Click to expand Image Perdana Menteri Malaysia Muhyiddin Yassin berbicara dalam sebuah konferensi pers setelah pertemuan kabinet pertama di kantor perdana menteri di Putrajaya, Malaysia, 11 Maret 2020. ©

(Bangkok) – Malaysia’s recently announced Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance is overly broad and should urgently be revised to meet international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today.

The ordinance, announced on January 14, 2021, provides Malaysia’s military with police powers, allows the forced confiscation of property with no ability to challenge the compensation offered, and gives the government and military near total immunity for acts taken under the ordinance. The ordinance also indefinitely postpones the holding of any elections and the sitting of the country’s parliament and state assemblies.

“Malaysia’s Emergency Ordinance provides officials with immunity and empowers the military to engage in policing, magnifying the risk of unchecked rights abuses,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The indefinite suspension of parliament and elections threatens every citizen’s political rights.”

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin earlier asked the king, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, to proclaim a state of emergency under Malaysia’s constitution “to control the spread of Covid-19.” On January 11, the government announced, under its existing powers, strict new movement control orders in five states and three federal territories.

Under the emergency ordinance, deemed to have come into effect on January 11, members of Malaysia’s armed forces “shall have all the powers of a police officer.” Defense Minister Ismail Sabri said that this provision will allow the military to help enforce the movement control orders and to arrest and detain undocumented migrants.  

Giving the military police powers carries substantial risks of abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Military forces are not trained to arrest and detain civilians in a manner that respects rights, which increases the likelihood of the use of excessive force. The current government’s expressed hostility toward undocumented migrants adds to the risk of such abuses.

Immediately following the Proclamation of Emergency on January             12, the Malaysian Multimedia and Communication Commission warned that it was “monitoring social media closely for misinformation and content that is offensive to race, religion and the royalty,” raising concern that the emergency heralds an intensified crackdown on freedom of expression.

The law also leaves little legal recourse for people whose rights are violated because it prohibits the filing of any legal action against the government or “any public officer” “in respect of any act, neglect or default” in carrying out the provisions of the Emergency Ordinance so long as they were taken “in good faith.” 

Under international law, the government may limit certain rights on grounds of public health, but only when such actions are strictly necessary, proportionate to achieve the objective, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. They must also be of limited duration, based on scientific evidence, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review. Providing blanket immunity to the government and public officers is not necessary for controlling the pandemic, and violates the rights of those seeking redress for violations.

The ordinance also allows the government to seize private property or to demand to use resources deemed necessary in the fight against Covid-19, and precludes those affected from challenging the amount of compensation provided, if any. Those who fail to comply with orders relating to their property face a fine of up to RM 5 million (US$1.2 million) or imprisonment for up to 10 years.

The indefinite postponement of elections under the Emergency Ordinance raises serious concerns about respect for political rights, Human Rights Watch said. The ordinance contains no end date, and the government appears to envision a possible long-lasting delay. Under article 12(4) of the Emergency Ordinance, the constitutional requirement to hold elections every five years has no effect “for so long as the Emergency is in force.” The next general election would, in the absence of the ordinance, be required to be held by 2024. Similarly, elections to fill vacant seats in the federal parliament and state assemblies are postponed until “sixty days after the Proclamation of Emergency is revoked or annulled.”  

Under international standards, elections may only be delayed for publicly stated reasons of public health if conditions are such that free and fair elections cannot be held under the circumstances. Any proposed delay should have a legal basis, be strictly necessary, and be proportionate to achieve the objective. A postponement should be as short as possible under the circumstances and should not be indefinite. In the event of a postponement, the government should also announce concrete steps it is taking to adapt electoral processes to ensure free and fair elections as soon as possible while also protecting public health. The Emergency Ordinance does not meet international standards for holding elections, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Emergency Ordinance’s broad sweep leaves Malaysians with little recourse against abuses by government officials or military personnel,” Robertson said. “The law should be urgently revised to remove the military’s police powers and end government immunity. Tackling the Covid-19 crisis and protecting public health will require government accountability, not free rein for the authorities.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 5:09 pm
Click to expand Image People demonstrate in support of sex workers, April 14, 2018.  © 2018 Alain Apaydin/Sipa via AP Images

Norwegian police have arrested sex workers over accusations that they violated quarantine restrictions. Although not accused of any crime, the workers, from other European countries, face detention and expulsion from Norway. Media reports suggest some have already been forced to leave although their clients do not appear to have been arrested.

These cases illustrate how governments are failing to respect the rights of sex workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Rights organizations drew attention early in the pandemic to its devastating impact on sex workers — how they faced additional stigma, difficulty working safely, and heightened risk of infection. Sex workers often struggle to access financial safety nets due to the marginalized nature of their work and because many are migrants or members of other groups facing discrimination.

These problems are worsened by laws criminalizing sex work in countries, including Norway. Norway uses the so-called “Nordic model” — criminalizing the purchase of sex. Human Rights Watch research finds that criminalization of buying sex also harms people who sell sex. It makes it harder for them to find safe places to work, work together, advocate for their rights, or even open a bank account. It stigmatizes sex workers and leaves them vulnerable to abuse by police.

Groups advocating for sex workers urged governments to ensure their inclusion in plans to address the Covid-19 public health crisis and its economic fallout. Public health experts highlighted lessons from the HIV epidemic about the need for targeted assistance to sex workers to protect them.  

These warnings were largely ignored by governments, including Norway. An organization assisting sex workers documented how sex workers were excluded from pandemic-related public health and financial assistance initiatives in Norway and other Nordic countries. Others have documented how sex workers around the world lost income and access to specialized programs, and were cut off from services.

Governments should ensure Covid-19 health measures include specific outreach and assistance to sex workers. They should ensure specialized services for sex workers continue and fund their expansion where needed. Governments financially assisting freelancers and others in financial crisis should specifically include sex workers. They should ensure sex workers know they can access these programs, and remove barriers, such as the need to provide proof of past income in places where sex work is criminalized. Finally, they should decriminalize sex work and end measures that further harm sex workers like Norway’s approach of arresting and expelling them.   

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 2:11 pm
Click to expand Image Members of the citizens’ movement Lucha after they were acquitted by a military court in Beni territory, Democratic Republic of Congo, on January 20, 2021. © 2021 Private

On Wednesday, a military court in Beni territory, Democratic Republic of Congo, acquitted eight members of the citizens’ movement Lutte pour le Changement (Struggle for Change, or Lucha). The youth activists had spent a month in detention. While news of their acquittal is a relief, they should never have been arrested in the first place.

Eze Kasereka, Clovis Mutsuva, Consolée Mukirania, Elie Mbusa, Patrick Nzila, Délivrance Mumbere, Aziz Muhindovegheni, and Lwanzo Kasereka faced 10 years in prison. Their crime? On December 19, 2020, they marched to call for peace and to criticize the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo. Armed groups and state security forces have killed at least 670 civilians during attacks in Beni territory in the past year alone.

The activists’ trial sparked a public outcry in Congo. They had been brought before the military court on fabricated charges of “sabotage and violence against state security guards.” Among other falsehoods, the group was accused of breaking a flagpole at a police station in Beni. Instead, Lucha activists told my colleagues police beat them while in custody and used teargas on some of them.

The government’s request for 10-year prison sentences turned the proceedings into a grotesque parody of justice. Thankfully, the judges put an end to the farce and concluded the charges were baseless. But the arrests highlight the risks involved for those peacefully demonstrating in Congo.

The use of military courts to try civilians also violates international law, including the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Congo ratified in 1987. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated that civilians should never face military trial.

People’s rights have been increasingly threatened over the last year in Congo. When state agents or officials use their position to crack down on peaceful critics, impartial judges remain the ultimate hope for justice. Like those who acquitted the eight Lucha activists in Beni, Congolese judges should be uncompromising in their respect of human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 11:00 am

(Brussels) – The European Parliament should seize the chance to strengthen the accountability of companies operating in Europe by requiring them to respect human rights and the environment throughout their global supply chains, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 27, 2021, the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee will vote on a proposal to request EU legislation to hold companies accountable, including recommendations for its content. If the committee approves the proposal, it will go to the European Parliament for a vote. The Parliament’s recommendations could help shape the corporate accountability law initiative announced by Didier Reynders, the European justice commissioner, in April 2020.

“Companies operating in the EU need to be held accountable if they fuel human rights abuses and environmental destruction at home and abroad,” said Lotte Leicht, European Union advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “European lawmakers should adopt robust recommendations and pave the way for strong corporate accountability legislation.”

People all over the world face human rights abuses and environmental impacts linked to the way businesses operate, but the vast majority of companies globally do not investigate and address human rights abuses or environmental harm in their supply chains. From Ghana’s gold mines to garment factories in Asia and beyond, workers have suffered serious labor rights abuses, including hazardous work conditions, forced overtime, wage theft, forced labor, and child labor.

In addition, entire communities have suffered human rights impacts from companies’ toxic pollution, for example by palm oil factories in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Globally, everyone is threatened by the continued failure of fossil fuel companies – and the financial institutions that keep them afloat – to act decisively on the climate crisis. Neglect for human rights and the environment can have devastating consequences, as illustrated by the 2019 Brumadinho dam disaster, in which 259 people were killed when a mining dam in Brazil collapsed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the plight of workers in global supply chains. In the garment industry, scores of clothing brands and retailers have canceled orders without assuming financial responsibility, even when workers had finished making their products, resulting in dismissals and temporary layoffs. In the small-scale mining sector, activity has often been reduced or halted due to lockdowns and blocked trade routes. Where mining has continued, workers and affected communities have been exposed to increased human rights risks, including infection with Covid-19 and economic exploitation. In some small-scale mining areas, child labor is on the rise.

Under international rules, companies have a responsibility to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence to ensure that they do not cause or contribute to rights abuses in their supply chains, in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. “Due diligence” refers to a company’s process to identify, prevent, address, and remediate human rights and environmental impacts in its own operations and in its supply chains.

Yet, Human Rights Watch research in the garment, jewelry, and agricultural sectors has found that companies – including European companies – often do not carry out adequate human rights and environmental due diligence processes.

Human rights activists, environmental groups, and trade unions have been pushing for robust regulation of companies at the EU and globally. Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity, told Human Rights Watch: “The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how workers in the global supply chains are at the receiving end of empty promises. A law governing the due diligence obligations of companies is important to protect human rights and workers’ rights and ensure that when businesses create jobs in other countries through their global supply chains, they create jobs with dignity.”

Farai Maguwu, director of the Zimbabwean Centre for Natural Resource Governance, said about the EU initiative: “We support any and every effort aimed at holding extractive industries accountable. Corporate impunity is posing an existential threat to people living in areas endowed with natural resources.”

Following a commitment in April by Commissioner Reynders to passing an EU law that would make human rights and environmental due diligence mandatory for companies operating in the EU, the European Parliament is preparing a report to request the European Commission to submit a formal legislative proposal in line with its recommendations. The Commission is conducting a public consultation to gather input from civil society, the private sector, and member states. Once the Commission offers a proposed law, the European Parliament and the EU’s 27 member states will have to agree on the text for it to come into force.

For the EU due diligence law to be effective, companies should be required to address human rights and environmental risks throughout their entire business chain, and publicly disclose information about the entities in the chain and the steps they have taken to fulfill their due diligence obligations. To be effective, the EU directive should carry consequences for noncompliance, including penalties, and create a civil course of action and access to judicial remedies.

Company certification under existing voluntary certification processes or participation in responsible business multi-stakeholder initiatives should not be considered sufficient evidence of effective human rights due diligence, Human Rights Watch said.

The EU due diligence law should explicitly address business actions that contribute to the climate crisis. Companies – and financial institutions – should measure their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and reduce them in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the European Green Deal.

Human Rights Watch provided more detailed recommendations for the new EU due diligence legislation in a June 2020 letter to Commissioner Reynders and European Parliament members, and in a Q&A.

“Workers at the lowest rung of global supply chains often risk their lives and limbs in hazardous working conditions as companies ruthlessly pursue a race to the bottom,” Leicht said. “Binding EU law governing companies’ human rights and environmental due diligence obligations is urgently needed to protect workers and their communities.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 7:00 am
Click to expand Image On January 3, 2021, two French Mirage 2000 jet fighters like this one dropped three bombs near Bounti, Central Mali.  © 2013 Reuters/Benoit Tessier 

The Malian and French governments should promptly and impartially investigate the French airstrike on January 3, 2021, in central Mali that killed 19 people alleged by local residents to be civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. In a January 7 statement, the French armed forces said the attack was carried out at about 3 p.m. by two Mirage 2000 fighter jets that delivered three bombs on “a group of about 40 adult men,” killing about 30 they claim were armed Islamist fighters, north of the village of Bounti.

A local nongovernmental organization reported on the evening of the attack that a wedding ceremony outside Bounti had been bombed, killing civilians. On January 5, the French counterterrorism force operating in Mali confirmed that they had carried out airstrikes in the area that day, but contended that there was no wedding and that they had targeted the gathering of an armed Islamist group that they had been tracking over several days. Three Bounti residents, including two who were injured in the attack, told Human Rights Watch that the gathering was a wedding with many civilians present.

“Serious allegations that any civilians were killed in airstrikes need to be promptly investigated to determine the legality of the strikes under the laws of war,” said Jonathan Pedneault, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Malian and French authorities have an obligation under international law to ensure that a credible investigation is conducted thoroughly and impartially.”

On January 6, French media reported that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission to Mali (MINUSMA) had initiated its own investigation into the Bounti incident. The following day, a source at the Malian Defense Ministry told Turkish media it was also conducting investigations. The Malian and French forces should fully cooperate with the ongoing investigation by the Human Rights Division of MINUSMA, including by providing flight plans and access to the site.

The French airstrike, carried out by its 5,000-member Barkhane force, took place days after two separate attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), on December 29, 2020 and January 2, killed a total of five French soldiers within 100 kilometers of Bounti. The area around Bounti, the Cercle de Douentza in central Mali’s Mopti region, is a known area of operations for armed Islamist groups. These groups have committed numerous abuses against local civilians and state agents since 2015.

While the French statement said the Barkhane force conducted the strikes following a multi-day intelligence operation, it also said that the group targeted was only identified an hour before the strikes, when a Reaper aerial drone “detected a motorcycle with two individuals” joining the larger group.

The drone observed the gathering and ensured that no women or children were present, the statement said. The French armed forces contend that these observations, coupled with intelligence gathered over previous days, were sufficient to determine that the men targeted were part of an armed Islamist group.

In a January 10 interview with France Inter, Florence Parly, the French army minister, said she had personally verified that there was “no wedding, no women, no children, that there were men and exclusively men.”

The three Bounti residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch each said independently, however, that there was a wedding and that the men had gathered separately from the women and children due to gender segregation restrictions imposed by armed Islamist groups active in the area.

They said that the wedding had been planned over a month earlier and that people had come from other towns and villages to attend. The marriage, which the family had arranged several years earlier, was between a 16-year-old girl and a 25-year-old distant relative. Child marriage is lawful in Mali and 54 percent of girls in Mali marry before age 18. A sheep had been slaughtered and prepared in the village and women were about to deliver the meal when the attack occurred, the residents said.

“Suddenly, we heard the jet’s noise, and everything happened quickly,” a 68-year-old man from Bounti told Human Rights Watch. “I heard a powerful detonation, boom, and then another detonation. I lost consciousness for a few minutes and when I woke up, my foot was bleeding because of shrapnel, and all around me were wounded and dead bodies.”

Another man, in his 40s, who was present said the first bomb exploded and killed 17 men, while the second wounded nine, two of whom died later. “We want a thorough investigation and protection, because the state needs to avoid confusion [between civilians and combatants] in its operations,” he said.

A statement by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders or MSF) an international nongovernmental health organization, said that most of the eight men they treated were elderly. An ambulance with an MSF logo carrying three gravely injured attack survivors was forcibly held for several hours by unidentified armed men on January 5, leading to the death of one of the patients.

A witness reported that on January 15, Malian security forces arrested two men who had been injured in the Bounti attack and were being treated at the hospital in Sévaré, a town about 200 kilometers from Bounti.   

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which governs the conflict in central Mali, requires that all attacks be directed at military targets. While not all civilian casualties indicate a violation of the laws of war, attacks cannot be indiscriminate or cause disproportionate civilian loss. Attacking forces are obligated to do everything feasible to verify that their targets are military and assess whether any expected civilian loss is excessive compared with the anticipated military gain. State parties to an armed conflict are obligated to investigate credible allegations of serious laws-of-war violations, which may be war crimes. 

Malian and French authorities should assist the MINUSMA investigation by providing investigators with flight logs, strike coordinates for all aircraft operating in the area that day, and intelligence information that led to the strike. Malian authorities should immediately ensure the protection of the witnesses and victims and open a judicial investigation.

Meanwhile, the French government should investigate the strike, including the role within the chain of command. Should the investigations determine the strike to be unlawful, France should compensate civilian victims and their relatives and consider providing amends to civilians harmed regardless of any finding of wrongdoing.

“The quicker credible and impartial investigations are set up and provided with the necessary data, the more likely they will yield accurate findings and dissipate doubts and rumors,” Pedneault said. “By helping MINUSMA carry out this investigation and opening its own independent inquiry, the Malian and French governments will not only abide by their international obligations but demonstrate a commitment to protecting local populations and upholding the rule of law.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image Migrants warm their hands above a fire at the Lipa camp, outside Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Monday, January 11, 2021. The camp was closed on December 23, 2020 and destroyed in a fire the same day.  © 2021 AP Photo/Kemal Softic 

(Brussels) – Bosnian authorities should immediately provide adequate, winterized accommodation for migrants and asylum seekers stranded in freezing temperatures in the northwestern part of the country, Human Rights Watch said today. After a fire destroyed the temporary emergency camp in northwest Bosnia on December 23, 2020, hundreds are housed in tents that do not meet basic humane housing conditions.

“Hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers in northwest Bosnia are spending the winter in dire conditions because the authorities have repeatedly failed to address their basic needs,” said Lydia Gall, senior Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Local, federal, and national authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina should immediately take concerted urgent action to ensure that the migrants have access to winterized housing and the medical and other assistance they need.”

Conditions in the Lipa temporary emergency camp were poor before the fire, with a lack of basic services including critical hygiene and sanitation services such as sewage and running water. The camp had been operating since April 2020, when it was set up as part of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which ran the camp with EU funds, warned the authorities several times that the camp was unfit for winter conditions. It had said the camp should be made suitable for winter – a process that would involve installing adequate heating, flooring, and insulation – and that the authorities should provide alternative accommodation while that work was being carried out.

Ignoring that advice, the Bosnian Council of Ministers, the executive authority of the Bosnian federal government, had agreed on December 21 to convert Lipa to an official reception center for asylum seekers and migrants. IOM decided to shut the camp down on December 23. On the same day, fire destroyed the camp, leaving an estimated 1,200 people stranded outdoors.

Many of the migrants in the area are seeking to enter Croatia to seek protection or a better life in the European Union. Croatia has responded with violent police pushbacks that breach EU, human rights, and refugee law and exacerbate the degrading conditions for migrants.

The failure by Bosnian authorities to ensure humane treatment for migrants and asylum seekers in northwest Bosnia is a persistent issue. In 2019, the Bosnian authorities faced criticism for housing migrants and refugees in inhumane conditions at the Vucjak camp near Bihac and close to the Croatian border. The camp was dismantled in December 2019 following international pressure, but the authorities have failed to put in place alternative long-term solutions.

Nicola Bay, Danish Refugee Council director in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told Human Rights Watch that within days following the December 23 fire, about 350 people who were able to pay the bus fare were transported to a camp in Sarajevo at their own expense, while the remaining 850 people were stranded at the destroyed camp site or forced to seek shelter in the nearby forest.

Bosnian authorities have done little to address the unfolding humanitarian emergency. Two weeks after the fire, authorities set up 30 tents near the former camp site, each with the capacity for about 30 people. Some tents are not suitable for winter conditions, the Danish Refugee Council said. Some generator-powered air cannons used to heat the tents have failed during the night, leaving people to roam the camp looking for the warmest tent. The site is now being managed by the Bosnian Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, a unit within the Federal Security Ministry.

The crowded conditions and inability to distance and isolate people is of growing concern due to the risk of coronavirus spread. Bay, of the Danish Refugee Council, said that providing medical treatment remains a challenge. With no running water on the site, basic hygiene practices and preventing and treating conditions that are common in cramped settings, like scabies, are impossible. The International Organization for Migration had for months criticized the failure to connect the former camp to the water and sewage system.

In December, Bosnian state authorities attempted to relocate about 50 former Lipa camp residents to the empty Bira camp in nearby Bihac, which offers more suitable reception conditions. Bira had been closed in September due to pressure from local residents. The town and both camps are in Una Sana Canton. This relocation effort failed due to local resistance fueled by municipal authorities in the aftermath of local elections in November marred by significant anti-migrant rhetoric.

International officials have previously urged the authorities to reopen Bira. They included the EU special representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Johann Sattler; the EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson; and the EU high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell as well as human rights groups.

Bay told Human Rights Watch that in addition to the 850 asylum seekers and migrants who remain at the Lipa site, another 900 migrants and asylum seekers, including families with a total of 31 children, are elsewhere in the Una Santa canton, with no access to housing or basic services. They have been forced to sleep in the open or squat in abandoned buildings.

Failure by Bosnian authorities at all levels to cooperate on migration management and humanitarian assistance has contributed to the current crisis. While most migrants and asylum seekers in Bosnia are stranded in the Una Sana Canton, the authorities in Republika Srpska and other parts of the Federation have refused to allow relocation, even though that could help alleviate local tension or to share responsibility for humanely hosting migrants and asylum seekers.

Reopening the Bira camp, even if only temporarily, currently appears the most viable option to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers previously in Lipa can be housed during the winter months in winterized buildings with heating, electricity, toilets, and showers, Human Rights Watch said.

EU institutions should call on Bosnian authorities on state, entity, cantonal, and local levels to immediately ramp up cooperation to adequately address the ongoing humanitarian crisis and ensure that the €28,5 million of EU funding allocated to Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 2020 and January 2021 for managing migration and providing humanitarian assistance serves its purpose, Human Rights Watch said. Since early 2018, the EU has provided €88 million to Bosnia and Herzegovina for migration management, including €13.8 million for humanitarian assistance.

The European Commission should also seek meaningful long-term solutions to the situation faced by migrants and asylum seekers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, instead of allocating largely short-term and emergency funding, and tie its support to the Bosnian authorities to clear progress in terms of suitable reception conditions and fair and effective access to asylum. The Commission should also hold the Croatian government to account and trigger legal action against Zagreb for the continued patterns of violent pushbacks at its border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“As the main donor to Bosnia’s migration management, the EU has a responsibility to ensure that its support helps those most in need,” Gall said. “In addition to funds, the EU Commission should engage actively with Bosnian authorities to develop a functioning asylum system and ensure that migrants and asylum seekers are treated humanely and with dignity.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Ugandan soldiers patrol near the house of Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine in Magere, Uganda. ©Sally Hayden / SOPA Images / Sipa via AP Images

(Nairobi) – The weeks leading up to Uganda’s recently concluded elections were characterized by widespread violence and human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuses included killings by security forces, arrests and beatings of opposition supporters and journalists, disruption of opposition rallies, and a shutdown of the internet. The authorities should ensure thorough investigation and prosecution of those responsible for abuses.

Since election campaigns began in November 2020, security forces have clamped down on opposition members and journalists, violently arresting scores of people, including the presidential candidates Patrick Amuriat of the Forum for Democratic Change and Robert Kyagulanyi, of the National Unity Platform. On November 18 and 19, security forces clamped down on protesters demanding the release of then detained Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, resulting in at least 54 deaths.

“A democratic playing field for free and fair elections was worryingly absent during these elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of restricting free expression, movement, and assembly, the Ugandan government should take concrete steps to improve respect for human rights for all and remove all remaining restrictions.”

Two days before the January 14, 2021 elections, the Uganda Communications Commission ordered internet service providers to block access to social media. The next day, the government shut down internet access across the country for five days. Access to social media sites including Twitter and YouTube remains restricted.

On January 16, the Electoral Commission declared President Yoweri Museveni, 76, the winner for his sixth term as president. The day after the election, security officials surrounded the home of Kyagulanyi, his closest rival, and have since prevented anyone from going in or out. On January 18, security forces blocked access to his party’s head office in Kampala, allegedly to “counter any plans to violent demonstrations and mass riots.”

Security forces have turned away people attempting to visit Kyagulanyi, including the United States Ambassador to Uganda, Natalie E. Brown. Media reported that soldiers beat Francis Zaake, an opposition member of parliament, when he attempted to visit.

During the campaigns, police fired teargas - and, in some cases, local media reported, live bullets - to disperse crowds during opposition rallies, citing government Covid-19 regulations restricting public gatherings. On November 9, police fired teargas to disperse supporters as Amuriat traveled through Mbale to begin his campaign, and later in various other parts of Uganda such as Kitgum, Gulu, Rukungiri, Kiryandongo, Masindi, Kayunga, and Masaka. Since November 3, police have arrested Amuriat at least five times. On January 6, a policeman reportedly shot at Amuriat’s convoy, shattering the windows of one of his escort cars in Kitagwenda, Western Uganda.

Police fired teargas during several of Kyagulanyi’s rallies, including in Lira, Mayuge, and in Kasese on November 24, where up to six people were reported injured after police fired live bullets. Security forces briefly detained Kyagulanyi and arrested scores of his supporters during a rally on an island in Kalangala on December 30.

On November 18, in Luuka, Eastern Uganda, the police arrested and detained Kyagulanyi for allegedly breaching Covid-19 regulations by mobilizing a large crowd. He was charged with "doing an act likely to spread infection of disease" and was released on bail two days later. Police responded to crowds of people protesting Kyanguanyi’s detention with teargas, beatings and live bullets, leading to at least 54 deaths. Security Minister Elly Tumwine, who warned against any further protests, told the public that the police have the right “to shoot you and kill you.” On November 29, Museveni promised to investigate the killings and to compensate some of the victims.

On January 8, police charged 49 of the National Unity Platform supporters arrested in Kalangala in December at a military court for allegedly being in possession of ammunition belonging to the Ugandan army.

The authorities restricted the media from covering opposition party members, and in some instances, beat and shot at journalists. On November 5, police shot Moses Bwayo in the face with a rubber bullet as he was filming Kyagulanyi arriving at his party’s office in Kampala. A journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Human Rights Watch that on December 1 a policeman shot her in the leg with a rubber bullet while she covered a Kyagulanyi rally in Kayunga. On December 27, Ashraf Kasirye, a journalist with the National Unity Platform-owned Ghetto Media, was badly injured while covering a rally in Masaka, Central Uganda, after police fired at him. Francis Senteza, Kyagulanyi’s bodyguard, was killed later that day when a military truck allegedly ran him over. On January 8, the Inspector General of Police Martin Okoth Ochola told journalists during a news conference that, “we shall beat you for your own sake to help you understand that don’t go there.”

The authorities have similarly restricted the work of activists and civil society groups, including by blocking National Elections Watch Uganda, a coalition of local organizations, from monitoring the elections. On January 14, police arrested over 20 members of the Women’s Situation Group, an election monitoring group, for operating a “parallel tallying center.”

On December 22, police arrested a human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, alongside three other lawyers ­- Herbert Dakasi, Anthony Odur, and Esomu Obure - and Hamid Tenywa, a National Unity Platform official, at a restaurant in Kampala. The authorities later charged Opiyo with money laundering, alleging that he received $340,000 on behalf of Chapter Four Uganda, the organization he leads, knowing that the funds were “proceeds of crime.” Chapter Four Uganda says the funds were part of a routine grant to support its human rights work.

The Ugandan authorities should immediately end all forms of harassment and intimidation of journalists, opposition supporters, and leaders, including Robert Kyagulanyi, Human Rights Watch said. Instead, the authorities should protect rights, including freedom of movement, and ensure respect for the rule of law.

Ugandan security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which require law enforcement officials to apply nonviolent means and to use force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The principles also require governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under national law.

“The widespread violations of rights by government forces undermined the credibility of Uganda’s elections,” Nyeko said. “The authorities should take urgent steps to ensure the impartiality of security agents during elections and hold to account those involved in abuses.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Australia’s placard at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva © 2015 Human Rights Watch

(Geneva) – The Australian government should seriously address the criticisms of its human rights record and scores of recommendations raised by United Nations member countries, Human Rights Watch said today. Australia appeared before the UN Human Rights Council for its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva on January 20, 2021.

“UN member countries rightly criticized Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and questioned why incarceration rates of First Nations peoples remain so high,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN review made it clear that the Australian government hasn’t followed through on some of its key past pledges to the UN Human Rights Council.”

The Universal Periodic Review, begun in 2006, is a comprehensive review of the human rights record of each UN member state conducted every five years. The country under UN review, along with local and international organizations, has the opportunity to contribute reports to inform the review process. Human Rights Watch submitted an assessment of Australia’s record in July.

At the review, countries praised Australia for passing its marriage equality law, and the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), since the last review in 2015. Australia informed this year’s review that it had carried out in full or in part 183 out of 290 recommendations from its 2015 review.

However, more than 40 nations questioned Australia’s policies toward asylum seekers and refugees, from Brazil to Germany, South Korea to the US. Among the concerns raised was Australia’s continued use of offshore processing and prolonged detention for asylum seekers. Some countries said that Australia should place a time limit on immigration detention and provide regular judicial review.

Australian officials reiterated their longstanding support for “strong border protection” policies, including offshore processing.

“It’s disappointing to see the Australian government doubling down on policies that have caused immense harm to asylum seekers and have been repeatedly condemned by UN officials and other governments,” Pearson said. “While Australia has abandoned its responsibilities towards these people, it’s good to see the rest of the world has not.”

Several countries raised Australia’s continued failure to reduce the significant over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 29 percent of Australia’s adult prison population, but just 3 percent of the national population.

Other concerns raised included the severe inequality experienced by Australia’s First Nations people, and the lack of legal safeguards to protect the rights of journalists, whistleblowers, lawyers, activists, and others making disclosures in the public interest.

Twenty-seven countries urged Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility, currently 10 years old, a policy that disproportionately affects Indigenous children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that countries increase their minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14. 

Australian officials acknowledged that the age of criminal responsibility had been considered but said criminal justice issues were not a federal responsibility but a matter for Australian states and territories. However, under international law, federal governments remain responsible for human rights violations committed at the local level.

“The Australian federal government should show leadership by working with its states and territories to change their laws to raise the age of criminal responsibility and comply with international standards,” Pearson said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 20, 2021, 11:44 pm
Click to expand Image President Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, January 20, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Today, US President Joseph Biden issued an executive order reversing one of the first in a slew of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies put in place by the administration of his predecessor, Donald Trump: the travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority and African countries. Although much remains to be done, this is an important and necessary step to reversing the Trump administration’s abusive policies.

Trump’s travel ban was commonly known as the “Muslim ban” because the original version stemmed from anti-Muslim animus. The ban, which Trump authorized via executive order just days after his inauguration, evolved in response to court challenges and public outrage, but the intent to restrict immigration from nonwhite, Muslim, and low-income countries remained the same. It was the first, and unfortunately not the last, action of an administration that repeatedly categorized large swaths of non-citizens as dangerous because of their nationality, ethnicity, or religion. As a result, many were separated from their families.  Ismail Alghazali, a Yemeni American who was separated from his wife and children who were stuck in Yemen, testified in September 2019 that he had yet to hold his baby daughter. Over the course of the next four years Trump’s administration went on to nearly eviscerate the US asylum and refugee system.

Like many others, in late January 2017, I went to the international airport closest to me to join mass protests over the ban. I remember being angry, but also inspired by the thousands of people around the country who joined these protests. Even as new, terrible policies were rolled out, Americans came out to call for families to be together, for children to be protected, and for dangerous detention centers to be shut down. President Biden’s new order is a direct result of Americans’ actions and desire for a new government that will protect immigrants’ and refugees’ rights.

Biden’s administration and Congress will have to do a great deal more than repeal the travel ban to create an immigration system that truly honors the dignity of the people who seek protection and a better life in the US, and the American families and communities who long to welcome them. Let’s hope that the energy that powered the protests over the past four years carries on and pushes the new administration towards that goal.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 20, 2021, 10:16 pm
Click to expand Image Doniyor Nabiev (file photo). © RFE/RL (Courtesy Photo)

Doniyor Nabiev was just trying to help people in need. The 80-year-old man from the Rudaki region of Tajikistan had been sharing his retirement savings with the local families of political prisoners. Over several years he had passed on between $15-$30 monthly to the impoverished relatives of jailed members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, an opposition party the Tajik government banned in 2015 and declared a terrorist organization without credible evidence. Nabiev is a former IRPT member, so he knew those in jail. He had also twice received small funds from foreign-based relatives of political prisoners, which he transferred to the prisoners to help with food.

For these simple acts, the Tajik police detained Nabiev on August 27, 2020 and accused him of illegal activities on behalf of the banned IRPT. In particular, the police charged him with receiving money from “special services of certain countries” for the promotion of extremism and with the transfer of funds to an alleged military wing of the IRPT hiding out in Afghanistan. On December 28, 2020, a court found Nabiev guilty of “organizing activities of an extremist organization” and sentenced him to seven years in prison.

There are serious concerns about whether Nabiev, who according to a person close to his family, has tuberculosis, will survive his prison term. There have been reports of outbreaks of Covid-19 in Tajik prisons. The World Health Organisation has urged governments to release older and vulnerable prisoners during the pandemic.   

Nabiev’s is the latest victim of politically motivated arrests and imprisonments since the onset of the current  human rights crisis seven years ago. His case shows the lengths the Tajik authorities are willing to go in their repression of political opponents. In the weeks since the court decision hundreds of social media users have expressed their dismay and called for authorities to release Nabiev, or at least change the terms of his sentence. Nabiev’s family is currently appealing the case.

Nabiev should not be in jail for the kindness he showed people in need. He should be released immediately; as a start, given the serious risks to his health in prison, the authorities should release him on humanitarian grounds.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 20, 2021, 4:07 pm
Click to expand Image From left to right: the head of Erkindik Kanaty, Elena Shvetsova, with lawyers Olga Enns and Roman Reimer, in the office of the deputy head of the tax department, Erlik Mukanov, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, January 18, 2021. © 2021 Sonlya Tolken/RFE/RL

The ongoing crackdown on local human rights groups casts serious doubt that Kazakhstan’s leadership is genuinely interested in reforms or improving its rights record.

On January 15, tax officials in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, fined and suspended for three months the operations of elections monitoring group Echo. On January 18, officials in Nur-Sultan, the country’s capital, fined the human rights group Erkindik Kanaty. At least four other groups – Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, International Legal Initiative, Legal Media Center, and MediaNet – have been summoned to local tax offices in the coming days. They too are under threat of fines and having their operations suspended.

Kazakh authorities harassing rights groups is, unfortunately, not new. Authorities have an arsenal of restrictive laws and overbroad charges at their disposal to use against activists and groups who do not toe the government line. For example, officials imposed bogus tax audits on three rights groups in 2017 and have repeatedly denied registration to a feminist group in recent years.

But what’s shocking about this latest attack on freedom of association in Kazakhstan is how many groups are being targeted at once and the blatantly unlawful manner in which the authorities’ are acting.

The tax authorities’ claims pertain solely to regulations around how these organizations report the receipt and expenditure of foreign funding to support their activities.

Tax authorities in cities thousands of kilometers apart brought claims against over a dozen rights groups in November 2020, in some cases, years after alleged reporting violations supposedly took place, despite a provision in the law that limits bringing such claims to two months after the alleged violation.

In 2015, when the draft law introducing these burdensome reporting obligations was under consideration, the then-United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association Maina Kiai warned its adoption may “challenge [associations’] very existence.”

Kazakhstan’s international partners – the European Union and its member states, the United States, and international organizations operating in Kazakhstan – should speak out in support of these respected human rights groups and against the coordinated and unlawful actions of the Kazakh authorities against them. Their future existence could depend on it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 20, 2021, 5:00 am

(Beirut) – Syrian refugees in Arsal, a Lebanese town on the border with Syria, do not have adequate shelters to withstand the harsh winter months, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a video showing their dire living conditions.

More than 15,000 Syrian refugees in Arsal are experiencing their second winter since a 2019 order from the Higher Defense Council, which is chaired by the president and responsible for implementing national defense strategy, required them to dismantle their shelters. The order has forced them to live without adequate roofs and insulation, exposed to harsh winter conditions, including subzero temperatures and flooding.

“Living conditions for the Syrian refugees living in Arsal forced to dismantle their shelters in 2019 remain dire,” said Michelle Randhawa, refugee and migrant rights senior coordinator at Human Rights Watch. “Their situation, compounded by Covid-19 movement restrictions, threatens their safety and their very lives.”

In November and December 2020, Human Rights Watch researchers returned to Arsal to interview seven refugees first interviewed during the summer of 2019 to assess the impact of the demolitions on their standard of living, and in particular on their access to adequate shelter during the winter months. The refugees described dire living conditions. They also said they lack information and resources to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

All seven refugees interviewed described harsh weather conditions and inadequate building materials. Due to flooding and heavy rains, four said that mold had formed on the wood used to rebuild the top portions of the shelters. A few said the mold caused health problems for children and asthmatic relatives.

“[An NGO] gave us one tarp to cover the roof and we had to buy the rest ourselves,” said a Syrian refugee from Homs who said her daughter coughs because of the mold. “We just have five cinderblocks of protection, the rest is wood. The water comes from under [the walls]…. There is a smell coming from the mold.”

Arsal is in the Bekaa Valley, a mountainous region on the border with Syria known for harsh winters. Last winter a storm had a devastating impact in Arsal. Refugees who had been forced to dismantle their shelters seven months earlier were left with plywood and tarp roofs to shield them from the heavy snow and extreme wind. Temperatures reported at that time were as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).

The 2019 Higher Defense Council order is based on the Lebanese Construction Law Act, No. 646. The Construction Law stipulates that only “non-permanent” building materials, including wood, stone, and canvas, can be used for building on agricultural land and that full concrete structures, including cement foundations, are not allowed. While the Construction Law Act has been on the books since 2004, it had remained largely unenforced until the 2019 order. Building materials for upper walls and roofs can only consist of wood and tarp. The 2019 order permits a foundation five cinderblocks high, or about one meter, for shelters in Arsal. In the rest of the country, hard foundations can be no higher than two cinderblocks.

The order was first implemented in Arsal, where Syrian refugees were given a deadline of July 1, 2019 to dismantle their shelters or risk having the Lebanese Army demolish them. On the July 1 deadline, the Lebanese Army bulldozed 20 non-compliant shelters. Refugees in Akkar, in northern Lebanon, were given until August 7, 2019. On August 8, the Lebanese Army partially demolished 350 non-compliant shelters in Akkar.

Since clashes in Arsal in 2014, involving the Lebanese Army, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and Jabhat al-Nusra (a listed armed group now part of an armed coalition known as Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham), the Lebanese Army has conducted frequent military raids on refugee camps there. Arsal and the camps located within its borders are now surrounded by military checkpoints, restricting movement in and out of the town and the refugee camps.

Tensions have flared periodically between some members of Lebanese host communities and some refugees since the Syrian civil war began almost a decade ago. In November 2020, a Syrian refugee allegedly killed a Lebanese resident of Bcharre, a town in the North Governorate of Lebanon, two hours from Arsal. Soon after, a group of Lebanese residents demanded the eviction of Syrians from the area and set fire to refugee homes in the town. Hundreds of Syrian refugees subsequently fled.

At the end of December, a fight between a Lebanese family and Syrian workers in Minyeh, just north of Tripoli, led some Lebanese residents to set fire to a nearby Syrian refugee camp, displacing hundreds.

Humanitarian response programs for Syrian refugees in Lebanon that provide shelter are massively underfunded. According to the 2020 Update of the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, a joint effort between the Lebanese government and local and international partners to address the needs of vulnerable populations in Lebanon, groups providing shelter needed roughly US$155.6 million. As of November, they had only been able to fund US$27 million – just 17 percent.

Due to Lebanon’s rapid inflation, Syrian refugees there have faced soaring prices and rents, sometimes forcing them to choose between buying food and essential items, and paying bills. The preliminary 2020 findings of the Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, conducted jointly by World Food Program, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), and UNICEF, show that the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have pushed 89 percent of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon below the extreme poverty line.

Half of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon is now food insecure. Three of the refugees Human Rights Watch spoke with raised concern with rising costs to send children to school, rents, and electricity. “We pay more rent than before now,” said a Syrian refugee from Damascus. “We used to pay 125,000 pounds [LBP] per month and now we pay 300,000 pounds [LBP] per month because of the situation.”

All of the Syrian refugees interviewed raised concerns about the lack of information and resources available to them to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Three said that since the beginning of the pandemic, they were only visited once by an aid group, which gave them some masks and disinfectants. Most refugees said that they did not know whom to contact or what to do in case someone in their family develops symptoms. “At the beginning they gave us a box [of supplies] for Covid-19,” the refugee from Damascus said. “They came just one time. If someone is sick, there are no doctors to call.”

Since early March, Lebanese municipalities have used the Covid-19 pandemic to impose discriminatory curfews and movement restrictions that apply only to Syrian refugees. Most of those interviewed expressed concerns regarding their ability to access health resources and essential supplies amid these discriminatory restrictions and stigma. “The difference between us and the Lebanese who live here is that we can’t leave our homes,” the refugee from Homs said.

The worsening economic crisis, the devastating Beirut port explosion, and Covid-19 have overwhelmed Lebanon’s health sector. Hospitals are almost at capacity as healthcare workers warn of a Covid-19 “catastrophe.”

UNHCR and partner organizations have set up Covid-19 response plans for Lebanon’s refugee populations, but information sharing varies across regions. UNHCR said that it will only cover the cost of testing and treatment if a refugee has first contacted the Health Ministry’s hotline and followed its instructions.

Despite their dire living conditions, none of the Syrian refugees interviewed said it was safe enough for them to return to Syria.

The Lebanese government and donor organizations and governments should ensure that everyone’s right to adequate housing is fully protected, Human Rights Watch said. This should include increased support for winterizing the homes of Syrian refugees to protect vulnerable families from harsh weather and to enable them to live in safety and dignity. Donors should also continue to urge the Lebanese government to review its policies on materials permitted in informal settlements and to allow the distribution of more sustainable shelter materials.

“Facing inadequate shelter, Covid-19 restrictions, and rampant inflation, Lebanon’s Syrian refugee population urgently needs assistance, especially during these harsh winter months,” Randhawa said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 19, 2021, 5:01 am
Click to expand Image Mathematics and mechanics graduate student at Moscow State University Azat Miftakhov before the court session in Golovinsky district court. September 05, 2019.  ©Ivan Vodop'janov/Kommersant/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

A court in Moscow has sentenced Azat Miftakhov, a postgraduate math student and political activist, to six years in prison on highly controversial hooliganism charges. His conviction follows investigation and a trial marred by allegations of torture, and reliance on unfair “secret witnesses.”

Miftakhov spent nearly two years in pretrial detention before yesterday’s verdict. He and two other political activists were accused of breaking a window and throwing a smoke bomb inside an empty Moscow office of United Russia, the country’s ruling party, in January 2018. The prosecution qualified the act as hooliganism aggravated by ‘political hatred.’ The other two defendants received suspended sentences of between two and four years.

Police first detained Miftakhov in February 2019, more than a year after the incident, and initially accused him of making explosives. He alleges that during his detention, police beat him to force a confession and threatened to rape him with a cordless drill. Members of the Public Monitoring Commission, an independent body which monitors places of detention, said they observed marks on his body consistent with apparent ill-treatment. Another activist detained in connection with the case alleged that police tortured him to extract evidence against Miftakhov.

Several days after his detention, police dropped the case against Miftakhov and released him, only to immediately re-detain him on a different charge in connection with the attack on United Russia’s office a year earlier. The prosecution accused Miftakhov of having organized the attack. He denies the allegations and still protests his innocence.

The other two accused in the case, Yelena Gorban and Andrey Yeykin, confessed to having perpetrated the attack but denied Miftakhov’s involvement.

The key evidence against Miftakhov was testimonies of secret witnesses. These are witnesses whose identity was never disclosed to him or his lawyers. One of them supposedly recalled that he saw Miftakhov at the time but only reported it to police one year after the incident. Miftakhov’s lawyer told the press that she believes secret witnesses were used in this case because the prosecution never had any real evidence against him. In September 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in a separate Russian case that the use of secret witnesses had violated the defendants’ right to a fair trial.

Azat Miftakhov’s conviction is clearly unjust and unfair, and authorities should immediately and unconditionally overturn it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 18, 2021, 7:02 pm

A judge in Moscow ruled today that Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician, be detained for 30 days pending a court hearing regarding his alleged breach of parole. If found guilty, he could face three-and-a-half years in prison.

Click to expand Image Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny takes part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia, February 29, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File

Authorities detained Navalny, an outspoken Putin critic, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, where he arrived after a five-month recuperation in Germany following his near-lethal poisoning by a powerful nerve agent last August. Navalny’s flight was supposed to land at another airport, Vnukovo, but was diverted to Sheremetyevo in an apparent attempt by the authorities to prevent his supporters from greeting him on arrival.

Navalny’s treatment has been a travesty of justice. Held overnight at Khimky police station on the outskirts of Moscow, he had no access to his lawyers for 15 hours, despite his and their repeated requests. The next day, instead of taking him to court for a hearing, authorities brought the judge to the police station and informed Navalny’s lawyers of the hearing only a few minutes before it began.  

Navalny is accused of non-compliance with the terms of his parole in connection with the sentence he received in December 2014, in a politically motivated fraud case against him and his brother, Oleg. This despite the fact that in October 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Navalny’s conviction in this case was “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable,” and that the government had violated his right to a fair trial. Not only did  Navalny’s parole period expire last year, but he also supposedly breached his parole by not attending meetings with parole officers while he was being treated in Germany for the poisoning. Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service alleges it could not establish his whereabouts, even though his transfer to Germany for medical treatment had been supported by the Kremlin, and made international headlines. “This is the highest degree of lawlessness,” Navalny said about his rushed hearing at the police station. Amnesty International designated him a “prisoner of conscience.”

Instead of investigating Navalny’s credible allegations that Federal Security Service officers poisoned him with Novichok nerve agent in Siberia last year, Russian authorities cynically jailed him as soon as he set foot in the country. His wrongful and cruel arrest can only be seen as the Kremlin’s latest attempt to silence a prominent political opponent ahead of parliamentary elections in September.   

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 18, 2021, 6:56 pm
Click to expand Image U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. © AP Photo/Jeenah Moon


Update: The meeting over the cybercrime treaty has been delayed until May. 

United Nations member states are meeting this week to start a process for a cybercrime treaty. Among its champions are some of the world’s most repressive governments, and the initiative raises serious human rights concerns.  

That Russia proposed this treaty should give UN delegations pause. In recent years, Russia has significantly expanded laws and regulations tightening control over internet infrastructure, online content, and the privacy of communications. A UN cybercrime convention could severely undermine the ability of people to exercise their human rights online, including freedom of expression and freedom of access to information, if it’s modeled after Russia’s domestic approach to internet policy.

The controversial UN resolution that set this process in motion is exceedingly vague in how it defines cybercrime. In many countries, legislation and policies aimed at combating cybercrime use vague and ill-defined terms to criminalize legitimate forms of online expression, association, and assembly. These give wide-ranging power to governments to block websites deemed critical of the authorities, or even entire networks, applications, and services that facilitate online exchange of and access to information.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of governments using vaguely worded and repressive cybercrime laws that restrict rights, including by governments that co-sponsored the resolution, like Egypt, where authorities continue to silence journalists, bloggers, and critics on social media amid escalating use of the country’s repressive 2018 cybercrimes law. Additionally, some initiatives to combat cybercrime, especially those that provide for cross-border access to data in criminal investigations, raise significant privacy, data protection, and due process concerns.

To mitigate these risks, UN delegations should champion civil society participation in person and remotely, webcast meetings, and make all relevant documentation available online. They should also ensure that all efforts to combat cybercrime are guided by states’ existing obligations under international human rights law.

Cybercrime poses a real threat to people’s human rights and livelihoods. But efforts to address it need to protect, not undermine, rights. Delegations should think hard about these risks as they engage in the process and insist on transparency, inclusion, and respect for human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 18, 2021, 2:37 pm
Click to expand Image Sri Lankan municipal cemetery workers carry the coffin of a Covid-19 virus victim for cremation in Colombo, Sri Lanka, December 21, 2020.  © 2020 Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – Sri Lanka’s requirement to cremate anyone who dies from Covid-19 goes against public health guidance and discriminates against the Muslim community, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s spurious argument that burial in accordance with Islamic tradition poses a public health risk stigmatizes, oppresses, and causes immense distress to a vulnerable minority.

The Sri Lankan government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has claimed that burying people who died of Covid-19 complications may “contaminate ground water.” It has not changed the policy, first codified in a March 31, 2020 regulation, despite World Health Organization guidelines that burial is safe, and growing opposition from United Nations experts, medical professionals in Sri Lanka, and religious leaders of all major faiths in the country. Among those cremated against the wishes of their family have been a 20-day-old infant and a woman whom the authorities later acknowledged did not have Covid-19.

“For families already grieving the loss of a loved one, the Rajapaksa government’s forced disposal of remains in a manner contrary to their beliefs is an outrageous and offensive assault on religious rights and basic dignity,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This policy only serves to cultivate intolerance and social division.”

In recent weeks the policy has sparked protests around the country. Authorities removed strips of white cloth that activists tied to the fence of the Borella crematorium in Colombo to protest the forced cremation of the baby.

Several Muslim families have decided to leave the body of their loved ones who died of Covid-19 complications in hospital mortuaries rather than to permit cremation. Others say they have been coerced into allowing the cremation, or that it occurred without their knowledge.

“My friends and family asked the authorities how they can go ahead with the cremation when neither of the parents had signed any document giving consent,” Mohamed Fahim, the father of the baby, named Shaykh, told reporters. “It is as if they rushed to cremate our baby. When we asked questions, they didn’t have any proper answer.”

Sri Lankan civil society groups, in a joint statement after the ban was introduced, warned that there were already “outpourings of vitriol, and hate speech against Muslims” and that it was “important to ensure that decisions regarding matters of public health do not result in the persecution or marginalization of the Muslim population.”

The government has done little to combat incitement against Muslims, such as false rumors that the community deliberately spread the coronavirus, which are often shared by government supporters and in pro-government media. A Muslim social media user, Ramzy Razeek, was arrested and detained for five months after opposing the burial ban and calling for religious tolerance on Facebook.

Opposition to the policy has grown in recent weeks. The Sri Lanka Medical Association on January 1, 2021, said that the novel coronavirus cannot be transmitted by dead bodies. The College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka said on December 31 that there is “no solid evidence” supporting the regulation. Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders wrote in a joint letter on December 26 that religious rights are protected by the Sri Lankan constitution. A Health Ministry expert panel recommended on December 29 that disposal of bodies could include burial as well as cremation.

In April, four United Nations special rapporteurs wrote to the government stating that the regulation violated the right to freedom of religion, and that the government should combat attempts to instigate religious hatred and violence.

In November the Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the policy as a violation of religious rights guaranteed by international law.

Several fundamental rights petitions were filed against the regulation at the Supreme Court, which dismissed the cases on December 1 without explanation. The court’s independence has been undermined by parliament’s adoption, in October, of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which gives the president control over Supreme Court appointments.

President Rajapaksa, whose 2019 election campaign courted Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority, said in a November 2020 speech that there are “legitimate fears that the Sinhala race, our religion, national resources and the heritage would be threatened with destruction in the face of various local and foreign forces and ideologies that support separatism, extremism and terrorism.”

In December, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives wrote on Twitter that President Rajapaksa had asked the Maldives to allow Sri Lankan Muslims to be buried in the Maldives, a majority Muslim country. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said that the proposal “could end up enabling the further marginalization of Muslim communities in Sri Lanka.”

“We want to be buried on our own soil,” said Ali Zahir Moulana, a Sri Lankan Muslim and former member of parliament.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government has adopted various policies and practices that have a discriminatory impact on Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Tamil minorities in particular. During Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war which ended in 2009, Rajapaksa, as defense secretary during the government of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, was implicated in war crimes and human rights abuses against Tamil civilians. After becoming president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa renounced Sri Lanka’s earlier commitments to justice and accountability made to the UN Human Rights Council.

Michele Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has warned that “continuing impunity risks fuelling communal or inter-ethnic violence, and instability.” The UN Human Rights Council, at its session beginning in February, will consider a resolution to uphold international law in Sri Lanka and to seek to protect vulnerable minorities from further abuses.

“Denying Sri Lankan Muslims the right to bury their dead is causing intense distress, stoking communal hatred, and is without any scientific basis,” Ganguly said. “Foreign governments need to recognize Sri Lanka’s dangerous downturn and act before the situation deteriorates further.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 18, 2021, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives the second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Ramat Gan, Israel on January 9, 2021. © 2021 AP

(Jerusalem) – Israeli authorities should provide Covid-19 vaccines to the more than 4.5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said today. While Israel has already vaccinated more than 20 percent of its citizens, including Jewish settlers in the West Bank, it has not committed to vaccinate Palestinians living in the same occupied territory under its military rule.

Israel’s duties under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure medical supplies, including to combat the spread of pandemics, are heightened after more than 50 years of occupation with no end in sight. These responsibilities, alongside its obligations under international human rights law, include providing vaccines in a nondiscriminatory manner to Palestinians living under its control, using as a benchmark what it provides for its own citizens. The Palestinian authorities’ own obligations to protect the right to health of Palestinians in areas where they manage affairs do not absolve Israel of its responsibilities.

“Nothing can justify today’s reality in parts of the West Bank, where people on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “Everyone in the same territory should have equitable access to the vaccine, regardless of their ethnicity.”

Israeli authorities had, as of January 14, 2021, provided doses of the vaccine to more than 2 million Israeli citizens. Priority has been given to health workers, at-risk groups, and those over age 60, the vast majority of whom have received doses of the vaccine. The vaccination drive covers Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as residents of occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the government will vaccinate all of its citizens over age 16 by the end of March. He declared on January 7 that “we will vaccinate the entire relevant population and everyone who wants to will be able to be vaccinated.”

Everyone, that is, except Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (outside East Jerusalem). Israeli authorities claim that responsibility for vaccinating this population, under the Oslo Accords, falls on the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s Health Minister told Sky News that “they have to learn how to take care of themselves” and that “I don't think that there's anyone in this country, whatever his or her views might be, that can imagine that I would be taking a vaccine from the Israeli citizen, and, with all the good will, give it to our neighbors.”

However, the Fourth Geneva Convention obliges Israel, as the occupying power, to ensure the “medical supplies of the [occupied] population,” including “adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventative measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics” to “the fullest extent of the means available to it.” Israel remains the occupying power in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza under international humanitarian law, given the extent of its control over borders, the movement of people and goods, security, taxation, and registry of the population, among other areas.

This obligation, as well as the customary international law requirement rooted in Article 43 of the Hague Resolutions of 1907 to ensure public order and safety for the occupied population, increases in a prolonged occupation. Under these circumstances, the needs of the occupied population are greater, and the occupier has more time and opportunity to assume responsibility to protect rights.

The longer an occupation, the more military rule should resemble an ordinary governing system that respects the standards of international human rights law that apply at all times. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991 and the State of Palestine acceded to in 2014, requires states to take steps necessary for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” The United Nations body responsible for monitoring this treaty has confirmed that Israel is obliged to respect this treaty in the occupied territory, and to protect the right to health and other rights of the population there.

After more than 53 years of occupation, Israeli authorities have the obligation to fully respect the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied territory, including their right to health, using as a benchmark the rights they grant to Israeli citizens, as Human Rights Watch has set out. The fact that Israeli citizens, including settlers in the West Bank, are receiving vaccines at one of the most rapid rates in the world indicates that Israel has the ability to provide the vaccines to at least some Palestinians in the occupied territory, but has chosen to leave them unprotected.

The Israeli Supreme Court in a 1991 case ruled that the authorities, in their drive to supply gas masks to all Israelis amid the prospect of a chemical attack in the lead-up to the Gulf War, should “exercise equality” and not “discriminate” between residents of the West Bank. The court wrote, “[w]hen the Military Commander has reached the conclusion that protective kits must be distributed to Jewish residents in the area, protective kits must also be distributed to the area's Arab residents.”

The Oslo Accords do not erase Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, as it remains the occupying power. Palestinian authorities also have responsibilities toward residents in the parts of the occupied territory where Palestinian authorities manage affairs. However, given their limited authority and economic means, their activities do not absolve the Israeli government of its responsibilities. While the Israeli government maintains primary control, sidelining Palestinian authorities, it should not be able to suddenly assign sole responsibility to those authorities when it wants to offload its responsibilities for the health of people under occupation. Israeli and Palestinian authorities in the occupied territory should cooperate to ensure that everyone receives vaccines, without discrimination.

Moreover, the Israeli government also maintains exclusive control over Area C of the West Bank, encompassing more than 60 percent of its territory, leaving it no excuse not to vaccinate Palestinians living there.

The Palestinian Authority reported 5,817 active Covid-19 cases in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, as of January 14, and over 100,000 cases and 1,000 deaths in these areas since the beginning of the pandemic. Hamas authorities reported 7,000 active Covid-19 cases in Gaza, as of January 14, and a total of more than 45,000 cases and 400 deaths.

The Palestinian Authority health minister, Mai Alkaila, said on January 9 that the Palestinian Authority has reached agreements with several companies and the World Health Organization (WHO) to procure a sufficient supply of vaccines to eventually cover the majority of Palestinians in the occupied territory, but that “there is no specific date” for the arrival of even the first doses.

The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry has called on the international community to pressure Israel to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the occupied territory, saying that the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to procure vaccines do not exempt Israel from its responsibilities under the law of occupation. Israeli authorities said in a January 12 submission to the Israeli High Court of Justice that they provided 100 vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority in response to a Palestinian request and planned to send another shipment, but the Palestinian Authority has denied reports of having received any quantity of vaccines from Israel. In any event, 100 vaccine doses pales in comparison to the more than 2 million doses that Israel has already provided to Israeli citizens.

The submission came in response to a lawsuit by the family of an Israeli soldier whose body apparently is being held by Hamas authorities in Gaza. The suit seeks to require the Israeli authorities to withhold vaccines from Gaza until the body is returned. Israeli authorities have, based on unconfirmed reports in Israeli media, linked provision of the vaccine to Gaza to the release of the soldier’s body, as well as of two Israeli civilians and the body of another soldier apparently held by Hamas authorities there. Hamas authorities should immediately release the civilians and return the soldiers’ bodies, but Israeli authorities should not use vaccines as bargaining chips, Human Rights Watch said. The lives of Palestinian residents of Gaza should not be sacrificed because of the conduct of Hamas authorities over which they have limited, if any, control.

The Independent newspaper said in a January 8 report that Israeli authorities had denied informal requests from the WHO and the Palestinian Authority to provide vaccinations to Palestinian health workers, although Israel has denied receiving such a request.

 “The virus does not discriminate in who it infects, but the government of Israel discriminates in who it chooses to inoculate against it,” Shakir said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 17, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image People work amidst massive piles of cotton in China's Xinjiang province. 

The United Kingdom and Canada made coordinated announcements this week to help prevent British and Canadian businesses from being complicit in, or profiting from, human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang region.

The move follows growing calls across the political spectrum for the UK government to respond to the Chinese government’s escalating abuses, including credible complaints of forced labor, against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which supplies nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton. The UK measures announced include guidance to British businesses on the risks they face, advice for public bodies on excluding suppliers where there is evidence of human rights abuses in supply chains, a review of export controls to Xinjiang, and fines for organizations that fail to meet their obligations.

The measures in the UK fall well short of those introduced by Canada and recently strengthened in the United States, namely the prohibition of goods produced wholly or in part by forced labor. Disappointingly, two of the “new” UK measures had already been announced by the government last year.

This is a significant missed opportunity for the UK to go beyond the mere reporting requirements of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 and to bring in mandatory human rights due diligence legislation. Businesses themselves have called for firmer laws and a number of them, including Marks and Spencer, have signed a “call to action” in which they agree to extricate their supply chains from Xinjiang and provide an appropriate remedy for forced labor, including compensation for affected workers.

The UK’s announcement aimed to send a signal to China that the egregious human rights violations it is committing in Xinjiang will not be tolerated. That’s all well and good, but if the UK government is serious about this then it should introduce import bans and legal sanctions for businesses that fail to prevent and remedy human rights abuses, including forced labor, in their global supply chains.

It should also heed recommendations from this week’s Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission report and impose targeted sanctions on China’s officials and companies responsible for human rights abuses, and push at the United Nations for an international mechanism to monitor rights violations in the country.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 16, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. © 2009 Reuters

On January 14, the European Court of Human Rights issued a significant decision accepting Ukraine’s complaint alleging that Russia is responsible for multiple human rights violations in Crimea.

This decision is very important. While the Court did not consider the legality of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, in finding Ukraine’s complaint partially admissible, the Court recognized that Russia has “exercised effective control” over the peninsula since February 2014.

Such recognition of Russia’s occupation is a crucial step towards justice and accountability for human rights abuses by authorities in Crimea.

In March 2014, as Russia moved to consolidate control in Crimea, Human Rights Watch was on the ground, documenting abuses by the so-called “self-defense units”, paramilitary groups without insignia or a clear command structure, which ran amok and acted with complete impunity. These groups were implicated in attacks on reporters and activists, enforced disappearances, and abductions and torture of pro-Ukraine activists, while the authorities made no attempts to reign them in.

Having extending Russian legislation and policy to Crimea in violation of international law, the authorities have continued to flout binding norms of humanitarian law: from relentlessly persecuting Crimean Tatars, who dared to openly, peacefully voice criticism of Russia’s actions in Crimea to effectively forcing civilians under its control to choose between taking Russian citizenship or facing discrimination — and worse.  We’ve documented how Russian authorities are conscripting males in occupied Crimea, imposing criminal penalties on those who refuse to comply with the draft — another blatant violation of international humanitarian law, which forbids Russia from compelling Crimean residents to serve in its armed forces.

To date, Ukraine has lodged several other inter-State cases against Russia, and it will likely take a while before the European Court rules on the substance of Ukraine’s allegations. But there is no doubt that this week’s decision advances accountability for multiple human rights violations perpetrated in Crimea under Russia’s control.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 15, 2021, 7:51 pm
Click to expand Image Demonstrators stopped by gendarmes and police in Bafang, West Cameroon, on September 22, 2020. © 2020 Private

On January 12, an appeals court in Cameroon rejected legal efforts to secure the release of Olivier Bibou Nissack and Alain Fogue Tedom, two prominent members of the country’s main opposition party, Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC), as well as twenty other MRC members. They were arrested in September 2020 while exercising their right to freedom of assembly and have been in custody since.

The court’s decision came after a lower court rejected a habeas corpus request filed by the defendants on November 5, 2020.

Nissack and Fogue face politically motivated charges including attempted revolution, rebellion, and unlawful assembly. They were first held in police custody for over a month at the Secrétariat d'Etat à la Défense (SED), in Yaoundé, before being transferred to Yaoundé central prison on November 3 for a six-month pretrial detention period. At SED, they were kept in total isolation, deprived of any reading materials, and frequently denied access to their lawyers.

Nissack and Fogue were arrested as part of a massive government crackdown on peaceful demonstrations organized by the MRC on September 22 across Cameroon, which included the arrest of over 500 people, mainly MRC members and supporters.

Many peaceful protesters were beaten while being arrested and in detention. “The police beat me with truncheons,” a 39-year-old MRC member arrested in Douala told Human Rights Watch. “I spent nine days at the judicial police jail, sleeping on the floor and without access to my lawyers.”

Of the over 500 arrested, at least 136 remain in detention, 20 of whom have been convicted and sentenced to prison by civilian courts, according to the MRC’s lawyers.

"In Cameroon’s criminal justice system, habeas corpus requests appear to have lost their value as individuals who are presumed innocent are systematically deprived of their liberty,” Menkem Sother, a lawyer for Nissack said.

MRC leader Maurice Kamto continues to dispute the 2018 presidential election results which confirmed the victory of President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 38 years.

Cameroonian authorities should respect people’s right to demonstrate peacefully, immediately release those wrongfully held, and investigate law enforcement’s conduct in the 2020 crackdown and treatment of detainees. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 15, 2021, 1:11 pm