“This bill will be the last one. The first and the last one.” That is how Emmanuel Macron answered the question I had just asked him: “What would happen, Mr. President, if France were hit by another terrorist attack in the coming months? Would you propose yet another bill?”

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) members secure a street as they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

The exchange took place last Friday, in the late afternoon. I was in the Elysée as part of a delegation of leading human rights organizations, lawyers and magistrates to meet President Macron and two of his advisors. We had come to express our concerns and criticisms of two bills drafted by the government and submitted to Parliament: a sixth extension of the state of emergency until November, and a counterterrorism bill directly inspired by the provisions of the state of emergency. This bill would make permanent special powers which were supposed to be temporary, introduced as necessary only for the extraordinary circumstances of a time-limited state of emergency.

For over an hour and a half, we set out methodically the abuses committed against ordinary citizens when those powers were used under the state of emergency. We warned the President that the counterterrorism bill would entrench what were exceptional powers into regular law and pose grave dangers for fundamental rights and the rule of law. We denounced the lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of state of emergency measures and of the existing legal arsenal for counterterrorism. We lamented the choice of an accelerated procedure for the parliamentary review of these two proposed bills, depriving the country of what ought to be a meaningful democratic debate about the concept of liberty, one of France’s founding values.

But despite this discussion, President Macron did not waver.

Far from reinforcing freedoms, as the President claimed this past Monday in his speech to Parliament, the new bill would entrench in regular law abusive powers introduced under the state of emergency. It would normalize the considerable powers awarded by the state of emergency to the Ministry of the Interior and the administrative police. The drastic weakening of judicial safeguards, which are the foundation of the rule of law and an essential defense against abuse, would become permanent. In effect it treats France as if it is always in a state of emergency. By authorizing “assigned residence orders”, whereby individuals’ freedom of movement is severely limited even though they have not been accused of a crime, this new bill also confirms a dangerous shift towards so-called preventive justice. Just this week we’ve learned that since the state of emergency was declared in November 2015, there have been 708 assigned residence orders. More than one a day. This is a trend, not a small set of isolated actions. The “logic of suspicion”, on which these orders are predicated, opens the door to significant abuse.

During the meeting, the President admitted that the state of emergency can foster “arbitrary behaviors” and has led to « excesses ». Emmanuel Macron, then a candidate, had himself expressed in his book, Revolution “that reducing the freedoms of all, and the dignity of each citizen, has never anywhere led to an increase in security.” Despite that, Emmanuel Macron chose to follow in the footsteps of governments that, over the last two decades, have responded to the threat of terrorism with ever harsher laws, turning France into the country with the most expansive counterterrorism laws in Europe. Members of Parliament, a large majority of whom are supportive of the President, will most likely adopt the bill without much opposition. Macron may well say this is his “first and last law” on security; but recent history in France and elsewhere teaches us that once states start down this legislative slope, more repressive laws follow.

If we refer to the past 18 months, France may well be addicted to emergency powers. As a responsible leader, however, the French President’s job is to break that dependency and resist the temptation to react to the fear of another attack with laws that do more harm to rights than they do good to security. As activists, lawyers, and voices of civil society, that is what we will keep telling the President and our elected representatives. End the state of emergency, don’t simply inject a dose of it into ordinary law. 

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

French soldiers from Operation Barkhane stand outside their armored personnel carrier during a sandstorm in Inat, Mali, May 26, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
“The jihadists are the law now,” an elder from central Mali told me. “The very day the French-supported operation finished, the Islamists were back in the villages,” confided another villager last week, referring to a military operation near the Mali-Burkina Faso border in April.

The endurance of the jihadist recruitment success and their appeal to many villagers suggests that military operations on their own will not be sufficient to defeat the threat. President Emmanuel Macron should keep this in mind when he visits the country this Friday.

Hailed as a military success, the 2013 French-led military intervention in northern Mali ended the region’s occupation by ethnic Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. But since 2015, attacks against Malian forces and abuses by Al-Qaeda-linked groups have moved southward to Mali’s previously stable central regions and, last year, spread into neighboring Burkina Faso.

Since 2015, I’ve interviewed scores of witnesses and victims to abuses in central Mali. They described how, in recent months, groups of up to 50 Islamist fighters closed down schools, banned women from riding on motorcycles driven by men other than their husbands, and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law). “We used to spend days celebrating a marriage or baptism, dancing and singing together,” one man said. “Not anymore.”

Men accused of being informants for the Malian government often turn up dead. Since 2015, Islamists have executed at least 40 men in their custody, including village chiefs and local officials. Some were murdered in front of their families. Several people said they felt pressured to send one of their sons to join the Islamists.

However, an equal number of villagers told me they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali; they saw them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many seethed as they described Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions.

Since late 2016, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial killing by soldiers of 12 detainees, the most recent in early May, and the forced disappearance of several others. Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January. “We heard gunshots in the distance,” one witness said. “I followed the tracks of the army truck and found our people in a shallow grave.” This week, I received a desperate email from the brother of a man forced into a white pickup by men in uniform on February 3. “We have heard nothing; we have searched everywhere,” he said.

While the behavior of the state security services has improved in recent years, Malian authorities have made no meaningful  effort to investigate those implicated in violations.

The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us. Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth.

Villagers said the Islamists are recruiting by exploiting frustrations over poverty, abusive security services, rampant banditry, local Peuhl clan rivalries, and, especially, corruption.

“The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us,” one elder said. “Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth…”

Villagers also said the Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum. They welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Others praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Elders from both the sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities credited the Islamists’ efforts in late 2016 to resolve deadly land disputes. This meaningfully reduced communal violence in some regions, they said.

“We are fed up with paying bribes every time you meet a man in uniform or government official,” one villager said. “The Islamists get all this done without asking for taxes, money, or one of our cows.”

It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed  to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012. The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government. But the French strategy in Mali and the wider Sahel won’t succeed without helping Mali to address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for abusive armed Islamist groups. Military operations, including those supported by the French, are not enough to pull Mali from this deepening quagmire.

When President Macron visits Mali on Friday, he should urge the government to professionalize the security forces and hold them accountable, to support the chronically neglected judiciary, and to take concrete action against rampant corruption. Strengthening Mali’s weak rule of law institutions is complicated work, but no counterterrorism strategy can succeed without it.

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

Like an addict, France does not know how to quit its state of emergency even though it has become clear that maintaining it erodes the rule of law and fosters human rights abuses while not keeping the country safer. The February 22 report by the parliamentary commission tasked with monitoring the state of emergency provided yet another reminder that it no longer serves any meaningful purpose.

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) secure a street they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The commission president, Dominique Raimbourg, from the governing Socialist Party, noted that activity under the state of emergency has been “greatly reduced” since the last extension. His fellow commission member, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, from the main opposition party Les Republicains, noted that “time that passes erodes the efficiency and nature of the state of emergency.” A French commission of inquiry into the Paris attacks had already concluded back in July 2016 that  the state of emergency had “limited impact” on improving security and any effect it may have had “quickly dissipated.”

Human Rights Watch’s own research has found repeated abuses against ordinary people during policing operations under emergency powers.

So why is France maintaining the state of emergency despite repeated warnings by its own oversight mechanisms?

It is mainly due to confusion by politicians about the purpose of a state of emergency. Many have said that it is justified by an ongoing terrorist risk. This was clearly displayed in December 2016 when Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux justified his request for a fifth extension by saying that “the terrorist threat was at its highest.” Under this reasoning, a state of emergency is needed as long as there is a high security risk.

This reasoning is dangerous on many levels. By suggesting that regular laws, procedures, and oversight mechanisms are not sufficient to counter threats, it weakens the premise of the rule of law and relegates it to a luxury for “normal” times. But it also sets the stage for the trap in which France finds itself. French leaders have implied that they will only lift the state of emergency when the security risk has subsided but since they can’t predict the risk of future terrorist attacks, they prefer to maintain it rather than pay a political price if a subsequent attack takes place.

So lifting the state of emergency becomes less dependent on security considerations and more on political calculations. This would explain why France’s latest extension was driven by the electoral calendar, punting the issue to the next president and legislature. Call it political procrastination, or perhaps more aptly, political cowardice.

This disconnect between its initial purpose and current raison d’être was captured nicely by Sébastien Pietrasanta, a parliamentarian and rapporteur for the commission investigating the state’s response to the November 2015 attacks, who recently noted that “the effect of the state of emergency is fading and yet we extend it…even though the link with terrorism is quite tenuous.”

I have seen this logic at play in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria, countries I have worked on for years, maintained their states of emergency for 31 and 48 years respectively. Every time the state of emergency was up for renewal, the country’s rulers argued that the risk was still there or that the timing was not right to lift it. France is not a tin-pot autocracy and its rulers are not despots, but there is a cautionary tale in these experiences.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk – an exogenous measure that cannot be controlled by political calculations. It should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment. It may have been justified for a few days immediately after the November 2015 attacks as the country’s security forces were caught unprepared. But it should have been lifted as soon as the institutions resumed their normal functioning – regardless of whether the underlying security threat has been addressed.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk, it should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment.

Nadim Houry

Director, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program

The French government’s own website on the fight against terrorism noted in August 2016 that the government has “completed its legal arsenal and put in place an unprecedented reinforcement of its means in the police, justice, army and intelligence services.” France already has a raft of laws under the non-emergency regime that permit the authorities to investigate, detain, and prosecute terrorism suspects. Judicial controls in no way impede their effectiveness.

France needs to adopt a clear path out of the state of emergency. The parliamentary commission monitoring the state of emergency suggested in December setting an upper limit on the extension of a state of emergency but parliament ignored it and voted a fifth extension with almost no debate. Candidates in the upcoming presidential election have largely avoided talking about the issue, perpetuating the procrastination strategy by the political class, and journalists have not pushed them on the issue.

It is no longer enough to wait and hope that the security threat will simply vanish or that the future president or legislature will finally decide to tackle the issue. The debate about lifting the state of emergency should become a priority topic in this presidential election. Like any addict hoping to recover, France needs to start by recognizing the problem and begin a serious conversation on how to quit.

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

Last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed a noteworthy development in the US targeted killing program: a modified Hellfire missile that strikes without exploding, reportedly leaving those close to the target unscathed. The CIA and the US military have used the hitherto secret weapon at least a half-dozen times in recent years to kill terrorism suspects in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, the Journal reported.

Proponents tout the missile, called the R9X, as a game-changer that can spare more civilian lives than traditional Hellfires. But the new technology can only be as good as the intelligence and the rules that guide it. On its own, the R9X won’t resolve the host of legal issues surrounding the US targeted killing program, which since 2002 has killed thousands of people with scant transparency. Key issues include the definition of a lawful target, the question of which body of international law applies in targeted killings, and the vast disparities between governmental and non-governmental estimates of civilian casualties.

Dubbed the “Flying Ginsu,” after the kitchen knives long hawked on American television, the R9X is armed with a “halo of six long blades” that can pierce through obstacles such as buildings and car roofs before shredding its target, the Journal reported. The impact radius is so limited that the missile can kill a passenger in the front seat of a moving vehicle while sparing the driver, the Journal said. The traditional Hellfire, in contrast, is similarly accurate but its warhead explodes on impact, destroying objects and civilians within several meters.

The R9X, developed under President Barack Obama to reduce civilian casualties, has been used by the CIA and the US military since at least 2017, the Journal reported. Like the traditional Hellfire, the R9X apparently is laser-guided and can be launched from traditional aircraft or from remotely piloted drones. Drones are the US weapon of choice for targeted killings because they can loiter for extensive periods to better distinguish military targets from civilians without risk to human operators, who often are based thousands of miles away.

Not Failsafe

But drones aren’t failsafe. Human rights groups and journalists have documented numerous US drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen in which those targeted turned out to be a grandmother, farmer, or group of women and children coming home from market rather than fighters from groups like the Taliban, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). In many cases, the victims were alone in a field or on a remote stretch of road, where the R9X’s smaller kill radius would not make a difference.

While the R9X might help spare civilians in densely populated war zones, including those used as human shields, substantial intelligence would still be required to pinpoint the intended target. Not surprisingly, deployment of the R9X has been rare, the Journal reported, even though a US-led coalition has launched thousands of strikes on ISIS targets in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, in recent years.

The R9X is being deployed even as the US administration relaxes rules for protecting civilian lives during counterterrorism strikes. In 2013, Obama directed that outside of designated war zones — such as Afghanistan and, subsequently, Syria and Iraq — the US must have “near-certainty” that no civilians will be killed or injured in a strike against a suspected terrorist and that the target poses a threat to American lives.

In December 2016, a month before leaving office, Obama designated swathes of Libya as an “area of active hostilities” where his strict civilian protection rules did not apply. In March 2017, President Donald Trump similarly relaxed the civilian casualty rules for US strikes in Somalia. In Yemen, where in 2002 the US inaugurated its targeted killing program with a lethal strike against an al-Qaeda operative, the US has repeatedly contended that such killings, often far from any conventional battlefield, are lawful under what it controversially considers a war without boundaries against extremist armed groups.

International law permits greater latitude for civilian deaths during armed conflict. Such deaths are considered legally acceptable “collateral damage” if the anticipated military gain from the attack outweighs the expected civilian harm. Outside of armed conflict situations, law enforcement rules bound by international human rights law allow taking human life only when the lives of others are at imminent risk.

Interpretations of Lawful Military Target

Just as the R9X does not on its own change applicable law, it does not resolve the controversy over whether the US is applying an overly expansive interpretation of a lawful military target. Reports persist of the US carrying out so-called “signature strikes,” in which individuals or groups far from any battlefield are targeted based on suspicious patterns of movement or behavior, rather than on specific knowledge of whether the individual is a fighter or poses a threat to the US government or citizens.

The lawfulness of a strike on a Yemeni man killed for wearing a beard, robe, and headscarf, carrying a Kalashnikov, and frequenting an area where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operates — a description that applies to many Yemeni men regardless of whether they belong to an armed group — will not be determined by whether he was killed with an R9X.

Nor will the new Hellfire end the ongoing debate over the veracity of civilian casualty figures in US strikes, whether in or out of undisputed war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Only in 2016 did Obama direct the US military and the CIA to start releasing civilian and combatant casualty figures for lethal targeting outside of US-declared areas of active hostilities. Obama also curbed counterterrorism strikes by the CIA by concentrating targeted killing authority in the US military, which operates with less secrecy.

But the casualty figures released as a result of the 2016 Obama directive — one set for 2002-2015 and another for 2016 — were dramatically lower than non-governmental tallies. Moreover, the figures were aggregates that lacked details on when or where the deaths occurred, rendering them impervious to meaningful scrutiny.

The Trump administration restored the CIA’s authority to launch drone strikes, and in March it revoked portions of the 2016 order that had directed the CIA to disclose its casualty figures in such operations.

In justifying the partial revocation of Obama’s order, the Trump administration noted that Congress has, since 2018, mandated increasingly detailed Defense Department reporting on civilian casualties during US military operations. But the congressionally mandated figures do not include CIA strikes. Nor do they include casualty figures for combatants or clarify whether and where the US may be conducting lethal targeting outside of declared areas of active hostilities.

Furthermore, the US military figures released in 2018 and 2019 are, like the Obama-era numbers, exponentially lower than those of independent researchers and reporters. For example, the latest US military report on civilian casualties, released May 2, said it had “credible” evidence that 120 civilians were killed during military operations in 2018. Yet combined data from the United Nations and monitoring groups puts last year’s minimum civilian toll at 1,224 — more than 10 times as many.

Absent further clarity over civilian casualties, it will be next to impossible to assess what difference, if any, the R9X will make in saving bystanders.

If used lawfully and ethically, a munition that reduces harm to civilians is a positive development. But in and of itself, the R9X is no magic bullet — or even a magic halo of blades.

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

Images provided by families of their relatives who went missing in ISIS custody.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

(Paris) – Families whose relatives disappeared in the custody of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) while the group controlled parts of Syria are struggling to learn what happened to their relatives, Human Rights Watch said. The Coalition of Families of Kidnapped by ISIS, a new organization of Syrian families with missing relatives, and Human Rights Watch are holding a joint news conference on May 14, 2019, in Paris.

The international coalition against ISIS should make information-sharing with families a priority and help create a formal mechanism to address the issue of the missing and to allow families to register their cases, Human Rights Watch said. This mechanism should maintain a database of information on the missing, help under-resourced local authorities in northeast Syria exhume mass graves, and process appropriately obtained information on the status of those ISIS held.

“Now that the territorial battle against ISIS is over, the anti-ISIS coalition should address the terrible ISIS legacy,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “A critical issue for thousands of families is uncovering what happened to those ISIS abducted.”

While the full scale of the missing is not known, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 8,143 cases of individuals detained by ISIS whose fate remains unknown. Human Rights Watch has also documented numerous cases of activists, humanitarian workers, journalists, and anti-ISIS fighters, as well as residents who had a dispute with local ISIS members, whom the group detained and whose fate remains unknown. In some cases, family members saw ISIS taking their relatives into custody, while in other cases former prisoners said they had seen the missing person in ISIS detention centers.

Families of those missing told Human Rights Watch that they had been hopeful that the battlefield defeat of ISIS would quickly lead to information about their loved ones. However, neither the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) nor the US-led international coalition has created a mechanism or entity to handle queries from family members.

Families still living in northeast Syria told Human Rights Watch that they sought information from security stations staffed by Kurdish Asayish forces, local civilian councils, individuals in positions of authority, hospitals, and first responders responsible for excavating mass graves, but that their queries often produced no results. Families that ISIS or the fighting in Syria had forced into exile are finding it even harder to obtain information about missing relatives.

The SDF told Human Rights Watch that they found no detainees when they captured prisons and detention facilities from ISIS forces. It is not clear if the Asayish, SDF, and the international coalition have undertaken serious efforts to find out what happened to those who had been in ISIS custody.

While a number of mass graves have been found in Syria’s Raqqa and Deir al-Zor governorates, local authorities are struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of properly collecting and organizing information about the bodies recovered, and greatly need further support.

In June 2018, Human Rights Watch observed the First Responders’ Team in Raqqa, responsible for recovering bodies across the governorate, as they uncovered a mass grave at the al-Rashid playing field in Raqqa city. While the team worked diligently and carefully, their rudimentary methods and existing protocol for collecting information on the dead did not match best practices. The team needed substantial training and technical assistance to exhume the bodies and collect data without losing information crucial to identifying them, Human Rights Watch said.

Governments and others now providing recovery and stabilization support to northeast Syria should help local authorities develop and maintain a more precise system for storing information on missing persons and identifying exhumed remains. International organizations with forensic expertise should provide technical support, including by sending in forensic experts to support the identification and exhumation processes, and local authorities should facilitate the process to the extent possible.

Many of the parties to the Syrian conflict, most notably the Syrian government, have contributed to the prolonged arbitrary detention or enforced disappearance of tens of thousands of people. But the end of ISIS territorial control provides a fleeting opportunity to provide answers to some families whose relatives went missing in Syria and to set the principle that the right of families to know what happened to their loved ones will be respected, Human Rights Watch said.

“Those forces now controlling former ISIS territory and their international backers can provide answers to families if they make this issue a priority,” Houry said. “This is a crucial step for the victims’ families and for broader efforts for justice in Syria.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Today, eight Syrian civil society and international human rights organizations called on a number of UN Security Council member states to urgently address the widespread arbitrary detentions, kidnapping, torture and other-ill treatment, and enforced disappearances of tens of thousands of Syrians at the hands of the Syrian government, armed anti-government groups and the Islamic State. 

Over the course of the crisis, Syrian civil society and international human rights organizations have extensively documented staggering levels of serious violations against people deprived of their liberty by all parties. Hundreds have died in detention of torture or ill-treatment; tens of thousands have been forcibly disappeared by the Syrian government; and many have gone missing after being abducted by armed anti-government groups or the Islamic State.

Government forces have subjected tens of thousands to arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions. In many cases these violations amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Syrian government targeted those who were perceived to oppose the government or considered as disloyal, including political activists, protestors, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, doctors and humanitarian aid workers. Government forces arbitrarily detained such people in household raids, at checkpoints, and in their workplaces, universities and homes. Local sources indicate that in areas re-taken by the government these practices are continuing.

Throughout their detention, authorities subjected many detainees to enforced disappearance. They subjected many to torture from the moment of their arrest and continued to torture them for days, weeks or months using various methods including beating, electric shocks, and the use of stress positions for prolonged periods of time. In addition, they denied detainees their basic needs, including food, water, medicine, medical care and sanitation, and kept them confined in overcrowded cells without access to fresh air or ventilation.

Armed anti-government groups have also committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including abductions, torture and summary killings. According to several human rights organizations Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has detained hundreds of individuals in areas under their control, many because of their peaceful work documenting abuses or protesting the group’s rule. They have also subjected some of those detained to torture and ill-treatment. Local sources in Afrin reported at least 110 abuses that appear to amount to instances of arbitrary detention, torture and abductions of civilians by pro-Turkey armed groups. Meanwhile the Islamic state has kidnapped thousands. The fate of most of those kidnapped remains unknown even after the defeat of the group.

The families of the disappeared are also considered victims of the crime of enforced disappearance. Women in particular, are affected by the disappearance of their male relatives at different levels. In addition to the emotional and psychological impact the disappearance will have on the family members, women, whether it be mothers or wives, lose the main breadwinner of the household; without an official document recognizing the disappearance, wives of the disappeared often cannot receive aid or other services as some humanitarian organizations prioritize widows; their resettlement cases are often rejected. They also find themselves in a legal limbo, unable to claim inheritance and property, re-marry or in some cases relocate their children, since Syrian law requires permission from the male guardian.

To date, the Syrian government authorities continue to detain and subject tens of thousands to enforced disappearance. Their families are rarely told where their loved ones are held or whether they are still alive. Starting May 2018, the Syrian government updated civil registries in several parts of the country, including the Damascus countryside, Hama, Aleppo, and Sweida governorates to show individuals known to have been previously detained and forcibly disappeared by the Syrian government authorities as dead. In some cases, families were provided with death certificates reflecting dates of death as far back as 2013 and indicating their cause of death as “heart attack.”

However, the government has not responded to requests by families of detainees to obtain information on the circumstances of the enforced disappearances or the causes of death, or to take possession of the remains of those who died. Many were too scared to request additional information. As things stand, there is no way to verify the deaths without the government returning the remains to the families, and without the launch of an independent investigation into the cause and manner of death.

Despite the staggering evidence of violations and the continuing devastating impact these practices have had on Syria, very little progress has been made to release arbitrarily-held detainees, provide information on the whereabouts of the disappeared and missing, and hold the actors responsible for these violations accountable. Instead, government forces and anti-government armed groups continue to arrest and abduct individuals with impunity, while families ask questions but get no answers.

There has been an absence of a real and effective effort to resolve this issue, outside of limited prisoner exchanges that fail to capture the scale of the problem.

To that effect, we urged these states to consider the following recommendations that would end the suffering of the families of the disappeared and of the arbitrarily detained and provide them with access to justice:

  1. Pressure the Syrian government and armed anti-government groups, and their allies Russia, Iran and Turkey to:
  • disclose the names, fate, locations of people who were subjected to enforced disappearance and abduction, were extrajudicially executed, summarily killed, or died in detention,
  • immediately return the remains of the victims to their families to allow for proper burials and funeral rites, inform their relatives of the circumstances of their disappearances and deaths of their loved ones,
  • disclose the names, locations and legal status of all those being deprived of their liberty,
  • end the use of unfair trials and the practice of trying civilians in military courts, abolish Military Field Courts and reform the Anti-Terrorism Court in line with international fair trial standards in law and in practice,
  • grant independent international monitors unhindered access to all persons deprived of their liberty and allow them to investigate and monitor conditions in all detention facilities, including security branches and displacement centres,
  • ensure that those involved in the search for victims of enforced disappearance, notably the relatives of disappeared detainees, are protected against ill-treatment, intimidation, reprisal, arrests and enforced disappearance.
  1. As donors to the United Nations and other international organizations, we urge you to:
    • ensure that international co-operation and assistance programmes for reconstruction and development actively promote, protect and are guided by relevant human rights obligations and standards,
    • create and finance programmes aimed at ensuring justice and reparations for victims and their families taking into account the needs of the families of the disappeared, 
    • ensure that funded protection programming addresses salient protection concerns, including the continued patterns of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and harassment,
    • support the creation of a unified system for logging all cases of missing persons in Syria, including those that were kidnapped under Islamic State, as well as information regarding unidentified human remains or mass grave sites. The system should act as a repository of all available information regarding the fate of the disappeared in Syria in order to facilitate future identification and repatriation procedures. The criteria for and collection of such data should be standardized to ensure the utility of the system. Relatives of the missing should be able to review information about their loved ones available in such a system.
  2. Fund the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) and strive to ensure that the mechanism’s budget is incorporated into the UN regular budget so it can document the war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed against those deprived of their liberty.
  3. Exercise universal jurisdiction or establish an adequate legal framework for prosecuting international crimes committed in Syria where not in place, to hold perpetrators accountable. 

Signatory organizations:

Amnesty International



Families for Freedom

Human Rights Watch


The Syria Campaign

Women Now

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Baghdad) – The Iraqi government should reject a plan that would unlawfully detain families with perceived Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation, Human Rights Watch said today. In early 2019, Iraq’s Implementation and Follow Up National Reconciliation Committee presented to Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi a proposal calling for the internment of up to 280,000 people, primarily women and their children. 

Graffiti that reads "Daesh (ISIS)," marks the home of relatives of an ISIS member in a west Mosul neighborhood, Iraq. 

© 2018 Private
“The Iraqi government proposal to confine alleged families of ISIS members not only violates international law but is also contrary to the government’s stated aim of reconciling populations post-ISIS,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Detaining families not accused of any crimes is a form of collective punishment that will fuel resentment and put the lives of thousands of people on endless hold.”
In a meeting on April 7, the committee’s president, Dr. Mohammed Salman al-Saadi, shared an outline of the plan with Human Rights Watch. He said that it would affect all spouses, children, siblings, and parents of alleged ISIS members, whether the member is dead, disappeared, or in detention. Human Rights Watch raised its concerns with the proposal in letters to Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih in late April.
Interior Ministry officials have told Human Rights Watch that the plan would affect an estimated 250,000 people. Humanitarian agencies believe that there are another 31,000 Iraqis in refugee and displacement camps in northeast Syria that the Iraqi government is returning home. Government officials have said they suspect that many of these returning families might be ISIS-affiliated.
Once numbers are ascertained, the Migration and Displacement Ministry is to build or repurpose residential compounds outside of cities to house the families, al-Saadi said. Families would be provided with either fixed housing or shipping container homes, but not tents. He said that people living there would only be allowed to leave in limited circumstances, including to go to the hospital or to a courthouse.
Under the proposal, the Sunni Endowment, a government religion body, would provide for compulsory deradicalization programming. The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry would give adults vocational training, but with no employment opportunities inside the compound. The Education Ministry would provide schools, and the Health Ministry would set up clinics inside. Al-Saadi said he foresaw a role for local groups to support programming for the families.
Iraqi security forces would guard the compounds but would not be allowed to enter, al-Saadi said, addressing a consistent problem in Iraq’s camps for the displaced. Inside the compound, the Interior Ministry’s community policing department would provide law enforcement, primarily through its female staff. However, the head of the community policing department in Baghdad, Khalid Lamuhana, told Human Rights Watch that his unit currently has just 752 staff members across the whole country, including only about 20 women.
The Implementation and Follow Up National Reconciliation Committee would negotiate returns of interned families to their areas of origin. Only after an agreement is secured with local communities and the interned families have completed deradicalization would the authorities allow them to return home. Al-Saadi did not specify a time frame. He said the families would only receive permanent documentation once they are approved to leave the compound.
The government’s proposal, if implemented, would violate Iraq’s obligations under international law, Human Rights Watch said. In the context of a non-international armed conflict, such as in Iraq, international human rights law continues to apply. International human rights law prohibits arbitrary detention and requires promptly taking people in custody before a judge and charging them with a criminal offense or releasing them. Any deprivation of liberty must be according to law that is “accessible, understandable, non-retroactive and applied in a consistent and predictable way,” and allows individuals being detained to have their detention judicially reviewed. Any detention that lacks such legal basis is both unlawful and arbitrary.
International human rights law and humanitarian law allow punishment for people found responsible for crimes only after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families, villages, or communities violates the laws of war and amounts to a war crime. Similarly, ordering the forced displacement of civilians for reasons connected with the conflict, apart from imperative military reasons or for their protection, is also a war crime. Under international human rights law, children may be detained only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
The plan could also violate Iraqi law, Human Rights Watch said. Iraq’s Constitution enshrines the right of every Iraqi to free movement, travel, and residence inside and outside of Iraq. Human Rights Watch knows of no laws passed that would allow the government to rescind those rights and to confine people not accused of committing a crime. Two senior judges in Baghdad told Human Rights Watch that the proposal could easily be challenged in court.
“The Iraqi government is seeking to provide safety for all Iraqi citizens,” Fakih said. “But the government needs to find a way to do that without unjustly burdening women and children who have committed no crimes.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A United Nations team is visiting Washington this week to conduct its first review of US counterterrorism policy. In announcing the visit, the White House touted the United States as a “global leader in counterterrorism” promoting a “rule-of-law” and “whole-of-society” approach. UN Assistant-Secretary-General Michele Coninsx, who is leading the UN visit, would do well to examine the facts behind this rhetoric before reaching a conclusion.

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the US has enlisted dozens of countries in what President George W. Bush called a “global war on terror.” In the process, it has undermined international legal norms for conduct both on and off the battlefield, from the treatment of captured fighters and the protection of civilians to the rights of all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality, to hold and peacefully express their beliefs.

Under the current administration, President Donald Trump has purposefully conflated immigrants and refugees with terrorists, choosing scapegoating and fearmongering as part of his “whole-of-society” approach. He has spoken falsely of “terrorists coming through the southern border” to try to secure congressional funding for his proposed wall between the US and Mexico. He has termed the US refugee resettlement program a “Trojan Horse,” implying it’s a way for dangerous terrorists to secretly enter the country. He has also largely banned travelers from five Muslim-majority countries. His muted responses to deadly attacks by white supremacists stand in stark contrast to his condemnations of attacks by militant Islamists.

As for rule of law, Trump has been a cheerleader for indefinite detention without charge or fair trial at Guantanamo Bay, which still holds 40 prisoners, some who have remained there for 17 years. Seven face military tribunals distinguished by remarkable procedural failings; only two have been convicted of crimes.

Seemingly oblivious to how Guantanamo’s sordid history fuels the narratives of groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), the Trump administration has suggested that the prison could be used to detain suspected ISIS fighters captured in Syria. In the meantime, the US underscored its indifference to humane treatment of terrorism suspects by transferring several alleged ISIS fighters from the custody of an allied, Kurdish-led coalition in northeast Syria to Lebanon, Macedonia and Iraq despite the documented risks of torture in those countries. And it held one dual US-Saudi citizen for over a year without charge in Iraq, until a US court ordered the detainee’s release.

Trump has continued the targeted killings campaign of his two predecessors in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, while scrapping accountability guidelines issued by then-President Barack Obama. More than 1,100 civilians have died in these strikes, according to estimates by the research group Airwars. The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been less opaque about civilian casualties, but its estimates are often only a small fraction of the numbers compiled by nongovernmental research groups, raising questions about their veracity. Airwars, for example, puts the civilian death toll in Iraq and Syria at 7,759 to 12,572, while the US government estimate is 1,257.

Trump has also given credibility to sham terrorism trials abroad by embracing leaders of countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have unjustly prosecuted and executed hundreds of dissidents. Media reports allege that US forces interrogated terrorism suspects who had been tortured in secret prisons in Yemen that were run by the forces of another US ally, the United Arab Emirates. The allegations are particularly sobering in the context of the continuing impunity for CIA torture of terrorism suspects following the 9/11 attacks.

At the UN, since 9/11, the US has backed overly broad Security Council resolutions that require UN member states to enact tough counterterrorism measures—without defining terrorism. Many countries have used these vague laws to crack down on activists, journalists and opposition members practicing peaceful dissent.

Flaws in the US approach should be front and center during the talks taking place this week between US security officials and Coninsx, who heads the Counterterrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), an agency that reviews global compliance with UN counterterrorism measures.

Coninsx should firmly remind the US that even the most sweeping Security Council counterterrorism resolutions bar countries from violating human rights. These include the rights to life, humane treatment, fair trials and freedom of religion and expression. Coninsx should also point to the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which warns that erosion of the rule of law and violations of human rights can fuel terrorism.

In addition, Coninsx should be frank in her public statements on US counterterrorism policy. CTED has often welcomed a country’s counterterrorism efforts but glossed over its abuses—for example, the glaring procedural violations during trials of ISIS suspects in Iraq and Boko Haram suspects in Nigeria. Silence on countries’ egregious counterterrorism measures, in this case by a superpower boasting of its “global leadership” in confronting groups such as ISIS, can easily be construed as tacit acceptance

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

Relatives light candles after burial of three victims of the same family, who died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

The attacks in Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, are contemptible acts of violence for which those responsible should be brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said today. Nearly 300 people were killed and more than 500 injured in coordinated suicide bombing attacks on churches and hotels in three cities. Many of the injured remain in critical condition.

“Our hearts go out to all those harmed by these horrific attacks, which only adds to the suffering long endured by so many in Sri Lanka,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Striking packed Easter services and hotels could only have been aimed to maximize killing and maiming people, including children.”

Sri Lankan authorities announced that they had arrested 24 people and said National Thowheeth Jama’ath, a little-known Islamist organization, was responsible for the attacks. It had previously been implicated in vandalizing Buddhist statues. No domestic or foreign group has claimed responsibility thus far.

The government reported that on the morning of April 21, seven suicide bombers entered three crowded churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo, the capital, and nearby Negombo, and the eastern city of Batticaloa. There were two other bombings, one in a guesthouse in Dehiwala and the other in a suspected militant safehouse in Dematagoda.

After the attacks, the government imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew. It announced that a nationwide state of emergency would be in force from midnight on April 23, permitting security forces to be deployed in restive areas and to conduct searches and arrests without a warrant. Those arrested should be treated according to international due process standards, and not held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Human Rights Watch said. The Prevention of Terrorism Act permits the authorities to detain suspects for months, and often years, without charge or trial, facilitating torture and other abuse.

The government also blocked several social media platforms that were used in 2018 to spread false rumors that stoked communal violence. Sri Lankan authorities should ensure that any interference with the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas, is for a legitimate reason and is proportionate, Human Rights Watch said.

The bombings were the worst violence since Sri Lanka’s three-decade long civil war ended in May 2009. Several hundred thousand people died during fighting and attacks on civilians by both sides. In recent years, there have been incidents of communal tension and violence targeting religious minorities, including attacks against Christian churches and against Muslims.

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country, with Hindus making up 12 percent of the population, Muslims 10 percent, and Christians 7 percent.

The government has announced compensation and medical assistance for the victims, while overwhelming numbers of volunteers lined up to donate blood. As officials respond to this crisis, they should use their authority to ensure access to essential and long-term medical services for the victims, Human Rights Watch said.

“These horrific attacks make it vital for the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure victims get the help they need, act to prevent further violence, and bring those responsible to justice according to human right standards,” Ganguly said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – A new United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at halting cash flows to terrorist groups could put aid workers and human rights defenders at risk of arrest and harm life-saving relief work, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) said today.

On March 28, 2019, the Security Council approved Resolution 2462, “Preventing and Combating the Financing of Terrorism,” which requires all UN member countries to criminalize financial assistance to terrorist individuals or groups “for any purpose,” even if the aid is indirect and is provided “in the absence of a link to a specific terrorist act.”

“All countries have an obligation to ensure their population’s safety, but the Security Council resolution on terrorism financing could put ordinary people at even greater risk,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Criminalizing the essential work of aid groups, including by providing food and medicine to civilians in areas controlled by armed extremists, could have disastrous effects.”

Resolution 2462 calls on UN member states to assess their non-profit sectors to determine which organizations are vulnerable to terrorist financing. It fails to define terrorism for the purposes of compliance with its mandates, allowing governments to set their own vague, overbroad, or politically tinged definitions. Terrorism has no universal legal definition.

“There is a real risk this resolution will strengthen the hand of those governments seeking to crush legitimate aid work and human rights defenders by stigmatizing all nongovernmental organizations as potential conduits for financing terrorism,” said Stéphanie David, the UN representative for FIDH.

The resolution informs member states that any clampdowns on terrorist financing need to comply with international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law. And it “urges” – but does not require – countries to take into account the potential effect of their counterterrorism financing measures on humanitarian activities protected under international law, such as providing medical care.

However, such boilerplate safeguards may have little effect given the resolution’s expansive interpretation of unlawful aid and its failure to define terrorism, the organizations said. Moreover, the resolution includes no benchmarks for compliance or specific requirements for judicial or other independent review.

Resolution 2462 is the latest of several Security Council resolutions since the attacks of September 11, 2001 that require UN member countries to criminalize terrorist groups and terrorist acts. In practice, these resolutions have allowed countries to craft expansive definitions of terrorism that have been used to stifle internationally protected rights. Numerous studies point to ways in which these resolutions have also curbed principled humanitarian aid.

“The resolution’s generic references to international human rights are not sufficient to protect human rights and aid groups and the people they serve from suffering under this overbroad counterterrorism financing measure,” said David Nichols, senior UN advocate for Amnesty International. “Having enacted this sweeping mandate, the Security Council needs to ensure that countries do not use it as a tool of repression.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

An empty courtroom at Nineveh’s counterterrorism court in Tal Kayf, north of Mosul. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo

(Beirut) – Prosecutions of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects in Iraq are proceeding based on a deeply flawed and vague counterterrorism law, but the Nineveh governorate’s counterterrorism court has made improvements in recent months, Human Rights Watch said today.

Following a December 2017 Human Rights Watch report, judges in the Nineveh governorate in northern Iraq are requiring a higher evidentiary standard to detain and prosecute suspects, minimizing the court’s reliance on confessions alone, erroneous wanted lists, and unsubstantiated allegations.

“What we see in Nineveh is a significant shift in the way that prosecutions are proceeding,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Throwing out cases with flimsy or no evidence is a step forward, but more work is needed to ensure defendants are not mistreated and get fair trials.”

On February 4, 2019, Human Rights Watch visited Nineveh’s counterterrorism court in Tal Kayf, north of Mosul. The head of the investigation court, Raed al-Maslah, said the court is processing the highest number of ISIS suspects in the country, with 9,000 cases in 2018. Of those, 2,036 cases were dropped; 3,162 remain under investigation; 2,827 were referred to trial, including 561 children; and 975 were transferred to other courts because the cases were not linked to terror charges. He did not have statistics on the outcomes.

Al-Maslah said that his court was taking action to improve overall respect of the rule of law. He said that in response to a Human Rights Watch report uncovering a prison the National Security Service (NSS) was illegally running in Mosul, he asked the NSS to transfer the several hundred prisoners to the Interior Ministry. However, he acknowledged they still held about 70 detainees.

In perhaps the biggest improvement in the court’s prosecutions, he said that since mid-2018, his court has been requiring a higher evidentiary standard to detain and prosecute suspects. He said that investigators have found a trove of ISIS documents that have facilitated the process, along with social media, phone, and text message data; fingerprints; and other forensic material.

In light of this new evidence, al-Maslah said he struck 7,000 names off wanted lists because they consisted of a first and last name but no other information. He said judges will only issue an arrest warrant based on evidence in ISIS documents, or on detailed and credible allegations from witnesses, including the suspect’s father and grandfather’s name. He said his court has issued 50,000 arrest warrants for people wanted for ISIS affiliation under this new standard.

Under the new procedures, anyone arrested typically appears before an investigative judge within 48 hours. If they maintain innocence, intelligence officers consult the accused’s local community leader and two neighbors to assess the credibility of the allegations. If the person is cleared, including based on witness testimony, the court issues a notice to remove the defendant’s name from wanted lists countrywide, reducing the possibility of rearrests.

Human Rights Watch sat in on a trial before the Nineveh counterterrorism court on February 4 and observed judges applying the new rules. Two lawyers that regularly appear at the court confirmed that the court’s operations had improved. “The court is more process-driven than before and as a result you are seeing fewer confession-based prosecutions, and fewer allegations of torture,” one said. “Also, with time the court has become much more sensitive to individuals using ISIS allegations as a form of personal revenge.”

There is some indication that these heightened evidentiary standards are being applied elsewhere. In a February 7 statement, the US-led coalition highlighted an increase in local police forces in Baghdad and Diyala using warrants and collecting evidence “to support investigations with the aim to prosecute offenders in a proper manner.” An international trial observer told Human Rights Watch that they had seen heightened evidentiary standards used in Karkh, one of two criminal courts in Baghdad.

However, Human Rights Watch researchers observed that in October 2018, in Baghdad’s second criminal court, Risafa, judges continue to process cases solely based on a defendant’s confession, with the defendant frequently alleging torture to extract the statement. This suggests that the heightened requirements are not being used consistently in proceedings across Iraq. Authorities should consider transferring cases from Baghdad to the Nineveh counterterrorism court if the suspect is believed to have committed their crime in Nineveh.

In addition, concerns about torture and reliance on coerced confessions remain with the lawyers saying that from their observations, the prevalence of torture, as well as deaths in custody, have continued.

In a trial of a man accused of ISIS membership that Human Rights Watch observed in early 2019, the defendant denied some charges he had confessed to and said that an officer had threatened to take him “back to Safina” to beat him again if he changed any part of his confession in court. Safina is a village south of Mosul where Human Rights Watch had documented torture allegations in abandoned houses in 2017 and has heard continued allegations of abuse. The judge ordered a medical examination after repeated requests from the defendant but did not ask for details or to show any marks on his body consistent with torture. Human Rights Watch has observed that judges routinely ignore torture allegations by defendants, and almost never investigate accused officers.

Iraq’s deeply flawed, vague counterterrorism law (no. 13/2005) remains a major concern, Human Rights Watch said. The law covers a wide variety of crimes including membership or support for a terrorist organization. While judicial authorities can issue lower sentences, the law stipulates the death penalty for anyone who committed, incited, planned, financed, or assisted in a terrorist act.

In one case before the Nineveh counterterrorism court in early January, a male nurse was prosecuted under the law because he provided ISIS members with medical care after ISIS took over the area. International humanitarian law prohibits prosecuting medical workers for performing medical duties compatible with medical ethics.

Because authorities are still not bringing any additional charges beyond the counterterrorism law against ISIS suspects, including from the penal code, authorities are not making efforts to solicit victim participation in the trials, including as witnesses.

Iraqi authorities should develop a coordinated strategy to prioritize the prosecution of those who committed the most serious crimes by bringing charges for the full range of crimes committed, and with a clear role for victims, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities should drop charges against those whose functions under ISIS helped protect human rights.

On February 24, Human Rights Watch also wrote to Muhammad Tahir al-Mulhim, director of the human rights office within the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council, Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim, and Interior Ministry Inspector General Jamal al-Asadi, asking whether the government had investigated Human Rights Watch allegations of ill-treatment of prisoners in an August 2018 report. Human Rights Watch also wrote to Chief Justice Faik Zaidan, asking what steps judges are obliged to take once a defendant alleges torture. None of those contacted has responded.

Iraq’s High Judicial Council should issue guidelines on the steps judges are obliged when a defendant alleges torture. Judges should investigate all credible allegations of torture and the security forces responsible, and order transfers of detainees to different facilities immediately after they allege torture or ill-treatment, to protect them from retaliation. Parliament should pass the draft Anti-Torture Law, which would require judges to order a medical examination of any detainee alleging torture within 24 hours of learning of the allegation.

Iraq’s foreign minister should urge parliament to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. Pending this ratification, the government should commit to setting up a National Preventative Mechanism that can inspect all detention centers in Iraq and set up effective complaint mechanisms for authorities and facilities involved in detention and interrogations. The heads of the federal intelligence agency, NSS, and the new minister of interior, once appointed, should issue statements to their chain of command on the prohibition of the use of torture and their commitment to punish perpetrators. The prime minister should publicly condemn the use of torture by all law enforcement, security and military personnel.

“The recent developments in Nineveh show that judicial authorities can better ensure that terrorism trials respect defendants’ rights.” Fakih said. “We hope to see courts elsewhere in Iraq learning from the improvements in Nineveh and introducing similar measures that can serve justice while protecting defendants from abuse.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation. The prosecutions are often based on dubious accusations and forced confessions obtained through torture. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Egyptian security forces have been involved in systematic abuses such as enforced disappearance and torture and have used abusive counterterrorism laws and measures to crush peaceful dissent. Egyptian security forces stand guard outside one of the entrances of Tora prison, in Cairo, Egypt.

© 2015 Hassan Ammar/AP Images

(Geneva) – States at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva should ensure that Egypt is not allowed to seize a leading role in relation to the mandate of the United Nations’ expert on human rights and counter-terrorism, nine international human rights organizations have said. In light of Egypt’s record of severe and widespread abuse of counterterrorism measures to violate human rights, the organizations warned against attempts by Egypt to undermine the expert’s mandate.

The mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism is due to be renewed in the coming weeks at the ongoing Human Rights Council session in Geneva. Mexico has for many years led the resolution that established and maintained the expert but is now understood to be in discussions with Egypt about a possible leadership role for Egypt. Other changes to the resolution text may also be under consideration.

“Egypt has an appalling record of abusing counterterrorism measures against human rights defenders and other dissenting voices and was recently denounced by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders for severe reprisals against people who spoke with another visiting UN expert,” said Matt Pollard, senior legal adviser and UN representative for the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva. “To give such a country shared leadership on the renewal of the mandate of the UN’s expert on human rights and counter-terrorism would only do further harm to civil society and others in Egypt and elsewhere, undermine the work of the expert and the UN as a whole, and badly tarnish the long history of leadership Mexico has shown on these issues.”

Nine organizations – Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, International Service for Human Rights, and Privacy International – had earlier sent a joint letter to all countries representatives in Geneva highlighting their concerns. This was followed by a joint oral statement at the Human Rights Council session on March 1, during an interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur.

Egypt has gradually sought to dilute or distort the longstanding focus of the UN Human Rights Council’s work to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, the groups said. In 2018 it succeeded in watering down the council’s longstanding thematic resolution on the topic, in which states annually recognize concerns about abuses and urge respect for human rights at a global and abstract level.

However, any move to gain control over the resolution on which the mandate of the special rapporteur depends, or to dilute or reframe her mandate, would have far deeper and further-ranging damaging effects. The special rapporteur acts on individual complaints, reports on the situation in particular countries, and addresses in detail topics relating to counterterrorism work around the world on an ongoing basis. The special rapporteur also serves an essential function in providing independent oversight of counterterrorism measures from a human rights perspective within the overall UN system. The mandate holds a uniquely important role in the UN counterterrorism architecture, as the only UN entity with the exclusive mandate to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

The organizations have been urging other countries to strongly oppose any attempts to weaken the mandate of the special rapporteur. The special rapporteur’s role should not be diluted by including the flawed Egyptian-led approach into the resolution for its renewal, or by sharing the leadership of the mandate renewal resolution with Egypt or other countries that have such an appalling record in relation to the very issues the mandate is to address.

Allowing Egypt to jointly lead the mandate renewal would only serve to encourage a continuation of its pattern of gross human rights violations and abuses against civil society and others within Egypt in the name of countering terrorism, while shielding it from international scrutiny, the groups said. It would also pose a long-term threat to the UN’s role in ensuring that counterterrorism measures are consistent with human rights, and that measures to uphold human rights for all and the rule of law are the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism.

The organizations included are:

  1. Amnesty International
  2. ARTICLE 19
  3. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  4. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
  5. Human Rights Watch
  6. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  7. International Commission of Jurists
  8. International Service for Human Rights
  9. Privacy International
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Graffiti that reads "Daesh (ISIS)," marks the home of relatives of an ISIS member in a west Mosul neighborhood, Iraq. 

© 2018 Private

(Beirut) – Iraqi authorities in Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, even bringing bogus terrorism charges against them, undermining their work, Human Rights Watch said today. In some cases, local authorities are also compelling organizations to stop providing services to families the authorities accuse of ISIS ties.

“As if the their working conditions aren’t difficult enough, aid workers in Mosul and other parts of Nineveh have faced baseless charges of ISIS affiliation, and have even been arrested,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Charges of ISIS affiliation appear to be thinly veiled attempts to get some organizations to divert aid to corrupt local authorities or to stop giving assistance to some needy families accused of having relatives in ISIS.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with two people who have been tracking harassment of and physical assaults on aid workers by government officials. The sources said that since January 2018, they had documented at least 22 incidents in Nineveh, ranging from intimidation and arrests to assault, robbery, and live fire incidents. They said that such abuses were not unique to the governorate, with similar cases happening elsewhere in Iraq. Human Rights Watch documented two cases in which authorities detained aid workers because of humanitarian work, accusing them of being affiliated with ISIS.

In one case Human Rights Watch documented in early December 2018, a local lawyer for an aid organization said that military intelligence officers arrested him, two drivers, and a group of displaced people he was trying to help to get identity documents. He said they repeatedly interrogated the group and accused them of ISIS affiliation despite running their names through security databases and confirming that they were not wanted.

The officers refused to release the group even after the lawyer overheard a judge whom one officer called tell him that they could not charge the group with anything. After holding them for a day and a half, the officers took the group to a police station and the police eventually released them without charge.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented 17 cases in which lawyers working for humanitarian organizations in Nineveh over the last two years had witnessed or themselves experienced verbal harassment, arrest threats, or arrest.

In another recent case, an international aid worker said that in early January 2019, he saw a colleague who is a guard at a camp for displaced people south of Mosul prevent a group of armed local police from entering the camp with their armored vehicle. The action was consistent with global humanitarian principles on the nature of camps and an April 2017 directive from the then-prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, barring armed personnel from camps. But the aid worker said that police arrested the guard after he left work, took him to a local police station, beat and robbed him, and accused him of ISIS affiliation. After colleagues intervened, police released him and dropped the allegations against him, but later that night the same officers made death threats against him and other guards at the camp.

In another case, an aid worker said, staff at an aid agency refused to add a neighborhood leader to the group’s list of people entitled to its benefits because he did not meet their criteria. The neighborhood leader then filed a complaint with the Nineveh governor’s office, saying the organization was supporting ISIS.

The aid worker said the man called one of the team members and said he would drop the complaint if they added his name to the list. The aid worker refused. The aid worker said that she received calls from three other organizations telling her that at a meeting with the Nineveh governor, his deputy said that her organization was “supporting terrorism” and that his office had opened a full investigation.

Since then, an administrative assistant in the office of the governor of Nineveh has called in several staff members of the aid group to interrogate them. In early October, the governor’s office called the aid worker again, demanding the organization’s beneficiary lists to “vet them to exclude ISIS families.” She said the governor’s office also told the group to hire three specific people, implying that hiring them would resolve the accusations.

The aid worker said that as a result of the threats and demands, which she described as routine in several areas where the organization works, it has had to halt three major projects in Nineveh, with donors threatening to pull their funding as a result.

Local attempts to use terrorism allegations to compel organizations to alter lists of people entitled to their services have been successful in some cases. Another international aid worker said that his agency sends engineers to identify homes of civilians to rehabilitate in areas damaged by fighting, but that a governor has told him that organizations rebuilding private property are prohibited from rehabilitating homes of families with perceived ISIS affiliation.

In early November, the aid worker said, a local leader approached his team in Mosul and said the organization could not work on 20 homes it had identified because he had new information these families had relatives who were ISIS members. The aid worker said he demanded substantiation for the claims, but his organization was concerned that if the ties could be shown but they continued their work on those homes, the authorities would block the rest of their work.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented security forces preventing certain families from receiving humanitarian or legal assistance if authorities or local communities perceive them to be affiliated with ISIS.

Aid agencies told Human Rights Watch said that they have raised these incidents with the office of the prime minister, but have not received information about tangible steps taken to address the attacks and prevent further harassment.

On February 21, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the attention of the prime minister, requesting information on the steps his office has taken to investigate allegations of attacks on aid workers, to punish security officers responsible for attacks, and to prevent future attacks.

Iraq’s security forces, with the support of coalition partners, should integrate information around the protection of humanitarian workers and principles into training curricula and establish Standard Operating Procedures for investigating and addressing incidents of targeting or interference with humanitarian work.

Donors funding humanitarian operations in Iraq, coalition partners, and leaders in humanitarian agencies and organizations should raise cases of targeting and interference with the office of the prime minister and with implicated security forces, and press the government to put a stop to the attacks and to hold those responsible to account. Donors should use all opportunities to reiterate humanitarian principles and principles of needs-based programming to government officials.

“Unless there is a robust response to abuses of aid workers and attempts to undermine aid operations, it is going to become even harder and more dangerous for them to help Iraqis who need their assistance, including families with perceived ISIS affiliation,” Fakih said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Our organizations are deeply concerned about reported moves to allow Egypt a role in the Human Rights Council resolution to renew the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (SR on CT). We fear that such a move would undermine the integrity and credibility of this vital mandate.

Egypt has an appalling record when it comes to abusing counter-terrorism measures to suppress civil society and dissenting voices. The Special Rapporteur has announced that the theme of her report to the 40th session is the misuse of counterterrorism measures against civil society and human rights defenders, and the session will thus be an important opportunity to shine a spotlight on Egypt’s record in this regard.

In mid-January 2019, on the launch of its annual World Report, Human Rights Watch stated that:

“Using counterterrorism as a guise to crush all forms of dissent could be Egypt’s hallmark of 2018... There’s simply not much room left to peacefully challenge the government without being detained and unfairly prosecuted as a ‘terrorist.’”

The Egyptian authorities' approach to counter-terrorism relies on systematic and widespread use of prolonged arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and torture and ill-treatment including by rape, in addition to scores of possible cases of extrajudicial executions of detainees, and hundreds of unlawful killings of peaceful protesters. Many of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity. In North Sinai, the army has razed thousands of homes and farmlands leading to the forced evictions of tens of thousands of residents, many of whom were offered no compensation or temporary housing. The army may have also been involved in unlawful ground and airstrikes including by using cluster munitions. Further, the government has recently granted impunity to officers through special laws that make it even harder to question security officers involved in abuses.

We furthermore consider it wholly inappropriate for a State recently accused of severe reprisals following the visit of another Special Rapporteur in September/October 2018 to be rewarded with joining the core group on this vital mandate. The severity of these reprisals led in December 2018 to a joint statement from the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the Special Rapporteur on Right to Housing warning that Egypt is “not ready to host further visits”.

Despite its rhetoric, the Egyptian government’s approach is not primarily to give greater consideration to the human rights of victims of terrorism, which is a topic that had already been addressed in more detail in the previous Mexican thematic resolution and previous reports of the mandate. Rather, it aims to divert attention from the adverse human rights effects of its and other States’ counter-terrorism measures against individuals and the activities of civil society, including by effectively presenting the State itself as a victim.

Any Egyptian involvement in the mandate renewal would be qualitatively different and far more damaging than the role it was accorded in the March 2018 thematic resolution. The March 2018 agreement was said at the time to be entirely without prejudice to the mandate resolution, and this was indeed offered to civil society and others at that time as a reassurance in the face of similar concerns.

Any dilution of the focus of the mandate, in the short or long term would also significantly narrow the already highly restricted space for independent oversight of counter-terrorism measures from a human rights perspective within the overall UN system. The mandate holds a uniquely important role in the UN Counter-Terrorism architecture, participating as the only UN entity with the exclusive mandate to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

Further, allowing Egypt to jointly lead the mandate renewal would only serve to encourage a continuation of its pattern of violations and abuses against civil society and others within Egypt, while shielding it from outside scrutiny.

We therefore urge you to communicate to the Permanent Missions of Mexico and Egypt your opposition to any such developments in relation to the leadership or content of the resolution to renew the Special Rapporteur’s mandate.


Amnesty International

Article 19

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies 
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

Human Rights Watch

International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) 
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) 
Privacy International 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am