Click to expand Image Sam Rainsy talks with media at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, November 9, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should immediately end politically motivated trials of opposition politicians and quash recent convictions, Human Rights Watch said today. The harassment and prosecutions by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen are part of a continuing effort to prevent the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from participating in future elections and the country’s political life.

On March 1, 2021, the Phnom Penh municipal court convicted in absentia nine exiled leaders of the dissolved CNRP on charges of “attempt to commit felony” and “attack” under articles 27 and 451 of Cambodia’s penal code. The case concerns unfounded allegations that all nine attempted to stage a coup by announcing their plans to return to Cambodia on November 9, 2019.

“The politically motivated trial and sentencing of Sam Rainsy and other exiled opposition leaders to decades in prison so they can never return to Cambodia is a page torn from the dictator’s playbook,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments in Japan, Europe, and the United States should recognize the depths of Cambodia’s human rights crisis and impose targeted sanctions against the government officials responsible.”

The court sentenced Sam Rainsy, the acting CNRP leader, to 25 years in prison, and deputy leaders Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang to 22 years each. CNRP leaders Tioulong Saumura, Men Sothavrin, Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, Long Ry, and Nuth Romduol received sentences of 20 years each. The court imposed total combined fines of 1.8 billion riel (US$440,000) and stripped all nine of their rights to vote, run for office, and serve as a public official.

Click to expand Image Mu Sochua speaks during an interview in London, November 16, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo

The court provided local nongovernmental organizations monitoring the trial with inaccurate information about the date of the verdict hearing. They were never informed of the actual date and, consequently, no trial monitors were in the courtroom on March 1.

In contrast to the hasty trial of the nine political opposition leaders in violation of their due process rights, the authorities have continued to delay the trial of the CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who has faced unsubstantiated, politically motivated treason charges since September 2017. The Phnom Penh court informed Sokha, who is banned from resuming his role in the CNRP, that his case was not considered a priority and his trial was unlikely to resume in 2021. Presiding Judge Kouy Sao stated in a letter to Sokha’s lawyers on February 2 that the court “has been busy with the criminal cases of the charged and accused who are detained in overcrowded prisons.”

As all nine newly convicted opposition leaders are abroad, the postponement of Sokha’s case contradicts the court’s claim that it was prioritizing hearings of suspects in pretrial detention, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Union condemned the verdict against the nine opposition leaders, noting that the “accused were not allowed to return to the country to defend their cases in court, in what appears to be a violation of due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law.”

In recent years, Cambodian authorities have banned the CNRP and staged political trials of dozens of party leaders. In 2021, the government has started a series of mass trials against opposition figures based on their political affiliation and against activists engaged in peaceful activism and expression. Human Rights Watch has documented the cases of over 75 political prisoners, including opposition members, youth and environmental activists, trade union leaders, and journalists. Many activists have fled the country because they feared arrest and sought refugee protection abroad.

Ahead of the exiled opposition leadership’s announcement of their intention to return to Cambodia on November 9, 2019, the authorities arrested at least 125 former CNRP members and activists who expressed support for their return. While the authorities released at least 74 on bail in December 2019, the baseless charges were never dropped. An increasing number have since been rearrested and are in pretrial detention.

“The prosecutions of senior opposition figures are the cutting edge of Hun Sen’s latest crackdown on dissent, with many more trials scheduled in which guilty verdicts and long prison sentences are a foregone conclusion,” Robertson said. “Legislators around the world should denounce the unjust case against Sam Rainsy and his colleagues, and speak out in support of democracy and human rights in Cambodia.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 10:41 pm
Click to expand Image Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto, left, speaks to media after a video conference with the IOC executive board in Tokyo, Japan, February 24, 2021.  © 2021 Takashi Aoyama/Pool Photo via AP

(Tokyo) – The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) should support LGBT nondiscrimination legislation to protect everyone in Japan from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, seven members of TOCOG’s Human Rights, Labor, and Participation Committee said.

In a February 26, 2021 letter to TOCOG’s new president, Seiko Hashimoto, the committee members urged TOCOG, as well as the Japanese Olympic Committee and Japanese Paralympic Committee, to promote passage of an anti-discrimination law during the current National Diet session ahead of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games scheduled for this summer. 

February 26, 2021 Letter to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the Japanese Paralympic Committee from the TOCOG Human Rights, Labour, and Participation Committee members February 26, 2021 Letter to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the Japanese Paralympic Committee from the TOCOG Human Rights, Labour, and Participation Committee members

 

“Japan’s national government should enact an anti-discrimination law in keeping with the Olympic Charter’s ban on ‘discrimination of any kind,’ including sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch and a member of the TOCOG Human Rights, Labor, and Participation Committee. “TOCOG’s sustainability and human rights experts urge TOCOG’s new president to support passage of an LGBT Equality Law before the Tokyo Games to bring Japanese law in line with international standards.”

Tokyo was slated to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government postponed the games for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Games are advertised as celebrating “unity in diversity” and “passing on a legacy for the future.” Japan should enact a national anti-discrimination law to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in accordance with international human rights standards. Human Rights Watch, along with 115 human rights and LGBT organizations, also sent a letter to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on January 25 in support of such legislation.

Hashimoto was elected TOCOG’s president on February 18, after the previous president, former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, resigned over his discriminatory comments against women earlier in the month. On February 24, Hashimoto announced a new gender equality team at the TOCOG, and stated that “Gender equality and women’s empowerment is going to be something that will be promoted.”

A 2020 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks Japan next to last for laws on LGBT Inclusiveness for developed countries. It says that: “LGBTI-inclusive laws are particularly critical for creating a culture of equal treatment of LGBTI individuals. One cannot expect to improve the situation of sexual and gender minorities if, to begin with, the law does not protect them against abuses or excludes them from social institutions.”

Although the Tokyo Metropolitan Government adopted an ordinance that protects LGBT people from discrimination in line with the Olympic Charter in October 2018, many Tokyo Olympic competitions, including the marathon, race walk, golf, fencing, and surfing, will take place outside of Tokyo, in Hokkaido, Saitama, Chiba, Shizuoka, Kanagawa, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Ibaraki prefectures. Foreign and Japanese LGBT athletes, officials, workers, and fans will expect to be protected from discrimination.

In his October 2020 message for the opening of Pride House, a facility to build awareness and support for LGBT rights, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said that he hoped the facility “will be successful and become a legacy of the Tokyo Games.”

“The Tokyo Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games represent an unrivaled opportunity for Japan to bring its laws into compliance with international nondiscrimination standards,” Doi said. “The TOCOG, Japanese Olympic Committee, and Japanese Paralympic Committee should act together to support Japan’s government to meet the expectations of the International Olympic Committee and thousands of visiting athletes and fans by passing an LGBT equality law.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 7:00 pm
Click to expand Image Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the first meeting of the defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counter-terrorism alliance in the capital Riyadh on November 26, 2017. © 2017 Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

A United States intelligence report released last week adds further evidence to what many have long suspected: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, had approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet despite the report’s findings, the Biden administration has failed to live up to its campaign promise to hold MBS accountable.

Human Rights Watch and 41 other organizations are calling on President Joe Biden to impose sanctions available under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on officials at the highest levels of Saudi leadership, including MBS.

The Magnitsky Act and related powers allow US authorities to sanction foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses or been involved in significant corruption. In November 2018, US authorities used it to sanction 17 Saudi officials in connection with their alleged role in the Khashoggi murder. Last week, the US also announced visa restrictions on an additional 76 Saudis because they “threaten[ed] dissidents overseas, including [about] but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”

Saudi authorities have continued to systematically target dissidents and subject them to trials marred by lack of due process and credible torture allegations. Some laws-of-war violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen amount to war crimes. As crown prince and defense minister, MBS acts as the day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia with near-total control over its security and military apparatus and economic and political affairs.

Last week’s intelligence report provides President Biden the opportunity to demonstrate his leadership by following through on his human rights pledges. In addition to powers granted under the Magnitsky Act, the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act would require US authorities to issue an entry ban on MBS given his direct involvement in “significant corruption” and “gross violation[s] of human rights.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and others have urged President Biden to remain “consistent” with US human rights policy and take bolder action against MBS. Several members of Congress have drafted bills that would impose sanctions on MBS and others.

President Biden should demonstrate that respect for human rights is central to his foreign policy. Imposing sanctions and travel bans on MBS and other Saudi officials should be the minimum response. The recent temporary freeze on US arms sales to Saudi Arabia should also be extended until authorities stop committing abuses in Yemen and hold officials who have committed or overseen war crimes to account.

Arwa Youssef is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a Human Rights Watch staff member.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image “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.

A bill to prevent agricultural goods grown on illegally deforested land from entering the US market will be introduced in the US Congress, Senator Brian Schatz announced today. Beef, palm oil, soy, cocoa, and their derivatives are found in products that US consumers buy every day. They are all commodities associated with rights abuses and the destruction of forests – ecosystems that absorb and store carbon and that are vital to mitigating climate change.

The law would require US businesses to take steps to verify that the commodities they import did not originate from illegally deforested land, including forested land cleared in violation of legal protections for the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Senator Schatz’s announcement that he will introduce the bill comes as Human Rights Watch and 28 other civil society organizations released an open letter calling on the administration of President Joe Biden and Congress to tackle the US footprint on the world’s forests and emphasizing the importance of regulating commodities supply chains. “Voluntary initiatives and corporate commitments haven’t done enough to curb deforestation over the past decade,” the letter said. “Government leadership and regulatory frameworks are needed to drive systemic change.”

Human Rights Watch research has shown how several of the commodities that drive deforestation are linked to egregious rights violations.

In Indonesia, the establishment and expansion of oil palm plantations has adversely affected Indigenous people’s rights to their lands, livelihoods, and culture. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, oil palm plantations are rife with labor rights abuses. In Brazil, violent criminal networks drive illegal deforestation in the Amazon, and threaten and kill defenders who stand in their way. Fires are often set in the rainforest to clear land for cattle-grazing and agriculture, poisoning the air millions of people breathe. Altogether, these countries hold about half of the world’s rainforests.

The bill would be a major step in the right direction for climate action by requiring businesses to ensure their operations do not fuel the destruction of crucial ecosystems. It is also a major step in protecting US consumers from unwittingly contributing to human rights abuses and environmental degradation through their shopping bags. The Biden administration should build support for it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 1:48 pm
Click to expand Image Migrants on a boat that they tried to take to Italy, after being detained at a Libyan Navy base in Tripoli on September 20, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

As the pandemic consumes Europe’s attention, a struggle for survival is taking place in the central Mediterranean.

Since the start of 2021, at least 185 people have died in the stretch of waters between north Africa and Italy. Italian and European Union (EU) policies are costing lives at sea and condemning many others to suffering in Libya.  

The central Mediterranean has long been the deadliest migration route in the world, with over 17,400 lives lost between 2014-2020. Last month, the UN Human Rights Committee found that Italy had failed to respond to a boat in distress in 2013, causing the death of at least 200 people, including 60 children. While Italy had direct primary responsibility in that case, the EU as a whole, bears responsibility for the tremendous death toll at sea.

EU institutions and states have progressively abdicated responsibility for search and rescue in these treacherous waters. The EU naval mission deliberately patrols away from areas where it might encounter boats in distress. Non-governmental rescue organizations that try to fill the gap face smear campaigns, administrative obstacles, and even prosecution. Italy, Malta, and the EU border agency, Frontex, seem more interested in helping Libyan forces intercept boats than ensuring timely rescues and disembarkation in a safe port.

In the past two months, the Libyan coast guard intercepted at least 3,700 people and returned them to Libya, where they face indefinite, arbitrary detention and the real risk of sexual violence, torture, forced labor, and extortion. The number is significantly more than those taken back during the same period in 2020.

Everyone agrees that Libya is not a safe place, but that hasn’t stopped the EU from funneling money and technical support to the abusive coast guard units nominally under authorities in western Libya. In the past five years, that support has allowed Libyan forces to intercept and send back to Libya over 66,000 people.

This cycle of suffering and death can be averted. The European Commission and EU countries should ensure robust EU governmental search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean and support, not obstruct, other rescue efforts. They should also enact international cooperation agreements to minimize the number of people disembarked in Libya and evacuate more people directly from Libya to save them from the deadly journey. Ultimately, the best way to saves lives is to expand safe and legal channels for refugees and other migrants.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. © AP Photo/Jeenah Moon

There have been nine United Nations secretaries-general over the past 75 years, from all corners of the earth. But they’ve had one thing in common—they’ve all been men.

“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” That’s UN Sustainable Development (SDG) Goal Five. “End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.” That’s the first target for Goal Five. The UN is responsible for helping every country achieve that target by 2030.

That effort should start in the UN’s own house.

It’s time to choose the next “SG.” António Guterres, a veteran diplomat, former UN high commissioner for refugees and ex-prime minister of Portugal, has been in the job since 2017 and seeks a second term. The process for selecting the SG changed in 2015, becoming more transparent and inclusive. Campaigns including 1 for 7 Billion, of which Human Rights Watch is a member, want further reforms.

Several countries — China, Germany, and the United Kingdom — endorsed a second term for Guterres before more candidates emerged. In 2015, the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council called for member states to nominate women; this year they did not. But because of the 2015 changes, it is more likely candidates can come forward to run against the incumbent. A woman working for the UN, Arora Akanksha, announced her candidacy in February, drawing attention, again, to the lack of women in the role. In 2016, there were seven women candidates and six men.

Human Rights Watch is calling for competition and gender diversity in the candidate pool. Both Guterres and the General Assembly president voiced support for a transparent selection process this year. All UN member states committed to gender equity should consider presenting and supporting strong female candidates, an approach 1 for 7 Billion supports. With a diverse candidate pool in place, member states should select the most qualified candidate.

We are facing a crisis in women’s rights. The Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affects women; the UN predicts it will push 47 million more women and girls into poverty, and drive 13 million additional child marriages over the next 10 years. We need SDG Goal Five to be a reality, and the UN’s ability to help lead the world out of this crisis is undermined as long as gender equity is missing – from bottom to top.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 3:00 am

As 2020 drew to a close, protesters across South Asia took to the streets, calling on their governments to take widespread sexual violence against women and children seriously, and to implement real reforms. But rather than listening to experts and activists, some governments reacted with knee-jerk populist calls to execute rapists. Others simply waited for the protests to die down.

As international attention waned, women and children across the region continued to face alarming levels of sexual violence with little support or legal recourse. In February 2021, in a case disturbingly similar to those that sparked protests in October, a group of men reportedly dragged a woman to a field in Jessore, Bangladesh, and gang raped her. In India, on March 1, protests reignited when the body of a 16-year-old Dalit girl was found in Aligarh. Police said they suspected attackers made an attempt to sexually assault the girl before she was killed. In Nepal, protesters returned to the streets after a 17-year-old girl was raped and strangled to death. Her body was found a day later near her village in west Nepal. Some protesters wore black over their eyes to symbolize the government closing its eyes to sexual violence.

International Women’s Day on March 8 should be a reminder to South Asian governments to stop ignoring the region’s rape problem and to start listening to activists. When protests broke out in late 2020, Human Rights Watch spoke with activists across the subcontinent about what governments should do to end widespread violence against women and girls.  The consensus was clear: the death penalty for perpetrators doesn’t solve the problem. Instead, governments should ensure adequate access to health, psychosocial, legal, and support services. They should reform and enforce laws that protect everyone, and train law enforcement and court officials to work with and support victims of gender-based violence. Schools should provide comprehensive sexuality education to address sex, consent, gender equity, and healthy relationships.

This International Women’s Day, governments should believe women saying there is a problem, and listen to their solutions.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 2:00 am
Click to expand Image Paul Omozemoje Enagameh of Nigeria who was arrested and forcibly disappeared in The Gambia in 2005. © photo courtesy of Enagameh family

(Banjul) – A Nigerian man whose brother was among about 59 West African migrants killed in Gambia in 2005 by a paramilitary unit controlled by then-president Yahya Jammeh, told Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) on March 2, 2021 that he wants to see those responsible brought to justice. Gambian and international human rights groups have been monitoring the commission hearings, which began in January 2019.

Kehinde Enagameh testified that his brother, Paul Omozemoje Enagameh, then 28, was found to be missing in 2005 while seeking to migrate to Europe. Kehinde Enagameh later learned from a friend that Gambian authorities had arrested and killed his brother. But for many years he was unable to learn any more, until the killing of the migrants received international attention in recent years.

“Since my brother went missing 15 years ago, we have been searching for the truth about what happened to him. It’s been painful and traumatic for the whole family,” Kehinde Enagameh said. “I want Yahya Jammeh and those involved in my brother’s killing to be brought to justice.”

Paul Enagameh was one of nine Nigerians killed in the massacre, according to a 2008 report by the Nigerian High Commission in Gambia. Most of the other Nigerian victims have not been identified.

In addition to the Nigerians, about 44 Ghanaians, and nationals of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo are believed to have been killed over several days in July 2005. On February 25, a former senior officer of Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency testifying at the truth commission presented a list of 51 migrants who had been arrested, the first time that an official list of the arrested migrants has been produced. That list, which includes a “John Amase” from Nigeria, was apparently compiled after eight other migrants, including several Nigerians, had already been killed.

A 2018 report by Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International, based on interviews with 30 former Jammeh-era officials, found that Jammeh’s closest associates in the army, the navy, and the police detained the migrants. Then the “Junglers,” a unit of Gambian soldiers operating under Jammeh’s orders, summarily executed them. In July 2019, three former Junglers testified publicly before the truth commission that they and 12 other Junglers had carried out the killings on Jammeh’s orders. One of the officers, Omar Jallow, recalled that the operation’s leader told the men that “the order from … Jammeh is that they are all to be executed.”

Previous official attempts to investigate the massacre have been stymied or flawed. Ghana attempted to investigate the killings in 2005 and 2006, but was blocked by the then-Jammeh government. In 2008, the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) formed a joint investigative team, which produced a report in April 2009 that was said to have concluded that the Gambian government was not “directly or indirectly complicit” in the deaths and enforced disappearances. It blamed “rogue” elements in Gambia’s security services “acting on their own” for the massacre. The UN/ECOWAS report has never been made public, however, despite repeated requests by the victims and by five UN human rights experts. 

The Gambian truth commission has also heard testimony that former president Jammeh participated in the rape and sexual assault of women brought to him, forced HIV-positive Gambians to give up their medicine and put themselves in his personal care, and was responsible for ordering the killing and torture of political opponents and “witch hunts” in which hundreds of women were arbitrarily detained.

Human rights groups said that the hearings highlight the need for a criminal investigation and appropriate prosecutions of Jammeh and others who bear the greatest responsibility for the serious crimes committed by his government. Jammeh has lived in exile in Equatorial Guinea since his departure from Gambia in January 2017.

“We are going to locate the family of John Amase, whose identity has just been disclosed for the first time at the TRRC, and we will search for the identity of the remaining seven Nigerian migrants,” said Femi Falana, senior advocate of Nigeria, who represents the Enagameh family. “Yahya Jammeh may now be ensconced in Equatorial Guinea but sooner or later he is going to be held accountable.”

To watch Kehinde Enagameh’s statement to the truth commission, please visit:
https://www.facebook.com/QTVGM/videos/828078891109019

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 2, 2021, 6:00 pm
Click to expand Image Sri Lankan municipal cemetery workers carry the coffin of a Covid-19 virus victim for cremation in Colombo, Sri Lanka, December 21, 2020.  © 2020 Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via AP

The Sri Lankan government’s announcement that it would finally end its medically baseless policy of “forced cremation” of people who die with Covid-19 was welcomed by Muslim families, who for religious reasons bury their dead. But the government then added a gratuitous requirement that burials take place on the small northwestern island of Iranaitivu, which is principally inhabited by Catholic Tamils who have struggled to reoccupy their land for decades after the Sri Lankan navy seized it in 1992. 

Following months of condemnation from Sri Lankan religious leaders of all faiths, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), health specialists, and United Nations rights experts, the government announced the climb-down when faced with a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. The government seemingly sought to dissuade OIC member countries from supporting the resolution, which aims to advance accountability for past rights violations and prevent future abuses.

By decreeing that burials now take place on Iranaitivu, instead of in regular cemeteries around the country, the government has replaced one measure targeting grieving Muslim families with another. It has also needlessly linked this issue to a separate matter involving another vulnerable group – the people of the island who have struggled for decades to return to their homes.

President Gotabaya Rajapasaka’s Sinhala nationalist government has since taking office in November 2019 adopted discriminatory policies and practices against the country’s Muslim and Tamil minorities. The authorities have subjected Tamils to bans on memorial events, the destruction of war memorials, and increasing encroachment on Hindu temples.

The Rajapaksa administration has built on earlier harassment and attacks against Muslims. When nationalist mobs attacked Muslims in 2018, hate speech on social and mainstream media spread false rumors that Muslims were conspiring to sterilize Buddhist women, leading to the arrest of a Muslim doctor, and boycotts of Muslim restaurants. Following the ISIS-inspired Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, women wearing Islamic dress were denied access to public buildings. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, pro-government media accused Muslims of deliberately spreading the virus.

The ratcheting-up of abuses against Sri Lanka’s minorities make it vital that the UN Human Rights Council adopt a strong resolution at its current session. The Sri Lankan government’s cruel, gratuitous, and arbitrary policies won’t end until the rest of the world speaks out.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 2, 2021, 5:41 pm
Click to expand Image Renu Begum, eldest sister of Shamima Begum, 15, holds her sister's photo as she is interviewed by the media at New Scotland Yard, London, England, February 22, 2015. © 2015 Laura Lean/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s highest court delivered a shocking blow to justice when it ruled that Shamima Begum, who was just 15 when she left for Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS), could not return to Britain to challenge the government’s stripping of her citizenship. This was despite the Supreme Court accepting that she could not have a fair hearing while detained in northeast Syria.

Instead, the Court ruled that her due process rights are indefinitely suspended until she can play “an effective part in her appeal without the public’s safety being compromised,” but gave no indication of when that might be and left the decision in the hands of the government. This leaves Begum stuck in a detention camp in northeast Syria where thousands are held without any legal basis, in conditions so dire they amount to inhumane treatment or even torture.

An estimated 50 other British women and children have been held since 2019 in Al Hol and Roj detention camps without charge or trial. The dire conditions there may have led to the death of Begum’s newborn son in 2019 and have taken the lives of hundreds of other children including at least three who burned to death in a tent fire just days ago. Despite repeated requests from the Kurdish authorities who control northeast Syria, including these detention camps holding suspected ISIS-associated women and children, the UK government has refused to repatriate most of the British citizens held there except for six unaccompanied children.

With the Supreme Court’s blessing, the UK government has left Begum de-facto stateless and prevented her from effectively challenging the decision that did so. If Begum did commit crimes during her time with ISIS, she should be brought home and given a fair trial. This ruling and her continued detention make this impossible.  

The UK Government should heed growing calls from security experts, UN officials, and human rights groups, and immediately repatriate Shamima and the other British women and children. To turn its back on them is not only a legal and moral aberration, but a long-term security risk. Leaving them in detention camps leaves them vulnerable to radicalization and the dire conditions can serve as a recruitment tool. If we have learnt anything from the last 20 years, it’s that our security is never served by undermining human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 2, 2021, 2:54 pm
Click to expand Image A resident looks out from the window of the Florence Aged Care Facility amid the second wave of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Melbourne, Australia August 17, 2020. © REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

The Australian government should immediately act on the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety to improve rights protections for older people, Human Rights Watch said today. The commission, in its final report released on March 1, 2021, called for the government to fundamentally reform the aged care system to refocus on the support needs of older people “instead of the funding requirements of aged care providers.”

As it undertakes these reforms, the Australian government should take a human rights-based approach to policies and services for older people, ban the use of chemical restraint in aged care homes, and better assist older people who wish to live at home, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Royal Commission into Aged Care’s final report makes clear that the current aged care system is failing older people in numerous ways,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Multiple investigations and reports have confirmed widespread abuse and neglect in aged care homes. The Australian government should urgently carry out the commission’s recommendations to protect the dignity, health, and human rights of older people.”

The Royal Commission into Aged Care was established in October 2018 in response to concerns about abuses in aged care publicized in an ABC investigative television program, Four Corners.

The Royal Commission heard from 641 witnesses, including residents, staff, families, and experts, held almost 100 days of hearings, accepted more than 10,500 public submissions, and produced 38 reports and research papers, including an October 2020 special report on Covid-19.

The eight volume final report makes 148 recommendations including a new Aged Care Act that enshrines the rights of older people, strengthening the oversight and accountability of aged care providers, and setting out minimum staffing times for qualified staff in aged care facilities, including at least one registered nurse on site at all times.

Revelations in late February of alleged deadly neglect in a Perth nursing home indicate that these abuses continue and that accountability mechanisms remain insufficient and weak.  

Among the commission’s findings were serious concerns regarding aged care facilities giving older people drugs to control their behavior even though the drugs are not required to treat medical symptoms – a practice known as chemical restraint. The commission stated that “The overuse of restrictive practices in aged care is a major quality and safety issue. Restrictive practices impact the liberty and dignity of people receiving aged care. Urgent reforms are necessary to protect older people from unnecessary, and potentially harmful, physical and chemical restraints.”

However, the commission missed an important opportunity to call for a complete ban on this abusive practice, Human Rights Watch said. An end to the abusive practice of chemical restraint will only happen if aged care providers that wrongly administer medication as a restraint are held accountable and if the government bans the practice.

In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch documented the use of chemical restraint in several aged care homes in Queensland, Victoria, and New South Wales. In certain circumstances, chemical restraint amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. Human Rights Watch has criticized Australia’s existing regulation on restraints as insufficient and has called for the government to ban the practice.  

In August 2020, The Australian reported that several residents in some aged care facilities in Melbourne who had tested positive for Covid-19 were refused hospital admission and were instead heavily sedated with morphine, the anti-psychotic risperidone, or other medications to prevent them from “wandering” and infecting other residents. The government said that it was investigating the allegations.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, in response to a December 2020 inquiry from Human Rights Watch, said that it does not proactively monitor for chemical restraint, meaning that the only information it has received about this practice is through complaints. It reported that “from 29 November 2019 to 16 October 2020, the Commission received 53 complaint issues in relation to chemical restraint in residential aged care.” It also stated that “from 1 July 2021, medication management will be introduced as a new quality indicator” in regulating aged care.  

The use of chemical restraints is closely linked to staffing and training. The Royal Commission urged the Australian government to ensure there are sufficient numbers of appropriately skilled staff available to attend to the needs of all people receiving aged care. It called for a daily minimum staff time for registered nurses, enrolled nurses, and personal care workers for each resident.  

Inadequate staff and training can make it difficult to take an individualized, comprehensive approach to supporting people with dementia with symptoms of agitation or aggression, which can drive chemical restraint. Non-pharmacological intervention can include exercise, music, building relationships, and reducing boredom and loneliness. The Royal Commission recommended that aged care staff should undertake regular training on dementia support.

The commission also said that the government should do more to support older people’s autonomy and choice by providing greater access to support services at home, known as home care packages, and to clear the waiting list for this assistance. A January 2021 report by the Productivity Commission found that there continue to be long waiting lists to receive support at home, with an average waiting time of 28 months for those requiring the highest level of support. In December 2020, the government announced funding for an additional 10,000 home care packages for older people, among other aged care reform initiatives.

“If implemented, the Royal Commission’s recommendations could catalyze a much-needed transformation of how Australians experience their later years,” Pearson said. “Older people should be able to receive support and services that respect their dignity, autonomy, and human rights whether at home or in an aged care facility.”
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 2, 2021, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image Anti-coup protesters stage a sit-in demonstration, Mandalay, Myanmar, February 24, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s military government should reverse its post-coup d’etat revisions of legal protections for human rights in the country, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and Human Rights Watch said today.

Myanmar’s State Administration Council (SAC), appointed by the country’s military after it overthrew the elected civilian government on February 1, 2021, has dictated key revisions to the country’s legal system that criminalize even peaceful protests, and enable violations of the right to privacy and arbitrary arrests and detention. The changes were made through orders signed by the Commander-in-Chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, on behalf of the SAC, and outside the parliamentary process.

“As Myanmar’s military increasingly relies on excessive force and intimidation to quell peaceful protests against its coup, it is trying to give a veneer of legality to its actions by subverting existing protections in the legal system,” said Ian Seiderman, ICJ’s Director of Law and Policy. “These revisions, which violate the principle of legality and Myanmar’s international obligations, in no way excuse or legitimate the widespread violations of human rights now taking place in Myanmar.”

Since the coup on February 1, the military junta has:
 

arbitrarily suspended sections of the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (2017), removing basic protections, including the right to be free from arbitrary detention and the right to be free of warrantless surveillance and search and seizure; amended the Penal Code to create new offenses and expand existing offenses to target those speaking critically of the coup and the military, and those encouraging others to support the “Civil Disobedience Movement,” amended the Ward and Tract Administration Law to reinstate the requirement to report overnight guests; amended the Code of Criminal Procedure to make the new and revised offenses non-bailable and subject to warrantless arrest; and amended the Electronic Transactions Law to prevent the free flow of information and criminalize the dissemination of information through cyberspace, including expression critical of the coup or the acts of the junta.


Under international legal standards, any restrictions on human rights must be strictly necessary to protect a legitimate interest and proportionate to the interest being protected, even in times of public emergency or for legitimate national security purposes (conditions that do not apply in Myanmar currently). The orders issued by the SAC fail to meet that standard, as they will arbitrarily interfere with the exercise of rights protected under international law, including freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to liberty, and the right to privacy. Certain rights, such as the rights to bodily integrity and nondiscrimination, are not subject to restriction.

“By stripping the people of Myanmar of their basic rights, the military is once again demonstrating its disdain for international human rights protections,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “The junta cannot justify the oppression of Myanmar’s inhabitants through the unilateral creation of arbitrary new laws.”

For an analysis of the junta’s changes in the law, please see below.


Analysis of Legal Code Changes

Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (2017)
On February 13, the State Administration Council arbitrarily suspended sections 5, 7, and 8 of the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, eroding basic protections for individuals.

Section 5 required the presence of two witnesses whenever the police enter a residence for the purposes of search or seizure “to ensure that there is no damage to the privacy or security of the citizen.” The suspension of that protection significantly raises the risk of abuses during searches and arrests.

Section 7 required a court order for any detention of more than 24 hours. Suspension of the provision will facilitate violations of international law, which provides that any person detained on a criminal charge be promptly taken before a judge.

Section 8 provided protections of an individual’s right to privacy by prohibiting search and seizure, surveillance, spying, or any investigation affecting the privacy, security, and dignity of the individual without a court order, protections that the junta has removed. Under international law, no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with their privacy, family, home or correspondence.

Penal Code Amendments
On February 14, the SAC announced amendments to the Penal Code that could lead to criminal liability for thousands of demonstrators exercising their rights to free expression of their views, and anyone publicly criticizing the military coup d’etat through any means.

The SAC inserted a new provision, section 505A, that could be used to punish comments regarding the illegitimacy of the coup or the military government, among others. The new section would criminalize comments that “cause fear,” spread “false news, [or] agitates directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a Government employee.” Violation of the section is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Section 505(a) previously made it a crime to publish or circulate any “statement, rumor or report” “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or airman, in the Army, Navy or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty.” It has been replaced with much broader language clearly designed to penalize those encouraging members of the civil service of the security services to join the Civil Disobedience Movement.

Under the revised provision, any attempt to “hinder, disturb, damage the motivation, discipline, health and conduct” of the military personnel and government employees and cause their hatred, disobedience or disloyalty toward the military and the government is punishable by up to three years in prison.

The SAC also significantly broadened the “treason” provisions in section 124 of the Penal Code. Section124A, which already criminalized comments that “bring into hatred or contempt” or “excite disaffection against” the government, was expanded to include comments relating to the defense services and defense services personnel, effectively criminalizing any criticism of the military or military personnel. Violation of the section is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The newly added section 124C imposes a prison term of up to 20 years on anyone who intends to “sabotage or hinder the performance of the Defense Services and law enforcement organizations who are engaged in preserving the stability of the state.” This provision would criminalize efforts to encourage security forces to join the Civil Disobedience Movement or permit unauthorized protests.

Finally, under section 124D, a person can be sentenced up to seven years in prison if they hinder a government employee from carrying out their duties. This provision is so broad that any actions of protesters could be interpreted as preventing security personnel or defense service officers from performing their duty.

Code of Criminal Procedure Amendment Law
On February 14, the junta amended the Code of Criminal Procedure Amendment Law to make offenses under sections 505A, 124C, and 124D non-bailable and subject to arrest without a warrant.

Ward or Village Tract Administration Law (13/2/21)
The amendments to the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law (13/2/21) further increase the military’s ability to conduct surveillance on people’s movements, in particular on human rights defenders seeking shelter away from their own homes. Amendments to section 17 of the Act require all overnight guests from other wards or villages to be reported to the ward or village tract administrator, who are authorized by section 13 to “take action” against any who “failed to inform the guest list.” Section 27 reintroduces criminal sanctions for failing to report overnight guests. Such provisions existed under previous military governments and were deeply resented.

Electronic Transactions Law (Law No 7/ 2021)
On February 15, the junta also amended the Electronic Transactions Law to include, among others, provisions that had been proposed in the draft Cybersecurity Law.  

As was true under that much-criticized draft law, the amended Electronics Transactions Law permits government agencies, investigators, or law enforcement to access personal data in relation to “cyber-crimes,” “cyber misuse,” or any criminal investigation.

The amendments also include several provisions (articles 38(d) and (e)) that provide criminal penalties for “unauthorized” access to online material and that could be used to prosecute whistle blowers, investigative journalists, or activists who use leaked material for their work.

Section 38B criminalizes “obtaining, disclosing, using, destroying, modifying, disseminating, or sending someone’s personal data to anyone else without approval,” with one to three years in prison. While the protection of the right to privacy online is important, this provision goes well beyond legitimate protections on privacy and imposes arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression.

In particular, “personal data” is defined in a manner so broad as to include virtually any information associated with a person. The law is therefore impermissibly vague and overbroad, as it would likely prevent even the disclosure of information about anyone involved in alleged human rights violations, including by human rights defenders and journalists.

Section 38C criminalizes the creation of “misinformation or disinformation with the intent of causing public panic, loss of trust or social division on cyberspace,” and provides for imprisonment of one to three years in addition to fines. These provisions are similarly vague and overbroad and unnecessarily and disproportionately limit the exercise of expression online, including criticism of the coup and the military junta.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 2, 2021, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Volunteers load food into the trunk of vehicles during a ''Let's Feed LA County'' drive-thru food distribution by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and the office of Supervisor Hilda Solis on February 23, 2021, in La Puente, California. © 2021 Ringo Chiu/AP Photo

(Washington, DC) – The United States government has made little progress in stemming the rise in poverty and inequality during the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should take urgent action to address the rights of millions of people suffering the compounded economic and social impacts of the pandemic.

A Human Rights Watch analysis of public-use microdata from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey shows that the pandemic’s economic fallout has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the rights of low-income people who were already struggling. President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by the US House of Representatives on February 27, 2021, provides key investments to mitigate the growing economic hardship affecting these parts of the population. The legislation is now with the Senate, where it may be amended before it is sent back to the House for a final vote.

“Millions of people in the US are falling into preventable poverty and hunger,” said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The measures put forth in President Biden's relief proposal are urgently needed and the government shouldn’t cut corners when so many lives and livelihoods are at risk.”

Federal policymakers should ensure that relief not only reaches everyone in need, but also provides sufficient levels of support. It should also lay the foundation for a human rights-based economic recovery that ensures an adequate standard of living to everyone in the United States and addresses racial, gender, and other disparities, Human Rights Watch said.

Since the start of the pandemic, 74.7 million people have lost work, with the majority of jobs lost in industries that pay below average wages. Many of those who lost work and income are running out of money and savings. In January, some 24 million adults reported experiencing hunger and more than six million said they fear being evicted or foreclosed on in the next two months due to their inability to make housing payments. By contrast, higher-income people have been relatively unscathed economically. Despite the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, the collective wealth of the US’ 651 billionaires has jumped by over $1 trillion since the beginning of the pandemic, a 36 percent leap.

Recent Census Bureau data show how households with different incomes are coping with the pandemic and that low-income households are disproportionally struggling for their social and economic rights to be met. Among households with incomes below $35,000, 47 percent of adults report being behind on housing payments, and 25 percent say they struggle to put food on the table. Thirty-two percent of low-income adults said they had felt depressed in the previous seven days. These low-income households urgently need a comprehensive rescue plan.

One-third of adults reported using past stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits to cover normal household expenses in the previous seven days; with 37 percent of them also going into debt by using credit cards and loans for routine expenses.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch


At the end of January, the data indicated, more than 24 million adults had not had enough to eat sometimes or often in the previous seven days. That is five million more than in August 2020, when food hardship was already higher than before the pandemic. Human Rights Watch found that more than half of food-insecure households include children, raising serious concerns about the long-term consequences on children’s health and their academic outcomes. More than 45 percent of food-insecure households are in the lowest income quartile, making less than $35,000 a year. Racial disparities are high, with Black and Latinx adults living in food-insufficient households at more than twice the rate of white adults.

Human Rights Watch found that low-income households are at a particular disadvantage in recovery, because many experience multiple stress factors (“stressors”), such as housing insecurity. Sixty percent of households making less than $35,000 a year face at least two stressors simultaneously, compared to less than 20 percent of households making more than $150,000. These compounding stressors can push families and individuals deeper into poverty and represent a risk to people’s rights.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch


“Government programs and past stimulus bills have provided crucial relief, but it was temporary,” Simet said. “Food and housing insecurity is rising and millions of people are going hungry or are on the brink of losing their home or seeing their utilities shut off in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It’s a clear indictment of a failed safety net and the urgent need to address people’s rights to food and housing.”

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on low-income people underscores the urgency of addressing the precarious financial situation that low-wage workers faced even before the pandemic, Human Rights Watch said. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage is one effective mechanism. It is also effective for combatting poverty and addressing wage inequality. Some legislators’ opposition to Biden’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of the rescue plan undermines an equitable recovery and puts low-wage earners further at risk, particularly women and workers of color, who continue to be shunted into the lowest-paid jobs.

A safety net will need to protect those who need it. Presently, the US’ largest economic and health support systems are geared largely toward supporting children and their parents, people with disabilities, and older people. These programs are often insufficient to ensure the right to an adequate standard of living for these groups.

But they also fail to respond to the needs of low-income people outside of these categories, who have fewer options for government support, and often fall through the cracks. In 2020, more than one in eight adults under the age of 65, without children and who do not have a disability, were living in poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“If the US government wants to address the economic insecurity and inequality that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated, it needs to make ensuring economic and social rights for all a priority,” Simet said. “This means building a universal and strong social protection system and investing in public services, notably education, health care, housing, and an adequate standard of living.”

For additional details about the situation in the United States and the need for stimulus relief, please see below.

Evidence of Economic Hardship in the US and Necessary Support

These findings are based on a Human Rights Watch analysis of public-use microdata from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey. For a detailed description of the data, see here.

Job and Income Losses Disproportionately Affect the Most Vulnerable

As of January 2021, about one year into the pandemic, the US economy remained weak, the jobs recovery had lost momentum, and there were 9.9 million fewer jobs than in February 2020, when the pandemic began. In the Pulse survey analyzed by Human Rights Watch, nearly half of adults who responded – 48 percent – said that someone in their household had experienced a job or income loss at some point since March 13, 2020. Latinx and Black adults were 1.4 times more likely to have answered “Yes” than white adults.

Low-income households were particularly likely to have lost work or income. Among households making less than $35,000 a year, 57.3 percent experienced income or employment loss during the pandemic, compared with 34.6 percent of those making more than $150,000 a year.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

States in the US offer varying degrees of support in unemployment benefits. In Mississippi, unemployment benefits are capped at $235 a week. Massachusetts is much more generous, with $855 a week. While differences in maximum benefit levels may be tied to the cost of living in a particular state, without additional weekly payments, even in lower-cost states like Mississippi, benefits are too low to make ends meet.

Even though the unemployment rate fell by more than 40 percent between June 2020 and January 2021 (to 6.3 percent), poverty has increased over the same period, with about eight million more people living in poverty. This disconnect results from some government benefits expiring at the end of July and an increasing number of workers dropping out of the labor market altogether. More than four million people have left the labor force in the past year; two in five of the over 22.3 million jobs lost in March and April 2020 have not returned. 

Women have left the labor force at a much higher rate than men. Of the 1.1 million people who left between August and September, over 800,000 were women. Experts suggest that due to the persistent gender earnings gap across spouses and the increase in caregiving burden, women were more likely to drop out of the labor force as schools and childcare centers closed. 

One tool to address the unequal labor market results is to extend paid sick days and family and medical leave. As part of the American Rescue plan, the government should enact a paid family and medical leave law to support workers’ health and economic security for the duration of the pandemic, while working to put in place a permanent, national, comprehensive, and inclusive program beyond the pandemic.

Difficulty Paying Household Expenses

The Census survey examined the disproportionate impact on low-income households and people of color and the ability to pay expenses such as food, rent or mortgage, medical expenses, or utilities within the previous seven days.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch


About 35 percent of all adults live in households with difficulties paying for their usual household expenses, but this share is highest among those in very low-income households. Nearly 60 percent of households making less than $35,000 a year struggle paying for their usual expenses, suggesting that the impact of the pandemic, including job losses and Covid-19-related morbidity and mortality, is making it harder for many to make ends meet. This share is significantly lower for higher-income households, and lowest among those making more than $150,000 a year.

Black and Latinx adults are almost twice as likely as white adults to have difficulties in paying everyday expenses in the previous week.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

 

Food Insecurity

In January 2021, based on the census data, more than one out of 10 adults lived in a home where there was sometimes or often not enough food to eat in the previous week. Racial disparities are high, with Black and Latinx adults living in food-insufficient households at more than twice the rate of white adults.

There is a clear relationship between income and food insecurity. A quarter of adults (nearly 11 million) who live in households with an annual income of less than $35,000 were food insecure in January, the data indicated. Of those with a yearly income between $35,000 and $75,000, 11 percent were food insecure. This share is much lower for households with incomes exceeding $75,000.

Food insecurity was particularly high among households that had lost employment during the pandemic. Three out of four food-insecure households have experienced job loss since the pandemic began and 58 percent did not have work at the time of the survey.

More than half of adults in food-insecure homes have children living with them. Nearly two-thirds of food-insecure families reported that in the previous seven days it was “sometimes” or “often” true that their “children were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” Most of these homes made less than $35,000 in the previous year.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch


The American Rescue Plan would provide critical investments to address the alarming rates of hunger. It would extend the temporary 15 percent increase in the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from June through September. Benefits should be extended beyond the end of September if the US economy still is not fully recovered, Human Rights Watch said.

A significant portion of people who are receiving SNAP benefits are facing food insecurity. This suggests that the increased benefit may be too low. Among households with SNAP beneficiaries, 27 percent skipped meals in January. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one reason is that the US Department of Agriculture’s current interpretation of the emergency food assistance provisions under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act denies those allotments to nearly 40 percent of SNAP households. The federal government should address the immediate needs as well as structural inequities in food insecurity.

In addition, SNAP benefits leave out millions of households in need. There are 16.5 million households skipping meals that are not receiving benefits. About two out of three adults in food-insecure households did not receive food assistance in the previous seven days or have a SNAP beneficiary. Of adults who live in a home where at least one member received free groceries or a free meal in the previous seven days, nearly a quarter still did not have enough food that week.

If strict eligibility criteria or interpretations of who receives SNAP benefits fail to provide food assistance to all in need, putting cash directly into people’s pockets provides important relief. Thirty-three percent of adults who responded to the US Census Bureau Pulse Survey said they used the second stimulus check to pay for food.

Tax credits are another vehicle to help people in economic distress. The child tax credit proposed in the American Rescue Plan would help food-insecure households with children.

It would send $300 monthly checks to low-income parents with children younger than six years and $250 for each child between the ages of six and 17. In providing these benefits, the government needs to ensure that households that don’t file federal income taxes are not excluded.

Precarious Access to Housing

Housing costs, the largest expense item for most households, are becoming increasingly untenable for many. In January, 19 million adults reported living in households that are behind on rent or mortgage payments. Of those, 35 percent, or almost seven million people, said they fear being evicted or foreclosed on in the next two months, according to recent Census data analyzed by Human Rights Watch.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch


Precarious access to housing, which includes both delays in housing payments and the risk of eviction or foreclosure, risks people’s right to adequate housing. In January 2021, over 19 million adults lived in a household that was behind on rent or mortgage payments, the data indicated. This is a problem throughout the country. In 41 of the 50 states and Washington, DC, at least 10 percent of adults are behind on housing payments. Louisiana and New York report particularly high rates of households at risk with almost a quarter of households behind on housing payments in January.

There is a clear racial disparity in payment delays. Black adults are over three times more likely than white adults to live in a household behind on housing payments.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch


Housing insecurity is highest among low-income households. Of households earning less than $35,000 in 2019, 26 percent are behind on their housing payments, compared with four percent of those making more than $150,000. The proportion of income spent on housing varies depending on income level. In 2019, households in the bottom 20 percent of income levels spent about 40 percent of their annual income on housing. Among higher earners, that proportion is closer to 30 percent.

In addition to falling behind on housing payments, renters and homeowners reported trouble paying utility bills, racking up significant debts. The Urban Institute estimates that almost one in three Black renters (28.9 percent) and 25.9 percent of Latinx renters reported problems paying their utility bills in the previous 30 days, compared with 9.2 percent of white renters. In California, at least 1.6 million households have water debt, and unpaid water bills total $1 billion.

The Census Bureau asked people who are behind on housing payments about their perceived housing security. In January 2021, about 35 percent of adults behind on payments said that it was very or somewhat likely their household would need to leave their home in the next two months because of eviction or foreclosure.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch



The American Rescue Plan would extend the federal moratorium on evictions that will otherwise expire in March through September and will fund legal assistance programs to help those facing eviction. However, it does not correct flaws in existing state and federal eviction moratoriums, which put millions of tenants at risk of eviction. In addition to an extension of the federal moratorium on evictions, there should be a national moratorium on shutoffs of water, electricity, broadband, and heat for inability to pay, Human Rights Watch said.

The severity of housing insecurity shows that additional support is needed to keep people from being evicted or being without a place to live. Researchers on houselessness state that it is too soon to know how trends have changed during the pandemic but have pointed out that was already on the rise pre-pandemic. The authorities need to do more to meet government obligations to guarantee everyone’s right to affordable, stable, and habitable housing, regardless of a person’s income.

Multiple Stress Factors Contributing to Financial Hardship

Low-income households are at a particular disadvantage in recovery, because many experience multiple stress factors potentially harmful to people’s rights, such as food insecurity, during the pandemic.

Tens of millions of households are estimated to be facing multiple stress factors simultaneously, including no work in the previous week, income loss, food and housing insecurity, or symptoms of depression. Low-income households are particularly prone to compounded layers of stress factors. One in nine adults living in households with an annual income below $35,000 experienced at least one of the five stress factors; 60 percent experienced at least two, and 30 percent struggled to manage three at the same time. Concurrent stress factors are much less frequent among highest earners, with only 18 percent currently experiencing more than one stressor.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch


People of color are also more likely to experience overlaying stress factors. Close to 45 percent of Black and Latinx adults live in a household that faces multiple stressors, compared to 30 percent of white and Asian adults.

Impact of Raising the Minimum Wage on Economic Hardship and Insecurity

Adjusting the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as is proposed in the American Rescue Plan, could be very effective for combating poverty and inequality and a necessary step to ensure that everyone can enjoy their right to an adequate standard of living. It is an essential measure for addressing racial economic disparities and inequality since workers of color, especially women of color, make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workers. Sixty-three percent of Latinx workers and 54 percent of Black workers earn low wages, compared with 36 percent of white workers.

Even before the pandemic, the labor market was deeply unequal. The share of national income going to the bottom half of the income distribution has fallen by more than one-third since 1970. The share going to the top one percent has nearly doubled. 

Many low-wage workers face difficulties meeting their basic needs. The Brookings Institution found that in 2019, approximately 53 million workers between 18 and 64, about 44 percent of all workers, were in low-wage jobs. Their median hourly wage was $10.22, and median annual earnings were about $18,000, which would put a family of three below the federal poverty line of $21,960. 

As part of the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next five years. The minimum wage has been frozen at $7.25 since 2009. Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimate that a $15 minimum wage would raise pay for nearly 32 million workers while reducing government expenditures on public assistance programs between $13.4 and $31 billion.

Most workers who would benefit from a $15 per hour minimum wage are essential and frontline workers. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in an average week in 2025, when the minimum wage would reach $15 per hour, the number of people in poverty would be reduced by 0.9 million people, and employment would be reduced by 1.4 million workers. A raft of other recent research indicates minimal risk of widespread job losses.

Avoiding Austerity at the State and Local Level that Would Harm Rights

The pandemic has created a severe budget crisis for state and local governments, as tax revenue has dropped and demands for public health and social protection increased. Nineteen states reported making mid-year spending cuts in 2020 due to revenue shortfall. Adjusted spending meant that 1.3 million in state and local employment was lost since February 2020, with large burdens on women and Black workers, who make up a higher share in the state and local government workforce. 

Budget cuts that are damaging to human rights have already begun as well. Twenty-three states reported using targeted spending cuts; eight states used across-the-board cuts to balance budgets for 2021. The largest spending reduction was in K-12 education. In Georgia, policymakers approved a 10 percent budget cut for 2021, including a nearly $1 billion cut for K-12 public schools and cuts to programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities, among others. Maryland enacted $413 million in emergency spending cuts, including large cuts to colleges and universities.

The Biden administration’s proposal includes much-needed state and local government fiscal relief. Without more federal aid, many states will likely face hard budget choices, increasing the likelihood of another round of job cuts or austerity for services essential to realizing human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 2, 2021, 11:00 am
Click to expand Image Paul Rusesabagina, a prominent government critic, attends a court hearing in Kigali, Rwanda on February 26, 2021. Rwanda’s High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes ruled that it has jurisdiction to try him. © 2021 AP Photo/Muhizi Olivie

An apparent mistake has confirmed what most of the world already knew: government critic Paul Rusesabagina is unlikely to receive a fair trial in Rwanda. In a recorded video call, Rwanda’s justice minister, Johnston Busingye, admitted the government’s role in the August 2020 enforced disappearance, illegal transfer, and fair trial rights violations of Rusesabagina, whose trial on terrorism charges began on February 17.

Al Jazeera broadcast excerpts from a call between Busingye and two consultants from the British PR firm Chelgate, which Al Jazeera said was “inadvertently” shared with them. In the clips, Busingye admits that Rwandan prison authorities intercepted privileged communications between Rusesabagina and his lawyers, in violation of his due process rights.

Busingye also admitted the Rwandan government paid for the flight that brought Paul Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and US green card holder, from Dubai to Kigali on August 27, 2020, claiming it was legal. At the time, Human Rights Watch found that Rusesabagina was the victim of an enforced disappearance for three days while in the custody of Rwandan officials or their proxies. Rusesabagina has said that he was not aware of where he was and was kept blindfolded with his hands and feet bound.

When authorities deprive someone of their liberty and refuse to acknowledge the detention, or conceal the person’s whereabouts, they are committing an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law. Enforced disappearances, often leading to torture and unfair trials, have become a regular practice in Rwanda under Busingye’s watch.

Extradition proceedings overseen by an independent tribunal are required to assess whether a suspect’s rights will be guaranteed. The Rwandan government continues to change its tune on how Rusesabagina was taken into custody and transferred to Rwanda. Despite this, on February 26, Rwanda’s High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes ruled that it has jurisdiction to try him.

Busingye’s admission that the Rwanda Correctional Service (RCS) has been reading correspondence between Rusesabagina and his lawyers violates Rwandan and international legal standards, which protect all communications and consultations between lawyers and their clients within their professional relationship as confidential. The government’s subsequent claim that the RCS had mistaken privileged for non-privileged communications rings hollow.

Busingye’s revelations only undermine further the idea that Rusesabagina could ever get a fair, credible trial in Rwanda and that victims of the attacks he is accused of supporting will see justice delivered.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 2, 2021, 11:00 am
Click to expand Image Supporters protest outside a court in Hong Kong where police brought 47 pro-democracy activists charged with with “conspiracy to commit subversion,” March 1, 2021. © 2021 Vincent Yu/AP Photo

(New York) – The Hong Kong government’s use of the draconian National Security Law to charge 47 democracy figures demonstrates utter disregard for democratic political processes, Human Rights Watch said today. All were charged on February 28, 2021, for “conspiracy to commit subversion” by participating in an informal democratic primary.

Hong Kong should drop the charges against the 47, part of Beijing’s escalating campaign to end competitive elections in Hong Kong and its crackdown on the territory’s freedoms.

“The Hong Kong authorities are using the Beijing-imposed National Security Law to wrongfully charge 47 people who sought peaceful change through the democratic process,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government is showing Hong Kong and the world that it stands in direct opposition to human rights and democracy.”

The 47 people, ages 23 to 64, appeared in their first court hearing on March 1, where the magistrate is currently considering their bail applications. Most are or were elected government officials.

In July 2020, the 47 helped organize or ran as candidates in an informal public opinion poll to coordinate pro-democracy candidates for a Legislative Council (LegCo) election, then scheduled for September. The pro-democrats aimed to win over half of LegCo seats, with a view toward pressing Beijing and the Hong Kong governments to give universal suffrage to Hong Kong people as long promised.

Prior to the poll, Beijing and Hong Kong officials had warned that the poll amounted to “subversion”; police also raided the office of the polling institution. Despite these threats, an unprecedented number of Hong Kong people – nearly 610,000, or 15 percent of the city’s registered voters – participated.

Hong Kong prosecutors now allege that the poll was a “scheme” that amounted to “seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions” of the Hong Kong government.

Subversion and other crimes established by Hong Kong’s National Security Law, imposed by the Chinese government on June 30, 2020, are overly broad and arbitrarily applied, Human Rights Watch said. They include the peaceful exercise of human rights that are enshrined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law. These rights are also protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is incorporated into Hong Kong’s legal framework via the Basic Law and expressed in the Bill of Rights Ordinance.

Hong Kong’s two elected bodies are the LegCo and the District Councils. The LegCo has some lawmaking authority while the District Council is a consultative body that advises the government on local issues. Only half of LegCo’s seats are directly elected, while all District Council seats are elected by universal suffrage.

Beginning in 2016, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities disqualified pro-democracy figures from running for seats on LegCo or unseated them after they were elected. The increasing exclusion of those who support democratic governance from LegCo and the 2019 protests prompted many aligned with that movement to run in the lower-level District Council elections in November 2019. They won by a landslide; many of those elected use their new platform to criticize the government and to galvanize support for the pro-democracy movement.

As the September 2020 LegCo elections approached – and as another pro-democracy landslide looked likely – Beijing imposed the National Security Law. On July 31, the Hong Kong government announced it would delay the September LegCo elections for a year, citing Covid-19 concerns even though the territory had effectively controlled the pandemic and other countries had held elections without problems.

In November, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) adopted a decision disqualifying Hong Kong legislators who “publicize or support independence,” “seek foreign interference,” or pursue “other activities that endanger national security.” The decision marked a watershed moment, giving the Hong Kong government power to arbitrarily remove any legislator whose views it disliked, and turning the LegCo into a rubber-stamp body. Following the NPCSC decision, the Hong Kong government immediately disqualified four pro-democracy legislators. Fifteen other pro-democracy legislators in the LegCo resigned in protest.

The Chinese government is set to impose further drastic changes to Hong Kong’s electoral framework to ensure that only those who “love China and love Hong Kong” – euphemisms that denote loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party – can govern Hong Kong. Various proposals, such as mandating that LegCo candidates are nominated by Hong Kong’s chief executive – who is handpicked by Beijing – are reportedly being discussed. Some of these proposals are expected to be adopted by Beijing’s National People’s Congress, a rubber stamp Congress, set to convene on March 4 or 5.

The chief of Beijing’s office on Hong Kong affairs, Xia Baolong, said in a February 22 speech that Hong Kong’s executive, legislature, and judiciary must consist of “true patriots,” raising fears that Beijing will place greater pressure on the judicial system.

Concerned governments should impose coordinated targeted sanctions on officials responsible for violating the human rights of people in Hong Kong and elsewhere, as the United States began doing in July 2020, Human Rights Watch said. They should also press for appointment of a United Nations special mandate holder to monitor and report on China’s human rights developments. Legislators around the world should express solidarity with their Hong Kong counterparts.

Although the United Kingdom and the European Union have both expressed concerns about the charges brought against the 47, and both now have new human rights sanctions regimes, neither has imposed targeted sanctions on Hong Kong officials. On February 22, the European High Representative, Josep Borrell, announced that EU foreign ministers stood ready with further steps “in case of further deterioration of the situation, such as aggressive ‘reform’ of the electoral process in Hong Kong.” The European Parliament has repeatedly called for EU targeted sanctions and action at the UN.

In a statement the same day to the UN Human Rights Council, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the National Security Law as a “clear breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” and said, “free and fair elections must take place.”

“Beijing is on track to smother the remaining vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong,” Wang said. “Governments should make good on their words and take strong action, or else Beijing will conclude that its growing repression will be treated as ‘business as usual.’”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 2, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Demonstrators gather at the Minnesota governor's mansion Monday, June 1, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.  © 2020 Julio Cortez/AP Photo

(Washington, DC) – The United States House of Representatives should not pass a federal policing bill slated for a vote this week without changes, Human Rights Watch said today. While the bill, touted as significant reform, contains some positive provisions, it funnels excessive amounts of federal funds to law enforcement that would be better spent on investments for communities in need. 

“We don’t need more task forces or studies to determine what is wrong with policing in the US today,” said Laura Pitter, deputy US director at Human Rights Watch. “We need to reduce the scope of policing and shift those resources to investments in communities that will create sustainable paths to public safety.”

An identical version of the bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, was passed by the House in 2020 but not taken up by the Senate. House Democrats re-introduced the bill on February 24, 2021 and will try to push through a vote this week under a rule that allows expedited consideration for bills passed in the last congress.

On February 4, 2021, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to some of the bill’s sponsors, urging lawmakers to make changes before re-introducing it in this congress. Other human rights and civil liberties organizations have expressed similar concerns. Human Rights Watch’s letter pointed out that police in the United States killed 1,127 people in 2020, more than in 2019 though consistent with years past. Despite mass protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd and others, the total number includes 645 people killed since Floyd’s death.

Beyond killings, police officers have subjected many more people in the US – most frequently Black, Latinx, Indigenous people, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities – to other abuses through commonplace daily interactions that are coercive and often violent. These abuses, while not front-page news, contribute to consistent high rates of arrest and mass incarceration, with devastating long-term consequences for these communities.

Throughout the US, officials task police with responding to situations involving problematic substance use, homelessness, mental health issues, and poverty, rather than funding appropriate responses to address these social problems outside a policing context. Governments should vastly reduce their reliance on police for these purposes and instead invest in housing, affordable and accessible health care, economic development, and education – initiatives that directly address the problems – instead of criminalizing people in need, Human Rights Watch said.

The failure to prioritize and fund such direct solutions while prioritizing law enforcement, and criminalizing poverty and conduct linked to drug use or mental health conditions, has for decades increased inequities in US societies and harmed Black, brown, and low-income communities, Human Rights Watch said.

The bill contains some useful provisions, including to strip law enforcement officers of qualified immunity, create a national registry of police misconduct complaints, and make it somewhat easier for federal prosecutors to charge police officers with civil rights violations.

However, the bill also authorizes hundreds of millions of dollars to support law enforcement for more police training, the efficacy of which is not established, the setting up of various task forces, the creation of police accreditation programs, and more research into police “best practices.” Changes of this type are often used by policymakers to justify granting police agencies additional funding to hire more officers to carry out the changes. One provision expands a current funding stream to recruit and hire more officers.

Some provisions aimed at creating more accountability have loopholes that could be used to construct a veneer of accountability without actually delivering it. Others aimed at reining in specific abusive police practices, like no-knock warrants, do not go far enough to address the problems they aim to solve.

Lawmakers pushing for passage of the bill have significantly overstated its likely effectiveness. While some of the bill’s changes may have some positive impact and should be passed as stand-alone measures or as part of an improved larger package, overall, the bill does not contain the necessary fundamental reforms.

“While there is a hunger for an immediate response to police violence, no one should be fooled into believing that the JPA will end police abuse or even cause a significant reduction in the United States,” Pitter said. “Unless and until the US stops over-investing in policing and instead funds social policies that help individuals and communities thrive, people, and especially Black and brown people in the United States, will continue to experience pervasive police violence and systemic racism.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 1, 2021, 10:02 pm
Click to expand Image Prime Minister of Nepal KP Sharma Oli, January 10, 2021.  © Photo by Narayan Maharjan/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – The Nepal government should immediately withdraw an ordinance that undermines the independence of constitutional human rights bodies and rescind recent appointments that were made without consultation or parliamentary approval, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), and Amnesty International said today.

These government actions undermine public trust and confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and other constitutional bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission and the Election Commission. The illegitimate appointments process is not simply an abstract irregularity but will lead to ineffective and weak implementation of critical mandates to protect human rights and other rule of law objectives, the groups said.

“The government’s actions are a severe dent in Nepal’s long struggle for a rule of law-based constitution, which was finally adopted in 2015 to guarantee human rights,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is sad to see some of the same politicians who drafted the Constitution playing fast and loose with the charter just a few years later.”

On December 15, 2020, President Bidya Bhandari endorsed an executive ordinance to amend the law governing the Constitutional Council, which makes appointments to the judiciary, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and other constitutional bodies including the Election Commission. Under the Constitutional Council Act, five out of six members must be present, but under the ordinance a simple majority is sufficient. Because one seat on the council is vacant the quorum has been reduced to three.

The Constitutional Council met the same day with a newly reduced quorum. Three council members made 38 nominations to vacant positions on constitutional bodies at that meeting. They included all five seats on the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), as well as nominations to bodies established to protect the rights of Dalits, women, and marginalized minorities, and to investigate corruption allegations.

Under the Constitution, appointments to these key institutions are supposed to be vetted by parliament. However, parliament was abruptly dissolved on December 20, five days after the appointments were announced. The nominees were sworn in on February 3, 2021, despite legal challenges in the Supreme Court to the constitutionality of the nominations and the dissolution of parliament. On February 23, the Supreme Court ruled that the dissolution of parliament was unconstitutional.

“In a context where repeated calls for institutional reforms have gone unheeded for decades, this move by the government further weakens the effectiveness of constitutional bodies that are supposed to be beacons of hope for victims of human rights violations and abuses,” said Mandira Sharma, senior international legal adviser at ICJ. “Independence, impartiality, and legitimacy are preconditions for these bodies to effectively and efficiently deliver their mandates.” 

Nepal’s Human Rights Commission, until recently, had played an important role in calling for accountability, including by releasing the names of people allegedly responsible for serious human rights violations such as torture and extrajudicial killing and recommending that they should be prosecuted. It is currently graded ‘A’ by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) for its compliance with the Paris Principles, which were adopted by the UN General Assembly as the basic standards governing the mandate and operation of effective national human rights organizations. Core among the Paris Principles is that a national human rights institution must be independent and that its independence must be guaranteed by law. The organizations are concerned that following the new appointments the commission no longer meets those standards.

Among the other constitutional bodies to which new commissioners have been appointed in the same manner are the Election Commission and the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), Nepal’s anti-corruption agency. The Election Commission is seen by many people as playing an important role in efforts to achieve a society based on the rule of law and respect for human rights, while the CIAA has the authority to bring corruption cases against politicians.

Numerous appointments have also been made to commissions with mandates to protect the rights of people from vulnerable groups, including the National Women’s Commission, National Dalit Commission, and National Inclusion Commission. Many of these positions had lain vacant for years.

At least two Supreme Court petitions have been filed challenging the ordinance amending the Constitutional Council Act, and the new appointments to constitutional bodies. The chief justice, Cholendra Shumsher Rana, who sits on the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, participated in the three-member Constitutional Council meeting that made the disputed nominations, and he administered the oath of office to the new commissioners on February 3.

“The doubts over the independence and integrity of the NHRC and other commissions will endanger the protection of human rights in Nepal,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, Deputy South Asia Director of Amnesty International. “The government must immediately reverse these appointments and start a new process in consultation with the civil society and rights holders in Nepal.” 

The Accountability Watch Committee, a group of prominent human rights defenders in Nepal, issued a statement on February 12 announcing that they would not “cooperate and engage with the NHRC and other constitutional bodies until the Supreme Court’s decision.” Accountability Watch also called upon “the United Nations, diplomatic missions in Nepal and international organizations not to give legitimacy and cooperate with this appointment process which is currently sub-judice at the Supreme Court of Nepal.”

Foreign donor agencies that have previously engaged with the NHRC, and with the other commissions affected by this process, should stand clearly for a proper, open, and transparent appointments process that is based on international standards, Human Rights Watch, ICJ, and Amnesty International said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 1, 2021, 7:56 pm

UPDATE: On February 23 Sudan announced it had passed laws ratifying both International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the United Nations Convention against Torture. Human Rights Watch urges the government to formalize the ratification process, with no reservations, and additionally ratify the optional protocol to CAT, allowing international monitors to inspect detention sites.

Click to expand Image Protesters gather demanding the closure of the headquarters of Rapid Support Forces in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, January 14, 2021. © AP Photo/Marwan Ali

(Nairobi) – Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), acting without lawful authority, arbitrarily detained dozens of civilians, including political activists, in the capital, Khartoum during 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.

The detainees were held incommunicado or in circumstances constituting enforced disappearances. The authorities should take urgent steps to ensure that the RSF stops acting outside the law, and that all civilian detainees are immediately released.

“Sudan’s transitional government should rein in the Rapid Support Forces, which is assuming ever increasing power without any legal basis,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It is completely unacceptable for military forces to hold civilians in custody instead of handing them over to civilian authorities or releasing them if that is not possible.”

Human Rights Watch documented multiple unlawful detentions of civilians in 2020 in Khartoum by the Rapid Support Forces, which has been responsible for serious abuses against civilians in Darfur and other conflict zones. Between September 2020 and February 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed four former detainees, two family members, and a lawyer in cases in which the RSF had unlawfully held civilians.

The former detainees said that the security forces held them incommunicado and denied them access to lawyers and their families throughout their detention, which ranged from a week to over a month. Two detainees said RSF guards physically ill-treated them.

The authorities should credibly investigate reported arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, enforced disappearances, and other abuse in custody, including the death of one detainee, Human Rights Watch said. If warranted, civilian authorities can pursue any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing by former detainees in accordance with the law.

Under Sudan’s transitional constitutional charter, the RSF has been designated a regular military force. The force led the violent crackdown on protesters on June 3, 2019 in Khartoum neighborhoods and neighboring Bahri and Omdurman, which left at least 120 people dead and hundreds injured. The transitional government has continued to use RSF officers in crowd control and law enforcement operations.

Sudan’s armed forces, including the RSF, do not have legal authority to detain civilians or carry out law enforcement functions, thus making detentions of civilians illegal, Human Rights Watch said. Following the death, while in RSF custody, of 45-year-old Baha al-Din Nouri in Khartoum in December, the attorney general on January 21, 2021 issued an instruction explicitly limiting the powers of arrest and detention of civilians to the police and prosecutors, making clear that any detention by other forces is considered unlawful. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm what, if any, steps the attorney general has taken to ensure the terms of the instruction are enforced, such as inspecting unlawful detention sites.

Mohamed Nouri, Baha al-Din Nouri’s brother, told Human Rights Watch that witnesses saw him being abducted by armed men in civilian clothes in southern Khartoum on December 16. Five days later, the family received a call informing them that Baha al-Din had died and that his body was at a hospital morgue in Omdurman. “Another relative went to the morgue and saw visible bruises on Baha al-Din’s body,” his brother said. “The morgue director pressured us to accept the body and his autopsy report suggesting that Nouri died due to sickness, but we refused.”

On December 27, forensic examiners conducted a second autopsy on instructions from the attorney general. The second autopsy report documented injuries, including brain hemorrhage caused by impact with a blunt object, that are consistent with beatings and that led to Baha al-Din Nouri’s death. On the same day, the RSF in a statement admitted that Baha al-Din had died in RSF intelligence custody and that it had revoked the immunity of the officials involved and handed them over to the attorney general. The attorney general also ordered the arrest of the morgue’s director, including on obstruction of justice charges related to this case. Names and ranks of the people arrested have not been made public.

“For us, the case should not be only against those who tortured my brother,” Mohamed Nouri said. “All those involved, including those who issued the orders, aided, and contributed to the death of my brother, should be held accountable.”

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella association of 17 Sudanese trade unions that largely spearheaded the 2019 protests against the ousted government, has initiated a campaign with other protest groups calling for an end to unlawful detentions by the RSF and urging the attorney general to investigate broader RSF detention practices.

For any deprivation of liberty to be lawful, it must be carried out on grounds and pursuant to a procedure established in domestic law that are themselves in accordance with the provisions of international human rights law. Powers of arrest should be precise, clear, and known to the public. The law should ensure that incommunicado detention and secret deprivation of liberty are prohibited in all circumstances and that people can only lawfully be held in officially recognized detention sites.

The authorities should investigate all reports of arbitrary detention of civilians by forces such as the RSF, hold those responsible to account, and speed up the much-needed process of security sector reform as stipulated in the transitional government’s constitutional charter, Human Rights Watch said.

The transitional government should move ahead with plans envisioned under the constitutional charter to establish a National Human Rights Commission in line with international standards, Human Rights Watch said. The mandate of such a commission should include access to RSF facilities and the authority to report publicly on findings and abuses. Additionally, the government should allow relevant international organizations, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), access to all RSF facilities and ratify without reservations the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the United Nations Convention against Torture.

“If the transitional government is committed to breaking from the nation’s abusive past, it must ensure that RSF operates within the law,” Bader said. “The authorities should make it clear that members of the security forces will be held accountable under it if they contravene the law.”

For details regarding Rapid Support Forces (RSF) detention of civilians, please see below.

Human Rights Watch interviewed four former detainees unlawfully detained by the RSF in 2020. They said that the RSF detained them in two locations in eastern Khartoum, neither of which are legal or even acknowledged detention sites, consisting of converted office and living spaces rather than cells. One reported location, believed to belong to what the RSF describes as its intelligence branch, is in the al-Manshiya residential area, and the other is in the al-Riyadh compound at the former headquarters of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) operations unit. Three of the former detainees said their captors identified themselves as affiliated with the RSF intelligence branch.

Two of the men said they were arrested by unidentified armed men on August 22, 2020 and taken to the RSF intelligence premises in al-Manshiya and later moved to al-Riyadh. Both spent about a week in RSF custody before being transferred to the police. They have been charged with terrorism-related offenses but have been released on bail.

One of the detainees, 25, said that RSF soldiers handcuffed him while he received treatment at the RSF medical unit in Khartoum North:

An RSF officer ordered his soldiers to handcuff and shackle us while we were receiving treatment. They even handcuffed and shackled a detainee who had heart problems and was already connected to a heart monitor. They left us in a cell with the handcuffs for 24 hours. It was a cold room. We complained to the guard saying the handcuffs were too tight, but the guards didn’t care.

He said his family spoke to the police and the attorney general’s office to get information about his whereabouts but received no information. Detention by state agents followed by a refusal to provide information about the detention or concealing information on the whereabouts of the detainee constitutes an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law.

A 33-year-old former detainee said the RSF refused to disclose the reasons for detaining him. He said RSF denied him access to a lawyer. He spent eight days in the al-Riyadh and al-Manshiya locations before being transferred to al-Huda federal prison.

In 2020, RSF detained people associated with Musa Hilal, the Darfuri militia leader and former Janjaweed leader implicated in serious crimes in Darfur between 2002 and 2005, who has been in detention since 2017. He is facing charges before a military court related to the Darfur armed conflict.

The RSF detained Abdulmalik Musa Salih, 27, a relative of Hilal’s, twice in 2020. In March, the RSF detained and held him for 33 days in a basement in al-Manshiya. He said that on the day of his release he was moved to al-Riyadh compound, where he was beaten and kicked by several RSF soldiers for about 30 minutes:

They [RSF] did not tell me why they were arresting me at the beginning. A couple of officers later told me that I am a traitor because I posted on Facebook criticizing the RSF and their leadership. They also ignored my requests to have a lawyer or to be taken to the police if they have a case against me.

The RSF detained him again in July and held him in a basement for 14 days in al-Riyadh. He has not been charged with any offense.

During the Omar al-Bashir era in Sudan, between 1989 and 2019, unlawful detention by the NISS was a widespread practice. Amendments introduced in July 2020 to the National Security Act removed arrest and detention powers from the security apparatus and renamed the agency the General Intelligence Service (GIS).

The 2017 RSF Act broadly defines the force’s tasks, including to carry out any orders from competent authorities, which has resulted in its involvement in intercepting migrants and a crackdown on economic crimes. But since al-Bashir was ousted as the country’s ruler in April 2019, the force has increasingly taken on a role in crowd control, resulting in abuses. Human Rights Watch found that the RSF had used excessive force against protesters in Omdurman on June 30, 2019, when seven protesters were killed. Human Rights Watch also found that the RSF was responsible for killing five protesters in the town of Kassala in eastern Sudan on October 15, 2020.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 1, 2021, 3:26 pm
Click to expand Image The building that houses the French National Assembly, the lower house of France’s bicameral Parliament, June 22, 2014.  © 2014 Dennis Jarvis

(Paris) – France’s National Assembly should approve a bill to require the government to return assets looted by corrupt foreign officials to the people of the county where the money was stolen, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill is scheduled for a vote on March 2, 2021. Members of Parliament should improve the restitution process so that it is fully transparent and independent.

“French courts are at the vanguard of holding corrupt foreign officials accountable for looting public funds,” said Sarah Saadoun, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Members of Parliament now have the chance to set the gold standard on how governments can provide justice to corruption’s victims.”

On February 19, the National Assembly unanimously voted to include amendment n°176 in a broader bill on development and fighting global inequality. The provision would fill a gap in French law by mandating that proceeds from the sale of assets confiscated from foreign public officials convicted of money laundering or related financial crimes – known as “biens mal acquis” or ill-gotten gains – are returned “as close as possible to the population of the foreign State concerned.” French law does not currently allow for the restitution of such proceeds, so the French government keeps the seized funds.

France began the process of revising its law to enable the return of ill-gotten gains after a French court convicted the vice president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, of money laundering and embezzlement and confiscated around €150 million (around US$182 million) worth of assets. In February 2020, an appeals court upheld the conviction and in December, the International Court of Justice issued a final ruling rejecting Equatorial Guinea’s claim that the most valuable asset implicated by the case, a mansion worth €110 million, should be protected by diplomatic immunity.

Nguema has appealed the case to France’s Court of Cassation, its highest judicial court, which is expected to hear the case in the coming months. If the French government does not pass a law by the time the court issues its ruling, the money will be absorbed into the French general budget if the conviction is upheld.

The case against Nguema, initiated by Transparency International France and Sherpa in 2008, broke new ground in French anti-corruption litigation allowing nongovernmental organizations to initiate criminal corruption proceedings. Since then, organizations have initiated other cases against prominent foreign officials for money laundering that are winding their way through French courts. 

Returning stolen assets is a requirement under the UN Convention Against Corruption, which France ratified in 2003. In 2017, the Global Forum for Asset Recovery, an intergovernmental initiative hosted by the World Bank, agreed to a set of principles for ensuring transparent and accountable return of recovered assets, including a provision that “stolen assets recovered from corrupt officials should benefit the people of the nations harmed by the underlying corrupt conduct.”

Recently, civil society organizations developed their own set of principles for responsible asset return, drawing on their experiences observing cases around the world. These principles call for transparency, accountability, and public participation at every stage of disbursing funds to mitigate the risk that they are re-looted.

The French bill would establish a new budgetary program, housed under the Office of Development Assistance, that would disburse the funds through nongovernmental organizations or the French Development Agency (AFD). Parliament would provide oversight with input from local and international nongovernmental organizations.

This system would be a big improvement over an earlier proposal, which would have given the development agency full control over the funds. However, given the high risk of such funds being lost again to corruption and the importance of protecting the principle that the money does not belong to the French state, it should be improved to ensure that there is full transparency and accountability through completion of the project.

The development agency should be required to keep the funds fully separate from its general budget. Civil society in the recipient country should also have a role in decision-making about how the funds are used.

“It should be clear that the French government’s role is as a steward to responsibly return the stolen money to the people to whom it rightfully belongs,” Saadoun said. “Local civil society organizations should be able to track the funds and help decide how they are spent on behalf of the public.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 1, 2021, 5:01 am
Click to expand Image © Copyright Volume 2021 for Human Rights Watch

(Nairobi) – A new podcast series that will begin on March 1, 2021 will feature young African activists who are fighting gender-based violence and discrimination and leading change across the continent, Human Rights Watch said today. The podcast, Power of the Streets, features feminists and queer activists who are speaking truth to power and building movements for justice in Africa.

In this first eight-episode season, Power of the Streets will feature some of the people leading the #MeToo movement in Nigeria, Gambia, Burundi, South Africa, Malawi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda. They discuss their personal journeys in activism as well as the initiatives they lead to support survivors.

“We’re inspired by the bold and forward-looking youth-led human rights movement on the continent,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The stories and insights of the people in these series show us how young people can deploy their innovation and energy to challenge oppressive institutions.”

Power of the Streets is hosted by Audrey Kawire Wabwire, Africa media manager at Human Rights Watch. She is based in Nairobi and is excited about the possibilities that African podcasts are unlocking for diverse voices.

Listen to the first episode here. New episodes are available weekly on all podcast platforms.

Here is a schedule of the eight episodes:

Episode 1: Power of the Lens, available from March 1
Nigeria

Kiki Mordi is an award-winning feminist filmmaker. She produced a documentary about how students are coerced into providing sex for grades in West African universities. As part of a feminist collective, Mordi speaks out against the violence that women and queer people face.

Episode 2: Offline and Online, available from March 8
Malawi

Lusungu Kalanga is a podcaster and works to advance women and children’s rights in Malawi. After observing the trends in teen pregnancy in her country, she created the Growing Ambitions mentorship program, which offers girls a platform to discuss feminism.

Episode 3: Little Big Voice, available from March 15

Uganda

The Ugandan writer Rosebell Kagumire edits an African feminist blog that documents feminist perspectives in Africa. Her background in journalism inspired her to write about human rights, particularly about women’s rights.

Episode 4: Truth to Power, available from March 22

Gambia

Toufah Jallow has been an inspiration and catalyst for change by breaking taboos around sexual violence in her country, Gambia, when she spoke truth to power and accused former president Yahya Jammeh of raping her. She started the Toufah Foundation to support survivors of sexual violence.

Episode 5: Taking on the Trolls, available from March 29

Tanzania

The Tanzanian entrepreneur Carol Ndosi believes that it’s important to have more women’s voices online. Her work with #WomenAtWeb pushes for the creation of safe spaces for women online.

Episode 6: Where the Heart Is, available from April 5
Zimbabwe/South Africa
           
Thomars Shamuyarira is a trans Zimbabwean migrant rights activist living in South Africa. His organization, The Fruit Basket, works with migrant LGBT people who flee to South Africa after facing violence or the threat of violence in their home countries.

Episode 7: Stand Up, available from April 12

Ethiopia

As a student leader, Ruth Yitbarek wanted more Ethiopian women to understand their rights and speak up for themselves. She was a member of the Yellow Movement, an initiative in Ethiopia’s universities that challenges abusive societal norms.

Episode 8: Still We Rise, available from April 19
Burundi

Judicaelle Irakoze has always been outspoken about inequalities in her society. She was inspired to start her organization, Choose Yourself, after she documented the experiences of refugee women who have faced sexual violence.

To follow news about the podcast, please use #PoweroftheStreets on Twitter and Instagram, or email powerofthestreets@hrw.org.

To learn more about the podcast, please visit:
https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/podcast/2021/03/01/power-of-the-streets

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 1, 2021, 5:01 am