FMO’s current clients can submit proposals to fund projects that directly benefit workers and surrounding communities. 

4. Develop additional interim guidance on microfinance institutions: Many workers who have lost jobs or income are struggling to make payments for housing, food, transportation, and utilities, including water and electricity, all essential for maintaining social distance and health during the pandemic. Microfinance institutions that are beneficiaries of IFC financing, either directly or through FIs, have a crucial role to play in preventing and responding to the economic distress on workers. The IFC should develop interim guidance, in consultation with a broad array of civil society groups, that outlines a range of steps that microfinance institutions should take to introduce special protections against debt recovery procedures, including suspending evictions and utility cutoffs, for individuals who borrow from microfinance institutions.


We trust the IFC will take these concerns seriously and support its clients in putting people’s health and jobs first as they are faced with making daunting financial decisions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

We thank you for your consideration and welcome opportunities to discuss this further. Please do not hesitate to contact Aruna Kashyap and Komala Ramchandra for any clarifications on these proposals, to provide the information requested in Appendix I by June 5, 2020, or to coordinate a conference call with us.

Best Regards,

David Banisar, Senior Legal Counsel, ARTICLE 19
Nandita Pradhan Bhatt, Director, Operations, Martha Farrell Foundation
Abu A. Brima, Executive Director, Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD)
John Nimly Brownell, DFI & HRD Lead, Green Advocates International
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation
Okereke Chinwike, Founder and CEO, African Law Foundation (AFRILAW)
Catherine Coumans, Research Coordinator, MiningWatch Canada
Margaux Day, Policy Director, Accountability Counsel
Mark Dearn, Director, CORE Coalition UK
Knud Voecking, Director, IFI Program, Urgewald
Sukhgerel Dugersuren, Chair, Oyu Tolgoi Watch
Cathy Feingold, International Director, AFL-CIO
Arvind Ganesan, Director, Business and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch
Carla García Zendejas, Director, People, Land and Resources, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)
Judy Gearhart, Executive Director, International Labor Rights Forum
Kris Genovese, Senior Researcher, Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO)
Alejandro González, International Coordinator, GoodElectronics Network
Christy Hoffman, General Secretary, UNI Global Union
Bram Joanknecht, Advocacy & Lobby Coordinator, Schone Kleren Campagne
Samuel B. Jones, President, Heartland Initiative
Gro Lindstad, Executive Director, FOKUS-Forum for Women and Development
Derek MacCuish, Executive Director, Social Justice Connection
Dr. Joanna Bourke Martignoni, Senior Researcher, Gender Centre, Graduate Institute Geneva
Dominique Muller, Policy Director, Labour Behind the Label
Thulsi Narayanasamy, Senior Labour Rights Researcher, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre
Paolyel Onencan, Executive Director, Buliisa Initiative for Rural Development Organisation (BIRUDO)
Sandeep Kumar Pattnaik, Executive Director, Center for Public Policy Alternatives
Annabel Perreras, Advocacy Coordinator, NGO Forum on ADB
Ishita Petkar, Policy and Community Engagement Coordinator, International Accountability Project (IAP)
Chip Pitts, Chair, Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
Sor.Rattanamanee Polkla, Executive Coordinator, Community Resource Centre Foundation
Sreedhar Ramamurthi, Managing Trustee, Environics Trust
Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, U.S. Director, Global Labor Justice
Aly Marie Sagne, Executive Director, Lumière Synergie pour le Développement
Elizabeth P. Salett, President, Human Trafficking Search
Jolie Schwarz, Policy Director, Bank Information Center
Nezir Sinani, Co-Director, Recourse
Wokulira Geoffrey Ssebaggala, Team Leader, Witness Radio Organisation - Uganda
Shereen Talaat, Co-Director, Arab Watch Coalition
Luiz Vieira, Coordinator, The Bretton Woods Project
Eang Vuthy, Executive Director, Equitable Cambodia
Sharon Waxman, President & CEO, Fair Labor Association
Lynda Yanz, Executive Director, Maquila Solidarity Network
Ineke Zeldenrust, International Coordinator, Clean Clothes Campaign


  1. Karin M. Finkelston, Vice President, Partnerships, Communication and Outreach, IFC
  2. Mary Porter Peschka, Director, Environment, Social and Governance, IFC
  3. Stephanie von Friedeburg, Chief Operating Officer, IFC
  4. Elena Bourganskaia, Chief of Staff, IFC


Appendix I
Information Request to the IFC

We respectfully request the following information from the IFC by June 5, 2020:

  1. What criteria were used to finalize which of the IFC’s existing clients will receive additional $2 billion Covid-19 response financing?
  2. What risk assessment steps is the IFC taking where existing clients (regardless of whether they receive additional Covid-19 financing) propose substantial changes to their project?
  3. What steps is the IFC taking to determine whether current Environment and Social Action Plans are adequate to address the human rights risks from Covid-19?
  4. Kindly provide information on consultation of worker and community stakeholders in evaluating possible recipients of response financing to assure job preservation and occupational health and safety.
  5. Of all existing IFC clients that are already receiving IFC investments (not just Covid-19 response investments):
    1. How many clients have paid sick and family leave policies?
    2. How many clients have retrenched their workers?
    3. How many clients are involved in providing “essential services” or “essential manufacturing”?
    4. How many clients are providing personal protective equipment (PPE) appropriate to Covid-19 and how does the IFC determine the adequacy of PPE provided?
    5. How many clients have employer-paid health insurance?
    6. How many clients have employer-paid childcare?
    7. How many clients make unemployment contributions?
    8. How many clients make pension contributions?

[1] See for example, Oxfam International, Washington Office, “Transparency and accountability: the soap and water for COVID-19 financial packages to the private sector,” May 11, 2020, (accessed May 19, 2020).  

[2] International Finance Corporation, “Performance Standard 2, Labor and Working Conditions,” (accessed April 20, 2020), p. 4.

[3] Ibid. The IFC Performance Standard 2 states that the “retrenchment plan will be based on the principle of non-discrimination,” and will reflect the “client’s consultation with workers, their organizations, and, where appropriate, the government, and comply with collective bargaining agreements if they exist.”

[4] Collective Bargaining Agreement signed between Myanmar unions and factories, on file with Human Rights Watch. The following clauses offer protection without discrimination: “If and when the factory re-opens (or rehires in the case of a partial cessation), the employer agrees to rehire all current employees (at time of signing this agreement). If all workers cannot be rehired at once, workers will be rehired in order of their seniority [or use your bargaining language below]. The employer agrees not to hire any external employees until all employees who were on the payroll at the time the agreement was reached have been offered re-employment. All rehired employees shall be offered the same or similar employment at the wages, benefits and working conditions they were afforded prior to termination. The employer agrees to recognize the union which was registered at the time of the total cessation of work. The employer agrees to a principle of non-discrimination against union leaders and members in the re-opening and re-hiring process.” “Any compensation received at the time of closure or partial cessation shall not forfeit an employee’s right to return to work upon re-opening or re-hiring per this agreement.”

[5] World Health Organization, “Country and Technical Guidance - Coronavirus disease (COVID-19),” (accessed May 19, 2020); US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Businesses and Workplaces: Plan, Prepare, Respond,” (accessed May 19, 2020).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A worker fills a container with water at the Villa Maria del Triunfo shantytown in Lima, Peru, where people living in poverty have difficulty accessing clean water and meeting the hygiene recommendations by health officials. March 13, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Martin Mejia

(Washington, DC) – Human rights should guide the use of billions of dollars committed by development finance institutions to address the Covid-19 health and economic crisis, the Coalition for Human Rights in Development said today.

The Coalition of 98 social movements, grassroots groups, and civil society organizations across the world has found that the pandemic is hurting vulnerable communities affected by development projects and exacerbating issues around inequality, violence, militarization, and surveillance.

The Coalition has tracked commitments of about US$90 billion in emergency response from all the major multilateral development banks. Additional resources are likely to be earmarked towards economic recovery, with the World Bank Group saying it is prepared to provide $160 billion for the next 15 months. As these funds are disbursed, however, stories of mismanagement and waste have also started emerging.

“Every dollar from a development finance institution could make a real difference for a family facing joblessness, hunger, or eviction, but it needs to reach them,” said Komala Ramachandra, Senior Business and Human Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch, in Washington, DC. “Now more than ever, development banks should be guiding and overseeing their government and private clients to make sure their dollars have their intended impact.”

In a statement published today, the Coalition said that development finance institutions should ensure their funds – during the pandemic and beyond – reach the most vulnerable people and provide universal and equitable access to essential services, including health care, food, housing, water, sanitation, education, and sustainable livelihoods. This includes avoiding funding projects that harm the environment, displace people, or threaten food security.

The Coalition also said that institutions should include protections against corruption and provide for transparency, accountability, and meaningful consultation with affected communities.

“Development financiers should guarantee that their beneficiaries – whether governments or companies – have protocols to prevent, monitor, and address rights violations and to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on Indigenous Peoples,” said Aída Gamboa, Coordinator of the Amazon Program of Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Rights, Environment and Natural Resources, DAR) in Peru.

As Covid-19 containment measures have created additional risks and challenges for those speaking out against harmful development activities and standing up for their rights, the Coalition also urged development financiers to help protect civil society and ensure safety from reprisals.

“Environmental and land rights defenders are confronting increased risks and threats during this Covid-19 pandemic lockdown,” said Jaybee Garganera, National Coordinator of Alyansa Tigil Mina (Alliance to Stop Mining, ATM) in the Philippines. “Confined to our homes, we are unable to respond to destructive actions of mining, logging, dam projects, and other aggressive development activities. Meanwhile, for extractive industries it’s business as usual: mining operations are allowed to continue.”

Reports that resources previously earmarked for other uses are now being repurposed, often without transparency, have heightened concerns, the Coalition said.

“In the best of times, communities face enormous challenges in accessing information and participating in projects that will affect them,” said Elias Jika, Africa Program Coordinator for the International Accountability Project based in Malawi. “Development banks should follow the highest international standards to ensure communities’ right to information is fulfilled by proactively disclosing all funds that are being used for Covid-19 response and ensuring project information is accessible in local languages.”  

The Coalition said development finance institutions should ensure their funds do not exacerbate inequality issues through privatization or public-private partnerships, and that resources going to the private sector are used to support workers’ rights. The Coalition also urged development banks to cancel debt payments for borrowing countries at least until the end of 2020 and use their collective influence to push private actors to extend debt relief.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Human Rights Watch welcomes the inquiry by the International Development Committee (IDC) into the effectiveness of UK Aid, and its intention to examine whether the work of the Department for International Development (DFID) is accountable, transparent, and impactful. Our submission concerns CDC Group, a development bank owned by DFID, and the lack of adequate safeguards at the bank to prevent its investments undermining human rights and environmental protections.

This submission relates to the first two questions identified in the Inquiry’s terms of reference, as they relate to accountability for UK aid spending and the effectiveness of that spending by DFID. It addresses CDC Group’s human rights obligations as a development financial institution owned and funded by the UK government and for which DFID is responsible, the implications of these obligations in terms of accountability and the resulting need for reform of CDC Group’s policies and complaint mechanisms. It also argues that the lack of transparency around CDC Group’s operations and handling of complaints undermines the effectiveness of its investments on behalf of the UK government and ultimately the UK taxpayer.

Human Rights Watch released a report in November 2019 that showed how Feronia, a palm oil company in the Democratic Republic of Congo co-owned by CDC Group, was exposing workers to dangerous pesticides, dumping untreated industrial waste, and engaging in abusive employment practices that result in extreme poverty wages.

In our report, Human Rights Watch recommended that CDC Group undertake structural reforms to ensure that the bank is meeting its human rights obligation to prevent and mitigate abuses by companies in which it invests, such as the one documented in the report.

Specifically, Human Rights Watch recommended that CDC Group:

  • Adopt human rights policies that acknowledge its extraterritorial human rights obligations;
  • Consistently conduct human rights due diligence prior to investing in a project and disclose, at a minimum, summaries of these risk assessments, as well as the mitigation measures the bank has adopted to address these risks;
  • Ensure this information reaches potentially affected communities, and that it is also made available to government agencies that have oversight over the companies;
  • Strengthen its grievance mechanisms so they are effective accountability avenues, and adopt anti-retaliation policies that protect activists from backlash when they bring forth complaints; and
  • Adopt policies on decent work that compel investees to pay living wages, so that their investments meet their development mandate.

Last year, in response to Human Rights Watch’s report, CDC Group, in conjunction with three other development banks that also invest in the same enterprise, announced 14 measures to address the abuses we documented in the palm oil company in Congo. However, CDC Group did not at that time commit to address the structural deficiencies in its oversight and monitoring mechanisms to prevent human rights and environmental impacts from its investments. Our research found that the inadequate oversight and monitoring mechanisms meant the abuses that took place in the context of its investment were left unchecked. This undermines CDC Group’s capacity to carry out development work consistent with UK policy objectives on human rights and the environment.

On May 11, 2020, CDC Group informed Human Rights Watch by email that the bank is currently undertaking a review of its complaint process taking into account our report’s recommendations. The bank is also reviewing its Code of Responsible Investing, as part of its five-year review cycle, to consider Human Rights Watch recommendations on drawing out an explicit policy statement on human rights, a representative of the bank said. We welcome CDC Group’s initiatives on these structural issues.

We urge the International Development Committee to use its oversight authority, including in the context of this inquiry, to ensure that the bank moves forward with this important reform process, and to deliver on the concrete measures CDC undertook to address the serious human rights abuses we documented in these oil palm plantations in Congo.  

Human Rights Watch investigation into abuses by a CDC Group-owned business

The November 2019 Human Rights Watch report found that CDC Group, an entity wholly-owned by DFID, had failed to ensure that the palm oil company it financed and co-owned in Congo was respecting the basic rights of the people who work and live on or near their plantations. The report also examined the responsibility of three other European development banks, and their respective failures in oversight.

Since 2013, CDC Group has invested US$34.4 million in the palm oil company Feronia and its subsidiary Plantations et Huileries du Congo S.A. (PHC) (together “the company”), which operates three oil palm plantations spanning over 100,000 hectares in northern Congo: Boteka in Équateur province, Lokutu in Tshopo province, and Yaligimba in Mongala province.[1] The plantations employ a total of nearly 10,000 workers. Approximately 100,000 people live on or within five kilometers of their property. In addition to being an investor, CDC Group is also a shareholder in Feronia, owning 38 percent of the company.[2]

During field research in Congo between November 2018 and May 2019, Human Rights Watch visited the company’s three plantations and interviewed more than 200 people, including 102 PHC employees residing on or near the plantations, 20 Feronia and PHC executives and company managers, and 25 government officials, among others. Human Rights Watch also reviewed extensive documentary evidence, including social-environmental impact reports the company submitted to Congolese authorities.

Human Rights Watch found that lack of proper oversight by the banks that invested in the company, including CDC Group, enabled the company to commit abuses and environmental harm that infringed upon health and labor rights. These abuses included exposing more than 200 employees to toxic pesticides without adequate protection; not providing employees exposed to hazardous materials with the results of medical examinations; and engaging in abusive employment practices that place many workers under the extreme poverty line. The plantations’ palm oil mills also routinely dump untreated industrial waste and may have already contaminated the only drinking water source of local communities. These finding are detailed in our report, which is available here:


Lack of Oversight and Enforcement by CDC

CDC Group, which is wholly owned by the UK government through DFID, has an extraterritorial obligation to uphold international human rights law. International standards obligate states including the United Kingdom, and thus a bank the UK state owns, to take steps to prevent and provide redress for rights abuses that occur outside their territories due to the activities of business entities over which they can exercise control.

As a practical matter, CDC Group can exercise control on decisive operational matters through the conditions it attaches to its lending and by monitoring company compliance with these conditions – thereby taking steps to prevent and redress infringements of rights.

The banks that invested in the company, including CDC Group, conducted due diligence to assess social and environmental risks that could pose a liability to themselves as investors, and they evaluated the gap between the companies’ practices and international industry standards. However, neither of these assessments are designed to prevent infringement of human rights that could result from business activity, as would human rights-specific due diligence.

An Environmental, Social and Action Plan (ESAP) was prepared based on the social and environmental assessments. The ESAP’s objective is “to ensure that over time Feronia reaches compliance with international standards and law,” specifically Congolese law, the 2012 IFC Performance Standards, the EHS Guidelines, and the criteria to obtain certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a certification initiative for palm oil producers wishing to adhere to labor, social, and environmental industry-specific standards.[3] CDC, however, has not disclosed the full contents of the ESAP and Human Rights Watch has only been able to review a brief summary provided by the company.

The ESAP could be the instrument to ensure that the banks’ investments do not support activities that cause or contribute to human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch considers that an ESAP should be prepared on the basis of environmental, social, and human rights due diligence so that the banks, including CDC Group, may fulfill their duty to protect rights. To effectively prevent abuses, an ESAP should set minimal social and environmental standards for the company’s operations with a clear timeframe for these standards to be met. In addition to establishing monitoring mechanisms, it should also define consequences in the event that there are serious violations of the company’s contractual obligations. In addition, an ESAP should establish enforceable and accessible remediation avenues for people who have suffered rights abuses from bank-funded commercial activities.

On grounds of commercial secrecy, CDC Group did not disclose its due diligence assessments, nor the mitigation measures it said it had agreed the company would implement, like the ESAP. So long as it does not make this information public, it is difficult – if not impossible – to effectively monitor whether CDC Group is meeting its human rights obligations. This is particularly concerning for investments that are deemed “high risk” under the IFC environmental and social categorization, as PHC has indeed been classified, because of their “potential significant adverse environmental or social risks and/or impacts that are diverse, irreversible, or unprecedented.”[4] Disclosing such assessments would not be unusual – the IFC and World Bank publish social and environmental impact assessments, or their equivalent, for all their projects.

This opacity means that oversight agencies have had limited access to information on the human rights risks associated with investments, or the documentation that lays out the agreement between the banks and their clients. Potentially affected communities do not have access to information on how development banks identify, prevent, or mitigate the human rights impacts associated with investments, what these impacts could be, and how these impacts could affect their rights and livelihoods. Civil society groups have been prevented from scrutinizing whether public funds invested in the development banks are enabling activities that cause or contribute to human rights violations abroad.

CDC Group has complaint mechanisms that provide the bank with feedback on whether it has acted in compliance with its policies and whether these policies are adequate to prevent negative social and environmental impacts. Yet, these mechanisms have multiple weaknesses:

  • They do not have the authority to compel CDC Group, or the businesses in which they invest, to participate in dispute resolution processes or to implement the agreements reached through these processes;
  • They cannot reach a determination of fault or decide liability for abuses; they are only available online, and CDC Group does not publicize their existence for potentially affected people, rendering the mechanism considerably inaccessible for vulnerable rural communities;
  • They do not provide any guidance to complainants on timeframes, types of resolutions they might be able expect, or guarantees against retaliation or reprisal when the complaint is brought by an external party, and the authority responsible for investigating complaints submitted through the mechanism is part of the bank’s management structure, instead of being an independent authority, compromising its impartiality; and
  • They operate without transparency, as CDC does not publish details of the complaints.

CDC Group said it encourages the creation and implementation of effective grievance mechanisms at the company level so that businesses continue operating responsibly after the bank divests. While it is undoubtedly important for such mechanisms to exist at the company level, this does not relieve the bank – or the government authorities that oversee them, DFID in this case – of its obligation to provide remedy and to create avenues for accountability for its role in supporting activities that caused or contributed to abuses. CDC Group and DFID should strengthen these mechanisms to create or provide genuine remediation avenues.


CDC Group’s response

On November 25, 2019, CDC Group issued a joint statement with three other development banks in response to the Human Rights Watch report. CDC Group said it would require the company to take steps to redress human rights abuses documented in the report.

The measures the four banks announced included addressing labor rights violations that result in extremely low wages, ensuring wage parity between men and women, addressing villagers’ concerns around water contamination, and taking steps to protect the health of laborers who spray pesticides.

Crucially, the joint statement asserted that the average worker earns US$3.30 per day. Human Rights Watch addressed an information request to CDC Group on December 5, 2019, soliciting supporting documentation from the company or the bank that could serve as basis for evidence for this figure. To date, Human Rights Watch has not been made party to any information that substantiates this claim.

The joint statement also said that, since 2013, minimum wages for company workers have more than doubled and are now substantially above the minimum wage in Congo. Consider, however, that the national minimum wage for agricultural workers in Congo is 1,680 CDFCDF (US$1.03) per day. The World Bank sets the extreme poverty threshold at US$1.90 per day.

The lowest daily wage that PHC paid contract workers on the three PHC plantations increased from 560 CDF (US$0.35) in July 2009 to 2,085.42 CDF (US$1.30) in February 2018, which is above the national minimum but significantly below the extreme poverty threshold. Moreover, this minimum only applies to contract workers. At the time of publication of the report, nearly 7,000 of Feronia’s more than 10,000 workers were employed as day laborers, who are not guaranteed this minimum wage. Some days, laborers reported receiving a wage of only 2,000 CDF (US$1.20).

On December 9, 2019, the bank said it would send a letter with additional information, but Human Rights Watch has not yet received any such correspondence.

Following the publication of the report, Feronia announced it had entered a loan facility for US$11 million provided by CDC Group.[5]


Human Rights Watch’s engagement with CDC Group

On March 22, 2019, Human Rights Watch requested information from CDC Group regarding the bank’s participation in Feronia and PHC. CDC Group responded in writing on April 29, 2019. On September 30, 2019, Human Rights Watch sent a summary of our findings to CDC Group requesting information on the steps taken to address the human rights issues documented in this report, to which the bank replied on October 22, 2019.

On May 20, 2019, we also requested information from DFID, to which it responded in writing on June 10.

All letters sent and received by Human Rights Watch for the purposes of this report are publicly available online at:

On November 27, 2019, three staff members of Human Rights Watch met with CDC Group’s General Counsel, the Director of Communications, and the Director of Environmental and Social Responsibility.

Human Rights Watch sought a meeting with the head of the DFI Team in the Private Sector Department of DFID, but he declined due to purdah ahead of the General Election.

In December 2019, and January and May 2020, Human Rights Watch reached out to CDC Group over email to request clarification on the content of their public statement, as well as follow-up on the implementation of the measures they announced to rectify the abuses we documented in the report.


[2] Ibid.

[3] BIO letter in response to Human Rights Watch information request, February 6, 2019, copy on file; CDC Group’s response to Human Rights Watch information request, April 30, 2019, copy on file; DEG response to Human Rights Watch information request, April 17, 2019, copy on file.

[4] IFC Environmental and Social Categorization, (accessed September 30, 2019), emphasis added. FMO disclosed the risk category associated to their investment in PHC; FMO, Plantations et Huileries du Congo SA, (accessed September 30, 2019).

[5] Feronia Inc., “Feronia Inc. Announces $11 Million Short-Term Loan Facility”, Globe Newswire, November 29, 2019, available at:  

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

“An artisanal mine in the Western region of Ghana. © 2014 Juliane Kippenberg/Human Rights Watch”.

As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, affecting the health and lives of millions, the pandemic is wreaking further economic havoc on the lives of artisanal, small scale miners and their communities.  83% of the world’s mining workforce relies on these mines for their livelihood.  That comes to roughly 40.5 million people. These people were vulnerable before COVID-19 and even more so now.
We the undersigned global civil society organizations and community-based associations work to promote the advancement of human rights and due diligence in minerals supply chains in conflict-affected and high-risk areas as well as the formalization of artisanal and small-scale mining.   
We are calling for immediate and concerted action from governments, financing institutions, international organizations, private sector actors and others to support artisanal mining communities and to shore up their resilience in this time of COVID-19 crisis. It is also essential that we protect hard-won gains related to human rights and due diligence in mineral supply chains in alignment with the OECD Due Diligence Minerals Guidance.   At a time of heightened risks in global mineral supply chains, the carrying out of due diligence and support for on-theground, OECD-aligned initiatives are more important than ever.   
The World Bank conservatively estimates that there are over 41 million people in the artisanal and small- scale mining (ASM) sector globally, at least 30% of which being women. The number of women grows exponentially when secondary activities are factored in. It is estimated that over 150 million people are dependent on the artisanal and small-scale gold sector alone in over 80 countries. 

The vast majority of those who work directly and indirectly in artisanal mining, do so informally and they are amongst some of the world’s poorest. The ILO estimates that more than one million children work in mines and quarries, a reality that is often poverty driven. Artisanal miners extract, pre-process and trade in high-value commodities such as tin, tungsten, tantalum, cobalt and mica that are used in everyday consumer goods from electronics to rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles and solar energy to the medical equipment indispensable to the treatment of COVID-19. Artisanal miners also extract and process lower-value minerals (so-called ‘development minerals’) such as sand, clay, dimension stones and coral – which serve as essential materials for the construction of houses, roads and other infrastructure, propelling economic growth and development at the local level.

The prized nature of these high-value minerals – particularly gold – means that women and men working in the ASM sector are often at risk of being preyed upon by illicit traders. They rarely receive a decent price for their ore or labour, and are often pushed into the sector by poverty and economic hardship. In conflict-affected and high-risk environments they can also be targets of abuse by armed groups, public and private security forces. 

All over the globe and irrespective of the commodity, the closure of borders and legal business channels has disrupted supply chains. Miners are having to accept deeply discounted prices for their ore and products in order to survive. Price drops are more deeply felt by women working in the ASM sector, as they are chronically underpaid for their work and minerals as compared to their male counterparts. Yet, while ASM miners are losing out, there are others who are gaining– especially in the case of gold, where the margin between the global prices and field prices continue to increase.

Where formal channels have collapsed, illicit actors are repositioning themselves to claim an even larger market share, which can increase criminality and insecurity, exaggerate local tensions, create community division, and increase risks to companies that source from the region. ASM typically involves high levels of migratory workforce, which lends itself to the spread of COVID-19 as well as violence against migrant workers. Liquidity in mining communities is drying up and rising food prices is compounding corresponding economic impacts on livelihoods. Economic desperation risks increasing the prevalence of sexual exploitation, gender-based violence and child labour in some mine sites, which may be further exacerbated by school closures.  Mine sites are at greater risk of theft and banditry due to the decreased presence of miners and authorities on site.

Some governments have moved to restrict or shut down some ASM mine sites and in some cases the trade in minerals has not been deemed essential despite the high reliance of local economies on mining. This has more negatively affected women, as men are prioritized to remain on site and maintain access. Despite these official closures and restrictions, many ASM miners continue to dig out of necessity. Those who continue to mine are not only at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, but at risk of extortion and abuse of power by public security actors.  Meanwhile, in some countries, armed non-state actors may also capitalize on the opportunity to take over ASM mine sites as attention is diverted and artisanal miners are vulnerable.

We are deeply concerned about these and other emerging and lasting impacts on artisanal mining communities and the rural economies that depend on them. We are equally concerned that important steps to ensure that supply chains are free of conflict, corruption and human rights violations including, but not limited to, the worst forms of child labour will be seriously eroded.
The COVID-19 crisis has made even more apparent the gaping inequalities in mineral supply chains.  It has also made apparent the critical importance of supply chain due diligence from mine to market.  Now more than ever, we need to invest in the structures and incentives for responsible production, trade and consumption. A safe and responsible artisanal mining sector can be a vector for development and rapid post-COVID economic recovery for millions of women and men. Were it well supported now, it could not only contribute to short term recovery from the impacts of COVID-19, but also function as an important bulwark against illicit trade, poor land management, ecosystem degradation, habitat loss and even wildlife trade, and so prevent disease transmission in addition to countering the effects of climate change. The impacts of mismanaged supply chains and natural resources are truly global and now upon us all.  
We are calling for immediate and concerted action from governments, financing institutions, international organizations, private sector actors and others in order to achieve the following:    
i. A reduction in the potentially devastating impacts of COVID-19 on ASM communities, particularly those that are health and socio-economic related, and acknowledging that women and children may be more acutely affected;
ii. The mitigation and reduction of conflict, criminal, corruption and human rights risks in all mining communities and related supply chains (artisanal, small and large-scale);  
 iii. The protection and preservation of hard-won development and security gains related to formalization of the artisanal sector and supply chain due diligence;
iv. Enhanced resiliency of ASM communities so that they are better prepared for other potential crises in the future;
v. An ASM sector that is ready to act as a driver of rights-based socio-economic development during the recovery period;
vi. Strengthened local civil society actors and human rights defenders who may be risking their own security to protect ASM communities; and
vii. Greater consequences for illegal behavior that rewards armed groups and criminal networks and undermines efforts to mainstream or scale supply chain due diligence.
Recommended actions include:  
  • Call on and activate humanitarian and emergency response networks to deliver dignified aid through cash, and food and health supplies directly to artisanal mining communities in close collaboration with local authorities as well as dignified aid through cash assistance through which miners will have the ability to choose and prioritize their household spending.
  • Governments and private sector actors such as large-scale mining companies should publicly report on their management of COVID-19 including dedicated resources during and after the pandemic.    
  • Invest in, support or reinforce local responses to COVID-19 preventing virus transmission including, but not limited to the installation of hand-washing stations, fever screening kits and the provision of masks or disinfectants that tend not to be otherwise accessible in and around mines sites.
  • Provide health education and information though community-engagement approaches in local languages and ways most accessible and effective amongst ASM communities.
  • Seek collaboration with local health care providers and health authorities to maximize the use of available resources for COVID-19 preparedness and response through improved communication between ASM communities and the health care sector.  Provide logistical, financial and infrastructure support to health workers so that they may better serve ASM communities during and after the pandemic. 
  • Consider whether ASM activities and supply chains should be counted as essential services or prioritized for economic recovery activities given the tremendous importance of ASM as a livelihood activity to the rural poor in many producer nations.
  • Develop operational guidelines for the appropriate continuation of ASM activities in a responsible and safe manner under COVID-19 together with ASM communities and local supply chain actors. 
  • Ensure that development and technical programming in support of the formalization of the ASM sector intended to advance due diligence implementation and to address deeper structural issues of poverty, inequality and human rights can continue uninterrupted.
  • Expand ASM formalization efforts as part of post COVID-19 development priorities, given the documented capacity of formalization to contribute to state revenue through taxes, royalties and other fees, to improve ASM workers’ earnings, working conditions and resilience, and to mitigate environmental impacts. 
  • Pivate sector actors must continue to improve on the carrying out and reporting on supply chain due diligence, and make every effort not to disengage during the current COVID-19 crisis as access to legal markets is needed more than ever.  Companies should not minimize or overlook risks in the face of economic downturn. For example, in the gold sector, they should explicitly refer to the red flags in the 2015 FATF gold typology report to ensure that they are not inadvertently aiding in laundering the proceeds of conflict gold.
  • Governments should investigate and, if appropriate, sanction those refining, processing and trading companies and their owners whose illegal activities benefit armed groups or criminal networks.
  • In producer nations, consider lessening the administrative and financial burden on legal artisanal trade. Explore the provision of added incentives to legal buyers who offer an equitable price, such as via tax breaks as well as via standardized assessments of weights and values such as purity.
  • Support on-the-ground, OECD-aligned due diligence efforts and initiatives that have contributed to the mitigation and reduction of OECD Annex II risks such as the prevalence of conflict, the presence of armed groups in mining and minerals trade, direct or indirect support to non-state armed groups, gross human rights violations, corruption and money laundering.
  • Where feasible, buy from cooperatives or legal entities, reinforcing formalization and legal trade and to get money and food directly in the hands of community members. Work with traders and exporters who demonstrate willingness to participate in, or are already adhering to, due diligence initiatives, to carry out the five steps of the guidance and who are not price-gauging or otherwise exploiting miners.
  • Large-scale mining companies must continue to guarantee the health and safety of their employees in keeping with the ILO Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, includingthe right to refuse or shut down unsafe work. Companies should also support immediate efforts to address COVID-19 related impacts in the broader communities where they operate. They are also encouraged to work with artisanal mining communities to help bring their product to market via legal means and on equitable terms.  
  • Support local women’s groups and associations directly and ensure that they have meaningful leadership and decision-making opportunities in the delivery or implementation of COVID-19 measures as well as in matters of trade, development and security.  Their leadership will also be critical to inclusive recovery.
  • Invest in local civil society. A stronger civil society is better able to protect the most vulnerable and monitor, draw attention to and possibly close down illicit opportunism. 
  • Engage with international NGOs, who can make direct connections with local actors and provide additional supports where needed. These should not overshadow local capacities and strengths, but compliment and amplify them.
  • Identify and leverage financial contributions from both traditional and non-traditional donors such as financing institutions including the provision of local guarantees, ethical bonds or other instruments. Do so in a way that implements anti-corruption and anti-money laundering measures such as the IMF’s Proposed Framework for Enhanced Fund Engagement.
  • In all conflict-affected and high-risk areas, carry out conflict risk assessments prior to engagement and on an ongoing basis.  Tailor interventions accordingly so as not to inadvertently heighten existing tensions. For example, be wary of blaming and conspiracy theories about the virus’ origin and spread that may target certain groups.
  • Elaborate communication tools in local languages and ways most accessible and effective amongst ASM communities. Explore use of mobile technology as a pricing transparency tool but also to provide miners with the correct information on COVID-19 including national public health policies, prevention and treatment options.
  • Work collaboratively and in solidarity across stakeholder groups to share information and effective practices, and to guard against global threats.  
1. Action des Chrétiens Activistes des Droits de l’Homme à Shabunda (ACADHOSHA), RDC 
2. Action Mines Guinée (Amines)
3. Actions pour la Protection des Droits de l'Homme (APDH), Côte d'Ivoire
4. Afrewatch
5. Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) 
6. Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) 
7. Association pour le Développement des Initiatives Paysannes (ASSODIP), RDC
8. Bon Pasteur
9. Bureau d'Études et d'Appui au Développement du Territoire de WALIKALE (BEDEWA), RDC
10. Bureau d’Études Scientifiques et Techniques (BEST), RDC
11. Caritas Zambia 
12. Centre de Commerce International pour le Développement (CECIDE), Guinée
13. Centre National d'Appui au Développement et à la Participation Populaire (CENADEP), RDC
14. Centre National de Coopération au Développement (CNCD-11.11.11)
15. Centre de Recherche sur l’Environnement, la Démocratie et les Droits de l'Homme (CREDDHO), RDC
16. Centre for Trade Policy and Development (CTPD), Zambia
17. Children’s Voice, RDC 
18. Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR), Zambia
19. Club des Volontaires pour l'Appui aux Peuples Autochtones (CVAP), RDC
20. Coalition of Civil Society Organisations in the Great Lake Region against Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources (COSOC-GL)
21. Coalition des Volontaires pour la Paix et le Développement (CVPD), RDC 
22. Commission Justice et Paix, Belgium 
23. Council of Churches in Zambia (CCZ), Zambia 
24. Diakonia, Sweden
25. Diamonds for Peace   
26. Dynamique des Femmes des Mines (DYFEM), RDC
27. European Network for Central Africa / Réseau Européen pour l’Afrique Centrale (EurAc)
28. Fonds pour les Femmes Congolaises (FFC)
29. Foro Nacional por Colombia
30. Fundación ALBOAN, Spain 
31. Fundación Atabaque, Colombia
32. Good Shepherd International Foundation
33. Groupe de Recherche et de Plaidoyer sur les Industries Extractives (GRPIE), Côte d'Ivoire
34. Human Rights Watch  
36. Initiative de Femme Entrepreneure pour le Développement Durable (IFEDD)
37. Instituto Redes de Desarrollo Social / Red Social, Peru 
38. Integrity Watch Afghanistan
39. IPIS
40. Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR), Zambia
41. Justice Pour Tous, RDC
42. Kakamega Environmental Conservation and Beautification Organisation (KECBO), Kenya 
43. Kimberly Process Civil Society Coalition    
44. Maniema Libertés (MALI), RDC   
45. Max Impact, RDC
46. Mouvement Ivoirien des Droits Humains (M.I.D.H)  
47. National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK)  
48. Norwegian Church Aid 
49. Observatoire Gouvernance et Paix (OGP), RDC
50. Observatoire de la Société Civile Congolaise pour les Minerais de Paix (OSCMP), RDC
51. OECD Watch
52. Organisation Congolaise des Écologistes et Amis de la Nature (OCEAN), RDC 
53. Pact
54. PAX
55. People's Movement for Human Rights Education (MPEDH), Rwanda
56. Réseau pour l’Autonomisation des Femmes des Communautés Minières (REAFECOM), RDC  
57. Réseau Innovation Organisationnelle (RIO), RDC 
58. Responsible Sourcing Network
59. Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID)
60. Rwanda Extractive industry Workers Union (REWU)
61. SARW  
63. The Sentry
64. Social Justice, Côte d'Ivoire
65. Solidaridad
66. Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral (SOFEPADI), RDC  
68. SOMO
69. Sustainable Alluvial Mining Services, Papua New Guinea
70. Terres de Homes  
71. Touche Pas À Mon Cobalt, RDC   
72. Vox Populi Initiative (VPI), RDC  
73. Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA)
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am



Governments and the private sector are increasingly relying on data-driven technologies to help contain the novel coronavirus, Covid-19. While some see technological solutions as a critical tool for contact tracing, quarantine enforcement, tracking the spread of the virus, and allocating medical resources, these practices raise significant human rights concerns. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about proposals for the use of mobile location data in the Covid-19 response because the data usually contains sensitive and revealing insights about people’s identity, location, behavior, associations, and activities.

Mobile location data programs to combat Covid-19 may not be scientifically necessary and could lead to human rights abuses if they are not equipped with effective safeguards to protect privacy. The long history of emergency measures, such as surveillance measures put in place to counter terrorism, shows that they often go too far, fail to have their desired effect, and, once approved, often outlast their justification. 

This Q&A explains the different ways that governments are using mobile location data to respond to Covid-19, the human rights concerns associated with these measures, and human rights standards that should be applied when using such data. It includes illustrative cases, recommendations, and guidelines to help evaluate the human rights risks posed by the use of mobile location data.

What Is Mobile Location Data and How Is It Being Used to Respond to Covid-19?

How is mobile location data being used to respond to Covid-19?

We define “mobile location data” as geolocation and proximity information from mobile phones and other devices. Governments view mobile location data as a key component of measures to contain the spread of Covid-19. They are presenting individualized tracking as a reliable way to track the movement of people who are infected and identify individuals with whom they came into contact during the period in which they are contagious. Individualized tracking can also be used to ascertain whether people are complying with social distancing and quarantine measures. Analysis of aggregate location data, on the other hand, might provide insight into the effectiveness of social distancing measures, model the potential for transmission, and identify potential “hot spots” of transmission. Examples of how governments are using technology to respond to Covid-19 include:

  • Contact tracing: Contact tracing is the process of identifying individuals who may have come into contact with an infected person. Its goal is to interrupt transmission by rapidly identifying individuals who have been in close contact of someone who is infected, defined by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as within 6 feet of someone for approximately 10 or more minutes. The idea is to encourage such individuals to isolate themselves from others and seek testing and treatment. Because the coronavirus is primarily transmitted through person-to-person contact via respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, mobile location data has been proposed as a helpful method to identify potentially exposed individuals.
  • Enforcing quarantine and social distancing orders: Governments are imposing quarantines and other restrictions on movement, including broad lockdowns, closures of business, public spaces, and institutions, orders for the isolation of individuals infected, and requests for voluntary social distancing. Governments are using mobile location data to monitor compliance with these restrictions, for example, by encouraging or compelling people to install an app that uses location data to identify people who violate these restrictions.
  • Big data analytics: Companies and governments are also examining location data in aggregate form to better understand general patterns of people’s movements and behaviors and how these have changed over time. Such analysis aims to forecast how the virus might be spreading and the effectiveness of public health interventions such as social distancing measures and identify ways to better allocate testing and medical resources.
  • Hot spot mapping: Hot spot mapping is a type of big data analysis that involves the use of location data to piece together the movement or location history of individuals who have tested positive in order to send out public health warnings about particular locations, or close down or disinfect particular locations.

How does mobile location tracking work?

Mobile location data comes from a variety of sources, including cellphone towers, Global Positioning System (GPS) signals, and Bluetooth beacons.

  • Cell site location information: Mobile phones connect their users to telecommunications and internet networks through cell towers. As a mobile phone moves with its user, the phone pings nearby cell towers (or “cell sites”). This process generates location information stored by the telecommunication operators (“Telcos”) about the cell towers to which the phone has sent a signal. With proximity information from multiple cell towers, a technique called “triangulation” is used to estimate the location of a cell phone with greater precision. Governments can compel Telcos to provide that mobile location information to track someone’s real time or past movement.
  • Global positioning system (GPS): A mobile phone’s GPS capabilities allow it to track its location to within 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters). Many smartphone apps (including maps, social media, games, shopping, and utility apps) log this location data, which can then be obtained by governments and data brokers. Data brokers are entities – some well-known, others less so – that collect information about potential consumers then sell that data (or analytic scores, or classifications made based on that data) to other data brokers, companies, and/or individuals. There has been a proliferation of apps for contact tracing and quarantine enforcement that rely on GPS data to track people’s movements. Additionally, anonymized GPS data (i.e. stripping data of personally identifiable information) can be used to track patterns of movement of populations in the past and in real time.
  • Bluetooth beacons: Bluetooth is a wireless, low-power, short-distance set of protocols used primarily to connect devices directly to each other in order to transfer data. Bluetooth can only communicate with devices that are nearby (approximately 33 feet or 10 meters). Bluetooth signals have been proposed as a method of contact tracing by identifying a phone’s proximity to other devices with a relatively high level of accuracy, using a specialized app. Unlike cell tower or GPS data, which track actual location, Bluetooth tracks interactions. Therefore, it is best understood as an interaction tracking tool. 

What Are the Applicable Human Rights Standards?

Even in times of emergency, when states restrict human rights for public health reasons, international human rights law says that measures taken that limit people’s rights and freedoms must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. States of emergency need to be limited in duration and any curtailment of rights needs to take into consideration the disproportionate impact on specific populations or marginalized groups.

These rules apply to efforts to track and manage Covid-19 using mobile location data. The collection and analysis of such data could reveal users’ identities, movements, and associations in a manner that interferes with the right to privacy. Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is derived from Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), establishes “the protection of the law” against “arbitrary or unlawful interference” with an individual’s “privacy, family, home, or correspondence.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found that restrictions on the right to privacy must take place only “in cases envisaged by the law.” Restrictions must also beproportionate to the end sought, and ... necessary in the circumstances of any given case.”

Human Rights Watch and over 100 other human rights organizations have urged governments to respect privacy and human rights when using digital technologies to contain the pandemic. At a minimum, technology-assisted measures should:

  • Be lawful, necessary, proportionate, transparent, and justified by legitimate public health objectives
  • Be time-bound and only continue for as long as necessary to address the pandemic
  • Be limited in scope and purpose, used only for the purposes of responding to the pandemic
  • Ensure sufficient security of any personal data that is collected
  • Mitigate any risk of enabling discrimination or other rights abuses against marginalized populations
  • Be transparent about any data-sharing agreements with other public or private sector entities
  • Incorporate protections and safeguards against abusive surveillance and give people access to effective remedies
  • Provide for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders in data collection efforts

How Are Governments Using Mobile Location Data to Respond to Covid-19?

Governments are increasingly using mobile location data to respond to the spread of Covid-19 for understandable public health reasons since the virus is a highly communicable disease. Privacy International, a London-based organization working to promote the right to privacy worldwide, is maintaining a tracker of responses that governments, tech companies, and international agencies are using to help contain the spread of the Covid-19. Below are some examples.

Contact Tracing Using Data Provided by Telecommunications Providers

Governments are accessing data from Telcos in contact tracing efforts. In Israel, an emergency regulation approved by the government on March 17 authorized Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, to receive, collect, and process “technological data,” including location data, from Telcos without user consent to predict which citizens have been exposed to the virus. Under the program, the health ministry sends alerts to people’s phones ordering them to self-quarantine. The cabinet circumvented the parliament in approving the emergency regulation. Israel’s supreme court later ruled that the government needed to pass a law authorizing such “fulfills the principles of privacy protection” or else it would be halted. The health ministry on March 23 also released a voluntary app, ostensibly to back up Shin Bet efforts, to inform people if they have come in contact with an infected person.

In Armenia, the parliament on March 31 passed amendments giving the authorities very broad surveillance powers, which require Telcos to hand over the phone records for all of their customers, including phone numbers and the location, time, and date of their calls and text messages. The authorities can use that data to identify individuals who are infected and should be isolated or close contacts who should self-quarantine, or to monitor individuals in isolation or quarantine.

In Russia, the prime minister on March 20 ordered the communications ministry to design a national system to track people who have been in contact with coronavirus patients, using location data provided by individuals’ mobile phone provider. On April 1, the communications ministry confirmed it had designed the system. The communications ministry has demanded that regional authorities provide lists of mobile phone numbers of people infected with coronavirus, as well as the phone numbers of citizens who are quarantined at home either because they had traveled abroad or had contact with infected people.

In Ecuador, on March 16, the president issued an emergency decree authorizing the government to use data from satellite and mobile telephone platforms to monitor people who tested positive for the virus, those who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive, those who have symptoms, and those subjected to mandatory isolation for having entered the country from abroad.

Bluetooth Contact Tracing

In Singapore, the government on March 20 launched TraceTogether, a Bluetooth-based contact tracing app, to supplement its human contact tracing efforts. When a person is contacted, they are required by law to assist the health ministry in accurately mapping out their movements and interactions to minimize the risk of widespread infection. Data logs are stored on phones in encrypted form, using “cryptographically generated temporary IDs”. However, when a TraceTogether user is a confirmed Covid-19 case and agrees to upload the data log in the app to the health ministry, the health ministry will decrypt the temporary IDs in the user’s app and obtain a list of phone numbers from the uploaded data log.

The European Commission on April 8 adopted a recommendation to pursue a pan-European coordinated approach for the use of mobile applications for contact tracing, among other purposes. The common approach will be guided by privacy and data protection principles, including data minimization and appropriate safeguards such as psaggregation, encryption, and decentralization. It will also be voluntary, with a preference for Bluetooth-based proximity tracing. Further guidance is due to be adopted on the data protection and privacy implications of the use of mobile applications. The European Parliament on April 17 adopted a resolution reinforcing the commission’s recommendation, demanding full transparency so that people can verify the underlying protocol for security and privacy of such apps. In the meantime, a number of European Union countries, including France, Germany, and the Netherlands, are in the process of selecting contact tracing apps.

In Norway, the National Institute of Public Health on April 16 launched a voluntary, self-reporting app that will monitor users’ movements and then ask people to go into quarantine if they have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. When a user is confirmed as having coronavirus, the app will then retrieve their location data and send a text message to every other user who has been within 2 meters of that person for more than 15 minutes, instructing them to go into quarantine.

Mobile Apps to Enforce Quarantine and Social Distancing Orders

Authorities in cities and provinces across China are using the app Health Code, which was developed by private companies, to make decisions about whom to quarantine and for how long. The app assigns each of its approximately 700 million users one of 3 colors: green enables unrestricted movement, yellow requires 7 days of quarantine, and red requires 14 days of quarantine. To enter buildings, go to the supermarket, use public transport, and move around their neighborhood, people must scan a QR code at a manned checkpoint. However, the rules behind color assignments are secretive, making it difficult for individuals to understand why they were assigned a particular color, or what circumstances might trigger a change of color. The app also collects users’ location data and shares it with the police. Users have complained that the app’s decisions are arbitrary and difficult to appeal; some of them have been confined to their homes for indefinite periods even after serving the quarantine period mandated by the app.

In Turkey, the health minister declared on April 7 that it is mandatory for people infected with Covid-19 to download an app called “Life fits inside the house” as part of the “Pandemic Isolation Tracking Project.” The app follows the movement of people instructed to self-isolate, and if they leave their homes, they receive a warning via SMS and are contacted instantly through automatic call technology and told to return to isolation. Under the program, those who fail to comply with the warning and continue to violate the quarantine are reported to relevant law enforcement and face administrative measures and sanctions, which can include jail time ranging from two months to a year in accordance with Article 195 of Turkish Penal Code. Human Rights Watch has not yet investigated how widespread the use of the app is in practice and whether the Turkish authorities have made efforts to enforce its use.

In Moscow, the city government on April launched an app to track the movement of coronavirus patients. The app is mandatory for all patients who have been ordered to stay at home. It requests access to the user’s calls, location, camera, storage, network information, sensors, and other data to ensure people do not leave their home while contagious. This app is in addition to the installation of one of the world’s biggest surveillance camera systems equipped with facial recognition technology to ensure that everyone placed under self-quarantine stays off the streets. On April 15, Moscow also introduced a digital permit system for non-essential travel, both on public transport and private vehicles.  

Big Data Analytics

In the EU, eight major Telcos have agreed to share anonymized metadata with the European Commission for modelling and predicting the propagation of the coronavirus. An official from the commission said the data will be aggregated and anonymized and that the commission will delete it when the pandemic is over. Still, the European Data Protection Supervisor warned about the possibility of such measures becoming permanent.

In the US, mobile advertising companies, which gather the location data of mobile and internet users to target and sell ads, are reportedly supplying analyses of people’s locations and movements to the CDC and certain state and local governments. In the context of Covid-19, this data sharing arrangement is apparently designed to help the authorities better understand how infections spread and refine public health responses. Much of this arrangement, including how data is collected, shared, anonymized, and analysed, is unknown. It has also been reported that the federal government is building a national coronavirus surveillance system to monitor and forecast rates of infection and hospitalization across the country. It is unclear whether this project is linked to the CDC’s partnership with the mobile advertising industry.

In South Korea, in addition to using cell phone location data, CCTV cameras, and tracking of debit, ATM, and credit cards to identify people infected with coronavirus, the authorities created a publicly available map using aggregate data of infected individuals to allow other people to check whether they may have crossed paths with someone infected with the virus. The platform was officially launched on March 26. Health authorities also send out cell phone notifications containing very detailed information on confirmed cases, including the age, gender, and daily routes infected people took 48 hours before being quarantined. The purpose of the disclosures is to enable potential untraceable contacts (for example, strangers who were in the same restaurant as the confirmed case at the same time) to recognize and prepare for possible infection.

In Ecuador, the president on April 6 announced the SOS Covid tool, which works with information obtained from the emergency service, the ministry of telecommunications, the ministry of health, mobile-service providers, and the Salud EC App (see below) to monitor whether the quarantine is being observed, detect cases, carry out massive tests, and identify areas of risk due to crowding.

Self-Reporting Initiatives

Governments are also launching initiatives to report coronavirus cases and direct people toward medical resources that rely on location data. For example, Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency launched a Covid-19 monitoring platform on March 23 to update the public on the number of Covid-19 cases in the country and to provide information such as directions to the nearest pharmacies, hospitals, and police stations. People who develop symptoms or were in contact with people with confirmed cases can also give information to the ministry of health via the platform. The system also enables users to report illegal or unauthorized activities, such as large public gatherings. It also allows the reporting of people suspected of having symptoms based on subjective assessments on others’ symptoms. This is concerning, especially at a time when there are reports of harassment and discrimination against foreigners and healthcare sector workers as cases of Covid-19 rise in Ethiopia.

Ecuador announced on March 25 the development of Salud EC App, an application that stores the name, year of birth, ID number, and geolocated address of its users. Through this voluntary app, users can report their symptoms related to Covid-19. The app then provides the user with the online resources created by the government for the health emergency.

How Can Mobile Location Tracking Interfere with the Right to Privacy?

The privacy risks of mobile location tracking are significant and well-established. Mobile location information can contain sensitive and revealing insights about a person’s identity, location, behavior, associations, and activities. The use of mobile phone network data creates granular, real-time targeting opportunities, which can be used by governments to forcefully enforce quarantine, discriminate, or crackdown on populations for other reasons. And in the hands of abusive governments that already have adopted intrusive surveillance practices, this can serve to enhance repression.

The mobile phone tracking programs described above raise concern that governments are collecting, using, and retaining data beyond what is necessary for legitimate and targeted disease surveillance measures. The lack of transparency regarding many Covid-19 tracking initiatives, such as those in Ecuador and Ethiopia, prevents the public from assessing whether there are meaningful limits on the types of personal information that will be collected, used, aggregated, and retained, or whether tracking and data collection will end once the pandemic is contained. This is particularly troubling in countries like China, Ethiopia, and Russia, which have a record of pervasive surveillance.

Other concerns include: restricting people’s movements based on arbitrary and opaque apps, as is the case in China; the lack of consent to data being used, as is the case in Armenia, Israel, and South Korea; and the combination of mobile location data with other types of data, such as facial recognition, as is the case in Moscow. Almost all of the initiatives using location data to respond to Covid-19 involve placing large collections of data in the hands of governments, many of which have histories of repression and discrimination against already marginalized communities, including religious minorities and political dissidents.

Excessive interference with location privacy is a gateway to undue restrictions on other rights. For example, in Israel, the Shin Bet reportedly restricted people’s movements in error when they ordered into quarantine people who turned out to be negative for the coronavirus, including a woman who was ordered to self-quarantine after waving to a homebound coronavirus victim from the street. Information sharing with law enforcement may also have a chilling effect on access to health care. In the US, local governments are collecting the addresses of people who test positive for the coronavirus and sharing the lists with police and first responders, which some public health experts say could make people reluctant to seek medical care or get tested for Covid-19 because of a fear of profiling by law enforcement. Finally, publicizing revealing details about people’s movements and behaviors can stoke fear, panic, and discrimination. In South Korea, the government has sent “safety guidance texts” that notify the public about places that infected people have visited. Owners of affected shops and restaurants told The Guardian that these alerts are chasing customers away and may put them out of business even after they disinfected the premises.

If data is anonymized, what is the harm?

Anonymization (i.e. stripping mobile location data of personally identifiable information) has been proposed as a safeguard, but it is well-established that anonymized data can be combined with private and publicly held data to re-identify individuals. To prevent this, governments would need to provide clear rules to prohibit combining anonymized data with other personal data. This became a major issue in South Korea, where the level of personal information sent out on public health text message alerts based on the location history of known infected individuals led to the doxing of individuals. There are reports that some people suspected of testing positive for Covid-19 based on information sent out by public health alerts experienced hate speech or harassment. In some cases, the texts fueled social stigma leading to speculation about extra-marital affairs. The National Human Rights Commission of South Korea criticized authorities for providing more information than is necessary to stop the spread of disease, leading to a violation of privacy and human rights of an infected person, including “secondary damages as patients become the target of criticism, taunts, and hatred online.” It recommended only sharing location and times when infected people visited places, rather than providing the travel history of each individual.

Does aggregating data create privacy risks?

Companies and governments are also analyzing large location datasets to forecast disease trends and the effectiveness of public health interventions. An example is the US CDC’s reported partnership with the mobile advertising industry. Google has launched “Covid-19 Community Mobility Reports” that map mobility trends over time by country or region across different places like parks, grocery stores, and transit stations. Facebook’s Disease Prevention Maps initiative provides its research partners, which include Harvard School of Public Health in the US and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, with “co-location maps” that predict travel patterns, “movement range trends” that show whether social distancing and other preventive measures are working, and a “social connectedness index” that attempts to infer disease spread from “friendships across states and countries.”

Google and Facebook say that their initiatives are based on anonymized and aggregated location data that provide high-level insights into people’s movements and behaviors, rather than detailed location histories that are prone to re-identification. In theory, data aggregation poses fewer risks to privacy. However, companies and governments that perform such aggregation must disclose sufficient information about the protocols and procedures used to aggregate data that enable independent and external researchers to test if they actually work. Covid-19 tracking initiatives based on aggregated data should also disclose how they draw conclusions from this data, how this data is used to inform public health interventions, and the limits and risks associated with such analysis.

Does Bluetooth-based proximity tracking protect privacy?

Some companies and researchers have recently announced new efforts to make contact tracing more privacy-protecting using Bluetooth technology. Among the more prominent are the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing initiative (PEPP-PT), the Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T), and Apple and Google’s Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing initiative, which consists of an application programming interface (API) that public health agencies can integrate into their own contact tracing apps. The next phase is a system-level contact tracing system that will work across iOS and Android devices on an opt-in basis. In Bluetooth-based proximity tracing, devices that come close to each other share pseudonymized IDs (a string of random numbers that are not tied to a user’s identity and change every 10-20 minutes for additional protection). If a user becomes infected with the virus, they can send an alert to all the phones with which they have been in proximity. The broadcast would not identify the infected person, nor would the infected person know the identity of the people who would be notified.

Bluetooth-based proximity tracing is being promoted as the more accurate and secure option for contact tracing because a device’s ability to communicate with another can be a much more accurate proxy for nearness and because systems can be built to decentralize data, meaning that data can be stored locally on the device rather than on a centralized database. 

While promising in some respects, Bluetooth-based proximity tracing is largely untested, and designing these systems involves choices that have implications for privacy and security. For example, Bluetooth-based proximity tracing can rely on centralized databases, or decentralized storage of data on people’s phones. While some governments may prefer centralizing data under their authority, this can be problematic if the authority has broad powers to abuse the metadata and is prone to bribery or legal coercion or has failed to take appropriate steps to secure the data from attacks by malicious actors.

Decentralizing data so that it is stored on people’s devices is generally seen as a better option from a privacy perspective. However, this approach is not without privacy risks either. A tech-savvy adversary in close proximity to a device could identify the IDs of infected people stored on it, or could set up a device with a stationary camera to capture the IDs of users passing by.

Furthermore, researchers from the Institute for Technology in the Public Interest have warned that technical safeguards may not address abusive implementation of contact tracing technologies. For example, strong encryption and decentralized systems will not protect someone from a government or private entity requiring that they show the results of the app (i.e. whether they are an infectious disease risk) in order to access to buildings or transportation.

In India, the official Covid-19 app, Aarogya Setu, was initially voluntary when it was launched in early April, but on April 29 it became mandatory for all government staff through an order by the Department of Personnel and Training and for all employees in the public and private sector through a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) May 1 order.

Even if an app is officially voluntary, in practice some businesses are already claiming that they will mandate them as a condition of returning to work. In China, Human Rights Watch has found that local authorities require users to show the Health Code app on their phone in order to hail a ride, use public transport, or enter supermarkets and residential areas. Finally, as experts in technology, law and policy, and epidemiology have noted, Bluetooth-based proximity tracing is vulnerable to trolls and spoofing, which could weaken trust in the system.

Are the privacy risks justified?

Inaccuracies associated with mobile location tracking programs raise questions about whether the restrictions they impose on privacy are necessary to safeguard public health.

A key consideration is whether mobile location technologies can accurately determine whether a person is in close contact (within 6 feet of someone for 10 or more minutes) of someone who is infected. Technology researchers have found that cell site location information and GPS signals are unlikely to provide location estimates with the level of precision required to meaningfully predict the risk of Covid-19 transmission. While Bluetooth tracking technologies can be engineered to achieve significantly more accurate measurements, their accuracy may still degrade in the presence of other signal-transmitting devices and in areas with high levels of interference, such as high-density buildings or busy parks (especially in cities). Furthermore, proximity tracing alone says very little about the nature of the interaction, such as whether people were in a closed space or outdoors, whether they were wearing masks or not, or whether someone sneezed during the interaction.

The wide variance in how people use cell phones may also make location tracking efforts ineffective. For example, tracking may assume that each device is unique to a single individual. However, in Sierra Leone researchers found that call detail records were an unreliable proxy for Ebola transmission during the 2014 to 2016 outbreak because many people had multiple mobile phones, or lent, traded, and passed around their devices among family and friends. In locations with weak signals, including conflict areas where cell phone towers may be strategic targets, people often use multiple SIM cards or phones.

Will Public Health Responses that Unduly Rely on Mobile Location Tracking Discriminate Against Minorities?

Disparities in mobile phone use, digital literacy, and tech uptake could also exclude vulnerable or marginalized populations from public health responses that unduly rely on mobile location tracking. These disparities are particularly pronounced for contact tracing apps, which assume that users enjoy access to smartphones that meet minimum technical specifications and a reliable mobile or internet connection.

According to the GSM Association, the industry body that represents mobile network operators worldwide, the percentage of the world’s population that connects to the internet using mobile phones was 49 percent at the end of 2019. In some regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, penetration rates are as low as 26 percent. Industry analysts estimate that Bluetooth tracing will be out of reach for as many as 2 billion mobile phone users whose devices are not configured to support this technology. That is roughly a quarter of all mobile phones in use today.

Disparities in access and use of mobile devices based on location (urban versus rural) and gender are also well documented and generally reflect and entrench broader patterns of inequality. Older people – a group that is at increased risk of severe disease and death in the Covid-19 pandemic – are also less likely to use specialized apps or have smartphones or even access to the internet. In the US, a 2019 Pew survey found that 68 percent of older people between ages 55 to 73 own smartphones, compared to 93 percent of people ages 23 to 38. In Italy, which has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in Europe, the government acknowledged the limited effectiveness of its voluntary contact tracing app because one-sixth of the population does not use the internet and older people were generally unlikely to download it. In China, older people without smart phones have been unable to take the public bus (which now requires the Health Code app) or enter public hospitals (which now require online appointments).

Women are up to 31 percent less likely to have internet access than men in some countries, and worldwide, about 327 million fewer women than men have a smartphone. Women’s use of cell phones is constrained by factors including lower literacy – globally, of an estimated 781 million people aged 15 and over who are illiterate, almost two-thirds are women and girls. If governments and companies mandate contact tracing apps as a condition of entry into public or private spaces, vulnerable and marginalized populations that are less able to download these apps will face discrimination.

Human Rights Watch has also cautioned that the use of incomplete and discriminatory datasets can misdirect public health efforts in ways that endanger the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable people. For example, stricter enforcement of social distancing measures in low-income counties could unduly penalize front line workers, people struggling to find shelter, or unemployed people traveling to food banks or welfare agencies because their movements may appear abnormal or in violation of social distancing norms when in fact they have to be more mobile to meet basic needs.


These technologies are intended for a praise-worthy purpose: protecting public health at a time of public emergency, a situation that can justify some restrictions on rights. But the long history of emergency measures shows that they often go too far, fail to meet their objectives, and once approved, often outlast their justification. No matter how compelling the situation, it is incumbent on public authorities and private actors to ensure that measures do not overstep the permitted legal restrictions on individual rights. 

This means that governments should not use or approve technologies using mobile location data to combat Covid-19 until they have demonstrated that they are necessary and proportionate to combat the spread of the disease and have enacted adequate safeguards to prevent human rights abuses. They should address the more fundamental question of whether such technologies are truly effective in curbing the spread of Covid-19 or may in fact misrepresent an individual’s risk of infection or mislead the public. They should also assess whether there are ways to combat the pandemic that are less intrusive on rights, such as privacy and freedom of movement, than deploying location tracking technologies. The international legal standard for restricting these rights contains these elements:

  • The restrictions are lawful, that is they are neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in design or application, and they are enacted in law with sufficient specificity to give people a clear idea of what is prohibited and offer meaningful limits to official discretion
  • The restrictions must be necessary in the sense that they would be effective, grounded in scientific evidence, and there are no alternatives that would have lesser impact on the rights concerned
  • The restrictions are proportionate to the risk to public health and in no way compromise the essence of the right in question
  • They are required to achieve a legitimate objective, in this case the protection of public health (rather than a xenophobic or discriminatory agenda)
  • The measures and the restrictions to rights they entail are of limited duration to the time of the emergency
  • The technology and its approved uses are respectful of human dignity
  • The technology is transparent and subject to review as well as oversight, and measures of remediation for rights abuse are available

Guiding Questions to Assess Proposed Programs Utilizing Mobile Location Data

Human Rights Watch has considerable doubt about whether the programs using mobile location data described in this Q&A can satisfy this threshold. Nonetheless, governments around the world are pursuing such programs at breakneck speed. When analyzing proposed or actual mobile location tracking technology, it is critical that the public, the media, the scientific and engineering community, and public policymakers ask the following questions as a way of interrogating whether any given tool or program presents undue risks to human rights.

Preliminary Questions

Governments, companies, and others assisting in the development of programs that propose utilizing mobile location data should first ascertain if the underlying technology is capable of tracking individuals’ exposure to Covid-19 with sufficient accuracy. Is the way the program identifies at-risk individuals consistent with what we know about Covid-19 transmission (e.g. proximity tracking versus symptom tracking)? Are its measurements able to correct for or otherwise take into account variations on how someone might interact with an infectious person (e.g. in high density buildings or busy parks) or use their phone (e.g. shared devices or high cell phone turnover rates)? What errors might these programs commit? How might they interfere with someone’s ability to seek testing and treatment or the broader public health response?

To ensure that a program would be epidemiologically sound and to help avoid issues of bias and error, governments and companies should engage relevant stakeholders (including civil society, representatives of vulnerable and marginalized populations, computer scientists, and epidemiologists) in meaningful and transparent dialogue. Some of the relevant inquires would be whether these programs will be linked to proper institutional responses – is there, for example, an accessible path to testing and treatment for those flagged to be at risk of Covid-19 exposure? Or would the program instead divert resources from non-technical measures, such as manual contact tracing and public messaging on social distancing, and to what effect?

Stakeholders should also ask if programs are truly voluntary and whether people would face any official sanction or disadvantage as a result of their decision to participate in the program. For example, it is important to understand if the program would impose punitive measures or undue restrictions on movement, access to health care, and other rights, particularly for vulnerable and marginalized populations.

At the Design Phase

If a program is already in development, in addition to the questions above, it is important to consider if it incorporates privacy by design principles. These would include data minimization, the practice of only collecting data that is adequate, relevant, and limited to data that is necessary for the purpose of scientifically established public health objective. Another relevant consideration is whether the program places strict limitations on how data can be collected, used, aggregated, retained, and shared, including with other users, other government agencies, and the public. Yet another is whether there are clear time limitations, including plans for the program to be deactivated and accompanying data deleted after it is no longer needed. Engaging data protection authorities to develop guidelines on how to protect privacy when using personal data in response to the pandemic is an important step.

Giving users control over what information they share and when they can discontinue to share data is important. Does a program allow users to meaningfully provide fully informed consent, through terms that are transparent and in clear and plain language, allowing users to opt-in, rather than opt-out? Are its privacy functions, including settings determining what data will be collected, who will have access to it, how long it will be retained, and how to delete it, easy to understand? In the case of contact tracing apps, it is important that collection, aggregation, retention, and analysis of personal and health data is not centralized within a single authority, such as a government ministry. If data collected under the program is used to analyze and communicate to an individual their risk of infection, it should provide meaningful information about the limits of this analysis and direct individuals to relevant public health resources, such as government health advisories.

Anonymizing and securing data are important design areas that deserve close scrutiny. Data collected should be anonymized to the greatest extent possible and the risks of de-anonymization communicated to users in an understandable and accessible manner. Has the source code been made available so that the public can assess whether it does what it intends to do? Have developers disclosed meaningful information about the anonymization protocols so that the broader public can verify that they are effective? Developers should also disclose how the data collected is protected against external parties who may wish to exploit or tamper with it. For example, has the product been designed with sufficient information security controls (such as end-to-end encryption) and are those measures subject to regular audit?

At the Deployment Phase

If a program is already in place, it should be examined or re-examined to assess whether it is compliant with the standards above. Developers should consider questions about the social and political context in which it operates and ascertain that protections and safeguards are in place to prevent against abuse. For example, are users able to challenge the collection, aggregation, retention, and use of their data, and do they have access to effective remedies for abuses? Can they withdraw from the program and delete their data? Can communities and users audit the tools themselves in order to signal that the technology is trustworthy and does what it purports to do?

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


(New York) – The mobile location tracking programs governments are using in the fight against Covid-19 pose serious risks to human rights, Human Rights Watch said in a detailed Q&A released today. The programs, whose utility in controlling the pandemic has yet to be proven, may introduce unnecessary and disproportionate surveillance measures in public health disguise.

Entitled “Mobile Location Data and Covid-19,” the Q&A examines the different ways that governments are using geolocation and proximity information from mobile phones and other devices and the risk they pose to privacy rights. It looks at how this technology has been used by China, Israel, South Korea, the United States, and other governments, and provides recommendations and guidelines to evaluate the human rights risks posed by any given tool or program using mobile location data.

“Some restrictions on people’s rights may be justifiable during a public health emergency, but people are being asked to sacrifice their privacy and turn over personal data for use by untested technologies,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Containing the pandemic and reopening society are essential goals, but we can do this without pervasive surveillance.”

While protecting human life and public health is a paramount concern of policymakers everywhere, Human Rights Watch warned that governments and the private sector should not promote or use unproven and untested technology. The long history of emergency measures shows that when surveillance is introduced, it usually goes too far, fails to meet its objectives, and once approved, often outlasts its justification. Mobile tracking programs intended to be temporary measures until the pandemic is under control and a vaccine is available may become permanent features of an expanded surveillance regime.

Excessively compromising privacy is a gateway to undermining other rights, such as freedom of movement, expression, and association. Mobile phone network data analysis creates granular, real-time targeting opportunities, which can be used by governments to enforce draconian quarantine measures. This is particularly problematic in the absence of transparent and meaningful limits on data collection, retention, and use. In the hands of governments that already have intrusive surveillance practices, such as China and Russia, this can magnify discrimination and repression.

Human Rights Watch also cautioned that over-reliance on mobile location tracking for Covid-19 responses could exclude marginalized groups who may not have reliable access to the internet and mobile technology, putting their health and livelihoods at risk. Some communities, such as migrant workers, refugees, and homeless people, live in cramped conditions that would undermine accuracy of contact tracing apps. Others that have suffered decades of abusive surveillance and repression may be very skeptical of these tracking technologies.

“Mobile tracking solutions create a two-tiered response to the pandemic that threatens to leave the poorest and most vulnerable people behind,” said Amos Toh, senior researcher on artificial intelligence and human rights. “Without meaningful input from minorities and other marginalized groups, tech-driven responses may reinforce systemic inequalities facing those hardest hit by the virus.”

There are serious questions as to whether the use of Covid-19 tracking initiatives can meet the international human rights standards of necessity and proportionality. Human Rights Watch said governments should first address the more fundamental question of whether such technologies are scientifically justified before using them or whether they may misrepresent an individual’s risk of infection or mislead the public. They should also assess whether there are ways to combat the pandemic that are less intrusive on rights, including proven containment methods such as manual contact tracing and expanding access to accurate testing and treatment.

“Before turning to data-driven technologies, we have to ask the basic questions: Will it work? And at what cost to our freedoms and health?” said Brown. “Time is of the essence, but a pandemic is no time to move fast and break things.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Homeless women sleep outside on a mattress in the "Villa 31" neighborhood during a government-ordered lockdown to curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. According to official data, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in this slum have increased in the past week, putting authorities on high alert. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
For households around the world, soon it will be the time of the month to start thinking about next month’s rent, mortgage or housing loan payments. Billions of people have been directly or indirectly affected by Covid-19. This unprecedented public health and economic crisis could easily turn into a devastating housing crisis.

Economies are struggling, and more than 25 million jobs may be lost by the end of 2020, as governments battle to contain the health crisis with social distancing and lockdowns. The two billion people who work in the informal sector are among the most at risk of losing income and often have no job security or safety net to fall back on. They could lose their homes.

Depending on how long we are confined to our homes, defaulting on rent, mortgage, equity loans or utilities payments could lead to evictions, attempts to seize property by mortgage providers and utility shut-offs.

In the United States, advocates are pushing for governments to take legislative or local action to protect renters, homeowners, landlords, and property managers. The US stimulus bill provided mortgage relief to certain homeowners. Some states and local governments have suspended utility disconnections and late fees.

Parts of Europe and Australia have taken similar steps. Some governments have initiatives or stimulus packages to provide financial assistance for businesses, including banks, landlords, and property managers. However, the policies so far have not covered the gambit of issues facing homeowners, renters, and those living without adequate housing. Nor do they recognize everyone’s right to adequate housing.

Women are concentrated in many of the groups that have been particularly hard hit by the looming recession — or depression — but who may have no access to social safety nets, including domestic workers, sex workers, and informal sector workers. Similarly, women and girls are at heightened risk of domestic violence during lockdowns due to social isolation, financial stress, breakdown of community structures and lack of information or access to social support, as well as disrupted court schedules.

The need for quick action to stem the pandemic has also drawn attention to people without adequate housing, including homelessness, and in camps and severely overcrowded locations. Before this public health crisis, over a billion people lived in informal settlements, and an estimated 150 million people, or about 2 percent of the world’s population, are homeless.

Some countries have recognized the need to find adequate housing for everyone, including those who are homeless. The effort to address the needs of this marginalized population put at risk by their inability to follow hygiene recommendations or social distancing is necessary and laudable. But what will happen when the danger to public health has passed? Homelessness is a human-rights crisis playing out across the world, and temporary fixes aren’t enough without a longer-term plan that centers on everyone’s right to adequate housing.

As Covid-19 restrictions ripple worldwide, governments need to act quickly to keep people who have homes safely and affordably in their abodes. Countries with government-backed mortgage programs with moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures should strengthen them.

Countries with huge informal settlements and encampments in slum areas with insecure title and tenure will face special challenges, as will countries with many people internally displaced or refugees living in camps or with relatives. All governments, at minimum, can make sure people aren’t forcibly evicted during this crisis. And if evictions happen, officials need to step in and ensure that people aren’t left without adequate housing.

UN-Habitat and humanitarian organizations have offered proposals for governments to consider to ensure that people maintain their housing in informal settlements and encampments. They have addressed the need for clear relevant information, affordable water and safe sanitation, financial support, and social protection measures.

And the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, has provided guidance notes on protecting renters, mortgage payers, people living in homelessness and residents of informal settlements. Yet many governments still seem overwhelmed by the looming public health crisis and still lag in responding to this potential housing crisis.

As governments decide how to protect their people and their economy, they should address the needs of those who could lose their homes. They should ensure that no one in adequate housing loses it during this health emergency. And they should take rapid steps to ensure that everyone without adequate housing gets it and that it isn’t temporary but lasting, as is their right.

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

Garment factory workers wear face masks as they end their work shift, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 20, 2020.

(c) 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

The European Union is a step closer to developing regulations for holding companies accountable for their actions. On April 28, European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, pledged support for binding rules requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence in their global supply chains, which could help protect millions of workers around the world.

The EU needs “real and mandatory regulations” that govern “human rights, social issues, and environmental issues,” Reynders said while presenting the EU’s study on due diligence for supply chains. He outlined a vision for “sustainable corporate governance” and explained that authorities at both EU and national government levels could oversee implementation.

The European Coalition for Corporate Justice and others, including Human Rights Watch, have long championed effective regulations.

Human Rights Watch has exposed environmental and human rights harms in global supply chains in the garment, construction, agriculture, and mining sectors. Deforestation, landgrabs, and poorly regulated mining have contributed to the climate crisis, forced resettlement, child labor, ill-health, and other serious abuses, in countries such as Brazil, Malawi, and Ghana. In others, like Uganda, Indonesia, and Brazil, mining and deforestation have displaced and decimated the livelihoods and identities of indigenous peoples.

Many companies are producing their wares in countries where labor rights regulatory frameworks are weak. In the garment industry, global brands and retailers have often benefited from poor wage and social protection systems in garment-exporting countries, and fueled labor abuses with unfair commercial practices. The Covid-19 crisis has sharpened attention to such problems, and the calamitous impact of that business model is being felt most by poor women workers who are part of the supply chains of these brands.

As the commission prepares to kick-off public consultations following Reynders’ pledge, it should develop its questionnaires for the process with inputs from key stakeholders, including human rights and environmental groups, trade unions, and grassroots organizations that have been at the forefront of holding corporations accountable. Setting a strong agenda that includes sanctions for companies and enforcement mechanisms, coupled with effective public consultations, will form the most solid foundation for the proposed EU regulations.

The time is ripe for the EU to learn from past lessons and finally enforce companies’ legal responsibility for rights abuses in their global supply chains. 

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

Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, attends a session on the first day of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 14, 2020. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Jens Meyer

(Washington, DC) – The International Monetary Fund should include anti-corruption measures in all its Covid-19 related emergency funding, 99 human rights and good governance groups said today in a letter to IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva. The IMF should take concrete steps to empower and assist independent groups to monitor these funds to help stem government corruption.

“Egypt is asking the IMF for emergency funding, but Egyptians can’t raise concerns about where the money is going without risking arrest,” said Sarah Saadoun, business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The IMF should protect Egyptian organizations’ ability to make sure any funds it gives Egypt are used to help the millions at risk of going hungry because of this crisis.”

The IMF has already approved almost US$15 billion in emergency financing to over 65 countries and is considering requests from at least an additional two dozen to help governments whose economies are reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. Most loan agreements include few or no government commitments to mitigate the risk of corruption, and the Fund appears to be taking a largely retroactive approach that relies on the good faith of governments and the assistance of independent monitoring groups, the organizations said.

Some loan agreements, such as a $147 million disbursement to Gabon, include transparency and anti-corruption measures, including a post-loan independent audit and a requirement to publish procurement plans with the names and beneficial ownership information of companies awarded contracts. This suggests that it is possible to do so without undue delay, and the Fund should apply such measures consistently to all emergency funding.

Moreover, the IMF apparently expects nongovernmental groups to informally monitor the use of its funds as part of an anti-corruption strategy. This would require measures to protect and strengthen groups’ ability to exercise such oversight. The groups are asking the IMF to:


  • Require government transparency. The Fund should consistently apply transparency and anti-corruption measures to all loans, such as requiring governments to conduct independent audits and publish procurement plans, including the names and beneficial owners of all companies awarded contracts.


  • Protect civil society groups’ ability to operate. The Fund should require governments to commit to respecting the rights of civil society groups and repeal or amend laws that prevent groups from safely monitoring government spending.


  • Formally recognize the role of independent monitoring groups. The Fund should formally recognize independent monitoring organizations as stakeholders in loan agreements and establish a channel for them to report allegations of wrongdoing. It should consider engaging select groups as independent monitoring organizations in contexts in which corruption risks are especially high.


  • Strengthen civil society groups’ capacities. The Fund should conduct virtual training to help build organizational capacity to monitor funds and consider providing willing groups with necessary resources, especially in countries where there are few groups with the resources to monitor government spending.

“It is good that the IMF’s $3.4 billion loan to Nigeria includes transparency requirements, such as publishing the names and owners of companies awarded contracts and a post-loan audit,” said Rev. Fr. Dr. Godswill Agbagwa, founder of CSAAE, a Nigeria-based youth-focused organization. “But nongovernmental organizations like mine need resources to verify the information the government publishes and monitor implementation of projects by government contractors.”



Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva

International Monetary Fund

700 19th Street NW

Washington, DC 20431


Re: Anti-corruption and the role of civil society in monitoring IMF emergency funding 


Dear IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva:

We are 99 civil society organizations located around the world and we are writing to request that the International Monetary Fund consistently and formally include anti-corruption measures in its Covid-19 pandemic-related emergency funding and take concrete steps to help protect and empower civil society groups to monitor these funds.

We are profoundly aware of the devastating scale of the global economic crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the urgency of providing governments the funds they need to effectively respond. As organizations that closely monitor corruption and its impacts, we also know that transparency and accountability are key to making sure the money the IMF is disbursing actually goes to protecting lives and livelihoods.

Recognizing this, you urged governments during the Spring 2020 Meetings to “spend what you can but make sure to keep the receipts. We don’t want transparency and accountability to take the back seat in this crisis.” However, most IMF loan agreements include few or no government commitments to mitigate the risk of corruption. Instead, the Fund appears to be taking a largely retroactive approach that relies on the good faith of governments and the close eye of independent monitoring groups.  

We appreciate that the urgent need for immediate funding and the nature of the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) and Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI) – the primary instruments for disbursing emergency funding – constrain the Fund’s ability to implement robust anti-corruption measures. However, some governments that have received funds through these mechanisms, such as Gabon,[1] have committed to transparency and anti-corruption measures, including:

  • Receiving all emergency funds in a single account with the Treasury and creating a new budget line for coronavirus-related spending.
  • Publishing a procurement plan that includes the names and beneficial ownership information of companies awarded contracts.
  • Agreeing to an independent audit within six months of receiving the funds.

The inclusion of these measures in some cases suggests that it is possible to do so without undue delay. The Fund should apply such measures consistently to all emergency funding.

Moreover, as the Fund has acknowledged, even these measures would be insufficient to adequately ensure accountability because emergency funding is provided in lump-sum payments. In our communications with the Fund, both staff and board members have emphasized that they intend for civil society groups to play a vital role in filling that gap by closely monitoring government spending and communicating their concerns to the IMF.

We are grateful that the Fund recognizes the crucial role civil society organizations play in holding their governments accountable, but this is a stopgap measure in the absence of more robust anti-corruption monitoring efforts by the IMF. It would also be imprudent for the Fund to rely on our oversight role without taking concrete steps to protect and strengthen our ability to effectively monitor these funds. Many of our groups work in countries where government spending is opaque, auditors do not exist or are not independent, and authorities do not tolerate criticism. Even where they can operate safely, many groups lack the technical capacity and resources to effectively monitor the billions of dollars in funding that the IMF is disbursing.

To protect and strengthen civil society monitoring of emergency funding, we urge the Fund to take the following measures:

  1. Require transparency. Monitoring groups are neither law enforcement nor the government’s lender, both of which have authority to investigate and control the funds. The Fund should consistently apply transparency and anti-corruption measures to all loans, such as requiring governments to conduct independent audits and publish procurement plans, including the names and beneficial owners of all companies awarded contracts.


  1. Protect groups’ ability to operate. Numerous countries have laws that limit freedom of association and expression in ways that undermine the ability of civil society groups to safely operate or effectively monitor IMF funds. For example, Sri Lanka has ordered police to arrest those who criticize government officials involved in the coronavirus response.[2] In other cases, there is no law or formal order explicitly prohibiting criticism of government policies, but officials nevertheless retaliate against those who criticize them. The Fund should require governments to commit to respecting the rights of civil society groups and repeal or amend laws that prevent groups from safely monitoring government spending.


  1. Formally recognize the role of monitoring groups. Monitoring groups can provide the Fund with valuable information regarding government spending, but they need a safe and effective channel to do so. The IMF should formally recognize independent monitoring organizations as stakeholders in loan agreements and establish a channel for them to report allegations of wrongdoing. It should consider engaging select groups as independent monitoring organizations in contexts where corruption risks are especially high.


  1. Strengthen groups’ capacities. The IMF’s unprecedented levels of spending, and the importance of the funding in light of the pandemic’s economic impact, has made monitoring government spending of IMF funds a new priority for many of our organizations. At the same time, the economic crisis means that many of our groups have even fewer resources than usual to operate. The Fund should conduct virtual trainings to help build organizational capacity to monitor funds and consider providing willing groups with necessary resources, especially in countries where there are few well-resourced groups monitoring government spending.

You opened this year’s Spring Meetings by noting that extraordinary times call for extraordinary action. The Fund should apply the same creativity and sense of urgency it has shown to support governments to help civil society groups ensure IMF funds go to the people who need it most.

We would be happy to meet with you to discuss these issues in more detail and would appreciate learning what steps you have taken in this regard.




Abibiman Foundation

AbibiNsroma Foundation (ANF)

Accountability Lab

Actions for Development and Empowerment

Africa Development Interchange Network (ADIN)

Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ)

AHAM Humanitarian Resource Center

Alliance Sud


Alyansa Tigil Mina (Alliance to STop Mining)

American Jewish World Service

Arab Watch Coalition



Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos de Bolivia

Ayiti Nou Vle A

BudgIT Foundation

Buliisa Initaitive for Rural Development Organisation (BIRUDO)

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

Center for Social Awareness, Advocacy and Ethics

Center for Democratic Education

Centre for Environmental Justice

Centre for Human Rights and Development 



Connected Development 

Consumer Unity and Trust Society Zambia

Corporación Acción Ciudadana Colombia - AC-Colombia


Development Alliance NGO

Ensemble Contre la Corruption-ECC

Environics Trust

Etika Asbl, Luxemburg

Facing Finance

FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)

First Peoples Worldwide

FORES - Argentina

Foundation for the Conservation of the Earth (FOCONE)

Freedom House

Fundacón Ambiente y Recursos Naturales

Gambia Participates 

Global Legal Action Network

Global Network for Sustainable Development

Global Witness

Green Advocates International 

Heartland Initiative 

Human Rights Online Philippines (HRonlinePH)

Human Rights Watch


Indian Social Action Forum

Integrity Initiatives Internaitonal 

Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility

International Accountability Project (IAP)

International Campaign for the Rohingya

Jamaa Resources Initiatives

Liberia CSO Anti-Corruption Coalition - LCACC

Living Laudato Si' Philippines


Mongolian Women's Employment Supporting Federation 

NGO Forum on ADB

Nigeria Network and Campaign for Peace Education 

North East Coordinating Committee 

Oil Workers' Rights Protection Organization Public Union



Oyu Tolgoi Watch

PEFA Forum

Phenix Center for Economic Studies

Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc. 

Photo Circle

Positivo Malawi

Project Blueprint


Rchard Matey


Réseau Camerounais des Organisations des droits de l'homme

Rights CoLab

Rivers Without Boundaries Mongolia

Sano Paila (A Little Step)


Sayanaa Wellbeing Association

Shadow World Investigations (formerly Corruption Watch UK)

Sibuyan Against Mining / Bayay Sibuyanon Inc. 

Slums Information Development and Resource Centers (SIDAREC)

Task Force Detainees of the Philippines 

The Future We Need


Universal Rights and Development NGO


Witness Radio Organization - Uganda

Women's Action Network

WoMin African Alliance

YES Project Initiative 

Youth Empowerment & Leadership Foundation

Youth Group on Protection of Environment 

Zambia National Education Coalition

[1] IMF, Gabon: Request for a Purchase Under the Rapid Financing Instrument, April 16, 2020,

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Sri Lanka Uses Pandemic to Curtail Free Expression,” April 3, 2020,

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Workers shout slogans during a May Day march in Yangon, Myanmar, May 1, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Thein Zaw

In previous years on May 1, workers across Myanmar would rally and march in solidarity for workers’ rights and justice. But this May Day the streets will be quiet, as no marches are allowed with Covid-19 lockdowns and curfews in place.

Most factories in Myanmar closed on April 13 for the annual water festival celebrations. The government then ordered they remain closed until April 30 while Covid-19 related inspections were conducted. More than 500 factories in Yangon and Mandalay have now been inspected and are slowly resuming operations.

In the meantime, at least 60,000 workers have lost their jobs as factories shut down amid a global slowdown in supply chain orders caused by the pandemic. Many affected workers toil in the garments sector, where unions in Myanmar have some of the strongest representation. But as factories close, concerns are growing that some employers will use the pandemic as an excuse to attack and dismantle unions.

A union member from one factory told Human Rights Watch that factory shutdowns like these are tactics to fire union members. “Although my factory paid us our benefits and wages, they fired all the union members first,” she said.

More than half a million people live and work in the industrial zones on Yangon’s outskirts. Many have moved from rural areas to find these jobs. They live precariously on empty lots as squatters, or packed into dormitory-style accommodations in quarters shared with multi-generational families and friends.

May Day should prompt the Myanmar government to redouble efforts to support and assist these factory workers. A good way to proceed is for local authorities to review the layoffs and retrenchments during the lockdown, to minimize job loss and where inevitable, ensure layoffs are nondiscriminatory. Now is not the time to abandon workers or target union organizers.

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

A food vendor working in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, New York, serves a traditional pastry from her country of El Salvador, November 17, 2016. 

© 2016 AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

COVID-19 has thrown New York City’s inequalities into sharp relief. People in low-paying jobs and immigrant workers have been the hardest hit by job losses. And for many of those most vulnerable to economic shocks, informal workers like street vendors, federal measures designed to cushion the blows are providing no relief.

The vast majority of street vendors in New York are low-income immigrant workers who rely on busy streets to survive. Without a safety net, they will fall into debt and have difficulty caring for their families or paying rent — or they may risk their health and well-being trying to make up the lost income.

This is already happening.

On April 21, I spoke with a woman, one of 360,000 undocumented workers in New York City, who has been a street vendor for 20 years. She sells tamales, rice pudding and corn with mayonnaise on the streets of Brooklyn. She said she stopped working after March 9 as the lockdown restrictions became stricter. While those selling food, fruits and vegetables are considered essential and can remain open, some vendors report that their sales have fallen by more than half.

This vendor is a single mother of four children, and with every day that passes, her financial worries mount. She considered going back to work, but fear of contracting the virus and possibly infecting her children has kept her inside. She also has diabetes, which increases the risk of serious complications from the virus.

“In normal days, we already live from day to day,” she told me. “Now, I am worried about having enough to put food on the table.”

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act delivers no financial assistance to workers like her. Although she pays taxes on what she sells, she is ineligible for government support because she does not have a Social Security number. She will not receive the one-time payment of $1,200, and cannot apply for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which is closed to undocumented workers, even if they pay taxes.

Her rent is $1,000 a month. Utility costs are $300. She wasn’t able to pay the April rent. She never missed a payment before and considers herself lucky because her landlady has been understanding. But she is concerned about paying the accumulated rent in several months. Normally, she works 14-hour days, six or seven days a week, making just $80 in profit per day, putting her below the city’s poverty threshold.

State and local governments, aided by private philanthropies, are attempting to fill in some of the gaps in the COVID-19 safety net. California plans to distribute $500 to 150,000 undocumented adults. The NYC-based Street Vendor Project aims to raise $90,000 to support its members. On April 17, the Open Society Foundation announced $20 million for a relief fund providing one-time payments to 20,000 immigrant families in New York City. And on April 26, New York City introduced a Fair Recovery Task Force, which Mayor de Blasio said would address the economic inequalities that the crisis has exposed.

Yet these measures are unlikely to be sufficient. The next federal stimulus package should support migrant workers and their families, who have a right to an adequate standard of living. New York City and state should expand financial support to those most in need, which could include direct cash transfers until lockdown restrictions are lifted.

To achieve lasting changes and reduce inequalities that create such extreme vulnerability to crisis, the government needs to strengthen a deeply frayed social safety net and extend labor protections to all workers, including undocumented ones.

“Every day I wake up and worry about what will happen the next day, the next week,” the Brooklyn street vendor told me. “More than anything, I want to be treated as human being, I want the government to see us as part of the community. We too have rights.”

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

Leroy Jones, who was formerly incarcerated, joins other demonstrators, Wednesday, April 9, 2003, where the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments on vote restoration for people with prior felony convictions. 15 years later, the constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, lifted a voting ban on approximately 1.4 million Florida citizens with felony convictions – except for murder or sex offenses – who had completed their criminal sentences.   

© 2003 J. Pat Carter/AP Photo

(Miami, Florida) – Florida will need to ensure the voting rights of all citizens in the state, including those convicted of felonies, regardless of how a United States federal court rules in a trial that begins on April 27, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.

The trial in Jones v. DeSantis will be conducted by phone in the US district court for the Northern District of Florida. It will decide whether and how people with former felony convictions whose voting rights were restored in an amendment to the state constitution passed in 2018 will have to pay restitution, fines, and fees assessed by Florida’s courts before they can vote. The ruling could result in a process for voters to resolve the fines and fees issue, enabling registration and voting. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., and the Brennan Center for Justice, among others. The state of Florida is defending the case.

“There should be absolutely no requirement to pay the government to exercise the right to vote in the state of Florida, or anywhere in the world,” said Alison Leal Parker, managing director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “Florida’s citizens are struggling to pay restitution, fines, and fees because of poverty, bureaucratic confusion, or both. Now more than ever, Florida needs to make it easy in every way for citizens to exercise their basic voting rights.”

The constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, lifted a voting ban on approximately 1.4 million Florida citizens with felony convictions – except for murder or sex offenses – who had completed their criminal sentences. In a subsequent law enacted in June 2019, SB 7066, Florida required these same citizens, known as “returning citizens,” to pay all of their legal financial obligations – or “LFOs,” comprising restitution, fines, and fees – before they could vote.

Both Florida’s original disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions who had completed their sentences and the 2019 statute requiring this payment violate international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. As early as 1998, in a joint report with the Sentencing Project, Human Rights Watch stated that felony disenfranchisement after a sentence was completed, especially for a broad category of offenses like all felonies, violates article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty to which the US is a party.

Further, requiring people to pay fines, fees, and restitution violates that treaty’s requirement not to subject the right to vote to a “distinction of any kind, such as … race … property, birth or other status.” Whether or not a person can afford these fees, the requirement to pay before voting is unreasonable as it amounts to a de facto restriction on the right to vote based on property requirements. It’s also inconsistent with the state's obligations to take effective measures to ensure that everyone entitled to vote can do so. 

Florida’s Black citizens and those who were children at the time of their offense present particular rights concerns. According to the Sentencing Project, as of 2016, 21 percent of Florida’s Black voting age population was disenfranchised due to felony convictions. Also, a subset of those with felony convictions in Florida are people who were under age 18 when they were prosecuted as adults under Florida’s “direct file statute,” in violation of children’s human rights. These children, now adults, often lost the right to vote before they even reached voting age.

Some Florida citizens who should have been enfranchised by Amendment 4 cannot afford the restitution, fines, and fees they owe. It also has been difficult for them to navigate Florida’s system to determine if they owe anything, and if they do, how to pay. One expert involved in voter registration interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the state faces “an administrative nightmare for returning citizens. There is so much confusion. People want to know, ‘is it okay to register?’ There is a lot of fear and confusion over if you’re going to get into trouble. It’s frankly a mess.”

According to a November 2019 official report, published after hearings on implementing SB 7066, Ken Burke, the Circuit Court clerk for Pinellas County, “confirmed that the system is not yet in place where the citizen could obtain information from one Clerk of Court about all counties or circuits.” This means that potential voters with restitution, fines, and fees records originating in more than one Florida county face almost insurmountable hurdles to comply with the law under consideration in the April 27 trial.

Another practical problem is that some of the fines and fees are held by private corporations, a practice that Human Rights Watch reported on in its 2018 report ‘Set Up To Fail.’ Private businesses have no incentive to facilitate payment of debts that would allow people to regain the right to vote, Human Rights Watch said.

Another expert involved in voter registration told Human Rights Watch that some fees “weren’t paid in the courthouse and citizens weren’t given a receipt. Sometimes their payments were given to a third-party business. There is often inadequate record of payment. That system of records was never intended to determine if a person could vote or not vote.”

The Covid-19 pandemic adds an extraordinary set of hurdles to this state of confusion, Human Rights Watch said. The Jones trial is being held over the phone because courts have been closed for non-essential services in light of the public health emergency. For those same reasons, returning citizens will struggle to get help or information from the courts and other offices are unlikely to be open to take payments.

“Already some Florida citizens were too poor to pay restitution, fines, and fees, already they struggled with poor state record keeping to determine what they owed and to whom, and already their human right to vote was under threat in Florida,” Parker said. “Now, Covid-19 is exacerbating all of these problems.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am