Click to expand Image Fence line communities near Duvha Power Station, Mpumalanga, South Africa.  © Daylin Paul

When you approach the town of Secunda in the coal-rich province of Mpumalanga in eastern South Africa, the toxic smell of air emanating from the cluster of coal-fired power stations hits you long-before before you see the town. I spent last week in Mpumalanga, hearing from residents about the burdens they say result from the coal industry: from asthma and respiratory illnesses to the risk of drowning in unrehabilitated coal mines.

The negative health impacts of coal, and air pollution specifically, form the basis of the “Deadly Air” case, a legal challenge by two South African environmental justice organizations – groundWork and Vukani Environmental Movement (VEM) – which will be heard in the Pretoria High Court from May 17 to 19. They argue that, by failing to improve Mpumalanga’s air quality, the South African government has violated communities’ constitutional right to a healthy environment.

To support their case, the organizations cite a 2017 study, commissioned by groundWork, that estimated 2,239 human deaths per year could be attributable to coal-related air pollution in South Africa, as well as more than 9,500 cases of bronchitis among children 6 to 12. They want the government to better implement a 2012 plan to improve air quality in Mpumalanga, including through regulations targeting large polluters in the coal industry.

The Deadly Air case comes as South Africa prepares to submit its latest draft Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), the country’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Any meaningful commitment will entail South Africa taking tangible steps to move away from its coal dependency – South Africa’s coal reliance places it in the top 15 worldwide largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and makes it one of the most carbon-intensive economies in the G20.  

South African environmental justice groups hope a favorable ruling in the case will compel the government and coal industry to reckon with its devastating health impacts and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. Only then will Mpumalanga’s residents be able to breathe clean air and have sustainable and clean jobs that simultaneously contribute to addressing the climate crisis.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 14, 2021, 1:04 pm
Click to expand Image In this photo released by the Department of Corrections, COVID-19 prisoners sit inside a field hospital set up at the Medical Correctional Institution to treat COVID-19 inmates in Bangkok, Thailand on May 8, 2021. © 2021 Department of Corrections, Thailand via AP

(New York) – People held in Thailand’s overcrowded prisons and detention facilities are at grave risk from Covid-19 outbreaks. The Thai authorities should immediately act to ensure that prisoners and detainees have access to adequate protective measures and health care. The authorities should swiftly reduce overcrowding by releasing people who do not pose a serious and concrete risk to others.

On May 12, 2021, Thailand’s Corrections Department announced that 1,795 inmates in Bangkok Remand Prison and 1,040 in Central Women’s Correctional Institution had tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19. In addition, hundreds of people detained in provincial prisons such as in Chiang Mai and Narathiwat have reportedly tested positive for the novel coronavirus.  

“The Thai government is obligated under international law to ensure that prisoners and detainees have adequate health protections and care, particularly during escalating Covid-19 outbreaks,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Besides providing health care and virus testing, the authorities should reduce the detainee population through supervised release of those held on politically motivated charges or for minor offenses, or who face greater risk from underlying health conditions.”

The Corrections Department reported that Thailand has 380,000 inmates across the country. Almost 20 percent are in pretrial detention, according to World Prison Brief. These include members of pro-democracy movements who have been charged but not yet tried for lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) and other politically motivated offenses.

Under international human rights law, the Thai government has an obligation to ensure accessible health care for people in custody that is at least equivalent to that available to the general population. It must not deny or limit detainees’ equal access to preventive, curative, or palliative health care, regardless of citizenship, nationality, or migration status.

The Thai authorities should urgently take preventive measures by ensuring that staff and people in detention have adequate personal protective equipment, access to regular Covid-19 testing, quality health care, and water, sanitation, and hygiene. Prison authorities should establish and maintain appropriate social distancing measures. The Corrections Department should regularly communicate in a transparent manner about the Covid-19 situation in detention facilities with staff, people in custody, and the general public.

The Thai government should also follow United Nations guidance for any additional measures and take immediate steps to address prison overcrowding, including prison releases. Thailand’s releases of prisoners and detainees who are at increased risk of complications from the virus that causes Covid-19 have been far too few and too slow, contributing to preventable suffering.

Thailand should consider reducing populations in prisons and detention facilities through appropriate supervised release of detainees at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions. The Thai authorities should also take into consideration factors such as the gravity of the person’s crime, the length of their sentence, and the amount of time already served. In addition, those who may be scheduled for release soon, those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, and those whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or not justified should also be considered for early release.

Following an April 5 decision by the Corrections Department to suspend all prison visits, the authorities should ensure that prisoners and detainees are able to maintain regular communication with the outside world and allow for independent monitoring of conditions in the prisons. Alternatives to in-person visiting should be put in place, such as video calls and phone calls. The visiting restrictions should be time-bound and subject to review.

“The Thai government needs to be forthright about the Covid-19 outbreaks in its prison system and how it intends to avoid disastrous consequences for those held,” Adams said. “Many people warned the Thai authorities that they needed to act proactively to avoid such a situation, but it seems they got caught sleeping at the switch.”  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 13, 2021, 10:56 pm
Click to expand Image An ambulance with a red cross and bullet holes is exhibited at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, November 2017. © 2017 Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is calling on governments to ban fully autonomous weapons.

ICRC President Peter Maurer said yesterday that he hopes the humanitarian organization’s public backing for new legally binding rules to prohibit and regulate autonomous weapons will help spur “political action at the international level” and “collectively draw a line that is in the interest of people” and “ultimately, our shared humanity.”

As technology develops rapidly, the ICRC has found that the laws of war “do not provide all the answers” to ensure that commanders and weapon operators retain sufficient human control over weapons systems.

The increased use of weapons systems with autonomy in today’s armed conflicts underscores the importance of creating a new international legal standard now, before it is too late. A United Nations report issued last year details how fighters in Libya “were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged” by the Turkish-manufactured STM Kargu-2 loitering munition. During the recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan government forces used various loitering munitions, such as the Harop developed by Israel Aerospace Industries.

Once launched, this so-called “suicide drone” loiters in the air for a period searching for a target, which it attacks once detected. Regarded by the ICRC as the only real form of “offensive” autonomous weapon deployed today, loitering munitions are configured to allow the human operator to monitor and intervene in its operation.

Since 2018, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has urged states to move to prohibit weapons systems that could, by themselves, target and attack human beings, calling them “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable.” Last year, Pope Francis warned lethal autonomous weapons systems would “irreversibly alter the nature of warfare, detaching it further from human agency.”

Dozens of countries have expressed support for negotiating a new international law to prohibit and restrict autonomous weapons. But major military powers – most notably Russia and the United States – have repeatedly thwarted moves to begin negotiations, arguing it is “premature” to attempt regulation.

Frustration over the lack of progress in diplomatic talks suggests a new process should be undertaken to negotiate an international treaty on killer robots that many countries seek.

The ICRC decision may mark a turning point, given that no international arms treaties have been adopted in recent decades without its support and participation. As the guardian of international humanitarian law, the ICRC is an indispensable partner for governments, UN agencies, and nongovernmental organizations working to protect civilians during armed conflict.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 13, 2021, 4:26 pm
Click to expand Image Rozybai Jumamadov, whose 14-year-old nephew and family were harassed and threatened by authorities in Turkmenistan, May 2020. © 2020 Rozybai Jumamadov

(Vienna) – Turkmen security officials have questioned and threatened a 14-year-old boy in retaliation for the outspoken views of his uncle, a Turkmen activist and journalist who lives in Turkey, four independent human rights groups said today.

The threats, in early May 2021, are part of a wave of harassment against the activist, Rozybai Jumamuradov, and of a rising number of incidents in which Turkmen officials have pressured critics based outside the country through their relatives in the country.

The groups, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, said that Turkmen authorities should immediately end their harassment of relatives of dissidents based abroad and uphold freedom of expression and respect for basic rights within the country.

“For decades Turkmen authorities have systematically denied people the right to speak their minds within the country,” said Farid Tuhbatullin, TIHR chair. “Now they are intimidating and harassing relatives to target outspoken activists who live outside its borders. This is a despicable tactic to coerce critics into silence, including about Turkmenistan’s economic crisis.”

In recent months, there has been a surge in criticism of the Turkmen authorities on social media platforms, and an anti-government protest movement has emerged among Turkmen communities abroad. This uptick in activism has come against the background of the government’s persistent policy of Covid-19 denial, the serious protracted economic and social crisis in the country, and the authorities’ failure to ensure food security and provide other basic public services.

The Turkmen government has responded to the growing expression of discontent by increasing pressure against critical voices.

Jumamuradov told TIHR that on May 4, Turkmen security services in Lebap region summoned his nephew. They questioned the boy about his uncle’s activities and about any communications he has had with him.

Jumamuradov said that the officials cursed and shouted at the teenager and threatened to imprison him and his parents because of their contacts with Jumamuradov. They also brought the boy’s mother to the police station and interrogated and intimidated her in the presence of her son. After taking profile photos of both, treating them as if they were criminal suspects, the security service officials released them.

The May 4 incidents followed earlier acts of intimidation targeting Jumamuradov’s family. On April 26, 2021, national security officials summoned and questioned the boy’s father. Prior to this, on March 21, 2021, unidentified people called the boy’s family and threatened to kill them unless they ceased communicating with Jumamuradov.

“It is shocking that security service officials went after a child in their attempts to scare and silence his activist uncle,” said Brigitte Dufour, IPHR’s director. “This shows that the authorities spare no effort in their relentless campaign against dissent.”

Jumamuradov has criticized the government during discussions with members of Turkmen opposition groups on social media. In July 2020, he was also involved in a peaceful rally in Istanbul criticizing Turkmenistan’s government, which was cut short by Turkish police. He previously worked as a correspondent for the Prague-based Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Turkmenistan but was forced to flee the country in 2009 to escape persecution after the security services found out about his work for this service. He has lived in Turkey since 2011.

The threats against Jumamuradov’s family fit the growing pattern of government persecution of relatives of activists who live abroad.

“Turkmenistan has long been a closed country for independent human rights scrutiny,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International Eastern Europe and Central Asia office director. “The pattern of persecution of relatives of activists who live abroad shows the lengths to which its government will go to keep the world from knowing the scale of the human rights violations there.”

Another activist targeted is Devlet Bayhan, who is based in Germany and runs a video blog critical of the Turkmen authorities. Bayhan, a former journalist, told TIHR that national security officials visited and threatened his relatives in the city of Mary in Turkmenistan on several occasions since the end of March 2021.

Bayhan said that two of his relatives were fired from their jobs in early April, clearly in retaliation for his activism. Officials warned one of his family members, whose son is currently serving in the army, that their son might not return alive unless Bayhan quits his activism.

Bayhan has spoken out on his blog about various issues concerning the political and social situation in Turkmenistan. Recently he criticized President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s election as chair of the newly introduced second chamber of parliament, in violation of a constitutional provision that prohibits the president in office from being a member of parliament. Previously, when living in Turkey, Bayhan worked for several years as a freelance correspondent for the Turkmen service of RFE/RL. He left Turkey in 2019 after being intimidated and harassed by both Turkmen security services and Turkish police.

In the past year, human rights organizations have documented a series of other cases involving pressure on the relatives of activists who are based abroad.

“Turkmenistan’s international partners should speak up in support of Turkmen activists whose relatives have faced retaliation,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They should insist that the authorities end this abuse and instead focus on the serious problems that activists are bringing to light.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 13, 2021, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Young mothers carry their children as they collect books at a secondary school in Kenya, January 8, 2021. © 2021 Monicah Mwangi/Reuters

“I want to [talk] about female candidates who sat for the…examination [while] in hospitals. As I celebrate, I also want to castigate our parents in the most severe terms possible.”

These were the words of Kenya’s cabinet secretary for education, Professor George Magoha, when he presented the results of the 2020 secondary school leaving exam this week. He was talking about students who sat for their exams while pregnant.

But the secretary’s comment diminished what was otherwise a positive statement acknowledging the right to education for all children. His words, including a later statement implying that girls from his generation were “better behaved,” threaten to cast pregnant girls as moral failures. This perception is common in Kenya, often shared publicly by senior government officials and members of parliament, and contributes to shaming, stigmatization, and isolation of adolescent girls who have early pregnancies.

Such attitudes undermine girls’ right to education.

Pregnancy and childbearing, especially for girls, are life-altering events. Overcoming the challenges linked to being pregnant or a parent while studying – often in non-protective or supportive environments – present serious challenges for pregnant girls’ and adolescent mothers’ access to education. 

Kenya has a re-entry policy that allows pregnant girls to stay in school for as long as they want but prevents them from resuming studies until six months after delivery. Human Rights Watch research shows there is weak implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of this policy. Instead, pregnant girls face multiple barriers to staying in school, such as accommodation for breastfeeding, childcare, stigma in schools and communities, and lack of finances.

Cabinet Secretary Magoha has raised concerns about pregnancy amongst students and asked education officials to investigate the causes. However, he missed an important opportunity to affirm government policy protecting pregnant girls’ right to education.

Instead of shaming pregnant girls and their parents, Prof. Magoha should champion the important role the education sector can play in preventing unplanned adolescent pregnancies as well as supporting pregnant and adolescent mothers in maintaining social networks and pursuing their educational and economic dreams.

The international and national legal obligation to provide pregnant and parenting students with education, without discrimination, is clear. As the cabinet secretary rightly noted in his speech, “… there is no insignificant child…. We must not leave any learner behind.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 13, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Supporters of West Papua shout slogans during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia on December 1, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should drop politically motivated treason charges and unconditionally release an activist detained for peacefully advocating Papuan independence, Human Rights Watch said today. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should publicly direct security forces involved in counterinsurgency operations in Papua to act in accordance with international law or be held to account.

On May 9, 2021, a special police unit, Satgas Nemangkawi, arrested Victor Yeimo, a spokesman for the West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB) in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. Police charged him with treason for a 2019 statement, made during anti-racism protests and ensuing riots in Papua and West Papua, calling for a referendum on independence. Papua’s police chief, Mathius Fakhiri, said that the police are still “digging up” cases against Yeimo: “Let him get old in prison.”

“Indonesian police should investigate the deadly violence and arson attacks in Papua in 2019 but not use that as a pretext to crack down on peaceful activists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “An independent investigation is still needed into the role of the security forces, and the authorities need to prosecute those responsible for wrongdoing.”

For decades, successive Indonesian governments have discriminated against the Indigenous people of Melanesian origin in the resource-rich and isolated provinces of Papua and West Papua, Human Rights Watch said.

Yeimo, 38, is a prominent activist who helped set up the KNPB after the fatal shooting of Opinus Tabuni, a Papuan celebrating International Indigenous People’s Day on August 9, 2008. No one was ever arrested for his killing.

Yeimo and others were arrested in 2008 and 2009 for advocating a United Nations-administered independence referendum in Papua and West Papua provinces. On his Facebook page, Yeimo has repeatedly written about racism against Papuans and called for negotiations between the West Papuan independence movement and Indonesia’s government. He has spoken at conferences in Indonesia and internationally about Papua’s environmental and human rights problems.

In August 2019, Papuans took part in protests across at least 30 cities in Indonesia in response to a racist attack by Indonesian militants and soldiers on a West Papuan student dorm in Surabaya. Videos showed some Indonesian soldiers repeatedly banging on the dormitory’s gate while shouting words such as “monkeys.” Police shot teargas into the dormitory and arrested dozens of Papuan students. Videos of the attack circulated widely and triggered widespread protests, including looting and arson attacks in Jayapura, Manokwari, Sorong, and Wamena.  

At least 43 Papuan protest leaders and KNPB activists were charged with treason and sentenced despite the fact that they were not involved in violence. The activists included Surya Anta Ginting, the coordinator of the Front of the Indonesian People for West Papua, who was convicted along with five other Papuan activists, in April 2020. They were sentenced to between eight and nine months in prison.

In Balikpapan, seven KNPB activists and Papuan student leaders were sentenced to between 10 and 11 months for treason in June 2020. These included Buchtar Tabuni, another KNPB founder, and Agus Kossay, the KNPB chairman, who were jailed for their pro-independence speeches. The police then also put Yeimo, who had given interviews to international media, on their “wanted” list, though they took no further action at the time.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on Papuan claims to self-determination, but supports everyone’s right, including independence supporters, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal.

Yeimo’s May 9 arrest came as Indonesian military operations in Papua intensified in response to the April 25 killing in an ambush of I Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha Karya, a Special Forces (Kopassus) brigadier general, in the Central Highlands. Nugraha is the first general to be killed in five decades of low intensity conflict in Papua. Yeimo called the death of General Nugraha a “sacrifice” caused by the reluctance of the Indonesian government and parliament to find a political solution in Papua.

President Jokowi responded to the killing by ordering the army and police to hunt down and arrest every member of the group responsible for the general’s death. The Jokowi administration later declared an unnamed “armed criminal group” a terrorist organization, apparently referring to the West Papua National Liberation Army.

The national police have dispatched an additional 12 companies (about 1,200 officers) from Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas, while the military has sent 400 troops from the 315/Garuda Battalion from Bogor, south of Jakarta. Human rights groups in Indonesia have expressed concerns that the government’s labeling the armed group “terrorist” could encourage serious abuses by the security forces in Papua. 

“Papuan opposition to Indonesian rule and military and police oppression has often been met with further abuses,” Adams said. “The Indonesian authorities should ensure that all security force operations in Papua are carried out in accordance with the law and that peaceful activists and other civilians are not targeted.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 12, 2021, 10:16 pm
Click to expand Image Njeuken Loic (known as “Shakiro”) and Mouthe Roland (known as “Patricia”), two transgender women, in a Douala prison. © Private, Douala, Cameroon, March 2021

On May 11, a Cameroonian court sentenced two transgender women to five years in prison and fines of 200,000 CFA (USD $370) under a law that forbids same-sex relations. The women, Njeuken Loic (known as “Shakiro”) and Mouthe Roland (known as “Patricia”), should never have been arrested and have already experienced abuse in pre-trial detention. For trans women, five years in a Cameroonian men’s prison can amount to a death sentence. The authorities should release them and vacate the charges immediately.

Gendarmes arrested Shakiro and Patricia off the streets in the city of Douala on February 8, for wearing typically female clothing. They interrogated the women without a lawyer present, beat and threatened to kill them, taunted them with anti-LGBT epithets, and forced them to sign statements, according to activists and lawyers who visited them in detention. Shakiro and Patricia were later taken to the overcrowded Douala central prison where they reported being beaten and insulted by guards and other inmates. Prosecutors charged them with attempted homosexual conduct, public indecency, and non-possession of their national identity cards. Alice Nkom, a lawyer representing Shakiro and Patricia, said, “It’s a political sentence sending a clear, chilling message: ‘We don’t want LGBT people here in Cameroon.’ We ought to fight this and we will.”

In the last year, Cameroonian security forces have increasingly targeted people for arbitrary arrest based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Between February and April 2021 security forces arrested at least 27 people, including a 17-year-old boy, for alleged consensual same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity, beating and subjecting some to forced anal examinations.

Human Rights Watch has documented extensive human rights violations in arrests and prosecutions during previous anti-LGBT crackdowns in Cameroon, including the use of forced anal examinations and other forms of torture and ill-treatment, forced confessions, denial of access to counsel, and blatant anti-LGBT bias on the part of judges. We also documented rape and beatings of LGBT people by detainees in Cameroon’s prisons, undeterred by guards.

Shakiro and Patricia are the latest victims of a system plagued by absolute disregard for the due process rights of people targeted based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Cameroon should repeal its anti-homosexuality laws and stop interfering in Cameroonians’ private lives.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 12, 2021, 7:39 pm
Click to expand Image Priest on his way to church in Axum, Tigray region, Ethiopia on January 25, 2011.  © 2011 Matjaz Krivic via Getty Images

This week Ethiopia’s attorney general’s office released its findings into allegations of atrocities committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Tigray’s historic city of Axum in late November 2020. The press release stated that most of those killed were fighters who died in clashes with Eritrean troops, and not civilians.

Human Rights Watch’s own reporting found that young civilian men, some armed, joined a small group of Tigray militia to ambush Eritrean troops atop the town’s May Quho hill.

But what is most revealing in the attorney general’s press release is what it ignores – namely – the widespread pillaging that occurred the week Ethiopian forces captured the town and the horrific massacre by Eritrean forces that unfolded over 24-hours from the afternoon of November 28 through November 29.

The Ethiopian government should explain its silence on this 24-hour period, long after the clashes ended, when Eritrean forces summarily executed scores of residents, shot civilians in their homes, killed others on the street, and summarily executed some men in custody. Most killed were men and boys, but people with disabilities, older people, and women, including a mother-of-five, were also killed.

The findings, as well as reports of atrocities committed throughout the conflict, raise questions about how the Ethiopian government distinguishes between combatants and civilians. Under international humanitarian law, military forces can only attack civilians if they are directly participating in hostilities, even if they had participated in fighting in the past. Captured fighters and detained civilians must be treated humanely, and never summarily executed or otherwise mistreated.

Eritrean officials are already interpreting the attorney general’s findings as a vindication of their forces’ actions in Axum. Far from genuine attempts at accountability, these findings whitewash abuses and signal that such crimes are permitted.

Previous Ethiopian government investigations into human rights abuses and violence elsewhere in the country have been stalled, met with denials, or marred by due process violations, making this one of several official inquiries that failed to properly investigate security force abuses or hold those responsible to account.

The attorney general’s Axum findings should signal to Ethiopia’s foreign and regional partners that a robust, independent international inquiry may be the only way to give the hundreds of victims and their families in Tigray the justice to which they are entitled.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 12, 2021, 3:32 pm
Click to expand Image A Chinese police officer guards the road near a “reeducation” camp in Yining, Xinjiang, September 4, 2018.  © 2018 Thomas Peter/Reuters

(New York) – United Nations members should press China’s government to end its crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims at a high-level event on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said today. Delegations should urge senior UN officials to press ahead with an investigation of mass detention, cultural persecution, and other serious abuses with or without access to Xinjiang.

The virtual UN event on May 12, 2021 is co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the Global Justice Center, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the International Service for Human Rights, and the World Uyghur Congress, along with at least 18 countries led by Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“For years, Chinese officials have tried to cow UN member states into silence about the horrific abuses the authorities are inflicting on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “There is extraordinary momentum as governments around the world seek to hold the Chinese government accountable for human rights violations. The UN’s leadership should follow their example, condemn China’s massive abuses, and publicly report on the rights situation in Xinjiang.”

In April, Human Rights Watch and Stanford Law School’s Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic published a report detailing the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. The groups said that the UN Human Rights Council should create a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity and other abuses, identify officials responsible, and provide a road map for holding them accountable. They also urged the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang to keep the Human Rights Council regularly informed.

Last June, 50 UN experts called for an independent investigation into China’s abuses, including in Xinjiang.

UN member states have expressed growing alarm at Chinese government abuses in Xinjiang, making joint statements at the UN Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the General Assembly, which focuses on human rights. In October 2020, 39 countries collectively voiced grave concern about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who is seeking a second term, has supported Bachelet’s request for access to Xinjiang and said that Beijing should respect human rights. But he has yet to publicly urge the Chinese government to end its persecution of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

The public UN event is aimed at highlighting abuses in Xinjiang and the need for greater UN attention to the plight of China’s Turkic Muslims. Beijing has waged an intimidation campaign to pressure governments not to attend.

On May 6, the Chinese mission to the UN sent a letter to other delegations in New York City, saying: “We request your mission NOT to participate in this anti-China event.” A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on May 10 that the event was “total blasphemy against the United Nations” and was using “human rights issues as a political tool to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

Despite dismissing allegations of abuses in Xinjiang as “sheer lies,” China has for more than two years refused to grant unrestricted access to Xinjiang to High Commissioner Bachelet and other UN experts. Human Rights Watch has said that Bachelet and Guterres should press ahead with a remote investigation and report their findings to UN member states.

UN delegations that take the floor at the event should speak out in support of a remote investigation, Human Rights Watch said. As shown by UN inquiries into abuses in North Korea and Myanmar, an investigation in Xinjiang can be comprehensive and credible even without the Chinese government’s cooperation. There is ample evidence of the impact of Beijing’s repressive policies in the public domain, including internal Chinese government documents and satellite imagery published by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and news outlets.

Some governments have adopted trade restrictions in response to credible complaints of forced labor by Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which supplies nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton. Chinese authorities have retaliated by encouraging consumers across China to boycott companies that have publicly expressed concerns about forced labor and other human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Human Rights Watch has also urged governments to impose travel bans and targeted individual sanctions on specific authorities implicated in serious abuses. These governments should also pursue domestic criminal cases under the concept of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows prosecution of grave crimes committed abroad.

“The Chinese government claims to be fighting terrorism in Xinjiang but few rights-respecting governments buy that flimsy cover story anymore,” Roth said. “UN delegations should demand a full UN investigation that uncovers the unvarnished truth about Beijing’s human rights record, starting with Xinjiang. The cost to China of continued abuses should be so high that it will have no choice but to change course.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 12, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image © YouTube/Otabek Sattoriy

An Uzbekistan court’s decision to jail Otabek Sattoriy, an independent blogger who has investigated alleged corruption by local authorities, is a miscarriage of justice and blow to freedom of speech in Uzbekistan.

On May 10 a Surkhandaryo region court found Sattoriy guilty on three counts of extortion and two counts of slander and sentenced him to six-and-a-half years in prison.

Authorities initially brought the dubious criminal charges against Sattoriy for allegedly extorting a mobile phone from the head of a local bazaar. Following his arrest, authorities brought additional charges of slander and extortion after several individuals implicated in alleged corruption through Sattoriy’s reporting filed complaints.

Sattoriy’s lawyer Umidbek Davlatov called the charges “fabricated” and argued in his closing arguments on May 4 that the prosecutor had failed to present any material evidence of wrongdoing by his client. Davlatov said Sattoriy plans to appeal the ruling.

Uzbekistan’s leadership, including President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, have made lofty claims of putting respect for human rights at the center of ongoing reforms. But actions speak louder than words. Jailing an inconvenient blogger exposes the reality of the repressive environment for free speech in Uzbekistan today.

Uzbekistan’s partners, including the United States and the European Union and its member states such as Germany and the United Kingdom, should call for Sattoriy’s release and urge Uzbek authorities to protect free speech. The European Union recently granted Uzbekistan special trade privileges under the GSP+ scheme, offering a clear opportunity for close review of Tashkent’s compliance with human rights standards, including on free speech.

Sattoriy is not the only critical blogger to be targeted recently by authorities. The Tashkent-based blogger, Miraziz Bazarov, himself the victim of a vicious physical attack, is now under investigation on criminal charges of slander.

Targeting bloggers with dubious criminal charges or sentencing them to lengthy jail terms has a chilling effect on free speech and undermines the Uzbek government’s claims of pursuing reform.

Respecting freedom of speech means hearing uncomfortable truths and ensuring that bloggers, citizens in general, and journalists can raise and report on sensitive and pressing issues – like corruption – without fear of retaliation, prosecution, and imprisonment. Respecting free speech also means that Otabek Sattoriy should not have to spend another day in jail.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 11, 2021, 3:36 pm
Click to expand Image A boy sits on a swing in the courtyard of an orphanage for children with disabilities, Yerevan, Armenia. © 2016 Alexei Golubev for Human Rights Watch

On May 5, Armenia’s parliament adopted the law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is a long-awaited reform with the potential to change the lives of the roughly 200,000 people with disabilities in Armenia by protecting them from discrimination and creating opportunities for a more inclusive society. It is also a step towards implementing the state’s commitments under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Armenia ratified in 2010. 

The recent war with neighboring Azerbaijan left thousands of people with physical and psychosocial disabilities, prompting authorities to recognize the issue’s urgency. The government has initiated programs providing mental health support to war victims and the wider public and created centers of independent living for people who acquired disabilities because of the conflict.

But a more comprehensive, rights-based approach was needed to dismantle barriers and discriminatory policies. Eschewing a narrow, medical definition of disability, the new law defines disability as the result of interaction between environmental and societal barriers and a person's health condition which hinders their full realization of rights.

The law includes guarantees of accessibility, independent living, access to justice, and reasonable accommodation, all of which allow a person to fully enjoy their rights on an equal basis with others. It bans disability-based discrimination and treats refusal to provide reasonable accommodation as discrimination. The law also allows nongovernmental organizations to file anti-discrimination lawsuits on behalf of persons with disabilities who, due to their health or other circumstances, cannot represent themselves in person before a court.

The law’s adoption became possible due to decades of persistent advocacy by Armenia’s national disability rights organizations and activists. They have reason to celebrate this moment.

The challenge now will be implementing the law. Lawmakers did not include a provision to create a dedicated accessibility oversight body, so it is up to Armenian authorities to ensure the law’s standards become reality. They should incorporate those standards in existing policies and laws and enact further reforms that guarantee the legal capacity of persons with disabilities. In doing so, they should consult with and actively involve people with disabilities. In this way, they can ensure no one with a disability remains marginalized, isolated, and invisible.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 11, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image A family member mourns next to the bodies of COVID-19 victims at a crematorium near Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, May 7, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

(New York) – Nepal’s government should urgently act to manage a rapidly escalating Covid-19 emergency in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Senior public health officials have described in interviews a health system at the breaking point, with the number of recorded infections doubling every three days among a largely unvaccinated population.

The Nepali government, with assistance from foreign donors, should increase the availability of emergency medical supplies including bottled oxygen, ventilators, and therapeutic drugs.

“Nepal’s under-resourced public health system is strained beyond capacity,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Large volumes of oxygen equipment and other medical supplies are urgently needed to avert a Covid-19 catastrophe in the country.”

Health experts fear that the surge in Covid-19 cases in neighboring India has spread to Nepal. “People are dying literally because of lack of oxygen and there are no hospital beds,” a senior government medical official told Human Rights Watch. He said that the army had been brought in to manage dead bodies but “they are also becoming overwhelmed,” and briefly ran out of body bags.

The government’s response to the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Nepal has been slow and poorly managed, said officials and medical workers. Some government doctors believe that a lockdown in the capital, Kathmandu, that began on April 29, 2021, was imposed 10 days or two weeks too late. The infrastructure for oxygen supply was “not prepared,” said one. “They were taken by surprise.”

Government officials and health workers said the most urgent need is for oxygen cylinders. Nepal’s oxygen production capacity is also becoming overstretched. Dr. Roshan Pokharel, chief specialist at the Health Ministry, said: “We are in a very dire situation right now. We are running out of oxygen supplies. Our oxygen plants are not working properly. The number of cases is increasing rapidly, and the age group of patients is quite young.”

The government’s Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for the Covid-19 Pandemic outlines that hospitalization with oxygen support should be available for 15 percent of confirmed cases. With 6,700 new confirmed cases on May 5 alone, it is evident the existing infrastructure will not be sufficient.

Government officials said that Nepal also urgently needs to bolster supplies of therapeutic drugs like Remdesivir, consumables such as oxygen tubes and masks, and ventilators and other critical care facilities. Nepal has about 560 ventilators, less than half of what may be needed according to donor agency estimates seen by Human Rights Watch. Not all are in working order and in some parts of the country there is a lack of trained staff able to operate them.  

Officials emphasized that oxygen equipment and other supplies – including vaccines – are needed, not funding. “Money is no use,” one said, referring to the impossibility of obtaining supplies in neighboring India due to the Covid-19 emergency there. Supplies from China, such as a recent order of 20,000 oxygen cylinders, may take two to three weeks to arrive by road, officials told Human Rights Watch.

Kanchan Jha, a social activist in Birgunj in southern Nepal, said that due to the lack of oxygen cylinders, “we are not being able to manage or distribute oxygen fairly.” A senior national health official said the crisis in hospital capacity is most acute in Kathmandu and in several towns close to the Indian border, including Nepalganj, Butwal, and Birgunj. In Birgunj, Covid-19 patients are sharing hospital beds due to lack of hospital capacity.

Private hospitals are also operating near or beyond capacity, doctors said. Private treatment, which may cost between US$80 to $420 per day, is beyond the means of most people in a country where the average annual income per capita is around $1,000. The government is investigating allegations that private hospitals have increased their prices during the emergency.

Through April 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a case-positivity rate of 37 percent across the country, and officials told Human Rights Watch that an alarming 45 to 50 percent of Covid-19 tests are being returned positive. “Even 10 percent would be a high number,” said one doctor. However, official figures are widely believed to underrepresent the scale of the crisis. For example, the Birgunj region has only one testing center, and health workers are reporting clusters of people suffering high fever and deaths in several villages. “No one is tracking these cases,” a social worker said.

Global Covid-19 vaccine scarcity is undermining vaccination efforts in Nepal, particularly after the Indian government halted vaccine exports. “If we want to stop this transmission, we need vaccines,” said Dr. Lhamo Sherpa, an epidemiologist. Less than 10 percent of the population in Nepal has received one dose of vaccine, and supplies are not available to provide a second dose to many of those who are awaiting one. Dr. Pokharel said, “We are not getting vaccines from anywhere, although we do have the money.”

The government of Nepal has supported India and South Africa’s proposal at the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Council. The October 2020 proposal would temporarily waive certain intellectual property rules on Covid-19-related vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical products to facilitate increased manufacturing to make them available and affordable globally. The United States and New Zealand have recently indicated their support for the TRIPS waiver. Other influential governments such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and the European Union should drop their opposition, Human Rights Watch said.

The government’s willingness to devote its attention to the crisis remains unclear. The prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, has repeatedly recommended herbal remedies, such as guava leaves, as a cure for Covid-19. International NGOs have been unable to transfer funds to the government because the bureaucracy is unable to complete paperwork due to Covid-19 cases among ministers and officials.

Nepal’s international development partners, who have supported the government’s health infrastructure for decades, have also not adequately prepared. In discussions among development agencies in the final week of April, seen by Human Rights Watch, international officials spoke of a lack of clarity from the government as to its priority needs, and also a lack of information among themselves about such basic matters as the country’s medical oxygen infrastructure. “We are still in the information gathering phase,” one said. “In hindsight, this could have been started in December,” said another.

“Nepal’s healthcare system was in no condition to confront an emergency on this scale, and the government needs to act to protect all Nepalis’ right to health,” Ganguly said. “To avert a terrible disaster it is critical for the Nepali government and donor countries like the US, UK, and the EU to urgently make life-saving oxygen equipment and vaccines equitably available.”
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 10, 2021, 8:42 pm

Scenes from Sayed ul-Shuhada High School in Kabul, Afghanistan, where as many as 85 people including many schoolgirls were killed in an attack this weekend, should break anyone’s heart. They certainly broke mine. In 2017 a filmmaker and I spent a week at the school, filming a video to accompany a report on barriers to girls’ education.

The school had difficulties providing girls an education. Girls studied outdoors, in tattered tents or the open air, and the school was desperately overcrowded. Girls lacked essential facilities such as toilets and a library, and faced hardships outside school, too.

Their neighborhood is very impoverished, populated predominantly by members of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority. It has increasingly been targeted for attack, including on a local maternity hospital in May 2020. Families were often unable to afford transportation and many girls walked 45 minutes or more to get there. Many worked in addition to studying, at jobs such as carpet-making and tailoring, to support their families.

Click to expand Image Books, notebooks, and other school supplies are left behind after May 8's deadly bombings near a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 9, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib

But what shone through was the girls’ determination to study no matter what. In a country where less than 30 percent of women can read, these girls bring hope for a brighter future. They were funny and lively, like girls anywhere, but also deadly serious about getting an education. This makes their senseless killing so particularly devastating.

This is a perilous moment for Afghanistan. All US troops are slated to leave the country by September 11, 2021; other NATO troops are going too.

A devastating picture of what lies ahead is emerging, one of rising violence and likely increased Taliban control, both of which will disproportionately harm women and girls. Intensifying fighting may also bring more atrocities by the Afghan branch of the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been behind many of the attacks on Hazaras. Recent months have brought attacks on female journalists and other high-profile women.

US President Joe Biden has called “the end of America’s longest war” an accomplishment. But the war has in no way ended, and its front line yet again reached the gates of a girls’ school. The US and other countries withdrawing troops should understand that their responsibility to Afghan girls and women is not finished. They should assist efforts to investigate and ensure accountability for this and other unlawful attacks on civilians, and support safe access to essential services like education for everyone.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 10, 2021, 3:03 pm
Click to expand Image   Maldivian police officers secure the area following a blast in Male, Maldives, Thursday, May 6, 2021. Maldives' first democratically elected president and current Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed has been injured in a blast Thursday near his home and was being treated in a hospital in the capital, police said. (AP Photo/Mohamed Sharuhaan) © (AP Photo/Mohamed Sharuhaan)

The attempted assassination on May 6, 2021, of Mohamed Nasheed, the former Maldivian president and current speaker of parliament, highlights the grave risks posed by extremist groups who enjoy political protection.

Nasheed, who became the Maldives’ first democratically elected president in 2008 after spending years in prison for his democratic views, was badly injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) as he walked from his home to his car in the capital, Malé. Fragments pierced his chest, head, and abdomen, and he underwent lifesaving surgery that night. Two bodyguards and a bystander received minor injuries.

Police said they have arrested the prime suspect, who is believed to have links with Islamist extremists, and that the Australian Federal Police are assisting the investigation. The day of the blast, Nasheed had announced on Twitter that he had obtained a list of people who benefited from a massive corruption scandal related to tourism and development seven years ago—a move certain to have vexed a number of prominent politicians. Nasheed had previously received threats from extremist Islamist groups who had called him an apostate.

The attack on Nasheed follows others in which Islamist groups with links to the previous government have been implicated. Yameen Rasheed, a blogger, was stabbed to death on April 23, 2017; he was known for ridiculing corrupt leaders and religious extremists. His friend, the journalist Ahmed Rilwan, disappeared in 2014; he had worked to expose corruption in the tourism industry.

The government’s failure to successfully investigate and prosecute these and other cases of attacks on freedom of expression illustrates the deeply entrenched impunity for such crimes. Along with Nasheed, several other people who criticized these groups have been threatened on social media.

Unfortunately, the current government of President Ibrahim Solih has at times sought to appease these extremists. In December 2019, the government banned the Maldivian Democracy Network, the country’s leading human rights organization, for allegedly “insulting Islam” – a move that has had a chilling effect on other civil society groups.

This is a critical moment for the Maldives. As the government investigates the attack on Nasheed, it should move to stem violence by Islamist extremist groups and bring to justice their political backers.

 

 

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 10, 2021, 12:07 pm

(Berlin) – Council of Europe member states should reinforce efforts to combat violence against women by swiftly ratifying and carrying out a landmark regional convention on women’s rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch released two videos today that explain the convention and highlight its importance. Governments should take urgent steps to counter misinformation about the convention and to fight dangerous myths and discriminatory stereotypes that undermine work to curb violence against women.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed violence against women as one of the most far-reaching and persistent rights abuses, and a daily threat to the lives and health of women and girls around the world,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “At this decisive moment, Council of Europe members should demonstrate they are serious about prioritizing the safety and well-being of all women and girls by committing to and carrying out the Istanbul Convention.”

May 11, 2021 is the tenth anniversary of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, which opened for signature in Istanbul, Turkey in 2011. The convention establishes robust, legally binding standards for governments to prevent violence against all women and girls, support survivors, and hold abusers to account. Some governments have withdrawn or threatened to withdraw from the convention and others have refused to ratify it despite soaring reports of domestic violence during Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.

Thirty-three Council of Europe countries have now ratified the Istanbul Convention, which came into force in 2014, and twelve more have signed but not yet ratified.

Click to expand Image People gathered in Istanbul in March 2021 to protest Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty designed to safeguard women from gender-based violence.  © 2021 Osman Sadi Temizel/SOPA Images/Sipa USA


Thirty-four countries had ratified, but Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made an unprecedented decision in March to withdraw from the convention, drawing widespread criticism domestically and internationally. Erdoğan’s decision is a setback for women’s rights in the country and poses dangerous risks for the region, Human Rights Watch said. Turkish authorities frequently fail to protect women from abuse and femicide rates remain persistently high.

The Istanbul Convention is notably inclusive and comprehensive, Human Rights Watch said. It mandates protections from forms of violence that are often not yet incorporated into national legislation, such as stalking, sexual harassment, and forced marriage, and requires protections for all victims of violence, regardless of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, immigration status, or other characteristics.


A key benefit of the convention is that it requires governments to remedy gaps in domestic law and policy protections for particular groups, including migrants with insecure immigration status, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Despite being hailed as a landmark treaty by women’s rights defenders across the region, the convention has faced unprecedented backlash in a number of countries, often due to its definition of gender as a social construct, as well as its explicit inclusion of LGBT people and migrants. Conservative politicians and groups have erroneously claimed the convention threatens “traditional” families, promotes homosexuality and so-called “gender ideology,” and corrodes “national values.”  

Some governments claim that national legislation provides adequate protection from and accountability for violence against women. However, many survivors continue to face stigma, dismissive attitudes from authorities, and social pressure to remain silent. Weak police and judicial response often compound obstacles to justice and contribute to impunity for abusers. Local women’s rights groups say they provide most services for survivors, including shelter, mental health care, and legal assistance, often with little government support.

“Nongovernment organizations are trying ... to provide as much help as possible [to survivors of violence], but obviously they ... do not have enough human or material resources to fill the gap in the institutional system,” said Noa W. Nogradi, a women’s rights activist affiliated with the and Women for Women Together Against Violence Association (NANE) and Society against Patriarchy (Patent) in Hungary. “We often hear that [the national hotline] does not refer those who want to escape [abuse] to further organizations unless they can prove immediate danger to life. So as long as your husband is simply beating you on a regular basis, but he is not stabbing you right now, this doesn’t help.”

Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced in July 2020 that he would pursue withdrawal from the convention, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki referred the convention to the politically influenced Constitutional Tribunal for review due to its definition of “gender.” The ruling Law and Justice Party used the same Constitutional Tribunal to bypass proper parliamentary procedures in eliminating legal grounds for abortion in October.

“Keeping the convention as a document of binding international law in Poland is extremely important for us [because] of the standards that are included there,” said Urszula Nowakowska of the Women’s Rights Center in Warsaw. “[They] are our reference point, something that we can strive for.”

Hungary’s parliament, where the ruling party Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, blocked the convention’s ratification in May 2020 and Slovakia’s parliament has blocked ratification several times, most recently in February 2020. Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2018 that the convention’s use of “gender” makes it unconstitutional.

Countries such as Croatia have ratified the convention despite significant opposition from right-wing groups. Still others have committed to ratification but are lagging, such as Ukraine, which signed the convention in 2011, and the United Kingdom, which signed in 2012. Azerbaijan and Russia are the only two Council of Europe member states that have not signed the convention.

Women’s rights defenders say the Istanbul Convention is crucial to ensure comprehensive and much-needed legal and policy reforms as well as resources for their implementation.

“[I]t is ... abundantly clear that the Istanbul Convention will motivate the state to respond to victims,” said Marta Chumalo of Ukraine’s Women’s Perspectives Centre. “The ratification of the Istanbul Convention would be such a big moment for me and my work ... because I understand that many of the women who have gotten help from our organization, who now live in shelters administered by our organization, who are represented by our organization in the courts – they will have a better chance at a safe life.”

Efforts to comply with the convention have spurred positive steps, such as new or strengthened legislation. Several countries have established help lines and bolstered services for survivors. Others have criminalized additional forms of violence such as stalking, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation, or amended legislation to base definitions of sexual violence on lack of wilful consent.

“The convention was a huge source of emotional strength for women,” said Eren Keskin, co-chair of the Human Rights Association in Turkey. “Withdrawing from this convention is to say, ‘I will do whatever I want to you.’”

Keskin said that people should not abandon hope that Turkey and other countries will commit to the Istanbul Convention and its standards: “I believe that the women's movement will bring this back and [Turkey’s] signature will be on that convention again.... The only solution is to be vocal: everyone has to raise their voice against violence against women wherever they are.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 10, 2021, 4:01 am
Click to expand Image © 2020 Dadu Shin for Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) should outlaw the violent discipline of children, Human Rights Watch said today, introducing an index categorizing countries in the region based on their laws and policies.

The MENA region has some of the highest levels of corporal punishment in the world. Surveys have found that more than 90 percent of children suffer physical punishment at least once a month in countries like Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, while the lowest rate – 50 percent – was in Qatar. Human Rights Watch analyzed the situation in 19 countries, finding that most lack the laws needed to end violent disciplinary punishment, while some have laws that explicitly permit it. The analysis includes information on violent discipline at schools, where 10 countries prohibit the practice by policy but not by law, leaving the ban ill-enforced.

“In many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, assault is a crime when the victim is an adult but excused as if it were ‘educational’ when the victim is a child,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications and advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Ending corporal punishment will be a huge benefit to children and their societies, and it should end now.”

Violent punishment of children causes unnecessary pain and suffering, is degrading, and harms children’s development, educational success, and mental health, Human Rights Watch said. All corporal punishment is prohibited under international law, and all children have the right to an education in an environment free from violence.

A key step to ending corporal punishment is to outlaw the practice and rigorously enforce the law, studies have found. Globally, 62 countries have already prohibited corporal punishment in all settings and 27 more have pledged to do so.

Based on their laws and policies on corporal punishment, Human Rights Watch’s index categorizes Middle Eastern and North African countries as green, yellow, or red. The green category includes countries with criminal codes that clearly prohibit corporal punishment in all cases, including at school and at home. Of the 19 countries assessed in the MENA region, only Tunisia and Israel have outlawed corporal punishment in all settings. Following these examples, other governments should make the legal changes needed to protect children.

The yellow category includes countries with policies that ban corporal punishment in schools, but laws do not clearly ban the practice, such as Qatar. The red category includes countries where the criminal code explicitly exempts so-called “disciplinary” violence against children from any penalty, whether at home or at school, such as Morocco.

Other important measures governments should take include public-information campaigns on the harm caused by violent discipline, and training for teachers, parents, and caregivers in positive, non-violent methods of discipline. These steps helped dramatically reduce corporal punishment in other regions where it used to be widely accepted, including Europe, as reflected in the expression, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” In the MENA region, traditional expressions that parents might say to a child’s teacher include, “The meat is yours but leave the bones for us,” “I give you meat and you prepare it for me,” and “You kill, and I bury.”

Decades of studies have linked violent discipline to increases in suicidal thoughts, anxiety, domestic violence, criminality, and school drop-outs. Violent discipline by parents, caregivers, and teachers easily spirals out of control, and beatings kill thousands of children each year.

Far from improving children’s behavior, corporal punishment leads to worse educational outcomes, even for children who stay in school, and to increased aggression and violence.

Ending corporal punishment in schools can lead to increased attendance, lower drop-out rates, better learning outcomes, and higher rates of transition to higher levels of education. Half the population in the Middle East and North Africa is younger than 24, but the region lags behind global averages on educational attainment, achievement, and equitable access, according to the World Bank and the UN Development Programme. Several governments in the region have identified education as a national priority but failed to outlaw corporal punishment at schools, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch wrote to 25 authorities in the region. Six education ministries responded. In the 10 countries where education ministry regulations or other policies prohibit violent discipline, these prohibitions lack the force of law, or are not enforced by sanctions. The laws of 13 countries explicitly permit violent discipline of children in the home.

Human Rights Watch will update and revise the index’s country categorizations as new information becomes available. The analysis cites data about the prevalence of violent discipline in schools and in the home, but not all data are comparable across countries. The lack of data also shows that violent discipline is not adequately monitored.

“Corporal punishment impedes the happy and healthy development of children to their fullest potential, and is an enemy to their education,” Benchemsi said. “Children in the Middle East and North Africa deserve more, not less, protection from assault, and schools that are safe places to learn.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 10, 2021, 4:01 am
Click to expand Image UAE flag with Dubai skyline © 2019 Getty Images

(Beirut) – United Arab Emirates authorities have barred an Iranian national from leaving the country or working for nearly seven years under the country’s abusive debt laws, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have refused to renew Mohammad Reza Bahar’s work and residency permits, making it impossible for him to repay his debts or even to meet his basic needs.

The UAE’s justice system comes down hard on those who are unable to pay their debts or fail to repay loans. Bouncing a check is considered a criminal offense, leading to prison time of up to three years or a fine of up to 30,000 dirhams (US$8,200) and a travel ban until the sentence is fulfilled. Because of his inability to pay his debts, Bahar, 68, has served prison sentences totaling nearly four months since 2015.

“The UAE debt system leaves people trapped in dire conditions that they cannot escape,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Mohammed Reza Bahar is stuck in a never-ending legal limbo that leaves him no means to rectify or improve his situation.”

Bahar provided medical records to Human Rights Watch showing that he suffers from several medical issues, some of which require surgery, for which he is unable to pay without health insurance. Bahar is also effectively prevented from reuniting with his wife, who is undergoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer in the United States.

Under the UAE system, paying a fine or serving a jail term does not absolve the debtor from the responsibility to pay the debt. Creditors can also apply to civil courts to jail debtors or to impose effectively indefinite travel bans for outstanding personal or business debts exceeding 10,000 Emirati dirhams ($2,700).

If the judge deems the debtor capable of paying or if there are fears the debtor may attempt to flee the country, the judge can order the debtor’s detention for up to a month, renewable to up to 36 months. Under amendments to the Civil Procedure law in 2019, a judge can lift a travel ban after three years if the creditor does not seek an extension. A judge can also approve travel for illness of a debtor or family member if they cannot be treated in the country.

Bahar moved to Dubai in 2001, started a commercial brokerage business, and lived lawfully in the UAE for at least 13 years. Following the global financial crisis that began in late 2008 and that hit Dubai’s economy especially hard, Bahar says, his company ran into serious trouble. At the time, massive job cuts and company downsizing caused individual wealth to shrink or disappear. Banks put intense pressure on people to settle individual loans and tightened previously lax lending requirements. Many people missed rent payments, defaulted on checks and loans, or landed in jail.

In June 2014, one foreign investor to whom Bahar owed money filed a criminal complaint against him in the Dubai Criminal Court for bouncing a check. The court sentenced him to three months in prison and a court of appeals upheld the sentence. He served the sentence.

A second foreign investor filed another criminal complaint against him in late 2014 and the court sentenced him to a fine of 10,000 dirhams in January 2015, reduced to 7,000 dirhams on appeal. Another automatic travel ban was imposed and only lifted once he paid the fine. In November 2014, the court also confiscated Bahar’s passport, returning it only in August 2020.

Both investors then filed civil cases against Bahar in 2015 and 2016. The courts sentenced him to pay 800,565 Emirati dirhams (around $218,000) in total, which Bahar has been unable to pay. “I lost everything [in the financial crisis],” he told Human Rights Watch. “I don’t have [money to pay]. Not now and not later.” In both cases, due to his health, the judge decided not to jail him, but he remains under a travel ban.

On May 15, 2019, one of the creditors again applied to the courts to order Bahar’s arrest, but the court canceled the arrest order and instead again included him in the travel ban list. In 2020, Bahar repeatedly sought permission from the court to visit his ailing wife in the United States. He offered to have his adult daughter, who lives in the UAE, act as his guarantor. He has received no response.

Despite attempting to renew his Emirati ID several times since it expired in late 2015, Bahar said, immigration officials told him he must first resolve his court cases, meaning he remains trapped in the country without valid residency which legally prohibits him from working or accessing most basic rights and government services. In early 2020, Bahar said an immigration official told him he needed to pay $7,000 in immigration overstay fines to renew his Emirati ID. His son, who lives in the US, told Human Rights Watch that he used his savings to pay the fines. But immigration officials still refused to renew his ID, Bahar said, because of the unresolved court cases.

In January 2019, Bahar served another 21 days in jail after his bank filed a criminal case against him for credit card debt.

Human Rights Watch wrote to UAE authorities on April 26, expressing concern about the overwhelming limitations imposed on foreign residents who are indebted to UAE-based creditors. Human Rights Watch also sought clarification of the process for imposing travel bans and the relationship between travel bans and foreign residents’ ability to renew their residency and work permits, as well as relevant laws or regulations that govern creditor-debtor relations and statistics regarding foreign residents affected by the travel bans. Human Rights Watch has received no response.

In recent years, the UAE introduced a number of reforms apparently designed to provide relief for debt-laden businesses and residents. In 2016, it introduced a federal bankruptcy law to help distressed companies avoid bankruptcy and liquidation, but it does not apply to individuals. In 2017, Dubai introduced a criminal order law that punishes a bounced check for an amount less than 200,000 Emirati dirhams ($54,500) with a fine instead of prison.

In 2019, the UAE introduced a much-touted insolvency law that promises to assist people overwhelmed by debt similar to the bankruptcy law for companies. It allows a person to restructure their debt for up to three years, but if they miss a payment, they can still be liable to civil actions. And in November 2020, the UAE introduced amendments to end the criminalization of bounced checks, though under current laws a creditor would still be able to file a civil case that could lead to imprisonment.

In October 2020, the BBC reported on International Monetary Fund forecasts that predict the Middle East is headed for an economic downturn that will be much worse than the 2008-09 global financial crisis, spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and record low oil prices.

The UAE’s current travel ban policies appear to violate articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Human Rights Watch said. Article 11 states that “No one shall be imprisoned merely on the ground of inability to fulfill a contractual obligation.” Article 12 states that “Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own,” subject only to restrictions that are “provided by law, are necessary in order to protect national security, public order (ordre public), public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.”

In addition, article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) protects “the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts.” The UAE’s imposition of travel bans simply for being in debt is both arbitrary and grossly disproportionate.

The combined violation of these rights impinges on other rights as well, including the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to family life and family unity, and the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

“The UAE government should amend laws and practices to ensure that everyone involved in financial disputes has a way to reclaim their financial standing rather than leave people jailed or destitute,” Page said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 10, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Somsak Ochuenjit © 2020 Private

(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately investigate the killing of Somsak Onchuenjit, a lawyer and land rights activist, in Trang province in southern Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today. Successive Thai governments have failed to prevent or adequately respond to attacks against human rights defenders who represent landless farmers.


On May 4, 2021, at about 7:40 a.m., an unidentified gunman fatally shot Somsak, 54, while he was working in a rubber plantation near his home in Trang province’s Wangviset district. Somsak had recently told his family that he had been followed and was receiving death threats. But local authorities had neither investigated the threats nor arranged any measures to protect him.

“Thai authorities should not just stand by while grassroots activists in southern provinces are being murdered for standing up for their communities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai government should urgently conduct a credible and impartial investigation and bring those responsible for Somsak’s death to justice.”

Somsak had led a campaign for the right to agricultural land for poor villagers in his district. Over the past five months, conflicts in the area have intensified between local villagers who occupied oil palm plantations that no longer have valid leases with government agencies and private companies backed by local politicians. Community members told Human Rights Watch that police investigations into Somsak’s murder so far appear half-hearted and ineffectual.

During the past decade, at least five land rights activists in southern Thailand have been killed. All were leaders in campaigns seeking community ownership of agricultural land used by palm oil companies in which the lease with the government for the land had expired. The police have not made any serious progress in any of these cases. Meanwhile, the remaining activists constantly face harassment, physical intimidation, and a barrage of lawsuits filed by palm oil companies.

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders calls on governments to take all necessary measures to protect human rights defenders against violence, threats, retaliation, and other abuses because of their work. International law recognizes government accountability for failing to protect people from rights abuses and violence by private actors. According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, governments must not only protect people from violations of rights by government officials but “also against acts committed by private persons or entities that would impair the enjoyment” of their rights. A government may be violating human rights by “permitting or failing to take appropriate measures or to exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate or redress the harm caused by such acts by private persons or entities.”

“The Thai government is failing in its obligation to seriously and effectively investigate deadly attacks against human rights advocates and hold those responsible to account,” Adams said. “With each new killing, Thailand slides further into lawlessness, and the government’s frequent claims to be protecting rights defenders ring hollow.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 8, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, May 7, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Hiro Komae

Over the past six years, activists in Japan have pressed the Diet, the national parliament, to introduce a nondiscrimination law that protects the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Japan currently does not have any national legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination, and a recent study puts Japan next to last in a ranking of laws on LGBT Inclusiveness for developed countries.

One proposed law – the LGBT Equality Act – is currently under intense negotiation between Japan’s ruling and opposition parties. In April, the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) announced it would pass an LGBT law during the current Diet session, set to end in June.

But the ruling party bill, presented at the LDP’s Special Mission Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, only requires the government to “promote understanding of LGBT people.” It fails to mention nondiscrimination protections and falls short of the government’s international human rights obligations. Many Japanese LGBT rights groups oppose the draft bill, concerned that such weak language won’t offer any real protections. Opposition parties are demanding a law that explicitly protects against discrimination.

In January, 116 human rights and LGBT organizations sent a joint letter to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga supporting binding non-discrimination legislation. In March, the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation (J-ALL), an umbrella organization of 80 LGBT groups in Japan, submitted a petition containing over 100,000 signatures to the Diet, asking to introduce the LGBT Equality Act. That same month, a court in Sapporo called Japan’s ban on same-sex marriage discriminatory and “unconstitutional.”

In July, Tokyo is set to host the Olympics, whose charter forbids “discrimination of any kind,” including sexual orientation. There is little time left before the Diet session closes in mid-June. All political parties, including the LDP, should come together and enact a national anti-discrimination bill before the Summer Games begin.

The LDP should revise the bill to include a clear clause in the main text of the law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Japan needs to pass a national anti-discrimination law now.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 7, 2021, 8:48 pm
Click to expand Image Activists and relatives of victims shout slogans and demand justice the day after a deadly police operation in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 7, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo Activists and relatives of victims shout slogans and demand justice the day after a deadly police operation in the Jacarezinho favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 7, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo

In the early morning of May 6, police in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro sent heavily-armed officers supported by helicopters and armored vehicles into Jacarezinho, a vast poor neighborhood of narrow alleys, subjecting its almost tens of thousands of residents to nine hours of terror.

The target of the raid, according to Rio de Janeiro civil police, was a criminal group that was responsible for “the constant violation of fundamental rights” of the residents of Jacarezinho.

By the afternoon, 28 people lay dead, including a police officer, making it the deadliest police raid in Rio de Janeiro’s history.

Commanders said the operation was “legitimate from beginning to end.”

“The 24 dead criminals, they are not suspects, they are criminals, drug dealers, and killers because they tried to kill police officers,” Felipe Curi, one of the officers in charge of the operation, said. By contrast, a resident said police executed a man inside his daughter’s room.

Rio police routinely claim they kill in self-defense, and in some cases, that may be true. But many other killings are the result of reckless and excessive use of lethal force, or outright extrajudicial executions, as extensively documented by Human Rights Watch.

There needs to be a thorough, independent, and prompt investigation to determine what happened in Jacarezinho. But there are already reasons to question whether that will happen: testimonies, photos, and videos by residents suggest crime scenes were not preserved and bodies were moved.

The civil police, whose commanders have said that no abuses were committed, are tasked with investigating the actions of their own members.

Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that prosecutors should open their own investigations into all police killings in Rio to guarantee independence. But that has not happened. On the contrary, in March, Rio’s new attorney general dissolved the unit of prosecutors specializing in police abuse. It is crucial that he reinstate it, abide by the Supreme Court ruling, and open an investigation into the Jacarezinho killings immediately.

The court also prohibited police from conducting raids in poor neighborhoods during the Covid-19 pandemic except for “exceptional cases.” Police have still launched operations that have killed a record 453 people from January through March of this year.

As long as impunity for police abuses remains the norm, the bloodshed will continue.

*This dispatch has been amended to reflect that this was the deadliest official police raid in Rio state history. The post was also updated to increase the number of deaths to 28, from the initially-reported 25.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 7, 2021, 5:41 pm