Click to expand Image Children with disabilities at  the Vanvitelli Elementary School in Naples, Italy. Remote education was not accessible for many children with disabilities during Covid-19 pandemic school closures, prompting some schools to offer in-person education while following public health safety protocols. © 2020, Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images

(Bolzano) – The measures some schools in Italy took to ensure access to quality education for students with disabilities during Covid-19-related school closures should inspire other schools to follow suit, Human Rights Watch said today. The steps provided safe opportunities where possible for in-person learning during the pandemic.

Online remote learning due to pandemic-related school closures was difficult for many children. But it has been especially challenging for many children with disabilities who may particularly benefit from in-person education and the routine of going to school. In addition, online remote learning was often inaccessible for children with disabilities in Italy, as in other countries, risking their exclusion from education altogether.

“When remote learning proved inaccessible to many students with disabilities, some schools in Italy were able to take steps so students could study safely in classrooms, with the support they needed,” said Karolina Kozik, disability rights officer at Human Rights Watch. “The measures these schools took show that there are ways to provide students with disabilities access to quality, inclusive education, even in an emergency.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed families and staff regarding practices at 14 schools in Italy with a variety of approaches to education for children with disabilities during the pandemic and looked in greater depth at two schools. Human Rights Watch did not analyze the overall response of the Italian education system to the education of children with disabilities during the Covid-19 pandemic, which was beyond the scope of this research.

This research focused specifically on identifying schools that were able to provide in-person education programs for students with disabilities when available online education was inadequate to meet the students’ needs. It highlights positive examples that countries may consider to ensure access to quality education for students with disabilities when schools are closed for public health emergencies.

Parents said that despite schools’ efforts and the availability of devices and internet connection, remote learning often did not meet the educational needs of their children, who required in-person support. One mother, whose 13-year-old son has autism and is nonverbal, said: “Some children with disabilities can access remote learning with ease, but for him it’s impossible. It’s impossible to attract his attention through a screen for more than four minutes.”

Several government decrees beginning in November 2020 relating to the pandemic included provisions allowing for in-person activities for students with disabilities when schools were otherwise closed. In March 2021 an Education Ministry note clarified that in-person education for students with disabilities was not automatic, but rather that schools should consider each individual case to meet the student’s educational needs while respecting safety measures to protect the right to health.

The option for in-person learning was offered as an essential reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities who could not benefit from remote learning, particularly students with intellectual and complex disabilities who receive support from support teachers and professional aides at school.

Following the shift to remote learning in November, officials at the Gaetano Salvemini public technical high school in Casalecchio di Reno, in the northern region of

Click to expand Image Students with and without disabilities at the Salvemini Technical High School in Casalecchio di Reno, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, during a class on the use of drones. © Private 2021

Emilia-Romagna, took the initiative to create small groups of about five students with and without disabilities who could choose to attend school in person when schools were otherwise closed. School officials chose students without disabilities to participate based on expressed interest and their specific challenges to participating in online learning. Each small group studied with teachers in the classroom, while other classmates joined the class online through interactive technology.

Students with and without disabilities who were part of inclusive groups appreciated the chance to attend school in person. “One of my friends told me it was a positive thing, also for [our classmate with disability], and so I decided to come,” said Giacomo, an 18-year-old student at the Salvemini high school. “The pandemic left a mark on us … and so I thought that perhaps in this dark time I could support [my classmate] … and now I'm also happier.”

Some schools instead offered students with disabilities the option to study individually in schools with support teachers and professional aides or to participate in workshops with other students with disabilities. Workshops included activities such as music, dance, and art. In some cases, classmates at home joined the children in the classroom via video calls.

Parents whose children attended school in person said that it was essential for their quality education. One mother of a 14-year-old boy with an intellectual disability and epilepsy said that the option for him to attend school was “like manna from heaven,” particularly given that schools were among the only institutions that continued to operate, while other support services and activities were suspended.

In both models, students with disabilities were given the choice of in-person learning or to continue remotely, as most students did. Students and parents stressed the importance of having this choice.

Human Rights Watch could not confirm how many schools in Italy offered in-person education for children with disabilities due to the lack of available data. Organizations representing people with disabilities and their family members have criticized the overall record of schools across Italy during the pandemic, noting that many children with disabilities did not receive a quality, inclusive education or, in some cases, any education at all.

According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, 23 percent of students with disabilities did not participate in remote education between April and June 2020. Teachers Human Rights Watch interviewed said that students with disabilities were among those who were most likely to have fallen behind in their education during the pandemic.

Some schools were able to provide in-person classes only for children with disabilities, which some organizations, parents, and school officials criticized, expressing fears about the risk of setting precedents of separate classes for students with disabilities.

Italian law includes the right for all children to learn in inclusive settings in community schools, with reasonable accommodations. International treaties ratified by Italy guarantee the right to quality, inclusive education for children without discrimination. This entails ensuring that children with and without disabilities learn together in mainstream classes in an inclusive environment, with reasonable accommodations and accessibility to support quality education.

Click to expand Image Students with and without disabilities at a mosaic art workshop at the Salvemini Technical High School in Casalecchio di Reno, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. © Private 2021

The public health measures put in place around the globe to address the spread of the coronavirus interfered with children’s right to an education as envisaged under human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should ensure that this interference is at the most minimal level practicable, and only to the extent that it is necessary, proportionate, and for the shortest possible time.

Governments should keep in-person school closures to a minimum based on objective, evidence-driven indicators of when in-person school closures might be justified by the risk of coronavirus transmission, taking into consideration all available measures short of closure to mitigate that risk. Governments should ensure that distance learning alternatives are accessible for children with disabilities and provide reasonable accommodations to meet the individual learning needs of each child with a disability.

“Some schools in Italy have demonstrated ways to provide students with disabilities with accessible quality education, even in an unprecedented crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic,” Kozik said. “Other schools in Italy and beyond can use these examples to make sure education is accessible to all children with disabilities at all times.”

For additional details about the issues involved and the models used by some school districts for in-person learning, please see below.

By early March 2020 schools and universities in Italy closed nationwide with a shift to remote learning, which lasted until the end of the school year in June. Groups representing people with disabilities and their families urged the government to allow in-person learning for children with disabilities as a reasonable accommodation in the event of school closures during the September 2020 – June 2021 school year. In its June 2020 plan for the coming school year the Education Ministry said schools should prioritize in-person schooling for students with disabilities.

When schools reopened in September, students did attend in person. However, while there were no nationwide school closures during the school year, national and regional authorities determined when there was a need for localized closures based on the course of the pandemic, with some schools remaining fully or partially closed for extended periods, most often upper secondary schools.

Starting in November, national government decrees included provisions allowing for in-person education for children with disabilities. Some regions issued separate provisions. The Education Ministry issued clarifying guidelines in November and March, saying that schools offering in-person activities should, when possible, involve students without disabilities to promote inclusion.

Schools that offered in-person learning to children with disabilities took various approaches. Some, particularly those with more experience in inclusive education, organized small inclusive groups, in some cases in response to pressure from parents of children with and without disabilities. Others provided one-on-one instruction with support teachers or professional aides, and in some cases students with disabilities at school connected to online classes with the students learning at home.

A Look at Innovative Programs

Between January and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 people, including 11 children and young adults ages 14 to 19, 7 of them with disabilities, and family members of children with disabilities, school principals, support teachers, and professional classroom aides who support children with disabilities at 14 schools in the Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Lombardy, and Piedmont regions, and in the autonomous province of Bolzano.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed members of organizations representing people with disabilities and their families, and an inclusive education expert. The names of some interviewees have been withheld at their request.

The 14 schools had a variety of approaches to education for students with disabilities during the pandemic. Human Rights Watch looked in greater depth at the Gaetano Salvemini public technical high school in Casalecchio di Reno, near Bologna, which offered in-person inclusive education, and the Giovanni Pascoli public high school (liceo) in Bolzano, which offered in-person education to children with disabilities only. The schools were chosen as examples of different ways in which schools organized in-person learning for high school students with disabilities.

The schools Human Rights Watch identified were required to follow public health safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. Students and staff members wore face masks and other personal protective equipment, including disposable gloves and gowns, and maintained a two-meter distance, with limited exceptions.

When distancing was not possible, such as when professional aides provided one-on-one support to students, aides used other personal protective equipment including plastic face shields, and disposable gloves and gowns. Some schools used plexiglass dividers for desks. Schools kept registers and contact information for everyone entering and leaving the building.

In-Person Inclusive High School Education

In November the Gaetano Salvemini technical high school asked families of the school’s 1,400 students to indicate their interest in attending school in person. Students could also choose to join classes from home via video. School officials formed small groups of five to six students both with and without disabilities. The number of students attending in person varied during the lockdowns between November and April, from fewer than 100 to about 240, depending on students’ interest and families’ concerns about the risk of Covid-19 infection. The school had 74 children with disabilities enrolled in the 2020-2021 school year.

Click to expand Image Matteo, a 16-year-old student with physical and intellectual disabilities, outside the Gaetano Salvemini Technical High School in Casalecchio di Reno, Emilia-Romagna, Italy.  © Private 2021

The school also offered inclusive workshops, including in music, arts, sports, and learning to use drones. One workshop was designed to foster students’ autonomy with instruction in managing personal finances.

Students with disabilities who attended school in person said it was a positive experience. “I went with two of my classmates and it went well, we did the usual things,” said Matteo, a 16-year-old third-year student with intellectual and physical disabilities. “I was happy to go to school, though I missed the others [students] a bit.”

Students without disabilities also said they had positive experiences. “I decided to go to school in person to help [my classmate with disability] because he is better when he’s with us,” said Mattia, a 17-year-old student who attended the Salvemini school in person as part of an inclusive group. “I also wanted to escape the routine of remote learning, where you had to wake up and participate in classes until 2 p.m. and stay at home. It was stressful and I couldn't stay focused, and when I started coming to school, my concentration and my grades improved.”

Some students without disabilities noted they had more opportunities to interact with a classmate with a disability while working in a small group, and they got to know each other better. Maria Ghiddi, the school’s vice principal, said that the school’s approach is to empower students with and without disabilities on an equal basis. “We saw that [inclusive education is] an important resource for non-disabled students, too,” Ghiddi said, adding that it was important to ensure that students played a leading role in projects proposed by the school.

One mother of a fifth-year high school student with physical and intellectual disabilities said her son initially was reluctant to go to school, as he did not want to feel different from his peers who were learning remotely. She said the school listened to her son’s request and allowed him to attend two to three days a week. The other days he joined classes online with his class and worked with his support teacher. “Then, after a while, he decided to increase [the number of days at school], and then he went every day,” she said. “Sometimes there were two or three classmates [without disabilities] with him, on other days he was alone. But in the end, he was happy to go.”

The Salvemini school in Casalecchio di Reno has a long history of inclusive education. Carlo Braga, the school’s principal, said that they had made important investments in equipment in the years before the pandemic. After the schools closed in March 2020, the school bought additional devices for students, as well as microphones and video equipment for classrooms. “These are structural investments for the school, not emergency ones,” he said. “These are things that will remain.”

Click to expand Image Students with and without disabilities at a workshop on managing personal finances at the Salvemini Technical High School in Casalecchio di Reno, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Remote education was not accessible for many children with disabilities during Covid-19 pandemic school closures, prompting some schools to offer inclusive in-person education while following public health safety protocols. © Private 2021

Despite the school's experience in inclusive education, officials acknowledged the challenges with sustaining inclusive education during lockdowns. “We were already rather strong on inclusion, but I must say it was very difficult to organize,” said Ghiddi, the vice principal, adding that the main difficulties were concerns about health risks and a lack of interest in attending among some students with and without disabilities.

Other In-Person Practices During Pandemic-Related School Closures

Other schools adopted different models of inclusion. For example, the elementary and middle school complex [in Italian, istituto comprensivo] Via Nitti in Rome, which has 1,180 students, including 43 with disabilities, was closed for two weeks in March 2021 because of the course of the pandemic. School officials organized in-person non-academic workshops for students with and without disabilities, even as all academic classes were held online.

“Inclusion of children with disabilities has been a fundamental element of our school complex since its creation in the school year 2012-2013,” said the principal, Elisamarzia Vitaliano. At the start of the March lockdown, school officials wrote to parents to explain what the school would offer in terms of in-person activities. “We said that we would organize workshops [for students with disabilities] and that it would be good if other students participated,” Vitaliano said.

Those who opted in participated in workshops three and a half hours a day on topics including gardening, music, and art, some of which were co-organized by local organizations. The workshops were held only for the middle school, as families of children in the elementary school did not express interest in participating.

“Francesco went to the school every day, it was really important that they guaranteed a routine,” said Federica Morelli, mother of a 13-year-old boy with autism, adding that every day her son was accompanied by two or three classmates without disabilities, rotating on different days of the week. She added that interacting in a small group offered an opportunity for some of the children to get to know her son better, “in a calmer context, without distractions.”

At another elementary school in Rome, students with disabilities attended in person every day for three hours, with some classmates without disabilities attending two days a week. Regular teachers taught from school and children in those classrooms connected to online classes with the rest of their classmates.

In-Person Education Only for Students with Disabilities

Other schools, including the Giovanni Pascoli high school in Bolzano, in northern Italy, offered in-person education only for students with disabilities. When high schools in Italy closed in November, professional classroom aides (collaboratori all’integrazione) from the Pascoli high school reached out to individual students with disabilities and their families to discuss options for organizing their education. Decrees issued by local authorities in Bolzano province allowed for in-person learning for students with disabilities but did not reference inclusion of peers without disabilities.

Students with disabilities who attended in person at times connected to online classes from the classroom to participate in the regular classroom teaching, which was only online. Otherwise, they worked with support teachers and professional aides individually or participated in workshops with other students, including circus arts, dance, and music therapy.

Pascoli high school students Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were glad to come to school. “It’s better at school,” said Edoardo, a 19-year-old student with an intellectual disability in his final year of high school. “I didn’t like to stay at home all the time.”

Parents of children with disabilities enrolled in the school felt that the opportunity for in-person learning, even though it was not fully inclusive, was essential for their children to continue their education effectively. “It’s sad because they’re not with their classmates … but it’s better than nothing,” said Monica Bonomini, mother of a 19-year-old with an intellectual disability. “It would have been worse without this. I saw he was getting worse when he was at home all the time. They’re a nice group, they have fun.”

Sabine Bertagnolli, whose son Matteo, 14, is in his first year at the Pascoli high school, said that “some families [worried] that we were returning to separate classes, that students with disabilities would be segregated again. But I am … grateful, and inclusion can be achieved in other ways.”

Parents of children with disabilities in schools that offered in-person education only for them during pandemic-related school closures noted that since remote, online education did not meet the needs of their children, they felt the option of in-person education, even while not inclusive as usual, was essential for their children’s continued education. Not all students with disabilities had to attend in person, even if they have a support teacher and a professional aide supporting them at school. They could choose to attend in person or continue remote learning.

One mother whose 16-year-old daughter has an intellectual and physical disability and for whom online learning was not adequate, said: “It’s good that they can go to school, they need company, they need to stay together.” She added that her daughter, who is in her third year of middle school in Bolzano, “[could] not follow classes on a tablet. She doesn’t speak, only single words. She watches a bit, but she’s not interested in video calls.”

Another mother, whose 12-year-old son has autism and is nonverbal, said that despite efforts by the school and family, remote learning was not working for him. “The entire social aspect was gone, he disappeared [for the other students] because he couldn’t participate.”

Choice for In-Person or Remote Learning

Schools examined by Human Rights Watch that provided in-person education to students with disabilities allowed them to choose to attend or to study remotely. Having the opportunity to choose was important for many students and parents. At the Pascoli high school and at other schools, some students with disabilities, often those for whom online learning was accessible, preferred not to attend school in person and chose remote learning. They had individual calls with support teachers, who assisted them with overall comprehension, homework, and organizational skills.

One 18-year-old student with autism said he chose not to participate in in-person education and felt that distance learning had some advantages, even though he missed his classmates.

School staff from several other schools said that some children with disabilities opted to study remotely. For example, a support teacher in a high school in Milan said that only 15 out of 85 students with disabilities in the school decided to attend every day, as others felt that distance learning was working for them.

One mother of an 8-year-old boy with autism who attends a primary school in Rome said she chose not to send him to school because online learning was accessible to him and because it was not clear if any non-disabled peers would be at school.


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 15, 2021, 10:01 am
Click to expand Image Family members of those killed in the 4th of August massive Beirut port explosion take part in a vigil to mark nine months since the blast. © 2021 Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Beirut) – Member states at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council should establish an international, independent, and impartial investigative mission, such as a one-year fact-finding mission, into the Beirut port explosion of August 4, 2020, 53 Lebanese, regional, and international rights groups and individuals, as well as 62 survivors and families of the victims and firefighters said today in a joint letter.

In the aftermath of the blast, Lebanese officials vowed to investigate swiftly and transparently. However, the 10 months since the tragedy have been marked by little more than obstruction, evasion, and delay. Human Rights Watch has documented many flaws in the domestic investigation that make it incapable of credibly delivering justice, including flagrant political interference, immunity for high-level political officials, lack of respect for fair trial standards, and due process violations.

“The Lebanese authorities have had over 10 months to demonstrate that they are willing and capable of conducting a credible investigation into the catastrophic Beirut Blast, but they have failed on all accounts,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Human Rights Council members should establish an international, independent probe into the causes and responsibility for the blast, heeding the calls of the victims’ families and the Lebanese public for accountability.”

On August 10, the Lebanese government referred the Beirut explosion to the Judicial Council, a special court with no appeals process. No indictments have been issued, but 37 people have been charged, 19 of whom are currently detained in conditions that appear to violate their due process rights.

On December 10, Judge Fadi Sawan, who was then leading the investigation, charged the caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, and three former ministers in connection with the blast. But Diab and two of the former ministers refused to appear for questioning, and the caretaker interior minister, Mohammad Fahmi, said that he would not ask the security forces to arrest them, even if the judiciary issued arrest warrants.

On February 18, 2021, the Court of Cassation removed Judge Sawan following a complaint lodged by two of the former ministers he charged. Judge Sawan was replaced two days later, but his removal signaled the “red line” that the courts have drawn around politicians.

The lack of accountability that has plagued the investigation dramatically illustrates the larger culture of impunity officials have long enjoyed in Lebanon. The continuing failure of the domestic process reinforces the need for an international investigation to determine the causes of the explosion and who was responsible. The cost of such a failure includes not just the absence of justice for victims, but the untenable risk of further abuse and negligence by the responsible parties, leading to even greater loss and instability in a context of a plummeting currency, devastated economy, crumbling infrastructure, and failing public services.

The right to life is an inalienable and autonomous right, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (article 6), which Lebanon ratified in 1972. The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, has stated that countries must respect and ensure the right to life against deprivations caused by people or entities, even if their conduct is not attributable to the state.

The committee further said that the deprivation of life involves an “intentional or otherwise foreseeable and preventable life-terminating harm or injury, caused by an act or omission.” Countries are required to enact a “protective legal framework, which includes criminal prohibitions on all manifestations of violence … that are likely to result in a deprivation of life, such as intentional and negligent homicide.”

The storage of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, alongside jugs of oil, kerosene, and hydrochloric acid, five miles of fuse on wooden spools, and 15 tons of fireworks, in a poorly secured and ventilated hangar in the middle of a busy commercial and residential area of a densely populated capital city is contrary to most national standards and likely created an unacceptable risk to life.

Further, the impact and aftermath of the explosion violated Lebanon’s international human rights obligations to guarantee the rights to education and an adequate standard of living, including the rights to housing, health, food, property, and an effective remedy.

UN-mandated investigations are “increasingly being used to respond to serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, whether protracted or resulting from sudden events, and to promote accountability for such violations and counter impunity.” The Human Rights Council has authorized at least 34 such investigative bodies since 2006.

It is time for the Human Rights Council to step in, heeding the calls of the families of the victims and the Lebanese people for accountability, the rule of law, and protection of human rights.

The independent investigative mission should identify what triggered the explosion and the human rights violations arising from the Lebanese state’s failure to protect the right to life, including by failing to ensure the safe storage or removal of a large quantity of highly combustible and potentially explosive material. The mission should then forward its findings and conclusions to the competent Lebanese judicial authorities.

“The Beirut port explosion was not an isolated or idiosyncratic incident. Rather, it was one highly dramatic illustration of the human rights impacts of decades of corruption, incompetence, impunity, and mismanagement by Lebanon’s ruling elite,” Majzoub said. “Without accountability for this explosion, there is nothing stopping another disaster from happening.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 15, 2021, 4:01 am
Click to expand Image “Ruhiyyeh”, 17, from the city of Kolda, southern Senegal, was assisted by her teachers to stay in school after she became pregnant while in the last year of lower secondary school.  © 2017 Elin Martinez/Human Rights Watch

“Ruhiyyeh” (not her real name), from Senegal, was 17 when Human Rights Watch spoke to her in 2017 about her experience of continuing schooling while pregnant. She became pregnant while finishing lower secondary school. “Ruhiyyeh” was lucky. The school’s principal and a teacher encouraged her to return to school after delivery and supported her to care for her child and stay in school. But most adolescent mothers are not so fortunate.

Tomorrow, the African continent marks 30 years since the adoption of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. This is an important moment to recommit to ending discrimination and exclusion of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers from schools.

Across Africa each year, tens of thousands of adolescent girls drop out of school or suffer discrimination or exclusion from schools , because they are pregnant or have become mothers. Reports show that hundreds of thousands of girls became pregnant during the Covid-19 pandemic as schools were closed, sexual violence within communities surged and  protective systems for girls were lacking.

Roughly half of African governments have adopted laws and policies that protect adolescent girls’ right to stay in school during pregnancy and motherhood. Senegal, where “Ruhiyyeh,” lives, is one of them.

But others penalize girls instead of supporting them. Tanzania expels pregnant girls from public schools as a matter of policy. Some governments still encourage abusive practices such as forced pregnancy checks.

In other countries, policies are unclear. Even where laws and policies exist, the level of protection and their implementation vary.

Schools and government officials would benefit from clear rules and guidance on how best to support pregnant students, many of whom often experience financial and social barriers, to continue their education. An effective approach should combine prevention of teenage pregnancies, including through access to comprehensive sexuality education.

The African Union should develop and promote a framework, informed by international human rights standards and good practices from the region, that provides guidance to governments on how to support the education of adolescent mothers and pregnant girls to complete primary and secondary school. Protecting pregnant and parenting students’ education is consistent with African values, and key to Africa’s development.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 15, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image   Rohingya refugees headed to Bhasan Char island prepare to board navy vessels from the southeastern port city of Chattogram, Bangladesh on February 15, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo

The United Nations refugee agency improperly collected and shared personal information from ethnic Rohingya refugees with Bangladesh, which shared it with Myanmar to verify people for possible repatriation, Human Rights Watch said today. The agency did not conduct a full data impact assessment, as its policies require, and in some cases failed to obtain refugees’ informed consent to share their data with Myanmar, the country they had fled.

Since 2018 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps and the Bangladesh government has issued them identity cards, which are needed for essential aid and services. Bangladesh then used the information, including analog photographs, thumbprint images, and other biographic data to submit refugee details to the Myanmar government for possible repatriation.

“The UN refugee agency’s data collection practices with Rohingya in Bangladesh were contrary to the agency’s own policies and exposed refugees to further risk,” said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “UNHCR should only allow data that it collects to be shared with countries of origin when it has properly obtained free and informed consent from participants.”

Since 2016, over 800,000 Rohingya from Myanmar were expelled or fled crimes against humanity and acts of genocide across the border to Bangladesh. The Myanmar government continues to carry out the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against the remaining Rohingya population.

From September 2020 to March 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 24 Rohingya refugees about their registration experiences with UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and spoke to 20 aid workers, analysts, local activists, journalists, and lawyers who observed or participated in the Rohingya registration. Human Rights Watch sent detailed questions and its research findings to UNHCR in February and April, and received responses from UNHCR on May 10.

UNHCR denied any wrongdoing or policy violations, stating that it had explained all purposes of the data gathering exercise and obtained consent. The agency said that its data collection efforts were aimed at finding durable solutions for the refugees and that no Rohingya were put at risk.

In 2018, the Bangladesh government sought to supplement previous registrations by beginning a joint registration exercise with UNHCR. The government aimed to provide an identity card for refugees – called a “Smart Card” – that allows them to obtain aid and services. The government also sought to gather personal data collected by UNHCR to submit to Myanmar for repatriation eligibility assessments. UNHCR said this would help protect the refugees’ right of return.

In a January meeting with Human Rights Watch, UNHCR said that field officers had asked Rohingya for permission to share their data for repatriation eligibility assessments, explaining that a Smart Card would still be issued to those who did not agree. However, at the time of the registration exercise, UNHCR staff said publicly that the data was not linked to repatriations, including on a September 2018 Rohingya community radio show, and in November 2018 comments to international media. Rohingya refugees had in fact staged protests in the camps that month partly out of concern that data collection would be used to facilitate forced returns.

The refugees Human Rights Watch interviewed also gave a different account than UNHCR staff had outlined in the January meeting. All but one of the 24 said that UNHCR staff told them that they had to register to get the Smart Cards to access aid, and they did not mention anything about sharing data with Myanmar, or linking it to repatriation eligibility assessments. Three said they were told after giving their data that it might be used for repatriation purposes. One said he noticed after leaving the registration center that the box to share data with Myanmar, on a receipt printed out and given to refugees only in English, had been checked “yes,” although he was never asked. He was one of only three among the refugees interviewed who could read English.

Click to expand Image A photograph of the top of an English-language receipt that UNCHR staff gave to Rohingya after collecting their data as part of the 2018 joint registration process, redacted and annotated by Human Rights Watch for clarity and anonymity.   © Private

Human Rights Watch viewed the English-only receipt that UNHCR gave to Rohingya refugees after their registration. It includes a box noting “yes” or “no” as to whether the information can be shared with the Myanmar government.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 refugees whose names were included in the list verified by Myanmar for repatriation. Twelve of the 21 people were added to repatriation eligibility assessment lists in 2019 – lists drawn up based on the data collected by UNHCR.

The 21 said that after being registered they later learned that their information had been shared with Myanmar and their names were on lists of people verified for return. They all went into hiding in other camps because they feared being forcibly returned. So far, Bangladesh has not forced any Rohingya in the camps to return against their will to Myanmar.

One of the 24 refugees interviewed said that the UNHCR field officer registering him asked if he consented to have his data shared with the Myanmar government. He said he felt pressure not to refuse: “I could not say no because I needed the Smart Card and I did not think that I could say no to the data-sharing question and still get the card.”

UNHCR in this case did not seek free and informed consent, which would have required making certain that the refugees knew and understood the risks of sharing their and their family’s data with Myanmar, that they had the ability to opt-out without prejudice, and that they could get the Smart Card even if they did not agree.

UNHCR staff told Human Rights Watch that they did not discuss any specific risks with Rohingya before registering them, and the Rohingya interviewed said they were not told about any such risks.

Between 2018 and 2021, the Bangladesh government submitted at least 830,000 names of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar along with biometric and other data for each person, for repatriation eligibility assessments. Myanmar reportedly agreed to allow about 42,000 Rohingya to return. UNHCR told Human Rights Watch that it played no role in drawing up these lists but that the names and other data included in the lists submitted from 2019 onwards, including biometrics, came from analog versions of the data it had gathered during the joint registration exercise, for example, non-digital thumbprint images.

In its global guidelines on sharing information on individual cases, UNHCR acknowledges the risks of sharing such information and says that “UNHCR should not share any [individual case] information with the authorities of the country of origin.”

In the Myanmar context, risks include involuntary Rohingya returns to Myanmar, particularly given Bangladesh’s forced repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar in the 1970s and 1990s. In those cases, UNHCR tacitly condoned Bangladesh’s coerced returns.

Bangladesh’s submission of lists to Myanmar may also have put refugees, or at least the subset that Myanmar agreed to return, on track to receive Myanmar’s National Verification Cards (NVCs), which many Rohingya reject because they believe it undermines their claims to Myanmar citizenship.

The UNHCR-Bangladesh exercise appears to have violated the agency’s policy on protecting personal data that it collects, which requires UNHCR to tell people in a language and manner they understand why it is collecting their data and whether it will be transferred to another entity. It also appears to have undermined the objective of UNHCR’s policies that aim to ensure that consent is not coerced.

UNHCR’s Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation says that the agency should never directly link registration or other verification exercises with registration for voluntary repatriations because “[l]inking the two may create confusion for the refugees by giving the impression that one needs to register for voluntary repatriation in order to be entitled to assistance in the country of asylum. This may seriously jeopardize voluntariness.”

Linking the eligibility assessment and registration for services did create confusion, Human Rights Watch said. Nearly all of the refugees interviewed did not understand that their data would be shared with the Myanmar government. In the one case in which the refugee was told that it would be, he said he felt he could not refuse consent without jeopardizing his access to services.

UNHCR should have recognized that Bangladesh sharing data with Myanmar raised serious protection concerns. “[T]he idea of sharing data with Myanmar, or allowing data to be shared with Myanmar, on this community should have been out of the question until there were minimum guarantees in place – which there aren’t,” said an aid worker familiar with the process in Bangladesh.

Finally, UNHCR has a policy requiring a data protection impact assessment before it enters into data transfer arrangements like the one in Bangladesh. However, staff said they did not carry out a “full-fledged” impact assessment, only undertaking several risk assessments prior to signing the data-sharing agreement with Bangladesh. The apparent failure to take into account the history of forced returns from Bangladesh to Myanmar, in those assessments, is important.

UNHCR should not combine collecting people’s data for services or identity cards with data collection for repatriation eligibility, Human Rights Watch said. UNHCR should ensure that people who agree to have their data shared are able to withdraw that consent and know how to do so. The agency should only share data or allow data that it collects to be shared with countries of origin when it has taken all efforts to obtain free and informed consent.

“Humanitarian agencies obviously need to collect and share some data so they can provide refugees with protection, services, and assist with safe, dignified, and voluntary returns,” Fakih said. “But a refugee has the right to control their data, who has access to it, and for what purposes, and UNHCR and other agencies should be accountable to those whose data they hold.”

Purpose of the UNHCR-Bangladesh Registration Exercise

In 2017, the Bangladesh government conducted its own registration of Rohingya refugees by collecting personal data, including biometrics, and collaborated with UNHCR through its Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission to conduct a family counting exercise. In 2018, the government asked UNHCR to participate in a joint exercise to link the registration data that it had collected and the data collected by UNHCR in collaboration with the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission. UNHCR signed a data-sharing agreement with Bangladesh in January 2018.

Following Myanmar and Bangladesh’s November 2017 repatriation agreement (the Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State), which required Bangladesh to conduct a “pre-verification” exercise to vet refugees before Myanmar would carry out its own assessment of return eligibility, Bangladesh and Myanmar also entered into an agreement outlining the verification and repatriation process, including collecting and sharing refugee data.

The agreement stated that “[r]elevant information or data generated by, and available with, relevant UN agencies may be used for reference, as and when necessary … Bangladesh may provide verified lists of returnees from Bangladesh to the UNHCR Representatives for ascertaining voluntariness from prospective returnee families.” The annexed verification form requested extensive identifying data.

UNHCR’s independent evaluation of its emergency response, published in December 2018, noted that for the lists Bangladesh would need to prepare for Myanmar, authorities would “require a level of detail about place of origin, family composition and so on” that the government had not obtained in its initial registration.

UNHCR’s independent evaluation found that the agency saw the joint registration exercise as an opening to assist the “durable documentation” of Rohingya for potential returns. In its May 2021 written response to Human Rights Watch, UNHCR said that this unique verification process stems from the discriminatory nationality restrictions that Rohingya face, because most now lack official documentation proving they are from Myanmar.

UNHCR officials said that as part of the joint registration exercise, field officers asked Rohingya two questions: first, whether they consented to have their data shared with partners for assistance in Bangladesh and, second, whether they consented to have their data shared with Myanmar to assess repatriation eligibility. They said the agency began the registration exercise in June 2018, collecting “a significant amount of information about the family, place of origin and relatives overseas,” and fingerprints, iris scans, photographs, and shared much of that data with the Bangladesh government.

Following the joint exercise, Bangladesh issued refugees over age 12 identity cards known as Smart Cards, which are linked to their biometric data. UNHCR officials said that they advocated successfully to include the phrase “Forcibly Displaced Myanmar National/Person of Concern to UNHCR” on the cards, as well as a written commitment that the card bearer should be protected from being forcibly returned. The cards gave Rohingya valid identification and allowed them access to food, aid, health care, and other essential services.

During the registration exercise, some Rohingya raised concerns that the data would be used to facilitate repatriations and be integrated into the Myanmar National Verification Cards (NVC) system – an inherently discriminatory process that identifies Rohingya as non-citizens. A visit to the Bangladesh camps in early 2018 by Myanmar’s social welfare minister, Dr. Win Myat Aye, stoked those fears. He said during the visit that NVC cards would help to verify the identity of refugees returning to Myanmar. Some Rohingya held protests against the registration exercise in late 2018, which in a few cases the camp authorities met with violence.

A 2020 study by the Engine Room, an international organization working with data and technology to encourage social change, said a number of refugees spoke of fears around data sharing with Myanmar, telling them, “We are still having doubts about one matter ... they assured us that they won’t share our biodata with the [government of Myanmar], but what if they cheat us and share this data … [and] send us back to [Myanmar]?”

In response to refugee concerns, UNHCR officials made confusing public statements about the purpose of the data collection exercise. For example, in November 2018, after protesters complained that Myanmar would access the data, a UNHCR official told Reuters that the data was being collected for a verification process that would help Rohingya refugees get better protection and ensure their access to services in Bangladesh and was “not linked to repatriation.”

In its May 10, 2021 response to Human Rights Watch, UNHCR said that Reuters had selectively excerpted this statement without providing more context and that UNHCR staff consistently said that Bangladesh may share data with Myanmar to verify eligibility for returns, and this would not be linked to any “actual return movement.”

In September 2018, a UNHCR assistant registration officer had addressed the issue on a Rohingya community radio show, Bala-Bura:

There isn’t any association between the Smart Card and the repatriation to Myanmar. Repatriation is based on your own willingness and it doesn’t look like it could actually happen right now. It could only happen when there is peace in your country, when you get your rights back, when you get your house, land and properties returned, when you get the freedom of movement—these are the criteria for voluntary [returns]. And this [Smart Card] is to live in Bangladesh, to stay safely in Bangladesh, to get assistance- this card is being given to ensure all of that. There is not any association with the repatriation to Myanmar. When you receive that identity card or the “Smart Card,” the first advantage you will get is that you can stay peacefully and safely in Bangladesh.

At the same time, the official said that Bangladesh would share some limited information on who people were and what village they came from with Myanmar but did not explain that this would be linked to repatriation eligibility assessments, nor that it would include additional data including photographs or thumbprint images. In a January 2019 operational update, UNHCR said the exercise was intended to ensure that refugees had identity documents and could use those documents to get services, and “contribute to ensuring a refugee’s right to return.”

The statements from UNHCR officials contributed to refugees incorrectly believing that the data UNHCR collected was not going to contribute to anything related to potential returns.

As one aid worker, who at the time was attending meetings between Rohingya leaders and UNHCR on this issue put it, “UNHCR kept saying to them [Rohingya leaders] the memorandum of understanding it signed with Myanmar had nothing to do with repatriations and nor did the joint registration exercise. It was basically ignoring the Rohingya and their concerns that there was a link.”

Free and Informed Consent

UNHCR predicates its assistance and protection on free and informed consent by beneficiaries. A 2020 UNHCR guide for making refugee status determinations, for example, states that UNHCR should inform an individual of:

the extent of the information to be disclosed, the recipient of the information, the purpose of the disclosure and the likely use of the information. Consent must be sought each time the information is to be disclosed to a different third party or used for purposes which the Applicant was not informed about and would not have reasonably expected at the time of the initial consent.

In addition, to be valid:

consent must be informed, that is consent must be based upon a clear appreciation and understanding of the facts, implications and consequences, which obliges UNHCR to inform the person of the purpose(s) of data collection, and how the data is, or is likely to be, used. Consent must also be freely given, meaning that the individual must have a genuine choice and be able to refuse or withdraw consent without adverse consequences.

While UNHCR policy allows for processing data without consent under some circumstances, including emergency situations, this should not override the need for consent or appropriate alternatives during registration exercises so as to not expose individuals or groups to harm, or otherwise jeopardize their protection.

UNHCR staff told Human Rights Watch in 2021 that when registering Rohingya for the joint registration exercise in 2018, field staff asked refugees whether they consented to have

their data shared with Myanmar to assess their repatriation eligibility. They said that Rohingya could have registered for the Smart Card even if they did not want their data shared with Myanmar. They contended that the vast majority of refugees consented but did not say how many refused. The Rohingya interviewed by Human Rights Watch disputed these claims.

Human Rights Watch believes that combining registration required for services with consent to a repatriation eligibility assessment is contrary to the principle of free consent. Rohingya refugees require a Smart Card to get all services in the refugee camps. UNHCR’s policies provide that the agency should never directly link registration or other verification exercises with registration for voluntary repatriations.

UNHCR disputed the relevance of this principle by arguing it applies to registration for voluntary repatriation, not sharing names to assess eligibility for return. But the aim of the policy – to ensure that consent is not coerced – should also apply in the registration exercise that UNHCR conducted with Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch found that UNHCR gave refugees mixed messages about how their data would be used and did not provide enough information for people to understand when, how, and for what purposes their information would be shared with the Myanmar government.

UNHCR said that when communicating with refugees and media about the registration exercise, UNHCR staff members consistently noted the possibility that the government of Bangladesh may share the data with the government of Myanmar for the purpose of verifying their eligibility for return, but this would not be linked to any actual returns. In February, a UNHCR official said the question about sharing data for eligibility assessments during the joint registration exercise was a “tick box” on a consent form that each refugee signed. She claimed the agency “always asked this question and the refugees understood what we meant very quickly.”

This is contrary to the experience of 23 of the 24 Rohingya refugees interviewed, who said that they believed at the time that the data collection was only to get the Smart Card and access to services, and a counting exercise. They said they did not sign a form, but instead gave their data in their own language to a field officer typing into a computer, and received a printed English language-only receipt with that data at the end of the interview. One Rohingya man who shared with Human Rights Watch the English language receipt said he was shocked to see that his data could be shared with Myanmar:

When I got to the [registration] center no one there told me why they were collecting my data, it was assumed that I knew like everyone that it was in order to receive services and for a counting exercise. After they took my data, they printed out a receipt. I walked back to my tent, and then I looked at the paper, and noticed that on the top there was a tick box that the person at the center had marked as “yes” without ever asking me, that my data would be shared with Myanmar. I was so angry when I saw that, but I had already given my data, and I needed services, so I didn’t know what I could do about it. And I am one of the few people who probably even realized that. Most Rohingya do not read English. But why did they do that? Why don’t they ask the person in front of them instead of just clicking and maybe even causing us harm by doing that?

The man said that before his data was collected, a senior UNHCR official told a community meeting he had attended that, “in the future, if you agree, UNHCR and Bangladesh will share your information with Myanmar so the government can verify where you are from,” but that he was never told this collection exercise would be for that purpose.

Another Rohingya man said:

UNHCR did not tell us it would be used for anything linked to repatriations. When the registration exercise started, we had said we didn’t want to participate because we were worried about repatriations, but the UNHCR staff told us, “We will not share your information with Myanmar until you give us permission to.” And then they never came back to us to ask if they could share our information.

He added that when field staff collected his data, they did not discuss consent in any detail. In its May responses, UNHCR stated that Rohingya refugees were provided extensive counseling on the sharing of their information with Myanmar for the purposes of verification of eligibility for return, but at the same time acknowledged that in some cases a more thorough explanation and counseling for refugees may have helped them better understand the process and its purpose.

UNHCR said that the vast majority of refugees in 2017 and 2018 were expressing a desire to return home “if conditions were conducive” – a sentiment that refugees also expressed to Human Rights Watch at the time. The Rohingya refugees have repeatedly said that they wish to return to Myanmar when it is safe and their citizenship rights, right to freedom of movement, and other human rights are guaranteed. But when Bangladesh started submitting names to Myanmar for repatriation eligibility assessments in 2018, Rohingya refugees told Human Rights Watch that they still did not feel safe to return.

The one Rohingya man who said UNHCR did ask his consent to share his data with Myanmar said he felt pressure not to refuse. He added that he assumed, based on UNHCR’s mandate to protect vulnerable people, the data would only be shared at a time when safe and dignified repatriations were possible. “We would be very worried to have our full information shared without those conditions, especially now with the Myanmar military in control of the government,” he said.

Bangladesh officials said that by early 2021 they had submitted lists with at least 830,000 names to Myanmar. Bangladesh’s foreign minister reported that the lists included all the data the government had on each individual, including biometric data. Myanmar authorities verified the eligibility of 42,000 people for return, though UNHCR considered the situation in Myanmar not conducive for safe refugee returns.

Once they were verified for return, UNHCR interviewed those selected, and almost all said they did not want to return, with some going into hiding out of fear of forced repatriation.

Human Rights Watch believes that biometric data should only be gathered when necessary and proportionate, and when fully compliant with privacy and data protection legislation and internal data retention and privacy policies. If biometric data collection (such as fingerprint images) is deemed necessary, in line with various data protection regulations and established principles of data collection in sensitive contexts, UNHCR should collect and store as little data as possible about vulnerable people.

Implementation of UNHCR Policy

UNHCR has a policy and practical guidance to protect personal data that it collects on beneficiaries and shares with third parties. The policy specifies that “before entering into data transfer arrangements with Implementing Partners or third parties which may negatively impact on the protection of personal data of persons of concern, UNHCR needs to carry out a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA).”

UNHCR told Human Rights Watch that it did not carry out a “full-fledged DPIA,” but undertook several risk assessments prior to signing the data-sharing agreement with Bangladesh and embedded and applied risk-mitigating measures into the agreement. In its assessments, UNHCR said it took into account “application of data protection provisions, refugees’ consent, UNHCR’s prior written authorization to disclose, limitations to the use of data, the format in which data are being shared, and balanced any identified risks against the benefits of upholding refugees’ right to return to their country.” It is important, though that it did not seem to take into account the context of historical involuntary returns from Bangladesh to Myanmar.

A former senior UNHCR staff member said that while the agency has a policy in place, “UNHCR has not put procedures to enforce the policy. DPIAs are generally not conducted.” He added that while the policy document seeks “adequacy” with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, in practice staff deviate from the requisite standards including informed consent.

UNHCR’s policy also dictates that when it collects personal data. it should inform the person “in a manner and language that is understandable” of the specific purpose for which the data will be processed and whether the data will be transferred to another entity.

Twenty-one of the 24 Rohingya interviewed said they found out their names were on repatriation eligibility assessment lists only after the Myanmar government had verified them for return.

UNHCR said it was unable to share a copy of its data-sharing agreement with Bangladesh without the government’s permission. Human Rights Watch asked the Bangladesh government for a copy of the agreement but has yet to receive a response.

UNHCR said its protection staff in Bangladesh and Myanmar have monitored whether the sharing of refugee data has resulted in any harm to refugees or their families and had not identified any harm thus far.

Potential Harm

Involuntary Repatriations

In a May meeting with Human Rights Watch, a UNHCR official defended the agency’s data sharing with Bangladesh – knowing that Bangladesh would, in turn, share this data with Myanmar as part of the process for verifying eligibility to return – by saying that UNHCR’s engagement would help to ensure that any returns would be voluntary. UNHCR said that an April 2018 memorandum of understanding between the agency and Bangladesh on the voluntary return of Rohingya to Myanmar includes a role for UNHCR to assist Bangladesh to register refugees who indicate a willingness to return and to ascertain the voluntariness of their decision after the eligibility for return is verified and confirmed between Bangladesh and Myanmar. It also states that UNHCR will assist in voluntary returns but only when the conditions for safe and dignified return are in place.

In its May written response to Human Rights Watch, UNHCR repeated that Bangladesh is upholding its commitment not to involuntarily repatriate Rohingya and pointed out that in November 2018 and August 2019, Bangladesh did not force any Rohingya who had been verified for return to go back to Myanmar. It said that “UNHCR has insisted since the beginning of the Rohingya refugee crisis that the refugees have a right to return if conditions are conducive yet that this should be voluntary and on the basis of informed consent.”

If the necessary conditions are not in place for safe and dignified return, UNHCR engagement on return is usually limited to planning, monitoring, counseling, advocacy, and ongoing analysis of obstacles to and conditions necessary for return, and identifying the necessary actions to address them. By indirectly assisting Bangladesh, through the collection of data, to draw up lists for verifying return eligibility, UNHCR has in effect assisted with potential repatriations, governed by the bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

This comes in the context of previous forced repatriation from Bangladesh to Myanmar, first in 1978 and then between 1992 and 1997, including UNHCR’s involvement in those episodes of mass forcible return, or refoulement. A study by the Stimson Center found:

In the 1970s and 1990s, UNHCR made choices that prioritized relationships with the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar over explicitly addressing human rights and protection concerns facing refugees… protection practices and norms such as individually interviewing refugees prior to return, were often sidelined in favor of maintaining these relationships.

In 2021 Bangladeshi authorities have continued their rhetoric around the need for repatriations, including directly after the February 1 military coup in Myanmar. Human Rights Watch questions the extent to which UNHCR will be able to prevent forced returns should they be attempted, given its inability to prevent the Bangladeshi government from relocating – including involuntary transfers – Rohingya to facilities on the remote island of Bhasan Char, where they lack freedom of movement and sustainable livelihoods or education.

The principle of nonrefoulement, the right of refugees not to be returned to a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened, is the cornerstone of international refugee protection, enshrined in article 33 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Although Bangladesh is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, it is bound to uphold the principle of nonrefoulement as a matter of customary international law.

Returning Rohingya to Myanmar would put them at grave risk of arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill-treatment, and possible death. An estimated 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, confined to camps and villages without freedom of movement or access to adequate food, health care, education, and livelihoods. Approximately 130,000 internally displaced Rohingya have been arbitrarily held since 2012 in open-air detention camps.

A 2020 report by Human Rights Watch found that that the repression imposed on the Rohingya amounts to the crimes against humanity of persecution, apartheid, and severe deprivation of liberty. The UN-backed Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar warned in 2019 that the Rohingya remaining in Myanmar faced a greater-than-ever threat of genocide in the face of ongoing marginalization and brutality by the authorities.

The 21 Rohingya who told Human Rights Watch that their names had been on repatriation eligibility assessment lists and been verified for return fled their huts and went into hiding into other camps because they were afraid of being forcibly returned. One said his family fled because Bangladeshi security forces threatened that if they did not return to Myanmar, “then they would bulldoze our hut inside the camp.” Another Rohingya man said Bangladeshi authorities had told him he must return to Myanmar or he would be forced to, though he was not ultimately forced to do so.

One aid worker who witnessed families fleeing their huts said that in November 2018, when authorities tried to get the first group of Rohingya that had been verified for return to leave, she saw camp leaders trying, and ultimately failing, to forcibly round them up and put them on buses.

Denial of Citizenship and Potential Statelessness

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who have lived for generations in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. They are not listed among the 135 national ethnic groups Myanmar recognizes and are effectively denied citizenship under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law. Without citizenship, they are for practical purposes stateless, facilitating long-term and severe Myanmar government human rights violations, including deportation, arbitrary confinement, and persecution.

Myanmar authorities have issued documents under successive “citizenship verification” systems, including “white cards,” or temporary registration cards, which were nullified in 2015. The end of the “white cards” was followed by the current National Verification Card (NVC) process, which has been marked by coercion and deceit. Rohingya are also registered on documents under repressive travel authorization and administrative procedures, such as household lists, Form 4s, and “Village Departure Certificates.”

At the time of their registration in Bangladesh, many Rohingya were concerned that their data would be integrated into the Myanmar NVC system, which they believe would undermine their claims to citizenship. A 2019 repatriation assessment conducted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with support from the Myanmar government stated that all returning refugees will be registered for NVCs upon arriving at Rakhine State “reception centers.”

Arbitrary Detention

In line with its repatriation agreements with Bangladesh, the Myanmar government has built “reception centers” and “transit camps” in northern Rakhine State to process and house returnees. They are surrounded by high barbed-wire fencing and security outposts, similar to the central Rakhine State detention camps. Such camps, constructed on land from which the Rohingya had fled, including villages that were burned and bulldozed in their wake, would invariably limit basic rights, segregate returnees from the rest of the population, restrict freedom of movement, and exacerbate persecution. The ASEAN repatriation assessment outlines “strict security measures,” including the extensive presence of armed border guard police at the camps that raise grave rights concerns.

One Rohingya man told Human Rights Watch that his name had appeared on a Myanmar government list of suspected members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the ethnic Rohingya armed group. He said that around August 2019, he found out from a Bangladesh government-appointed representative in the camp that his name had been included on one of the repatriation eligibility assessment lists and he was verified for return. “I am worried that the Myanmar authorities added my name to the list as a trap, so they can bring me back to Myanmar and then arrest me for membership in ARSA,” he said.


Human Rights Watch appreciates the vital role that UNHCR plays in ensuring that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are issued identity documents and have access to basic services. Human Rights Watch also recognizes that Bangladesh authorities require some personal data to issue these documents. It is less clear, however, to what extent facial images, fingerprints, and other biometric data are necessary and proportionate to serve this purpose. As UNHCR guidelines recognize, there are significant risks that this information could be shared with refugees’ countries of origin and the personal information collected should only be shared with the country of origin after an individual confirms that they want to voluntarily return home.

In its April 14 letter to UNHCR, Human Rights Watch included detailed recommendations for the agency to consider. These included investigating the manner in which data collection proceeded in Bangladesh in 2018. More broadly, Human Rights Watch recommends the following to UNHCR:

Do not combine collecting data on individuals to provide services or identification documents with collecting data for repatriation eligibility assessment or repatriation. Data collection for repatriation purposes should remain a separate exercise, ideally with a strict firewall in the databases maintained; Instruct field officers to engage in detailed consent discussions with every person being considered for eligibility for repatriation, and for repatriation, which should include ensuring that refugees understand any risks of having their data shared and that they have the ability to opt-out without prejudice; Only share data or allow data that it collects to be shared by host countries with countries of origin, when individuals have given free and informed consent; Ensure that people who agree to have their data shared for repatriation purposes are able to later withdraw that consent, and are informed how to do so in a clear manner at the time they give initial consent; Impose restrictions and safeguards that limit the authorities who can access and share data within the government and prohibit access to this data by third governments and other parties; Carry out mandatory data assessments and, to ensure independence, use teams supervised by an independent body to conduct data impact assessments before engaging in new programming that requires sensitive data collection. Assessments of this risk should include an examination of the historical context of the communities and countries involved; and Ensure that all data collection, including biometric data, meets the requirements of necessity and proportionality.

Human Rights Watch also recommends that donor governments play a greater role in ensuring rights-based data practices. This includes requiring agencies and organizations that collect sensitive data to use independently supervised entities for data protection impact assessments for new projects before data collection begins, and to conduct annual data protection audits.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 15, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image A woman among the graves of victims of the Srebrenica genocide, at the memorial cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, Tuesday, June 8, 2021. © 2021 Darko Bandic/AP Photo

Last week, an appeals panel of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) upheld the 2017 genocide conviction of Bosnian Serb wartime military commander Ratko Mladić. Chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz said of Mladić, “His name should be consigned to the list of history’s most depraved and barbarous figures.” Mladić will serve life in prison for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This verdict marks the completion of the Yugoslav tribunal’s mandate to try some of those most responsible for war crimes perpetrated during the 1991-2001 wars in the Balkans. The ruling has special significance for many victims and survivors who sought justice.

But the tribunal’s verdicts have yet to pierce the deep layer of denial and contested narratives of the conflict that persist in the region.

In response to last week’s verdict, Bosnian Serb tripartite presidency member Milorad Dodik called the Srebrenica genocide a myth. Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabićused the decision to blame the court for the growing divisions in the Balkans.

Flags, banners, and murals praising Mladić as a hero were seen in Serbian and Republika Srpska cities such as Trebinje, Banja Luka, Belgrade, and earlier this year in Foča. It doesn’t help that presiding Judge Prisca Matimba Nyambe disagreed with the ruling, despite overwhelming evidence to support it.

Some convicted war criminals have gone to work in public office in the Balkans and run for political positions since their release from custody.

The United Nations Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide has warned of increasing genocide denial in the Balkans.

The last week’s events highlight the need to foster a culture of remembrance, truth, and reconciliation in the Balkans.

For years, civil society groups across the region have advocated for the establishment of a regional truth commission, but leaders in the Balkans have yet to agree.

The specialist chamber for Kosovo has finally started to ramp up its work, but regional cooperation and willingness to extradite those on war crimes charges is lacking.

The conclusion of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is a reminder of the ongoing need for justice, truth, and reconciliation in the Western Balkans. Unless it comes to terms with its past, the region won’t be able to move forward.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 15, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Former President of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Hamane Niang attends the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 official mascot launch ceremony on April 18, 2018 in Beijing, China. © 2018 Visual China Group via Getty Images

(June 14, 2021) – Players from Mali’s Under-18 girls’ national basketball team have reported sexual abuse by the head coach, but the Mali Basketball Federation has failed to act on their reports, Human Rights Watch said today. Malian law enforcement should credibly and impartially investigate the allegations and protect those who reported the abuse from retaliation.

Amadou Bamba, 51, the Under-18 girls’ national basketball team’s head coach since 2016, sexually assaulted or harassed at least three players and thwarted their careers when they refused to have sex with him, survivors told Human Rights Watch.

“Many girls in Mali hoped that their talents and hard work in basketball could help them achieve their dreams to play for the national team,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “But for many, sexual harassment and violence have been a frequent, devastating, and completely unacceptable part of their athletic experience.”

After Human Rights Watch wrote to the Fédération Internationale de Basketball (FIBA), world basketball’s ruling body, detailing the sexual abuse reports in Mali, FIBA has taken an important first step to suspend, pending investigation, coaches and officials who are alleged to have participated in or knew of the abuse. FIBA’s President Hamane Niang, the Malian leader of basketball’s governing body, has stepped aside during the investigation. FIBA should also support providing services to survivors, including counseling, health care, and legal assistance, Human Rights Watch said.

Basketball is tremendously popular in Mali, and the women’s and girls’ national teams have played in the Olympics and long been top contenders for international titles. Human Rights Watch spoke to three survivors and their family members who reported Bamba’s abuse to the Mali Basketball Federation. The federation failed to act on these complaints and tried to cover up Bamba’s abuse by promising the survivors that they would be chosen for the girls’ national team in exchange for silence.

Several of the reported abuses took place at international competitions, including the FIBA Under-19 Women’s Basketball World Cup and the FIBA Africa Under-18 Championship. The 2021 FIBA Under-19 Women’s Basketball World Cup takes place in Hungary from 7 to 15 August, where Mali is one of 16 teams competing. 

In Mali, survivors and their family members reported sexual abuse by Bamba dating back to 2016, his first year as head coach. Ajara, a former player on the Under-18 girls’ national team, whose name, like others, has been changed for her protection, was sexually harassed and assaulted by Bamba, said her father, whom she told about it. He said the harassment began when his daughter, then 17, was trying out for the team: “Bamba called her and said he wanted to have sex with her, and that she would need to have sex with him to get a spot.” She refused. At an international FIBA tournament, the abuse escalated into sexual assault: “He [Bamba] came into her [my daughter’s] hotel room at 2 a.m.... He grabbed her hand, made her touch certain parts on his body. He put his hands underneath her underwear.” She ran out of the room. After the assault, Bamba significantly reduced her playing time on the team.

Two other former players on the team described similar experiences. Another player, Mariama, told Human Rights Watch that when she was 15, Bamba attempted to have sex with her in a hotel room on a team trip to an international FIBA tournament, and removed her from the team when she refused. She also said that Bamba threatened girls on the team with imprisonment if they reported the abuse. A third girl, Oumou, said that when she was on the team at age 17, Bamba tried to touch her breasts and have sex with her: “When I refused him, he didn’t let me play. He kept me out of games.”

Players told Human Rights Watch that Bamba was sexually abusing other players on the Under-18 girls’ national team, exchanging sex for playing time, money, and equipment. In Mali, indecent acts with people between 15 and 21 years old are illegal if the offender has authority over the person or if the offender is in charge of the person’s education, supervision, or employment.

The Mali Basketball Federation, as part of its oversight function and its membership in FIBA, has the responsibility to protect players from abuse, and to hold abusive coaches accountable through sanctions and removal. FIBA’s “Five Pillars of Safeguarding Rights of Children and Adults at Risk” states there is “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment and abuse of players, including the abuse of children by their coaches. Allegations of abuse must be reported to local law enforcement and to FIBA for investigation. According to FIBA policy, violations can lead to sanctioning of the national federation.

FIBA is also governed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which prohibits child abuse and abuse of athletes in the Olympic Charter. The IOC trains international federations to recognize and combat abuse of athletes through its Safeguarding Toolkit, and has a reporting tool, but does not adequately address athletes’ safety and rights when the federation leaders or staff are implicated in or are deploying federation resources to cover up abuse. 

Sexual harassment and assault have long-term impacts on survivors’ physical and mental health, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. The father who described his child’s experience said that his daughter, a gifted player, quit playing basketball after Bamba’s assault: “She is generally withdrawn and doesn’t have anything going on right now. She was traumatized.”

Several players and their family members said that they alerted the Mali Basketball Federation to Bamba’s abuse months ago. Though the Mali Basketball Federation has oversight of the Under-18 girls’ national team, including the selection of the coach, Human Rights Watch has no information that the federation has taken action to address the reported abuses.

“Because the girls are scared to lose their spots on the team or face other consequences – it is a really difficult situation,” said Ahmar Maiga, founder of Young Players Protection in Africa-Mali. “Normally protecting players is the role of the Malian Basketball Federation, but nobody cares about the impossible situation these young athletes are in.”

Mariama said that she told the president of the federation, Harouna Maiga, about Bamba’s attempt to have sex with her, and her subsequent removal from the team. She said that Maiga offered her a spot back on the team if she did not officially report Bamba: “That’s how I got to play [in international FIBA tournaments]. The president said that as long as I didn’t disobey the coach, I could stay on the team.” The father who described his daughter’s abuse said that he reported Bamba’s abuse of his daughter to Maiga, but that Maiga had not responded.  

The Mali Basketball Federation’s failure to investigate or address serious allegations of abuse pre-dates Bamba. Mariama said that Bamba is the third girls’ basketball coach with abuse allegations reported to the federation. Experts on child protection in Mali said that harassment and assault in girls’ basketball has been a serious problem for years.

Sexual and gender-based violence is a widespread problem in Mali, beyond the world of sports. A 2018 National Institute of Statistics survey found that nearly half of Malian women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 had experienced gender-based violence.

All institutions with jurisdiction, including the Malian judiciary, the Malian Ministry of Youth and Sport, the Mali Basketball Federation, and FIBA should investigate the allegations against Bamba, Human Rights Watch said. The Youth and Sport Ministry should form a government commission of inquiry to investigate systemic sexual abuse in girls’ basketball and other girls’ sports in Mali. They should also act to ensure that players do not face retaliation for making complaints, and work with women’s rights and healthcare providers with expertise in sexual abuse and trauma so that survivors have access to long-term, quality support services.

Over the previous two years Human Rights Watch has also documented the abuse of child athletes in Haiti, Japan, and Afghanistan.

“Sports should not be a closed circle where girls are sexually harassed, punished for reporting, and then lose their ability to play a sport they love,” Worden said. “With the Japan Olympics and the FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup fast approaching, FIBA and the IOC need to act quickly to remove any abusive coaches and all basketball leaders who failed in their duty to protect Mali’s female players.”

For detailed accounts by the survivors and witnesses, please see below.

Accounts by Former Players

Mariama, Former Player on Coach Amadou Bamba’s Under-18 Girls’ National Teams

Mariama said that she has been playing basketball since she was 8. When she was 15, she was selected to play for Mali in an international FIBA tournament. While traveling to play in this tournament, Bamba invited the four youngest players on the team to come individually to his hotel room, to meet with them to provide “advice” about their future. “He invited us one by one, allegedly to give advice, but really it was to take advantage,” Mariama said.

She was the last of the four young players to be invited to Bamba’s hotel room. She had heard that he had tried to kiss one of the girls. When Mariama went to his hotel room, Bamba tried to force her to have sex with him, promising her money and playing time. She refused, ran out of the room and slammed the door. “He was extremely angry,” she said. “So, he took me off the team.”

Mariama went to the president of the Mali Basketball Federation, Harouna Maiga, to tell him about Bamba’s attempt to have sex with her, and his keeping her off the team as punishment. Instead of investigating Bamba, Maiga protected him. “I didn’t talk about the harassment at the time it was happening,” Mariama said. “But afterwards, I went to see the Federation president to talk about Bamba. The president said I could be on the team if I didn’t report Bamba. That’s how I got to play [in international FIBA tournaments]. The president said that as long as I didn’t disobey the coach, I could stay on the team.”

Back on the team, Mariama traveled to another FIBA tournament, staying at a hotel. Mariama reported that Bamba again targeted the youngest players on the team for sex, some of whom turned to Mariama for advice. “Coach Bamba often went into girls’ rooms, when they weren’t there or when they were alone, to go say bad things and try to make advances,” Mariama said. Some players also attended the school at which Bamba teaches. Mariama said, “The youngest were the victims. He started to harass them in school. Team members had to help younger girls to refuse his advances. He kept trying to touch the younger players’ breasts and other intimate parts.”

Mariama said that Bamba threatened girls and their families if they talked to anyone about the abuse: “Bamba tells the girls that he will imprison them and their parents because he has power. The majority of girls refuse to talk because of this. We had planned that if he didn’t stop, we would tell the federation to find a solution. We didn’t end up telling the federation, because the girls’ basketball careers were threatened.”

Naby, Father of Ajara, FormerPlayer on the Under-18 Girls’ National Team

Naby said that his daughter Ajara has been playing basketball since she was 7. By the time she was a teenager, Ajara was selected for the Under-16 and then the Under-18 Mali Girls’ National Basketball team.

Bamba’s harassment began when Ajara, then 17, was still trying out for the Under-18 national team. Bamba attempted to coerce her into having sex with him in exchange for a spot on the team. Naby said: “Bamba called her and said he wanted to have sex with her, and that she would need to have sex with him to get a spot.”

During team travel to a FIBA tournament, Bamba went into Ajara’s hotel room and sexually assaulted her. Naby said: “He [Bamba] came into her [his daughter’s] hotel room at 2 a.m. He asked her to initiate things. She was refusing. He grabbed her hand, made her touch certain parts on his body. He put his hands underneath her underwear.” Ajara managed to text a friend on the team, who came to the door and pulled her out of the room.

After this sexual assault, Bamba punished Ajara with reduced playing time. Naby said, “Bamba is the one who chooses who plays and who doesn’t. We noticed that after she refused, he didn’t let her play as much. He told her at some point that if she refused, she wouldn’t get to play as much. She didn’t care, she wasn’t going to do it.”

The experience was very traumatizing for Ajara, and she quit playing basketball. Naby said, “She was generally withdrawn, doesn’t have anything going on right now. She was traumatized. She didn’t want to play basketball anymore.”

After Bamba sexually assaulted Ajara, Naby went to the president of the Mali Basketball Federation, Harouna Maiga. But the federation has not taken any action. “I think the National Federation does know what’s going on with Bamba,” Naby said. “I called Maiga a little more than a month ago, he said he would call Bamba and ask him if it was true and tell him it was wrong if he was doing that. Maiga said he would get back in touch with me, but I haven’t heard back for a month.”

Oumou, Former Player on the Under-18 Girls’ National Team

Oumou played on the Mali Under-18 girls’ national team under Bamba when she was 17. She described sexually abusive behavior by Bamba. Oumou said that she observed Bamba “touching girls all the time. He was dating girls on the team, and touching the breasts of girls on the team … He wanted us to go out with him, sleep with him. I believe he was having sex with some of the players.”

Oumou also described being punished by Bamba for refusing his sexual advances. “When I refused him, he didn’t let me play. He kept me out of games,” she said.

Aïssata Tina Djibo, former Women’s National Team player who went on to a career in Europe and now runs Association D’aide et Accompagnement Physique, a sports reform organization in France that is focused on child athlete protection in Mali)

“I started playing basketball very young. I was always a really good player, but I struggled a lot because the coach would propose things to me that I didn’t accept. When the coach pressures us for sex, it affects your studies, your whole life.

“The victims are not speaking up because they’re scared of losing their position on the national team. And there’s the passion for basketball that they have. Everyone knows that once you’re on Mali’s national basketball team, that’s something to be extremely proud of. For you and your whole family. And it’s so important for your career. These girls have had amazing careers and they’re scared to lose their spot on the team.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 14, 2021, 11:31 pm
Click to expand Image This image from an April 18, 2021 news report by Myawaddy TV shows people who security forces detained in the Yankin township of Yangon, Myanmar. © 2021 Myawaddy TV via AP

(Bangkok) – Myanmar security forces are arbitrarily arresting and detaining family and friends of activists, protesters, and opposition members, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all those wrongfully held and end all collective punishment, which violates fundamental principles of international human rights law.

Since the February 1, 2021, military coup in Myanmar, security forces have detained at least 76 people, including an infant, during raids when they were unable to find the person they sought to arrest, according to documentation by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). At least 48 of those people are still in detention, with some now held for more than three months.

“Seizing family members and friends as hostages is a thuggish tactic by Myanmar’s security forces to terrorize the population and coerce activists to turn themselves in,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The authorities should end the practice of collective punishment immediately and release everyone held on this illegal basis.”

Security forces unable to find specific suspects have arrested their parents, children, other relatives, and friends who happened to be present during the search. Cases include:

On March 8, security forces searching for lawyer Robert San Aung seized his daughter and brother-in-law and held them for 18 days before releasing them.    On April 22, security forces searching for Pu Do Sian Pau, a member of the opposition Civil Disobedience Movement, seized his mother and his 70-year-old father, a retired pastor of the Cope Memorial Baptist Church. Both are still in detention.   On April 29, security forces searching for Salai Bawi Uk Thang, the editor-in-chief of the Chinland Post newspaper, detained his father. He is still in detention.     On May 23, security forces arrested the parents and younger brother of a striking worker from the fire department. All three relatives are still in detention.  

In some cases, witnesses allege that the security forces beat the relatives before detaining them. Tin Htut Paing, an activist who is in hiding, told the media that, on May 2, security forces searching for him and his brother beat his 90-year-old grandmother and 64-year-old mother. Security forces detained his mother and charged her with “incitement.” On May 28, she was sentenced to three years in prison. According to the AAPP, security forces searching for Associate Judge Kaung Myat Thu of Chaung-U Township Court beat his mother before arresting her. His mother is still in detention

Young children and even an infant have also been detained, at least temporarily. Security forces detained five relatives of strike leader Ko Jay Lah, including two girls aged 2 and 4. Similarly, forces searching for protest leader U Tan Win detained his wife and 20-day-old baby. While in both cases the family members were released later the same day, the arrests send a chilling message to activists and members of the Civil Disobedience Movement that no member of their family is safe, Human Rights Watch said.

The detention of people based solely on their relationship to another person is a form of collective punishment, which violates the right to liberty and security of person and the right to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.

“Myanmar’s junta has taken unlawful detention to a noxious new level by detaining those close to people who themselves should not be facing arrest,” Robertson said. “Concerned governments should urgently impose targeted sanctions and a global arms embargo or expect the junta to continue to raise the stakes on abusive actions.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 14, 2021, 8:10 pm
Click to expand Image Protesters hold up pictures of victims of extrajudicial killings during Human Rights Day protests in Manila, Philippines, December 10, 2017.   © 2017 Ezra Acayan/Sipa USA via AP Images

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s chilling promise to “drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings, you better get out […] because I’ll kill you” may finally come back to haunt him.

Today the International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked the court’s judges to approve her investigation into crimes committed in the Philippines from November 1, 2011, the date the Philippines became an ICC member, until March 16, 2019. On March 17, 2019, the Philippines effectively withdrew from the court.

A possible ICC investigation into the thousands of “drug war” killings in the Philippines is especially welcome given the United Nations Human Rights Council has yet to effectively condemn the Duterte government’s atrocities, despite a scathing report by the UN top rights’ commissioner sounding the alarm on the scale and gravity of the situation.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch found President Duterte and other senior officials have instigated and incited killings of mostly the urban poor in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity. According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, 6,117 individuals were killed during police anti-drug operations from July 1, 2016, to April 30, 2021. The Philippine National Police has a higher figure – 7,884 killed up to August 1, 2020.

Instead of condemning these abuses, the UN Human Rights Council has opted instead to provide technical cooperation and capacity-building to the same government that denies the true scale and severity of the human rights violations, has publicly endorsed the policy of killings, avoids independent investigations, and continues to crack down on civil society.

In his February 2021 address to the Human Rights Council, head of the Philippine Department of Justice, Menardo Guevarra, admitted police culpability in thousands of “drug war” killings. But while the new police chief, General Guillermo Eleazar, has promised to cooperate with the Department of Justice, he is only allowing access to 53 case files.

There is an urgent need for a Human Rights Council-backed investigation. The government’s campaign of extrajudicial killings has continued well beyond its withdrawal from the ICC, with devastating consequences for victims and their families, including children. And the killings have only intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The UN Human Rights Council should course-correct and stand up for the Philippine’s victims instead of giving support to the government that kills them.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 14, 2021, 5:03 pm
Click to expand Image Linda Jacks, 70, from Silver Spring, Maryland attends a rally outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, in support of the For the People Act on June 9, 2021. © 2021 Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein

(Washington, DC) – The United States Congress should swiftly pass two critical laws needed to protect and advance the right to vote, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act, Human Rights Watch said today. Both pieces of legislation are essential to protecting US democracy.

Since the troubled transition from the administration of former President Donald Trump, state legislators throughout the US have introduced hundreds of bills that would restrict access to voting, many of them echoing Trump’s false claims about the 2020 presidential election results. These state laws represent backsliding in the US from voting systems historically aimed at upholding the rights of voters and respecting the will of the people. Without federal action, the rights of voters will be seriously impaired, particularly those of Black, brown, and low-income voters, Human Rights Watch said.

“Two laws pending before Congress would help the United States ensure that the will of the people, not of politicians, determines the outcome of an election,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US director at Human Rights Watch.“Passage of both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For The People Act would be a crucial step toward guaranteeing every American a baseline level of voting access, free from efforts to hamper, dilute, or nullify their votes.”

The United States has a long history of discrimination against Black and brown people exercising the right to vote. Even after the federal enactment of the US Voting Rights Act in 1965, which aimed to reduce discrimination in voting, Black, Latinx, and Native American citizens experienced many obstacles to voting. Changes by some states in recent years, including those enabled by a 2013 US Supreme Court case – Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated federal oversight under the act – have made voting harder, not easier. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these problems. Trump’s promotion of a false narrative about the results of the 2020 election, echoed by his allies, is a serious attack on the concept that every vote should count. It also harms the millions of voters of color who came out in record numbers to speak through the ballot box.

The decentralized administration of elections in the United States means that no state administers elections in exactly the same way as another state. Each US state has a chief election official who has ultimate authority over elections, but which official holds this power varies from state to state. For example, many states rely on their secretary of state as their chief election official, some require governors to appoint top election officials, and others use appointed bipartisan election commissions. It is a patchwork quilt of voting systems.

The groundswell of new state laws began early this year with the introduction of 253 bills proposing voting restrictions across 43 states as of February 19, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. That number rose to at least 389 bills in 48 states as of May 14, the Brennan Center reported recently. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For The People Act would increase federal oversight of state laws that might restrict the right to vote and quell the voices of the most vulnerable voters.

“The US should urgently take action to protect the rights of voters,” Austin-Hillery said. “In the words of the late Congressman John Lewis, ‘the vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.’ No voter should be blocked from using it.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 14, 2021, 4:30 pm
Click to expand Image A demonstrator wearing a bridal gown takes part in a protest urging legislators to end Massachusetts child marriage at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on March 27, 2019.  © 2019 David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Last week, a breakthrough in the global fight to end child marriage came when the United Kingdom government pledged to raise the minimum age of marriage in England and Wales to 18, without exception. Just days before, Rhode Island became the fifth US state to ban child marriage. These are important steps, but more work lies ahead.

The UK has put itself forward as a leader on ending child marriage, hosting the 2014 “Girl Summit” on this topic. But in countries with high rates of child marriage, such as Bangladesh and Nepal, UK aid officials and diplomats quietly confessed that they are unable to push effectively for reform due to perceived hypocrisy, as child marriage is still legal in the UK. The government’s pledge to ban child marriage in England and Wales is encouraging. Authorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland should follow suit.

Child marriage is also still legal in the United States. With Rhode Island’s decision last week, 45 states still allow children under 18 to marry. That sounds daunting, but in 2018 child marriage was legal in every state; laws to end child marriage have been introduced in a growing list of states, including New York.

Around the world, 12 million girls under age 18 marry every year. Human Rights Watch opposes all marriage of children under the age of 18, without exception, because of the devastating consequences for children who marry, the vast majority of whom are girls. Married children usually leave school and are more likely to live in poverty. Married girls are more likely to experience domestic violence than women who marry as adults and face serious health risks, including death, due to early and closely spaced pregnancies.

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed more girls out of school and plunged millions of families into poverty, two of the main risk factors for child marriage. The United Nations estimated in 2020 that an additional 13 million child marriages would take place over the next ten years due to the pandemic.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 set a target of ending marriage before the age of 18, globally, by 2030. The pandemic has put millions of more girls at risk and made this target more important than ever. Governments in the UK, US, and everywhere else should act to end child marriage now.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 14, 2021, 4:05 pm

Trending rights tweets this week: Two former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa say Israel is committing the crime of apartheid today; since the coup in Myanmar, women are reporting being sexually abused by police and military officials while in detention; police in Oromia, Ethiopia, publicly executed a seventeen-year-old-boy; and police in Colombia have committed egregious abuses against protesters, including 20 killings documented by HRW.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 8:32 pm
Click to expand Image Clearance operator from the Halo Trust clearing a steep, rocky hillside in Afghanistan. © 2004 Brian Liu/Toolbox DC

The United Nations, governments, and humanitarian groups working to eradicate landmines and explosive remnants of war are condemning the reprehensible killing of 10 Halo Trust deminers and wounding of 16 others in Afghanistan on Tuesday. As a co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Human Rights Watch joins them and expresses condolences to the victims and their families.

The victims died while sleeping, when attackers opened fire on their camp in Baghlan province, north of Kabul. The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility. International humanitarian law prohibits attacks on humanitarian workers. The Afghan government should work to bring the perpetrators of this apparent war crime to justice.

The HALO Trust operates in two dozen countries around the world, clearing land contaminated by landmines and unexploded ordnance. It started in Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s, mobilizing when refugees and displaced people were about to be repatriated to former conflict areas still riddled with mines and explosive remnants of war.

Anyone who has witnessed a mine clearance program knows the daily risk that deminers face in identifying, marking, surveying, and clearing areas contaminated by landmines and explosive remnants of war such as unexploded submunitions from cluster bomb strikes. Less obvious are the challenges that humanitarian workers face from protracted fighting, targeted killings, and dwindling aid budgets in countries where conflict is ongoing.

Over the past 30 years, mine clearance has saved countless lives by rendering dangerous land safe for people to live and work on. These programs have employed thousands of people, creating sustainable livelihoods.

The eradication of landmines and other explosive weapons is a work in progress. It is a goal that is steadily advancing under the framework provided by international treaties prohibiting antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions.

The attack on the Afghanistan deminers this week is a stark reminder of the dangers humanitarian workers around the world confront as they work to save lives and livelihoods.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 8:09 pm
Click to expand Image People walk from a rural area towards a food distribution site near the town of Agula, in Tigray, Ethiopia, May 8, 2021. © 2021 Ben Curtis via AP

G7 leaders meeting this week should galvanize an immediate global response to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

Yesterday, the United Nations and other aid agencies warned that some 350,000 people are already experiencing famine-like conditions in Tigray. Millions of others there are at risk of famine too, unless assistance is promptly provided. The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, says that some 33,000 severely malnourished children “are at high risk of death.”

That the Ethiopian government disputes these findings only underscores the urgency of international involvement. G7 leaders should demand from Ethiopia and its allies the resumption of basic services, unimpeded aid delivery and access, and make clear that any official who blocks assistance faces immediate sanctions.

The millions facing famine in Tigray cannot be explained away as a by-product of the seven-month armed conflict. Human Rights Watch research shows that warring parties have directly contributed to this man-made disaster. Government restrictions on aid access to the region and to basic services in the early months of the fighting pushed many people over the edge. Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces have also looted property, burned crops, and attacked factories, hospitals, and other infrastructure key to people’s survival.

While humanitarian access in some areas has reportedly improved, warring parties are still denying aid workers’ movement, intimidating and attacking them, and confiscating supplies. Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said that in May alone, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces were responsible for 130 out of 131 access violations.

Attacks on civilians, including large-scale massacres and executions of men and boys, arbitrary detentions, and numerous horrific acts of sexual violence against women and girls, are also impeding people’s ability to reach help.

Tigray has been here before. Human Rights Watch documented that Ethiopia’s military dictatorship under the Derg in the mid-1980s, plunged millions in Tigray and other areas into famine by destroying crops, bombing marketplaces, restricting movement, and deliberately targeting food distribution efforts.

While different eras and realities, the parallels in the warring parties’ tactics are chilling.

Iconic images of starving people from a BBC report during the 1984 famine justifiably sparked international outcry. They also became an image Ethiopia has long tried to escape. This time around, the alarm bells have been ringing for months. It’s an enduring shame that the African Union has largely remained silent, and Russian and Chinese objections mean the UN Security Council has been unable to hold a single public meeting on the crisis. G7 leaders should act now.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 4:14 pm
Click to expand Image People march with a giant rainbow flag from the parliament building in Budapest during the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Pride Parade on July 6, 2019. © 2019 Attila Kisbedenek/AFP via Getty Images

(Berlin) – Hungary’s parliament should reject a bill that would prohibit discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation, and violates Hungary’s international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. The law targets content “promoting” or “portraying” sexual and gender diversity and could have sweeping consequences for health providers, educators, and artists, among others.

The draft “Laws enabling stricter action against pedophile offenders and the protection of children” bans the “portrayal and the promotion of gender identity different from sex at birth, the change of sex and homosexuality” aimed at people under 18. The bill, sponsored by Fidesz, the ruling party, is due for a vote in parliament on June 15, 2021.

“Hungary’s ruling party is cynically deploying a ‘protection of children’ narrative to trample on rights and try to render LGBT people invisible,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Children do not need to be protected from exposure to diversity. On the contrary, LGBT children and families need protection from discrimination and violence.”

The draft law is the latest in a series of attacks on LGBT equality under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government. In May 2020 the government rushed through an omnibus bill that included provisions preventing transgender and intersex people from changing their gender marker on official documents, in defiance of their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In December, parliament adopted an amendment to the constitution effectively banning same-sex couples from adopting children.

Orban’s government has sought to scapegoat LGBT people as part of a wider strategy to sidestep human rights obligations and cement Orban’s brand of authoritarianism.

In the case of the current bill, Fidesz members of the legislative committee added language on “portrayal and promotion” of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations at the last minute to an existing draft bill on pedophilia. The bill already contained provisions hostile to LGBT people, including one that the state should protect “family relations based on parent-child relations where the mother is a woman, the father is a man,” and another aimed at “ensuring the right of children to an identity in line with their sex at birth.”

The new provisions take aim at any discussion of diversity, and seem to stem in part from efforts by artists and advertisers to promote inclusion and acceptance of sexual and gender minorities. In 2019, Fidesz threatened a boycott in response to Coca-Cola advertisements featuring same-sex couples sharing a soft drink. In 2020, when Labrisz, a lesbian, bisexual and transgender women’s organization published a fairy tale anthology entitled “Wonderland is for Everyone” featuring some LGBT protagonists, the government forced it to attach stickers to the books with the disclaimer that they contained “behaviour inconsistent with traditional gender roles.”

Hungary’s draft pedophilia law introduces provisions into the Child Protection Act, the Act on Business Advertising Activity, the Media Act, the Family Protection Act, and the Public Education Act that would establish administrative sanctions for licensed professionals or institutions that violate it, threatening the right to education and the right to health, including the explicit right to health information under international law. In addition, the law is likely to contribute to violence and other forms of harassment against LGBT youth, in violation of the rights to security of person and freedom from violence.

Fidesz efforts to silence speech acknowledging the existence and human rights of LGBT people echo the so-called “gay propaganda” law passed in Russia in 2013. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented how that law exacerbated hostility toward LGBT people and stifled access to LGBT-inclusive education and support services, with harmful consequences for children.

Russia’s propaganda law has been used to shut down online information and mental health referral services for children and to discourage support groups and mental health professionals from working with children. It stigmatizes LGBT children and their families and has had a chilling effect on mental health professionals who work with LGBT youth. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that the law was discriminatory and harmful to children. It held that authorities adopting such laws are seeking to reinforce stigma and prejudice and encourage homophobia, which is incompatible with the values of a democratic society.

The proposed bill in Hungary similarly violates the rights to freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch said. As the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for Human Rights has observed, “authorities have a positive obligation to take effective measures to protect and ensure the respect of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons who wish to … express themselves, even if their views are unpopular or not shared by the majority of the population.”

The right to freedom of expression includes the right to seek and receive information and ideas of all kinds. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has noted the right to seek and receive information includes “information on subjects dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity.” In recognition of children’s particular need for information, the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to ensure children’s “access to information and materials from a diversity of national and international sources.”

In June 2020 the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary violated its obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights to respect transgender people’s private lives, and has to provide a procedure to allow them to have their gender identity legally recognized on documents.

The EU Commission adopted in November 2020 its first-ever five-year LGBTIQ Equality Strategy and in March, the European Parliament declared the EU an “LGBTIQ Freedom zone.” This latest anti-LGBT attack in Hungary triggers a responsibility for the European Commission and other EU member states to take action and hold Hungary’s government to account. EU’s Equality Commissioner, Helena Dalli, should strongly denounce Hungary’s latest attack against non-discrimination, a core right under the EU treaties, and call on the Hungarian parliament to reject the draft bill.

“Equating sexual and gender diversity with pedophilia is in itself a frontal attack on the basic dignity and humanity of LGBT people, and poses real risks to their safety and well-being,” Ghoshal said. “Hungarian members of parliament should reject this effort to silence marginalized people and should instead redouble their efforts to protect the basic human rights of everyone in Hungary, including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 1:34 pm
Click to expand Image A 9-year old girl collects sand in search of gold at a mining site in Moroto District, Uganda. @2021 Angella Nabwowe Kasule for ISER ©

(Berlin) – A new law on human rights in supply chains adopted by the German Parliament on June 11, 2021, ushers in a long-awaited shift to mandatory company compliance rules in Germany, Human Rights Watch said today. The German parliament acted to adopt the law during the last days of the current legislative period, after months of negotiations.

“The German government has taken a critical step to ensure that companies operate responsibly,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate director, children's rights division, at Human Rights Watch. “Respect for human rights in global supply chains is not something that should be optional.”

The law, while imperfect, will require large companies to regularly and systematically identify and address human rights and environmental risks in their direct supply chains. Companies will have to publish a report annually outlining the steps they have taken to identify and avert human rights risks, and national authorities will be empowered to initiate administrative action or impose fines on companies that fail to carry out their obligations. 

The law only applies to companies with more than 3,000 employees beginning in 2023, and to companies with more than 1,000 employees from 2024.

The legislation is a compromise after polarized negotiations between politicians seeking to impose robust regulation and those wishing to minimize it. Industry associations lobbied heavily for weaker rules. While the law is an important step toward meaningful corporate accountability, it does not incorporate the highest international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Companies only have to take measures in specific incidents if they have “substantiated knowledge” of potential abuses, and the measures can be of a general preventative nature. The law does not require companies to undertake thorough and systematic due diligence on indirect suppliers further down the supply chain, which is often where the most serious abuses occur.

Under international norms, companies have a responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence throughout their whole supply chain – that is, to identify, address, prevent, and remedy abuses – regardless of whether they have foreknowledge of problems.

The law also does not create liability for companies that have been implicated in serious human rights abuses, and does not require companies to assess the compliance of their supply chain with important international standards in certain treaties, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, or in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

“The law is a step in the right direction, but has some serious weaknesses that should be addressed in the future,” Kippenberg said. “There is still a risk that human rights abuses further down in global supply chains will be allowed to continue because companies do not have to conduct due diligence for their whole supply chain. And abuses can occur in companies with fewer than 1,000 employees too.”

The next government, which will be elected in September 2021, should take steps to strengthen the law, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, supply chain legislation planned by the European Union and other European governments should go beyond the German law.

A coalition of civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch, has been advocating for a robust supply chains law in Germany. Some companies as well as a group of 130 economists have also pushed for such a law.

“The new German law is a good start, but more is still needed to really ensure the products we buy aren’t tainted by abuse and people don’t suffer for making them,” Kippenberg said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 9:00 am
Click to expand Image Student receives hand sanitizer at a public school in São Paulo on the first day of in-person classes, on February 8th. © Andre Penner/ AP Photo/ Picture alliance

(São Paulo, June 11, 2021) – The Brazilian government has failed to address the huge impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on education, leaving millions of children with little or no access to school, Human Rights Watch and Everyone for Education (Todos pela Educação), said today.

More than a year after the government ordered the initial closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Education Ministry urgently needs to increase support to states and municipalities to guarantee remote education, including online learning, and a safe return to schools, the groups said.

“School closures have affected the most economically vulnerable children most severely,” said Anna Livia Arida, Brazil associate director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to put education at the center of its Covid-19 recovery plan, restore the education budget, and spend those resources to ensure that millions of children, especially those at a greater risk of dropping out, are able to study.”

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 5 million children between ages 6 and 17 in Brazil didn't have access to education in November 2020, the worst situation in two decades. More than 4 million of them were enrolled in schools but had no remote learning or in-person classes in 2020. School closures affected children unequally, with the greatest impact on Black or Indigenous children and adolescents, and those from lower income households.

A Parliamentary Monitoring Committee that examined investment and expenses by the Education Ministry in 2020 found that there was “an abrupt and inexplicable decrease of federal resources in different areas of education, in a year in which the federal education budget should be revised to address new challenges, such as student connectivity and implementation of health protocols.”

Globally, school closures, coupled with families’ loss of income and jobs, will almost certainly lead to a higher school dropout rate, more child labor, greater food insecurity, and increased exposure to violence and exploitation for children, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported. It warned that higher dropout rates will have long-term effects on children and on the economy, resulting in lower wages and a reduced quality of life.  

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, IBGE), an official entity, 16.6 percent of children and adolescents living in households with per capita incomes of up to half of the minimum wage had no access to education, while among households with per capita household incomes of 4 or more times the minimum wage, the percentage was only 3.9 percent. Also, 46.7 percent of children who had no access to education last year were living in the economically marginalized North and Northeastern parts of Brazil.

In Brazil, fewer than a quarter of all students dedicated three hours or more a day to school activities in September, a study by several nongovernmental organizations showed. Almost 5 percent of students in primary school and more than 10 percent of high school students reported in January that they had dropped out of school.

Before the pandemic, 4.1 million students in Brazil had no internet access. There is little chance that this situation will improve without federal support, said Human Rights Watch and Todos pela Educação, a Brazilian group that seeks to improve the quality of public education in the country.

The federal Education Ministry has failed to spend money already available in the budget for projects that could have helped minimize the consequences of the pandemic. The Education Ministry has the legal authority to coordinate national education policy and to provide additional funding for education to states and municipalities. However, it has done little to fulfill its responsibility to coordinate with states and municipalities to reduce inequalities during the pandemic.

States and municipalities have mostly faced the problems of adapting activities for remote learning alone, as well as implementing health protocols and other measures needed to safely reopen schools. They have struggled in particular with adapting activities for students with limited or no access to the internet.

The Education Ministry had for Primary Education a R$ 48.2 billion budget for 2020 but spent only R$ 32.5 billion, the lowest amount in a decade, Todos pela Educação found. The Education Ministry also reduced spending on its Connected Education program, which aims for universal access to high-speed internet in basic education. It committed only R$ 100.3 million to the program, the Parliamentary Monitoring Committee reported, less than half of what it had allocated the previous year.

For 2021, President Jair Bolsonaro “blocked” or froze R$ 2.7 billion, or almost 20 percent, of the education budget. Milton Ribeiro, the education minister, supported a presidential veto – later overturned by Congress – of a bill that would have provided emergency funds to increase access to the internet for both students and teachers.

The Covid-19 pandemic affected the education of millions of children worldwide, but the Brazilian government’s disastrous response to the pandemic dramatically worsened its impact on children in Brazil. Instead of adopting the World Health Organization recommendations, Brazil’s government tried to block efforts by states to require social distancing, vetoed a law that required the use of masks in schools – later overturned by Congress, – and invested heavily in drugs that it claimed, without scientific evidence, prevented or cured Covid-19.

Only about 10 percent of Brazil’s population is fully vaccinated. That includes 234,000 education professionals nationwide, about 8 percent. Vaccine scarcity has contributed to high rates of new cases and deaths, which have kept schools closed longer in Brazil than in other countries: for a total of 40 weeks last year, twice the world average, according to UNESCO.  

International human rights law guarantees all children the right to education, even in times of emergency. Brazil urgently needs to place children and adolescents at the center of its recovery strategy and to prioritize efforts to ensure education for all, during and after the pandemic.

To comply with Brazil’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch and Todos Pela Educação specifically recommend that the federal government, through the Education Ministry and in conjunction with governors and mayors:

Allocate resources strategically to ensure access to education for children historically at risk of exclusion from education, including Black and Indigenous children, as well as those on rural areas and others whose education has been particularly affected during the pandemic. Make vigorous efforts to ensure that vaccines are available to all and continue efforts to make vaccines available and accessible to education professional across the country, including with targeted outreach to teachers in marginalized communities. Ensure there are clear indicators for when in-person school closures might be justified by risk of coronavirus transmission and define objective, evidence-driven parameters to guide decisions to reopen schools. Support states and municipalities, especially the most economically vulnerable ones, in providing schools with sufficient and relevant personal protective equipment for all students and staff, Covid-19 information, and resources to provide enhanced ventilation and carry out cleaning and hygiene protocols. Support states and municipalities to evaluate learning gaps and the loss caused by prolonged school closures and to meet the needs to close the gaps.  Adopt measures to furnish affordable, reliable, and accessible internet, including targeted measures to provide free, equitable access – and devices capable of supporting core educational content – for children who cannot yet attend in-person classes. Carry out national “back to school” communications and mass outreach campaigns, for a phased, safe, and effective return to schools, in communities to persuade children who have been out of school – either due to the pandemic or other reasons – to return to school, and their families to support these decisions. Identify children who do not return to in-person classes or drop out or do not regularly attend and engage in intensive outreach to them and their caregivers to provide any support they require to continue or resume their studies.

“The prolonged interruption of in-person classes because of the pandemic is causing a profound and cruel setback in Brazilian education, with serious repercussions for educational inequality, school learning, and the food, physical and socioemotional protection system for millions of children and young people,” said Priscila Cruz, executive president of Todos Pela Educação.


*This article has been amended to reflect that according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 5 million children between ages 6 and 17 in Brazil didn't have access to education in November 2020, the worst situation in two decades.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Roundabout at site of Amanuel Wondimu's execution on May 11, 2021, in Dembi Dollo town, Oromia, Ethiopia. © Nakoor Malkaa VOA

(Nairobi) – Ethiopian government forces summarily executed a 17-year-old boy in Ethiopia’s Oromia region in broad daylight, Human Rights Watch said today. The public execution of Amanuel Wondimu Kebede underscores the lack of accountability for security force abuses in the country.

On May 11, 2021, government forces apprehended and beat Amanuel in Dembi Dollo, a town in the Kellem Wellega zone of western Oromia. A video posted on social media by the town’s administration shows security forces taunting a bloodied Amanuel with a handgun tied around his neck. He was executed in public that day. In the ensuing weeks, the authorities intimidated and arbitrarily arrested other Dembi Dollo residents, including Amanuel’s family members.

“The Ethiopian authorities’ summary execution of a teenage boy shows astounding disregard for human life,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The callous way that security forces and local officials filmed and then publicized this horrific event demonstrates that these authorities believe they can act above the law without fear of consequences.” 

Western Oromia has been the site of a three-year-long conflict between federal and regional government forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group that broke from the political opposition party, the Oromo Liberation Front(OLF), in 2019. Afederal command post in western Oromia coordinates federal and regional security forces in the area, including Ethiopian Defense Forces, Oromia special police, Oromia regular police forces, and administrative militia forces. On May 1, Ethiopia’s parliament proscribed “Shene” – a government term for the OLA– as a terrorist organization. 

Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 Dembi Dollo residents and reviewed several videos and photographs posted on social media, media articles, and statements by government officials relating to Amanuel’s killing. 

Witnesses said that at about 8 a.m. on May 11, Oromia regional special forces, known as Liyu Hail, arrested Amanuel near his home in Dembi Dollo’s Kebele 07 neighborhood. Media accounts said that local authorities alleged that Amanuel had shot and injured a contractor, Gemechu Mengesha, in the town. Relatives said that Amanuel was 17-years-old and was still in school. Residents in Dembi Dollo were surprised that the authorities apprehended Amanuel, and described him as a grade 10 student, who worked at a church, and had always lived in the Kebele 07 neighborhood.

Two residents saw the Oromia special forces beating, punching, and kicking Amanuel. “They were using all means to beat him, with their boots, hands, with the stick and butt of the gun,” one witness said. “He was even beaten on his head. He fell to the ground. It was very shocking to see.” Residents later saw Amanuel trying to escape in the Kebele 05 neighborhood, but the soldiers shot him in the leg. 

A second video that Human Rights Watch reviewed shows Amanuel being paraded down a street, visibly limping on his right side, and surrounded by security forces, including Oromia special forces and local police. Amanuel is forced to repeat: “I am a member of Abba Torbee [an armed group in Oromia and with unclear links to the OLA]. Don’t do what I did. Learn from me.”

Witnesses said a mixture of command post forces, including Oromia special forces, Oromia police, local militia, and Ethiopian defense forces then ordered vehicles to stop and rounded up residents from the local bus stop. Nearby business owners were also forced to close up shop and watch the events. Other residents joined the crowd on their own. One man watching the scene said: “They brought everyone to the center of the town and told the people if anyone tries to attack the security forces in the town, he or she would face a similar fate.” 

Video corresponding with Dembi Dollo’s communication affairs Facebook post, which showed Amanuel with visible signs of beatings to the head, blood on his t-shirt, clothes torn apart, and his hands apparently tied behind his back at the town’s roundabout with a handgun hung around his neck. Blood appears visible next to Amanuel on the roundabout and the road. The video shows at least three Oromia special forces soldiers standing near him, two of whom are carrying Kalashnikov-style assault rifles. In the video, he is told to confirm his name and where he was born. 

Four witnesses described how the authorities ordered Amanuel to turn his head and then shot him at least two times in full sight of residents. A photo posted on social media appears to show Amanuel lying down with his hands still tied behind his back, slumped over at the town’s roundabout. 

Click to expand Image November 30, 2019 © CNES/ Airbus 2021; Source: Google Earth

After security forces executed Amanuel, they prevented residents from approaching the body. Security force personnel brought Amanuel’s parents, whom they had detained at a local police station that morning, to the roundabout. His mother started screaming when she saw her son’s body and Oromia special forces and local police started to beat her and Amanuel’s father in response. One witness said:

His mother was crying, shouting, requesting to be able to bury her son. She was extending her hands saying: “Maalo, maalo” [Afaan Oromo for “please, please”]. They beat her with sticks. [His] father also asked to pick up the body. He also extended his hands, trying to persuade them. The mother was beaten, she fell to the ground.

Community elders eventually negotiated with the security official in Kellem Wellega zone, who finally allowed them to retrieve Amanuel’s body for burial. 

Journalists asked Tesema Wariyo, the Kellem Wellega security head, why Amanuel was not taken before a court. He replied: “Amanuel was not a suspect, but clearly an enemy, an OLF-Shene member who came from the bush.” Human Rights Watch reached out by phone to the Oromia regional police commission and the Kellem Wellega security zone head but received no response. 

Since Amanuel’s killing, government authorities have intimidated and harassed Dembi Dollo residents, including Amanuel’s family members and friends. Oromia security forces arrested over a dozen people, including Amanuel’s father, who were gathered at the family home mourning Amanuel’s death. Other residents were warned not to visit the house anymore. While many of those arrested have since been released, Amanuel’s father remains in detention. “The case of Amanuel and his family is not unique,” one resident said. “We are getting used to these killings.” 

Human rights groups and the media have reported numerous abuses by government security forces, including extrajudicial killings, summary executions of detainees, arbitrary arrests, and repeated communications’ shutdowns in western Oromia. Armed groups in the area have allegedly also abducted or killed minority community members, police officers, and government officials, and attacked aid workers and their vehicles. 

International human rights and humanitarian law prohibits summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions, and torture and other ill-treatment of people in custody. Ethiopia is a party to international and regional treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Geneva Conventions, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, that contain special protections for children. 

The government’s continued failure to properly investigate security force abuses or hold those responsible to account in Oromia and elsewhere in Ethiopia has helped perpetuate a climate that facilitates such crimes, Human Rights Watch said. The Ethiopian authorities should publicly denounce extrajudicial killings and other serious abuses by Ethiopian security forces, and undertake a system-wide, structural reform of the security sector at both the regional and federal levels. 

“Ethiopian authorities have shown nothing but contempt in the face of alleged atrocities instead of investigating these abhorrent acts,” Bader said. “The authorities should demonstrate they are serious about ending the abuses that have wreaked havoc on Oromia residents like Amanuel, and ensure that all those responsible, whatever their rank, face justice.” 


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 2:00 am
Click to expand Image Screenshot from the testimony of Dr. Fiona Hukula (right) at the Special Parliamentary Inquiry into Gender-Based Violence in Port Moresby on May 24, 2021.   © 2021 Facebook

(Melbourne) – The Papua New Guinea government should protect women accused of practicing “sorcery” from violence and hold the attackers to account, Human Rights Watch said today. At least five women have been attacked since March 2021, one of whom was killed.

“The Papua New Guinea government should urgently investigate all cases of violence following sorcery accusations, and prosecute those responsible,” said Stephanie McLennan, senior manager of Asia initiatives. “Gender-based violence is a persistent problem in Papua New Guinea, and the government is doing very little to stop it.”

Violence following allegations of sorcery is common in Papua New Guinea, with the most recent reported case on May 7 in the Hela Province. Mary Kopari was accused of sorcery following the death of a young boy in her village. She was tied up and burned alive in Komo-Magarima District. The attack was recorded on video and reported by Papua New Guinea television. Although the police know the identity of some of the attackers, no arrests have been reported.

Because sorcery accusations often arise in response to an unexpected death or illness in a community, the increase in such violence may be related to a surge in confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Papua New Guinea. On or around March 30, in Goroka, Eastern Highlands, a 45-year-old woman and her 19-year-old daughter were accused of causing the woman’s husband’s death, believed to be from Covid-19. They were held captive by the husband’s relatives and tortured with hot iron rods. Police rescued the pair.

On April 25, police rescued two women after a group of about 20 men tortured them in Port Moresby. The men accused the women of practicing sorcery and killing a woman who had recently died. The women were treated for severe burns and knife wounds.

“The Papua New Guinea government should address the root causes of sorcery accusations, including the lack of basic knowledge among the public about health problems,” McLennan said. “The authorities should act swiftly and effectively to correct misinformation about deaths from Covid-19 to prevent more sorcery accusations and attacks.”

While there are past cases of violence based on accusations of sorcery targeting men, the majority of these attacks target women. Such attacks are part of the larger problem of high rates of gender-based violence and impunity for the abusers in Papua New Guinea.

In November 2020 a coalition of parliament members convened the country’s first national summit on gender-based violence. A special parliamentary committee on the issue held its first hearings on May 24 and 25, and will continue its inquiry until June 30. Dr. Fiona Hukula, gender specialist for the Pacific Islands Forum, testified at the May hearings about violence against women accused of sorcery, saying that they are are “often tortured, often cut, sexually violated, their clothes are removed and they are often kept in captivity.”

As Human Rights Watch has documented, greater resources and increased political will are needed to respond to all forms of gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea. At the recent parliamentary hearings, East Sepik Governor Allan Bird said that, “there are 1.4 million cases of GBV [gender-based violence] every year in PNG … and only 100 convictions achieved.”

Papua New Guinea will participate in November in the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process under which member countries review the human rights situation in the country. The Human Rights Watch submission for that process highlighted the issue of gender-based violence and violence following accusations of sorcery.

“Papua New Guinea’s leaders should order the police to take gender-based violence seriously, provide sufficient resources for officials to prosecute these crimes, and provide all survivors with medical treatment, shelter and access to support services,” McLennan said. “The parliamentary inquiry should lead the way in exploring options for early warning, protection, and dispute resolution mechanisms that can help prevent such crimes.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 10, 2021, 11:35 pm
Click to expand Image A Sri Lankan woman holds a portrait of a relative who went missing, during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka,  February 14, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

The European Parliament today sent a powerful message to Sri Lanka’s government that its growing human rights violations will no longer be tolerated and may jeopardize bilateral and trade relations.

The resolution draws attention to abuses under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has long enabled prolonged arbitrary detention, torture and sexual abuse. The government is using the law to target members of minority communities and civil society, including activists, lawyers, and writers. The resolution specifically mentions Hejaaz Hizbullah, a prominent lawyer, and Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet, who are both arbitrarily detained under the act.

The European Parliament also denounced the Sri Lankan government’s obstruction of efforts to secure accountability for widespread human rights abuses during the country’s decades-long civil war. The resolution notes that several current and former military commanders implicated in serious abuses have been appointed to senior government positions. In March, the United Nations Human Rights Council mandated a new effort to collect and analyze evidence for use in future trials.

The European Parliament resolution provides a grim, but accurate, picture of “Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations.” Among numerous issues highlighted are discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, the situation of LGBT people, and a crisis of labor rights in garment factories.

Since 2017, Sri Lanka has benefited from a trading arrangement with the European Union called GSP+ which provides better access to European Union markets in return for progress implementing international human rights treaties. The resolution recalls that “one of the key commitments of Sri Lanka was to fully align its counter-terrorism legislation with international human rights conventions,” and calls upon the European Commission to “use the GSP+ as a leverage to push for advancement on Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations.”

Crucially, the resolution calls on the European Commission to urgently evaluate its funding for a UN project to support Sri Lanka on counter-terrorism. It instead calls for the EU and member states to increase support for Sri Lanka’s civil society.

The Sri Lankan government needs to realize that its international partners are watching with concern, and that friends around the world can act to promote fundamental rights in Sri Lanka.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 10, 2021, 6:30 pm

Millions of Syrians risk losing access to lifesaving aid, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, if Russia vetoes reauthorizing the only remaining UN aid corridor from Turkey into opposition-held northwest Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations Security Council should reauthorize full cross-border operations into the region and authorize a resumption of aid flows from Iraq to northeast Syria when the Council’s current resolution expires on July 10, 2021.

The UN humanitarian chief has said that shutting down this gateway into northwest Syria, which is under the control of anti-government groups, would be “catastrophic.” Non-UN aid groups in northeast Syria, which is mostly under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration, a quasi-autonomous authority, say they have been unable to bring in enough aid since the UN was forced to stop its cross-border operations between Iraq and Syria in January 2020. As of May 31, only 17,500 Covid-19 vaccine doses for healthcare workers and only limited other supplies to respond to the pandemic have reached the northeast from Syria’s capital, Damascus, and no aid reaches the northwest from there.

“Shutting down the only remaining UN lifeline into northwest Syria would cut off millions of people from aid and unleash a humanitarian calamity,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The people of northwest Syria, and millions of others in the northeast, should receive help, including Covid-19 vaccines and other crucial healthcare supplies, through all possible routes.”

Between April 14 and May 6, Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 aid workers from 10 different international and local nongovernmental organizations operating or supporting operations in northwest and northeast Syria about the humanitarian situation there and the obstacles they faced in assisting people. Human Rights Watch sent questions on May 31 to the Syrian government, but as of June 10 had not received a reply.

UN Security Council (UNSC) negotiations on an extension of cross-border aid access to areas in northwest Syria are underway. But in February, Russia signaled its intention to shut down the final remaining crossing, through Bab al-Hawa, when it comes up for a Council vote ahead of the July 10 expiration.

Ten years of conflict have decimated Syria’s infrastructure and social services, resulting in massive humanitarian needs and making millions of people reliant on aid. About 13 million Syrians needed humanitarian assistance as of early 2021.

Most of northwest Syria’s population of about 4 million, including at least 2.6 million displaced people, depend on humanitarian aid. As of mid-April, about 55,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines had reached the northwest region through Turkey. The UN has said that it is unclear how vaccines would reach the region if the Security Council does not reauthorize the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

In January 2020, the Security Council canceled the authorization for the UN to use the Yarubiyah border crossing between Iraq and northeast Syria. This has reduced aid groups’ ability to support the struggling healthcare system there and to address the Covid-19 pandemic. Available statistics show that between about 11,000 and 16,000 people have been infected by the virus in the northeast, but aid groups and the UN say the real number is most likely much higher due to the limited availability of testing. In early May, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said that “many hospitals are raising alarms and requesting basic essential support for items like oxygen, antibiotics, and personal protective equipment to cope with the increasing numbers of Covid-19 patients.”

The Syrian government has a long history of obstructing what is known as “cross-line” aid, supplies crossing from government-held parts of the country into non-government-held parts in the northwest and northeast. Russia has been unable or unwilling to pressure Damascus to allow aid to reach the northwest and to increase aid to the northeast.

In 2014, the Security Council recognized the Syrian government’s “arbitrary and unjustified withholding of consent to relief operations and the persistence of conditions that impede the delivery of humanitarian supplies” and authorized UN agencies to take supplies from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan into northwest, northeast, and southern Syria respectively.

However, responding to Russia’s threat to veto the mandate, on January 10, 2020, the Security Council officially removed two of the authorized border crossings, halting all UN cross-border aid into northeast and southern Syria. In July 2020, the Council also removed the Bab al-Salam crossing point, leaving the Bab al-Hawa crossing point as the only UN-coordinated option for aid groups into northwest Syria.

The 2014 resolution also authorized UN agencies to receive emergency funds for UN and international and Syrian nongovernmental groups’ aid programs, and to coordinate aid operations there. A senior UN official told Human Rights Watch that if the Security Council does not renew the July 2020 resolution authorizing the flow of aid from Turkey to northwest Syria, UN agencies will no longer have official authorization to procure supplies or carry out or finance others’ aid work.

Aid workers told Human Rights Watch that non-UN agencies have nowhere near the UN’s capacity to buy supplies and transport them into the northwest. They said that shutting down UN aid supplies through Bab al-Hawa and ending UN funding, including for thousands of doctors’ and nurses’ salaries, would deny aid to millions of people. The UN has repeatedly echoed those concerns in numerous reports and briefings to the Security Council, including at the end of May.

All aid workers Human Rights Watch interviewed said the simplest solution to the ongoing restrictions on aid from Damascus to northeast Syria involves reauthorizing aid, including Covid-19 vaccines and other supplies, through the Yarubiyah crossing.

Under the laws of war, Syria has an obligation to allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid for civilians in need and may not withhold consent for relief operations on arbitrary grounds. All other parties to the conflict, including Russia, and other relevant countries, must also allow and facilitate such aid.

Syria also has an obligation under human rights law to ensure the right to health, and to an “adequate standard of living,” including to food and shelter. Although limited resources and capacity may mean that this right can only be fully realized over time, the authorities are still obliged not to discriminate between various parts of the population, and they must justify any aid delivery limitations. The authorities must also ensure a “minimum core” standard of living for everyone at all times, including adequate food.

In July, the UN Security Council should reauthorize cross-border operations into northwest and northeast Syria and grant explicit permission for cross-border aid delivery to those regions through Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salam, and the Yarubiyah border crossings for one year.

International donors should press the Syrian authorities to facilitate the transfer of aid into all parts of northeast Syria and into the northwest, and not to block access on arbitrary or discriminatory grounds, or on the pretext of bureaucratic delays.

“It is shocking that the idea of abandoning millions of aid-dependent Syrians is even on the UN Security Council’s table,” Simpson said. “All of its members, including Russia, should focus on saving lives, not sacrificing them for political gain.”

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Massive Humanitarian Response in Northwest Depends on the Turkey Crossing

As of the end of March, 75 percent of the 4 million people in northwest Syria depended on aid to meet their basic needs and 85 percent of them receive it via about 1,000 trucks crossing the border each month from Turkey, according to the United Nations. A UN document obtained by Human Rights Watch shows this includes basic aid such as food, medical supplies, and shelter materials, which UN and non-UN agencies distribute throughout the region.

Aid workers told Human Rights Watch that non-UN international and local aid groups would be unable to buy, bring in, and distribute anywhere near the same amount of aid as the UN currently supplies to northwest Syria. In 2020, the UN World Food Program brought in and distributed emergency food aid to 1.4 million people a month on average. One aid worker said that under the best-case scenario, under which aid groups might receive a significant increase in their funding, as well as procurement and logistical support, they could reach about half that number.

Click to expand Image UN humanitarian aid trucks enter northwest Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey on June 1, 2021. © 2021 Associated Press

According to three aid workers, the UN’s budget and resources allow it to purchase far greater amounts of aid at a time than aid groups can, and only the UN can purchase some supplies, including anaesthetics and medicines to treat tuberculosis and leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease which can affect internal organs and cause skin sores.

Aid groups said that the UN gave US$300 million in 2020 for aid to northwest Syria, including $190 million under the multi-donor Syria Cross-Border Humanitarian Fund (SCHF), which funded 204 projects. Of this, $90 million funded the work of Syrian groups that would lose this support if Bab al-Hawa were not reauthorized. 

Aid workers said that while international aid agencies could try to replace some of this funding through private donors, many Syrian aid organizations are not allowed to receive funds from non-UN international donors due to internationally-imposed financial and legal restrictions on their work. The most senior health official in Idlib governorate, the health coordinator, Dr. Salem Abdan, said that the UN pays the salaries of Idlib’s 800 doctors and 2,000 nurses, either directly or through partner organizations. An aid worker said that UN funding procedures allow aid groups to apply for, and rapidly receive, additional UN funds to respond to emerging crisis situations affecting a large number of civilians, such as the periodic Russian-Syrian offensives in the region, whereas other donors are less flexible in releasing emergency funding.

On March 29, Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said that months of negotiations with the Syrian authorities to allow what is known as “cross-line” aid – sent from government-held territory to territory held by armed groups – to reach northwest Syria from Damascus had been unsuccessful. On May 26 he expressed hope that “at least an initial set of convoys” could soon cross. As of June 10, this had not happened.

Even if the authorities in Damascus were to agree to let some cross-line aid reach the region, the government is known to regularly impose severe restrictions on aid and humanitarian access to opposition-held areas in northeast Syria. It is also known to favor areas perceived to be pro-government in territory under its control. Most aid groups working with the UN in the northwest to distribute aid are not registered, or allowed to register, in Damascus. This means that even if the UN could bring aid to the region from Damascus, it would have no way to distribute it because the Syrian authorities prohibit the UN from having direct contact with non-UN aid groups working in nongovernment-controlled areas. According to two aid workers, authorities in northwest Syria also refuse to allow Syrian government-affiliated local organizations from operating in areas under their control.

In January, the offices of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which work on the aid response in northwest Syria, submitted an application to the COVAX facility for Covid-19 vaccines. COVAX is a global vaccine initiative created to help low- and middle-income countries access vaccines by sharing risk and pooling procurement. It began delivering vaccines to participating countries and economies in February, but has only been able to deliver 78 million vaccine doses to 129 participants by June 3, barely enough to cover 1 percent of their combined populations.

The UN Security Council’s cross-border authorization means that UNICEF and the WHO in Turkey have been able to get vaccines from COVAX and deliver them to northwest Syria, demonstrating how critical continued cross-border authorization is to people’s lives and health. As of April 21, 53,800 doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been delivered. On May 1, UNICEF and the WHO began to coordinate a three-week vaccination campaign there targeting healthcare workers.

Aid workers said that if UNICEF and the WHO are no longer able to bring Covid-19 vaccines in from Turkey, the vaccination process will stop entirely as they are the only agencies currently authorized under the application to COVAX to receive and distribute the vaccines. Aid workers said that UN agencies are also responsible for setting up the infrastructure – including for cold chains that prevent supplies from spoiling while being transported from warehouses to their final destination – that are needed to deliver vaccines, and that non-UN agencies do not currently have the capacity or mandate to do so.

In late April, Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, said that “it is not clear how future [Covid-19 vaccine] deliveries could reach northwest Syria unless you confirm the re-authorization of UN cross-border access.”

Aid Through Iraq Needed to Address Covid-19, Other Health Needs in Northeast

Health Needs in Northeast Syria

As of April, 1.8 million people living in nongovernment-held parts of northeast Syria needed humanitarian assistance, with over 70 percent of them in “extreme need.”

The region’s healthcare system, run by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration for northeast Syria, has been heavily affected by 10 years of conflict and Turkey’s October 2019 military offensive. Lowcock said that as of March, 70 percent of the population is considered to be in extreme need because “the availability and accessibility of health care in the north-east is insufficient,” and because “few health issues are adequately addressed due to the limited functionality and capacity of health-care facilities, the lack of adequately trained medical staff, and shortages of essential medicines.” In late May he said the region “continues to lack essential health supplies, including to prevent, test and treat Covid-19 infections.”

End of UN Aid from Iraq to Northeast Harms Covid-19 and Broader Healthcare Response

Between 2014 and early January 2020, the UN Security Council authorized UN agencies to deliver aid to northeastern Syria through a single border crossing, from Rabia village in Iraq to al-Yarubiyah town in northeast Syria, without the Syrian government’s permission.

Due to security concerns, the UN’s cross-border operations only started in April 2018. Aid groups said that throughout 2019, their healthcare programs in northeast Syria heavily depended on supplies from the WHO, UNICEF, and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) through al-Yarubiyah. The UN secretary-general’s February 2020 report on cross-border aid to northeast Syria also said that in 2019, only a limited number of healthcare facilities in northeast Syria received supplies from agencies or the authorities in Damascus and that most relied heavily on supplies received from the UN in Iraq, delivered through al-Yarubiyah.

The UN Security Council deauthorization of the Yarubiyah border crossing in January 2020 resulted in an immediate end to the UN cross-border operations from Iraq into northeast Syria. Since then, UN agencies based in Damascus are only authorized by the Syrian authorities to provide aid from government-held parts of the country to some parts of the northeast.

Aid groups said that since 2015, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has also allowed them to use other commercial border crossings from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to deliver aid, including some healthcare supplies and personnel, to northeast Syria and that this has continued since January 2020. However, they also say that they have been unable to match the amount of aid the UN used to deliver through al-Yarubiyah and have been unable to respond adequately to the health needs in northeast Syria since the UN ended its supplies.

According to aid groups, al-Yarubiyah’s deauthorization meant that 19 out of 50 UN-supported healthcare centers were forced to close between 2020 and March 2021. They said that between March and August, aid groups taking medical supplies into the region through commercial border crossings were unable to buy medication in, or import medication into, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq due to Covid-19-related transport restrictions there. This caused shortages of some essential medicines, including anesthetic and insulin.

The same aid agencies also said that since March 2020, problems in bringing in coronavirus testing kits have repeatedly caused the only coronavirus testing laboratory managed by the Autonomous Administration’s Department of Health, in Qamishli, to run out of kits. In early May, Doctors Without Borders said that the laboratory had only a two-week stock of coronavirus testing supplies.

Aid groups also said that they and other groups have struggled to supply healthcare centers in the region with certain types of drugs, including insulin, psychotropic medicines, and medicines for noncommunicable diseases. They say this is because they are unable to guarantee the cold chains needed to take the drugs to their final destination due to unpredictable administrative and transportation delays involved in using commercial border crossings between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and northeast Syria. They say that because of this and the UN’s inability to reach many nongovernment-held areas through cross-line aid, regular vaccination programs have faced serious interruptions in some areas, including in Kobani and Manbij sub-Districts.

Aid groups said it has been extremely difficult for them to bring in nutrition supplies and reproductive health kits because they have not been able to buy them in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and because it is too expensive to bring them in from elsewhere.

In April and May, Lowcock said non-UN aid agencies working in the northeast “have been clear … that the loss of … al-Yarubiyah has left the region woefully underserved in health services” and that the “overall, the [humanitarian] situation has worsened since the removal of the Yarubiyah authorized border crossing in January of last year.” In late March, he said that those agencies reported “imminent stock-outs of critical medicines like insulin, and cardiovascular and antibacterial medicines in multiple facilities” and that “neither cross-line support [from Damascus] nor increased cross-border shipments by NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] have since proved a sufficient replacement” for the aid the UN used to supply through the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

An aid worker said that the closure of al-Yarubiyah meant UN agencies had to stop funding aid groups in nongovernment-controlled parts of northeast Syria, including through the Syria Cross-Border Humanitarian Fund, and that as a result those groups lost $26.8 million in funding overnight for their work in 2020 in northeast Syria. Aid groups said that private and bilateral donors stepped in to help reduce the loss of funds but that between September and December, they still had a budget shortfall of about $7 million.

Aid groups also said that as the humanitarian situation in northeast Syria deteriorates, they require more financial support, but that their funding is decreasing and that a re-opening of the Yarubiyah crossing would help fill this gap by allowing the UN to resume its funding of aid operations in the northeast.

In late March, Lowcock said that “available resources will only cover 40 percent of estimated health supply needs for north-east Syria for 2021” and that “at least nine NGO-supported health facilities will close in the coming months if additional funding is not secured.”

As of April 4, the authorities in the northeast had reported 10,509 Covid-19 cases, 450 of them fatal, with cases rising dramatically in March. According to statistics collected by non-UN aid groups and healthcare workers across northeast Syria responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, at that time there were at least 15,000 positive cases. The same statistics show that 42 percent of coronavirus tests since July 2020 were positive. Aid workers said that this indicates a high likelihood of under-testing in the region, while Doctors Without Borders said that “it is clear that many cases have gone unidentified due to limited testing capacity in the region.”

The January 2020 closure of al-Yarubiyah means UN agencies cannot fund Covid-19-related work by aid groups in northeast Syria that are not registered in Damascus, those groups said. Some groups said that the resulting funding cuts have led to a severe shortage of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies in healthcare facilities designated for treating Covid-19, including testing kits and oxygen.

In early May, Doctors Without Borders said that the lack of supplies to prevent and treat Covid-19 in the region was “shocking.” One aid worker said that in one case, a non-UN agency had tried to bring 10,000 PCR tests from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq but that administrative and logistical delays meant that the kits were almost expired by the time they were ready to ship, which led the testing laboratory in Qamishli to reject them before they had even left Erbil.

Three aid workers said that the funding cuts also forced aid agencies in March and April to stop supporting 12 out of 20 facilities designated to treat Covid-19 in northeast Syria, as well as a vaccination center in Manbij and the city’s main hospital’s vaccination department. According to numerous aid agencies working in northeast Syria, two others were also forced to shut in March and May, leaving only six open. This includes a facility in western Deir al-Zour under the control of the Autonomous Administration that an aid worker said is due to close on June 20 due to a lack of funds.

The same aid groups said that as of early May, only Hassakeh governorate had facilities to treat severe Covid-19 cases, with none in the other three governorates of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa. They also say Raqqa and Deir al-Zour governorates, under the control of the Autonomous Administration, only had two Covid-19 treatment facilities each, with one in Deir al-Zour likely to close on June 20 due to a lack of funding.

An aid worker said that the funding cuts also mean non-UN aid groups have had to reduce their support to the testing laboratory in Qamishli.

Limited Aid Reaches Northeast Syria from Damascus

When Russia threatened to veto the Security Council’s renewal of the entire cross-border aid mandate in December 2019, it contended that it was no longer necessary as those areas were under the Syrian government’s control and could be reached from Damascus and that aid had been previously taken by “terrorists.” When Moscow again threatened to veto the entire mandate in January 2020, it said that the Yarubiyah crossing point from Iraq into northeast Syria was “totally irrelevant because humanitarian assistance to that region is coming from within Syria.”

However, the amount of healthcare aid reaching northeast Syria from Damascus is significantly lower than the amount that reached the region through the Yarubiyah border crossing before the UN stopped using it in January 2020.

Statistics seen by Human Rights Watch make clear that in 2019, the total storage space the UN used in all parts of northeast Syria was 4,680 metric tons, but that this decreased to 1,600 metric tons in 2020. A UN staff member said that it roughly reflected the decrease in aid received in the region from the UN.

In April, Lowcock said that “while the UN has scaled up cross-line deliveries, needs continue to outstrip our ability to respond. Many medical facilities remain short of the necessary supplies and equipment.”

Two aid workers said that UN agencies in Damascus still do not have permission from the authorities there to work in most nongovernment-held parts of northeast Syria. Another aid worker said that the WHO and UNICEF support government-held parts of northeast Syria, but that the amount of aid they provide to nongovernment-held parts of the region is limited to supporting other aid groups in a number of formally recognized camps for internally displaced people and to outreach work in a few urban areas.

They said this means that the vast majority of people in nongovernment-held parts of the region receive no healthcare-related aid from the UN and that aid groups not registered with Damascus supply those areas with aid from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. An aid worker confirmed that those groups still cannot receive supplies directly from UN agencies in Damascus.

An aid worker said that WHO and UNICEF healthcare supplies transferred through al-Yarubiyah until January 2020 were taken to Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) warehouses in northeast Syria from where non-UN aid groups collected the supplies. A second aid worker confirmed that the Kurdish Red Crescent remains those groups’ largest partner in the region and is responsible for most aid distribution there. A third aid worker said that in contrast, the UN in Damascus is often unable to get healthcare supplies to the Red Crescent, resulting in shortages of pediatric and noncommunicable- disease-related supplies in UN-supported primary healthcare centers. She also said that the UN in Damascus struggles to deliver supplies to the northeast Syria Autonomous Authorities’ Department of Health, particularly in Raqqa, Manbij, and Kobane, with the vast majority of supplies going instead to government-run hospitals or health committees in the region.

An aid worker said that aid groups working in northeast Syria that are registered in Damascus continue to face significant longstanding obstacles in transporting materials and personnel from Damascus to non-government-controlled areas of northeast Syria.

Another aid worker said that the WHO only sporadically supports one laboratory in one government-run hospital in Qamishli with PCR tests, and that the hospital carries out about 15 coronavirus tests a day. He also said that neither the WHO nor UNICEF deliver coronavirus testing materials from Damascus to the main laboratory in Qamishli, managed by the Autonomous Administration’s Department of Health, which carries out about 500 coronavirus tests a day with the help of non-UN aid groups, and do not support Covid-19-related case management, surveillance or mobile testing there because the Syrian government has not given them permission.

Aid workers also said that aid groups have no insight into whether supplies arriving in the northeast from Damascus are going to health facilities in areas controlled by the government in the region or nongovernment actors.

Covid-19 Vaccination Gaps in Northeast Syria

The Autonomous Administration in the northeast has not attempted to make its own application to the COVAX facility for Covid-19 vaccines. As a result, people in the northeast can currently only receive Covid-19 vaccines under Syria’s National Vaccination Deployment Plan, which says the authorities in Damascus and various “sub-national committees” are responsible for distributing them. Just over 350,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines had reached Damascus by late April. An aid worker said that as of early June, 17,500 had been transferred to the northeast. According to the National Deployment and Vaccination Plan for Syria, they were transferred to the Qamishli airport with the WHO’s support. An aid worker said that those doses are supposed to be distributed to healthcare workers in government and nongovernment-held parts of al-Hassakeh governorate and to nongovernment-held parts of Deir al-Zour governorate.

Three aid workers said that as of early June, there was no arrangement for the authorities in Damascus to hand over any of the vaccines to the Autonomous Administration in northeast Syria. However, one said that the Syrian authorities are considering a procedure under which health workers in nongovernment-held areas could register with Autonomous Administration-run hospitals to receive a “vaccination slip,” which they could present at designated hospitals in both government and Autonomous Administration-held areas.

According to two aid workers, nongovernment-held parts of northeast Syria that the UN in Damascus is not allowed to serve as of early June include Kobane sub-District, with a population of about 90,000 and Manbij sub-District, with a population of about 250,000. They also said that the Syrian authorities’ prohibition on the UN having direct contact with non-UN aid groups working in nongovernment-controlled parts of northeast Syria means those groups cannot help the UN reach Kobane, Manbij, and other areas that are off-limits to the UN to distribute Covid-19 vaccines.


The UN Security Council should immediately reauthorize cross-border operations into northwest Syria through Bab al-Hawa and authorize such operations through Bab al-Salam to the northwest and through al-Yarubiyah to northeast Syria by granting explicit permission for cross-border aid delivery for one year.

Russia should not oppose a UN Security Council reauthorization and authorization of border crossings to the northeast and northeast, especially as cross-line delivery of healthcare-related supplies from Damascus to northeast Syria remains insufficient, and there is no cross-line delivery of aid to northwest Syria. Russia should also use its influence to pressure the Syrian authorities to allow UN and non-UN aid agencies unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas in Syria, including areas not under the Syrian government’s control.

The Syrian government should immediately facilitate unimpeded access for UN and international aid agency staff to all areas of Syria, including areas not under Syrian government control. It should also ease restrictions that create undue bureaucratic delays around medical supplies and other aid reaching northeast Syria and allow aid groups to conduct independent needs and rights assessments and assist people on the basis of need, without any political constraints.

The WHO, the UN secretary-general, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator and the resident humanitarian coordinator in Syria should continue to press the Syrian authorities to allow WHO and other UN agencies in Damascus to provide aid supplies and personnel to all parts of Syria in an equitable manner and based purely on an objective needs assessment. They should also support international aid groups’ ability to procure urgently needed medical supplies that may not be commercially available in the region or elsewhere by providing access to the UN’s preferred vendors and supply chains. They should also explicitly and publicly advocate reauthorization and authorization of all three cross-border aid points in northern Syria, two in the northwest and one in the northeast.

International donors to the UN, including the US and the EU, should press the Syrian authorities to allow medical supplies and personnel to reach all parts of northwest and northeast Syria. Donors should also ask the UN resident coordinator in Damascus to provide regular updates of how many requests the UN, WHO, and international aid groups have submitted to the Syrian authorities to take aid from Damascus into the northwest and northeast, how many have been refused and on what grounds, how swiftly the rest have been approved, and how many of the supplies and staff have reached areas under government and non-government control. Such updates  should specify how the aid provided compares to  humanitarian needs in each area.

Donors should ask the UN Security Council to reauthorize UN agencies’ use of all available border crossing points to help supplies and staff reach northwest and northeast Syria. The secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator should continue to press the council to do so, while exploring ways to continue to ensure that lifesaving aid continues to move across borders if the mandate is not fully restored.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 10, 2021, 3:00 pm