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

Main building of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment and the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport in The Hague, Netherlands.

© 2019 Sipa via AP Images

Courts held hearings on a lawsuit by a number of groups concerned at the draconian Dutch system in late October, with a decision awaited in January.

The Netherlands is consistently ranked as one of the world’s strongest democracies. You might be surprised to learn that it is also home to one of the most intrusive surveillance systems that automates tracking and profiling of the poor. 

On 29 October, the District Court of the Hague held hearings on the legality of Systeem Risico Indicatie (SyRI), the Dutch government’s automated system for detecting welfare fraud. The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of civil society groups and activists, argues that the system violates data protection laws and human rights standards.

SyRI is a risk calculation model developed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment to predict an individual’s likelihood of engaging in benefits and tax fraud, and violations of labor laws. SyRI’s calculations tap into vast pools of personal and sensitive data collected by various government agencies, from employment records to benefits information, and personal debt reports to education and housing history. 

When the system profiles an individual as a fraud risk, it notifies the relevant government agency, which has up to two years to open an investigation.

The selective rollout of SyRI in predominantly low-income neighborhoods has created a surveillance regime that disproportionately targets poorer citizens for more intrusive scrutiny. So far, the ministry has worked with municipal authorities to implement SyRI in Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ second largest city, which has the highest poverty rate in the country, as well as Eindhoven and Haarlem. During the hearing, the government admitted that SyRI has been targeted at neighborhoods with higher numbers of residents on welfare, despite the lack of evidence that these neighborhoods are responsible for higher rates of benefits fraud.

But SyRI doesn’t just have discriminatory effects on the privacy of welfare beneficiaries. It could also facilitate violations of their right to social security. Because SyRI is shrouded in secrecy, welfare beneficiaries have no meaningful way of knowing when or how the system’s calculations are factored into decisions to cut them off from lifesaving benefits.

The government has refused to disclose how SyRI works, for fear that explaining its risk calculation algorithms will enable fraudsters to game the system. But it has disclosed that the system generates “false positives” – cases in which the system erroneously flags individuals as a fraud risk.

Without more transparent explanations, it is impossible to know whether these errors have led to improper investigations against welfare beneficiaries or the wrongful suspension of their benefits.

The government claims it uses these “false positives” to rectify flaws in its risk calculation model, but there is also no way to test this claim. In fact, it is anyone’s guess whether the system maintains a high enough accuracy rate to justify risk assessments that keep people under suspicion for up to two years.  

SyRI is part of a broader global trend to integrate Artificial Intelligence and other data-driven technologies into the administration of welfare benefits and other essential services. But these technologies are frequently rolled out without meaningful consultation with welfare beneficiaries or the broader public. 

In the case of SyRI, the system was authorized by Parliament as part of a package of welfare reforms enacted in 2014. However, the government experimented with high-tech fraud detection initiatives for almost a decade before relenting to legislative scrutiny. Local groups have also complained that the legislative process was inadequate. According to the lawsuit, Parliament failed to meaningfully address privacy and data protection concerns that were raised by its own legislative advisory council as well as the government’s data protection watchdog.  

The court will issue its decision in January. We will be watching to see if it protects the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable people from the vagaries of automation. 

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

US President Donald Trump shown prior to the 2019 G-7 summit in southern France, during a lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron. 

© 2019 Ludovic Marin/AP Images

In announcing he would not, after all, award the 2020 summit of the Group of Seven major industrial nations to his own resort in Florida, President Donald Trump tweeted, “I thought I was doing something very good for our Country,” and disparaged the “Crazed and Irrational Hostility” of his critics.

Even in backing down, Trump rejects any expectation that he should separate his public office from his business interests. Awarding himself the G-7 summit was especially audacious not least because in 2016, the G-7 committed to fighting corruption specifically in government contracts. But this brazen attempt at self-dealing was consistent with the Trump administration’s long record of retreating from America’s bipartisan role as a leader in the fight against global corruption.

Trump retreat from corruption fight 

The United States has long understood that corruption has profoundly corrosive and transnational ripple effects. Where there is impunity for official corruption, government itself becomes a means for the elite to enrich itself and silence its critics. Corruption allowed to fester breeds poverty, violence and instability that can have far reaching consequences. Human Rights Watch, the World Bank and others have documented how corruption often disproportionately harms the poor, denying them access to basic rights such as health, education and fair trials.

Recognizing this, the United States has pioneered groundbreaking efforts to curb corruption through its laws, enforcement and diplomacy. When the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibited U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials in 1977, no other country had a similar law, but similar laws have since been enacted by the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, France and many other countries.

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act required publicly traded oil, gas and mining companies to publish what they pay to foreign governments, a provision that inspired copycat laws in Canada, the European Union and Norway.

Also in 2010, the Department of Justice established an innovative kleptocracy asset recovery initiative, dedicated to seizing illicit funds laundered in the United States and returning them for the benefit of the public from whom they were stolen.

The United States, however, has retreated from this role under Trump, who once disparaged the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as “ridiculous” and a “terrible law.” The Dodd-Frank transparency provision hasn’t yet gone into effect because Congress, with Trump’s support, repealed the federal rule creating the disclosure requirement and has yet to propose a replacement.

The Trump administration also withdrew the United States from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a global standard for transparency around natural resources.

Ukraine to Guatemala, walking away

But it’s more than that. The Trump administration sought to cut funding for foreign anti-corruption programs, including in Ukraine. And it has noticeably demurred using its formidable diplomatic leverage to combat corruption in places where America's voice was once decisive. There is perhaps no better example of this transformation and its enormous stakes for the rights of ordinary citizens than Guatemala. 

Endemic corruption in Guatemala has allowed organized crime to thrive, fueling grave abuses. Yet the Trump administration helped strangle a fledgling anti-corruption commission in Guatemala, which shuttered its doors in September. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, was backed by the United Nations and founded in 2007 with the strong support of President George W. Bush. The United States, its top donor, had given it $44 million.

In 2015, when then-President Otto Pérez Molina threatened to end CICIG’s mandate, he said he reversed course because the Obama administration made its continuation “practically a condition” for U.S. aid. Only months later, Pérez Molina was forced to resign after a CICIG investigation connected him to massive corruption. 

In sharp contrast, the Trump administration has stood by silently since Guatemala’s latest president, Jimmy Morales, whom CICIG has also accused of corruption, announced last year that he would not extend the commission’s mandate.

Trump is role model for corruption

Beyond that, Trump’s flagrant self-dealing, by echoing the language of kleptocrats, is itself a major blow to the fight against global corruption. Soon after he was elected, he told The New York Times he sees no problem pursuing his business interests during official meetings. “The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he said.

He has also refused to release his tax returns or divest from his complex web of international businesses, as all modern U.S. presidents have done. (He promised to put his businesses in a revocable trust run by his sons, although it would do little to resolve the risk of conflict of interest, and no trust agreement has been made public.) Since then, he has regularly used the presidency in ways that benefit his businesses — for example, making over 360 visits to properties he owns at enormous public expense.

In pursuing these open conflicts of interest, Trump gives cover to other kleptocrats who loot public funds. In one 2011 case, the Justice Department's anti-kleptocracy unit seized a private plane, California mansion and other assets belonging to Teodorin Obiang, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, where I have spent years documenting corruption and its contributions to the dire state of health, education and human rights. Justice uncovered evidence detailing how officials, including the president’s son, siphoned off millions in government funds by awarding enormous contracts to companies they own.

Obiang’s defense was that he did not break any laws because conflict of interest rules don’t apply to senior officials. Justice vigorously protested this argument and ultimately settled the case for $30 million, which the agency must now repatriate for the benefit of ordinary Equatorial Guineans.

Trump backed away from his most audacious attempt at self-dealing in the face of criticism from Republicans, but they were merely treating a symptom. They should return to the fight against corruption at home and abroad.

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

An airplane trace is seen behind a Kyrgyzstan national flag fluttering in a central square in Bishkek March 11, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

(Berlin) – Draft amendments to Kyrgyzstan’s trade union law would severely inhibit independent trade union organizing and violate international labor treaties to which Kyrgyzstan is a party, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament should reject the amendments when they are presented for a third reading.

The draft amendments would require industry and regional trade unions to join a higher-tier national confederation, the Kyrgyzstan Federation of Trade Unions. The federation, which would be the only union recognized by the national government, would have the authority to approve charters and other activities of lower-tier unions, severely limiting their ability to operate independently.

“This law would cripple independent trade unions in Kyrgyzstan, undermining workers’ right to organize,” said Laura Mills, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kyrgyzstan should be protecting and facilitating freedom of association, not finding ways to undermine it.”

On October 3, 2019, parliament passed the bill in a second reading by 84 out of 120 votes. The time of the third and final vote is not confirmed. If adopted, the bill would be sent to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov for approval.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), of which Kyrgyzstan has been a member since 1992, said the law would create a “monopoly” on union organizing, and urged lawmakers to revise the bill to maintain “trade union diversity.” It said the draft violates key international conventions on freedom of association: Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, and Convention 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining. Kyrgyzstan is a party to both conventions.

The independent Kyrgyzstan legal clinic Adilet analyzed the law and also concluded that it would effectively grant “monopoly rights” over union activity to the federation.

IndustriALL Global Union, which represents industrial workers in more than 140 countries, including Kyrgyzstan, said the bill “threatens the existence of independent trade unions in the country.”

A representative for the European Union in Kyrgyzstan told local media outlets that it was monitoring the law, and reiterated that the preferential tariffs for Kyrgyzstan in trade relations with the EU partly depend on compliance with ILO conventions protecting freedom of association and assembly.

If the law is passed, unions would be given six months to rewrite their charters to comply with the law. If they fail to do so they could be dissolved by court order, and the trade union’s property would automatically transfer to the Federation.

The law would also strengthen the authority of the Federation of Trade Unions chairperson. It would become nearly impossible for members to remove the chairperson, even with a vote of no confidence.

Although the draft passed after the second vote includes a new clause on “independent unions” that would not legally be required to affiliate with the Federation of Trade Unions, experts said that this revision does not address the draft law’s failure to respect labor standards. Defined as lowest-tier local or company unions because of their small size, these “independent” unions would not have the key capacities of trade unions or protections as envisaged under international labor standards.

In addition to violating ILO conventions, the draft law is incompatible with the guarantees of freedom of association set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and Kyrgyzstan’s constitution.

Aspects of the law, such as the mandatory affiliation requirement, closely resemble a trade union law passed in neighboring Kazakhstan in 2014. The ILO has repeatedly criticized that law, as well as the authorities’ related crackdown on independent union activists.

“This new law would critically undermine trade unions, which are key to defending workers’ rights and interests in the workplace,” Mills said. “Kyrgyzstan’s parliament should show its commitment to fundamental human rights and freedoms by rejecting this bill in its current form.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, shown obscured in smoke in November 2018, after the disastrous Camp Fire occurred north of Sacramento. US Interior Secretary at the time, Ryan Zinke, said wildfires in California in 2018 released roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as are produced each year to provide electricity to the state.

© 2018 Eric Risberg/AP Images

Air pollution is on the rise in the United States after steadily declining from 2009 to 2016, according to new research published this month. The study, based on data from 1.8 million daily readings of air monitors in 653 counties across the US, also finds that increased air pollution was associated with 9,700 premature deaths between 2016 and 2018. These findings exemplify what amount to serious threats to the rights to health, life, and a healthy environment.

The working paper was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan US-based research organization. The study attributes the 5.5 percent increase in fine particulate pollution since 2013 to factors including more frequent wildfires and decreased enforcement of the Clean Air Act, the federal law designed to control national air pollution. In addition to increased deaths, fine particulate pollution has been linked to asthma, heart and lung disease, strokes, lung cancer, and respiratory infections.

The authors highlighted a dramatic decline in penalties for violations of the Clean Air Act. Between 2016 and 2018, there was an approximately 40 percent decline in recorded 113d violations, the most common enforcement action that results in a fine or penalty. While the study does not conclusively tie this decline to inadequate regulatory oversight alone, it is worrisome when combined with the Trump administration’s overall lack of environmental enforcement and the increase in US air pollution since 2016.

Industrial activities, which have increased in the US since 2016, pollute the air and contribute to climate change. Climate change can increase the risk of wildfires that further pollute air and emit toxins harmful to human health. This link, which the Trump Administration has acknowledged, illustrates a concerning point: air pollution can contribute to climate change while the effects of climate change can contribute to and exacerbate the health risks posed by air pollution.

Trump has made cutting regulations that protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions a cornerstone of his presidency. Human Rights Watch has documented cases where these rollbacks hurt efforts to reduce air and water pollution. For example, the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule directly impacts coal communities’ access to safe water and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing weakening of rules around coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal, threatens rights to water, health, and a safe environment.

This new research is yet another critical reminder that the public pays for poor environmental regulation and the impacts of climate change with their health, and sometimes, their lives.

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

Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech at an investment seminar organized by the Japan External Trade Organization in Tokyo on October 8, 2018. 

© 2018 Kyodo via AP Images

(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should publicly hold Myanmar to account for military atrocities committed against Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, Human Rights Watch said today. It should discourage Japanese investment that would benefit the military or at the expense of minority groups.

On October 21, 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, is slated to speak in Tokyo at a conference sponsored by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) to promote investment and business opportunities in Myanmar. When she has spoken at previous investment forums in Japan, Aung San Suu Kyi has downplayed or ignored the military’s serious abuses against the Rohingya.

“The Japanese government has been pitifully reluctant to speak out against abuses by Myanmar’s military, so officials should use Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to raise these issues directly,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Japan’s recent re-election to the UN Human Rights Council should encourage the government to improve its human rights foreign policy, including by calling on Japanese companies not to contribute to rights violations in Myanmar.”

In August 2017, the Myanmar military began a large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State, committing crimes against humanity and forcing more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Nearly one million Rohingya now live in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, while another 600,000 remain in Myanmar, confined to camps and villages without basic rights.

Japan has not acted to hold the Myanmar government accountable for abuses, but instead has continued business as usual. Earlier in October 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Tokyo with Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, whom the United Nations-mandated Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said should be among those investigated for “genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes” against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Abe told Hlaing the military should address the allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine State by acting on the proposals of the government’s discredited International Commission of Enquiry, but ignored international efforts to address accountability.

The UN Fact-Finding Mission, in August, released a report on the Myanmar military’s control over the country’s economy and the main military conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). The two entities help the military, the Tatmadaw, generate considerable revenue and influence by strengthening “the Tatmadaw’s autonomy from elected civilian oversight and provid[ing] financial support for the Tatmadaw’s operations with their wide array of international human rights and humanitarian law violations.” The Fact-Finding Mission pressed for the international community to urgently take steps toward the financial isolation of the military.

Japanese investors should abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which provide that business enterprises have a responsibility to respect human rights by avoiding causing or contributing to human rights abuses through their own activities, and by seeking to prevent abuses that are directly linked to their operations by their business relationships. That would mean doing no business with Myanmar companies that have ties to the military and ensuring that investment did not worsen the human rights situation for Rohingya in Rakhine State.

The Japanese government should cooperate with international efforts to pursue accountability for the Myanmar military’s crimes against the Rohingya. This includes voting in favor of Myanmar-related human rights resolutions at the UN, calling for access to the country for the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, and closely cooperating with the UN’s new Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.

“Encouraging foreign investment while ignoring human rights will only embolden the Myanmar government and military to further whitewash the heinous acts committed against the Rohingya,” Robertson said. “Not only have military commanders evaded justice for their widespread crimes but they have done so while sabotaging the country’s economic and democratic growth.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Demonstrators march outside the US Capitol during the Poor People's Campaign rally in Washington, DC, June 23, 2018. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

(New York) – Governments should heed the call of the United Nations’ leading expert on poverty to fully integrate human rights protections into their efforts to digitize and automate welfare benefits and services, seven human rights groups said today.

In a report released this week, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warns that the rapid digitization and automation of welfare systems is hurting the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. Although governments have pledged to use these technologies to create more equitable and inclusive welfare programs, Alston found that the technologies have been used in ways that “surveil, target, harass, and punish beneficiaries.”  

“The UN expert’s findings show that automating welfare services poses unique and unprecedented threats to welfare rights and privacy,” said Amos Toh, senior artificial intelligence and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Using technology to administer welfare has risks and is not a panacea for rights-based reforms that safeguard the dignity and autonomy of society’s most vulnerable people.”

The human rights groups are Access Now, AlgorithmWatch, Amnesty International, Child Poverty Action Group, Human Rights Watch, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, and Privacy International.

In the first global UN survey of digital welfare systems, Alston found that governments increasingly rely on automated decision-making and other data-driven technologies to verify the identity of welfare beneficiaries, assess their eligibility for various services, calculate benefit amounts, and detect welfare fraud. But the use of these technologies can create serious harm to human rights, the groups said.

The automation of key welfare functions without sufficient transparency, due process, and accountability raises the specter of mass violations of welfare rights. In the United Kingdom, errors in the Real Time Information System, which calculates benefits payments based on earnings information reported to the tax authority, have caused potentially catastrophic delays and reductions in benefit payments for impoverished families. Design flaws in automated fraud detection systems in Australia and the United States have also triggered debt notices to scores of beneficiaries, wrongfully accusing them of welfare fraud.

“Automated decision-making should be made more transparent, as highlighted by the rapporteur, in three important ways,” said Matthias Spielkamp, executive director of AlgorithmWatch. “Citizens need to be able to understand what policies are implemented using algorithms and automation. The administration has to keep a register of all complex automation processes it uses that directly affect citizens. Also, there needs to be transparency of responsibility, so that people know who to contact to challenge a decision.”

The development of digital identity systems to screen welfare beneficiaries also increases the risk of unnecessary and disproportionate surveillance, and attendant risks to people’s security. In India, Human Rights Watch has found that the government’s mandatory biometric identification project, Aadhaar, imposes invasive data collection requirements as a condition for getting allotments of subsidized food grains and other essential public services.

In Kenya, Amnesty International has raised concern about the lack of adequate privacy protections and independent oversight in the national biometric identification system, Huduma Namba. Registration with the system is a condition of accessing welfare benefits and other government services.

“Before forcing entire populations into using digital identity programs, governments must first ask themselves, ‘Why ID?’, and prove these systems are necessary and will actually provide the intended benefits,” said Peter Micek, general counsel at Access Now. “With ill-conceived digital identity programs, authorities force communities to give up fundamental rights such as privacy in exchange for their rights to food, shelter, and well-being.”

Alston found that government agencies around the world undertake a wide range of “crucial decisions to go digital” without meaningful transparency or even a legal basis for doing so, denying “opportunities for legislative debate and for public inputs into shaping the relevant systems.”

“Independent oversight findings of illegality are being completely ignored,” said Elizabeth Farries, information rights program manager of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. “In Ireland, the government refuses to halt its compulsory rollout of the biometric Public Services Card for a wide range of services, despite being ordered to stop by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.” 

The groups also endorsed the UN expert’s recommendation that governments should establish laws ensuring that the private sector incorporates transparency, accountability, and other human rights safeguards in the development and sale of technologies to facilitate the delivery of welfare services and benefits.

"Whilst governments have been the ones increasingly pushing for digital welfare policies, we must also consider the other stakeholders driving this agenda,” said Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion, director of strategy at Privacy International. “As pointed out by the special rapporteur, the private sector plays a role, but we maintain that we must also address the role of investment structures, such as the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, and leading funders. All those in the ecosystem must be held to account to protect people and to ensure they can live with dignity and autonomy, free from undue surveillance and exploitation. ”
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Re: Docket No. EPA-HQ-OLEM-2018-0524

 

Dear Administrator Wheeler:

We are writing to strongly oppose several of the changes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed making to the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule.[1] The changes risk effectively exempting businesses from preventing, monitoring, and correcting pollution emanating from many coal ash piles, apparently including the 400,000-ton mountain of coal ash in Puerto Rico. In doing so, the EPA threatens the health of people living near coal ash piles by exposing them to unacceptable risk of air and groundwater pollution.

Human Rights Watch is an independent nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights abuses in close to 100 countries around the world, including the United States. A significant issue that Human Rights Watch monitors is compliance with the rights to safe water and a healthy environment.

Coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal combustion, is the second-largest waste stream in the United States, with over 110 million tons produced each year.[2] Until the EPA enacted the CCR rule in 2015,[3] most coal ash not sold for reuse was disposed of in unlined surface impoundments or landfills. The extent of pollution from these sites only became clear last year, after disclosure groundwater monitoring rules went into effect.

According to EarthJustice, an independent nonprofit organization that closely tracks coal ash pollution, 91 percent of reporting coal-fired units have contaminated groundwater with toxic substances, such as arsenic, boron, lead, and radium, at levels exceeding federal safety standards.[4] Groundwater pollution is especially problematic in rural areas, where coal ash disposal sites are frequently located, because rural communities also frequently rely on private wells that are not monitored or regulated by the state or federal government. According to the EPA, six million people live near coal plants affected by these regulations.[5] Some of the toxic metals in coal ash, such as arsenic, are imperceptible to human senses and cannot be removed from water using standard household filters.

The risk of contamination is exacerbated by more frequent and extreme storms due to climate change.[6] Heavy rains from Hurricane Florence, a 2018 storm that hit North Carolina, eroded a coal ash landfill, spilling the toxic coal ash onto a local roadway, and later breached a dam that sent coal ash spilling into a nearby river.[7] After Hurricane Maria pounded a coal ash pile in Puerto Rico with 15 inches of rain, tests of a monitoring well found a two-fold increase in arsenic levels, according to a local news report.[8]

Recent studies have also begun to shed light on the health risks of air pollution from coal ash. For example, a peer-reviewed study by University of Louisville epidemiologists found that children living near a coal ash landfill in Louisville, Kentucky, were significantly more likely to have health and behavioral problems than those in a comparison group, even after controlling for age, gender, and second-hand smoke exposure.[9] A second peer-reviewed study conducted by the same university found higher rates of respiratory problems in communities exposed to coal ash than a comparison group, and an ongoing study of the same community found coal ash containing toxic metals in two-thirds of the 162 homes tested, all of which had children living there.[10]

Recognizing these serious health risks, the 2015 CCR rule put in place rules to prevent, monitor, and remediate coal ash pollution.[11] The EPA already weakened this rule in 2017, including by allowing states, many of which failed to properly regulate coal ash for decades, to introduce “flexibilities” in how they implement and enforce the rule.[12] The agency’s proposal would unacceptably further weaken this rule by exempting the form of coal ash disposal with the highest risk of pollution from coal ash regulations.

In addition to the immediate health risk this poses, the agency’s proposal would allow coal plants to externalize the cost of their pollution, namely that health costs and costs of remediating environmental pollution would be borne by government and not the coal industry, effectively subsidizing a major contributor to climate change.

Coal ash piles

This submission will focus on changes to rules governing coal ash piles, as others have already appropriately raised concerns about changes to beneficial reuse.[13] A little less than half of coal ash in the United States is sold for reuse.[14] Such coal ash is generally stored in piles on the coal plant site until it is transported to the purchasing company, where it again is stored as a pile until reused in other materials, such as concrete and structural fill. Coal ash piles are exactly what the name implies: they lack liners, caps, or any structure engineered to prevent pollution.

The 2015 CCR rule sought to address the environmental and human health risks of coal ash piles while taking into account their practical function as temporary storage prior to reuse by distinguishing between piles located on coal plant sites and those off site. In this way, coal plants that handle a constant stream of large volumes of coal ash would be subject to more stringent environmental requirements than businesses managing smaller, temporary piles.

At the request of AES, a utility company that operates a coal plant in Puerto Rico that houses the largest coal ash pile subject to United States regulations, the EPA is proposing to do away with that distinction and effectively exempt coal ash piles from the 2015 regulations requiring groundwater monitoring and remediation.[15] In its place, the agency is proposing to provide entities “with flexibility to determine the control measures most appropriate to meet the requirement to control releases” under existing rules – in other words, to revert to the regulatory framework which initially led to widespread coal ash contamination. To do so would potentially affect people living near coal ash piles across the United States, but nowhere more so than in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico

In 2017, AES petitioned the EPA to change its rules to exempt coal ash piles from regulation.[16] That same year, groundwater monitoring revealed that its more than 400,000-ton coal ash pile located near the plant it operates in Guayama, Puerto Rico, was leaching arsenic, molybdenum, selenium, and lithium into the groundwater—all but arsenic at levels above what the EPA considers to be safe.[17] Test results from the following year showed that levels of all but lithium had increased. The groundwater forms a part of an aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for 140,000 residents.[18]

Human Rights Watch visited Guayama in August 2019 and spoke with several residents, as well as the director of the regional hospital, public health scientists, and other experts. All expressed grave concern about the health risks of air and groundwater pollution from the coal ash pile. One resident, Marán Cruz Vega, who is in his 70s, said that there are two children near his home with leukemia and worried for the safety of students and teachers housed in a junior and high school near the plant.[19] Another, Nati Perez-Burgos, also 60, said she has cancer and a persistent skin condition that she worries is linked to her exposure to coal ash. “You can feel it on surfaces,” Perez-Burgos said of the coal ash in her home. “It’s a very fine dust, like flour, but dark grey or black.”[20]

Residents said they are so alarmed at what they feel is an increase in cancer diagnoses and deaths in the area attributable to coal ash that they created a map, attached below, flagging each case. While they recognize the map alone cannot prove causation, they point out the cases most heavily concentrated in the neighborhood closest to the plant. Doctors and public health scientists familiar with the community said they shared residents’ concerns. Dr. Gerson Jiménez, the medical director of the only remaining hospital in the Guayama region, where he has worked for over forty years, told Human Rights Watch that he grew so concerned about the increase in cancer patients that he requested data from the government’s cancer registry.[21] The results put hard numbers to his fears. From 1990 to 2000, the decade before the coal plant began operating in 2002, the average annual rate was 103 new cancer cases for every 10,000 residents in Guayama, whereas there were on average 169 new cases between 2010 and 2014—a 64 percent increase.

Map showing distribution of cancer diagnoses and deaths between 2010 and 2019 in the Santa Ana and Miramar communities in the Puente Jobos neighborhood of Guayama, Puerto Rico 

© 2019 Guayameses unidos por tu salud

Scientists at University of Puerto Rico have recently begun studying the health data and air quality in areas near the plant. The director of the university’s Department of Environmental Health, Dr. Louis Bonillo-Soto, compared data on the prevalence of cancer and other health problems between 2016 and 2018 and found significant increases for all except miscarriages—which he speculates may be due to significant investment in reproductive health programs following the Zika crisis.[22] More recently, Dr. Bonillo-Soto conducted a study comparing the health of Guayamans to that of people living in Fajardo, an area in Puerto Rico with little industrial activity. After controlling for age, education, and the presence of a smoker in the home, the study found Guayamans were:

  • 2.9 times more likely to have a skin condition
  • 2.2 times more likely to have respiratory illness
  • 2.3 times more likely to have asthma
  • 1.9 times more likely to have sinusitis
  • 3.9 times more likely to have chronic bronchitis
  • 7.8 times more likely to have a miscarriage.[23]

Dr. Bonillo-Soto has submitted these studies for publication peer-reviewed journals. Their findings are consistent with the limited peer-reviewed research on the health risks of living near coal ash discussed above. 

Given the health concerns expressed by the community and the studies underway, Human Rights Watch believes weakening key regulations could jeopardize human health and well-being.

Moreover, as noted, the increased frequency and severity of storms due to climate change heightens the likelihood and magnitude of coal ash contamination and dispersal in areas of human habitation. Perez-Burgos said that during Hurricane Maria, a category 5 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, a white film covered her home, which she believed was thick, wet coal ash.[24] A local journalist who has been writing about the coal ash pile for years said that it was visibly smaller following the storm.[25]

In light of all of the above, it is extremely troubling that the EPA is proposing to no longer subject its coal ash piles to appropriate oversight that would better protect residents. The EPA should not acquiesce to AES’s request and should examine ongoing contamination of water supplies in Puerto Rico. If the EPA adopts this rule change amendment, it would not only be endangering the health of Guayamans, but of people across the United States who may also be vulnerable to pollution from coal ash piles. Doing so would reverse course from the agency’s significant efforts over the last decade to address nationwide coal ash pollution.

We urge the EPA to remain committed to its mandate of protecting water and air in the United States by maintaining strong rules to prevent coal ash pollution.

Thank you for the opportunity to share our views.

 

Respectfully,

Arvind Ganesan

Director, Business and Human Rights Division

Human Rights Watch

 

 

[1] Environmental Protection Agency, Proposed Rule: Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System: Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities; Enhancing Public Access to Information; Reconsideration of Beneficial Use Criteria and Piles, 84 Fed. Reg. 40,353, Aug. 14, 2019,

https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/08/14/2019-16916/hazardous-and-solid-waste-management-system-disposal-of-coal-combustion-residuals-from-electric

[2] Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Solid Waste from the Operation and Decommissioning of Power Plants (Oak Ridge: DOE, 2017), p. iv, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2017/01/f34/Environment%20Baseline%20Vol.%203--Solid%20Waste%20from%20the%20Operation%20and%20Decommissioning%20of%20Power%20Plants.pdf.

[3] Environmental Protection Agency, Final Rule: Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities [2015 CCR Rule], 80 Fed. Reg. 21,301, April 17, 2015 (amending 40 C.F.R. parts 257, 261).

[4] EarthJustice, “Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination,” August 20, 2019, https://earthjustice.org/features/map-coal-ash-contaminated-sites.

[5] Environmental Protection Agency, Proposed Rules, 84 Fed. Reg. 40,353, Aug. 14, 2019, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2019-08-14/pdf/2019-16916.pdf

[6] Zach Colman, “The toxic waste threat that climate change is making worse,” Politico, August 26, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/08/26/toxic-waste-climate-change-worse-1672998

[7] Glenn Thrush and Kendra Pierre-Louis, “Florence’s Floodwaters Breach Defenses at Duke Energy Plant, Sending Toxic Coal Ash Into River,” New York Times, September 21, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/21/climate/florences-floodwaters-breach-defenses-at-power-plant-prompting-shutdown.html. See also: James Bruggers, “After Back-to-Back Hurricanes, North Carolina Reconsiders Climate Change,” Inside Climate News, December 27, 2018, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27122018/hurricane-damage-north-carolina-climate-change-2018-year-review-florence-michael-matthew.

[8] Omar Alfonso, “Toxins from AES’s ashes are contaminating groundwater in Puerto Rico,” Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, March 15, 2018, http://periodismoinvestigativo.com/2018/03/toxins-from-aess-ashes-are-contaminating-groundwater-in-puerto-rico/.

[9] Clara G. Sears and Kristina M. Zierold, “Health of Children Living Near Coal Ash,” Global Pediatric Health 4 (2017), doi: 10.1177/2333794X17720330, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5533260/.

[10] Abby N. Hagemeyer, Clara G. Sears, and Kristina M. Zierold, “Respiratory Health in Adults Residing Near a Coal-Burning Power Plant with Coal Ash Storage Facilities: A Cross-Sectional Epidemiological Study,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16(19) (2019): 3642, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16193642; “Coal Ash and Children’s Neurobehavorial Health: An Ongoing Study,” Kristina M. Zierold, University of Louisville School of Public Health, https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/translational/peph/webinars/coal_ash/coal_ash_and_childrens_neurobehavioral_health_an_ongoing_study_508.pdf.

[11] See, e.g., 40 C.F.R. §§ 257.60-257.64 (location restrictions), 257.70-257.74 (design criteria), 257.80-257.84 (operating criteria), 257.90-257.98 (groundwater monitoring and corrective action), 257.100-257.104 (closure and post-closure care).

[13] See e.g. “EPA’s Proposed Coal Ash Amendments Will Boost Risk of Toxic Contamination,” Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment press release, September 30, 2019, https://nicholas.duke.edu/news/epas-proposed-coal-ash-amendments-will-boost-risk-toxic-contamination.

[14] Environmental Protection Agency, Rules and Regulations: Part II Regarding 40 C.F.R. §§ 257 and 261 (Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities; Final Rule), 84 Fed. Reg. 21,302, April 17, 2015, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2015-04-17/pdf/2015-00257.pdf

[15] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-06/documents/2017.05.31_aes_puerto_rico_lps_petition_for_reconsideration_and_rulemak.pdf. See also Environmental Protection Agency, Proposed Rule: Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System: Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities; Enhancing Public Access to Information; Reconsideration of Beneficial Use Criteria and Piles, 84 Fed. Reg. 40,353, Aug. 14, 2019, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/08/14/2019-16916/hazardous-and-solid-waste-management-system-disposal-of-coal-combustion-residuals-from-electric.

[16] AES Puerto Rico LP, Petition for Rulemaking to Reconsider Provisions of the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule, 80 Fed. Reg. 21,302 (Apr. 17, 2015), and Request to Hold in Abeyance Challenge to the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule, No. 15-1219, et al. (D.C. Cir.), May 31, 2017, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-06/documents/2017.05.31_aes_puerto_rico_lps_petition_for_reconsideration_and_rulemak.pdf.

[17] AES Puerto Rico, 2018 Annual Groundwater Monitoring Report (Guayama: AES, 2018), http://aespuertorico.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/180161r_AES_2018_Groundwater_Monitoring_Report.pdf; See also Omar Alfonso, “Damage by coal ash to the southern aquifer cannot be undone,” Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, March 25, 2019, http://periodismoinvestigativo.com/2019/03/damage-by-coal-ash-to-the-southern-aquifer-cannot-be-undone/.

[18] ibid.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with Marán Cruz Vega, Guayama, August 23, 2019.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with Nati Perez-Burgos, Guayama, August 23, 2019.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Gerson Jiménez, Guayama, August 24, 2019.

[22] “Prevalencia de enfermedades crónicas en las comunidades de Miramar y Puerto de Jobos del municipio de Guayama: un studio de comunidad por encuesta,” Luis A. Bonilla Soto, Catedrático en Salud Ambiental, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b6c67d071069910870c6820/t/5cbc00420d9297107cdd397d/1555824711183/%282019.02.00%29+Luis+A.+Bonilla+Soto%2C+Prevalencia+de+enfermedades+cro%CC%81nicas+en+las+comunidades+de+Miramar+y+Puerto+de+Jobos+del+municipio+de+Guayama.pdf.

[23] On file with Human Rights Watch. For a news article on this study, see “Paciente de cáncer responsabiliza a la planta de AES,” Telemundo, December 18, 2018, https://www.telemundopr.com/noticias/destacados/Medicos-piden-el-cierre-de-planta-AES-en-Guayama-503046791.html.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with Nati Perez-Burgos, Guayama, August 23, 2019.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with Omar Alfonso, Guayama, August 23, 2019.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A coal ash pile in Guayama, Puerto Rico

© 2019 for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC)—The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to significantly weaken rules governing coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal, poses a serious threat to public health and will make air and water pollution worse, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission opposing the proposed changes.

“President Trump has repeatedly touted the need for clean air and water while his administration guts rules to accomplish that,” said Sarah Saadoun, business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The EPA is not only selling out the health of the mostly rural communities near coal ash disposal sites but also asking the public to effectively subsidize one of the most significant contributors to climate change.”

Coal plants across the United States produce 110 million tons of coal ash per year, making it the country’s largest waste stream after household trash. Coal ash, a grey-black powdery substance, contains numerous elements dangerous to human health, including known carcinogens such as arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and radium.

 Utilities sell about 45 percent of coal ash produced for reuse in other materials, such as concrete, and dispose of the remainder in almost 900 sites nationwide. Among other concerning changes, the EPA is proposing to remove key rules to manage environmentally dangerous coal ash piles, essentially piles of the waste stored out in the open.

Following a catastrophic coal ash spill in 2008, the EPA enacted a rule in 2015 that requires coal-powered utilities to monitor, prevent, and remediate coal ash pollution. Six million people live in areas protected by this rule, according to the EPA, many of whom rely for their water on private wells that the government does not monitor or regulate.

The 2015 rule required coal-fired power plants to monitor groundwater for pollution. Data reviewed by EarthJustice, a non-profit environmental group revealed that 240 of the 265 plants reporting in response to this rule since March 2018 found toxic substances at levels exceeding federal standards. Rules also require control from air pollution, which is also a serious health risk for people living near coal ash landfills or piles.

At the request of an energy company, AES, the EPA is proposing to exempt coal ash piles, which are accumulations of coal ash that generally lack any structure or liner to prevent pollution, from the 2015 regulations. AES is a Virginia-based company operating a 400,000-ton coal ash pile near residential communities in Guayama, Puerto Rico.

AES groundwater monitoring found toxic metals leaching into the groundwater beneath their coal ash pile. That water forms part of an aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for 140,000 people, according to a local media report. Data indicating an increase in cancer and other chronic diseases in the communities closest to the coal plant, as well as scientific research conducted near a coal ash landfill in Louisville, Kentucky, raise serious concerns regarding the public health risks of coal ash pollution.

The AES petition asked the EPA to exempt coal ash piles from current regulations that require it to monitor, prevent, and correct pollution because they “greatly increase the cost to produce baseload electricity using coal.” If the EPA allowed companies to avoid these costs it would effectively shift the burden of cleaning the pollution and its health impact onto the public. Utilities have already asked authorities to raise rates for consumers to help pay for coal ash cleanup.

Climate change also exacerbates the public health risks of coal ash contamination because there are more frequent and extreme storms. Heavy rains from Hurricane Florence that hit North Carolina in 2018 eroded a coal ash landfill, spilling the toxic ash onto a local roadway, and later breached a dam that sent coal ash spilling into a nearby river. After Hurricane Maria pounded a coal ash pile in Puerto Rico with 15 inches of rain, tests of a monitoring well found that arsenic levels doubled.

The risk that this rule change would lead to costly coal ash clean-ups financed by the public is especially worrisome in light of separate EPA measures regarding coal ash. In August, the EPA proposed not to require utilities to set aside funds in case of pollution and in 2018, the agency finalized a rule change to allow states the flexibility to suspend the rules’ requirements in certain situations.

“Only utility companies benefit from this rule change,” Saadoun said. “One way or another, the public will pay the price: with community health, property values, pollution cleanup, and, the climate.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three girls play the game isolo on the ground in the lead-affected township of Waya in Kabwe. Soil is the main source of lead exposure in Kabwe.

© 2018 Zama Neff/Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to provide a submission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on children’s right to a healthy environment, in advance of its 2020 annual full-day meeting on the same topic.

The impact of environmental degradation and pollution on children’s rights (question 1)

For over a decade, Human Rights Watch has documented how governments have failed to protect children from environmental harm.

Exposure to toxic substances

Human Rights Watch has documented children’s exposure to hazardous substances in many contexts. Around the world, children are exposed to hazardous substances while playing, bathing, going to school, eating, drinking, or working. Many hazardous substances have particularly harmful consequences for children, whose developing bodies absorb them more readily than those of adults and are especially vulnerable to certain toxins, leading in some cases to irreversible long-term damage, disability, or even death.

Children’s exposure as result of business activity

Business activity has been the source of significant environmental damage that harms children through pollution of air, soil or water, and other pathways of exposure. Governments often fail to regulate companies sufficiently. For example, children living near or working in leather tanneries in Bangladesh have been exposed to chemicals that flowed off tannery floors into open gutters of nearby streets, and had severe health problems as a result. Smelters or battery factories have caused lead poisoning in children in China and Kenya; yet, protests by parents have sometimes been met with government repression. In agriculture, children have been exposed to harmful fertilizers and pesticides in Brazil, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, the United States, and Israel/Palestine.

Children’s health has also been severely affected by exposure to chemicals from large-scale and small-scale mining operations. In Zambia and Kosovo, children living near former industrial lead mines have suffered from lead poisoning as a result, and in some cases died. In small-scale gold mining regions in Mali, Ghana, Tanzania, the Philippines, and elsewhere, children have been exposed to toxic mercury used to process gold, and in some cases developed symptoms that are consistent with mercury poisoning. And in one of the worst environmental health disasters in recent years, over 400 children died in Nigeria in 2010 from exposure to lead-contaminated dust produced inadvertently during artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

Hazardous substances in water supply systems

In several countries that Human Rights Watch investigated, governments have failed to protect children from hazardous chemicals in the soil, groundwater, or water supply system. In Bangladesh, millions of children have been exposed to harmful arsenic via well water. In Canada, Indigenous communities have been exposed to water containing naturally occurring uranium, E.coli, or coliform, as a result of systemic water and wastewater challenges facing First Nations, including lack of regulations to protect drinking water on reserves. In Harare, Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch found that children were at risk of contracting dangerous waterborne diarrheal diseases as they were drinking water from shallow, unprotected wells that are contaminated with sewage. In Basra, Iraq, government failure to ensure sufficient safe drinking water has resulted in an acute water crisis that sent at least 118,000 people to the hospital in 2018, and that has not been solved. 

Climate change

Human Rights Watch has documented government failures to address climate change, its impact on the realization of children’s rights, as well as human rights violations in the context of coal mining and deforestation—two drivers of climate change.

Child rights impacts of climate change

Government inaction on climate change impacts children’s rights to life, water, food, and health. Children from Indigenous communities are often particularly vulnerable to climatic changes because their culture and livelihood is tied to their land, and such marginalized groups typically lack the resources and government support to adapt to climate change impacts.

In Kenya, Human Rights Watch found that climate change has limited local Indigenous communities’ access to food and clean water and contributed to children’s ill-health. Girls often have to walk long distances to find water, exposing them to dangers along the route and leaving them with less time to attend school or rest. In Bangladesh, families have arranged child marriages for their daughters under 18 in part because of extreme poverty, compounded by natural disasters that are linked to climate change. In Brazil, where climate change is likely to increase the spread of mosquitos carrying vector-borne diseases, the government has responded inadequately to the outbreak of the Zika virus. 

Coal mining and deforestation

Children have suffered serious human rights violations in the context of coal mining and deforestation. In the United States, the government has failed to mitigate health risks associated with mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining, by protecting streams from mining pollution. In South Africa, coal mines and coal-fired power plants have contributed to air pollution that threatens the health of local communities, particularly children. In Malawi, residents living near coal mines have faced forced resettlement and harmful impacts on their livelihood; health information about coal mines has been kept secret. In Brazil, the government has largely failed to act against criminal networks responsible for deforestation, including forest fires. Deforestation robs Indigenous peoples and local communities of their livelihood and the forest fires can cause serious health issues among children. In Indonesia, Indigenous peoples have lost ancestral forests to oil palm plantations, resulting in violations of their rights to livelihood, food, water, and culture.

Inadequate regulation of the coal industry and the failure to prevent deforestation risk undermining government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby further threatening the realization of children’s rights.

Examples of good practice towards ensuring children’s rights to a healthy environment, including child participation (questions 2 and 5)

Human Rights Watch has come across initiatives that appear promising. Here are some examples:

  • The recent youth movement for climate activism has managed to shift the debate over climate change in many countries. For example, in Germany, it helped push the government to decide upon a series of mitigation measures.
  • In the Philippines, the government launched an initiative to withdraw child laborers between the ages of 15 and 17 from small-scale gold mining and offered them vocational training in the tourism sector. The government, the International Labour Organization (ILO), and a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) partner also set up a mercury-free and child labor-free gold mining operation called “Compassionate Gold.”  
  • In Zambia, a local NGO supported the creation of youth groups and school youth clubs that inform residents about environmental risks and have participated in a home remediation program that served as pilot for a larger World Bank program. The youth group is also regularly on the radio and has engaged with local officials over pollution concerns.

Laws and other measures to ensure companies do not harm the environment or contribute to child rights abuse—as well as challenges in this regard (questions 3 and 4)

 

  • Due diligence laws: France has adopted a law requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence in their global supply chains, including children’s environmental health rights. The Netherlands in 2019 passed a law for child labor due diligence, which has the potential to protect children from child labor-related toxic exposures.
  • Challenge: Most countries do not have mandatory human rights due diligence laws
  • Access to information laws: In 2017, Malawi adopted a law that enables people to request and obtain vital information such as water-quality testing results. In the Philippines, a newspaper has used a freedom of information law to obtain publication of a government report on mercury poisoning of local communities at a former mercury mine site.
  • Challenge: Some countries lack functioning freedom of information laws; some do not have any such laws altogether.
  • Court action: In a Chile court case over air pollution, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration had neglected the health and well-being of the region’s residents for years, resulting in violations of people’s rights to life, health, and a pollution-free environment. A court in Thailand has ruled that the company responsible for lead pollution in Klity Creek has to pay for its cleanup. The country’s Supreme Administrative Court has also ordered the government’s Pollution Control Department to pay approximately US$125,000 in compensation to plaintiffs affected by the toxic legacy.
  • Challenge: Some court rulings remain unenforced.
  • Government regulation of businesses: Laws in the United States require high-risk industries to provide financial assurances to ensure they have the resources to clean up potential pollution. Brazil has prohibited all work by children in tobacco, largely because of the risk of exposure to hazardous substances, and established penalties for farmers and companies purchasing the tobacco, creating an incentive for the tobacco industry to ensure that children are not working on farms in their supply chains.
  • Challenge: Government regulation is very lax in many countries and sectors. One example is that the US default body weight for regulating drinking water contaminant levels is 80 kilograms, the mean adult weight. Regulations should be set to ensure drinking water is safe for babies.
  • Close coordination of institutions dealing with child rights, labor rights, environment, health, and business when formulating policies: A recent ILO project on child labor in small-scale gold mining brought actors from these different spheres together and facilitated coordination this way.
  • Challenge: There is frequently a lack of coordination among UN agencies dealing with environment or child rights, as well as among agencies and ministries on the national level. As a result, laws and policies on the environment do not always consider child rights, and vice versa.

Monitoring of environmental risks to children (question 6)

In the countries where Human Rights Watch has done research, we found that environmental risks to children are being poorly monitored at the national level. This is particularly concerning because health effects may not be manifest for years after exposure, or exposure to carcinogens or climate change occurs slowly. Accountability can also be hampered by the lack of solid data.

Recommendations to States:

  • States should review their environmental laws, standards, policies and programs to determine if they reflect their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and take into account the ways in which children are more susceptible to environmental harm, and amend (if necessary), implement and enforce them.
  • States should strengthen childhood exposure-monitoring efforts, particularly for those living in extreme poverty or in low-income, minority, indigenous, stateless, migrant, or refugee communities. States should also establish population-based surveillance systems for adverse health impacts linked to the environment and strengthen regulatory agencies and ministries responsible for the oversight of standards relevant to children’s rights, such as health, consumer protection, education, environment, food, and labor. (See similar recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.)
  • States should publish and disseminate disaggregated information on the result of monitoring and surveillance, and develop tailored environmental education and information programs.
  • States should ensure that businesses respect the rights of the child in the environmental context and comply with the General Comment 16 by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

States should make the necessary arrangements to facilitate public participation in decision-making on the environment, with a particular emphasis on ensuring meaningful participation of children.            

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong supports prominent blogger Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence. His sign reads, "I recommend the government of Vietnam to release Tran Huynh Duy Thuc." © Private 2018

© Private 2018

(New York) – Vietnamese police arrested a pro-democracy activist on September 23, 2019 based on his Facebook postings, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately release the activist, Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong, and drop the charges against him.

Police in the southern province of Lam Dong have charged Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” under article 117 of the country’s penal code. Under articles 173 and 74 of Vietnam’s Criminal Procedure Code, the national security charge means he can be both detained and denied access to legal counsel until the police conclude their investigation, a situation that is conducive to mistreatment or torture.

“The government thought to silence Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong by detaining him for expressing his opinions on Facebook,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But this has only focused more attention on his views, and the government’s repressive efforts to censor online material.”

While it is unclear exactly which of his Facebook postings the government objected to, his account reflects a wide range of independent views that the Vietnam Communist Party and government might find objectionable. None, however, involve incitement to crime, violence, hate speech, or other content that can be subject to any criminal charge consistent with the right to freedom of expression, which Vietnam pledged to respect by joining the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong has expressed views supporting democracy in Vietnam and criticized the Communist Party of Vietnam for corruption and monopolizing power. In one of his livestreams he said: “I am not certain that the entire state apparatus is corrupt, but I am 100 percent certain that those who have been involved in corruption are Communist Party members. Vietnam only allows one single party and does not allow any competing opposition.”

In other posts or livestreams, he has shared news about protests in Hong Kong and voiced support for a change of government in Venezuela. He has also shared stories about land confiscation issues in Vietnam and raised cases of various Vietnamese political prisoners including Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Nguyen Viet Dung, and Phan Kim Khanh.

Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong, 28, lives in Don Duong district, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. According to an official communist party journal, in June 2018, he participated in a major protest in Ho Chi Minh City against the draft law on special economic zones and the newly passed cybersecurity law. The police reportedly fined him 750,000 VND (approximately US$32).

After his September arrest, state media quoted police, saying: “[O]ver the last two years, Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong has used social media to make and distribute materials, propagandize and distort, blacken and slander the regime, offend the memory of President Ho Chi Minh and oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Police officials said they had warned him not to post critical material online, but that he did not stop.

His arrest is a part of an ongoing crackdown against critics and pro-democracy campaigners. During the first nine months of 2019, the Vietnamese authorities convicted at least 11 people, including Nguyen Ngoc Anh, Vu Thi Dung, and Nguyen Thi Ngoc Suong, and sentenced them to between two and nine years in prison for criticizing the government.

Others arrested for Facebook posts and shares include Nguyen Nang Tinh, a rights activist, in May and Pham Van Diep, a critic of the government, in June.

Vietnam’s problematic cybersecurity law went into effect in January. This overly broad and vague law gives the authorities wide discretion to censor free expression and requires service providers, including Facebook, to take down content the authorities consider offensive within 24 hours of receiving a request.

As of October 7, Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong’s past posts remained on Facebook; but other posts by detained human rights defenders have often been taken down.

Several internet companies, as well as concerned governments and donors, have privately raised serious concerns with Vietnam’s new cybersecurity law and other abusive laws, and pushed back on some requests for content restriction. They should now publicly speak out against Vietnamese laws used to stifle free expression, Human Rights Watch said.

“Facebook, as one of the most widely used communications platforms in Vietnam, has leverage to publicly raise human rights concerns with the government,” Sifton said. “While the company is subject to pressure from Vietnam, it also has clout because of its immense popularity in the country.”

In August, Information and Communications Minister Nguyen Manh Hung said Facebook had complied with “70 to 75 percent” of the government’s recent requests to restrict content, up from “about 30 percent” previously. Among the materials Facebook removed, according to the ministry, were “more than 200 links to articles with content opposing the Party and the State.” It is unclear how the ministry arrived at these figures. The ministry did not disclose the bases for requests, and whether they were reported as violations of Vietnamese law or of Facebook’s “Community Standards.” (It is likely that authorities sometimes report material they consider “illegal” not as legal violations but instead under unrelated Community Standards violations, and then count removal as compliance.)

The ministry also said it asked Facebook to limit live-streaming capabilities on its platforms to accounts that Facebook has authenticated. It is unclear how Facebook will be expected to do that, or what criteria authenticated accounts would have to satisfy. The ministry said it told the company to “pre-censor” online content and remove advertisements “that spread fake news related to political issues upon request from the government.”

Facebook has previously told Human Rights Watch that its standards relating to takedowns and geographic blocking of content “are global.” The process for taking down or blocking content, Facebook said in a written communication, is the “same in Vietnam as it is around the world.” Reported content is first reviewed against the company’s Community Standards; if it passes muster, Facebook says it will then assess whether the government request is legally valid under local law and international human rights law.

Vietnam should bring its laws into line with international human rights standards, which require any restrictions on freedom of expression to be necessary and proportionate to fulfill legitimate aims, Human Rights Watch said, and internet companies should publicly press the government to do the same.

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes to the Coal Combustion Residual Rule.

My name is Sarah Saadoun and I’m a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a non-profit independent organization that investigates and reports on human rights abuses in 90 countries around the world, including the United States.

I plan to submit a more detailed written submission, so I’d like to use this time to highlight a few points.

Every person has the right to safe water and an environment that does not harm their health. Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect these rights, including by regulating business activity to prevent pollution that poses an unacceptable level of public health risk. Moreover, a necessary component of any policy framework that aims to adequately protect the right to water is that existing protections should not be removed or weakened without careful consideration and a showing that full use is being made of all available resources.

We strongly oppose the EPA’s proposed changes to the coal ash rule as a step backward that threatens the water, air, and health of people living near coal ash piles.

In fact, according to the EPA, it is proposing change to the rule regarding coal ash piles “in response to the May 2017 petitions from AES Puerto Rico LP and Utilities Solid Waste Activities Group,” an industry trade group. AES is a Virginia-based company operating a coal plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, that is the site of a nearly half-million-ton coal ash pile. AES testing found that the coal ash is leaching arsenic, molybdenum, selenium, and lithium into the groundwater—all but arsenic at levels above what the EPA considers to be safe. Test results from the following year showed that levels of all but lithium had increased. The groundwater forms a part of an aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for thousands of residents.

Moreover, residential areas near the plant are exposed to fugitive dust from the coal ash pile. Studies have shown air pollution from coal ash to be a significant health concern. For example, a study by two University of Louisville scientists found that children living near a coal ash landfill—which presumably has less impact than an uncontained coal ash pile—in Louisville, KY were significantly more likely to have health and behavioral problems than those in a comparison group, even after controlling for age, gender, and second-hand smoke exposure. An ongoing study of the same Louisville community found coal ash containing toxic metals in two-thirds of the 162 homes tested, all of which had children living there.

Studies conducted by public health scientists from University of Puerto Rico have documented a worrisome trend of increased incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases in Guayama in recent years.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 were a blunt reminder that the more frequent and heavier storms due to climate change exacerbate the threat piles of toxic waste pose to public health.

In light of all this, the EPA should be redoubling its efforts to ensure AES meticulously complies with its obligation to remediate, monitor, and prevent pollution. Instead, it appears to be weakening these rules at AES’ behest.

The EPA is proposing to subject coal ash piles located on a utility site to the same rules as coal ash already delivered for beneficial reuse. But to do so would effectively mean that a half-million-ton coal ash pile, which has already been shown to be dangerously contaminating groundwater, would be subject to the same minimal environmental requirements as a small, temporary pile of coal ash awaiting reuse.

The EPA’s original justification for distinguishing between “on-site” and “off-site” coal ash piles was to address precisely situations like this one: coal ash is typically stored in greater quantities at a utility site and its presence is permanent, even if there is a constant cycle of removing and adding coal ash to the pile. Not only does the proposed change fail to address this problem, it specifically opts not to place limits on what qualifies as “temporary” coal ash storage, rather than permanent disposal. Even as AES’ efforts to sell its coal ash have faltered, and the vast majority will almost certainly remain in place, the efforts themselves may be sufficient for the utility to claim that its pile should be regulated as storage.

In other words, the proposal seems to be tailor-made to allow AES to avoid properly managing the environmental impacts of its coal ash. To allow it to do so not only endangers the health of Guayamans, but of all people living near coal ash sites. What’s to stop other utilities from taking advantage of the loophole EPA is proposing to create?

We urge the EPA to protect and maintain a strong coal ash rule that protects people’s rights to clean air, water, and health.

 

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

© Flickr/Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

In a surprise move, the United States Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) has announced it will keep its consumer complaints database open to the public following uncertainty over whether it would do so. The database is a crucial resource containing over a million complaints about consumer financial products, including student loans, mortgages, and debt collection, providing critical information for people living in poverty directly affected by abusive lenders and collectors.

Though the CFPB is legally required to receive complaints and provide information to consumers about financial products, it is not required to make that information publicly accessible. Consumer advocates have argued a public database is an important transparency measure, providing information to consumers and the public about financial products and the companies that market them, and incentivizing businesses to respond. Nearly 98 percent of complaints to the database receive a timely response from the company.

Mick Mulvaney, then CFPB’s acting director and now acting White House chief of staff, had threatened to close the database last year. In its statement reversing that intention, the CFPB said it would keep all existing information public, including consumer narratives and tools to analyze complaints data. The bureau also announced plans to launch new tools for data visualization and explore possibilities for making company responses public as well.

The CFPB also announced changes to address criticisms raised by the financial services industry. The database will now display language indicating it does not represent a statistical sample of consumer experiences. It will also provide answers to commonly asked questions and information on how consumers can contact companies directly.

Though the bureau’s announcement is a positive development, other recent issues at the CFPB signal much larger problems. Delays on payday lending regulation and weak proposed debt collection rules could cause irreparable harm to ordinary people, particularly those living in poverty who are most affected by predatory and abusive lending practices. Retaining a public complaints database is an important step, but the CFPB has much work to do to protect people from these and other abusive practices.

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

© 2016 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The Trump administration’s proposed rule on debt collection companies in the United States would severely undermine protections for consumers, Human Rights Watch said today. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule would give wide leeway to abusive debt collectors and collection attorneys by allowing them to try to collect debts by using false, deceptive, or misleading representations, even after the statute of limitations has ended.

Human Rights Watch joined 232 organizations from across the United States in a statement calling for the CFPB to increase protections for consumers against harassment and abuse of rights by debt collectors. Between a quarter and a third of adults with a credit report has a debt in collection. Debt collection abuses are regularly among the top reason for consumers to complain to the CFPB.

“The Trump administration’s proposed rule better protects abusive debt collection companies than consumers,” said Komala Ramachandra, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The CFPB should do more to rein in debt collectors’ abusive practices and ensure that federal law is enforced.”

Debt collectors buy third-party debt, often for pennies on the dollar, and often without documentation of the original debt. Many collectors use aggressive legal and collection tactics to recoup the whole debt, plus interest, even though they never lent any money to the alleged debtors. Collection attorneys file thousands of lawsuits every year without adequate review, and sometimes against the wrong person, for the wrong amount, or by an entity without legal authority to collect that debt.

Courts decide many of these lawsuits without the debtors present or without adequately scrutinizing the claims. These result in default judgments in favor of debt collectors, with some judges entering hundreds of judgments in the space of a few hours. This can lead to wage garnishment and other consequences for debtors, sometimes without their knowledge. Human Rights Watch examined the devastating financial impact of collection lawsuits on the poor in a 2016 report, “Rubber Stamp Justice: US Courts, Debt Buying Corporations, and the Poor.”

Federal law prohibits false, deceptive or misleading representations by debt collection attorneys. However, the proposed rule is so vague on the steps required by lawyers to verify information in a debt collection lawsuit that it may be meaningless to protect consumers from frivolous litigation. Civil society groups called on the CFPB to require collection attorneys to review original documentation of the debt they are attempting to collect and make an independent determination that they are filing a lawsuit against the right person, for the right amount, based on accurate information about the age of the debt, and that their client has the legal authority to file the lawsuit.

Residents in communities of color are more likely to have debt sent to collections. A CFPB survey found that 44 percent of borrowers of color reported having been contacted about a debt, compared to 29 percent of white respondents. Strong rules on debt collection practices are needed to protect consumers living in poverty and communities of color, Human Rights Watch said.

“Debt collection lawsuits not only threaten the rights of people living in poverty, but also disproportionately impact communities of color,” Ramachandra said. “The proposed rule should be significantly strengthened for the sake of all consumers.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am