“I don’t have gloves; when we pick up the fruit bunches it hurts us,” said a palm fruit harvester that has worked for the company for over a decade. “Sometimes the fruit bunches fall on people or animals’ excrement.” Boteka, November 17, 2018.

© 2018 Luciana Téllez/Human Rights Watch.
Four European development banks have announced they will require a major palm oil company in the Democratic Republic of Congo to take steps to redress human rights abuses recently reported by Human Rights Watch.

The 95-page report, A Dirty Investment, concluded that Feronia, which is financed by the four banks, was responsible for health and labor rights abuses, and environmental harm.

The banks responded on the same day as the report launch, saying they would require the company to take a series of measures to deal with the violations. Feronia employs more than 10,000 workers through its subsidiary in Congo, and its plantations are home to more than 100,000 people.

Human Rights Watch found that the company exposes workers to toxic pesticides and engages in abusive employment practices that result in extreme poverty wages. The company’s factories also dump untreated industrial waste that may have contaminated the only source of drinking water for several hundred villagers. It was the development banks’ obligation to prevent and redress abuses, but their monitoring and accountability mechanisms failed to do so.

The government-owned banks – Belgian BIO, British CDC Group, German DEG, and Dutch FMO – have invested US$100 million in the company since 2013. CDC Group also owns 38 percent of Feronia.

Human Rights Watch conducted more than 200 interviews for the report and traveled 1,200 kilometers on the Congo River to reach people in the remote plantations.

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

Human Rights Watch will continue to engage the banks over the implementation of these measures. What is still lacking, however, is a commitment to address the monitoring and accountability failures that allowed for these abuses to happen under their watch. The banks should carry out structural reforms, including strengthening monitoring and accountability mechanisms, that would not only protect thousands of workers in Congo, but also protect the rights of people affected by the more than 2,000 projects the banks are involved in across the developing world, where they control billions of dollars in investments.


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

When it was announced that the government of Fiji would chair this year’s climate talks in Bonn, Germany, expectations were high. As a small island, Fiji sees climate change as an existential threat.

Indigenous peoples demand their rights at climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, November 2016,

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

The talks wrapped up on Friday, and during the last two weeks, advocates for gender equality and indigenous peoples made their voices heard and won hard-fought battles to better respect their rights. Notably, governments agreed to create a platform to promote the participation of indigenous peoples in United Nations climate responses, and adopted a Gender Action Plan that aims to better integrate gender equality in climate change policies.

There was also increased attention given to environmental rights defenders and indigenous people who have been killed, attacked, and threatened for their activism. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that governments often fail to conduct serious and timely investigations.

Just when the talks were nearing their end, human rights were pushed to the fore when Fijian prime minister and president of the climate talks, Frank Bainimarama, convened a high-level event about the importance of rights in climate negotiations. Why was this such a big deal? Because never before has any government presiding over the talks hosted an official event on human rights.

Bainimarama has also long been among those who have been silent on human rights issues. But on Thursday, he announced that integrating human rights in the implementation of the Paris Agreement was an important element of Fiji’s presidency, which will continue through the coming year. Costa Rica’s environment minister, Edgar Gutiérrez-Espelata, also proposed concrete ways to integrate rights into the current negotiations about the so-called Paris Rulebook. For example, governments could reference human rights obligations in climate change action plans and climate negotiators could agree to build capacity among states on promoting human rights in climate action.

Of course, such commitments are worth little unless governments are willing to turn rhetoric into reality. If they are serious about fighting climate change, governments should also do more to integrate the protection of human rights in climate policies, while defending the rights of people working to protect the environment.

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

We write in advance of the pre-sessional Working Group for the 77th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (“the Committee”) relating to South Africa’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”).

  1. Protection of Sex workers (Articles 6 and 12)

Selling and buying sex in South Africa is illegal. The criminalisation of sex work has not deterred mostly poor, black and economically marginalized South African women from selling sex to make a living and support their children, and often other dependents too. Criminalisation in South Africa has, however, made sex work less safe, made sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation and crimes and meant that sex workers are less likely to report trafficking for fear of recrimination. Criminalisation undermines sex workers’ access to justice for crimes committed against them and exposes them to unchecked abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, including police officers. And although the Department of Health’s national strategy on sex work and HIV is grounded in respect for the human rights of sex workers, outreach and non-discrimination, criminalisation hinders sex workers’ efforts to access health care, including HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report documented violence experienced by sex workers in South Africa, and their difficulties in reporting crimes and creating safe places to work. We interviewed 46 female sex workers in 10 interview sites in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and Gauteng provinces. We also interviewed more than 40 lawyers, health workers and others working to provide services to this vulnerable population as well as representatives from the South African government.[1]

Sex workers described facing frequent arbitrary arrests and police profiling as well as coerced sex and extortion. They said that to avoid police harassment they were compelled to work in dangerous areas like dark parks, bushy areas behind bars, or back roads in towns where they felt unsafe. Sex workers also said that they often did not report crimes against them because they feared arrest or harassment. Some chose not to report out of fear that the police would laugh at them, blame them, or take no action. Many of the interviewees had been raped by men purporting to be clients, and almost all had been victims of robbery or serious violence, including being beaten, whipped, and stabbed.

Health workers and health rights activists interviewed said that criminalisation obstructs efforts to prevent and treat HIV infections among sex workers. Outreach workers from clinics providing services to sex workers have been arrested and police have relied on sex workers’ possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, discouraging them from carrying them. Some sex workers also reported that arrest and detention interrupted their essential HIV treatment.[2]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Introduce a new law to parliament that removes criminal and administrative sanctions against consensual adult sex work and related offences, such as solicitation, and current prohibited practices such as “living off the earnings” of prostitution or brothel-keeping;
  • Recommend municipal governments reform or repeal overly broad by-laws prohibiting vague offences such as loitering and being a “public nuisance” so they can no longer be used to target vulnerable groups, including sex workers;
  • Implement an immediate moratorium on arrests of sex workers, including for loitering, indecent exposure and other misdemeanours;
  • Publicly commit to strict nationwide enforcement of provisions that prohibit torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, police brutality, coerced confessions or telling detainees to sign “admissions of guilt” paperwork without fully explaining the content;
  • Ensure police training and awareness-building on human rights and sex worker rights under international and South African law, tolerance and sensitive and non-discriminatory policing is carried out regularly and rigorously. This training should include on the correct protocol of arrest and police detention and also non-discrimination concerning crimes reported by sex workers.
  1. Girls’ Access to Education (Articles 10 and 12)

Insufficient Protections for Pregnant Students and Adolescent Mothers

South Africa has had a policy on the prevention and management of student pregnancies since 2007, which states that school children who are pregnant shall not be unfairly discriminated against and cannot be expelled.[3] However, research by South African NGOs indicates that this policy has not been fully respected by schools, and schools have often discriminated against female students.[4] Research conducted by South African organisations shows that some school officials continue to exclude pregnant girls from school or ask them to shift to other schools, contradicting their obligations to respect student’s right to compulsory education.[5]

In 2018, the government initiated a consultation to develop a new policy on management and prevention of student pregnancies.[6] This new policy has not yet been released at time of writing this submission.[7] Human Rights Watch recommends that the government removes any conditional measures–currently applied through the government’s 2007 policy—that impact on girls’ education or deter them from going back to school. For example, students should not have to wait a conditional period until they can return to school.[8]

The new policy should ensure that pregnant students can stay in school while they are medically able to, and that they return to school as soon as they are ready. Schools should also provide basic accommodations for adolescent parents, including: time to breastfeed during breaks, and time off in case a student’s child is ill or to comply with other medical or bureaucratic requirements.[9]

Through its policy, the government should communicate a clear obligation on all education establishments to respect girls’ right to stay in school. Schools should not be able to block a student’s return to school.

We welcome the Department of Basic Education’s commitment, expressed in this draft policy, to focus both on prevention and management of pregnancies. The government should act on its commitment to provide access to an age-appropriate, scientifically accurate sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), and ensure it is-embedded in its comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curriculum.[10] The government’s new policy should stipulate the mandatory nature of this curriculum, and should specify that learners will have access to comprehensive sexuality education from primary school, in line with international guidance.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of South Africa:

  • What steps will the government take to fully guarantee, in law and policy, pregnant students and adolescent parents’ right to education?
  • What measures will the government adopt to fully support pregnant students and adolescent parents’ retention in school?
  • How will the government ensure provincial governments’ and schools’ compliance with its forthcoming policy on pregnancy management and prevention in schools?
  • How does the government ensure that its compulsory sexuality education curriculum complies with international standards, and how does it ensure that teachers are trained in its contents, and allocate time to teach it?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Encourage the government to adopt a human rights compliant policy that guarantees pregnant girls’ and adolescent parents’ right to education and includes basic accommodations to ensure parents are supported to stay in school. The government should regularly monitor this policy to ensure schools adhere to its provisions.

Discrimination in Education for Children with Disabilities

An estimated 600,000 children with disabilities remain out of school in South Africa, but the government has not published accurate, disaggregated data that shows exactly how many girls and boys with disabilities are out of school.[11]

The high cost of education, including school fees and other school-related costs, continues to be a significant barrier keeping children with disabilities out of school. South Africa does not guarantee the right to free primary or secondary education to all children in law or practice.[12] Research by Human Rights Watch in 2014 and 2015 found that the current fee-based system particularly discriminates against children with disabilities.[13] It results in many children with disabilities paying school fees that many children without disabilities do not, as well as additional costs, such as for uniforms, food, transport, and to secure reasonable accommodations for the child’s disability.[14]

South Africa’s Schools Act mandates that the state fund public schools on an equitable basis.[15] The government in turn requires that the governing bodies of public schools—made up of teachers, parents, and other community representatives—adopt a resolution for a school to charge fees and supplement a school’s funding “by charging school fees and doing other reasonable forms of fund-raising.”[16]

Public schools may be classified as “no-fee” schools, a status granted to public schools by provincial governments, which means that those schools should not charge fees. The “no-fee” designation is based on the “economic level of the community around the school,” and on a quintile system from poorest to richest, whereby the lowest three quintiles do not pay fees in designated public schools.[17]

The government treats public special schools differently from other public schools. Special schools are still not listed in the national government’s publicly available annual “no-fee” schools lists. In 2019, Human Rights Watch found that, for the first time, Gauteng province listed 5 special schools as “no-fee” out of 128 special schools in the whole province. The Western Cape province’s 2017 “no-fee” schools list excluded all special schools.[18]

Although a high number of students in special schools come from townships and predominantly poor areas of towns, many public special schools in urban areas are located in wealthier suburbs previously inaccessible to the majority of children under apartheid.[19] The income level of surrounding communities and locations means many special schools fail the “needs” or “poverty” test used to assess a school’s access to recurrent public funding or to qualify as a “no-fee” school.[20]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of South Africa:

  • How many children with disabilities remain out of school, and how many are girls?
  • What measures has the government adopted to ensure children with disabilities have access to free quality inclusive education, on an equal basis with children without disabilities, particularly in rural and remote areas? How do those measures respond to girls with disabilities needs?
  • What binding measures has the government taken to ensure provincial governments respect and fulfill the right to inclusive education of children with disabilities?
  • What steps has the government taken to ensure legislation and policy reflect the government’s obligation to provide free education, and its obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to allow children with disabilities to access education without discrimination?
  • Will the government adopt legislation providing specific protections to children with disabilities and guaranteeing inclusive education?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Urge the government to disclose robust, disaggregated data on the number of children with disabilities out of school.
  • Urge the government to ensure access to free and compulsory primary education and to secondary education to children with disabilities, including by developing a detailed plan of action for the immediate realization of free compulsory primary education, in line with its responsibilities under international human rights law.
  • Call upon the government to adopt stronger legal protections for children with disabilities to complement the South African Schools Act. This includes a clear duty to provide reasonable accommodation in public ordinary schools, accompanied by specific provisions that prevent the rejection of students with disabilities from schools in their neighborhood.
  1. Targeting of Women Activists (Articles 2(c), 3 and 14)

Community activists in mining areas in South Africa face harassment, intimidation, and violence. The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants. When police are informed of attacks or threats, they sometimes fail to conduct timely or adequate investigations into the incidents. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, women are often first to experience the harms of mining and can play a leading role in voicing these concerns, which makes them potential targets for harassment and attacks.[21] We cite activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities.[22]

In South Africa women are often the most directly responsible for children, and may be without a second parent present in the household, caretaking of others.[23] Research by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies found that threats against women in South Africa adversely affect their children and families because of the role women predominantly play as primary caregivers.[24] Women are also often first to experience the harms of extractive industries on land, water, food, health, and livelihoods.[25] In many places collecting water and gathering food are responsibilities of women and impacts on these resources affect them first. As elsewhere globally, on average women in South Africa are poorer than men and more vulnerable to sudden losses of income or food or water resources and the burden of buying more expensive alternatives. This often motivates them to play a leading role in voicing these concerns and acting as human rights defenders, which makes them potential targets for harassment and attacks.[26]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Publicly condemn assaults, threats, harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of activists, and direct the police and other government officials to stop all arbitrary arrests, harassment, or threats against community rights defenders.
  • Provide adequate and effective individual and collective protection measures to individuals and communities at risk.
  • Ensure that law enforcement authorities respect and protect the right to protest, including by not using unlawful measures of crowd control beyond what is strictly necessary to prevent harm to people or excessive harm to property.
  • Direct government officials at all levels, in particular in any departments responsible for regulating mining or protests, to comply with South Africa’s domestic and international obligations to respect, protect, and promote all human rights of activists across South Africa, including the community rights defenders in mining-affected communities, to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and protest, and the rights to health and a healthy environment.
  • Ensure women activists receive equal attention and support as male activists.

[1] Human Rights Watch, Why Sex Work Should be Decriminalised in South Africa, August 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/07/south-africa-decriminalise-sex-work

[2] Ibid.

[3] Republic of South Africa, Department of Basic Education, “Measures for the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy,” 2007, https://www.naptosa.org.za/doc-manager/40-professional/46-general/105-sg... (accessed August 28, 2018), pp. 6 – 7. Despite its existence, schools continue to expel pregnant girls in breach of South Africa’s constitutional laws. Lisa Draga et al, “Basic Education Rights Handbook – Chapter 8 – Pregnancy, http://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Chapter-8.pdf (accessed August 28, 2018).

[4] Equal Education Law Centre and Section 27, “Equal Education Law Centre and Section 27 Submission to the Department of Basic Education in Respect of the Draft “National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools,” April 2018, http://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/EELC-and-S27-Submissi... (accessed August 15, 2018).

[5] Lisa Draga, Chandré Stuurman, and Demichelle Petherbridge, “Basic Education Rights Handbook – Education Rights in South Africa – Chapter 8: Pregnancy,” 2017, http://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Chapter-8.pdf.

[6] Department of Basic Education, “DBE Draft National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools,” 2018, https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Policies/Draft%20Pregna... (accessed August 15, 2018).

[7] Parliamentary Monitoring Group, “Inclusive Education: status update,” Basic Education Committee, October 30, 2019, https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/29205/.

[8] Republic of South Africa, Department of Basic Education, “Measures for the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy,” 2007, https://www.naptosa.org.za/doc-manager/40-professional/46-general/105-sg... (accessed August 17, 2018).

[9] Human Rights Watch, Letter to the Department of Basic Education regarding their draft pregnancy policy, August 16, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/08/15/letter-south-africas-department-basi....

[10] Department of Basic Education, “Basic Education Department releases scripted lesson plans to the public to allay fears regarding comprehensive sexuality education content,” November 13, 2019, https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/CSE%20Scripted%20lesson... (accessed February 6, 2020).

[11] IOL, “Advocacy group heads to court as 600 000 disabled school kids forced to stay at home,” September 26, 2019, https://www.iol.co.za/news/advocacy-group-heads-to-court-as-600-000-disa... Human Rights Watch, “South Africa Education Barriers for Children with Disabilities,” August 18, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/18/south-africa-education-barriers-chil....

[12] Department of Basic Education, “School fees and exemption,” undated, https://www.education.gov.za/Informationfor/ParentsandGuardians/SchoolFe....

[13] Human Rights Watch, “South Africa: Education Barriers for Children with Disabilities,” August 18, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/18/south-africa-education-barriers-chil... (accessed February 10, 2020).

[14] “School fees” are defined as “any form of contribution of a monetary nature made or paid by a person or body in relation to the attendance or participation by a learner in any programme of a public school,” South African Schools Act, Act No. 24 of 2005: Education Laws Amendment Act, 2005, http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/a24-05_0.pdf, ch. 1 and s. 1(b).

[15] South African Schools Act, s. 34.

[16] Department of Basic Education, “School Fees and Exemption – No Fee Schools”, undated, http://www.education.gov.za/Parents/NoFeeSchools/tabid/408/Default.aspx (accessed August 9, 2018).

[17] Department of Education, “National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” General Notice 2363, October 12, 1998, http://www.education.gov.za/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=ZYYtOiXHTeE%3D&tab... (accessed August 5, 2018); Department of Basic Education, “Amended National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” January 16, 2015, http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/38397_gon17.pdf (accessed August 5, 2018).

[18] See for example, “Western Cape No Fee School 2017,” https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Publications/2017%20No%... (accessed August 15, 2018)

[19] Human Rights Watch found that this is particularly the case in Gauteng and Western Cape provinces where special schools were traditionally set up to cater for white children with disabilities. Within Gauteng Province, many full-service schools are mainly in the outskirts of the city and the majority are Afrikaans speaking.

[20] Provincial Departments of Education are guided by a “Resource Targeting Table” to define needs-based allocations, “National Norms and Standards for school funding,” pp. 27-28. See Department of Basic Education, “Amended National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” Government Gazette no. 38397, 16 January 2015.

[21] Association for Women’s Rights in Development & Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, “Women Human Rights Defenders Confronting Extractive Industries: An Overview of Critical Risks and Human Rights Obligations,” pp. 10ss, https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/whrds-confronting_e... (accessed December 17, 2018).

[22] Human Rights Watch, “We Know Our Lives are in Danger”: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, April 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/04/16/we-know-our-lives-are-danger/envir... (accessed February 10, 2020).

[23] “Single Motherhood in South Africa,” The Borgen Project, https://borgenproject.org/single-motherhood-in-south-africa/ (accessed February 10, 2020).

[24] Gumboh, Esther, et al., “Victimisation Experiences of Activists in South Africa,” Centre for Applied Legal Studies, April 2018, p. 21ss, https://www.osf.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Centre-for-Applied-Leg....

[25] Human Rights Watch, “We Know Our Lives are in Danger”: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, April 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/04/16/we-know-our-lives-are-danger/envir... (accessed February 10, 2020).

[26] Association for Women’s Rights in Development & Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, “Women Human Rights Defenders Confronting Extractive Industries: An Overview of Critical Risks and Human Rights Obligations,” pp. 10ss, https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/whrds-confronting_e... (accessed December 17, 2018).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Brazil's Minister of Justice and Public Security, Sergio Moro, on May 15, 2019.

© 2019 Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil
Fires and deforestation in the Amazon captured the world’s attention in 2019 for good reason. Experts have long identified the Amazon forest as crucial to efforts to slow climate change. Some 29,944 square kilometers of it—an area about 20 times the size of the city of São Paulo—burned in August on live worldwide television. Preliminary data from Brazil's National Space Research Agency (INPE) shows that deforestation alerts in the Amazon increased by 85 percent in 2019 over the previous year.  

But the emergency in the Amazon cannot simply be solved by fighting fires or planting trees. It is a public security crisis, as Human Rights Watch documented in a 165-page report released in September. We found that illegal deforestation and violence in the Amazon are largely driven by organized criminal networks. Besides burning the forest and cutting trees illegally, they launder money, bribe public officials, and invade public lands. They are stealing the wealth of the Amazon rainforest, which belongs to all Brazilians.


Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven largely by criminal networks that use violence and intimidation against those who try to stop them, and the government is failing to protect both the defenders and the rainforest itself.

The criminal networks field armed militias who intimidate, attack, and sometimes kill both public officials and local people who step up to defend the forest. And they do so with impunity. More than 300 people died violently during the past decade in the context of conflicts over land and resources in the Amazon, says the non-profit Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, in Portuguese), which keeps the only figures. Suspects were brought to trial in only 14 cases.

We documented 28 killings, 4 attempted killings, and more than 40 cases involving death threats. Suspects in only two of the killings went to trial, and nobody was prosecuted for the death threats. 

This is a public-security emergency that requires urgent attention from one ministry that until now has not figured prominently in the public debate about the Amazon, the federal Justice Ministry.

Many of the crimes committed by the criminal networks in the region are under federal jurisdiction, because they occur in indigenous territories, conservation areas or other federal land. Even when these criminal networks commit crimes in areas under state jurisdiction, they are often federal crimes. In any case, the federal police, which comes under the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, has the investigative mandate, capacity and the duty to protect the federal patrimony.

Finally, the impunity with which forest mafias operate in the Amazon is largely the result of insufficient will within justice institutions at all levels to ensure that these cases are properly investigated and prosecuted. Changing this passivity will require real leadership within the justice sector. No one is in a better position to exercise this leadership than the justice minister, Sérgio Moro. Minister Moro should work in coordination with the federal attorney general and state authorities to devise an effective national plan to ensure that the violence and other crimes committed by those engaged in illegal logging are investigated and that those responsible are brought to justice. To do so, he may have to push back against his own government.

The Bolsonaro administration’s policies and rhetoric have only encouraged the mafias’ depredations and put the rainforest and its people at risk. President Jair Bolsonaro and  Environment Minister Ricardo Salles have disparaged not only environmental groups but the government’s own agencies, repeatedly making unsubstantiated accusations. They have weakened those same environmental agencies by cutting their budgets and removing experienced personnel. The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the country’s main federal environmental agency, reported imposing 25 percent fewer fines for illegal deforestation and related infractions from January through September of 2019 than in the same period in 2018. Such measures and the bombast only benefit the criminal networks. Small wonder that deforestation rose during President Bolsonaro’s first year.

In response to international pressure, President Bolsonaro announced this month the creation of the Amazon Council, to be headed by Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a retired general. The exact function of the Council remains uncertain. Vice President Mourão has met with Minister Moro, the media report, to discuss a new Environmental Police Force for the Amazon. The force is to be recruited from military police officers in various states. Mobilizing police in remote areas of the Amazon to fight deforestation would be important, but it is not the whole solution.

To be effective, any initiative will need to address impunity for illegal logging and violence. The new Environmental Police Force should provide security and support to IBAMA field agents, several of whom told Human Rights Watch they feel abandoned by the government and at risk of attack from criminal networks.

The new environment force will also need to grapple with past failures to investigate properly violence against those who protect the forest. That failure is at the heart of the impunity. It would be a waste of time, resources, and opportunity to deploy a new police force without providing for the support that state and federal police and prosecutors, need to obtain convictions.

The coming months will show whether the government’s new initiatives are mere window dressing to appease the international community. The destruction of the Amazon is likely to accelerate unless the government makes a fundamental shift in its approach toward both the mafias responsible for deforestation and the agencies, environmental groups, and local communities defending the forest. A substantial part of that shift will be up to Minister Moro. We shall see if he is ready to shoulder the responsibility of saving the Amazon.

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

A man fetches water from a disused quarry in Harare, October 1, 2019. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

On February 2, Zimbabwe joined global efforts to mark World Wetlands Day with the theme, “Wetlands and Biodiversity.” This comes at a time when environmental groups have raised concerns about the government’s poor protection of wetlands in the country, particularly in the capital, Harare, which faces a major water crisis. More than half of the city’s 4.5 million residents are without access to clean water and are at risk of waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

Wetlands are important for several reasons. They filter water by breaking down harmful pollutants including chemicals, separate them from the water, and use the chemicals as fertilizer for vegetation growing on the wetland. They are also natural sewage systems, filtering out waste and running clean water into rivers.

Since May 2013, Zimbabwe has been a party to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which seeks to protect and preserve wetlands. Local laws, including the 2006 Environmental Management Act and the Environmental Assessment and Ecosystem Protection Regulations of 2007, provide for the protection of wetlands. But not enough is being done to educate citizens, policymakers, and local and national government authorities on the importance of wetlands and on strengthening mechanisms for their protection. According to the local environmental group Harare Wetlands Trust, lack of appreciation of the importance of wetlands, coupled with poor urban planning and insufficient regulation, has resulted in the destruction of Harare’s wetlands through mostly illegal construction on wetlands that feed into Lake Chivero, Harare’s only water source. Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Mangaliso Ndlovu, last week complained that illegal housing construction projects on the wetlands in Harare and Chitungwiza had turned the wetlands into “concrete jungles.”

For Zimbabwe to fulfill its obligation to the right to clean water, which impacts the rights to health and life, the government needs to take urgent action to protect wetlands and stop the ongoing and unprecedented degradation putting them at serious risk.

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

An aerial view of one of Kiribati’s islands.

© Matthieu Rytz
Despite recent and increasing efforts by the United States and other governments to narrow their interpretations of the refugee definition and to shirk their protection responsibilities, the need to expand the grounds for asylum is becoming increasingly urgent as the consequences of climate change become more pronounced.

A desperate appeal for asylum by a family from a Pacific island may have far-reaching implications for protecting people forcibly displaced by the effects of climate change. It could cause countries around the world to reconsider their laws and policies concerning refugees.

The case involves the Teitiota family, who fled the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati in 2007 and sought asylum in New Zealand in 2013. Ms Teitiota told the New Zealand court that she feared for her children's health and wellbeing, that crops and coconut trees on the island were dying.


Anote's Ark Trailer - Sundance 2018

Trailer for the movie Anote’s Ark, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2018.

She explained that because of rising sea levels, people were moving from neighboring atols to Tarawa which led to overcrowding, frequent conflicts between residents and the spread of disease. She shared stories about children getting diarrhea and even dying because their already scarce drinking water had become contaminated.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court of New Zealand dismissed the case, saying the family did not meet the standards required by the Refugee Convention and deported them in 2015.

That same year, the father of the family filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, an independent expert body that monitors government compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. He claimed that New Zealand had violated his right to life under the covenant because the sea level rise had shrunk habitable space in Kiribati, resulting in violent land disputes and environmental degradation.

On January 7, the Committee issued its views, finding the threats to life posed by rising sea levels and other effects of climate change necessitate a broadening of refugee law. "The obligation not to extradite, deport or otherwise transfer pursuant to article 6 of the Covenant," the committee said, citing its provision on the right to life, "may be broader than the scope of non-refoulement under international refugee law, since it may also require the protection of aliens not entitled to refugee status."

The principle of non-refoulement is a cornerstone of international refugee law, barring the return of refugees - defined as people with a well-founded fear of being persecuted - to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

The committee noted that Kiribati will become uninhabitable within the next 10 to 15 years because of rising sea levels. Both sudden events, like storms, and slow processes, like salinization and land degradation, the committee said, "can propel cross-border movement of individuals seeking protection from climate-change related harm thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states."

Under a "moderate future scenario", scientists project that sea level rise in the next 30 years will put about 150 million people permanently below the high tide line. Although most of this displacement will not compel people to cross international borders, people living in countries like Kiribati, which are likely to become completely inundated, will have no choice but to seek asylum outside their country.

But Pacific islands are not alone in facing such threats. In landlocked countries like Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe, where populations are heavily reliant on agriculture and livestock, rising temperatures have contributed to flooding, drought, famine and disease that erode not only arable land but also the resilience of populations that have suffered armed conflict and human rights violations.

Whether environmental disasters are the direct cause of displacement or an aggravating factor in combination with violence, inequality, and poor governance, millions of people on the African continent have already been displaced internally or forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries because they consider staying at their homes a threat to their lives.

Because the committee held out hope that the government of Kiribati still has time to intervene to protect its citizens through relocation and other measures, it did not accept the family's claim that their rights had been violated, saying the risk to their lives was not imminent.

One of the dissenting committee members who ruled on this case, however, wrote that the family would "have no access to safe drinking water, which poses an imminent threat to their lives," while another said, "It would indeed be counterintuitive to the protection of life, to wait for deaths to be very frequent and considerable; in order to consider the threshold of risk as met."

While there still may be room to argue whether life-threatening threats are imminent in particular cases, the Human Rights Committee has recognized that fundamental refugee-protection principles need to be broadened now.

This means not only that our common understanding of what it means to be a refugee needs to change, but also that the 173 countries that are party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should ensure their asylum standards and procedures are adapted to protect all who face existential threats if returned to home countries that have become unlivable.

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

Mangroves in Haa Alifu Atoll, Maldives.

Photo credit: Ahuren/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

(New York) – The Maldives government should preserve a mangrove forest that helps protect local residents against increased risks from flooding and coastal erosion, Human Rights Watch said today. A large portion of the mangrove forest on the northern island of Kulhudhuffushi was previously destroyed to build an airport, and authorities are now considering plans to reclaim the remaining area for development after the island was upgraded to city status.

“The Maldives government will be putting more islanders at risk of their lives and livelihoods from flooding if they destroy more mangroves,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “The Maldives are already at serious risk from the effects of climate change, and the authorities should be taking urgent steps to protect island communities facing further harm.” 

Mangroves provide a natural protection against flooding, tsunamis, and other disasters. Kulhudhuffushi city has grown more vulnerable since 70 percent of the island’s mangroves were bulldozed to make way for a new airport in 2018. In December 2019, the island experienced serious flooding during heavy rains. Residents of Kulhudhuffushi told Human Rights Watch that flooding on the island has become more frequent and affects more homes than had been the case in previous years. They said areas adjacent to the destroyed natural mangrove buffers were the ones worst hit by the floods.

A 2017 environmental impact assessment had raised concerns about irreversible damage from the airport construction, as had local community activists, particularly women whose businesses depend on natural resources from the mangroves and adjacent palm forest. Despite these concerns, then-President Abdulla Yameen expedited the airport project before the 2018 presidential elections. Maldivian activists alleged that Thoriq Ibrahim, the environment minister at the time, overrode a decision by the Maldives Environmental Protection Agency, a quasi-independent government agency that reviews projects based on environmental impact assessment reports, not to issue a permit for the airport construction.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s government has pledged to ensure that environmental impact assessments are sound and their recommendations followed, but is currently considering a proposal to remove the remaining mangroves. In March 2019, the environment ministry accepted an offer by the Mangrove Action Project, an international nongovernmental organization, to help preserve the Kulhudhuffushi mangroves. Experts from the organization recommended that the government undertake conservation measures, including restoring the hydrology of the mangroves to protect the island from flooding.

The Maldives are one of the most vulnerable countries on earth to climate change, with the projected global sea-level rise potentially inundating many of its approximately 1,200 islands. With flooding, erosion, and other ecological disasters on the rise, mangrove forests and coral reefs are one of the Maldives’ most important natural protections against these extreme weather events.

“By adopting measures aimed at protecting Kulhudhuffushi’s remaining mangroves, Maldives authorities would signal a real commitment to protecting the island’s communities,” Gossman said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Workers march along a street to mark International Labor Day in Phnom Penh on May 1, 2019.

© 2019 Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images
(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government stepped up its crackdown on political opposition members and activists over the past year, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

At one point the government held nearly 90 political prisoners throughout the country, mostly people linked to the court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). From January until mid-2019, the authorities ordered over 150 court and police summonses against CNRP members and supporters.

“The Cambodian government’s crackdown on the political opposition kicked into overdrive in 2019, resulting in dozens of wrongful detentions,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Hun Sen’s repression of the opposition, media, and activist groups has effectively turned the country’s democracy into a one-party state.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

After exiled CNRP leaders announced that they would return to Cambodia on November 9, local officials brought spurious charges against over 100 former CNRP members and supporters, including plotting a coup, incitement, and discrediting judicial decisions; authorities jailed 65 of them.

The government put in place measures to block the CNRP’s return, including placing military units at Cambodian-Thai border checkpoints, issuing orders to arrest CNRP leaders, sending arrest warrants to 10 ASEAN countries, and instructing airlines to bar CNRP leaders from boarding flights to Cambodia.

On November 10, authorities lifted highly restrictive conditions of judicial supervision, amounting to house arrest, on the CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, though the politically motivated treason charges remain. Hun Sen made clear that Sokha’s case was going to trial, and that proceedings “will not only take a day or two, or a month or two – it will take a long time.” On December 2, the Phnom Penh court ordered the case to proceed to trial.

On November 14, Hun Sen announced that 72 detained CNRP members and supporters should be released on bail; 74 were released. However, none of the criminal charges against them were dropped.

The European Union initiated a formal review of Cambodia’s Everything but Arms (EBA) trade preferences. The EU’s confidential preliminary conclusion, sent to the Cambodian government on November 12, stated that Cambodia seriously and systematically violated the right to freedom of expression and other civil and political rights, and failed to protect labor rights.

“The EU sent Cambodia a clear signal that keeping EU trade benefits meant reversing recent repressive measures and revoking rights-abusing laws,” Robertson said. “Other foreign governments and donors should join the EU in pressing the Cambodian government to act, starting with the immediate and unconditional release of all detainees being held for the peaceful exercise of their basic rights.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This submission relates to the review of Guinea under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It focuses on the human rights implications of largescale mining and hydroelectric dams, forced relocation from land in Conakry, and the Safe Schools Declaration.

  1. Natural Resources (Articles 11, 12, 25)

Guinea possesses the world’s largest bauxite reserves, as well as large amounts of iron ore, gold, and diamonds.[1] Guinea’s bauxite sector has grown rapidly since 2015, with Guinea being the largest supplier of bauxite to China, the world’s largest aluminum producer.[2]

While Guinea’s bauxite boom provides much-needed tax revenue for the government and has created thousands of jobs, the government has failed to adequately regulate the industry and ensure companies respect the environment and the rights of local communities. Mining companies have expropriated ancestral farmlands without adequate compensation, threatening tens of thousands of people’s livelihoods.[3] Damage to water sources, as well as increased demand due to population migration to mining sites, has reduced communities’ access to water for drinking, washing, and cooking.[4] Dust produced by bauxite mining and transport has left families and health workers worried that reduced air quality threatens their health and environment.[5]

Guinea has also, since 2015, begun to more rapidly develop its enormous potential for hydroelectric power. Guinea opened the Kaleta dam in 2015, and is currently constructing at least three other hydropower dams, the most advanced of which, Souapiti, will be operational in 2020.[6] Hydropower projects have the potential to increase access to electricity in a country in desperate need of reliable power.[7] The Guinean government has so far failed, however, to adequately protect the rights of the thousands of people displaced by dams.

The more than 16,000 people to be displaced by Souapiti, for example, have received inadequate compensation or replacement land, leaving them struggling to feed their families, re-establish their livelihoods, and live with dignity.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of Guinea:

  • What steps is the government of Guinea taking to protect communities from the potentially negative impacts of bauxite and other forms of industrial mining?
  • What proportion of the electricity produced by new hydroelectric projects will be used for domestic consumption, including for essential services like schools and hospitals, and how much will be used by the mining industry or exported abroad?
  • What steps is the government of Guinea taking to ensure that communities displaced by hydroelectric dams are able to return to the standard of living they enjoyed prior to their displacement?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of Guinea to:

  • Enact detailed legislation to require that mining and hydroelectric companies provide fair compensation for land, including through replacement land where possible, to individuals and communities that lose land to natural resource exploitations;
  • Improve the access of affected communities and civil society organizations to environmental and social impact assessments, management plans, and other government and company data related to the human rights, social and environmental impacts of mining and other natural resource projects;
  • Ensure that government regulators investigate and sanction companies that violate Guinean laws regarding social and environmental management;
  • Adopt and fully implement the standards of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, a multi-stakeholder initiative by governments, major multinational extractive companies, and NGOs that seek to address the risk of human rights abuses arising from security arrangements in the oil, gas and mining industries.
  1. Forced Evictions (Article 11)

Between February and May 2019, the Guinean government forcibly evicted more than 20,000 people from neighborhoods in Conakry in order to provide land for government ministries, foreign embassies, businesses, and other public works.[8] The government provided inadequate notice to the majority of those evicted and no alternative housing for demolished homes.

Although the government maintains that the evicted areas were state land, many people said that they had documentary proof that their families had decades-old property rights over the land.[9] The government did not investigate the property claims of those affected before demolishing homes and has provided virtually no compensation or humanitarian assistance to those evicted.[10]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of Guinea to:

  • Halt any further evictions until it can guarantee respect for the rights of residents, including adequate notice, compensation, and resettlement prior to evictions;
  • Take immediate steps to provide assistance, including alternative accommodation and other remedies, to those affected by forced evictions;
  • Provide adequate compensation to all individuals forcibly evicted who have not received such compensation.

The Safe Schools Declaration (Article 13)

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict;[11] the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[12] As of January 2020, 101 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, including 27 of Guinea’s fellow African Union members.

In November 2019, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child urged all African Union member states to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, “realizing the dangers that the military use of schools poses.”[13] The African Union’s Peace and Security Council has also repeatedly urged all African Union member states to endorse the declaration.[14] Guinea, however, has yet to endorse this important declaration.[15]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of Guinea:

  • Are protections for schools from military use included in the pre-deployment training provided to Guinean troops participating in peacekeeping missions?
  • Do any Guinean laws, policies, or trainings provide explicit protection for schools and universities from military use during armed conflict?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of Guinea to:

  • Endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and take concrete measures to deter the military use of schools, including those in peacekeeping operations, some of which Guinea is supporting, and including by bringing the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict into domestic military policy and operational frameworks.

[1] Ministry of Mines and Geology, “Bauxite: Become a Leader in Global Production,” (Undated) http://mines.gov.gn/ressources/bauxite/ (accessed May 22, 2018).

[2] “China Aluminum Capacity Cuts Boost Market Leader, Prices,” Reuters, August 3, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-metals-aluminium/china-aluminum... (accessed March 20, 2018); “Chinese bauxite imports in February down by 13.4% MOM,” Asian Metal, March 27, 2018.

[3] Human Rights Watch, “’What Do We Get Out of It?’: The Human Rights Impact of Bauxite Mining in Guinea,” October 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/10/04/what-do-we-get-out-it/human-rights... (accessed January 1, 2020).

[4] Αristeidis Mertzanis, "The opencast bauxite mining in N.E. Ghiona: Ecoenvironmental impacts and geomorphological changes (Central Greece)," Journal of Geography and Regional Planning, vol. 5 (2011), pp. 21-35; Noor Hisham Abdullah et. al, “Potential Health Impacts of Bauxite Mining in Kuantan,” The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, vol. 23 (2016), pp. 1-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4934713/ (accessed March 26, 2018); Metro Mining Ltd, "Bauxite Hills Project: Initial Advice Statement," October 2015, https://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/management/impact-assessment/eisprocesses/doc... (accessed March 26, 2018), pp. 3-58.

[5]  “Tackling the global clean air challenge,” World Health Organization press release, accessed July 21, 2017, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2011/air_pollution_20110926.... World Health Organization, “Health Effects of Particulate Matter,” 2013, http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/189051/Health-effect... (accessed July 21, 2017), p. 6.

[6] At least two other dams are under construction – the 300 megawatt Amaria dam and the 300 MW Koukoutamba dam. “Présidence – Energie : La convention de concession du barrage Amaria signée," Guinée News, May 2, 2019, https://www.guineenews.org/presidence-energie-la-convention-de-concessio... (accessed January 5, 2020). “Sinohydro to build the 294 MW Koukoutamba dam in Guinea,” The International Journal on Hydropower & Dams, March 13, 2019, https://www.hydropower-dams.com/news/sinohydro-to-build-the-294-mw-kouko... (accessed January 5, 2020).

[7] In 2017, Guinea had a rate of electricity access of about 29 percent, below that year’s average for sub-Sahara Africa of 43 percent. World Bank (International Development Association), Guinea Electricity Access Scale Up Project Proposal, January 25, 2019, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/869041550631657109/pdf/Guinea-..., paras 7-8 (accessed November 18, 2019).

[8] Human Rights Watch, “Guinea: Draconian Forced Evictions: Thousands of Homes Razed in Capital; Residents Denied Aid, Compensation,” June 18, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/18/guinea-draconian-forced-evictions

[9] Ibid.

[10] International and African human rights instruments protect individuals and communities, including those with customary land tenure, from arbitrary interference with their rights to property and land. The UN Basic Principles on Evictions state that, irrespective of whether people hold title to property, they are entitled to compensation for lost land as well as for material damage and loss of earnings. See UN Human Rights Committee, “Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement,” A/HRC/4/18, p. 13.

[11] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikl... (accessed December 20, 2019).

[12] Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_... (accessed December 20, 2019).

[13] African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, “Outcome Statement for the Day of General Discussion on Children Affected by Armed Conflict,” November 26, 2019, https://www.acerwc.africa/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Outcome-Statement_-....

[14] African Union, Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’s 597th meeting on May 10, 2016: “Children in Armed Conflicts in Africa with particular focus on protecting schools from attacks during armed conflict;” Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’s 615th meeting on August 9,  2016: “Education of Refugees and Displaced Children in Africa;” Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the 692nd meeting on June 13, 2017, of the PSC dedicated to an Open Session on the theme: “Ending Child Marriages;” and Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the 706th meeting on July 26, 2017, of the PSC on the theme: “Child Soldiers/Out of School Children in Armed Conflict in Africa.”

[15] “Safe Schools Declaration Endorsements,” Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, http://www.protectingeducation.org/guidelines/support (accessed June 29, 2019).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Rashid Alimov’s protest in St. Petersburg against nuclear waste import, December 17, 2019.

© 2019 © Igor Podgorny / Greenpeace

As 2019 draws to a close, Russian authorities have spent the holiday season harassing environmental defenders taking part in protests across the country.

On December 16, police dispersed a protest camp near the city of Kazan, dragging people by their arms and legs. At least 16 people were fined or received 7 days detention for disobeying police orders and taking part in a “mass simultaneous presence of movement in public spaces.”

The protesters were attempting to delay construction of a waste incineration plant until the contractors make the project documents public, conduct an independent public environmental impact assessment, and hold public hearings as required by law. Instead, authorities sent the Special Police Forces (OMON).

The next day, in Saint Petersburg, authorities detained a Greenpeace Russia staffer, Rashid Alimov, for standing in a solo picket to protest Russia’s import of German nuclear waste. He stood next to 11 empty barrels bearing a nuclear hazard sign that read “Happy New Year” and was holding a placard that read “Russia is not a nuclear dump.” He is now awaiting trial on squatting charges.

On December 20, a court in Moscow sentenced youth climate activist Arshak Makichyan to six days in jail for an unauthorized peaceful protest in October. Since mid-March, Makichyan had been holding solo pickets weekly in Moscow’s center as part of the “Fridays for the Future” strike. Earlier in December, Makichyan spoke at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid with Greta Thunberg, whose example inspired his protest.

These three incidents are emblematic of the variety, scope, and urgency of the rising number of environmental protests in Russia throughout 2019. Protesters are voicing alarm at what they see as an environmental emergency from expansion or construction of new landfills and incineration plants, toxic waste management, nuclear waste imports, pollution from industrial production, natural resource extraction, forest fires, and many other pressing environmental issues. Throughout the year, many other peaceful protesters were arrested, beaten by private security guards or police, and fined, and many faced criminal charges.

But Russian activists appear determined to protect their right under article 42 of Russia’s constitution to a “favorable environment” – despite no indication of a holiday miracle for those arrested in December.

The courage and resilience of Russia’s environmental defenders gives hope that maybe the new year will bring positive change.

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

Drone view of a quilombo (Afro-Brazilian) community in Minas Gerais State, southeast Brazil. Some of the houses are around 20 meters from the adjacent sugarcane plantation.

© 2018 Marizilda Cruppé for Human Rights Watch
Brazil’s National Health Monitoring Agency (Anvisa) released a report on December 11 with concerning findings about the food Brazilians buy every day in their local market.

Anvisa technicians gathered more than 4,600 food samples from supermarkets in nearly every Brazilian state between August 2017 and June 2018 (only Paraná State opted out of the study.) They tested 14 foods popular with Brazilians: pineapples, lettuce, rice, garlic, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, chayote, guavas, oranges, mangoes, bell peppers, tomatoes, and grapes.

They found dangerous traces of pesticides, including some that are banned from sale in Brazil, in nearly one-quarter of the samples. 

Residues of the banned pesticide carbofuran, for instance, was found on many of the food samples. Health experts say carbofuran causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other acute poisoning symptoms. ANVISA prohibited carbofuran in 2017.

Another pesticide found in samples of lettuce is atrazine, which the European Union banned in 2003 because it interferes with reproduction and human development, and may cause cancer. It’s legal in Brazil, though.

Anvisa’s website spins the results, announcing that “plant foods are safe for the population to consume.” But the numbers and the science say otherwise.

Disturbingly, the study also shows that pesticide residue levels in these foods are rising rather than falling. This corresponds with a government-reported increase in pesticide use in recent years, as well as an increase in cases of acute poisonings from pesticide drift.

ANVISA’s study covers a period before President Jair Bolsonaro assumed office, but he has ushered in an era of deference to the powerful agribusiness lobby at the expense of the environment.

During his first year as president, he scaled back enforcement of environmental laws, weakened federal environmental agencies, and harshly criticized organizations and individuals working for environmental causes. As evidence of problems with pesticides mounts, the government is rushing to approve new pesticides or new brands of existing products.

New rules ANVISA passed within the last year designate the “risk of death” as the only criterion for classifying a pesticide as toxic. Members of Congress and supporters of Bolsonaro’s administration are pressing for policies that would weaken pesticide regulation even further. Congress this year considered a bill that would have crippled oversight, including by reducing the role of the environment and health ministries in approving pesticides. The bill didn’t pass, but you can bet that someone will reintroduce it.

Anvisa's report was published on Human Rights Day. One of the rights celebrated that day is the right to food, which includes the right to food safety. Another is the right to health, which depends on a decent, well-regulated food supply. Ensuring both these rights requires ensuring safe levels of toxins, bacteria, and other substances that can make food injurious to health.

 Brazil’s vast industrial farms depend on pesticides and herbicides. The pressure to deregulate is intense. But officials and lawmakers need to show courage and require safe farming standards to protect the rights to food and health of all Brazilians.

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

This submission focuses on the impact of lead pollution on children’s rights, and the protection of students, teachers, and schools during armed conflict. It relates to article 24, 28 and, 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Impact of Lead Pollution on Children’s Rights (article 24 and 31)

Lead exposure around the former lead and zinc mine in Kabwe, which operated from 1904 to 1994, is having disastrous effects on children’s health. More than one-third of the population of Kabwe, Zambia— over 76,000 people—live in lead-contaminated townships. Studies estimate that half of the children in these areas have elevated blood lead levels that warrant medical treatment.

At present, children living in nearby townships continue to be exposed to high levels of toxic lead in soil and dust in their homes, backyards, schools, play areas, and other public spaces. The Zambian government’s efforts to address the environmental and health consequences of the widespread lead contamination have not thus far been sufficient, and parents struggle to protect their children.

Children are especially at risk because they are more likely to ingest lead dust when playing in the soil, their brains and bodies are still developing, and they absorb four to five times as much lead as adults. The consequences for children who are exposed to high levels of lead and are not treated include reading and learning barriers or disabilities; behavioral problems; impaired growth; anemia; brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage; coma and convulsions; and death. After prolonged exposure, the effects are irreversible. Lead also increases the risk of miscarriage and can be transmitted through both the placenta and breastmilk.

Human Rights Watch conducted three field research missions to Zambia between June 2018 and April 2019 and found that government efforts to address lead pollution have been far from adequate. Human Rights Watch also found that government-run health facilities in Kabwe currently have no chelation medicine for treating lead poisoning or lead test kits in stock, and no health database has been established to track cases of children who died or were hospitalized because of high lead levels.

In December 2016, the government began a five-year World Bank-funded project to clean up lead-contaminated neighborhoods and conduct new rounds of testing and treatment. Government officials and World Bank representatives told Human Rights Watch that the government intended to start the remediation and health components later in 2019. The project is intended to carry out remediation to reduce lead exposure in at least three townships and includes plans for testing and treating at least 10,000 children, pregnant women, mothers, and other individuals.

In recent months, several activities have started, such as health worker training, the procurement of chelation medicine, and greater information-sharing about the project with the community and the public. The government also recently announced it would also include 10 schools in the project.

Human Rights Watch welcomes this project, but is concerned about the serious delays in implementation: Three years after the launch, the project is just starting to get off the ground. Community leaders and groups in Kabwe have expressed frustration about the process and told Human Rights Watch that they had been left in the dark.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch is concerned that that the project will not address the full scope of lead poisoning and contamination. In particular, the project does not address the source of the contamination, the mining waste. More than six million tons of mining waste are out in the open, and dust blows over nearby residential areas. If the source of the contamination is not addressed, the project risks not being sustainable.

Small-scale mining, that is mining with little or no machinery, is also a major issue and is now the main activity at the former Kabwe mine. Small-scale mining for lead is extremely hazardous, as residents risk getting exposed further to lead when adult family members work at the mine and return home with lead on their body, clothes, tools, or shoes. While the government has issued some licenses for mining, there are also unlicensed, illegal mining operations.

The government has also granted a large-scale mining license for much of the former mine area to the Berkeley Mineral Resources company. This company, together with its South African business partner Jubilee Metals, is planning to recover zinc, lead, copper, as well as the highly valuable metal vanadium. Jubilee Metals has bought a refinery right next to the former Kabwe mine for zinc processing, and has said it anticipates producing during 2020. Waste processing carries the risk of creating further problems by generating additional dust and polluting the water.[1]

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it call upon the government of Zambia to:

  • Develop a program for sustainable, comprehensive lead remediation, testing, and treatment in Kabwe. The program should be developed in conjunction with relevant ministries, affected communities, civil society groups, youth groups, and other relevant stakeholders. In particular:


  • Develop a remediation plan that will allow for long-term containment or removal of lead waste.
  • Ensure that private operations for reprocessing minerals are part of this plan and carefully scrutinized and monitored by the government for human rights and environmental impacts, including through environmental and social impact assessments.
  • Ensure that small-scale mining operations are licensed and regularly monitored for compliance with national laws and regulations.
  • Invite all households in contaminated townships to participate in the voluntary remediation program to clean both yards and home interiors.
  • Remediate all contaminated schools, play areas, health centers, and other public areas.
  • Pave roads in contaminated townships to reduce dust.
  • Conduct regular monitoring of soil and air lead levels in Kabwe, and publish the results.

Health and Education

  • Ensure that all children in Kabwe are given access to free testing and, as appropriate, free treatment for lead poisoning. Make sure that the initial round of testing and treatment reaches all children under the age of 5 as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women; and that children previously tested and found to have elevated lead levels are given access to follow-up testing and treatment.
  • Track lead poisoning in the Health Management Information System (HMIS) or develop a separate database for Kabwe to track cases of lead poisoning, including lead-related hospitalization and mortality.
  • Ensure children with disabilities and learning barriers in affected areas are tested for lead.
  • Provide accommodations and individual learning support for children with learning barriers.

Protection of Education During Armed Conflict (article 28)

Zambia was among the first countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, joining in May 2015.[2]

As of October 2019, Zambia is contributing 1007 troops to United Nations peacekeeping forces. Peacekeeping troops are required to comply with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations “UN Infantry Battalion Manual” (2012), which includes the provision that “schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”  Moreover, the 2017 Child Protection Policy of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support, and Department of Political Affairs notes: “United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes.”

Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • Are protections for schools from military use included in any policies, rules, or trainings for Zambia’s armed forces?

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it call upon the government of Zambia to:

  • Congratulate the government of Zambia on endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, thereby committing to use the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use in Armed Conflict.

[1] Human Rights Watch, We Have to Be Worried: The Impact of Lead Contamination on Children’s Rights in Kabwe, Zambia,(New York: Human Rights Watch, 2019) https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/08/23/we-have-be-worried/impact-lead-contamination-childrens-rights-kabwe-zambia

[2] The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict;  the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. See Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, Safe Schools Declaration, http://www.protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/safe_schools_declaration-final.pdf.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

December 10, 2019

The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor of New York State
NYS State Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224

Re: Senate bill S5343

Dear Governor Cuomo,

I write to you as the executive director of Human Rights Watch and a longstanding resident of New York state to urge you to sign Senate bill S5343, legislation that would ban the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos statewide. The bill is essential to protect New York’s children, farmworkers, and environment.

Human Rights Watch is a global human rights organization. Among our specialized teams are ones dedicated both to children’s rights and to the environment and human rights. We have documented exposure of children and workers to toxic substances in a range of countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and the United States.

In addition, we have reported on working conditions for farmworker women and children in various parts of the United States.[i] Under both federal and New York State labor laws, children as young as 12 can legally work as hired farmworkers.[ii] Our research has shown that child farmworkers are often exposed to toxic pesticides while they work.

Our 2014 report on hazardous child labor in US tobacco farming found more than half of the child farmworkers interviewed had been exposed to unknown pesticides while they worked. Many reported having suffered acute health effects immediately afterward including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath, burning of the eyes and nose, skin irritation, and redness and swelling of the mouth.[iii]

Pesticide exposure is harmful for farmworkers of all ages, but children are uniquely vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic exposures because their bodies are still developing, and they consume more water and food, and breathe more air, pound for pound, than adults.[iv]

Research has shown chlorpyrifos to be a particularly harmful to human health, especially when pregnant women or young children are exposed. Prenatal exposure has been linked to autism spectrum disorder, reduced IQ, and a range of disabilities in learning, memory, and attention in children.[v]

International human rights treaties affirm that all people have a right to the best possible standard of health. They also impose on governments the responsibility for safeguarding health, especially for children, and ensuring that workers are protected from exposure to harmful chemicals. That’s why banning chlorpyrifos is a human rights imperative.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on governments to ban chlorpyrifos, given the strong evidence of its dangers to public health and the environment. We welcomed recent action by the European Union to ban use of the pesticide. We denounced the Trump administration’s decision not to ban chlorpyrifos. Given that absence of federal regulation, state laws are essential for curbing use of this hazardous chemical.

We understand that some lobbying groups have opposed the bill, calling instead for regulation of chlorpyrifos through the Department of Environmental Conservation.[vi] A regulatory approach could take years, be challenged by industry in court, and leave some chlorpyrifos in use.

By signing the bill to ban chlorpyrifos, you have an opportunity to protect New Yorkers now and for generations to come. I urge you to show your commitment to public health, human rights, and the environment by signing the bill to ban chlorpyrifos.


Kenneth Roth

Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

[i] Human Rights Watch, Fingers To the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers, June 2000, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/frmwrk006.pdf; Human Rights Watch, Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture, May 2010, https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/05/05/fields-peril/child-labor-us-agricu... Human Rights Watch, Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, May 2012, https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/05/15/cultivating-fear/vulnerability-imm... Human Rights Watch, Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, May 2014, https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/05/13/tobaccos-hidden-children/hazardous... Human Rights Watch, Teens of the Tobacco Fields: Child Labor in United States Tobacco Farming, December 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/12/09/teens-tobacco-fields/child-labor-u....

[ii] US Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, “State Child Labor Laws Applicable to Agricultural Employment,” January 1, 2019, https://www.dol.gov/whd/state/agriemp2.htm#NewYork.

[iv] Catherine Karr, “Children's Environmental Health in Agricultural Settings,” Journal of Agromedicine, vol. 17, no. 2, (2012), p. 128.

[v] See, for example, Irva Hertz-Picciotto et al., “Organophosphate exposures during pregnancy and child neurodevelopment: Recommendations for essential policy reforms,” PLoS Medicine, vol. 15, no. 10 (2018), https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1....

[vi] Dean Casey, “Viewpoint: Pesticide ban will hurt state's farming industry,” Times Union, November 21, 2019, https://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Viewpoint-Pesticide-ban-will-....

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Flooded streets in Haadhaal Kulhudhuffushi, Maldives on December 1, 2019.

© 2019 Adam Isham

To most of the world, the Maldives are a tempting tourist destination, with over 1,192 islands of coral reefs and pristine beaches.

But the Maldivian government has long ignored its own environmental regulations and the needs of communities in developing these precarious, low-lying islands.

Foreigners generally only see the luxury resorts, not the islands where most Maldivians live. During a torrential downpour this month while I was on Kulhudhufushi, the island flooded within hours. Residents rushed to bolster embankments with sandbags and dig channels to clear waterlogging.

As the waters receded, residents told me that flooding now happens more frequently and affects more homes than anything like in previous years. In the past, mangroves provided a natural protection against flooding. Kulhudhufushi, they said, has grown more vulnerable since 70 percent of the island’s mangroves were bulldozed to make way for a new airport. Areas adjacent to the destroyed natural mangrove buffers were worst hit by the floods.  

An environmental impact assessment had already raised concerns over the airport, as had local community activists I met who were worried about the impact on local livelihoods, particularly for women who depend on resources from the mangroves and adjacent palm forest. Despite these concerns, the airport project was expedited by then-President Abdulla Yameen before the 2018 presidential elections. Maldivian activists alleged that the environment minister at the time pressured the Maldives Environmental Protection Agency to issue the permit despite objections from local residents.

Yameen was defeated in the 2018 elections, and President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s government has pledged to ensure that environmental assessments are sound, and their recommendations followed. But the large-scale removal and destruction of trees on inhabited islands continues.

The Maldives are one the most vulnerable countries on earth to climate change, with the projected global sea-level rise potentially inundating many of its islands. While not responsible for global climate change, the Maldives and other small island nations will bear the brunt of the resulting devastation.

With flooding, erosion, and other ecological disasters on the rise, the Maldives are running out of time to save their island communities. President Solih’s government can’t ignore the evidence of the high human cost of environmental abuse.

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

Farmworkers harvest apples on a farm in New York.

© 2015 AP Photo/Mike Groll
(New York) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo defended children, workers, and the environment by directing the state Department of Environmental Conservation on December 10, 2019 to ban the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, Human Rights Watch said today. The governor told the department to immediately prohibit all aerial spraying of chlorpyrifos and to enact regulations to ban all uses except for the spraying of apple tree trunks by December 2020. The governor mandated a ban of all uses, including for apple tree trunks, by July 2021.
A bill to ban the pesticide passed through the New York state legislature in April with strong bipartisan support. The governor vetoed the bill on December 10, choosing instead to mandate new regulations. Human Rights Watch urged the governor to sign the bill, warning that a regulatory approach could leave some chlorpyrifos in use and in other ways be less protective than legislation.
“Governor Cuomo stood up for public health and human rights by restricting the use of toxic chlorpyrifos,” said Margaret Wurth, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Human Rights Watch and other advocates are ready to hold him to his promise to ban the use of this pesticide entirely by July 2021.”
Earlier in 2019, the Trump administration announced that it would not ban chlorpyrifos, despite the evidence that it is a danger to human health. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, is leading a coalition of state attorneys general in suing the federal government for its inaction on chlorpyrifos. Several members of Congress from New York are working to pass a national ban on chlorpyrifos.
Governor Cuomo’s directive makes New York the third state in the United States to restrict use of the chemical, which has been shown to harm brain development in children. Hawaii passed a law to ban the chemical by 2022, and California announced a ban to take effect in 2020.
The European Union announced on December 6 that it will ban chlorpyrifos beginning in 2020, after the European Food Safety Authority concluded that no amount of chlorpyrifos exposure was safe.
More than 80 other organizations supported the New York state bill to ban chlorpyrifos, including the New York state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, representing more than 5,000 state pediatricians.
The Farm Bureau, a lobbying group that represents the agricultural industry, urged the governor to veto the bill and pursue regulations, the approach he ultimately adopted. A spokesperson for the New York Farm Bureau told Bloomberg Environment that the governor’s veto showed he “understands that there are new threats from invasive species to agriculture production and a permanent legislative ban would have ruled out all future use [of chlorpyrifos] should it be needed.”
Human Rights Watch opposes any use of chlorpyrifos, given the evidence of its dangers to human health.
Human Rights Watch has documented the exposure of children and workers to toxic substances in a range of countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. In the US, Human Rights Watch found that children working in agriculture are often exposed to pesticides and reported acute health effects after exposure, including vomiting, nausea, dizziness, and headaches. Pesticide exposure is harmful for farmworkers of all ages, but children are uniquely vulnerable because their bodies and brains are still developing.
Research has shown chlorpyrifos to be particularly harmful to human health. Prenatal exposure has been linked to autism spectrum disorder, reduced IQ, and a range of disabilities in learning, memory, and attention in children. In adults, it has been linked to cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Prior to the governor’s announcement, chlorpyrifos was approved for dozens of uses including on food crops such as apples, corn, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower, and on golf courses.
“While the Trump administration disregards science and refuses to ban chlorpyrifos, Governor Cuomo and New York’s leaders are fighting to protect the public from a pesticide that can cause serious and irreparable harm,” Wurth said. “President Trump should follow suit and ban this toxic chemical.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am