Click to expand Image President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on April 14, 2021 about the withdrawal of the remainder of US troops from Afghanistan. © 2021 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool

(New York) – The US government should address fears of increased insecurity fueled by its announced plan to withdraw all military forces from Afghanistan by committing to expanded support for human rights, including women’s rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The US should boost assistance for education and health, especially for girls and women, and for independent media given the threat of a widening conflict that undermines human rights gains and exacerbates the country’s humanitarian crisis.

US support for legal reform in Afghanistan has been vital for increasing access to justice for women and training hundreds of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges. Assistance will be needed to improve enforcement of laws protecting women and to ensure that legal aid is available for women prisoners and juvenile detainees. Support will also be needed to strengthen Afghan human rights groups, particularly the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, so they can continue to monitor human rights conditions, particularly during an uncertain peace process.

“President Joe Biden’s announcement of a withdrawal of US forces has raised fears that further insecurity may erode important gains in human rights that have allowed Afghans, women and girls in particular, to enjoy greater freedoms and better education and health,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “The US government should commit to providing vital funding and diplomatic support to preserve and expand on those gains and press for an end to abuses against civilians.” 

The Biden administration stated on April 13, 2021, that it would “use its full diplomatic, humanitarian, and economic toolkit to … protect the gains made by women and girls over the course of the past 20 years … [and] bolster support for civilian, economic, and humanitarian assistance programs.” However, past US administrations have not made human rights in Afghanistan a sufficient priority, Human Rights Watch said. Further gains by the Taliban that threaten those rights will need a prompt US response, including withholding financial assistance to government agencies and targeted sanctions, while maintaining support to groups providing direct services.
The Taliban have made no firm commitments to protect fundamental rights in a transitional government or after a peace agreement and have continued to restrict the rights of women and girls to education in areas under their control. They have also engaged in a pattern of threats and attacks against Afghan media. Should the conflict continue following the US withdrawal, the US should use all diplomatic and other forms of influence to press the parties to comply with international human rights and humanitarian law, especially to protect civilians. 

The Biden administration should also expand its support for programs that increase access to education and health care, especially for women and girls. US assistance to vital aid programs in Afghanistan has been shrinking. Since 2016, foreign donors, including the US, have reduced funding to Afghanistan in key areas, and the Covid-19 pandemic has further reduced donor commitments. In some cases, conditions imposed to curb corruption have made accessing funds for legitimate projects more difficult.

Afghanistan’s most important achievements in safeguarding civilians and protecting human rights have benefitted from donor support. Since 2002, that support provided greater access to education for millions of Afghan children and contributed to growing acceptance in many parts of the country that girls have the right to study. Organizations that support “community-based education” classes – schools located in students’ communities, often in homes – have been particularly successful in enabling children to study in areas where because of insecurity, distance, family resistance, or community pressure, they were unable to attend government schools.

Human Rights Watch has urged donors and the Afghan government to expand such programs. In many Taliban-held districts, nongovernmental organizations operating community-based education programs have been able to provide education, particularly for girls, where no other schools were available. These programs would represent a lifeline for girls should Taliban control expand.

Protecting gains in media freedom is also critical, Human Rights Watch said. Afghanistan’s independent media plays a vital role in holding officials accountable and providing access to information for the public. Afghanistan’s donors have long recognized the importance of protecting and strengthening independent media in the country. Support has diminished in recent years, however, even as the media, including female journalists, have increasingly faced attacks by insurgents and local strongmen and efforts by the government to restrict reporting.

The US should provide long-term institutional support to assist independent news media organizations to become self-sustaining. The US should also press the Taliban – which could become an aid recipient under any future peace agreement – to cease all threats and attacks on the media and to pledge to uphold media freedom.

Since 2002, donor funding has also led to crucial improvements in access to health care. However, serious problems remain, particularly in providing services in rural areas, and in reaching people with disabilities and other marginalized populations. Health services for women have improved, though much more needs to be done. Nongovernmental organizations have also delivered healthcare services in Taliban-controlled districts, including rural and insecure areas that were long neglected. Donors should continue their support for programs that increase access to basic health care, especially for women. Cuts in donor funding have already undermined that effort, though, and further cuts will put more lives at risk.

After the withdrawal of US forces, the status of Afghan paramilitary forces that have operated with US support outside Afghan government control will most likely be unclear. The continued presence of paramilitary forces implicated in serious abuses – at times fueled by tribal or political loyalties – will pose a threat to communities. The US should clarify command responsibility for operations by Afghan paramilitary forces, press for accountability for those responsible for grave abuses, and cease support to any linked to serious laws-of-war violations.

Even after it pulls out all of its military forces, the US will remain a party to the non-international armed conflict in Afghanistan. The laws of war will still bind US forces until there is a lasting disengagement from the provision of military support to the Afghan government. The Biden administration should commit to transparency regarding any continued US use of force including so-called counterterrorism strikes, which should comply with international law.

It should pledge to support accountability for past abuses, including through cooperation with the investigation by the International Criminal Court into war crimes and other serious crimes, and review past incidents of civilian casualties to appropriately provide redress or ex gratia (condolence) payments to victims.

“Afghans who have endured decades of human rights abuses are understandably fearful that achievements in media freedom, education, health care, and women’s rights may soon be lost, and that there will be no accountability for the injustices they have endured,” Gossman said. “The US should seize this moment to express its commitment and strengthen its support for human rights in Afghanistan.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 16, 2021, 8:52 pm
Click to expand Image Video screenshot showing Caroline Atim addressing the United Nations Security Council during a virtual meeting, April 14, 2021.

When Caroline Atim, founder and director of the South Sudan Women with Disabilities Network, spoke to the UN Security Council this week, I watched her hands intently and listened to her sign language interpreter, as she described the devastating impact of sexual violence in the South Sudan conflict.  

If impunity prevails, she said, “our wounds will never heal.”

Atim, who made history as the first deaf woman to brief the security council, explained that the dire situation in South Sudan is compounded for women and girls with disabilities like her. Globally, women and girls with disabilities are two or three times more likely to experience gender-based violence, especially during conflict. Women with disabilities may find it more difficult to escape, call for help or communicate abuse. Their support networks may have disappeared, along with their shelters and health facilities.

The Security Council has drawn attention to the situation of women in conflict, adopting its landmark resolution 1325 more than 20 years ago and another last year about people with disabilities in conflicts. But resolutions aren’t enough.

First, the UN, international aid organizations and governments need to collect better data to find better solutions. The UN Mission in South Sudan’s 41-page report on access to health services for survivors of sexual violence has just two references to women with disabilities.

Accountability is the broader challenge. While the South Sudan government has set up a special court to address sexual and gender-based violence crimes and court martials to try officers, no senior officials from the government or from armed groups have been held to account to date for conflict related sexual violence and other abuses. When it comes to women and girls with disabilities, Atim said, they, even more than others, may not be believed, making them “easy prey for rapists.”

Atim and other speakers highlighted the importance of a survivor-centered, human rights approach to any response to gender-based violence. “This includes survivors with disabilities,” she told the council. She also emphasized that women, including women with disabilities, need to have a seat at the table in the peace and reconciliation process.

Atim’s message of inclusion, equality and non-discrimination was loud and clear. Now the UN Security Council and governments should listen and act.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 16, 2021, 3:53 pm
Click to expand Image Sidiki Abbas (also known as Bi Sidi Souleymane), the commander of Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation, or 3R, at a peace deal signing ceremony in Bangui, Central African Republic, on February 6, 2019. Abbas was announced dead by 3R’s leadership on April 2, 2021.  © 2019 GGt

The death of one of the most brutal warlords in the Central African Republic was confirmed earlier this month. Sidiki Abbas, the president and founder of Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation, or 3R, leaves a legacy of ruthless violence and abuse in the northwestern Ouham Pendé province. Over the past six years, I interviewed scores of victims and survivors of 3R attacks who described being raped, seeing their loved ones shot down, or watching their homes destroyed.

The 3R group emerged in late 2015 asserting that they were needed to protect the minority Peuhl population from attacks by anti-balaka militia who were targeting Muslims. Despite his role in widespread atrocities, including war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, in March 2019 Abbas was named a special military adviser to the prime minister’s office as a concession under a peace accord signed a month earlier in Khartoum, Sudan.

Yet attacks by his fighters continued. In May 2019, 3R fighters killed at least 46 civilians in Ouham-Pendé province. On May 20, the day before one of these attacks on Bohong town, Abbas warned local authorities, “You can’t bring me war. I will bring it to you, and I will show you how to shoot. I will show you who I am.” The next day his fighters killed at least 10 civilians and Abbas was later seen coordinating looted goods onto trucks.

Abbas later gave up his advisor post, and in late 2020, 3R joined a new rebel coalition that tried to advance on the capital, Bangui. According to the group’s new president, Abbas was injured in fighting near Bossembele, Ombella M’Poko province, in November 2020, and succumbed to his wounds on March 25.

There were two constants with Abbas: disregard for civilians and disdain for accountability. When I met Abbas in February 2019, he told me that calls for justice were irrelevant and he warned of “problems” if national and international courts continued to investigate crimes committed during the conflict.

While Abbas himself will never be held to account, his death highlights the need for the many victims of 3R crimes to finally see justice delivered, including through investigations and prosecutions of other senior 3R commanders.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 16, 2021, 3:40 pm
Click to expand Image The International Criminal Court at The Hague. © 2018 HRW

In a deeply unsettling letter made public this week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asserted the United Kingdom’s strong opposition to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Palestine investigation.

The letter, sent to the Conservative Friends of Israel group, also seems intended to put political pressure on UK nationals set to serve on the court, including the newly elected ICC prosecutor.

After five years of preliminary inquiry, the ICC prosecutor commenced an investigation in March opening a long-awaited path to justice for Israeli and Palestinian victims of serious international crimes. The investigation will likely initially cover unlawful Israeli settlements in the West Bank and alleged war crimes by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. Human Rights Watch and others had for years pressed for such a probe.

The UK is a founding member of the ICC and prides itself as being a strong supporter of international justice. In recent years, it has pushed for an ICC mandate over crisis situations in non-member countries, including Syria and Libya. When the Trump administration targeted the ICC in 2020 with punitive sanctions aimed at thwarting investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine, the UK rallied around the court  with other member countries to counter the unprecedented US action. Earlier this month when US President Joe Biden rescinded the sanctions, the UK welcomed the move.

The UK’s longstanding embrace of the ICC makes Johnson’s denunciation of the ICC Palestine investigation all the more jarring and suggests an about-face – although the UK has a history of double standards on Israel and Palestine. In the letter, Johnson states that the court’s newly elected prosecutor and a judge – both British nationals – will “help serve reform at the court.” That implies the Prime Minister sees their role as being in service of the UK’s agenda, counter to their mandate to act independently.

For as long as the court does its job, it will face opposition from those who fear accountability. Independence is key to the court’s legitimacy. ICC member countries need to be prepared to defend the court’s mandate from unprincipled attacks and respect that independence. Victims should know that their pursuit of justice will be met by an unwavering commitment to the rule-of-law. 

To see the UK so brazenly doing the opposite reflects poorly on a country that purports to be a global human rights leader and champion of accountability for the world’s worst atrocities.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 16, 2021, 2:01 pm
Click to expand Image Armed Forces members patrol during an operation against the organized crime in Lins slum complex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil August 5, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

(São Paulo, April 16, 2021) – Rio de Janeiro’s attorney general, Luciano Mattos, should reinstate a recently dissolved unit of prosecutors who specialized in preventing, investigating, and prosecuting police abuse, or set up another team to carry out a similar mandate, Human Rights Watch said  today in a letter to the attorney general.

Mattos, who became attorney general for the state of Rio de Janeiro in January, eliminated his office’s Group of Specialized Action in Public Security (GAESP, in Portuguese) in March, substantially weakening the Prosecutor’s Office’s oversight over the police. Despite its limited resources, the GAESP had made important contributions to preventing and prosecuting police abuse in Rio de Janeiro since its creation in December 2015.

“Police killings and other abuses continue to plague Rio de Janeiro largely due to widespread impunity,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The attorney general has only made matters worse by eliminating the unit of prosecutors tasked with pursuing accountability for those abuses. He should reverse that decision.”

Police abuse is a chronic human rights problem in Rio de Janeiro state. Police killings were at record levels until June 2020, when the Brazilian Supreme Court prohibited police raids in low-income neighborhoods there during the Covid-19 pandemic, except in “exceptional cases.” Police in Rio still killed more than 1,200 people in 2020, more than the total number of people shot and killed by police in the United States that year.

On April 16 and 19, 2021, the Supreme Court will hold public hearings to discuss strategies to reduce police killings in Rio de Janeiro, in the context of a case in which petitioners have asked the court to order Rio to draft such a plan. Rio’s attorney general’s commitment to vigorously enforce the law in cases involving criminal activity by police officers is crucial for the success of any such plan.

In a 2020 preliminary decision that found that Rio authorities had failed to curb police killings, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin asserted that Brazil’s Constitution tasks the Prosecutor’s Office with ensuring accountability for police abuses. The decision noted that the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require an “independent institution” such as the Prosecutor’s Office to carry out this task. He ordered the Rio de Janeiro Prosecutor’s Office to conduct its own investigations in cases of suspected police misconduct, instead of relying on the police to investigate themselves.

Similarly, in a 2017 ruling on a Rio de Janeiro case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Brazil to ensure that police abuses are investigated by “an independent body, different from the public force involved in the incident, such as a judicial authority or the Public Prosecutor’s Office.”

The elimination of GAESP by attorney general Mattos makes it much harder for the Prosecutor’s Office to fulfill that mission, Human Rights Watch said.

At the time of its dissolution in March, GAESP was working on more than 700 investigations of police abuse and had filed charges in 24 cases of police killings since 2019, including high-profile cases such as the killing of 8-year-old Ágatha Vitória Sales Felix at Complexo do Alemão in 2019.

The GAESP had also opened administrative investigations on practices by police that violate basic rights with the goal of forcing the adoption and enforcement of protocols to prevent abuse. Abusive practices that they sought to address included the dangerous practice of opening fire on crowded neighborhoods from helicopters and the false “rescue” of victims as a ruse to destroy crucial evidence in police killings cases.

In March, Attorney General Mattos announced that, due to the elimination of GAESP, all cases of police abuse would be handled solely by the prosecutors with jurisdiction over the case (“promotores naturais,” in Portuguese). Most of these prosecutors are in charge of prosecuting crimes in a specific geographic area.

However, those prosecutors will find themselves investigating abuses committed by the same police officers with whom they work closely in other cases in the same jurisdiction. They may reasonably fear that signing a charging document against those officers puts them at risk of retaliation, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, they may find it difficult to handle often complex police abuse cases while dealing with a heavy caseload that includes all kinds of other criminal activity.

Promotores naturais may decide not to open their own investigations into police abuses, and instead rely solely on the findings of investigations carried out by civil police. That raises serious questions of impartiality, as civil police will be investigating their own members or military police officers with whom they may have worked in other cases.

Attorney General Mattos has also announced the creation of the office of General Coordinator of Public Security within the Prosecutor’s Office, with the mission of coordinating its work on public security. However, that office will not have authority to investigate and prosecute individual cases of police abuse, nor to conduct administrative investigations and other legal actions involving police protocols and practices that can be instrumental to ensure police respect human rights.

While some killings by the police are in self-defense, many others are the result of excessive and reckless use of force, as Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented. Abuses by police, including extrajudicial executions, make communities fear, rather than trust, the police. They contribute to a cycle of violence that endangers the lives of police officers and civilians.

“Weakening accountability mechanisms for police abuses only benefits police officers who break the law,” Canineu said. “Abusive, violent police officers not only cause great suffering to hundreds of Rio families every year, but they also undermine public security and make the job of policing Rio more difficult and dangerous for the rest of the police force.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 16, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gives an address at the Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, May 26, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – The implementing regulations for Egypt’s 2019 law regulating nongovernmental organizations issued on January 11, 2021, underscore the law’s severe restrictions on the work of independent human rights and other organizations, Human Rights Watch said today. Publication of the regulations highlights the need to rigorously revise the law to meet international standards.

The implementing regulations (bylaws), published in the Official Gazette under Prime Ministerial Decree 104 of 2021, emphasized restrictions in the law such as prohibiting any work of a “political” nature and added new restrictions that largely negate the essence of freedom of association.

“The NGO law’s implementing regulations reflect the Egyptian government’s determination to shackle its once-vibrant civil society,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This law, along with the unrelenting persecution of activists, sends the clear message that there is no place in Egypt today for independent civic work.”

The government issued the implementing regulations almost 17 months after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in August 2019, approved Law 149 of 2019 on Regulating the Work of Civil Associations. Law 149 removed lengthy prison sentences that had been in the previous 2017 law but kept in place most of the draconian restrictions on the work of independent groups.

President al-Sisi’s government has relentlessly cracked down on independent organizations and human rights activists including with arbitrary detentions, unjust prosecutions, travel bans, and asset freezes.

The implementing regulations give organizations until January 2022 to register under Law 149 or risk being dissolved. Law 149 also imposes fines up to one million Egyptian pounds (about US$64,000) for violating its terms, which would bring the work of most independent organizations to a halt.

The implementing regulations require the Social Solidarity Ministry to maintain a database to include details such as all employees, volunteers, and funders, and “any other documents the minister requires” of all nongovernmental organizations in the country, and guarantee “instant exchange” of such information between the ministry and “relevant authorities.” This amounts to active surveillance by the ministry and security agencies, which are apparently among the main entities referred to as “relevant authorities,” Human Rights Watch said. Associations are required to update such information monthly, including the slightest activity such as new volunteers.

The Social Solidarity Ministry can suspend the work of any organization that violates terms of the law for up to one year, or to ask an administrative court to dissolve the group and seize its assets. The ministry’s staff can carry out unannounced inspections of an organization’s files and activities.

The government claimed that the 2019 law “removed all obstacles” to establishing an organization, saying that it allows the establishment simply by notifying the government. In fact, registration under Law 149 is convoluted, Human Rights Watch said. It requires an organization to provide an unreasonably lengthy and complex set of documents and reports clearly intended to negate the essence of the right to freedom of association and the ability to work without prior government permission.

The law, for instance, requires existing associations to submit detailed reports about all of its past activities, the geographic areas where it worked, its funding sources, and any contracts or agreements of cooperation with any other organizations, in addition to paying a fee of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($320) and renting or owning a multi-room office. Failure to submit any document can invalidate its registration, which the authorities can use as a pretext to reject any registration.

New organizations have to follow similar requirements and instantly report new activities as the law requires. In addition, based on reviewing similar decisions in the Official Gazette, it appears that an organization would not be legally registered until the Social Solidarity Ministry issues a decision to that effect in the Official Gazette.

The implementing regulations state that all entities that carry out “civic work” must register under Law 149, including existing law, counseling or consultancy firms, or think tanks, even if their primary activity is not civic work and they are registered under other laws covering corporations or law firms. The government is using this requirement to target leading human rights organizations that have been operating as law firms or think tanks to avoid the restrictions of previous laws governing organizations, Human Rights Watch said.

Foreign organizations face additional restrictions as they must obtain Foreign Ministry approval that is valid only for a certain activity, in a certain geographic area and time, and that has to be renewed every time for each additional activity. Foreign nationals can be members of local organizations only if they have a valid residence permit in Egypt and after government approval.

The implementing regulations state that, outside of an association, individuals cannot carry out any civic initiative, campaign, or work without prior government permission, which requires complex measures including opening a separate bank account for the activity.

Further restrictions as well as government and security agencies’ intervention in the activities and funding of organizations spelled out in the law and its implementing regulations undermine the right to freedom of association and make independent work virtually impossible, Human Rights Watch said.

Law 149 prohibits a wide range of activities without prior government approval, such as to “conduct opinion polls and publish or make their results available or conduct field research or disclose their results,” to carry out activities in “border areas,” to “partner or cooperate” with foreign or local organizations, or open branches outside Egypt. The law also employs vaguely worded terms to completely ban other activities, such as ones that do not “match the goals” of the association, or any “political” activity or work that undermines “national security, public order, public morals.” Neither the law nor its implementing regulations provide definitions for any of these terms, which authorities frequently use to ban and punish the peaceful exercise of rights.

The implementing regulations require all associations to report in detail all funding contracts with entities outside Egypt to the Social Solidarity Ministry within 30 days of receiving the funds, and to return the funds if the ministry, after “consulting with relevant authorities,” disapproves them within 60 days. Associations need advance government approval to collect individual donations or hold fundraising events.

President al-Sisi’s government has relentlessly cracked down on independent organizations and human rights activists including with arbitrary detentions, unjust prosecutions, travel bans, and asset freezes.

In November 2020, National Security Agency officers arrested three leaders of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) for allegedly operating without permission. Under international pressure, the authorities released them in early December but have not dropped the charges including for alleged terrorism-related offenses, and a terrorism court ordered their personal assets frozen.

Their arrests strip away government claims that the Law 149 eliminates prison penalties since the authorities use many abusive provisions of the penal code and other abusive laws to unjustly arrest and prosecute activists. For example, an amendment to the penal code al-Sisi introduced by decree in 2014 punishes receiving foreign funds on broad and vague terms such as “undermining the country’s independence” with life in prison.

“This law and these regulations further normalize targeting civil society groups and human rights defenders,” Stork said. “Like any authoritarian system consistently fearing people’s power, al-Sisi’s government treats independent organizations as a threat, not the asset they actually represent.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 16, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Southern Transitional Council forces backed by the United Arab Emirates prepare to storm the presidential palace in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen on August 9, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo

United States President Joe Biden called in early February for “ending all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” At the time, I, like many human rights advocates who have been documenting abuses committed during the armed conflict in Yemen, thought we were finally moving in the right direction after years of work. But now, after a review of arms sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Biden administration has backed out of its pledge, announcing it will resume the proposed arms deal with the UAE, a party to the conflict in Yemen.

Despite announcing the withdrawal of most of its ground troops in mid-2019, the UAE has continued its air operations and support for abusive local Yemeni ground forces, according to United Nations investigators. The UAE’s huge influence inside Yemen remains clear. I am regularly overwhelmed by messages from people in southern Yemen telling me about egregious abuses regularly committed by UAE-backed local forces.

In February, Human Rights Watch reported on the agonizing detention of a Yemeni journalist who was first threatened by an official from the UAE and detained and mistreated by UAE-backed forces.

Any re-examination of US arms sales to the UAE should have determined that the risk they could be used to commit laws-of-war violations is high, especially given the evidence that the Saudi and UAE-led coalition have already used US weapons in bombings unlawfully harming civilians and civilian sites in Yemen since the beginning of the war in 2015. Many of those attacks may amount to war crimes.

The UAE’s violations extend beyond Yemen. In Libya, the UAE has conducted unlawful strikes and provided military support to abusive local forces. Human Rights Watch identified an apparently unlawful UAE drone attack that hit a biscuit factory in November 2019, killing 8 civilians and wounding 27.

Resuming arms sales without first ensuring that the UAE is taking meaningful steps towards accountability for previous unlawful attacks just creates a situation in which those violations could happen again, with no one being held responsible. In resuming these arms sales, the US government once again risks complicity in future violations.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 15, 2021, 6:15 pm
Click to expand Image Children in front of the Africa/Ayga hotel likely damaged by a direct fire weapon in Humera town, Tigray region, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. © 2020 Eduardo Soteras for Agence France Press

Today is the fifth time the United Nations Security Council will discuss the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region behind closed doors. Five months into one of the world’s gravest humanitarian and human rights crises, the UN’s most powerful body needs to end its paralysis and support concrete measures to deter further abuses.  

China and Russia, permanent members to the Security Council, have undermined small efforts by other members to move discussions beyond the humanitarian situation and condemn ongoing abuses in Tigray. In its last discussion in March, the council didn’t reach a consensus and failed to issue a statement.

Meanwhile, evidence of war crimes and other atrocities in Tigray continues to mount, leaving no doubt over the gravity of the situation and its impact on Ethiopia and the wider region.

This week, after the Ethiopian government announced the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from its borders, Eritrean forces opened fire on civilians in the border town of Adwa, reportedly leaving at least nine dead and dozens injured. In late March, Ethiopian forces executed four men in front of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) staff. Health officials and the UN continue to report on horrific sexual violence by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. Millions remain in need of food assistance.

Greater scrutiny and unified action by the Security Council is needed for meaningful impact. The council should hold a public session and condemn the rights abuses and humanitarian disaster unfolding before their eyes. It should voice clear support for independent oversight of humanitarian assistance and an independent, international investigation into alleged crimes committed by all parties with the aim of paving the way for a credible accountability process. The council should also make clear that failure to cooperate with such efforts could result in targeted sanctions.

Tigrayans from all walks of life have repeatedly described feeling abandoned not only by their government but also the world. The UN Security Council needs to step up in the face of this blatant disregard for human suffering and international norms and take action today.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 15, 2021, 2:38 pm
Click to expand Image Adam Bodnar, the outgoing Human Rights Commission for Poland, speaks to The Associated Press from his office in Warsaw, Poland, October 19, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File

A government-captured court has removed Poland’s Human Rights Ombudsmen Adam Bodnar from his post, likely spelling the end of one of last independent checks on the country’s abusive government.

The battle for the future of the Ombudsman has been going on for months. When Bodnar’s mandate ended in September, the law provided that he should stay in office until a successor is appointed.

But the candidate proposed by Poland’s ruling party, Law-and-Justice, was rejected by the Polish Senate. To break this stalemate, the party used the coopted Constitutional Tribunal to rule that the continuity provision was unconstitutional and shouldn’t be applied anymore. Today the tribunal ordered Bodnar be removed from his position.

This is the same court that carried out the government’s wishes in October and eliminated one of few grounds for abortion when the government could not get legislation to do so through parliament.

The Bodnar case is yet another example of Poland’s assault on the rule of law. Since 2015, the government has politicized judicial appointments, refused to implement judgements and severely undermined the Constitutional Tribunal’s independence and effectiveness.

With the courts compromised, the Ombudsman’s office under Bodnar has been one of a few remaining checks on the executive. His removal comes days after his office blocked the take-over of news-agency Polska Press by a state-owned oil company – a move that would have further reduced media pluralism.

EU institutions know how bad the situation is. In December 2017, when it triggered Article 7 – the mechanism handling countries breaching EU values – the European Commission quoted the lack of independence of constitutional review. In September 2020, it noted that “concerns over the independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal” remain unresolved. But in practice the Commission has so far done little to respond to the erosion of the rule of law and failed to address the government’s use of a compromised court to roll back women’s rights.

The European Commission should break its silence and take action. It’s time to tackle the use of the Tribunal to bypass Poland’s parliament and erode fundamental rights, and press EU states to act.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 15, 2021, 2:23 pm
Click to expand Image Commuters watch a news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Joe Biden at the Suseo Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 26, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

(Washington, DC) – The United States government should emphasize the promotion of human rights in its policies on North Korea, 11 human rights groups said today in a letter to President Joe Biden. The groups, including Human Rights Watch, urged the US government to integrate human rights concerns into future negotiations with North Korea, and not separate or make them secondary to security and counter-proliferation issues.

“Human rights need to be part of any and all US negotiations with North Korea,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, who also testified before a US congressional panel on human rights on the Korean peninsula on April 15, 2021. “Human rights and weapons proliferation issues cannot be separated, since the North Korea military depends on widespread forced labor and a massive diversion of government resources from basic human needs for arms development.”

The Biden administration is currently reviewing its policy on North Korea. The groups said that US law makes broad sanctions relief for North Korea contingent on human rights improvements and that counter-proliferation experts now acknowledge that successful monitoring of weapons agreements requires more general reforms by the North Korean government.

The US should also increase efforts at the United Nations Security Council for new debates on the human rights situation in North Korea as a threat to regional peace and security, the groups said. Biden should promptly appoint a special US envoy on North Korean human rights issues, increase support for North Korean people’s access to information, and act to protect North Korean refugees.

In the context of Covid-19, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has used the pandemic to further entrench his already firm grip on power, install harsh new controls on the distribution of food and products, stopped all information flows into the country, and entirely closed North Korea’s border with China. These steps appear to be connected to reported shortages of food and basic supplies, which have raised serious concerns about mass famine.

The US should work with China, South Korea, Japan, and the European Union and its member states to urge the North Korean government to restart imports of food and other necessities.

The North Korean government should accept humanitarian aid while allowing monitoring and distribution activity and reduce the spread of Covid-19 among prisoners, the groups said.

“Any sustained diplomatic progress or durable counter-proliferation process will need the North Korean government to improve its cooperation with the UN system in general, to allow enough openness for genuine monitoring,” Sifton said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 15, 2021, 2:02 pm
Click to expand Image In this government-issued photo, former National Security Service official Akol Koor Kuc (L) is pictured meeting with President Salva Kiir (R) in Juba, South Sudan, August 2020. 

On April 10 South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, with apparent disregard for the many crimes committed by the National Security Service (NSS), promoted one of its top officials, Akol Koor Kuc, to the rank of First Lieutenant General. This move is yet another slap in the face to the many victims of the NSS’s horrific and well-documented crimes committed under Kuc’s watch.

In a December report, Human Rights Watch documented how the NSS has become the favored tool for South Sudan’s leadership to carry out arbitrary arrests, abusive detentions, torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and illegal surveillance. It has regularly targeted journalists, activists, opposition figures, and critics. All of this has occurred with little to no accountability or justice for victims.

We found that Kuc, who heads the internal security bureau, together with the Minister for National Security, Mamur Obote, and outgoing head of the General Intelligence Bureau, Thomas Duoth Guet (now appointed as South Sudan’s ambassador to Kuwait), failed to end systemic human rights violations by the NSS or ensure credible investigations and criminal accountability for officers implicated in abuse.

Instead of rewarding Kuc with a promotion, President Kiir should ensure there is an effective investigation into him and his colleagues for their role in the abuses. The government should also rein in the NSS and ensure that the NSS law is reformed to genuinely limit the agency’s role and powers while strengthening judicial and parliamentary oversight.

This is not the first time South Sudan has condoned impunity for abuses. Several officials sanctioned by the United Nations still hold key government positions. In the same reshuffle that saw Kuc promoted, Santino Deng Wol, a man sanctioned by the UN for his role in a May 2015 offensive in Unity State during which government forces killed dozens of women, children, and older people, and looted civilian property, was appointed as the new army chief of staff.

As South Sudan continues to show no political will to hold senior officials to account for abuses, it falls on the country’s regional and development partners to step up pressure to promote the rule of law. They should insist that investigating and holding to account top leaders like Kuc for potential criminal responsibility be a top priority.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 14, 2021, 8:40 pm
Click to expand Image I.A. Rehman, center, addresses a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 16, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/B.K. Bangash, File

Many years ago, I.A. Rehman said to my young, overconfident, and impatient self, “This [struggle for human rights] is a marathon, not a sprint.” Rehman’s long, victorious marathon came to an end on April 12. Three generations of Pakistani human rights activists, journalists, trade unionists, women rights advocates, farmers, religious minorities, and millions of ordinary Pakistanis have been left orphaned. Rehman, or “Rehman Sahib” as he was almost universally known, started working as a journalist and human rights activist in the early 1950s and published his last regular newspaper column four days before his death.

He opposed and actively resisted four military dictatorships and in return was imprisoned, fired from jobs, threatened, and banned. He was one of the first and loudest voices to oppose Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy laws. His resolve to help victims of these laws was not dampened even when his nephew, the lawyer Rashid Rehman, was assassinated in 2014 for representing a university professor charged under the blasphemy law. Even at nearly 90 years old, Rehman would join protest camps for victims of enforced disappearances, walk with landless peasants, and stand on the frontline holding placards for the Aurat (Women’s) March.

In 1990, Rehman joined the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan as a director and later secretary-general and for the next 25 years his leadership and vision helped turn it into Pakistan’s largest and most effective human rights organization. In 1994 Human Rights Watch honored him for his human rights activism. For more than six decades he remained the flagbearer for free expression in Pakistan.

His long battle with tyranny, oppression and injustice did not make him bitter or cynical. He retained his sense of humor, calm, and an informed sense of optimism. Pakistan and the world will miss Rehman for his unwavering belief in freedom of expression, rule of law, equality, and above all for his decency and courage.

In 2018, when Rehman’s protégé and friend Asma Jahangir, who herself was an icon for human rights, passed away, he said to me in Urdu, “yeh Janay ka waqt nahien thaa” (“It was not time yet”). For Pakistan’s human rights movement, no time for the departure of Rehman and Asma would have been the right time. The ultimate tribute to Rehman Sahib’s legacy is to take his struggle forward.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 14, 2021, 1:01 pm
Click to expand Image Jacinta Miller holds a painting by her brother Stanley, a 19-year-old Noongar man with a mental health condition, who is suspected to have taken his own life in Acacia Prison, Wooroloo, on July 11, 2020. Stanley was a talented artist who had been planning an exhibition of his artwork upon his release. © 2020 Sophie McNeill/Human Rights Watch

(Sydney) – The Australian government’s continued failure to address Indigenous deaths in custody tarnishes the country’s rights record and global standing, Human Rights Watch said today. April 15, 2021, is the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which contained numerous recommendations for reform.

An Indigenous man held in Casuarina Prison in Perth died on April 3 after being transferred to the hospital, the fifth Indigenous death in custody in just over a month. The Guardian’s Deaths in Custody tracking project reported that since the 1991 Royal Commission, more than 470 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody in Australia. Some of these deaths were clearly preventable, from suicide, violence, or a lack of prison support.

“Three decades since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, First Nations people in Australia are still unacceptably being incarcerated and dying in prison,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the recent spate of Indigenous deaths in custody, it’s clear that this is a national crisis.”

The 1991 Royal Commission noted that more Aboriginal people were likely to die in custody partly because they were incarcerated at disproportionate rates. At the time, Aboriginal people made up about 14 percent of Australia’s prison population. Thirty years on, the rate of Indigenous incarceration has doubled, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising 29 percent of the adult prison population but just 3 percent of the national population.

In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch documented the serious risk of self-harm and death for prisoners with mental health conditions, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, in Western Australia. Between 2010 and 2020, about 60 percent of adults who died in prisons in Western Australia had a disability.

The 1991 Royal Commission made 339 recommendations in its final report. Among the commission’s findings were serious concerns regarding the “extreme anxiety” caused by solitary confinement, which was noted to have a particularly detrimental impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners.

The Australian government should make a commitment to fully implement the Royal Commission recommendations. Aboriginal people should be imprisoned only as a last resort, and general and mental health services in prisons should be culturally appropriate. The government should make it a priority to end solitary confinement for people with disabilities and raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14, Human Rights Watch said.

“Thirty years since the Royal Commission, there is still a pressing need for adequate and culturally appropriate mental health support for prisoners,” Pearson said. “Instead of focusing on changing the physical infrastructure of prisons to make it harder for people to harm themselves, the Australian government should act to end preventable prison deaths by improving services and support.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 14, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image In this Dec. 18, 2020 file photo, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gives his daily morning news conference at the presidential palace in Mexico City. On January 14, 2021, López Obrador vowed to lead an international effort to combat what he considers censorship by social media companies that blocked or suspended the accounts of Former US President Donald Trump. © 2020 AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File.

(Washington, DC) – Mexican Senate Majority Leader Ricardo Monreal’s proposed bill to regulate social media networks could severely restrict free speech in Mexico, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill would require companies to censor broadly defined categories of online content in violation of international norms currently in force. Senator Monreal should withdraw his proposal.

On February 8, just a few weeks after social media networks like Twitter and Facebook suspended the accounts of Former US President Donald Trump, Senator Monreal, who leads President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s party, Morena, in the Senate, published a draft bill on his website that would impose regulations on social media networks with users in Mexico. In January, President López Obrador had expressed his concern over the power of the networks to suspend Trump’s accounts.   

“This bill would place the harshest restrictions on free speech that Mexico has seen in decades, opening the door to bans on social media networks and enabling the government to censor speech it disagrees with,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Senator Monreal claims he wants to protect free speech in Mexico, but this bill would do exactly the opposite.”

The draft bill would make Mexico’s telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT), the final arbiter in disputes over content moderation, empowering it to overrule social media network operators’ decisions about how and when to delete a user’s content or suspend or cancel their account. And it would enable the IFT to punish social media network operators with fines of up to US $4.4 million if they fail to comply with its rules or if the IFT disagrees with their content moderation decisions. This could encourage further media concentration by forcing smaller companies to stop operating in Mexico altogether to avoid steep fines.

Under the bill, any social media network with one million or more users would need to obtain permission from the IFT to operate in Mexico. The IFT would be able to set rules about how social media networks operate and the types of content they can allow. And it would have the authority to review and change the networks’ terms of service, the rules that users must follow.

In effect, this would enable the IFT to prevent any social media network from operating in Mexico or prohibit users in Mexico from joining an “unauthorized” network, placing significant limits on freedom of expression. It could also encourage social media networks themselves to begin blocking users from Mexico to avoid the IFT review process.

The draft bill would also require social media networks to censor certain types of speech, such as “hate messages,” “fake news,” and any other type of speech the IFT deems should be censored to preserve “order and public interest.” The bill does not provide clear guidelines on what these terms mean, however, requiring social media network operators or the IFT to make determinations about whether statements are true or false. These requirements could lead to arbitrary censorship of legitimate content, enabling the government to force social media networks to censor content it disagrees with. This would be inconsistent with the prohibition on prior censorship in the American Convention on Human Rights.

Finally, the bill would prohibit social media networks from moderating the content on their platforms for reasons that the bill does not specifically mention, such as to prevent spam. This would restrict the ability of social media networks to make reasonable decisions about what kind of content they allow. Social media networks focused on specific groups, subjects, or interests, such as environmental issues or Indigenous culture, would be unable to operate.

Protecting free speech on the internet, ensuring that private entities do not interfere with that freedom, and giving people the ability to appeal restrictions on their speech are legitimate goals. But under international human rights law, Mexico has a responsibility to promote a “free, independent, and diverse communications environment,” and an obligation to ensure that any restriction on speech is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose. This includes regulation of speech through “indirect methods or means,” such as government controls over media companies.

Under international human rights standards, Mexico should not pass laws against so-called “fake news” or other “vague and ambiguous ideas,” or impose unnecessary or disproportionate restrictions on social media networks or online content. Instead it should promote media diversity and digital literacy. It should also incentivize companies to be transparent about their content moderation policies and to offer remedies for users whose accounts are suspended so that they can make their own choices about which platforms to use and how.  

“Senator Monreal’s proposal is nothing more than censorship—pure and simple. It violates international legal standards by allowing the Mexican government to restrict access to certain websites and to decide what content social media users can and can’t share,” Vivanco said. “Imposing these kinds of heavy-handed regulations will stifle free speech, not protect it.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 14, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Njeuken Loic (known as “Shakiro”) and Mouthe Roland (known as “Patricia”), two transgender women, in a Douala prison. © Private, Douala, Cameroon, March 2021

(Nairobi) – Cameroonian security forces have arbitrarily arrested, beaten, or threatened at least 24 people, including a 17-year-old boy, for alleged consensual same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity, since February 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. At least one of them was forced to undergo an HIV test and anal examination.

Based on Human Rights Watch’s monitoring and discussions with Cameroonian nongovernmental organizations, the recent accounts of abuse documented here seem to be part of an overall uptick in police action against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Cameroon. Sexual relations between people of the same sex are criminalized in Cameroon and punished with up to five years in prison.

“These recent arrests and abuses raise serious concerns about a new upsurge in anti-LGBT persecution in Cameroon,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The law criminalizing same-sex conduct puts LGBT people at a heightened risk of being mistreated, tortured, and assaulted without any consequences for the abusers.”

Between February 17 and April 8, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 18 people, including 5 who had been detained, 3 lawyers, and 10 members of Cameroonian LGBT nongovernmental organizations. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports by Cameroonian and international LGBT organizations, court documents, police reports, and medical records.

Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the justice minister, Laurent Esso; the state secretary at the Defense Ministry in charge of the national gendarmerie, Yves Landry Etoga; and the delegate general for national security, Martin Mbarga Nguele, in a March 25 letter, requesting answers to specific questions. Cameroonian officials have yet to respond.

On February 24, police officers raided the office of Colibri, an organization that provides HIV prevention and treatment services, in Bafoussam, West Region, and arrested 13 people on homosexuality charges, including 7 Colibri staff. The police released all 13 people on February 26 and 27. Three of those arrested said that police beat at least three Colibri staff members at the police station and that the police threatened and verbally assaulted all those arrested. They also said that the police interrogated them without the presence of a lawyer and forced them to sign statements they were not allowed to read.

One of them, a 22-year-old transgender woman, said: “Police told us we are devils, not humans, not normal. They beat a trans woman in the face, slapped her twice in front of me.”

Police also forced one of the 13 arrested, a 26-year-old transgender woman, to undergo an HIV test and anal examination at a health center in Bafoussam on February 25. She told Human Rights Watch: “The doctor was embarrassed but said he had to do the examination because the prosecutor needed it. He carried out the examination. I had to bend over. The doctor wore gloves and put in his finger. It was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever experienced.”

What this transgender woman experienced is not an isolated case. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that prosecutors in Cameroon have introduced medical reports based on forced anal exams into court, contributing to convictions of individuals charged with consensual homosexual conduct.

Human Rights Watch documented two additional arrests in 2021 and one mass arrest in 2020. In Bertoua, on February 14, gendarmes arrested 12 youth, including at least 1 teenager, on homosexuality charges and subjected them to ill-treatment before releasing them the same day. On February 8, gendarmes arbitrarily arrested two transgender women in Douala, targeting them in the street on the basis of their gender expression. Prosecutors charged them with homosexual conduct, lack of identity cards, and public indecency.

“It is not illegal to be homosexual or transgender,” said Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom. “According to Cameroonian law, it is the act which is the crime. So, this is a blatant human rights violation. They should be released immediately.”

In May 2020, police arrested 53 people, most of them LGBT, at a gathering hosted by an HIV organization in a hotel in Bafoussam and charged them with “homosexuality” related offenses. At least 6, including 3 teenagers ages 15 to 17, were subjected to forced anal examinations and HIV tests.

The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights guarantees the right to equal protection before the law and nondiscrimination. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body charged with monitoring states parties’ compliance with the African Charter, has said that equal protection extends to sexual orientation. It has also stated that the principle of nondiscrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation, is the foundation for the enjoyment of all human rights. The commission has called for African governments to end all forms of violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and to bring the abusers to justice.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cameroon is a state party, provides for equal protection, nondiscrimination, and the right to privacy. On this basis, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled that the criminalization of consensual same-sex conduct between adults violates the ICCPR.

Forced anal exams constitute a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that can, in some cases, rise to the level of torture. In November 2013, Dr. Guy Sandjon, president of the National Medical Council of Cameroon, told Human Rights Watch that Cameroonian doctors should not conduct the exams, as they violate medical ethics, and that the authorities should not order them. Involuntary HIV and sexually transmitted infection tests constitute a violation of the right to bodily integrity and privacy, protected under the ICCPR, and the right to health under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“The Cameroonian government has an obligation to uphold the rights of everyone in Cameroon, regardless of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity,” Ghoshal said. “The authorities should immediately end arbitrary arrests on the basis of sexual identity and forced anal examinations and should take swift steps to repeal the law criminalizing consensual same-sex relations.”

For more details about the recent human rights abuses against LGBT people and recommendations for Cameroonian authorities, please see below.

Bafoussam, West Region, May 2020
On May 16, 2020, police arrested 53 people, the majority of whom were LGBT, including at least 6 teenagers ages 15 to 17, in a hotel in Bafoussam during a gathering organized by the HIV association, Colibri. They were charged with “homosexuality,” pimping, and complicity in pimping, and were held at the judicial police station. Ten were released on May 17, and the rest on May 21.

Two of those arrested and the lawyer who represented them said that the police beat, humiliated, and threatened many of those arrested, held all of them in a tiny cell, and deprived some of the HIV treatment they needed. One of the men arrested said:

They [police officers] stormed the hotel; they took everyone by force. They forced some of us to undress. They beat a trans woman in front of me, they slapped her twice in the face and ordered her to take off her clothes in front of everyone. They also seized medicine, including antiretrovirals, thermometers, and HIV tests. Then they brought us to the police station and threw us in a very small cell where we could barely breathe. Men, women, children, everyone in the same cell. Police also deprived those who were HIV positive of their life-saving treatment and refused to let any medicine into the cell. It was tough. One year on, they are yet to give us back what they took, like medicine and HIV kits. Also, I am yet to recover from the trauma this incident has caused me.

One of those arrested, a transgender woman, said that on May 18, police forced her to undergo an HIV test and anal examination at the regional hospital in Bafoussam without her consent. She said 5 other LGBT people, including 3 of the teenagers, experienced the same treatment. She said:

The doctor did not want to do the exams because he said he needed my consent, but the police officer insisted and said they needed the exams to provide proof of our sexual orientation for the prosecution. So, the doctor went ahead. I had to bend. I was afraid. I was in shock. I could not believe that a medical professional, who is supposed to be bound by the highest ethical standards, would do this to me. It is such an intrusive, invasive practice.

Human Rights Watch reviewed medical records indicating that the anal examinations and HIV tests were carried out by a doctor at the orders of the regional commissioner of the judicial police. The records confirm that the six people were subjected to digital penetration, a form of sexual assault when conducted by force without consent.

Bertoua, East Region, February 2021

On February 14, gendarmes arrested 12 youth, including a 17-year-old boy, in a restaurant in Bertoua on homosexuality-related charges. Human Rights Watch spoke to a 21-year-old woman, who was among those arrested, who said that gendarmes beat, threatened, and verbally assaulted her and the others at the gendarmerie station:

They ordered us to lay on the ground on our stomachs with our legs bent. A gendarme would put a foot on your back so that you could not move, while another gendarme would hit you on the soles of your feet. That’s how I was beaten up. Everyone was beaten like that. Gendarmes wanted us to confess we were homosexuals. They insulted and threatened us. They said: “You are those destroying our country, we should kill you.”

All of those arrested were released the same day without charge.

A woman working for a local human rights group that provided legal and other assistance to those arrested told Human Rights Watch that some of the youth needed medical care upon their release because of the beatings.

Douala, Littoral Region, February 2021
Gendarmes arrested Njeuken Loic (known as “Shakiro”) and Mouthe Roland (known as “Patricia”), two transgender women, in Douala on February 8.

They were charged with homosexuality-related offenses, lack of identity cards, and public indecency, and taken to a gendarmerie brigade in Nkoulouloun neighborhood, where they spent the night. The next day, a court ordered them to be placed in pretrial detention. They were transferred the following day to the New Bell prison in Douala, where they remain. Their trial is ongoing before the Bonajo Court of First Instance in Douala.

Two of their lawyers and three LGBT rights activists who visited them in prison said that gendarmes interrogated Shakiro and Patricia at the gendarmerie brigade without the presence of their lawyers, forced them to sign statements they were not allowed to read, beat them, and threatened them. A member of a Cameroonian LGBT organization based in Douala said:

I visited Shakiro and Patricia several times in prison. They told me that they were beaten and threatened with death at the gendarmerie station. They said gendarmes twisted their hands behind their backs for almost 30 minutes and hit them with their boots, including on their backs. Gendarmes accused them of being homosexuals and called them “dirty faggots.”

LGBT rights activists and lawyers also said that detainees and prison guards at New Bell prison beat, threatened, and verbally assaulted Shakiro and Patricia repeatedly. An LGBT activist who visited them in prison said:

Their detention conditions are extremely poor. They are constantly insulted by prison guards and other inmates because of their sexual orientation. They were chained up upon arrival at New Bell prison and beaten by prison guards. They are being held with many men in small cells. Shakiro is in a cell with about 70 men, while Patricia in another cell with about 50 men. Holding them with men is problematic, they would prefer to stay with women. They told me inmates always verbally assault them, saying horrible things like they are not supposed to exist.

On March 24, the Bonajo Court of First Instance in Douala denied their bail application, claiming that section 301 of the Cameroonian criminal procedure code, on which Shakiro and Patricia’s lawyers have based their defense, is not applicable. Section 301 states that, “Where a case is not ready for hearing, the court shall adjourn it to its very next sitting and may order the release of the accused on bail, with or without sureties.”

The next hearing in their case is scheduled for April 26.

Human Rights Watch urges Cameroon’s authorities to take the following steps:

· The delegate general for national security and the secretary of state for defense in charge of the gendarmerie should issue written orders to all police and gendarmes to immediately stop arbitrarily arresting people based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender nonconformity, or alleged consensual same-sex conduct.

· The judiciary should immediately release and dismiss charges against Shakiro and Patricia and others charged on the basis of perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender nonconformity, or alleged consensual same-sex conduct.

· Parliament should initiate a repeal of article 347 bis of the Cameroonian Penal code, which punishes consensual same-sex sexual relations with up to five years in prison.

· The justice minister should make absolutely clear, in particular to all law enforcement, prosecuting and judicial authorities, that Cameroonian law does not make it a crime or offense to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person, or to dress in a way that is perceived as gender nonconforming, and that any official purporting to exercise authority to detain, charge, or prosecute an LGBT person on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender nonconformity, or threatening to do so, is acting without a lawful basis and shall be held to account for abuse of power.

· The National Human Rights Commission should investigate allegations of ill-treatment of detainees on the grounds of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 14, 2021, 4:00 am

Magomed Gadaev, 37, an asylum seeker from Chechnya and key witness in a high-profile torture case against Chechnya’s leadership, was abducted by Chechen security officials on April 11, two days after his deportation from France to Russia.

Click to expand Image Magomed Gadaev pictured in Paris, France.  © Private

France expelled Gadaev on April 9, despite a ruling by the national asylum court recognizing that he could come to harm if deported to Russia and asking the authorities to ensure he not be sent back.

Border guards at the Moscow airport held Gadaev for 12 hours before allowing him to board a flight to Novy Urengoi, where his relatives live. Soon after the flight landed, two Chechens apparently linked to Chechnya’s authorities appeared at his relatives’ doorstep demanding to see Gadaev.

Gadaev and his lawyer went to the police to report the threats and surveillance they had noticed, and returned to the apartment they were staying at accompanied by police officers who were supposedly designated to ensure their safety.

The next day, the police asked Gadaev and his lawyer to meet with an investigator. When they left the apartment, Chechens in plain clothes forced Gadaev into a car, as the local officers stood by. One of the men pushed Gadaev’s lawyer away and said they were taking Gadaev, and the local police could answer any questions. At the station, police told the lawyer they did not know what happened.

On April 12, the lawyer travelled to Grozny, where law enforcement authorities claimed they weren’t aware of the case. But, on the morning of April 13 according to Gadaev’s relatives, Chechen security officials brought Gadaev to his parents’ home to briefly speak with his mother. They didn’t explain why they were holding him and quickly led him away. Before his detention, Gadaev had told his family and lawyer that if Chechen authorities detained him and then present any written confession, it would have been the result of torture. Gadaev’s lawyer finally learned he was held at the Urus-Martan police department, but police there didn’t let him in.

Torture in Chechnya is widespread. If any harm comes to Gadaev, police in Novy Urengoi will be complicit and so will French authorities. The French Interior Ministry’s decision to expel Gadaev put him at immediate risk of torture and his life in jeopardy violating France's international obligations prohibiting the return of any person to a country where they are at risk of torture.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 13, 2021, 6:22 pm
Click to expand Image Мальчик запускает самодельного змея в спецзоне для иностранцев лагеря Аль-Холь на северо-востоке Сирии 15 марта 2021 г. © 2021 Sam Tarling

(Berlin) – Regional authorities in northeast Syria are unlawfully detaining an estimated 40 Ukrainian women and children in inhuman and degrading conditions in camps, Human Rights Watch said today. They are among nearly 43,000 foreigners linked to the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) who are being held by Syrian regional authorities.

The majority of the 40 are children, some as young as two.

In a March 25, 2021 letter, Human Rights Watch urged Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to take prompt action to assist and repatriate the Ukrainian women and children. Human Rights Watch also sent a letter to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky with the same request.

“Ukrainian women and children are being held in horrific and appalling conditions while their government chooses to look the other way,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Ukrainian government should comply with the regional authorities’ repeated calls for countries to bring home their nationals, prioritizing the most vulnerable.”

None of the 40 has been taken before a court or investigated or prosecuted for any crime, and their indefinite and arbitrary detention by the armed forces of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria violates international law.

A recent Human Rights Watch report found that the conditions in these camps are often inhumane and life-threatening, with growing insecurity and shortages of vital aid. Covid-19 presents another threat to the lives of these detainees, with the United Nations reporting at least 8,537 cases of the virus in northeast Syria as of February 2021.

According to Children in Syria and Iraq, a Ukrainian independent group of investigative journalists and activists that monitors this issue, as of April, there are 8 Ukrainian women and 19 children held in al-Hol camp and 2 Ukrainian women and 11 children in Roj camp. The activists said that all detainees are held in intolerable conditions. Three of the detained women and one child have disabilities, one woman has an acute kidney disease, one child and one woman have shrapnel injuries, and one child has a severe gum infection. The activists also said that detainees live in constant fear and are terrified for their health and safety.

The Ukrainian government has repatriated only nine Ukrainian citizens, two women and seven children, from northeast Syria. The government should work with local authorities to repatriate the remaining Ukrainian nationals. Children who are in the camps with their mothers should be repatriated together, in keeping with the children’s right to family unity, Human Rights Watch said.

Upon transfer, home or abroad, detainees can be provided with rehabilitation and reintegration services and, as warranted, investigated and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said. Children who lived under ISIS and any women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims. International standards require authorities to seek alternatives to prosecuting children and prohibit the detention of children except as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

The Ukrainian government should also immediately increase consular assistance to its citizens and humanitarian aid to the camps and prisons in northeast Syria to complement – not replace – repatriations, Human Rights Watch said.

Ukraine is one of at least 58 countries, including France, Germany, and Russia, with citizens being held as ISIS suspects and family members in northeast Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Turkey. Many countries cite the potential security risks posed by repatriations as a reason for not bringing their nationals home. Yet failing to protect these detainees poses a potentially larger risk, Human Rights Watch said.

“Detaining people in such inhuman and degrading conditions is clearly prohibited under international law,” Gorbunova said. “Ukraine, like all countries whose nationals are being held as ISIS suspects, has a responsibility to protect its citizens and uphold their rights.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 13, 2021, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image An aerial picture shows a section of the Hagadera camp in Dadaab near the Kenya-Somalia border, May 8, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

The Kenyan government has again issued an ultimatum to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide a plan and timeline for closing the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Though the government has issued these demands before, its new ultimatum has caused anxiety for more than 400,000 Somali, South Sudanese, Congolese, and other refugees, many of whom have never known life outside these camps.

When the Kenyan government announced the closure of Dadaab in 2016, it put heightened pressure on Somali refugees to sign up for cash-incentive “voluntary repatriation” by threatening to dump them back empty-handed in Somalia if they missed the deadline.

As journalist Ty McCormick recounts in the newly published Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home, life in the Kenyan refugee camps can feel like a hopeless trap with restrictions on free movement, food rationing, and limited educational opportunities. While the book focuses on one man who escaped Dadaab with a Princeton University scholarship, it makes clear that most people in the camps are “permanent exiles facing a lifetime in waiting.”

But sending refugees to a “home” many have never seen is no solution when conditions there have not improved. As journalist Moulid Hujali, himself a Somali refugee raised in Dadaab, said in a recent podcast, some of those who have signed up for voluntary repatriation because of pressures and conditions in Dadaab have ended up in camps for the internally displaced within Somalia with fewer resources and where the security situation is more dangerous.

On April 8, Kenya’s high court ordered a temporary stay of the government’s ultimatum, which buys the UNHCR about a month to respond. But in the midst of a political crisis, conditions in Somalia will look no better one month down the road.

UNHCR has no quick fix to offer consistent with its protection mandate. Of course, many refugees would like to go home, indeed anywhere but these remote camps, but declaring the problem solved and threatening to truck people to the border is not a solution; it’s a recipe for further dislocation and suffering.

Until the situation in Somalia stabilizes, Kenya needs to maintain asylum and consider allowing refugees at long last to integrate. They could start by opening up, not closing, the camps and allowing those forced to live there freedom to move. Meanwhile, donor governments need to provide financial support and resettlement opportunities that can keep a glimmer of hope alive for those living in the camps.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 13, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a closing speech at the Sixth Conference of Cell Secretaries of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 8, 2021.  © 2021 Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Speaking at a ruling Workers’ Party of Korea conference on Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was surprisingly candid about the country’s dire economic situation, calling on the country to “wage another more difficult ‘Arduous March’” – a propaganda term used in the 1990s during the country’s infamous famine.

Back then, the government refused to import food and stood by failed food distribution programs, all the while outlawing the very use of the term “famine” – hence the use of the term “Arduous March.” Kim appears to be saying the country should prepare for the very worst.

The famine killed a still-unknown number of people, with estimates ranging from between several hundred thousand to over two million. For people who lived through it, Kim’s words raise horrific memories of North Korea’s most difficult period since the Korean War.

“Everybody was so hungry, eating any wild greens, grass, and tree bark,” recalled a former party member in her 50s, whose parents died during the famine. “It was horrible. You would see dead bodies everywhere, in the streets, especially near the train stations. Dirty, pitch black, and skinny children that barely survived stealing food, most of whom also died. People who died weakened in their apartments were not found for days or weeks.”

Kim’s warning may be yet another attempt to take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to further tighten his grip on power. The 1990s famine not only killed multitudes but also undermined the government’s repressive rule, as survivors learned to evade food supply programs and set up their own illicit markets. Kim may be using the pandemic to take the country back to when there was an entirely closed border and very few imports. This allowed the government to completely control the distribution of food and supplies while also prohibiting the population from accessing any information not sanctioned by the government from inside or outside the country.

That is more than arduous. It is terrifying.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 12, 2021, 4:21 pm
Click to expand Image Sudanese celebrate after officials said the military had forced longtime autocratic President Omar al-Bashir to step down after 30 years in power in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, April 11, 2019. © 2019 AP Images

When Sudan’s long-standing president Omar al-Bashir was ousted on April 11, 2019, protesters who had placed their lives on the line hoped this would mark the beginning of a freer and more just Sudan. Two years on, amidst slow progress and complex challenges, protesters, lawyers, and families of victims are understandably concerned over whether justice will ever come for abuses against those protestors.

The former regime responded ruthlessly to protests that began in December 2018 against al-Bashir’s regime, and security forces, notably Sudan’s National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS), used lethal force, including live ammunition, to break up the protests, killing dozens of unarmed protesters.

After the transitional authorities were sworn in they established a range of committees to investigate past abuses. While there is no body to specifically address crimes committed against protesters between December 2018 and April 2019, the attorney-general established a committee in January 2020 to investigate a wide range of abuses including extrajudicial killings, from the beginning of al-Bashir’s rule through to his ousting.

This year has seen some progress on such cases. Prosecutors announced an unknown number of NISS agents have been charged in connection with abuses against protesters. On March 28, a Khartoum court found the crimes committed against peaceful protesters were part of an attack against the civilian population and confirmed for the first time charges of crimes against humanity against another NISS agent for the killing of a protester in December, 2018.

But many challenges remain, some of which will require resources, others mainly political will.

Mahmoud al-Sheikh, a member of the attorney-general’s committee pointed to several challenges undermining their efforts: “We are struggling to get the security forces to cooperate including by providing us with access to crucial evidence or accept requests of lifting immunities of suspects.” Sudan’s criminal law does not recognize command responsibility as a mode of liability, which could hinder the possibility of holding mid-to-top level commanders accountable.

While the justice efforts required in Sudan are ambitious and long-term, this does not mean the government, with international support, cannot take effective, prompt actions to bolster current efforts.  A meaningful justice process should be transparent, and the government should provide regular public updates on the progress in investigations of public interest and guarantee victims and their families effective participation.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 12, 2021, 3:12 pm