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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Safe Schools Declaration (Article 13)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

© 2019 © Igor Podgorny / Greenpeace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Health and Education

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

Protection of Education During Armed Conflict (article 28)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

December 10, 2019

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

Re: Senate bill S5343

Dear Governor Cuomo,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kenneth Roth

Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

© 2019 Adam Isham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farmworkers harvest apples on a farm in New York.

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

Gov. Cuomo has only a few more days to sign a bill to ban chlorpyrifos, a toxic pesticide harmful to public health and the environment. Signing the bill into law is essential for protecting farmworkers’ and children’s rights, health and safety.

As a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, I’ve interviewed hundreds of child farmworkers in recent years. Under a loophole in federal labor law, it’s legal for children as young as 12 — and sometimes younger — to be hired to work on farms in the U.S. (New York State has the same minimum age requirements but limits 12- and 13-year-olds to hand-harvesting of fruits and vegetables for four hours a day.) Farming can be a dangerous job for anyone, but for children, whose bodies and brains are still developing, it can be especially risky.

One of the biggest risks is exposure to pesticides, which can have serious short- and long-term effects. Public health studies have found that exposure to chlorpyrifos, a pesticide used on a variety of food crops, is linked to autism spectrum disorder, reduced IQ and a range of disabilities in learning, memory, and attention in children. It is also associated with cancerParkinson’s disease and other serious health problems.

But despite overwhelming evidence of the harm caused by chlorpyrifos, the Farm Bureau — a group representing agricultural producers — and the chemical industry are pressuring Cuomo to veto the bill and instead regulate the use of chlorpyrifos through the Department of Environmental Conservation. The Farm Bureau has argued that famers use the pesticide “carefully.”

But when we have interviewed child farmworkers, we found that exposure to pesticides is commonplace.

One 14-year-old farmworker in North Carolina told me she was sent to work in a tobacco field that had been sprayed with pesticides just hours earlier. She got a piercing headache, her vision blurred, and she started throwing up. She told me she was sick for two weeks.

Another child worker I interviewed told me his mom, also a farmworker, had to be hospitalized after being sprayed with pesticides while working in the tobacco fields.

The children I met had no idea what chemicals they were exposed to. No one ever gave them that information. But several types of pesticides commonly used in tobacco farming are from the same class of chemicals as chlorpyrifos.

That’s why banning chlorpyrifos is so important.

Human Rights Watch proudly joined more than 80 other organizations working to protect the environment, public health, workers and children that jointly wrote to Cuomo in August urging him to sign the ban.

In July, Cuomo signed a landmark bill guaranteeing farmworkers overtime pay, family leave, the rights to collectively bargain and form unions, and other important protections they do not have under federal law. Banning chlorpyrifos is the next essential step to protect New York’s farmworkers. It is especially important because the Trump administration has diminished public health and science by blocking regulations intended to reduce exposure to toxic materials, including a refusal to ban chlorpyrifos.

A veto on the chlorpyrifos ban would signal that the governor is willing to disregard scientific evidence and sacrifice public health to appease special interests.

Cuomo should look to the overwhelming bipartisan support the bill earned when it passed through New York’s Legislature in April, the leadership shown by New York’s attorney general Letitia James in suing the federal government for its inaction on chlorpyrifos, the efforts by New Yorkers in Congress to pass a national ban on chlorpyrifos, and the resounding calls from the state’s leading health experts and environmental defenders to ban chlorpyrifos.

The support for banning chlorpyrifos is immense. Cuomo should sign the bill without delay.

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

A campaign poster showing environmental activists Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, who have been detained since early 2018 in Iran. An Iranian court in November 2019 sentenced Bayani, Tahbaz, Jokar, Ghadirian, Khaleghi and Kashani to prison terms of 6 to 10 years. 

© 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign
Protecting the endangered Asiatic cheetah. Tweeting a satirical poem. Attending a climate conference. Campaigning against a power plant. These actions hardly conjure images of suicide bombers or coup plotters. Yet, they have been labelled “eco-terrorism,” “extremism,” or “threats to national security” by governments and businesses that seek to block the work of environmental activists.

As young people around the world gather for a global climate strike on Friday, and as the 25th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) begins in Madrid on Monday, conference delegates would do well to consider that one important way to protect the environment is to protect environmental defenders.

Activists from mining communities protesting at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on August 24, 2018, KwaZulu-Natal.

© 2018 Rob Symons
To be sure, environmentalists face dangers beyond being labelled security threats. From the Amazon rainforest to South African mining communities, activists defending ecosystems and ancestral lands are threatened, attacked and even killed with near-total impunity. But the unjust labelling of environmentalists as dangerous criminals or threats to national security is often more insidious, as it is generally carried out under the aegis of the law.

Authorities have an obligation to prosecute criminal acts. But typically, environmental defenders peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly. Only in exceptional cases would their acts meet a generally-accepted definition of terrorism. And when environmentalists engage in civil disobedience, they do not usually aim to undermine the rule of law. Yet, we should consider the following:

  • In Poland, days before hosting the COP24 in December 2018, authorities issued a terrorism alert and denied entry to at least 13 foreign climate activists registered to attend, calling them security threats. Poland also empowered the police to collect data about conference participants without judicial oversight or participants’ knowledge.
  • In France, days before hosting the COP21 in November 2015, authorities placed at least 24 climate activists under house arrest using emergency counterterrorism measures enacted after the deadly Paris attacks that month. The activists were accused of flouting a ban on COP21 protests.
  • In Iran, eight members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, imprisoned since early 2018, were just handed prison terms of up to 10 years for allegedly spying for the US. During a flawed trial, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards accused them of using their work protecting the endangered Asiatic cheetah as a cover. The group’s founder, also arrested in 2018, died in custody under suspicious circumstances.
  • In Kenya, authorities have unjustly accused environmental activists opposing a mega-infrastructure project of ties to the extremist armed group al-Shabab and threatened, beat, and arbitrarily detained them. In July, a court suspended the project’s coal-fired power plant. Activists contend the development will still destroy forests, kill fish, and displace communities.
  • In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018 placed 600 civil society activists, including environmentalists, on a list of alleged members of the country’s communist party and its armed wing, which he declared to be a terrorist organisation. Until a court intervened, the list included Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous Filipina who is the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and has protested Philippines mining projects.
  • In Ecuador, eight years passed before environmental activist José “Pepe” Acacho was cleared of “terrorism” charges for opposing mining and oil exploration in the Amazon.
  • In the US in 2018, the then-interior secretary blamed wildfires on “environmental terrorist groups” that opposed logging. In 2017, a pipeline operator sued Greenpeace and other environmental groups for a “rogue eco-terrorist” campaign against an oil pipeline. A court dismissed the lawsuit in February. Largely peaceful protesters said the underground pipeline threatened Native American sacred sites and drinking water.
  • In Russia, since 2012, at least 14 environmental organisations have had their work curtailed and in June, the head of the group Ecodefence!, fled the country to avoid being targeted under an abusive “foreign agents” law. In April, a court fined an environmental activist for “mass distribution of extremist materials” for posting a satirical poem about mining oligarchs.

During the COP25, participating governments should encourage activists to air their concerns about the climate crisis and their own safety, and draw on their combined expertise to help identify solutions.

They should also commit to rigorously implementing treaties that protect environmental defenders. One is the Aarhus Convention, which the European Union and Poland have been criticised for flouting. Another is Latin America’s Escazu Agreement, which requires just five additional ratifications to enter into force. Chile, which will preside over the COP25, should lead by example and ratify it.

COP25 delegates should recognize that to genuinely protect the environment, they also need to protect its defenders—including those unjustly targeted in the name of security.

Also check out this web essay by Letta ,Cara, and Katharina Rall.

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

On November 29, 2019, young people will gather at locations around the world for a Fridays for Future Global Climate Strike. On December 2, United Nations delegates, world leaders, business executives, and activists will meet at the 25th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) in Madrid to discuss ways to protect the environment. Participants in these events should also discuss ways to protect the protectors: the individuals and groups targeted around the world for their efforts on behalf of the planet.

The dangers facing environmental defenders do not stop at accusations that they are national security risks. From the Amazon rainforest to South African mining communities, activists seeking to preserve ecosystems and ancestral lands are being threatened, attacked, and even killed with near total impunity, Human Rights Watch has found. But in contrast to many of these illegal acts, the unjust labeling of environmentalists as security threats is often more insidious, as it is generally carried out under the color of law.

And while not all environmental activism is peaceful, only in exceptional cases would the actions of environmental activists meet a generally recognized definition of terrorism – actions aimed at terrorizing populations by causing or threatening death or serious physical harm to others to advance an ideological or political agenda. Nor, in nearly all cases, do their actions aim to undermine the rule of law. Typically, these individuals and groups are peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly. When they engage in civil disobedience, their aim is usually to strengthen – and improve the enforcement of – existing environmental protection measures. Here are a few examples where environmental activists have been smeared as terrorists or other national security threats:

  • In Poland, the authorities denied entry in December 2018 to at least 13 foreign climate activists who were registered to attend COP24 in the southern city of Katowice, contending they posed a threat to public order and national security. Along with other individuals and groups, the activists had planned to press COP24 participants for rapid action to address climate change.

    Protesters march during the United Nations COP24 climate change summit in Katowice, Poland, on December 8, 2018.

    © 2018 SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images/Damian Klamka)

    The authorities had previously passed a special law empowering the police to collect data about conference participants without judicial oversight or the participants’ knowledge and consent and ban spontaneous protests during COP24. They also issued a terrorism alert that authorized increased vehicle checks and other security controls for Katowice and surrounding areas for the duration of the summit. Border officials detained and questioned several activists for hours, in some cases without allowing them to communicate their location or contact a lawyer.

  • In November 2015, French police used a sweeping counterterrorism emergency law enacted in response to the deadly Paris attacks earlier that month to place at least 24 climate activists under house arrest without judicial warrant, raid activists’ homes, and seize computers and personal belongings.

    Police raid a building suspected of housing climate activists in Paris on November 27, 2015, prior to the UN COP21 climate change summit. 

    © 2015 AFP/Laurent Emmanuel
    The activists were accused of flouting a ban on organizing protests related to COP21, which was being held in France the following week to sign the Paris Agreement on reducing emissions that contribute to global warming.

  • In Iran, six members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), imprisoned since early 2018, were handed prison terms of up to 10 years in November for allegedly spying for the United States. During a deeply flawed trial, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards said the environmentalists used their work to protect the Asiatic cheetah – one of the world’s most endangered species – as a cover. A charge against four of the accused of “spreading corruption on Earth,” a crime that can carry the death penalty, was reportedly dropped in October. Two other PWHF members also detained in early 2018 were awaiting judgment. A ninth environmentalist, PWHF founder Kavous Seyed Emami, died a few weeks after his arrest under suspicious circumstances in what the Iranian authorities alleged to be a suicide.

    A campaign poster showing environmental activists Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, who have been detained since early 2018 in Iran. An Iranian court in November 2019 sentenced Bayani, Tahbaz, Jokar, Ghadirian, Khaleghi and Kashani to prison terms of 6 to 10 years. 

    © 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign

    Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Department of Environment, said there was no evidence that the detained environmentalists were spies. He said the arrests have had a chilling effect on environmental groups in the country.

    The arrests appear to be motivated both by Iran’s “paranoia” about foreign countries using environmentalists as cover and its recognition that anger over environmental degradation can unite populations against government policies, said Kaveh Madani, the country’s former deputy environmental director. Madani returned to his native Iran from London in 2017 to take up the post, but said he was immediately detained and questioned by Revolutionary Guards, who broke into his phone, computer, emails, and social media accounts, and called him a “bioterrorist,” a “water terrorist,” and a spy. He left Iran after seven months, alleging repeated harassment including for his criticism of dam projects, which are constructed by the Revolutionary Guards.

  • In Kenya, the police and military have frequently labeled environmental activists opposing a mega-infrastructure project in the Lamu coastal region, including a coal-fired power plant, as “terrorists” while subjecting them to threats, beatings, and arbitrary arrests and detentions. In 15 cases documented by Human Rights Watch between 2013 and 2016, the authorities accused environmental defenders of membership in, or links to, the extremist armed group al-Shabab but provided no compelling evidence.

    Residents and environmental activists on Lamu island, Kenya, protest the proposed Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia (LAPSSET) project on March 1, 2012.

    © 2012 Reuters/Joseph Okanga

    The activists are protesting construction of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, the biggest infrastructure project in Central and East Africa, which is to include a 32-berth seaport, three international airports, a road and railway network, and three resort cities. They contend that LAPSSET will pollute the air and water, destroy mangrove forests and breeding grounds for fish, and take farmland without just compensation, displacing communities and destroying their livelihoods.

    In July, Kenya’s environmental tribunal blocked approval of the power plant absent a new environmental impact study, finding the China-backed developers’ original assessment and public consultation process inadequate. The rest of the LAPSSET project continues. So does the intimidation campaign, activists protesting LAPSSET told Human Rights Watch.

  • In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018 placed 600 civil society members, including environmentalists and indigenous rights defenders, on a list of alleged members of the country’s communist party and its armed wing, which he declared to be a terrorist organization. Duterte’s “terrorist list” included Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous Filipina who is the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and a climate change activist.

    Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, at UN headquarters in New York in April 2018. 

    © 2018 New York Times/Annie Ling
    In late 2017, Tauli-Corpuz had criticized the government for attacks and other abuses against indigenous communities that opposed coal and diamond mining on ancestral lands. Although a Manila court months later ordered the government to remove Tauli-Corpuz from the list, a Philippines military official in 2019 renewed the campaign against her, accusing her of “infiltrating” the UN for the communist insurgents. Several UN human rights experts condemned Tauli-Corpuz’s listing.

  • In Ecuador, eight years passed before the prominent environmental activist José “Pepe” Acacho, a Shuar indigenous leader, was able to clear himself of “terrorism” charges for his activities opposing mining and oil exploration in the Amazon. Acacho was charged with terrorism in 2010 for allegedly inciting violence during Shuar protests against a mining law.

    Pepe Acacho, second from left, leaves a courtroom in Quito, Ecuador, on February 8, 2011, after a judge granted his habeas corpus petition.

    © 2011 AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa
    He was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Human Rights Watch reviewed the trial documents and found no credible evidence of terrorism-related crimes. In 2018, Ecuador’s highest court threw out the terrorism conviction but instead sentenced him to eight months in prison for “public services obstruction” – a charge for which he was never tried and hence never had the opportunity to contest. Acacho spent 17 days in jail before receiving a presidential pardon in October 2018.

  • In the US in August 2018, then-US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed “environmental terrorist groups” that opposed logging for wildfires on the West Coast – a proposition immediately attacked by leading environmental organizations including the Sierra Club. In 2017, 84 members of the US Congress, most of them Republicans, asked the Justice Department if activists mobilizing against the construction of oil pipelines could be prosecuted as terrorists. (The department’s response was that in some cases, yes.)

    Native Americans protest construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota on September 4, 2019. 

    © 2019 AFP via Getty Images/Robyn Peck

    That same year, a major pipeline operator, Energy Transfer Partners LP, filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace and other environmental groups, accusing them of launching a “rogue eco-terrorist” campaign against the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline. Environmental activists and Native American tribes had tried to block construction of the 1,172-mile-long, underground pipeline through North Dakota during a protracted standoff with the authorities in 2016, saying it threatened sacred sites and drinking water. A federal court dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year.

    Although the protesters were largely peaceful, some resorted to violence and were convicted of protest-related crimes, but none for offenses that even remotely approximated terrorism. UN experts condemned security force responses to the protests as “excessive,” including their use of rubber bullets, teargas, compression grenades, mace, and “inhuman and degrading” detention conditions.

  • In Russia, at least 14 environmental groups have stopped work in recent years, and the head of the prominent group Ekozaschita! (Ecodefense!), Alexandra Koroleva, fled the country in June to avoid prosecution under the draconian Law on Foreign Agents. The 2012 law requires any Russian group accepting foreign funding and carrying out activities deemed to be “political” to register as a “foreign agent,” a term that in Russia implies “spy” or “traitor.” Authorities have used the law to silence groups that opposed state-sanctioned development projects and petitioned authorities for the release of imprisoned environmental activists, a Human Rights Watch investigation found.

    Alexandra Koroleva, the head of the Russian nongovernmental organization Ecodefense, fled to Germany in June 2019 to avoid being targeted under the abusive Russian “foreign agents” law. 

    © 2019 Ecodefense

    Russian officials including the special envoy for environmental protection, Sergey Ivanov, have applied the “extremist” label to Greenpeace Russia. An activist with Stop GOK, a Russian group seeking to block mining and enrichment plants, was fined in April 2019 for “mass distribution of extremist materials” because he published a poem on the organization’s social media page that the government had banned as extremist in 2012. The Russian nongovernmental organization SOVA Center, which analyzes counter-extremism trends, found that the poem, “Last Wish to the Ivans,” is a satirical address to destitute, alcohol and drug-addicted Russians from oligarchs and authorities profiting from extracting natural resources.

    Stop GOK and Greenpeace Russia were among groups named in a 2018 report by pro-government technologists as “environmental extremists” working for “influential forces in the West” bent on sabotaging strategic industries. The report was widely covered by state-controlled media.

Civil society participation will be crucial to ambitious outcomes at COP25. Parties to the summit, which include all UN member countries and the European Union, should allow activists ample opportunity to air their concerns about the climate crisis and use their combined expertise to help identify solutions. They should also provide activists with a safe space to speak out about the threats they face for carrying out their work.

In addition, parties should publicly commit to robustly carrying out international and regional treaties that protect environmental defenders. One of these treaties is the Escazu Agreement (the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean), the world’s first covenant to include specific provisions promoting and protecting environmental defenders. Twenty-one countries have signed the 2018 agreement. But only six countries have ratified it – five shy of the ratifications needed to enter it into force. Chile, which stepped down as COP25 host because of protests stemming from economic grievances, but will still preside over the negotiations in Madrid, should lead by example and ratify the agreement.

COP25 participants should also commit to upholding the Aarhus Convention (the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters), to which Spain is a signatory. The convention – an environmental pact for Europe, the European Union, and Central Asia – grants the public, including environmental groups, an array of rights including public participation and access to information and justice in governmental decisions on the environment, without harassment or persecution. Parties to the treaty, including the EU, and Poland for its crackdown at COP24, have been criticized – including in some cases by the Aarhus Convention’s own oversight body – for flouting these provisions.

COP25 delegates should recognize that to genuinely protect the environment, they also need to protect its defenders – including those unjustly targeted in the name of security.

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

Why did you focus your research on these oil palm plantations?

These plantations provide jobs for many people. But their workers are being underpaid and exposed to unhealthy working conditions. The European development banks that finance these plantations see their mission as fostering sustainable development. However, while their investment is indeed helping generate employment, the banks risk sabotaging their own mission by failing to ensure that PHC respects the basic rights of their workers and the environment they operate in.

What abuses did you find?

We spoke to more than 100 workers across the company’s 3 plantations and found that workers who applied or mixed pesticides didn’t have adequate equipment to protect them from toxic chemicals, abusive employment practices resulted in extremely low wages, especially for women, and the company dumps untreated, foul-smelling waste in rivers and next to workers’ homes, a practice that appears to have contaminated the only drinking water source for hundreds of villagers downstream.

What happens to the palm oil produced by PHC?

Palm oil is used in everything from makeup to cookie dough. PHC sells its palm oil to Congo-based refineries that have contracts with various major brands, including some that market their products internationally.

What kind of pesticides are being used on PHC’s plantations?

Half of the active ingredients in the pesticides PHC uses are considered hazardous by the World Health Organization (WHO). Most have properties that cause skin problems and severe eye damage. One of the pesticides used can cause cancer, and Germany is planning to ban it by 2023. European regulators recently recommended revoking the permit for another pesticide used on PHC plantations because it can affect the nervous system.

Was the plantation workers’ health affected by these pesticides?

Over 200 workers spray or mix pesticides on PHC plantations. Each day, sprayers will treat between 300 and 600 palm trees and mixers will blend 200 gallons (approximately 757 liters) of pesticide formula. They are handling huge volumes of toxic chemicals. We interviewed more than 40 of these workers. Two-thirds of them told us that they had become impotent since they started the job. Many suffered from skin irritation, itchiness, blisters, eye problems, or blurred vision – all symptoms that are consistent with what scientific texts and the products’ labels describe as health consequences of exposure to these pesticides.  

The stream of effluents that emanates from the Yaligimba palm oil mill flows right next to Mindonga, a settlement with hundreds of workers and their families, emiting a putrid smell and fumes, particularly in this section that is closest to the source of waste. The water tank located on the grounds of the mill is visible in the background, about 550 meters away, as measured with a GPS device. February 2, 2019, Yaligimba.

© 2019 Luciana Téllez/Human Rights Watch.

What kind of protection were workers supplied with?

Workers were told they should have waterproof overalls. But all those we interviewed had permeable cotton overalls. If pesticides accidentally spilled, the toxic liquid would likely touch their skin. The face masks the company distributes protect workers from dust, not from inhaling pesticides. Many workers did not have goggles to protect their eyes. And the gloves they were given were often absorbent rather than impermeable. This equipment does not meet the minimum health and safety standards established under international norms or Congolese law.

Were workers told about the risks of handling these pesticides?

The training manuals the company distributed to workers described the environmental impact of pesticides but did not provide comprehensive information about the health risks.

What access did workers have to health care?

Congolese law requires “reinforced” medical surveillance for workers who perform hazardous occupations. To meet this requirement, the company has established compulsory medical testing for pesticide workers twice a year, but most told us they only get to go once. None of those we interviewed received the results of their examinations. As the plantations are in very remote areas, company doctors are the only accessible providers of health care.

Residents of Mindonga settlement stand on the banks of the stream of effluents released by the PHC palm oil mill. Their adobe houses can be seen within close proximity in the background. February 2, 2019, Yaligimba.

© 2019 Luciana Téllez/Human Rights Watch.

What impact do these plantations have on the environment?

At the Yaligimba plantation, the company dumps the waste from its palm oil mill next to workers’ homes. The effluents form a foul-smelling stream. We walked along sections of this stream for several kilometers, tracking our journey on GPS. The effluent eventually flowed into a natural pond where women and children bathe and wash cooking utensils. By superimposing our GPS coordinates on satellite images, we were able to see that this pond was connected to a small river. Residents of a village of several hundred people downstream told us the river was their only source of drinking water. Their community leader filed a formal complaint last November with the company’s grievance mechanism. When we spoke to him three months later, he said the company still had not taken action to end the untreated waste dumping or provide alternative sources for safe drinking water.

What does the company have to say about the allegations of rights abuses?

We shared a summary of our findings with Feronia and PHC in September, but they have not yet responded. We did, however, interview 20 company officials on the plantations and at their office in Kinshasa. Several said the company was dumping untreated waste. The sustainability director, who oversees the health and safety department, admitted that the overalls of workers who spray pesticides are not waterproof, but did not otherwise think the equipment was inadequate.

Are the development banks lifting people out of poverty with their investment?

The majority of the company’s workforce is employed through temporary contracts. These enable the company to hire people for extended periods of time without the benefits they would be entitled to under Congolese law. Many workers told us they could only afford to eat once a day and had incurred sizeable debt to meet their families’ needs. Women workers reported the lowest wages. One mother of six said she earned as little as US$7.30 a month.

Mr. Nzabi (pseudonym) has been a contract worker for PHC since 2008. He harvests oil palm fruits on Lokutu plantation. He said the company has not given him gloves or a helmet, despite the fruits being thorny and sometimes weighing two dozen kilos. He worked as a day laborer for three years, cutting weeds around oil palm trees between 2005 and 2008, before being offered a contract. He stands with his two sons in front of the company housing where he resides with his spouse and their five children. January 26, 2019, Lokutu.

© 2019 Luciana Téllez/Human Rights Watch.

Where can workers turn to stop these abuses?

It’s very difficult for workers to reach out to authorities with complaints of abuse as the plantations are in remote areas. To reach Boteka, the plantation in Équateur Province, we had to fly from Kinshasa to the provincial capital and then drive for a couple of days through the rainforest. To get to the other plantations, we rented a speedboat and travelled a total of 1,200 kilometers on the Congo River. Government agencies are often too underfunded and poorly staffed to make regular trips to the plantations to inspect labor conditions or waste removal.

Are the four banks aware of these human rights violations?

The development banks told us they knew not all workers have protective equipment and that the company is dumping untreated waste. They are also aware of the widespread use of temporary contracts. They said they addressed many issues through risk assessments and actions plans, but they wouldn’t disclose the details for commercial reasons, so we don’t know what they did or might be planning to do. What we do know is that these measures have not stopped the abuses.

What needs to change to ensure that money meant for development is not funding abusive practices?

First, the development banks should acknowledge the obligations they have under international human rights law to prevent abuses. Second, more transparency is needed. Communities should know how companies plan to operate and what risks they pose to their rights and livelihoods. There is a problem of accountability, too. The complaint mechanisms the banks have created are a step in the right direction, but they are still too weak to enable victims to access justice and reparations for rights violations. Lastly, the banks should use their leverage to press PHC to address the abuses we documented. When development banks invest in development projects, it is crucial that they apply the same human rights standards that they would be expected to uphold in their own countries.

* Belgian Investment Company for Developing Countries SA/NV (BIO), British development bank CDC Group, German Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH (DEG) and Dutch Nederlandse Financierings-Maatschappij voor Ontwikkelingslanden (FMO)

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


DR Congo: Development Banks Linked to Palm Oil Abuses

Failed Oversight Enables Labor, Environmental Harm

(London) – Four European development banks are financing a palm oil company in the Democratic Republic of Congo that is violating workers’ rights and dumping untreated waste, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The company, Feronia, will hold a shareholders meeting with the four banks in London on November 25, 2019 to discuss the company’s environmental and social track record.

The 95-page report, A Dirty Investment: European Development Banks’ Link to Abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Palm Oil Industry, documents that investment banks owned by Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are failing to protect the rights of people working and living on three plantations they finance. Human Rights Watch found that Feronia and its subsidiary in Congo, Plantations et Huileries du Congo, S.A. (PHC), exposes workers to dangerous pesticides, dumps untreated industrial waste into local waterways, and engages in abusive employment practices that result in extreme poverty wages.

“These banks can play an important role promoting development, but they are sabotaging their mission by failing to ensure that the company they finance respects the rights of its workers and communities on the plantations,” said Luciana Téllez, environment and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The banks should insist that Feronia remedies the abuses and commits to a concrete plan to end them.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 200 people, including more than 100 workers on the company’s three plantations: Boteka in Équateur province, Lokutu in Tshopo province, and Yaligimba in Mongala province. Researchers also interviewed several dozen Congolese public officials and company executives, including Feronia’s former CEO and PHC’s director general in Kinshasa.

The four development banks – Belgian BIO, British CDC Group, German DEG, and Dutch FMO – have invested US$100 million since 2013 in Feronia and PHC. CDC Group, in addition to being an investor, also owns 38 percent of Feronia.

PHC is one of Congo’s top five private employers, with more than 10,000 workers and approximately 100,000 people living on its plantations. The company leases over 100,000 hectares of land from the Congolese government in the northern part of the country.

Workers on the three plantations are exposed to large amounts of hazardous pesticides due to the company’s failure to provide adequate protective equipment, Human Rights Watch found. Researchers interviewed more than 40 workers, ages 25 to 46, who were exposed to pesticides. Two-thirds of the workers interviewed said they had become impotent since they started the job.

Many described skin irritation, pustules, blisters, eye problems or blurred vision – symptoms consistent with what scientific literature and the pesticide’ labels describe as health consequences of exposure. Some pesticides used on the plantations can also have long term effects, like cancer, from repeated exposure. PHC established compulsory medical testing for these workers, as required by Congolese law for high-risk jobs, but none of the workers interviewed had ever received the test results.

PHC’s environmental record also raises concerns about the impact on local communities, Human Rights Watch said. At least two of the company’s palm oil mills dump tons of untreated waste every week, several PHC managerial staff admitted during interviews. In one plantation, the foul odor pervades workers’ homes next to the open channel where it is dumped. The waste stream flows into a natural pond where women and children bathe and wash cooking utensils. Satellite imagery Human Rights Watch analyzed shows that the pond is connected to a small river.

Residents of a village with several hundred people downstream said that the river was their only source of drinking water. Their community leader filed a complaint with PHC in November 2018, but three months later the company had not taken action to end the untreated waste dumping or provide alternative drinking water sources.

The development banks have touted the investment as a success story in poverty-stricken rural Congo. But many plantation workers said their low wages left them struggling to feed their families. Many workers are paid less than US$1.90 a day, the threshold for “extreme poverty” as defined by the World Bank.

PHC frequently underpays wages and uses temporary contracts that withhold cash benefits, in apparent violation of Congolese law. The company denied it, but managerial staff on the plantations and workers’ accounts indicate otherwise. Female plantation workers reported the lowest salaries, with a mother of six in Boteka earning as little as US$7.30 per month gathering oil palm fruit.

The development banks have considerable leverage over the companies in which they invest, given the numerous conditions they attach to their lending, Human Rights Watch said. In response to requests for comments, the four development banks said they had conducted risk assessments and had plans in place to address several of these issues but would not disclose them on the grounds of commercial secrecy.

The development banks should adopt policies that ensure that the businesses they invest in pay living wages to their workers, Human Rights Watch said. They should reform key aspects of their operations to protect rights and uphold their stated mission to advance sustainable development. The banks should conduct systematic risk assessments that specifically evaluate how projects may affect human rights and establish time-bound plans to carry out mitigation measures. They should disclose this information to potentially affected communities and relevant authorities.

The banks should also strengthen their complaint systems to provide a real remedy to victims, publicize the systems in potentially affected communities, and adopt anti-retaliation policies for those who report abuses or voice dissent about an investment project.

“These development banks have billions of dollars invested in over 2,000 projects in developing countries,” Téllez said. “They should carry out reforms not only to protect the thousands of workers in oil palm plantations in Congo, but to set a standard that could prevent similar abuses by other companies that they finance.”


Selected cases from the report:

Christian Lokola (pseudonym), age 30, has worked on Lokutu plantation for three years. Each day, six days a week, Lokola sprays 300 palm trees with pesticides. He earns US$1.60 per day if he completes his task for all 26 working days in one month. The training manuals PHC distributes to workers like Lokola describe precautions workers must take to protect the environment, but do little to explain the health risks to them.

“They didn’t warn me of sexual weakness [impotence], if they’d say it, we’d protest,” Lokola said. “They told us we need to protect ourselves, but they didn’t tell us what the risks are… We have discussed this a lot, a lot with the [company] doctors. The [company] doctor in Lokutu told us: ‘The work isn’t good but it’s better than unemployment.’”


Dominique Azayo Elenga is the customary leader of the Nyanzeke grouping, which includes the village of Boloku, which has several hundred residents, five kilometers from Yaligimba plantation. Following unsuccessful talks with company representatives, Azayo filed a formal complaint in November 2018 with PHC’s grievance system alleging that the company’s untreated waste had contaminated Boloku’s only source of drinking water.

When Human Rights Watch interviewed him in February, the company was still dumping untreated waste and had not provided alternative drinking water sources. The PHC director general told Human Rights Watch in April that he was not aware of any such complaints on his plantations.  

“My population [in Boloku] uses water which has dirt from the factory,” Azayo said. “They’re using it. I discussed it with Feronia but nothing has been done about it yet. That was in September 2018.”


Gabrielle Musiata (pseudonym) has worked as a fruit picker in Boteka for more than six years. She and her husband both work in the plantation to support their six children. Musiata said she earned between 12,000 FC (US$7.30) and 15,000 FC ($9.10) per month, and that she did her work barefoot and barehanded, as the company did not provide protective equipment. “We are many women,” Musiata said. “We don’t benefit from anything. We work without boots, without gloves – with our bare hands. Sometimes the fruits [we have to pick up] fall into cows’ and peoples’ excrement.”

A former manager who supervised more than 200 plantation workers in Boteka separately told Human Rights Watch that women were mainly employed as day laborers to pick fruit in the plantation and that they are paid 30 FC ($0.02) for every sack of 10 kilos they gather. The former manager estimated that they wouldn’t be able to gather as much as 15 sacks daily. He said the maximum a woman can make per month is $9.10.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am