A demonstrator raises a poster of Xu Zhiyong during a protest against his sentencing, Hong Kong, January 27, 2014.

© 2014 AP Photo

(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately and unconditionally release a well-known anti-corruption activist who had eluded arrest after a new government crackdown on rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 15, 2020, authorities in Guangzhou apprehended Xu Zhiyong at a friend’s home where he had gone after authorities in December detained participants of a gathering on human rights in Fujian province.

Xu, 46, is one of China’s most prominent activists and human rights advocates. He was a co-founder of the now-banned legal aid center Open Constitution Initiative and the New Citizens’ Movement, a nongovernmental group advocating for civil rights.

“President Xi Jinping claims the government is ‘open’ and ‘transparent,’ but the authorities have without basis detained one of the country’s best-known anti-corruption advocates,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of arbitrarily detaining Xu Zhiyong and other human rights activists, the Chinse government should listen to what they have to say.”

In late December 2019, police across the country began to detain participants of a December 7 and 8 gathering in Xiamen, Fujian province, where they discussed human rights and China’s political future. On December 26, in what has become known as the 12.26 crackdown, authorities detained prominent human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, scholar Zhang Zhongshun, and activists Dai Zhenya and Li Yingjun. Since then, Xu had been traveling to different cities, updating his Twitter account, and criticizing the government’s authoritarian rule and its mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

It is unclear what charges authorities might bring against Xu. Police had accused the four men detained in December of “inciting subversion” – a crime that carries up to 15 years in prison – and placed them under “residential surveillance in a designated location,” a form of enforced disappearance in which police can hold individuals in undisclosed locations for up to six months. This places them outside the formal detention system, denying them access to legal counsel and family members, and increasing the risk of torture and ill-treatment.

Hours after the police took Xu away, his girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, a Beijing-based women’s rights and labor rights activist, also went missing. In January 2020, Beijing police searched Xu’s home, detained Li for 24 hours, and denied her adequate medicine in the detention center.

A former lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, Xu has long advocated for legal reform and equal rights. In 2003, he achieved national attention when his joint petition to the National People’s Congress led to the abolition of the administrative detention system called “custody and repatriation.” That year, he was named by the state broadcaster CCTV as one of the “top 10 rule of law figures” in China.

In 2009, Xu was forced to disband the Open Constitution Initiative, the legal aid center he helped set up, after police detained him and a co-worker in a trumped-up case of tax evasion. From 2014 to 2018, Xu served four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” after a series of small-scale protests by members of the nongovernmental New Citizens’ Movement, an initiative he cofounded in 2012 to develop civil society in China within the confines of the one-party political system.

“Once again, Xu Zhiyong has been detained despite breaking no laws, simply for advocating rights-respecting policies,” Wang said. “Governments are increasingly recognizing that they pay a price for Beijing’s hostility toward peaceful criticism, and should press China to release Xu immediately.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 18, 2020, 11:45 pm

Video: Violence and Rape by Zimbabwe Gov't Forces After Protests

 Zimbabwe security forces used excessive lethal force to crush nationwide protests in mid-January 2019.

The European Union yesterday called on the Zimbabwe government to ensure perpetrators of human rights violations are swiftly brought to justice and immediately implement the recommendations of an inquiry into violence following the 2018 elections.

The Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry, set up by President Emmerson Mnangagwa following the post-election violence of August 1, 2018, found that six people died and 35 others were injured as a result of actions by the state security forces. Some commission recommendations, which have yet to be implemented, include ensuring perpetrators are held accountable and a special committee to compensate those killed and those who lost property is set up.

Human Rights Watch investigations found some state security forces used excessive and lethal force to crush nationwide protests in January 2019. During and after the protests, the forces fired live ammunition that killed 17 people, and at least 17 women were raped. No security force personnel have been arrested or prosecuted for these abuses. The authorities have also yet to fulfill the requirements of section 210 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution by establishing an effective and independent mechanism for investigating complaints from members of the public regarding misconduct by security services and remedy any harm done.

The EU renewed, for a year, its arms embargo and a targeted asset freeze against one company, the Zimbabwe Defense Industries, pending an investigation into the role government security forces may have had in human rights abuses. It explained that the arms embargo and the asset freeze against the company would not affect the Zimbabwean economy, foreign direct investment, or trade.

The EU said it is ready to review the whole range of its policies at any time, when justified, based on developments in Zimbabwe and that it will seek increased collaboration with international partners, most importantly the African Union, the Southern African Development Community, and international financial institutions, which can play a key role by supporting Zimbabwe in enabling an inclusive dialogue and in accelerating progress in reforms.

The Mnangagwa government should demonstrate that it is serious about upholding human rights and the rule of law. It should ensure government security forces responsible for abuses are appropriately punished, to end the impunity that has characterized alleged abuses by government forces in the past.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 18, 2020, 7:46 pm

Migrants are transfered by Italian sailors from the German combat supply ship 'Frankfurt am Main' to the their ship 'Grecale' after being rescued during EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, March 29, 2016.

© 2016 AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

It is a craven, indefensible choice. Yesterday, European Union foreign ministers agreed to launch a mission in the Mediterranean Sea to enforce the United Nations-mandated Libyan arms embargo on the condition that it not focus on saving lives.

Bowing to pressure from Austria and Hungary, two landlocked countries whose leaders define themselves by their hostile migration policies, the ministers agreed to a plan to deploy warships with the explicit goal of avoiding areas of the Mediterranean where they might have to respond to boats carrying migrants in distress. EU naval assets will reportedly patrol no closer than 100 kilometers (60 miles) off the eastern coast of Libya, about as far away as you can get from where women, men, and children trying to flee Libya depart on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats.

The decision formally ends the already moribund Operation Sophia, the anti-smuggling mission set up in 2015 but left without any ships in the water since March 2019. It had failed principally because the previous Italian government had refused to allow people to disembark.

Operation Sophia rescued more than 50,000 people at sea.

Ironically, the operation was undone by its success. The Austrian and Hungarian governments – with other countries, no doubt, quietly hiding behind them – insisted the new mission be set up to minimize chances of rescuing people and having to bring them to Europe. Yesterday’s agreement even includes a condition that ships be withdrawn if ministers detect any “impact on migration flows.”

Saying that ships would withdraw from areas where there are people in distress takes the EU miles away from the letter and the spirit of international law.

It is unreal to focus on so-called “pull factors” – what can draw people to take a dangerous migration journey – while open warfare, the breakdown in the ability of UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to provide assistance, nightmarish conditions in detention, and risks of falling prey to armed groups in Libya seem to provide ample “push factors.” And never mind that studies have shown that the presence of potential rescue vessels is not the main factor in determining departures.

The EU can stop arms being sent to fuel abuses in Libya and respond to the humanitarian crisis in Libya and the Mediterranean – it is not an either-or choice. EU naval assets should be where they are most needed and useful, and that includes where they can help save lives.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 18, 2020, 6:28 pm

Mercury is mixed with gold ore.   

© 2015 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

Fires in Indian factories, accidents in Zimbabwe gold mines, infertility from chemical exposure the Democratic Republic of Congo – workers around the world face risks, sometimes lethal, in the workplace.

Next week, there’s a unique opportunity to improve the lives of millions of workers as trade unions, governments, and employers try to agree on standards for work conditions in global supply chains.

Human Rights Watch has documented labor rights violations around the world and across various sectors, including textiles, mining, construction, agriculture, and meat processing. In a globalized economy, businesses increasingly source goods and services from complex chains of suppliers that often span multiple countries with different labor rights laws and practices.

One way to improve worker protection would be to enshrine labor rights as a legal requirement along global supply chains. From February 25 to 28, the International Labour Organization (ILO) will hold a meeting of government, employer, and trade union experts to assess standards needed to ensure decent work in global supply chains. Arriving at this point was not quick or easy – the decision to hold this meeting was taken after much discussion in 2016 at the International Labor Conference, an annual summit of labor ministers.

Expect the debate to be heated. While trade unions are advocating for a binding international ILO standard, employer organizations tend to seek voluntary standards, while government positions vary widely.

At the moment, most countries do not legally require companies to protect labor rights in their global supply chains. There are some good voluntary industry standards, as well as a set of important United Nations norms on business and human rights, detailing steps for human rights “due diligence,” but these are not mandatory.

The ILO experts should seize this rare opportunity to protect labor rights in supply chains and decide at next week’s meeting that a new international treaty protecting workers is the best way forward.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 18, 2020, 5:55 pm

Policemen taking Bayram Mammadov from the Khatai District Court of Baku to the remand prison, 6 September 2016.   © 2016 Khayala Aghamaliyeva.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has just ruled that the arrest and prosecution on drugs charges of two prominent youth activists in Azerbaijan was politically motivated. The court held that the real purpose for Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov’s arbitrary arrest, detention, and prosecution was that they “had painted political graffiti on the statue of a former president.”

Police had detained Mammadov and Ibrahimov in May 2016 after they sprayed graffiti on the statue of Azerbaijan’s late president Heydar Aliyev, the father of current President Ilham Aliyev. The graffiti said: “Happy Slave Day” in Azeri, a play on words for “Happy Flower Day.” Both young men were students and members of NIDA, Azeri for exclamation mark, a youth opposition movement active on social media that is highly critical of the government.

After their arrest, the Court found, the pair were ill-treated in custody and forced to confess to bogus drugs charges. Authorities then demanded they publicly apologize in front of the monument, which they refused to do, and shortly afterwards were charged with serious drugs offences. Later, they were each sentenced to 10 years in prison. Although the activists confessed to the charges under police duress, the authorities failed to effectively investigate the torture allegations. While domestic courts rejected all their appeals, they were eventually pardoned and released in March 2019.

The Court also held that their prosecution was “part of a pattern it had found in previous cases [in Azerbaijan] of the arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics, civil society activists, and human rights defenders through retaliatory prosecutions and misuse of the criminal law.”

The use of criminal prosecution as a tool for political retaliation is a well-documented problem in Azerbaijan. Last month, one of Europe’s foremost human rights bodies, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, adopted a groundbreaking resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, highlighting the “systemic nature” of the problem, and urging the authorities to release all those unjustly imprisoned.

The European Court has now ordered Azerbaijan to pay Mammadov and Ibrahimov compensation of 30,000 euros each, and 6,000 euros each for costs and expenses. But Azerbaijan should go further, release all of the country’s wrongfully imprisoned activists, and ensure that no one is prosecuted for exercising their fundamental rights to free expression and assembly.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 18, 2020, 10:21 am

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enters into the prime minister's office in Tokyo on January 20, 2020. House of Councilors Plenary session starts on the same day.

©2020 The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images
(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should reverse course and resume its practice of promoting accountability for human rights abuses in North Korea, Human Rights Watch and almost 300 other nongovernmental organizations and concerned individuals said today in a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In 2019, reversing over a decade of past practice, Japan decided to opt out of sponsoring a key annual resolution on North Korea in the United Nations Human Rights Council. In May, Prime Minister Abe said he would be willing to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, without preconditions. That was a shift from his previous position that any summit would have to yield progress on the issue of past abductions of Japanese citizens.

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government were once champions for international efforts to expose North Korean atrocities, including abuses against the North Korean people and Japanese citizens abducted by the government,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director. “The Japanese government should re-evaluate its decision to soften its stance, and again take the lead in strengthening international efforts to investigate North Korea’s abuses and hold government officials accountable for their crimes.”

The joint letter was signed by 54 organizations and concerned individuals, including coalitions representing almost 300 nongovernmental organizations, from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe, and North America.

The Japanese government did not provide an adequate explanation for its decision not to sponsor the North Korea resolution at the Human Rights Council. An unnamed Japanese official told the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, in May, that since the North Korean government is highly sensitive to international criticism, it would be worthwhile to test a softer approach to see whether it might yield diplomatic results.

The joint letter specifically urges the Japanese government to again lead on this year’s Human Rights Council resolution on North Korea.

“If Prime Minister Abe really wants to resolve the issue of abductions of Japanese citizens, he needs to toughen his overall position on human rights issues, and not go soft,” Doi said. “The Japanese government’s weak position only signals to Pyongyang that human rights violations can continue without consequences.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 18, 2020, 6:50 am

Members of the European Parliament sit in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament during a vote. 

©2020 Philipp von Ditfurth/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
(Bangkok) – The European Union should press Vietnam to end its systemic repression of human rights and release political prisoners and detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. A human rights dialogue between the EU and Vietnam is scheduled for February 19, 2020 in Hanoi.

The meeting will be held only a week after the European Parliament approved an EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and Investment Protection Agreement (IPA). With several other Vietnamese and international groups, Human Rights Watch had urged the European Parliament to postpone ratification to put pressure on Vietnam to commit to human rights reforms and to agree to enforceable measures to improve labor rights.

“The European Union missed an important opportunity when it agreed to a trade deal with Vietnam without securing enforceable commitments for human rights reforms,” said John Sifton, Asia Advocacy director. “EU officials should warn the Vietnam government during the human rights dialogue that failure to meet those commitments could result in suspension of the agreements’ benefits”.
Human rights should be an integral part of bilateral relations between the EU and Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said.

In January, Human Rights Watch sent the EU a submission in preparation for the dialogue, urging the EU to focus on five priority areas regarding the dire human rights situation in Vietnam: 1) political prisoners and detainees; 2) repression of freedom of speech, association, assembly, and movement; 3) repression of freedom of information; 4) repression of the right to freely practice religion; and 5) police brutality.

The EU should urge Vietnam to release all political prisoners and detainees and amend articles in its penal code used to imprison people for peaceful protest, association, dissent, and religious activities, including articles 109, 116, 117, 118, and 331. The Vietnamese authorities frequently use these articles to punish anyone who expresses views or joins an independent group that Vietnam’s Communist Party sees as a threat to its monopoly on power.

In one notable incident in November 2019 linked to the EU-Vietnam agreements, the authorities detained a Vietnamese journalist, Pham Chi Dung, and charged him with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” most likely in connection to an overture he made to the European Parliament about Vietnam’s abysmal rights record. He remains in detention without access to a lawyer.

Pham Chi Dung is one among hundreds of activists who are harassed, prosecuted, and convicted for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, including on social media. In late 2019, the European Parliament president, David Sassoli, sent a letter to Vietnamese authorities calling for his release ahead of the vote on the EU-Vietnam agreements. The Vietnamese ambassador's reply, seen by Human Rights Watch, plainly defends the arrest and shamelessly compares Vietnam's limitations to freedom of expression to those in place in western countries.

Under Vietnam’s criminal procedure code, the authorities can detain people on national security charges for months, or sometimes even years, without access to legal counsel.

The EU should press Vietnam to amend article 74 and article 173 in its criminal procedural code and allow immediate and unhindered accesses to legal assistance for all detainees upon arrest, no matter what the charges.

In the submission to the EU for the dialogue, Human Rights Watch also highlighted the shortcomings of a revised labor code recently passed by Vietnam’s National Assembly. If it is not amended before it becomes effective in January 2021, it will prohibit workers from forming independent unions without official approval. The EU should pressure Vietnam to immediately ratify and carry out the provisions of the International Labour Organization Conventions No. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize).

The EU should also press Vietnam to revise its cyber security law to ensure it will not violate freedom of information and release all Facebook users detained for posting their political opinions.

To ensure freedom of religion and belief, Vietnam should allow all religious organizations independence and the rights to govern themselves and freely conduct religious activities. It should immediately end harassment and ill-treatment of followers of religions the government doesn’t favor. It should stop arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning them and forcing them to denounce their faith.

Vietnam should also make serious commitment to end police brutality, Human Rights Watch said. In September, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc approved a roadmap that required security officials across the country to record interrogations, starting on January 1. However, in December, the Public Security Ministry announced a postponement of the roadmap, citing the lack of recording equipment and training for police investigators. It is unclear when it will become effective.

“Numerous rounds of EU-Vietnam human rights dialogues failed to persuade the country to reverse its abusive trend, even as separate negotiations for economic agreements have ended with lucrative deals,” Sifton said. “The EU needs to connect its economic leverage to the human rights principles it claims to champion.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 18, 2020, 12:50 am

 In this Feb. 13, 2019, file photo Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses media at Parliament House in Canberra.

© 2019 AP Photos/Rod McGuirk, File
(Sydney) – The Australian government should introduce a new law to allow targeted sanctions against serious human rights violators abroad, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to parliament’s human rights subcommittee. The proposed law would be similar to legislation enacted in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

As part of a foreign policy that actively promotes human rights, Australia should pass legislation that authorizes targeted sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, against people implicated in serious human rights violations. The law would preserve the flexibility to target individual rights abusers without broadly punishing the country’s population.

“Targeted sanctions are a useful foreign policy tool to press for accountability for serious abuses and to raise the cost of human rights violations,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “The Australian government should join other governments and pass a law that specifies human rights and corruption as criteria in applying targeted sanctions.”

The US has led in this effort through its Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (Global Magnitsky Act) adopted in 2016. Canada and the UK have similar laws. The European Union (EU) is the process of developing a Global EU Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

Australia’s current sanctions law allows the government to impose targeted sanctions for a broad range of reasons, but the process is complicated, ad hoc, opaque, and difficult to navigate. There is no civil society engagement in the process. As a result, targeted sanctions have rarely been applied against human rights abusers. By contrast, the US has sanctioned at least 199 individuals and entities from a wide range of countries under the Global Magnitsky Act.

A new targeted sanctions law would create a more transparent process for applying sanctions on human rights grounds and give the Australian government more options in dealing with human rights violators, Human Rights Watch said.

“Telling rights violators in other countries that they can’t travel to Australia or put their money in Australian banks can have a real impact,” Pearson said. “By joining other countries with similar laws, Australia will be sending a strong message to abusive leaders everywhere that there are far-reaching consequences for their actions.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 17, 2020, 10:00 pm

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson departs from Hudson Yards, in New York, September 24, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s newly-announced Cabinet “reshuffle” provides fresh evidence that his government has the courts - and our human rights - firmly in its sights.

The government’s new Attorney General Suella Braverman, its top legal adviser, is on record recently arguing that the courts’ ability to hold the government to account should be restrained, and expressing her criticism of human rights.

It’s increasingly clear that Johnson plans to water down the Human Rights Act, which keeps us safe from government harm, and make it harder for British courts to intervene when the state tramples on people’s rights.

In December 2019, the newly-elected Conservative government set out its priorities, which include setting up a new commission to look at human rights, the judiciary, and the courts, a move its election manifesto said would ensure “a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.”

That may sound innocuous, but even a cursory look at what ministers have been saying makes clear that it is anything but.

Reports suggest that the government wants to “clip the wings” of the Supreme Court, which ruled last September that the government’s decision to suspend Parliament was unlawful, a decision that deeply frustrated the prime minister.

There is evidence – including comments by the outgoing Attorney General – that the government wants a greater say in how senior judges are appointed. Controlling judicial appointments has been a key tactic by authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary,  and it is chilling to see this being mooted in the UK.  

The Conservative Party also has a history of calling for the Human Rights Act to be replaced, and even for the UK to leave the Council of Europe, Europe’s human rights club, altogether.

If the UK government wants to review the constitution it should not try to put itself above the law in doing so. Instead, it should protect people’s human rights, ensure a cross-party process, and consult closely with civil society on its plans.

Independent courts to protect people when the government goes too far, as well as human rights laws that define our basic freedoms, are vital to our democracy. They need to be defended.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 17, 2020, 10:58 am

A woman holds a picture of a missing relative at a protest calling for investigations into enforced disappearances, Colombo, Sri Lanka, February 14, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo

(New York) – Sri Lankan security forces and intelligence agencies have intensified surveillance and threats against families of victims of enforced disappearance and activists supporting them since Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president in November 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The Sri Lankan government should fulfill its commitments to the United Nations Human Rights Council to strengthen efforts to locate the “disappeared” and bring those responsible to justice.

Activists working in six locations in the northern and eastern parts of the country on behalf of relatives of the forcibly disappeared told Human Rights Watch that there has been a significant increase in government surveillance and intimidation. One activist said that prior to a recent victims’ meeting, “every one of the mothers got at least six telephone calls from different intelligence agencies asking, ‘Where is the meeting?’ ‘Who is organizing the meeting?’ ‘What is being said?’” Another activist said, “We can’t do any visible programs.… We’ve stopped everything.”

“The families of Sri Lanka’s ‘disappeared’ have spent years waiting for answers, but with the Rajapaksas back in power, security forces are threatening them to drop their demands for truth and accountability,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The government needs to stop the harassment immediately and abide by Sri Lanka’s pledges to the UN to uncover the fate of the ‘disappeared’ and provide justice to victims’ families.”

Thousands of people, primarily ethnic Tamils, are believed to have been forcibly disappeared in state custody between 2005 and 2015, when the current president was defense secretary and his brother, current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president. President Rajapaksa has resisted demands for justice, including past Sri Lankan commitments to the UN Human Rights Council, and said at a recent meeting with the UN that the “missing persons are actually dead.”

During the bloody civil war, from 1983 to 2009, between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), both sides committed numerous abuses, including enforced disappearances. UN reports found credible allegations of enforced disappearances by government forces of captured LTTE fighters and Tamil civilians during the final months of the war in 2009. Among the army units the UN implicated in the worst atrocities at the war’s end were those commanded by the current army chief, Gen. Shavendra Silva, and the defense secretary, Gen. Kamal Gunaratne. On February 14, 2020, the United States State Department designated Silva and his immediate family members ineligible for entry into the US “due to credible information of his involvement, through command responsibility, in gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings.”

The new Rajapaksa administration has halted legal proceedings initiated by the previous government against navy officers accused of the enforced disappearance and alleged killing of 11 young men in Colombo and its suburbs in 2008 and 2009. In November 2019, following the presidential election, a government investigator looking into this and other cases of alleged serious rights violations implicating government officials fled the country following threats. Other criminal investigators have since been put under travel restrictions.

I want to know what happened to my son – whether he is dead or alive, and if he is not alive, what happened to him and who did it; whether he was beaten, whether they broke a limb.

A member of the advocacy group Mothers of the Disappeared whose son was forcibly disappeared in 2009 told Human Rights Watch that since the presidential election she has been repeatedly visited by members of the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

“They have come and asked who is going to meetings,” she said. “And who is going to Geneva [to attend the UN Human Rights Council]. These are children who were taken by white vans from our houses or who surrendered [to the army]. These are the children we are talking about. I want to know what happened to my son – whether he is dead or alive, and if he is not alive, what happened to him and who did it; whether he was beaten, whether they broke a limb.”

A person who works closely with the families of the disappeared said that under the relatively open environment of the previous government, many relatives of the disappeared had chosen to speak out about their cases. “Now they [the security forces] know who talked about their crimes, so the victims have fears about their safety,” he said.

The previous Rajapaksa administration had repeatedly denied government involvement in serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearances. However, under international pressure, Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which acknowledged an “alarming” number of allegations of disappearances in state custody, and said the government was “duty bound” to take “immediate” steps to bring those responsible to justice.

In 2015, the Sri Lankan government under President Maithripala Sirisena joined a consensus resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. A core commitment was to set up four transitional justice mechanisms to promote “reconciliation, accountability and human rights,” including an accountability mechanism involving international judges, prosecutors, and investigators; a truth and reconciliation mechanism; an office on missing persons; and an office for reparations.

Sri Lanka has made limited progress in meeting these commitments, but an Office on Missing Persons and an Office for Reparations have been established. During the election campaign and since taking office, the Rajapaksa government has said it does not intend to abide by the internationally recognized process to address alleged grave international crimes by both sides. The government has also cast doubt on the future of the Office on Missing Persons.

Given Sri Lanka’s long history of enforced disappearance, it is vitally important not to allow the government to simply dismiss these cases. UN member states at the Human Rights Council in late February should call upon Sri Lanka to comply with its international legal obligations, protect victims and witnesses, and keep its UN pledges in a time-bound manner.

Should the government fail to do so, the council should take the initiative and adopt accountability measures leading toward international investigation and prosecutions.

“Family members of Sri Lanka’s many ‘disappeared’ have a right to know what happened to their loved ones,” Ganguly said. “The UN Human Rights Council is the one flicker of hope many families have that the fate of those disappeared will one day be known, and that justice will be done.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 17, 2020, 2:15 am

© 2015 John Emerson/Human Rights Watch

(Moscow) – Police in southern Russia on February 13, 2020 raided the homes and office of activists who provide legal and psychological assistance to survivors of domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said today. The raids took place in Makhachkala and Khasavyurt, two cities in Dagestan, a republic in Russia’s Northern Caucasus region.

The activists targeted are partners of Stichting Justice Initiative (SJI), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) representing victims of grave human rights abuses in the North Caucasus and survivors of domestic violence in Russia. Police seized computers and electronics containing documentation pertaining to their work.

“These outrageous police raids show the poisonous climate for NGOs in Russia, and particularly in the North Caucasus,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These are overt attempts to suppress independent civic activity, instill fear, and keep activists in a perpetual state of uncertainty.”

The court order sanctioning the search and seizure, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, contains no information about any specific alleged offense that would have justified the action. Instead, it quotes generic provisions of the Law on Law Enforcement Operations and the need to check allegations of involvement with organizing mass riots and financing of extremist activities, although without reference to any factual grounds necessitating the searches.

SJI told Human Rights Watch that during the search, police informally told their partners’ staff that law enforcement was inspecting all organizations “working in the field of violence.” SJI heard unconfirmed reports of similar searches of other independent groups in Dagestan and Ingushetia that work on humanitarian issues, including those working with orphans. These groups, SJI said, are refraining from speaking publicly about the searches for fear of repercussions.

Raids on organizations working on domestic and other violence against women can have a significantly chilling effect, preventing victims from seeking help or accessing potentially life-saving services. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is already an underreported crime.

The searches on February 13 were the second time in six months that police have targeted SJI and its partners. In August 2019, police and security services raided and searched the group’s Moscow and Nazran (Ingushetia) offices. In Moscow, the authorities did not show a search warrant and claimed that the raid was in conjunction with the search in the adjacent offices of an audit company.

However, police who stormed the Nazran office of Pravovaia Initsiativa Foundation, one of SJI’s two operational partners, said they were investigating alleged foreign funding of unsanctioned protests. At the time, SJI was working on a submission to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) of a group of cases pertaining to protests in Ingushetia. They said that they could not rule out the possibility that the raid sought, unsuccessfully, to impede the group’s work.

In December 2019, the Ministry of Justice listed Pravovaia Initsiativa Foundation Ingushetia as a foreign agent under the 2012 “Foreign Agent” law, which aims to tarnish independent groups that engage in advocacy and receive foreign funding.

In July, SJI was the successful litigator in the European Court’s first ruling on a domestic violence case in Russia. The court concluded that domestic violence and the official inaction the applicant faced was not an isolated incident, but rather the result of a systemic, ongoing failure on the part of the Russian authorities to properly address domestic violence.

SJI has been an irritant for the Russian authorities for years through its successful European Court litigation, Human Rights Watch said. Since 2001, the organization has submitted more than 450 cases to the ECtHR, United Nations Human Rights Committees, and the International Criminal Court, representing about 1,800 applicants. It has won over 250 cases at the ECtHR pertaining to enforced disappearances in Chechnya and other abuses. Russian authorities have had to pay over 25 million euros in compensation to the victims.

Russian authorities for years have sought to hinder SJI’s work, Human Rights Watch said. The Justice Ministry denied the group’s application for re-registration in 2006 and 2007, including shortly after it won its first case concerning torture in Chechnya. The organization was finally registered on its third attempt in February 2007. Thereafter, in 2011, the Justice Ministry excluded SJI from the list of accredited foreign organizations, effectively banning their human rights work in Russia.

The organization spent over a year in litigation with the government, and after repeated failed attempts to receive the accreditation, established two Russian nongovernmental groups to act as its operational partners. SJI’s leadership considered their registration problems a sign of the authorities’ annoyance at the group’s successful work.

SJI and its partners told Human Rights Watch they firmly intend to continue their work.

“Activists and independent groups in Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus are helping the most vulnerable and unprotected members of the community, yet they constantly face great risks to their safety,” Williamson said. “Instead of wasting time hindering activists’ work, the authorities should foster a safe atmosphere so that the most vulnerable get the assistance they need.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 15, 2020, 5:00 am

Workers walk towards the construction site of the Lusail stadium which will be build for the upcoming 2022 Fifa soccer World Cup during a stadium tour in Doha, Qatar, December 20, 2019. 

© 2019 REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

(New York) – Qatari authorities failed to address an employer’s months of delayed wages to employees despite a 2015 system built to ensure employers paid their employees on time and in full, Human Rights Watch said today.

The government’s Wage Protection System (WPS), designed to ensure that workers receive their salaries through direct bank transfer by the seventh day of every month, allows the government to monitor wage payments and allows the labor minister to impose sanctions on companies and employers that do not comply. But a Qatari employer did not pay its managerial staff for five months and its laborers for two months before workers publicly protested the situation.

“Qatar has passed some laws to protect migrant workers, but the authorities seem more interested in promoting these minor reforms in the media than in making them work,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “FIFA and the Qatari government should ensure that any employer that has delayed payments immediately releases them, as well as levy appropriate fines.”

Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup organizer, the quasi-governmental Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, has also adopted measures to protect workers on World Cup sites, setting stringent rules for contractors. The rules require setting up worker welfare committees to report abuses on these sites.

Many of the managerial-level staff with this employer received the five months of payments they were owed on February 13, 2020, and those who have not are expecting them on February 16. All the laborers Human Rights Watch spoke to received the two months of payments they were owed on February 7. Staffers and laborers said they were told by senior management that the government stepped in to make the payments.

Human Rights Watch spoke to 11 workers under this employer – 7 from management, 3 laborers, and a former management staff member – and reviewed relevant documentation, including five official memos asking management staff to keep working to maintain the “reputation of the [employer].” All 7 management staff members said that the employer failed to pay at least 500 managerial staff such as engineers, surveyors, and supervisors beginning in September 2019.

While Human Rights watch documented the problems under one employer, the findings expose a systemic failure that has a bearing on all employers operating in Qatar, Human Rights Watch said.

The management staff said they reported to work without pay under threat of deductions until several staff members decided to stop working until they were paid. The employer and their top-level management also made similar threats to keep laborers working throughout December and January. During this time, the laborers remained in their employer-provided accommodations and were provided regular meals. Management staff arrange for their own room and board.

The employer engages over 6,000 workers and has over 25 current projects in Qatar. These include a stadium in Doha, which will host FIFA World Cup 2022 matches, the streets surrounding the stadium, and a road-building project to connect Doha’s downtown areas to several FIFA World Cup stadiums.

“I was so miserable, my wife is having a baby soon,” said one 32-year-old surveyor who received four months of salary on February 13. “I was supposed to go to India for the delivery. Instead, I had no money to live in Qatar, I am in thousands of riyals of debt, and there is a potential travel ban on me [because of defaulting on a bank loan]. How did this happen to me?” He said he understood he had only been paid because the government had provided the money. “I will now go and clear months of dues with the bank, my landlord, and grocer who has been giving us vegetables on credit.”

Since migrant workers are still banned under Qatari law from joining unions and participating in strikes, some of the unpaid workers risked arrest to protest for their salaries. “We were scared to stop working and protest, but our families back home were starving so we blocked the main road near our accommodation,” said an Indian laborer working on a road-building project for minimum wage (US$206 a month). The three laborers interviewed said they received their past-due wages on February 7, the same day as they protested, and are back at work.

Managerial staff protested outside one of their employer’s many project offices in Doha on February 9, they told Human Rights Watch. They said that government and police officials intervened, verbally promised prompt payment, and sent the protesters home.

Their September salary was sent to their bank accounts that day. Salaries for October, November, December, and January began pouring into hundreds of salary accounts on February 13, the staff members said. Three of the seven staff members interviewed received full payments, and the others said they expect to receive theirs on February 16.

Under the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Forced Labour (No. 29), work is considered forced or compulsory labor when workers are made to work under threat of penalty or withholding and non-payment of wages.

Staff members said that before they held protests on main roads, they had filed complaints about their missing wages with the local police on January 30 and at the National Human Rights Commission on February 4. They said they did not receive any written responses for these complaints.

This is not the first time this employer has delayed the payment of salaries to its employees. Managerial staff said they have not been receiving their wages on time since January 2018, often with two to three month delays, a direct violation of Qatar’s labor law, which requires that employees be paid their wages in full and on time.

Despite introducing some labor reforms over the past couple of years, Qatari authorities have failed to abolish the exploitative kafala sponsorship labor system that fuels abuses and gives employers excessive power over their employees. In most cases, employer’s consent is still needed for a worker to change jobs.

In January 2020, this employer told its managerial staff that if they did not want to work without pay, they could issue them No Objection Certificates that would allow them to transfer to new jobs. However, the staff members interviewed said that they did not want to resign until they were fully paid for past work because employees who left a year ago are still waiting for outstanding salaries and gratuity payments. Qatar’s labor law states that migrant workers receive a yearly gratuity payment which must amount to at least three weeks of salary.

A former employee from Pakistan told Human Rights Watch that he resigned a year ago, and he is still owed QR20,000 (about $5,493) in payments. The delay violates a Qatari law stipulating that if a worker is terminated, the employer must pay their wages and any other outstanding sums within seven days from the last day of employment.

A recent joint report by the International Labour Organization and the Qatari Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour & Social Affairs found a series of problems with the Wage Protection System that hamper its efficacy, including being overburdened with cases. It noted that in November 2018, the system’s staff were dealing with cases from January 2018. It was also said that the threat of penalties for violations was not immediate. Penalties include a maximum prison sentence of one month, a fine between 2,000 to 6,000 Qatari riyals (about $550 to $1,648), or both.

Even if the system were more efficiently managed, it has limited authority to force companies and employers to comply with the law. While the system can flag non-payments, it is up to the Department of Wage Protection to enforce the law for full and timely payments, Human Rights Watch said.

“This case of hundreds of delayed wages once again highlights that the Wage Protection System and the Department of Wage Protection are not doing enough to ensure that migrant workers in Qatar receive their salaries in time and in full,” Page said. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 15, 2020, 5:00 am

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina interacts with journalists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo/Anupam Nath
(New York) – Authorities should drop charges and immediately release from custody leading Bangladesh publisher Nur Mohammad and Sufi singer Shariat Sarker, Human Rights Watch said today. Both appear to be detained for having criticized the ruling party, and religious leaders, respectively. The authorities should end all arbitrary arrests and a crackdown on freedom of expression under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA).

Mohammad, the owner of Guardian Publications, was arrested on February 10, 2020 for “associating with” Enamul Haque Moni, who was arrested in 2018 for spreading “fake news and propaganda” about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed and her son Sajeeb Wazed, and for digital fraud. Sarker has been in prison for over a month on charges for “hurting religious sentiments” after he criticized Muslim clerics who oppose singing.

“The government has the responsibility to protect the right to speech and expression, not use its internet laws as an excuse to go after singers who criticize clerics or anyone who criticizes the prime minister or her family,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The ruling Awami League should not be silencing its critics.”

In addition to charges for digital fraud and forgery, Mohammad could face a sentence of up to life in prison for charges under section 25 of the law, which criminalizes publishing any content with the intention of “tarnishing the image of the nation.” He is also charged under section 31, which criminalizes publishing or broadcasting any content that “destroys communal harmony” or “deteriorates or threatens to deteriorate the law and order” which carries up to 10 years in prison. These terms are so vague and broad that the authorities can essentially arrest critics at will, effectively chilling free speech.

The First Information Report on Mohammad’s arrest filed by Rapid Action Batallion-2 Inspector Ikramul Haq Chowdhury in Dhaka Railway Police Station, accuses him of colluding in publishing material that was “spreading misinformation” about student protests for road safety and quota reform and thus “provoking anarchy in the country.” It also says he promoted propaganda harmful to the reputation of the ruling Awami League ahead of the parliamentary election.

Evidence against Mohammad cited in the police investigation report includes news headlines allegedly published by Moni such as “Joy Makes His Mother Popular through a Non-Reputed Poll” and “Surprising Facts Behind Withdrawing all Cases Against Hasina.”

Mohammad’s arrest comes after Guardian Publications was denied participation in Bangladesh’s largest annual book fair which takes place this month. The company has published two books by Pinaki Bhattacharya, a leading critic of the prime minister. Bhattacharya went into hiding and fled the country after security forces allegedly summoned him and raided his home in 2018 after he expressed support for the student protests that summer.

This is not the first time that authorities have arrested people for criticizing the prime minister or her family. In July 2019 a man was arrested under the DSA for allegedly sharing distorted images of the prime minister and her son on Facebook. Human Rights Watch documented several such cases in its report on abuses under the previous Information and Communication Technology Act, which the DSA replaced. 

The DSA was also used against the Sufi singer, Shariat Sarker, for accusing Islamic clerics of misinterpreting the Quran to forbid music and for reportedly saying “Our great Prophet Muhammad was an ardent fan of music and went to sleep at night after listening to music.” Sayedur Rahman, the officer in charge at the Mirzapur police station in Tangail district said that Sarker was arrested after the police received complaint about Sarker’s remarks. “We questioned him in custody and found the allegations to be true,” he said. If convicted, Sarker could face 10 years in prison.

Sarker is a Sufi Baul singer, a tradition of nomadic folk singers, which UNESCO included in 2005 in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. However, Baul singers have faced attacks by religious extremists in recent years. When questioned about Sarker’s case, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that “as he was arrested, surely he was involved in a crime,” denying that the case had anything to do with Baul singing. Instead of quelling fears, she urged Baul singers to lay low and avoid trouble with the law. “They mustn’t do such activities … They also have to remain cautious,” she said.

On February 12 the High Court issued a notice asking authorities to explain why Sarker has yet to be released on bail.

The Bangladesh government has ignored repeated calls from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rightsthe United States, the European Unionjournalists within Bangladesh and many others to bring the law in line with Bangladesh’s commitments under international law.

“Instead of recommending ‘caution,’ the prime minister should be upholding the democratic principles of free speech,” Adams said. “People can be criticized or countered if their speech is offensive, but the state should not be locking up people simply because they said something the police decided is unpleasant.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 15, 2020, 1:50 am

© ArchOneZ/VectorStock

This week, United States Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Congressman Jim McGovern introduced a resolution to the US House of Representatives to challenge corruption at the highest levels around the world: an International Anti-Corruption Court. This novel idea, first proposed by Judge Mark Wolf in 2012, is worth considering given the desperate need to develop new mechanisms to address corruption’s severe, transnational impacts on human rights and the enduring challenge of holding kleptocrats accountable for their crimes.

Corruption can ravage societies and be stubbornly difficult to uproot. Allowed to fester, corruption breeds poverty, violence, and instability that can spread well past a country’s borders. The World Economic Forum estimates that 5 percent of the world’s GDP is lost to corruption, and the International Monetary Fund blames it for US$1 trillion in lost tax revenue.

And corruption can rob people of their rights. It can lead to failing healthcare and education systems, lack of access to clean water – all problems that force countless people to leave their homes and countries in pursuit of better lives. It can also corrode government itself, as corrupt officials often shield themselves from accountability by hijacking the judiciary and abusively silencing critics.

High-level corruption can cross borders. As the “Luanda Leaks” recently exposed, it often implicates a dizzying network of far-flung companies, well-connected individuals, and countries – from foreign companies greasing palms for lucrative contracts to accounting firms scrubbing books and legal systems that allow corrupt officials to launder their dirty money.

Time will tell whether an international anti-corruption court is the right tool to take on these international networks and deliver justice to corruption’s victims. But for now, it’s a discussion worth having.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 14, 2020, 6:14 pm

(Nairobi) – The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s call for Rwanda to take “urgent measures” to end abuse of street children should be carried out immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. In observations released on February 13, 2020, the Geneva-based treaty body called for a halt to arbitrary detention of children in transit centers, for investigations into allegations of ill-treatment – including beatings –, and for amendments of the legal framework that regularizes this abuse.

Street children sit on the verandah of a house in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, on January 22, 2020.

© 2020 Reuters/Clement Uwiringiyimana

On January 27, Human Rights Watch released a 44-page report, “‘As Long as We Live on the Streets, They Will Beat Us’: Rwanda’s Abusive Detention of Children,” documenting the arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of street children, who are held for up to six months at Gikondo Transit Center, in Kigali, the capital. Since 2017, new legislation and policies under the government’s strategy to “eradicate delinquency” have sought to legitimize and regulate so-called transit centers. But Human Rights Watch found that the new legislation provides cover for the police to round up and detain street children at Gikondo in deplorable and degrading conditions, and without due process or judicial oversight.

“The UN committee’s recommendations to the Rwandan government to take concrete steps to prevent the arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of children are important to stop further abuse against some of Rwandan society’s most vulnerable children,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Rwanda should not only take these recommendations seriously and take action immediately, but it should also close down the abusive transit centers.”

Under legislation introduced since 2017, people exhibiting “deviant acts or behaviors … such as prostitution, drug use, begging, vagrancy, [or] informal street vending,” can be held for up to two months in one of the 28 transit centers across the country, without any further legal justification or oversight. The committee said it was concerned that the existence of “deviant behaviors” in the legislation was leading to “the deprivation of liberty of children in need of protection.”

The committee called for an end to this abusive detention and for the government to change the law.

During the committee’s review, on January 27 and 28, the Rwandan government denied that the detention of street children in transit centers is arbitrary. The government also claimed that children in transit centers are either placed with a family or transferred to a “rehabilitation center” within 72 hours. These claims contradict reports by the National Commission for Children and the National Commission for Human Rights, as well as Human Rights Watch’s findings.

Between January and October 2019, Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with 30 formerly detained children aged 11 to 17. Only two said they had spent less than two weeks detained at the Kigali Transit Center, the center’s official name. Twenty-eight of the children said they were beaten at Gikondo. An 11-year-old boy who spent five months at Gikondo, from December 2018 to May 2019, told Human Rights Watch: “The only adult in the room was a ‘counsellor’ [an adult detainee] and he beat me with a club when I disturbed him, played, or tried to take some drinking water without his permission.”

In an article published by KT Press on January 27, 2020, Justice Minister Johnston Busingye was quoted saying: “These children have been redeemed…. We believe they can become useful citizens…. HRW [Human Rights Watch] can come and interview them if they wish.” During Rwanda’s review by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the gender and family promotion minister, Soline Nyirahabimana, also said independent observers should visit the center.

On February 6, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Minister Busingye following up on these statements and requesting access to Gikondo and other transit centers in Rwanda. He has not responded.

Children at Gikondo are detained in overcrowded rooms, sometimes with adults, in conditions well below standards required by Rwandan and international law. Children said they had to share mattresses and blankets, which were often infected with lice, sometimes with up to four or five other children. Some said they were only allowed to wash once or twice a week or had irregular access to toilets. Access to medical treatment is sporadic and there is no rehabilitation support.

According to the government’s own figures, thousands of children may have been subjected to the kinds of abuses Human Rights Watch documented. In a statement on February 6, the government rejected the Human Rights Watch findings and said that 3,825 children had been “screened” at the Kigali Transit Center between 2017 and 2019.

The committee called for investigations into reported cases of ill-treatment and beatings of street children by police and transit center personnel, and for the prosecution of the alleged abusers.

“The Committee on the Rights of the Child has made clear its worries over Rwanda’s most vulnerable children and the government’s failure to put their wellbeing first,” Mudge said. “Instead of issuing blanket denials, the government should make much-needed reforms, end the abuse of street children, and hold those responsible for beatings and ill-treatment accountable.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 14, 2020, 11:00 am

Rohingya refugees walk inside Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh January 8, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

Taher, a Rohingya Christian pastor, and his 14-year-old daughter were abducted from their shelter in a refugee camp in Bangladesh on the morning of January 27. The previous night scores of men attacked 22 Christian families living in Kutupalong Camp 2 in Cox’s Bazaar. The attackers beat up residents, vandalized homes, and looted personal property in the sprawling Rohingya refugee camp. At least 12 Rohingya Christian refugees were injured and hospitalized following the attack. A makeshift Christian church and school were also smashed. After the attack the families relocated to a United Nations transit center and filed a police case against 59 alleged assailants.

The Benar News Agency and Radio Free Asia have reported that camp residents believe that the attackers are linked to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an ethnic Rohingya armed group. An ARSA representative denied and condemned the attacks on Christians, saying the assailants were harming the group’s fight for Rohingya rights.

Taher’s wife, Roshida, fears that her husband has been killed and her daughter abducted. She told Human Rights Watch that, “No one can give me any clear information, but my relatives told me that my daughter has been forced to convert to Islam and marry.”

Approximately 1,500 Rohingya Christians are among the more than 700,000 predominantly Muslim Rohingya forced to flee to Bangladesh as the result of the Myanmar military’s 2017 campaign of ethnic cleansing.  

Victims say the Bangladesh authorities, who described the attack as an “ordinary law and order incident” and not an attack aimed at Christians, are not doing enough to protect them or to find Taher and his daughter. Camp officials “try to avoid our queries,” said one man. Another said a police officer in Cox’s Bazar told him that if the victims wanted to be safe they should “go to the moon.”

Rohingya Christians have previously reported facing threats and violence in the camps. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has expressed her concern for Rohingya Christian refugees who are facing “hostility and violence.” The Bangladesh authorities should urgently locate Taher and his daughter and bring those responsible to justice. The government should also act immediately to protect all vulnerable groups in the country’s refugee camps, including religious minorities like Rohingya Christians.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 14, 2020, 2:00 am

A general view shows the opening of the 16th session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, on February 28, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

(Geneva, February 13, 2020) – The release of the database of businesses contributing to illegal Israeli settlements is a major breakthrough in holding businesses accountable for their role in rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released the database on February 12, 2020.

Settlements are at the root of serious, systematic violations of Palestinian rights, undermining their livelihoods and economy. Transfer of an occupying power’s civilian population to an occupied territory violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and, under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, is a war crime. Business activities contribute to entrenching settlements, and the rights abuses and two-tiered Israeli discriminatory system that stem from them.

“The long awaited release of the UN settlement business database should put all companies on notice: to do business with illegal settlements is to aid in the commission of war crimes,” said Bruno Stagno, deputy executive director for advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “The database release marks critical progress in the global effort to ensure that businesses end their complicity in rights abuses and respect international law.”

The much-anticipated UN report lists 112 business, 94 domiciled in Israel and 18 in six other countries. Among the companies listed are Airbnb and Booking.com, which contribute to rights abuses by facilitating housing rentals on land confiscated from occupied Palestinians, who themselves are barred from staying there. The list also includes several Israeli banks that finance settlement construction. Human Rights Watch has issued reports documenting the business activities in the settlements in both cases.

Before publishing the report, the UN rights office communicated with the companies involved, answered questions, and provided them with information. The report indicates that several companies contacted by the UN responded by ceasing their settlement activities. The report will bring a degree of transparency to business activities and help build pressure on companies to stop contributing to rights abuse and to comply with their human rights responsibilities.

In publishing the database, the UN high commissioner fulfilled a mandate entrusted to her by the UN Human Rights Council in a resolution adopted in 2016 without opposition. The database, as well as a list of businesses facilitating rights abuses against the Rohingya published by a UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar in August 2019, set important precedents in the global effort to ensure that businesses respect their responsibilities, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The UN High Commissioner’s Office noted that businesses that cease their settlement-related activity can seek removal from the database and recommended that the Human Rights Council should provide for updating the database annually.

“The publication of the database underscores the international community’s firm rejection of Israeli and US efforts to legitimize Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise and to whitewash the resulting human rights abuses,” Stagno said. “When the UN’s Human Rights Council meets later this month, it should act to ensure that the database remains a living resource that dissuades companies from contributing to unlawful land grabs and harsh discrimination against Palestinians.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 13, 2020, 1:05 pm

A pile of shoes during the annual demonstration by NGO Humanity and Inclusion denouncing antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions in Lyon on September 20, 2014.

© 2014 Getty Images
(Sydney) – The Australian Arms Control Coalition (AACC) has written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison urging him to publicly condemn the decision of the United States to lift restrictions on its use of landmines.

The letter calls for the Australian government to guarantee that Australia’s military cooperation with the US will not involve the use or transport of landmines. It also seeks a guarantee that Australia will not relax the existing ban on the manufacture and export of landmines or their components in meeting its stated ambition to become a top weapons exporter.

The US has announced the reversal of a policy banning the use of antipersonnel landmines outside of the Korean Peninsula.

The AACC is deeply concerned that the shift undermines decades of international effort to protect civilians from indiscriminate explosives in conflict zones.

“The use of antipersonnel mines is clearly prohibited in the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention which has been signed by 164 states,” states the letter to the prime minister.

“It goes against thirty years of international cooperation to ban landmines, since the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997.”

The majority of landmines and explosive remnants of war kill civilians (71 percent), and more than half of all the civilians who are killed are children (54 percent). In places like Afghanistan the percentage of child casualties is as high as 77 percent.

In 2018, Australia recommitted its support for international action towards the goal of a world free of landmines by 2025 at the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention in Geneva. As the letter states: “Australia has long been a strong supporter of mine action and is a state party to the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions.”

“Australia is supporting efforts to reduce the number of deaths and injuries from landmines, cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war through bilateral aid partnership and through the United Nations Mine Action Service.”

Given these efforts by Australia, the announcement by the US must be condemned by all countries concerned with the horrific humanitarian impact of landmines.

The AACC is calling for the Australian Government to:

  • Register Australia’s grave concern with the United States over its new policy allowing the increased use of antipersonnel landmines;
  • Ensure Australia’s military cooperation with the United States does not involve the transhipment or storage of antipersonnel landmines through US military bases on Australian soil;
  • In the case of joint operations, guarantee Australian forces will not be involved in the facilitation of landmine placement;
  • Continue to champion the ban of landmines internationally, including by funding de-mining programs and by complying with Australia’s own international commitments; and
  • Guarantee that Australia’s ambition to become a top ten defence exporter will not include the manufacture or export of antipersonnel landmines or components.

The AACC was formed in April 2019 out of shared concern around the lack of accountability and transparency in Australia’s defence exports, particularly around current arms sales to parties to the devastating war in Yemen.

Its members include Save the Children Australia, Amnesty International, SafeGround Inc, Human Rights Watch, the Australian Centre for International Justice, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network, the Medical Association for Prevention of War, Oxfam Australia, SumOfUs, Wage Peace and individual advocates.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 13, 2020, 1:00 pm

GNA checkpoint guard stands behind an expended cargo section of an RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb impacted into Alasfah Road near Tripoli International Airport following an attack on or around December 2, 2019, Tripoli outskirts, Libya, December 18, 2019. 

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Forces affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) used cluster munitions in a residential area in Tripoli on December 2, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The forces, under the command of Khalifa Hiftar, have been battling forces loyal to the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) for control of Tripoli, the capital. 

“Using cluster munitions shows reckless disregard for the safety of civilians,” said Stephen Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition. “Cluster munitions should never be used by anyone under any circumstances due to the foreseeable and unacceptable harm for civilians.”

The LNA or their international supporters carried out an airstrike on or around December 2 in a residential area adjacent to al-Asfah road near the Airport Road in the southern suburbs of Tripoli. There were no reports of casualties. Human Rights Watch visited the site on December 17 and found remnants of two RBK-250 PTAB 2.5M cluster bombs, as well as evidence that high-explosive air-dropped bombs were also used in the attack. The area was not known to be contaminated by cluster munitions before the attack.


The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions comprehensively prohibits cluster munitions and requires their clearance as well as assistance to victims. Libya has not joined the treaty, but all parties to the armed conflict in Libya should abide by the emerging norm it establishes against any use of cluster munitions in any circumstances. 

Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect and long-lasting danger to civilians. They typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of small bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Cluster submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines. 

On February 5, 2020, Human Rights Watch emailed the office of the LNA spokesperson seeking comment on the findings of the use of cluster munitions in a residential area. Human Rights Watch did not receive a response. 

During the December 17 site visit, Human Rights Watch interviewed two men who said they were there during the attack. Both men were members of an armed force under the Tripoli-based GNA who were guarding a checkpoint on a main road al-Asfah running through the residential area. The men said there had been no casualties from the attack. 

The tail unit of an RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb found in residential area near Alasfah road, Tripoli outskirts, Libya,  December 18, 2019,

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

One of the men, who asked not to be named, said that most residents had left the area after months of sustained fighting. But he said that a cluster munition had landed in the yard of a man of about 80, who had refused to leave his home. The guard said the attack was sudden and that he heard the strong explosions of what he believes were the bombs landing in the field. 

A researcher found remnants of two cluster munitions and the small but distinctive impact craters of multiple explosive submunitions. Each RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb contains 30 PTAB-2.5M high explosive anti-tank (HE/AT) submunitions. The remnants included the tail and cargo sections of the bombs as well as the fuze rings of the submunitions that detonated. 

Larger craters from the explosion of at least two other high-explosive bombs, apparently dropped simultaneously with the cluster munitions, were in the same area. The affected area totalled 17,000 square meters of mixed residential, agricultural, and vacant land. One cargo section of the cluster bombs hit al-Asfah Road, near its intersection with Hay al-matar airport road. 

An expended cargo section of an RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb impacted into Alasfah Road near Tripoli International Airport following an attack on or around December 2, 2019, Tripoli outskirts, Libya,  December 18, 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

The intended target of the attack is unclear. Human Right Watch did not observe any military use of the location. A researcher saw three large trucks used for telecommunications wire-laying approximately 130 meters from the field where the bombs fell but could not ascertain when the trucks were moved there. Shipping containers along one side of the field appeared to have been placed there as a wall. They were locked. The guard said there had been no military use of the residential area either before or at the time of the attack.

In April 2019, fighters affiliated with the armed group known as the LNA, which is based in eastern Libya and aligned with the Interim Government headquartered in Benghazi and al-Bayda, attacked armed groups loyal to the rival Tripoli-based GNA. According to the UN, airstrikes were the leading cause of civilian casualties as a result of the fighting in western Libya, accounting for 182 out of 284 documented civilian deaths in 2019, between April and December. The UN also said that at least 150,000 people have been internally displaced because of the conflict and that 220 schools have been shuttered, affecting the schooling of at least 116.000 children. 

The LNA has received military support from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt, in violation of the Libya arms embargo, based on a report by the Panel of Experts of the Libya Sanctions Committee. The UAE has supported the LNA with armed drones and launched airstrikes in support of the LNA with its fighter jets. 

A nose fuze ring of a PTAB-2.5M submunition remaining after cluster bomb attack found in residential area near Alasfah road, Tripoli outskirts, Libya,  December 18, 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Turkey has reportedly supported the GNA with armed drones, in violation of the Security Council arms embargo, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA on November 27 that lays the groundwork for military intervention and support of the GNA.

Fighters from Sudan and Chad have been fighting for both sides, and Russian fighters have been involved in fighting on behalf of the LNA, news reports said. News reports that Syrian fighters had arrived in Libya in December and have been fighting in support of the GNA were confirmed by the head of the UN mission in Libya,who estimated the number of Syrian fighters to range between 1000-2000.

To help bring an end to the cycle of impunity in Libya, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should, during its March 2020 session, establish an International Commission of Inquiry to document violations, identify those responsible, preserve evidence where possible for future criminal proceedings, and publicly report on the human rights situation in Libya, Human Rights Watch said. 

Cluster munitions are prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which 108 countries have ratified. Libya should take the necessary steps to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions without delay, Human Rights Watch said.

“All parties to the conflict in Libya should commit not to use cluster bombs and safely destroy any stocks of these weapons,” Goose said.

Cluster Munition Use in Libya

In the past, various factions in Libya have used cluster munitions, including Muammar Gaddafi’s government in the fighting that took place during the 2011 uprising that ended his 42-year reign.

Human Rights Watch has documented cluster munitions use in Libya in the recent years, but because of the many armed groups involved in conflicts during this period, it has been difficult to independently confirm specific attacks or identify who may be responsible.

According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, which monitors compliance with the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, the status and composition of Libya’s stockpiled cluster munitions is not known, especially comprehensive information on the types, quantities, and storage locations. From the use of cluster munitions in recent years, it is clear that Libya has stockpiled air-dropped bombs (RBK-series bombs containing AO-1SCh and PTAB-2.5M submunitions), ground-fired munitions (MAT-120 mortar projectiles containing submunitions), and an unidentified type of submunition contained in Grad-type 122mm surface-to-surface rockets.

Stockpiled cluster munitions were seized by anti-government forces and civilians in 2011, after storage facilities at arms depots were abandoned by government forces and subjected to NATO airstrikes. There has been no systematic or coordinated stockpile destruction effort by successive interim governments or international actors.

In March 2012, Human Rights Watch visited an ammunition storage depot in Mizdah, 160 kilometers south of Tripoli, which NATO warplanes had attacked more than 50 times between April and July 2011. Human Rights Watch found approximately 15 PTAB-2.5M bomblets and about three dozen submunitions of an unidentified type.

Evidence of Cluster Munitions use in Post-Gaddafi Libya

On August 15 and 16, 2019, aircraft of forces affiliated with the LNA used cluster munitions in an attack on Zuwarah International Airport, according to the UN Panel of Experts report from December 2019. The UN mission in Libya (UNSMIL) dispatched an assessment mission to the location and found no military assets or military infrastructure at Zuwara Airport.

Prior to the August 2019 incidents, Human Rights Watch documented use of cluster munitions in Sirte, Watiya, and Ben Jawad, in 2015. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 13, 2020, 5:00 am

Women in the sewing division of a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

© 2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

(Bangkok) – The European Commission on February 12, 2020, announced the partial suspension of Cambodia’s preferential trade preferences with the European Union after the government failed to address serious human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. Prime Minister Hun Sen should take urgent measures to improve the dismal human rights and labor rights situation in Cambodia that led to the commission’s decision, including ending the ban on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and dropping charges against the leader of the CNRP.

The EU decision followed a formal year-long review of Cambodia’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade preferences. The EU’s preliminary conclusion, sent to the Cambodian government on November 12, 2019, stated that Cambodia has seriously and systematically violated the right to freedom of expression, restricted other civil and political rights, and failed to ensure labor rights. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a statement that the EU “will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced. Today’s decision reflects our strong commitment to the Cambodian people, their rights, and the country’s sustainable development.”

“The trade preferences unilaterally granted by the EU are based on the requirement of adherence to international human rights standards,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hun Sen has publicly and defiantly refused to take steps to address the EU’s concerns, even launching a sham treason trial against the leader of the opposition in the final stages of the EU’s deliberations, leaving the EU with no choice but to take this action.” 

Cambodia has been the EBA program’s second-largest beneficiary, accounting for approximately 40 percent of all items with EBA preferences sent to the EU. When EBA preferences were granted in 2001, the Cambodian government recognized that EU trade privileges were conditioned on respecting the principles laid down in international human rights treaties and core International Labour Organization conventions. 

The partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA trade preferences will affect selected garment and footwear products and all travel goods and sugar. After a six-month interim period, sectors affected by the suspension will be subject to import tariffs when entering the EU market. If the Cambodian government meets the human rights and labor rights requirements of the EBA, the commission could reinstate the preferences. The commission could have called for a complete suspension and can also increase the breadth of the suspension if the situation deteriorates.

The European Commission’s review was prompted by a serious deterioration in the rights situation in recent years, including the dissolution of the CNRP; the arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha; a surge in political prisoners; criminal cases against scores of other politicians, journalists and activists; intimidation that forced activists to flee into exile; and a crackdown on and closing of independent media outlets.

During the year-long review, Cambodian authorities arrested more than 60 local CNRP members and supporters, summoned another 150 opposition members and supporters to police stations and courts, and filed bogus charges against more than 115 for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. Charges are still pending against those released from custody.

When the exiled political opposition leader Sam Rainsy announced plans to return to Cambodia in November, the government ratcheted up harassment of opposition members both inside and outside Cambodia. Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry canceled the passports of 39 opposition members and prevented their return by collaborating with Thailand and other governments in the region to prevent them from traveling back to Cambodia. Ongoing political harassment has resulted in a steadily rising number of opposition members fleeing the country due to fear of persecution.

On January 22, 23 companies and nongovernmental organizations, including major international garment brands sourcing from Cambodia, raised concerns about the labor rights situation in the country. They urged the government to amend or repeal two problematic laws, the Trade Union Law and the Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO), and drop all outstanding criminal charges against union leaders.

“As the dictatorial leader of Cambodia, Hun Sen is responsible for the ruthless crackdown on dissent and human rights across the country, which forced the EU to follow its own rules and suspend some EU trade benefits,” Adams said. “Hun Sen can get these preferences restored and show he cares about Cambodian workers by ending his assault on labor rights, the political opposition, and fundamental freedoms. International companies sourcing from Cambodia should enhance pressure on the government so that it complies with its international human rights obligations.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 13, 2020, 5:00 am