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

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

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

A federal agent walks on top of timber illegally harvested and extracted from Pirititi Indigenous Territory in Roraima State, Brazil, on May 7, 2018. The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), Brazil’s main environmental law enforcement agency, apprehended 7,387 logs in that operation.

©2018 Photo by Felipe Werneck/Ibama

(São Paulo, May 22, 2020) – Human Rights Watch reaffirmed today its finding that fines for illegal logging in the Amazon have been effectively suspended since October 2019 under a Bolsonaro administration decree. That finding is based on information the Environment Ministry provided to Human Rights Watch, and was published by Human Rights Watch on May 20, 2020.

The Environment Ministry disputed the finding, but did not dispute that the ministry itself provided the information on which the finding is based nor explain how Human Rights Watch could have presented the information inaccurately.

“Instead of disputing the facts that the Environment Ministry itself provided, the government should address the problem and ensure that the criminal networks destroying the rainforest for profit pay for the harm they are causing,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “They won’t be deterred by fines they don’t have to pay.”

The Environment Ministry information showed that since October, due to new procedures the ministry put in place, people or companies linked to illegal logging, mining, and other environmental crimes have been required to pay fines in no more than five cases. Human Rights Watch corroborated the failures of the administrative proceedings in interviews with federal agents.

An April 2019 decree by president Jair Bolsonaro established that after October 8, environmental fines would be reviewed at “conciliation hearings.” A commission can offer discounts or eliminate the fine altogether. The decree suspended all deadlines to pay those fines until a conciliation hearing could be held. 

On December 16, Human Rights Watch filed a request before the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), Brazil’s main environmental law enforcement agency and part of the Environment Ministry, under the Access to Information Law asking how many conciliation hearings had been held.

On January 6, 2020, the coordinator of investigations of environmental infractions at IBAMA responded that there had not been any hearings.

On April 28, IBAMA’s media office responded in writing to a Human Rights Watch request for updated information. It said that only five conciliation hearings had been held by that date, and that due to the coronavirus health emergency, all additional hearings had been suspended.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed two IBAMA field agents, an IBAMA official involved in processing fines, and two former IBAMA officials. They corroborated the official information provided by IBAMA and the Human Rights Watch conclusion about the failures in the conciliation hearings system.

IBAMA agents continue to issue fines for illegal deforestation and other environmental infringements in the Amazon and elsewhere in Brazil. Yet, because conciliation hearings are not occurring, people and companies that receive those fines do not have an obligation to pay them.

Meanwhile, real time alerts from Brazil’s Space Agency, INPE, show that deforestation in the Amazon region may have increased 53 percent between October and April, compared with the same period a year before.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Plane and car emissions have fallen since the pandemic struck. Has Covid-19 in some way helped the environment? 

We’ve certainly given the earth a bit of a breather because the rate we are emitting greenhouse gases has dropped, although by less than many expected given the slowdown in industrial activity. Air pollution has dropped dramatically in a number of places, which is great and will save lives. But remember that the levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are already the highest they have ever been. We’re still in a very dangerous situation.

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, shown obscured in smoke in November 2018, after the disastrous Camp Fire occurred north of Sacramento. US Interior Secretary at the time, Ryan Zinke, said wildfires in California in 2018 released roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as are produced each year to provide electricity to the state.

© 2018 Eric Risberg/AP Images

What do you think will happen as lockdowns are lifted?

It depends how governments respond. Massive amounts of money are being given for recovery programs to get economies going, and some countries are trying do so in a more green and sustainable direction. Policymakers and scientists largely agree that to slow the impact of the climate crisis we need a rapid transition from polluting fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas to cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar. So these recovery packages are an opportunity to address the climate crisis. Unfortunately the early signs are that some governments are going to continue with their “business as usual” model.

Governments are spending so much money on fighting the pandemic. Will there be enough left to fund a move to cleaner energy?

Look at the massive government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. And they are asking for more. A wiser approach would be to prioritize assistance to the clean energy sector. Why not try to resolve both crises, instead of trying to fix the economy while simultaneously making the climate crisis worse?

In areas of higher air pollution, people are more likely to die of complications from Covid-19. What’s the link here?

Air pollution is a massive problem globally but gets little attention in part because it’s an invisible killer. The World Health Organization estimates 4 million people die prematurely from it every year. Air pollution affects the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, plus air pollution typically makes people more susceptible to respiratory diseases and may lead to more severe symptoms or increased deaths from respiratory infections, including Covid-19. Groups disproportionally impacted by air pollution – including older people, the chronically ill, and those living in poverty – are also at higher risk from the virus.

In many parts of the world poorer people live in more heavily industrialized areas, which tend to have the highest air pollution. In these often more densely populated areas, more people live under one roof so social distancing is almost impossible. These people often have poorer health baselines, due in part to air pollution. So it’s all linked.  

A man wearing a mask is seen in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing, October 18, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

Many people have lost their jobs. What would be the impact on jobs of a transition to renewable energy?

The impact could be positive both for people and the environment, and it will take leadership. The European Union has talked about a green deal, with ambitious plans to transform their economies to green alternatives. Supporting people whose livelihoods relied on the fossil fuel industry is challenging and expensive, but not impossible. Our economies need to continue functioning and that requires continued energy production. All types of energy create jobs: it’s just a question of whether we want that energy to be polluting and lead us into another crisis.

Traffic making its way into Manhattan from Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge, New York City, March 28, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

How is Covid-19 affecting environmental protections? 

This is one of our biggest concerns: that the Covid-19 pandemic will give governments a reason or a pretext to roll back or relax environmental protections. It’s clear that lobbyists representing car, aviation, plastics, and fossil fuel industries are taking advantage of Covid-19 and pushing governments hard to give them a pass on environmental standards.

The Trump administration has announced a temporary ban on most routine environmental monitoring and reporting requirements if companies can show a Covid-related reason. They also rolled back car emission and air pollution standards. In Canada, in the oil-rich province of Alberta, they’ve announced a similar ban on enforcement of environmental regulations. We’ve seen European governments, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, urging the relaxation of some environmental standards, and it’s happening in Brazil too. Many of these standards help protect human health, so to cut them during a public health crisis is counterproductive.

But these protections are an additional cost for businesses, right?

There is a cost of upholding these standards, of course, but it should be seen as a cost of doing business. Many operations like oil, gas, and mining have been deemed essential services in certain countries, so they’re continuing to make revenue but are trying to trim expenses around regulations that protect human health and the public good. But ignoring regulations has a significant long-term cost to society in terms of health care cost and a less productive workforce.

In this March 10, 2018 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, agents from Ibama measure illegally cut timber from Cachoeira Seca indigenous land in Para state in Brazil's Amazon basin.

© 2018 Vinicius Mendonza/Ibama via AP

Plastic waste has soared with high demand for disposable medical and hygiene products. Do you worry about this?

Yes. Especially because most plastics don’t break down very quickly, so we’re just adding to the amount in our oceans, rivers, and landfills. Progress was being made on banning single-use plastics, the biggest problem, but we’re seeing that being rolled back now because of Covid-19. And the plastics industry is intimately connected to the fossil fuel industry – there are significant fossil fuels in manufacturing these plastic products. Often there are sustainable alternatives to plastic.

 

What’s it like for climate activists right now?

Climate marches have been very effective at raising awareness and, with so many young people taking part, creating the leaders of tomorrow. Fridays For Future [started by Greta Thunberg] has moved online now, but it’s harder for people to mobilize and make themselves heard.

Many activists also operate in remote, rural areas and have limited funding, so with financial markets in meltdown there’s a concern they will find it hard to keep operating. Where activists risk their lives to protect their community, such as in the Amazon in Brazil, it’s visibility that helps protect them. With less attention on activists, they may be more at risk.

Greta Thunberg looks on during the Climate Change Rally and March Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 in Rapid City, S.D. (Adam Fondren/Rapid City Journal via AP)

The speed of lockdowns shows governments can act fast if they want to. Does this give you hope for the future?

Most governments were willing to put in place pretty strict restrictions to protect human health during this pandemic. It shows that happens when there’s political will and public buy-in.

It also shows what’s possible when science is central to political decision-making. On climate change the science is clear, yet governments are still very slow to act. Part of the problem is that climate change is seen as something far off and abstract, which it really isn’t for many communities.

People living in polluted and flood-prone areas have suffered so much from climate change. What does their future hold?  

Modeling shows there will be more extreme weather with a greater impact on marginalized communities. Hurricane season is coming up in the Caribbean, and modeling predicts this year’s season could be the worst on record. The Covid-19 pandemic will make it harder to coordinate emergency responses to disasters because of less funding and travel restrictions for humanitarian workers. And think of typical aid responses, with people lining up for food and water and housed in crowded conditions. We will have to rethink this.

A 7-year-old boy swims in Klity Creek in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The Pollution Control Department’s environmental tests for 2013 (the last year with all data published) regularly found unacceptably high levels of lead in soil along the creek bank, as well as water, creek sediment, fish, shrimp, crabs and vegetables at various locations along the creek. December 8, 2014.

2014 Paula Bronstein/Getty Images for Human Rights Watch

If you could snap your fingers and instantly bring about one big change in climate policy, what would it be?   

To transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy. There is clear scientific consensus on this. We have the solutions. We just need the political will.

 

 

 

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

The world’s forests could soon join the growing list of casualties of the coronavirus pandemic. The fire season is approaching for many. And governments grappling with Covid-19 are rolling back enforcement of environmental protections that are crucial for containing the fires.

Covid-19 makes the effort to reduce forest fires more urgent, not less. This is especially the case as those who are most affected by smoke from the fires – older people, and people with pre-existing heart and lung diseases – are also at higher risk if they contract the virus.

(C) AP Images

AP Images

Recognizing how air pollution caused by smoke may increase vulnerability to Covid-19, British Columbia’s Environment Ministry recently banned open burning of vegetative debris in areas at high-risk for wildfires. The Canadian province acted on a recommendation from its Center for Disease Control to reduce excess air pollution. In the US, the state of Colorado took similar measures to protect residents.

But they are the exception. In Brazil, most fires in the Amazon rainforest are intentionally set, often on illegally cleared land, chiefly between June and October. President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to weaken environmental enforcement have led to a dramatic increase in deforestation, and last year’s fires concentrated along these newly razed areas, scientists from NASA and the Brazilian space agency concluded. Environmental enforcement has continued to drop during the pandemic, with preliminary estimates of forest loss up by 50 per cent in 2020 compared with last year, according to government data.

In Indonesia, rather than relaxing enforcement, the authorities have scrapped regulations that keep illegal logging in check altogether. As of May, exporters will no longer need to obtain licenses verifying that their timber and wood products come from legal sources. The trade minister justified the move as part of a stimulus to boost the timber industry amid the economic slowdown caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.

It is understandable that some governments might be tempted to reduce enforcement in the midst of the pandemic. But that would be a mistake for several reasons.

For one, curbing deforestation is essential to mitigate climate change, which in the long term threatens to have catastrophic consequences for human life and public health. As illegal logging and fires combine to shrink forests, they degrade ecosystems that play a crucial role as “carbon sinks,” absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming. Moreover, destruction of forests itself releases large quantities of carbon.

Recent studies indicate that deforestation is driving the Amazon rainforest toward an “irreversible tipping point” where it will dry out and degrade into shrubland, releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In the boreal forests of the northernmost parts of the world --, like the Russian taiga, fires are seasonal – but there too, corruption and environmental crime are suspected of amplifying them. As with the Amazon, studies indicate that they might be reaching a tipping point. Absent effective conservation measures, boreal forests could turn into a savannah, and bigger, more frequent fires could cause them to start releasing more carbon than they store, a NASA-funded study found.

In addition to contributing to climate change, forest fires present a more immediate and very grave threat to public health. Every year, the smoke that rises from burning landscapes causes increased heart and lung diseases – health conditions that increase the risk of severe illness or death from Covid-19 – as well as thousands of premature deaths among people exposed to the haze.

In Australia, smoke from the bushfires caused more than 400 deaths and 3,000 hospitalizations for cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Brazilian scientists affiliated with the Health Ministry found that, in the areas worst-affected by the fires in 2019, the number of hospitalizations of children with respiratory diseases doubled in May and June, at the very beginning of the fire season, totaling 5,000. Previously, Harvard and Columbia University scientists calculated that haze from Indonesia’s fires in 2015 will result in 100,000 premature deaths across Equatorial Asia.

“There’s evidence that even short term exposure to poor air quality [such as that caused by haze from the fires] could make us vulnerable to respiratory infections,” Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Human Rights Watch. Air pollution caused by the fires may lead to more severe symptoms or increased deaths among those with Covid-19, Dr. Bernstein said.

Other governments should follow British Columbia’s and Colorado’s lead and step up their own efforts to contain the coming fire season. Such measures will protect health in the short and long term as we fight Covid-19, future viral respiratory epidemics, and the catastrophic health effects of climate change that are already beginning to be felt.

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

In this March 10, 2018 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, agents from Ibama measure illegally cut timber from Cachoeira Seca indigenous land in Para state in Brazil's Amazon basin.

© 2018 Vinicius Mendonza/Ibama via AP
(São Paulo) – Fines for illegal logging in the Amazon in Brazil have been effectively suspended since October 2019 under a Bolsonaro administration decree, Human Rights Watch said today.

Federal enforcement agents have issued thousands of fines for illegal deforestation and other environmental infringements in the Amazon and elsewhere in Brazil since October. Yet due to new procedures put in place by the Environment Ministry that month, based on a decree issued by President Jair Bolsonaro last April, lawbreakers have been required to pay in no more than five of these cases, according to official information obtained by Human Rights Watch. 

“Federal agents are working hard to enforce the rule of law, in this case Brazil’s environmental laws – often at considerable personal risk – only to have their efforts sabotaged by the Bolsonaro administration,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The violent criminal networks destroying the Amazon rainforest and Brazilians’ enjoyment of a healthy environment aren’t going to be deterred by fines they don’t have to pay.”

Real-time alerts from Brazil’s Space Agency, INPE, show that deforestation in the Amazon region may have increased 53 percent between October 2019 and April 2020 compared with the same period a year before.

The Bolsonaro administration should stop shielding members of criminal networks engaged in illegal deforestation from being sanctioned for violations of Brazil’s environmental laws and undermining protection of the right to a healthy environment, Human Rights Watch said.

The effective suspension of fines is one of several steps the Bolsonaro administration has taken in Brazil to undercut the enforcement of environmental laws and protection of the environment in Brazil. Others include the removal of senior environmental officials in apparent retaliation for a successful operation against large-scale illegal mining and deforestation in the Amazon.

In October, the Bolsonaro administration implemented new procedures establishing that environmental fines should be reviewed at “conciliation hearings,” in which a commission can offer discounts or eliminate the fine altogether. The Environment Ministry suspended all deadlines to pay those fines until a “conciliation” hearing could be held. 

Only five such hearings have been held nationwide since October 8, when the procedure went into effect, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), Brazil’s main environmental law enforcement agency, told Human Rights Watch. That means that thousands of fines against those destroying the environment are on hold. According to reporting by The Intercept, fines issued from January through mid-April could be worth 412 million reais (US$82 million). Under Brazilian law, all unpaid fines lapse in up to five years, and, in some circumstances, in three years, after which violators no longer need to pay them.

Before October, when IBAMA field agents found a violation of environmental law, they would issue a fine and a ticket on the spot for immediate payment. The vast majority of lawbreakers did not actually pay right away but used repeated appeals to push proceedings beyond the period they remained in effect, an agency official told Human Rights Watch. He requested not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her superiors. 

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles presented conciliation hearings as a way of making the environmental sanctioning more efficient. But the change has in fact crippled the environmental agency’s already limited ability to sanction and deter environmental crimes by delaying proceedings even more. IBAMA agents continue to issue fines for illegal deforestation, mining, and other environmental crimes, but instead of a ticket for payment, they present violators with a citation for a hearing that may never take place.

While hearings are pending, violators have no obligation to pay the fine. On the contrary – if they prefer to forgo the hearing and pay the fine, they have to expressly ask the agency to issue them a ticket before they are permitted to make a payment. Violators have little incentive to do so, as they know that at the hearing they may be able to get their fines reduced by as much as 60 percent, as established by the decree issued by the Bolsonaro administration.

From October to early January, IBAMA held no conciliation hearings, the agency told Human Rights Watch. From January through April 28, it held only five. The agency has since suspended hearings indefinitely, citing the Covid-19 pandemic, even though hearings could be held remotely via videoconference. Since October, IBAMA agents have issued thousands of fines, although the exact number is not known because the public database is not up to date, as IBAMA itself told Human Rights Watch.

The conciliation hearing policy is one of several steps taken by the Bolsonaro administration that have weakened Brazil’s capacity to enforce its environmental laws. These include a bill that would grant amnesty for people who illegally occupy forests to raise cattle or crops and another bill to open up Indigenous territories to commercial exploitation. Since Bolsonaro took office, he has lambasted the government’s own environmental protection agencies, which he calls “industries of fines,” and has vowed to end their “festival” of sanctions for environmental crimes.

On May 7, Bolsonaro issued a decree putting the Armed Forces in charge of overseeing and coordinating environmental agencies in military operations to combat deforestation and fires in the Amazon, without ensuring or making clear how the enforcement agents will have the autonomy, tools, and resources needed to safely and effectively carry out their mission. 

In April, Minister Salles fired the director of environmental enforcement at the agency after a news program showed an operation against large-scale illegal logging and mining in Indigenous territories in the state of Pará. In a letter, 16 IBAMA agents said that they feared the top 2 enforcement agents, who are career officers, could also be removed in retaliation for the operation. After the letter became public, the government did remove those two agents, without any justification. Federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into those decisions.

With its anti-environmental measures, the Bolsonaro administration has empowered criminal networks to step up both illegal deforestation in the Amazon and the threats and violence against those who stand in their way, including IBAMA agents, Indigenous people, small farmers, and others, as documented by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. 

These actions conflict with Brazil’s international human rights obligations and its own constitution, which recognizes the right to an ecologically sound environment. The Inter-American human rights system, which is binding on Brazil, has held that states’ obligations to ensure a clean environment requires them to protect the elements of the environment, such as forests, rivers, and seas.

Under international standards, the government has obligations to act against environmental harm, which includes taking steps to establish, maintain, and enforce effective legal and institutional frameworks for the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The policies of the Bolsonaro administration flout those obligations.

“Brazil’s environmental enforcement agents are increasingly feeling under threat from both sides – from the criminal networks they confront in the field, and from the government they serve,” Canineu said. “They fear if they do their job right, they could lose it.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

On May 4, 2020, the South Kalimantan police arrested and detained blogger Diananta Putra Sumedi (left) in Banjarmasin, charging him with online defamation, which carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison. 

© 2020 Alliance of Independent Journalists
(Jakarta) – The Indonesian police in South Kalimantan province should drop criminal defamation charges against a blogger for articles in which he interviewed indigenous Dayak leaders about a land dispute with an oil palm plantation, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release the blogger, Diananta Putra Sumedi, who has been detained since May 4, 2020.

Criminal penalties for alleged defamation are a disproportionate punishment, have a chilling effect on media freedom, and are frequently abused by the police. Those harmed by publications should seek redress through civil defamation.

“Threatening a writer with prison for criminal defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of speech for all journalists,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher. “Civil defamation is a more proportionate response to alleged defamatory speech.”

Human Rights Watch in 2010 published an analysis of the negative impact of Indonesia’s criminal defamation laws including the internet law and urged their repeal. Those laws contain extremely vague language that has allowed retaliation against journalists and others who had made allegations of corruption, fraud, or misconduct against powerful interests or government officials.

In November 2019, Sumedi wrote on his blog, Banjar Hits, about PT Jhonlin Agro Raya, a palm oil company and subsidiary of the Tanah Bumbu-based Jhonlin Group. The company has had a dispute with Dayak villagers, including Sukirman, the head of a Dayak association. Sukirman is quoted saying he planned to file a lawsuit alleging that the company had illegally appropriated land in three Dayak villages.

Jhonlin Group contested the allegations, and, in accordance with Indonesian law, filed a complaint with Indonesia’s Press Council on November 11. The complaint was brought against Sumedi, his blog Banjar Hits, and Kumparan, a “media collaboration company” in Jakarta that sponsored and provided the platform.

Sukirman filed a report denying the quotes attributed to him. Banjar Hits and Kumparan published a letter from Sukirman denying the quotes. Jhonlin Group also filed a police report. Sumedi had not recorded the interview with Sukirman.

On February 5, the Press Council issued a statement that censured Sumedi for publishing unverified stories. It directed Kumparan to provide the Jhonlin Group the right to respond, saying that the stories were unethical and racially insensitive for creating tension between the Dayak and the Bugis, the ethnic group of the Jhonlin Group’s founder in South Kalimantan. In response to the Press Council recommendations, Kumparan on February 11 took down the stories from the internet, apologized to the Jhonlin Group, and later terminated its collaboration with Banjar Hits.

Three months later, on May 4, the South Kalimantan police arrested and detained Sumedi, charging him with online defamation, which allows pretrial detention and carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison.

A police spokesman said that his arrest and detention were necessary because Sumedi might continue to write stories about this case.

A 2017 memorandum of understanding between Indonesia’s National Police and the Press Council permits a petitioner to request the police to pursue a criminal defamation case if the petitioner is not satisfied with the outcome of a Press Council mediation. Most alleged defamation cases against journalists end at the Press Council, and do not become the basis for a criminal case.

It is not clear whether the Jhonlin Group was dissatisfied with the Press Council statement. Kumparan reported that Jhonlin Group did not use their right to respond. Human Rights Watch contacted the Jhonlin Group and its founder by email and phone, but received no response.

Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists have questioned Sumedi’s detention, asking the South Kalimantan police to drop the case because he had already been sanctioned.

In 2018, another Jhonlin Group company filed a defamation case against another reporter, Muhammad Yusuf, who was arrested and died five weeks later in South Kalimantan police custody.

Land disputes linked to oil palm plantations have been frequent. Konsorsium Pembaruan Agraria (Consortium for Agrarian Reform, KPA), an Indonesian organization, documented more than 650 land-related conflicts affecting over 650,000 households in 2017. Journalists and indigenous rights defenders covering land disputes have been arrested under various laws in addition to criminal defamation.

In December 2019, the immigration office detained an American editor, Phil Jacobson of the environmental news website Mongabay, in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, after he attended a hearing between the local parliament and an indigenous rights advocacy group. The immigration office accused him of breaking Indonesia’s immigration law, by entering the country without a journalist visa. He was deported on January 31.

On April 26, Hermanus, a Dayak farmer, died in a Sampit hospital in Central Kalimantan, while he was facing theft charges related to his efforts to defend Dayak villagers’ land from a palm oil plantation.

“The Indonesian police and aggrieved companies should stop bringing criminal defamation charges to intimidate, detain, or prosecute journalists and others exercising their freedom of speech,” Harsono said. “By having alleged defamation cases go before the Press Council, Indonesia provides a means to quickly address and rectify inaccuracy in the media.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

When Felicia Kasenga and her family were forcibly evicted by a commercial farmer from land in Luombwa, they ended up homeless. Kasenga and her 10 children had to sleep in the open for several months.

© 2017 Samer Muscati for Human Rights Watch
“Where will we go looking for land? There isn’t any land left,” Elisabeth, a 24-year-old mother of four, asked me in 2016. She, along with other rural residents of the Serenje district of Zambia’s Central Province, was displaced seven years ago — some forcibly evicted from their traditional land.

Some commercial farmers that leased land in the district had burned or bulldozed their homes and uprooted trees. When I spoke to Elisabeth and other evicted residents, they had received no compensation and no meaningful opportunity to contest their removal. 

Dozens of residents evicted by one commercial farmer in 2013 lived out in the open for months, then later in tents or shoddy housing on the fringes of a government forest reserve, with inadequate access to water and no source of livelihood or permission to cultivate land.

After the release of our findings in 2017, 13 displaced villagers filed a complaint with the Zambian High Court with the help of the Zambia Land Alliance and Southern Africa Litigation Centre

On April 30, a High Court in Lusaka ruled in their favor, holding that the conversion of customary land was illegal and that the resulting forced displacement violated the community’s rights to life, freedom of movement and association, dignity, and equal protection of the law. The court ordered the attorney general, the local government and one of the companies at issue to provide relief, including providing alternative land and compensation for rights violations. 

The government should swiftly execute this order to ensure that community members have access to land and water and get help with building new homes and returning to farming. The government should also ensure that communities can adequately shelter-in-place to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Additionally, they should fully enforce the court order that the commercial farm must compensate them for their destroyed property, which includes ancestral graves.

The Zambian government promotes large-scale agricultural investments to diversify its economy and reduce rural poverty. Central Province, known as Zambia’s breadbasket, has numerous large “farm blocks” where the government has promised to build roads, develop irrigation and other infrastructure to serve multiple farms. 

The villagers who sued live in the Muchinda chiefdom, a territory and people ruled by Chief Muchinda in Serenje district, which covers about 324 000 hectares and had been parceled out into four large farm blocks which take up more than 273 000 hectares. 

The chiefdom also has a forest reserve, an open-air prison facility with farms run by the government and a “resettlement scheme.” For villagers in the chiefdom, land is scarce and beckons commercial farmers. Villagers were forced off their plots of land in this territory as soon as investors leased the land and started clearing to plant, sometimes without all the required permits. 

In 2017, President Edgar Lungu was quoted saying: “I would like to believe that investors do everything within the law” and that the government expects investors to provide adequate compensation to villagers displaced to make way for business ventures such as large-scale farming.

Our research and the petitioners’ complaint showed a different reality. Families who lived and farmed for generations were displaced without due process or compensation, with some left hungry and homeless. The high court ruling is a first step in righting the wrong done to them.

Petitioners had sought more and requested that the court cancel the commercial farm’s land title, and questioned the legality of the conversion of their land into a farm block. The court stopped short of doing so. It found that though the procedure for converting the land was irregular, it could not cancel the title of the farm since the venture furthered the government’s national development plan. The court then ordered the government to provide alternative land and compensation.

In the current Covid-19 crisis, community members who have lost land — and their livelihoods — are more vulnerable to infection. Community members who have control over their customary land, plant their own food, and are self-sufficient can self-isolate. For others, including indigenous people who have been displaced or evicted and have lost access to homes, farmland, and forests, the pandemic exposes and deepens their precarious situation.

The president should direct responsible senior officials and local leaders to urgently identify and provide alternate land, compensation, and assistance to these community members in a way that preserves their connection to their ancestral area. Given the scarcity of land in the area, alternative land might be difficult to find. But the government has to do its best to find it — and do so quickly. 

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

Human Rights Watch welcomes the inquiry by the International Development Committee (IDC) into the effectiveness of UK Aid, and its intention to examine whether the work of the Department for International Development (DFID) is accountable, transparent, and impactful. Our submission concerns CDC Group, a development bank owned by DFID, and the lack of adequate safeguards at the bank to prevent its investments undermining human rights and environmental protections.

This submission relates to the first two questions identified in the Inquiry’s terms of reference, as they relate to accountability for UK aid spending and the effectiveness of that spending by DFID. It addresses CDC Group’s human rights obligations as a development financial institution owned and funded by the UK government and for which DFID is responsible, the implications of these obligations in terms of accountability and the resulting need for reform of CDC Group’s policies and complaint mechanisms. It also argues that the lack of transparency around CDC Group’s operations and handling of complaints undermines the effectiveness of its investments on behalf of the UK government and ultimately the UK taxpayer.

Human Rights Watch released a report in November 2019 that showed how Feronia, a palm oil company in the Democratic Republic of Congo co-owned by CDC Group, was exposing workers to dangerous pesticides, dumping untreated industrial waste, and engaging in abusive employment practices that result in extreme poverty wages.

In our report, Human Rights Watch recommended that CDC Group undertake structural reforms to ensure that the bank is meeting its human rights obligation to prevent and mitigate abuses by companies in which it invests, such as the one documented in the report.

Specifically, Human Rights Watch recommended that CDC Group:

  • Adopt human rights policies that acknowledge its extraterritorial human rights obligations;
  • Consistently conduct human rights due diligence prior to investing in a project and disclose, at a minimum, summaries of these risk assessments, as well as the mitigation measures the bank has adopted to address these risks;
  • Ensure this information reaches potentially affected communities, and that it is also made available to government agencies that have oversight over the companies;
  • Strengthen its grievance mechanisms so they are effective accountability avenues, and adopt anti-retaliation policies that protect activists from backlash when they bring forth complaints; and
  • Adopt policies on decent work that compel investees to pay living wages, so that their investments meet their development mandate.

Last year, in response to Human Rights Watch’s report, CDC Group, in conjunction with three other development banks that also invest in the same enterprise, announced 14 measures to address the abuses we documented in the palm oil company in Congo. However, CDC Group did not at that time commit to address the structural deficiencies in its oversight and monitoring mechanisms to prevent human rights and environmental impacts from its investments. Our research found that the inadequate oversight and monitoring mechanisms meant the abuses that took place in the context of its investment were left unchecked. This undermines CDC Group’s capacity to carry out development work consistent with UK policy objectives on human rights and the environment.

On May 11, 2020, CDC Group informed Human Rights Watch by email that the bank is currently undertaking a review of its complaint process taking into account our report’s recommendations. The bank is also reviewing its Code of Responsible Investing, as part of its five-year review cycle, to consider Human Rights Watch recommendations on drawing out an explicit policy statement on human rights, a representative of the bank said. We welcome CDC Group’s initiatives on these structural issues.

We urge the International Development Committee to use its oversight authority, including in the context of this inquiry, to ensure that the bank moves forward with this important reform process, and to deliver on the concrete measures CDC undertook to address the serious human rights abuses we documented in these oil palm plantations in Congo.  

Human Rights Watch investigation into abuses by a CDC Group-owned business

The November 2019 Human Rights Watch report found that CDC Group, an entity wholly-owned by DFID, had failed to ensure that the palm oil company it financed and co-owned in Congo was respecting the basic rights of the people who work and live on or near their plantations. The report also examined the responsibility of three other European development banks, and their respective failures in oversight.

Since 2013, CDC Group has invested US$34.4 million in the palm oil company Feronia and its subsidiary Plantations et Huileries du Congo S.A. (PHC) (together “the company”), which operates three oil palm plantations spanning over 100,000 hectares in northern Congo: Boteka in Équateur province, Lokutu in Tshopo province, and Yaligimba in Mongala province.[1] The plantations employ a total of nearly 10,000 workers. Approximately 100,000 people live on or within five kilometers of their property. In addition to being an investor, CDC Group is also a shareholder in Feronia, owning 38 percent of the company.[2]

During field research in Congo between November 2018 and May 2019, Human Rights Watch visited the company’s three plantations and interviewed more than 200 people, including 102 PHC employees residing on or near the plantations, 20 Feronia and PHC executives and company managers, and 25 government officials, among others. Human Rights Watch also reviewed extensive documentary evidence, including social-environmental impact reports the company submitted to Congolese authorities.

Human Rights Watch found that lack of proper oversight by the banks that invested in the company, including CDC Group, enabled the company to commit abuses and environmental harm that infringed upon health and labor rights. These abuses included exposing more than 200 employees to toxic pesticides without adequate protection; not providing employees exposed to hazardous materials with the results of medical examinations; and engaging in abusive employment practices that place many workers under the extreme poverty line. The plantations’ palm oil mills also routinely dump untreated industrial waste and may have already contaminated the only drinking water source of local communities. These finding are detailed in our report, which is available here: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/drc1119_web_0.pdf

 

Lack of Oversight and Enforcement by CDC

CDC Group, which is wholly owned by the UK government through DFID, has an extraterritorial obligation to uphold international human rights law. International standards obligate states including the United Kingdom, and thus a bank the UK state owns, to take steps to prevent and provide redress for rights abuses that occur outside their territories due to the activities of business entities over which they can exercise control.

As a practical matter, CDC Group can exercise control on decisive operational matters through the conditions it attaches to its lending and by monitoring company compliance with these conditions – thereby taking steps to prevent and redress infringements of rights.

The banks that invested in the company, including CDC Group, conducted due diligence to assess social and environmental risks that could pose a liability to themselves as investors, and they evaluated the gap between the companies’ practices and international industry standards. However, neither of these assessments are designed to prevent infringement of human rights that could result from business activity, as would human rights-specific due diligence.

An Environmental, Social and Action Plan (ESAP) was prepared based on the social and environmental assessments. The ESAP’s objective is “to ensure that over time Feronia reaches compliance with international standards and law,” specifically Congolese law, the 2012 IFC Performance Standards, the EHS Guidelines, and the criteria to obtain certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a certification initiative for palm oil producers wishing to adhere to labor, social, and environmental industry-specific standards.[3] CDC, however, has not disclosed the full contents of the ESAP and Human Rights Watch has only been able to review a brief summary provided by the company.

The ESAP could be the instrument to ensure that the banks’ investments do not support activities that cause or contribute to human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch considers that an ESAP should be prepared on the basis of environmental, social, and human rights due diligence so that the banks, including CDC Group, may fulfill their duty to protect rights. To effectively prevent abuses, an ESAP should set minimal social and environmental standards for the company’s operations with a clear timeframe for these standards to be met. In addition to establishing monitoring mechanisms, it should also define consequences in the event that there are serious violations of the company’s contractual obligations. In addition, an ESAP should establish enforceable and accessible remediation avenues for people who have suffered rights abuses from bank-funded commercial activities.

On grounds of commercial secrecy, CDC Group did not disclose its due diligence assessments, nor the mitigation measures it said it had agreed the company would implement, like the ESAP. So long as it does not make this information public, it is difficult – if not impossible – to effectively monitor whether CDC Group is meeting its human rights obligations. This is particularly concerning for investments that are deemed “high risk” under the IFC environmental and social categorization, as PHC has indeed been classified, because of their “potential significant adverse environmental or social risks and/or impacts that are diverse, irreversible, or unprecedented.”[4] Disclosing such assessments would not be unusual – the IFC and World Bank publish social and environmental impact assessments, or their equivalent, for all their projects.

This opacity means that oversight agencies have had limited access to information on the human rights risks associated with investments, or the documentation that lays out the agreement between the banks and their clients. Potentially affected communities do not have access to information on how development banks identify, prevent, or mitigate the human rights impacts associated with investments, what these impacts could be, and how these impacts could affect their rights and livelihoods. Civil society groups have been prevented from scrutinizing whether public funds invested in the development banks are enabling activities that cause or contribute to human rights violations abroad.

CDC Group has complaint mechanisms that provide the bank with feedback on whether it has acted in compliance with its policies and whether these policies are adequate to prevent negative social and environmental impacts. Yet, these mechanisms have multiple weaknesses:

  • They do not have the authority to compel CDC Group, or the businesses in which they invest, to participate in dispute resolution processes or to implement the agreements reached through these processes;
  • They cannot reach a determination of fault or decide liability for abuses; they are only available online, and CDC Group does not publicize their existence for potentially affected people, rendering the mechanism considerably inaccessible for vulnerable rural communities;
  • They do not provide any guidance to complainants on timeframes, types of resolutions they might be able expect, or guarantees against retaliation or reprisal when the complaint is brought by an external party, and the authority responsible for investigating complaints submitted through the mechanism is part of the bank’s management structure, instead of being an independent authority, compromising its impartiality; and
  • They operate without transparency, as CDC does not publish details of the complaints.

CDC Group said it encourages the creation and implementation of effective grievance mechanisms at the company level so that businesses continue operating responsibly after the bank divests. While it is undoubtedly important for such mechanisms to exist at the company level, this does not relieve the bank – or the government authorities that oversee them, DFID in this case – of its obligation to provide remedy and to create avenues for accountability for its role in supporting activities that caused or contributed to abuses. CDC Group and DFID should strengthen these mechanisms to create or provide genuine remediation avenues.

 

CDC Group’s response

On November 25, 2019, CDC Group issued a joint statement with three other development banks in response to the Human Rights Watch report. CDC Group said it would require the company to take steps to redress human rights abuses documented in the report.

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

Crucially, the joint statement asserted that the average worker earns US$3.30 per day. Human Rights Watch addressed an information request to CDC Group on December 5, 2019, soliciting supporting documentation from the company or the bank that could serve as basis for evidence for this figure. To date, Human Rights Watch has not been made party to any information that substantiates this claim.

The joint statement also said that, since 2013, minimum wages for company workers have more than doubled and are now substantially above the minimum wage in Congo. Consider, however, that the national minimum wage for agricultural workers in Congo is 1,680 CDFCDF (US$1.03) per day. The World Bank sets the extreme poverty threshold at US$1.90 per day.

The lowest daily wage that PHC paid contract workers on the three PHC plantations increased from 560 CDF (US$0.35) in July 2009 to 2,085.42 CDF (US$1.30) in February 2018, which is above the national minimum but significantly below the extreme poverty threshold. Moreover, this minimum only applies to contract workers. At the time of publication of the report, nearly 7,000 of Feronia’s more than 10,000 workers were employed as day laborers, who are not guaranteed this minimum wage. Some days, laborers reported receiving a wage of only 2,000 CDF (US$1.20).

On December 9, 2019, the bank said it would send a letter with additional information, but Human Rights Watch has not yet received any such correspondence.

Following the publication of the report, Feronia announced it had entered a loan facility for US$11 million provided by CDC Group.[5]

 

Human Rights Watch’s engagement with CDC Group

On March 22, 2019, Human Rights Watch requested information from CDC Group regarding the bank’s participation in Feronia and PHC. CDC Group responded in writing on April 29, 2019. On September 30, 2019, Human Rights Watch sent a summary of our findings to CDC Group requesting information on the steps taken to address the human rights issues documented in this report, to which the bank replied on October 22, 2019.

On May 20, 2019, we also requested information from DFID, to which it responded in writing on June 10.

All letters sent and received by Human Rights Watch for the purposes of this report are publicly available online at: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/supporting_resources/drc_report_annex.pdf.

On November 27, 2019, three staff members of Human Rights Watch met with CDC Group’s General Counsel, the Director of Communications, and the Director of Environmental and Social Responsibility.

Human Rights Watch sought a meeting with the head of the DFI Team in the Private Sector Department of DFID, but he declined due to purdah ahead of the General Election.

In December 2019, and January and May 2020, Human Rights Watch reached out to CDC Group over email to request clarification on the content of their public statement, as well as follow-up on the implementation of the measures they announced to rectify the abuses we documented in the report.

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] BIO letter in response to Human Rights Watch information request, February 6, 2019, copy on file; CDC Group’s response to Human Rights Watch information request, April 30, 2019, copy on file; DEG response to Human Rights Watch information request, April 17, 2019, copy on file.

[4] IFC Environmental and Social Categorization, https://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/topics_ext_content/ifc_external_corp... (accessed September 30, 2019), emphasis added. FMO disclosed the risk category associated to their investment in PHC; FMO, Plantations et Huileries du Congo SA, https://www.fmo.nl/project-detail/45017 (accessed September 30, 2019).

[5] Feronia Inc., “Feronia Inc. Announces $11 Million Short-Term Loan Facility”, Globe Newswire, November 29, 2019, available at:  https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2019/11/29/1954042/0/en/Feronia-Inc-Announces-11-Million-Short-Term-Loan-Facility.html  

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Cláudio José da Silva is the coordinator of the “Forest Guardians” of Caru Indigenous Territory, in the Brazilian Amazon. The Guardians patrol indigenous land to detect illegal logging and report it to the authorities.

© 2019 Brent Stirton/Human Rights Watch
Thousands of Indigenous people from communities throughout the Amazon and elsewhere in Brazil had planned to gather in the nation’s capital on April 27 in what has become a massive annual mobilization to defend Indigenous lands and rights. Instead, they have remained in their towns and villages to protect themselves from the spread of Covid-19. But their message to officials, now delivered remotely, is more urgent than ever.

Even as the pandemic puts the brakes on Brazil’s economy, illegal logging and mining continue at full speed in Indigenous territories throughout the Amazon.

Wildcat gold mining along the Tapajos river in the Amazon slowed down for a while with the news of the novel coronavirus spreading through the world, but is now back in full throttle. Boats are once again going up and down the river, a resident told Human Rights Watch, carrying supplies for the many illegal mining sites along its banks. And closer to the Venezuelan border, miners encroaching on Yanomami territory unscrupulously advance their excavations.

Land invasions – from trespassing to illegal land seizures – are a driving force behind deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, as the authorities’ failure to enforce the law has opened the door to criminal networks and other people illegally pursuing timber, minerals, and other riches.

Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable. The Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), a nonprofit organization, registered at least 160 cases of invasions of Brazil’s Indigenous territories from January through September 2019—a dramatic increase over previous years—and many others may not have been reported.  In the year leading up to July 2019, deforestation in Indigenous lands in the Amazon increased 65 percent, according to Brazil's National Space Research Agency.

These invasions have not only increased but become more brazen since President Jair Bolsonaro took office last year, according to federal prosecutors and local residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch.

The president’s aggressive rhetoric against forest defenders—and his sabotaging of the agencies tasked with protecting the environment and Indigenous rights—has given carte blanche to land invasions in the Amazon. And it has left  the agencies unable to deploy as quickly or as often as needed to deter invasions on protected areas, including Indigenous lands.

So Indigenous people are left to patrol and protect their lands by themselves, and in doing so, they confront criminal networks and other intruders emboldened to threaten, assault, or kill whoever stands in their way.  Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a forest guardian in northeastern Brazil’s Arariboia Indigenous Territory, was shot dead in November while trying to defend his community from invaders. This month, Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, an Indigenous leader known to patrol the land against illegal logging, was killed in the state of Rondônia.

This violence against Indigenous people is part of a bigger problem throughout the Amazon, where forest defenders are paying a heavy price as they fight what increasingly seems like an uphill battle. Overall, deforestation increased by almost 30 percent last year, and preliminary data indicate that the amount of forest cleared in the first quarter of this year may have been more than 50 percent higher than in the same period in 2019.

Scientists warn that deforestation, fires, and climate change, may be rapidly pushing the Amazon toward an irreversible “tipping point” at which the rainforest will stop producing enough rain to sustain itself. This could cause enormous harm to Brazilian agriculture by disrupting regional weather patterns, while further accelerating climate change as large amounts of carbon stored in the rainforest are released into the atmosphere. 

With Brazil currently facing a pandemic, some officials might argue that now is not the time to step up efforts to protect Indigenous territories. But Brazil can protect public health while enforcing its laws, and this is not a problem it can afford to put off. Given the devastating consequences that the rainforest’s destruction will have for the entire country—and the world—it is both unjust and a dereliction of duty to leave Indigenous peoples and other local communities to fight this desperate battle on their own.

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

Mexican migrant workers carry ladders during a harvest at an orange farm in Lake Wales, Florida, U.S., April 2020

(c) 2020 Reuters/Marco Bello

Temperatures are hitting record-breaking highs in Florida, shocking TV meteorologists. The “Sunshine State” is famous for its warm weather, but these temperatures are scary, especially for Florida’s outdoor workers.

The damage caused by heat is complex and underappreciated. Heat can cause sickness and death. But it also increases the number of accidents at work, and for marginalized students worsens exam results. Exposure to heat during pregnancy is linked to preterm birth and other adverse birth outcomes. Heat is more dangerous for older people and marginalized groups in the US, like Black people who die at higher rates in heat waves. This summer has a new challenge from Covid-19 which will make using cooling centers (public places like library open for people without homes or air conditioning seeking cooling) difficult as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines make clear.

Miami-Dade County, on Florida’s southeastern tip, hosts many of the state’s tens of thousands of farmworkers, who labor in fields to feed America. Often unseen by those living in Florida’s well air conditioned buildings, farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat-related illness than other workers in the United States. Studies of ag workers in Florida found that most participating in the study were dehydrated at the end of work and many had dangerously high core-body temperatures during the day.

This situation is only going to get worse with climate change. Florida’s preparations for climate change are lagging, as state authorities spent years in denial. But sea-level rise, hurricanes of increasing intensity, and heat hikes are already there.

If global carbon emissions are not drastically reduced, the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts Miami-Dade County will see the number of days hitting a heat index of 100 degrees Fahrenheit and above – dangerous and potentially deadly to humans – jump 227 percent to 134 from about 41 within roughly 30 years.

Florida, as well as the US government and other US states, urgently needs to reverse course and to prepare for extreme heat.

Those who face the most dangerous heat, notably farmworkers working in open fields, should have better protection. This includes requirements for employers, called a heat standard, designed to keep workers safe. The heat standard should mandate lifesaving rest, shade, and water as well as heat safety training. WeCount!, the Farmworkers Association of Florida, and other farmworker rights groups have been battling for such a standard. California and Washington State both have heat standards. They are not a panacea against the dangers of heat, but by adopting such a standard the Sunshine State’s lawmakers would take an important step toward protecting farmworkers’ right to decent, and safe, work.

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

Traffic making its way into Manhattan from Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge, New York City, March 28, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

People exposed to air pollution – often because they live in low-income, industrial, or polluted urban neighborhoods – are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from Covid-19.

But instead of addressing this link, the Trump administration is weakening air pollution regulations at an alarming rate, making decisions that defy scientific findings and that keep marginalized communities at heightened risk of respiratory illness and premature death.

A Harvard study from April found that increased exposure to air pollution increases Covid-19 death rates in the United States. As racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in low-income, metropolitan neighborhoods, they are also more prone to the impacts of air pollution exposure. Globally, communities living in poverty are also more likely to face high levels of airborne pollutants.

For decades, the Bronx has had the highest poverty rate of New York City’s five boroughs, as well as the highest percentage of minorities. A dense concentration of industrial facilities and highways there exposes residents to more air pollutants than other New Yorkers. Due to inequitable housing, land use, and transportation policies, parts of the West and South Bronx endure the highest levels of vehicular and industrial air pollution in New York State, threatening the health of children, older people, women, pregnant people, and the marginalized populations in these communities. The Bronx also ranks lowest in terms of health outcomes by county in the state, and residents experience some of the highest hospitalization rates for asthma, respiratory illness, and cardiovascular disease in the city – conditions associated with air pollution exposure that render them susceptible to severe illness from Covid-19.

Physical distancing has allowed air pollution levels to decline in cities, including New York. But these levels may soar in the pandemic’s aftermath, and without reforms, low-income communities will continue to be disproportionately affected. Instead of weakening air pollution regulations, the US government should immediately address air pollution’s risks to health – doing so will save lives. Along with ensuring affordable Covid-19 treatment for all, the government should enforce and strengthen regulations to curb air pollution and embrace bold strategies to reduce racial, ethnic, and income disparities related to air pollution exposure. Such measures will be crucial for people who may suffer long-term lung damage from Covid-19 and will be vital to prevent future health disasters that disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities. 

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

Satellite images showing dramatic drops in air pollution in coronavirus hotspots around the globe have circulated widely on social media, offering a silver lining to an otherwise very dark story. But they are also a graphic reminder of the climate crisis that will continue when the pandemic passes.

When the lockdowns are lifted and life returns to what it once was, so too will the pollution that clouds the skies and with it the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming.

In fact, the rebound could be even worse.

Coal-fired power plant towers visible before dawn in Germany.

AP Images

In the initial aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production decreased by 1.4 percent, only to rise by 5.9 percent in 2010. And the crisis this time could have a longer-term impact on the environment — at far greater cost to human health, security, and life — if it derails global efforts to address climate change.

This was supposed to be a “a pivotal year” for those efforts  to address climate change, as UN Secretary General António Guterres put it at a recent briefing on the UN’s annual climate summit, which was scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November.

Ahead of the summit, 196 countries were expected to introduce revamped plans to meet the emission reduction goals established under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Yet on April 1, in the face of the spreading coronavirus pandemic, the UN announced that it was postponing the summit until sometime next year.

It was only the latest sign that the casualties of Covid-19 may include global efforts to address climate change. Other international meetings related to climate — on biodiversity and oceans — have also been disrupted. While the need to mobilize governments to act on climate has never been more urgent, the inability to gather world leaders to address the issue could make it all the more difficult to do so.

The coronavirus crisis also threatens local efforts to meet the climate commitments that have already been made.

The European Union has come under pressure to shelve crucial climate initiatives, with Poland calling for a carbon trading program to be put on hold and the Czech Republic urging that the EU’s landmark climate bill be abandoned, while airline companies have pressed regulators to delay emissions-cutting policies. China has already announced such delays, extending deadlines for companies to meet environmental standards and postponing an auction for the right to build several huge solar farms.

In the United States, after a powerful oil lobby petitioned the Trump administration to relax enforcement, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would not penalize companies that fail to comply with federal monitoring or reporting requirements if they could attribute their non-compliance to the pandemic. And in recent days it announced a rollback on car emissions rules that were a central piece of U.S. efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In Brazil, the federal environmental agency announced it is cutting back on its enforcement duties, which include protecting the Amazon from accelerating deforestation that could lead to the release of massive amounts of greenhouse gases that are stored in one of the world’s most important carbon sinks.

Governments have a human rights obligation to protect people from environmental harm — and this includes a duty to address climate change.

They might conceivably have valid reasons to temporarily relax the enforcement of some environmental rules as they scramble to contain the pandemic and salvage their economies. But these measures could do permanent damage if used to advance the broader anti-environmental agendas of leaders like President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who oppose global efforts to address climate change.

The real impact of the coronavirus crisis on climate could depend ultimately on choices made regarding how governments want their economies to look when they recover—and, in particular, how much they will continue to rely on fossil fuels. Meeting the Paris Agreement’s central goal of limiting global warming will require reducing this reliance.

And here the crisis might offer some grounds for hope.

Many see the efforts to contain the economic fallout of the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate the shift to cleaner energy alternatives, such as solar and wind. Options could include ensuring that economic stimulus programs prioritize investments in cleaner energy, or  conditioning assistance to businesses, especially in carbon-intensive sectors, on drastic cuts in emissions. Similarly, financial industry bailouts could require banks to invest less in fossil fuel and more in climate change mitigation and resilience efforts.

In the U.S., congressional Democrats pushed for such measures when negotiating the recent stimulus package. In response, President Trump threatened a veto, tweeting “This is not about the ridiculous Green New Deal.” The proposed measures did not survive, though Democrats did manage to block $3 billion that Republicans sought to buy up oil for the strategic reserve.

In Europe, the prospects for green stimulus are more promising. In response to one European leader’s call to abandon climate measures, an EU spokesperson was categorical: “While our immediate focus is on combating Covid-19, our work on delivering the European Green Deal continues. The climate crisis is still a reality and necessitates our continued attention and efforts."

The struggle to ensure that human rights protections and climate commitments are not Covid-19 collateral will continue in the US, the EU and elsewhere as governments face the task of restarting their economies in the weeks and months to come. The outcome will define our capacity and will to mitigate what threatens to be a global catastrophe far greater even than the viral pandemic.

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

(Nairobi, April 16, 2020) – The Guinean government’s failure to provide adequate land, compensation, and other forms of support to those displaced for the Souapiti hydroelectric dam has devastated the livelihoods and food security of thousands of people, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The dam is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese government’s trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure across some 70 countries, which has supported large-scale hydropower projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The 63-page report, “‘We’re Leaving Everything Behind’: The Impact of Guinea’s Souapiti Dam on Displaced Communities[MH1] ,” documents how resettled communities, forced off their ancestral homes and farmlands, are struggling to feed their families, restore their livelihoods, and live with dignity.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Myanmar press freedom and youth activists demonstrate for the release of two jailed Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, in Yangon, Myanmar, September 16, 2018. 

©2018 Reuters/Ann Wang
(Bangkok) – Myanmar authorities should immediately drop all charges against an editor for broadcasting an interview with an armed group representative, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 30, police arrested and charged Nay Myo Lin, the editor-in-chief of the Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, under Myanmar’s overly broad Counter-Terrorism Law for an interview with the Arakan Army spokesperson.

In recent weeks, the Myanmar government has expanded its crackdown on journalists, including several editors. The actions have severely undermined press freedom and access to information in the country.

“The Myanmar authorities’ assault on media freedom by arresting journalists who are simply doing their job harms everyone’s access to information,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor. “Nay Myo Lin was unjustly charged and should immediately be released.”

On March 23, the Myanmar government designated the insurgent Arakan Army as a terrorist organization under the Counter-Terrorism Law and as an “unlawful association” under section 15(2) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act. On March 27, Nay Myo Lin interviewed the Arakan Army spokesperson Khaing Thu Kha and broadcast the interview under the title “Peace Process has stopped.”

The Mandalay Special Branch police filed a criminal complaint against Nay Myo Lin under sections 50(a) and 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law. Section 50(a) of the law authorizes a minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum of life imprisonment for, among other actions, “causing fear among the public” or “damaging the security of the public.” Section 52(a) authorizes a sentence of three to seven years in prison for activities that “knowingly involve a terrorist group.”

Nay Myo Lin’s arrest reflects the government’s deepening crackdown on independent media. On March 31, police raided the home of the editor-in chief of the Yangon-based Khit Thit News media outlet. Police also raided the office of the Sittwe-based Narinjara news outlet, arresting three journalists – Thein Zaw, Aung Lin Htun, and Htun Khaing – and releasing them later that evening. The Democratic Voice of Burma reported that the editor-in-chief of Narinjara, Khaing Mrat Kyaw, has been charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law but has not been arrested.

“The baseless charges against Nay Myo Lin and Khaing Mrat Kyaw make clear that every journalist trying to cover Myanmar’s many conflicts is at risk,” Lakhdhir said. “So too are the humanitarian workers trying to bring aid to civilians at risk and human rights advocates monitoring abuse in conflict areas.”

While international human rights law allows governments to place restrictions on the media for national security reasons, these restrictions must be strictly necessary for a legitimate purpose and not be overbroad. They may not be used to suppress or withhold information of legitimate public interest not harmful to national security, or to prosecute journalists for reporting such information. For the government to fulfill this responsibility, journalists should be able to speak to and meet with a variety of people without fear of arrest or harassment – including those who are in conflict with the government or military.

The Myanmar government has repeatedly used draconian laws against journalists for reporting on military abuses or ethnic armed groups. In 2018, two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act after uncovering a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were released on a presidential pardon after spending more than a year in jail. Aung Marm Oo, the editor-in-chief of the news agency Development Media Group (DMG), which has reported on the conflict in Rakhine State, is currently facing a complaint under the Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Access to information is rapidly diminishing under Myanmar’s current government. On March 23, the Ministry of Transport and Communications instructed four mobile operators to block access to 221 websites deemed to be spreading “fake news” or containing explicit content, according to the media.

Narinjara and Development Media Group said that since March 24, they have been blocked by all four mobile operators, which include Norway’s Telenor, Qatari-owned Ooredoo, military-affiliated MyTel and the state-owned MPT. Telenor is the only telecommunications provider to have issued a statement about the government directive.

The current editor-in-chief of DMG, Phadu Tun Aung, told local media that by blocking the only two ethnic-Rakhine media outlets, the government had effectively silenced ethnic Rakhine voices. “By blocking our websites, [the government is] restricting the people’s right to information,” he said. Other registered media outlets in Shan and Karen States and Mandalay region also reported that they were blocked.

Any government restrictions on websites should clearly explain why the content is being taken down and should focus on specific content rather than whole domains.

The government should also lift the continued internet shutdowns in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States, which threaten the safety of civilians as fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar armed forces continues. The blanket shutdown violates international human rights law, which requires internet-based restrictions to be necessary and proportionate.

Internet service providers should fully resist unjustified internet shutdowns or takedowns, including by seeking a legal basis for any shutdown order and interpreting requests to cause the least intrusive restrictions. They should carry out their responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and avoid complicity in human rights abuses especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Myanmar government has increasingly acted to restrict access to information it does not like and punish those who bring it to light,” Lakhdhir said. “Counter-terrorism laws should never be used against journalists for their reporting. Under these circumstances the future for press freedom in Myanmar is bleak.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Cars are seen on highway 101 in Palo Alto, California, September 17, 2019.

© 2019 Yichuan Cao/Sipa via AP Images

United States President Donald Trump’s announcement of dramatically reduced fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles, a move expected to lead to increased air pollution and emission of billions of tons more greenhouse gases, is the latest in a series of attacks on environmental protection since Trump took office. These have included the rollback of dozens of laws and regulations designed to protect the environment and human health.

For example, late last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that for an indefinite period of time it would not enforce monitoring and reporting requirements of many environmental regulations if the company can show a COVID-19 related reason for non-compliance.

Both of these policies will bring added harm to human health, with no meaningful justification.

The EPA policy means that most reporting requirements for companies polluting air and water will not be enforced. This means communities will not know what is discharged into the air they breathe.

The rollback of fuel standards will almost certainly have devastating impacts on efforts to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. It is expected to lead to one trillion more tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere which is equivalent to 20 percent of US total annual emissions or more than the total annual emissions of Canada. This comes at a time when it is critical that global emissions are dramatically reduced to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.

It will almost certainly harm air quality, and air pollution is responsible for a number of respiratory, cardiovascular, and other health issues in the US. People infected with COVID-19 and living in communities with high levels of air pollution may also face higher risks of severe disease or death, as during the 2003 SARS epidemic, during which people who breathed dirtier air were about twice as likely to die from the infection. Air pollution causes more than 200,000 premature deaths in the US every year.   

The EPA’s overbroad policy offered no explanation as to why COVID-19 restrictions would impact monitoring or reporting. Nor did it justify the indefinite timing for the suspension of these requirements.

The rollback of fuel efficiency standards is even more arbitrary, and inconsistent with the position of the auto industry, which has advocated for improved, not lower, standards, in part because of “shifting market conditions and consumer preferences.”

Lower fuel efficiency vehicles will bring increased fuel consumption, which stands to benefit the fossil fuel industry.

In the midst of such a horrendous public health emergency, the US should be using all tools available to protect people’s health, instead of taking steps that undermine it.

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