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
Click to expand Image People hold signs to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order to detain children crossing the southern U.S. border and separating families outside of City Hall in Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 7, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

In a damning send-off for the administration of President Donald Trump, the US Justice Department’s inspector general has concluded an investigation into the forced separation of migrant families at the border.

In 88 pages, the report meticulously catalogues the bad policy choices, inadequate planning, and sheer heartlessness that had US authorities tear children from their families.

The separations resulted from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy, an April 2018 directive requiring prosecution of every adult who entered the United States irregularly, including parents travelling with their children. Once parents were taken to court, they weren’t in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody, meaning DHS rules treated their children as unaccompanied. US officials sent more than 2,600 children to shelters overseen by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The report makes clear that family separation wasn’t inadvertent or incidental. Sessions and other senior officials knew what the “zero tolerance” policy would mean. Sessions thought it “was the right thing to do,” officials told investigators, because it would deter other families from attempting the journey. “We need to take away children,” Sessions said at one meeting, according to prosecutors’ notes. (Sessions refused to cooperate with the investigation.)

The Justice Department had piloted “zero tolerance” in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, covering New Mexico and western Texas, in March 2017 and knew of its consequences. Then-acting US Attorney Richard Durbin warned of “obvious problems” and stated, “History would not judge [the policy] kindly.” As the pilot continued, other prosecutors expressed shock at what they saw. One wrote, “We have now heard of us taking breast feeding defendant moms away from their infants, I did not believe this until I looked at the duty log.”

When the department rolled out “zero tolerance” along the border, it didn’t coordinate with HHS or other government agencies. HHS’s own investigation found “no evidence that HHS was notified in advance by either DOJ or DHS that the zero-tolerance policy would be implemented.”

It also didn’t address the “technology-related challenges” the El Paso pilot revealed – most critically, that DHS had no reliable way of tracking separated families, as that agency acknowledged in a May 2020 report.

It is obvious that forced separation traumatizes children and deeply damages family relationships. These harms weren’t a concern for Sessions and other senior officials, the report shows.

Releasing these findings now leaves any meaningful steps toward accountability to the incoming administration of Joe Biden. Reckoning with these appalling abuses means continuing to reunite children with their families and helping them recover.

It also requires meaningful steps to make sure something like this never happens again.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 15, 2021, 12:11 pm
Click to expand Image The Intersex flag. 

The child rights agency for India’s capital city this week recommended a ban on medically unnecessary “normalizing” surgeries on children born with intersex variations. This follows the southern state of Tamil Nadu banning such operations in 2019 after a court  upheld the informed consent rights for intersex children.

“Intersex,” sometimes called “differences of sex development,” refers to the estimated 1.7 percent of people born with sex characteristics, such as chromosomes, gonads, or genitals, that differ from social expectations of female or male. Except in very rare cases when the child cannot urinate or internal organs are exposed, these are medically benign natural variations of human anatomy, and do not require surgery.

In the 1960s, doctors in the United States popularized “normalizing” cosmetic operations on intersex children, such as procedures to reduce the size of the clitoris, which can result in scarring, sterilization, and psychological trauma. These surgeries became common globally, but consensus is shifting. United Nations human rights treaty bodies have condemned the operations more than 50 times since 2011.

For decades, intersex advocates around the world have asked governments and the medical community to develop standards to defer surgical procedures on intersex children until they are old enough to consent. In most countries, doctors only need parental consent to perform these surgeries. But while some medical organizations and individual physicians have supported the rights of intersex people to decide for themselves, others have largely been unwilling to engage on the issue.

During the Delhi Child Rights Commission’s consultation process late last year, the Delhi Medical Council supported the rights of intersex children. The council wrote that it “agrees with the complainants that Differences of Sex Developments/Intersex (DSD) issues are [a] human rights issue as it pertains to bodily integrity and autonomy,” and “[s]urgical interventions and gender-related medical interventions for DSD that are not deemed medically necessary should be delayed until the patient can provide meaningful informed consent.”

The mandate is now on the Delhi municipal government to formulate a policy regulating these surgeries. As the commission affirmed, everyone has the right to informed consent – even those born with bodies that are slightly different.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 14, 2021, 7:00 pm
Click to expand Image European Union flags are waving in front of the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels. August 5, 2020. © 2020 Laurie Dieffembacq (Sipa via AP Images)

The last decade has seen an alarming proliferation of artificial intelligence (“AI”) to monitor protests, predict crime, and profile minorities, in ways that gravely threaten our human rights. The European Commission has pledged to develop groundbreaking regulation of these technologies that will “safeguard fundamental EU values and rights.” In a letter published this week, Human Rights Watch joined more than sixty civil society and rights groups to hold the commission to its word, urging decisive action to prevent abusive applications of AI.

The letter highlights how the growing use of facial recognition can trigger widespread privacy abuses. This technology relies on machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to infer people’s identities from still images or video that capture their faces. When deployed in train stations, stadiums, and other public spaces, they are capable of tracking the identities and movements of entire crowds. This unprecedented form of mass surveillance could have a significant chilling effect on our rights to freedom of assembly and association.

Biases embedded in facial recognition algorithms also raise concern that they fuel discriminatory policing practices. Research shows that these algorithms are less likely to correctly identify the faces of people of color and women than those of white people and men, exposing the former to higher rates of misidentification and false accusations.

The letter also calls for measures to ensure that the automation of social security programs and other essential public services protects privacy and social security rights. In their bid to modernize aging welfare systems, a growing number of governments in and outside of Europe are building or procuring algorithms to help them verify people’s eligibility for benefits, perform means testing, and detect fraud.

Ill-conceived algorithms have deprived people of their benefits and led to wrongful accusations of fraud. Last year, a Netherlands court ordered the government to suspend an automated risk assessment tool it was using to predict how likely people were to commit tax or benefits fraud, citing its lack of transparency and privacy concerns. 

The European Commission has said that “the way we approach AI will define the world we live in,” and it plans to publish its proposal for regulation in the first quarter of 2021. A clear rejection of disproportionate surveillance and similarly excessive methods of social control will help protect rights and avert a dystopian future.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 14, 2021, 3:38 pm
Click to expand Image Members of civil society groups take part in a rally to condemn a recent gang rape of a woman on a highway, Karachi, Pakistan, September 12, 2020. © 2020 Fareed Khan/AP Photo

(New York) – Pakistan’s government intensified its crackdown on the media, political opponents, and civil society in 2020, while failing to stem violence against women and minorities, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

Pakistani authorities harassed, and at times, prosecuted human rights defenders and journalists for criticizing government policies. They deployed the National Accountability Bureau, Pakistan’s anti-corruption watchdog, to detain political opponents and critics of the government, including the Jang group editor Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, who was held without bail for six months.

“Pakistan’s continuing assault on political opponents and free expression put the country on an increasingly dangerous course,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Threatening opposition leaders, activists, and journalists who criticize the government is a hallmark of authoritarian rule, not a democracy.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

Violence against Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya religious community worsened in 2020, with at least four Ahmadis killed for alleged incidents of blasphemy. Among them was Tahir Naseem Ahmad, who was charged with blasphemy, imprisoned in 2018, and fatally shot in July by an assailant who had smuggled a gun inside a high-security courtroom in Peshawar. The Pakistani government also failed to amend or repeal blasphemy law provisions that have led to arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, and provide a pretext for violence against religious minorities.

In August, leading women journalists issued a statement condemning the “well-defined and coordinated campaign” of social media attacks, including death and rape threats, against women journalists and commentators whose views and reporting have been critical of the government.

In September, nationwide protests took place to demand police reform after the Lahore police chief made a public statement suggesting that a woman who had been gang-raped on a highway in Punjab was herself at fault because she should not have been traveling “without her husband’s permission” on a motorway late at night.

Pakistan had over 350,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with at least 7,000 deaths in 2020. With little testing available, the actual numbers were most likely much higher. Partial or complete lockdowns to prevent contagion had a disproportionate effect on women workers, especially home-based and domestic workers. The Sindh provincial government took some measures to protect workers from layoffs and ensure pay. 

Data from domestic violence help lines across Pakistan indicated that cases of domestic violence increased 200 percent from January-March 2020, and further worsened during the Covid-19 lockdowns after March.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 10:44 pm
Click to expand Image Security personnel patrol an accommodation block where Bangladeshi migrant workers are being quarantined after Covid-19 cases were found in the area, Malé, Maldives, May 9, 2020. © 2020 Ahmed Shurau/AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – The Maldives authorities responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by cracking down on peaceful protests and compounding threats to migrant workers and other vulnerable groups, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih promised after taking office in 2018 to restore rights eroded by longstanding authoritarian rule, but his administration has not confronted growing threats to civil society groups or the influence of extremist Islamist groups on the police and courts.

“The Maldives government’s poor response to the Covid-19 crisis magnified existing abuses, especially for migrant workers, and exposed the government’s failure to address online intimidation and other threats by extremist groups against rights activists,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In 2021, the government should prioritize efforts to protect everyone’s rights to peaceful expression and assembly.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

Throughout 2020, the authorities cracked down on foreign workers protesting wage abuses that escalated during Covid-19 lockdowns. In July alone, the police arbitrarily detained more than 80 migrants during protests, a number of whom were ultimately deported without their owed wages. However, as part of their healthcare response, the authorities established dedicated Covid-19 clinics for migrant workers that did not require them to show work permits or other documentation.

The pandemic spotlighted entrenched abuses against migrant workers – roughly one-third of the resident population – including wage theft, passport confiscation, and unsafe living and working conditions. The government did take action to address some labor concerns, including regularizing undocumented migrants and establishing a national task force on the issue.

The Solih administration failed to adequately investigate extremist Islamist groups for targeting social justice activists, instead often capitulating to the groups’ demands. Online intimidation of human rights groups had a chilling effect on civil society. In June, extremist groups initiated a social media campaign demanding that the government ban the women’s rights organization Uthema for being “anti-Islam,” after the group published a report on the government’s performance under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Although the Maldives is one of the country’s most vulnerable to harm from climate change, the government has not adequately consulted local communities, or put in place sufficient measures to mitigate or adapt to the growing risk of floods and erosion. The results of climate change will have long-term effects on communities from loss of livelihoods.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 10:36 pm
Click to expand Image Inmates protest on the roof a prison building calling for speedier judicial processes and increased protection amid rising cases of Covid-19, Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 18, 2020. © 2020 Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

(New York) – Sri Lanka’s human rights situation has seriously deteriorated under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

Government security forces have increased intimidation and surveillance of human rights activists, victims of past abuses, lawyers, and journalists. Minority Muslim and Tamil communities have faced discrimination and threats. The government pushed through passage of a constitutional amendment that undermines judicial independence and weakens oversight institutions, such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. In February, Sri Lanka withdrew its commitments to the 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council for truth seeking, accountability, and reconciliation following the country’s long civil war.

“The Rajapaksa administration has quickly reversed human rights gains of the previous government, making minorities more insecure, victims of past abuses fearful, and critics wary of speaking out,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Even the limited progress on postwar reconciliation is being undone by a greater military role in governance and the government’s dismissal of its international commitments to truth and accountability.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

President Rajapaksa has appointed people to senior positions, who, like himself, were implicated in war crimes during the civil war that ended in 2009, including the defense secretary, Kamal Gunaratne, and the chief of defense staff, Gen. Shavendra Silva. In February, the United States State Department announced that General Silva was ineligible to enter the US due to his alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings.

The Rajapaksa administration escalated surveillance and intimidation, targeting victims’ families and human rights defenders, as well as lawyers and journalists deemed critical of the government. These included victims and activists who engaged with the Human Rights Council.

After the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government did little to address false accusations on social media that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus and calls to boycott Muslim businesses. In March, the government began requiring cremation of all Covid-19 victims, disregarding Islamic tradition, though cremation was not required for public health. Four UN human rights experts criticized these requirements as violating religious freedom. 

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, accused the government of using Covid-19 to stifle freedom of expression after the authorities threatened to arrest anyone who “criticized” its handling of the pandemic. She condemned the pardon of one of the few soldiers ever convicted of serious abuses, and raised concerns about “appointments to key civilian roles of senior military officials allegedly involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The UN Human Rights Council will consider possible measures regarding Sri Lanka at its February-March 2021 session, including calls for an international accountability mechanism to pursue justice for past abuses.

“Concerned governments should do all they can to prevent Sri Lanka from returning to the ‘bad old days’ of rampant human rights violations,” Ganguly said. “Governments need to speak out against abuses and press for a UN Human Rights Council resolution that addresses accountability and the collection and preservation of evidence.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 10:20 pm
Click to expand Image Undocumented migrants are detained during a crackdown by Malaysia’s Immigration Department in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 20, 2020. © 2020 Mohd Firdaus/NurPhoto via AP

(Bangkok) – The Malaysian coalition that took power in March 2020 halted the Pakatan Harapan government’s faltering human rights reform movement, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.  
The first nine months of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government featured an aggressive crackdown on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, attacks on the media, and discrimination against migrants and refugees. There was also a wholesale retreat from genuine police accountability for abuses.  
“Malaysia has undergone an incredible reversal of human rights in 2020 – all for the worst,” said Phil Robertson deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hopes for human rights reforms have never risen so fast in Malaysia nor collapsed so quickly.”  
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 
The decline in media freedom has been particularly striking, Human Rights Watch said. In July, after Al Jazeera aired a documentary about Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, the police announced that they were investigating Al Jazeera for sedition, defamation, and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act.  
Police questioned six Al Jazeera staff members and raided the organization’s offices in Kuala Lumpur. In August, Malaysia refused to renew the visas of two Al Jazeera journalists based in the country. The government has also been seeking to hold online news portals responsible for comments posted by readers. 
Malaysia’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 had a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. Migrants and refugees who lost their jobs due to the pandemic were excluded from government aid programs, and many were left unable to feed their families. The authorities used the pandemic to justify pushing boatloads of desperate Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar back out to sea. The authorities also rounded up thousands of undocumented migrants and detained them in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention centers to await deportation. 
Abuse by the police remains a serious problem in Malaysia, as does a lack of accountability for such abuses. In August, the government withdrew a bill submitted by the prior administration to create an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission “because the police objected to it.” The government instead introduced a bill that would gut the principle of accountability for the police by creating an Independent Police Conduct Commission that lacks both key investigative powers and the authority to punish wrongdoing.  
“Prime Minister Muhyiddin seems intent on dragging Malaysia back to the bad old days of the Najib government, when simply speaking out publicly about sensitive topics would have the police soon knocking at your door,” Robertson said. “The government should stop backsliding and fully respect the rights of all within its borders.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 10:04 pm
Click to expand Image Indian migrant workers sit atop a bus as others walk along an expressway to return to their home villages during a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, New Delhi, India, March 28, 2020. © 2020 Altaf Qadri/AP Photo

(New York) – The Indian government increasingly harassed, detained, and prosecuted activists, journalists, and others critical of the government or its policies, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government brought politically motivated cases, including under broadly worded sedition and counterterrorism laws, against human rights defenders, student activists, academics, opposition members, and other critics. It blamed them for the communal violence in February in Delhi, as well as caste-based violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state in January 2018. In both cases, BJP supporters implicated in the violence were not prosecuted. Police investigations were biased and aimed at silencing dissent and deterring future protests. The authorities also used foreign funding regulations to target outspoken groups for their human rights work.

“The Indian government seems determined to punish peaceful criticism using draconian laws, while sending a broader message that chills dissent,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of addressing growing attacks on Muslims, minorities, and women, Indian authorities increased their crackdown on critical voices in 2020.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

The February communal violence in Delhi killed at least 53 people, with over 200 injured, properties destroyed, and communities displaced in targeted attacks by Hindu mobs. While a policeman and several Hindus were also killed, the vast majority of victims were Muslim. The attacks came after weeks of peaceful protests against the Indian government’s discriminatory citizenship policies.

Violence broke out after BJP leaders openly advocated violence against the protesters, while witness accounts and video evidence showed police complicity. The Delhi Minorities Commission reported that the violence was “planned and targeted,” and found that the police were filing cases against Muslim victims, but not taking action against the BJP leaders who incited it.

The government continued to impose harsh and discriminatory restrictions on Muslim-majority areas in Jammu and Kashmir, after revoking the state’s constitutional status in August 2019 and splitting it into two federally governed territories. Scores of people remained detained without charge under the draconian Public Safety Act, which permits detention without trial for up to two years. The government also clamped down on critics and journalists.

The Covid-19 pandemic made access to the internet crucial. However, even after the Supreme Court said in January that access to the internet was a fundamental right, the authorities permitted only slow-speed 2G mobile internet services, leading doctors to complain that it hurt the Covid-19 response.

Crimes against Dalits increased, in part as backlash by members of dominant castes against what they might perceive as a challenge to caste hierarchy. Crimes against women increased too. In September, a 19-year old Dalit woman died after being gang-raped and tortured, allegedly by four men of dominant caste in Uttar Pradesh. The authorities’ response highlighted how women from marginalized communities faced even greater institutional barriers to justice.

The intensifying repression in India resulted in international criticism, including by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who raised concerns over human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, arrests of activists, and restrictions on civil society.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 9:57 pm
Click to expand Image Vietnamese Political Detainees: Pham Doan Trang; Can Thi Theu and her sons Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu; Dinh Thi Thu Thuy; Pham Chi Dung; Nguyen Tuong Thuy; Le Huu Minh Tuan; Tran Duc Thach © 2020 Private

(New York, January 13, 2021) – Vietnamese authorities increased restrictions on basic political and civil rights in 2020, especially freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

The tightening of restrictions on free expression appears to be linked to the National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, scheduled for January 25 to February 2, 2021. In 2020, the Vietnamese government frequently punished people for criticizing the government or for joining groups to promote democracy or human rights. The authorities arbitrarily arrested or prosecuted at least 28 people for violations of overbroad and vague national security crimes, such as “conducting propaganda” against the state or “abusing rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.”

“It was another abysmal year for human rights in Vietnam,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Through 2020, the police arrested several vocal dissidents and detained numerous others for speaking their minds and exercising their basic free expression rights.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

The Vietnamese authorities also blocked access to politically independent websites and pressured social media companies to take down accounts, posts, or video clips critical of the government.

In April, the government throttled access to Facebook’s local cache servers, demanding that the company remove pages controlled by dissidents. Facebook, bowing to pressure, agreed to restrict access to the pages within Vietnam, setting a worrying precedent. In early September, the Ministry of Information and Communications praised Facebook and YouTube for their “positive change in collaborating with MIC to block information that violates Vietnam’s law.”

Also in April, the police arrested a former political prisoner, Tran Duc Thach, for being affiliated with a pro-democracy group called Brotherhood for Democracy. He was charged for subversion under article 109 of the penal code. In December, a court convicted and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

In May and June, the police arrested two members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan. In January 2021, a court in Ho Chi Minh City convicted and sentenced them each to 11 years in prison. In the same trial, the founder of the association, blogger Pham Chi Dung, received a 15-year prison sentence.

In June, the police arrested three contributors of the Liberal Publishing House, Can Thi Theu, also a former political prisoner, and her sons Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu. In October, police arrested the co-founder of the Liberal Publishing House, prominent independent blogger Pham Doan Trang. All of them were charged with conducting propaganda against the state under article 117 of the penal code.

“The Vietnamese government fears democracy, an independent media, and freedom,” Sifton said. “Donors and trade partners need to publicly raise concerns about the government’s abysmal rights record and to press Vietnam to meet its international human rights obligations.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 7:18 pm
Click to expand Image A high school student holds up the three-finger salute and gives a speech at a youth-led rally in Chiang Mai, Thailand on August 25, 2020.  © 2020 Supitcha Chailom

(New York, January 13, 2021) – Thailand’s government in 2020 escalated its repression of basic rights in the face of a growing, youth-led democracy movement demanding political and constitutional reforms, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

Protests that started on July 18 soon spread across the country, calling for the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, an end to harassment by the authorities, and the drafting of a new constitution. Some protests included demands to curb the king’s powers. The government responded by cracking down on protest leaders, charging more than 100 of them with illegal assembly, violating Covid-19 related restrictions, and sedition.

“The Thai government has responded to peaceful demands from youth for sweeping political reforms by making Thailand’s human rights crisis go from bad to worse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai authorities have prosecuted dissenters, violently dispersed peaceful protests, censored news and social media, and punished critical political speech.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

On October 15, riot police forcibly cleared protesters who had camped outside the Government House in Bangkok. In the ensuing days, police assaulted peaceful protesters using water cannons, mixed with dye and teargas chemicals, as well as teargas grenades. On November 17, at least 55 people were injured, most from inhaling teargas, and six pro-democracy protesters were wounded by gunfire during a clash with ultra-royalist groups after police withdrew. On November 18, the spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concerns about the Thai government’s use of force against peaceful protesters. 

The government intimidated and punished children and youths who participated in the pro-democracy campaigns. The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported in August a total of 103 harassment incidents against students across the country. At least four high school students were charged with illegal assembly.

The government routinely enforced censorship, including on social media platforms, blocking and punishing opinions the authorities deemed critical of the monarchy. In November, Prime Minister Prayuth brought back lèse-majesté prosecutions after a three-year hiatus. As of December, at least 35 people, including a 16-year-old boy, were charged under article 112 of the penal code (insulting the monarchy) for demanding reform of the monarchy, or saying or writing or doing anything the authorities considered offensive to the monarchy. Critics of the monarchy were also prosecuted under sedition, cybercrime, and other legal provisions.

Thai dissidents who have fled Thailand to escape political persecution face grave threats to their lives. On June 4, an exiled democracy activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, was abducted in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and remains missing. Since 2016, at least nine Thai political activists have been forcibly disappeared in neighboring countries. Two of them were found killed.

“Thailand’s foreign friends should stop ignoring the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the country,” Adams said. “It’s not possible to return to business as usual without securing Thai government commitments to respect democratic principles and rights for all.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 5:45 pm
Click to expand Image Students and laborers protest against a new job creation law that hinders labor rights, Bandung, Indonesia, October 8, 2020. © 2020 Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

(Jakarta) – The Indonesian government responded slowly and insufficiently to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, focusing instead on a jobs law that will harm labor rights and the environment, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

The response of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government to the Covid-19 pandemic was weak, with low testing and tracing rates, and little transparency. The impact of the virus has been devastating, killing at least 17,000 people, and leading to the loss of 2.6 million jobs. Epidemiologists estimate that the number of deaths could be three times the official tally. While the country was facing huge coronavirus outbreaks, Jokowi and his governing coalition on October 5 hastily passed an omnibus law on job creation that restricts labor rights and dismantles environmental protections.

“The Jokowi government never seemed to make the pandemic its top priority, focusing instead  on  passing a business-friendly law that harms workers and the environment,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Creating jobs and planning economic recovery are important goals especially in a pandemic, but they should not come at the expense of fighting the virus or protecting the hard-fought rights of workers.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

The roughly 1,000-page omnibus law was largely drafted by the business community, with little consultation from labor unions and other affected groups. It significantly reduces minimum wages, severance pay, vacation, maternity benefits, and health and childcare benefits. It weakens existing environmental laws and legal protections for Indigenous groups, raising concerns about land grabbing.

The rights of religious minorities, women and girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities continued to come under attack in many parts of Indonesia. Islamists targeted minorities with threats and intimidation with little government response. Indonesian police arrested at least 38 people for blasphemy across 16 provinces in 2020. The Supreme Court also rejected a public petition to revoke the so-called “religious harmony regulation,” which has been used to close thousands of houses of worship, mostly Christian churches, since 2006.

Indonesia also continued to limit access for international rights monitors and journalists to visit Papua and West Papua provinces, which have long been affected by unrest and rights violations.

“Jokowi came to office promising progressive reforms, but in 2020 he seemed to give up any remaining intentions he had to protect rights and the most vulnerable,” Adams said. “It’s not too late for him to take bold steps to prioritize public health, reinstate labor and environmental protections, and protect free expression. His last years in office will define his legacy.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 3:02 pm
Click to expand Image A nurse holds hands with a Covid-19 patient at the intensive care unit of Casal Palocco hospital in Rome, October 20, 2020.  ©2020 Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP

(Brussels) – The Covid-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the lives and rights of people across the European Union, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.  
The disease and the economic consequences of lockdowns exacerbated discrimination and marginalization. In some cases, the pandemic served as a pretext for governments to consolidate power, advance anti-rights policies, restrict freedoms, or target migrants, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, and ethnic or other minority groups. But the EU did take steps to promote and defend human rights around the world.  
“It’s been a challenging year for rights protection in the EU, with a public health and economic crisis triggered by Covid 19 and some member states sliding deeper toward authoritarian rule,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “To ensure that 2021 is a year of recovery, EU institutions and states should be guided by the compass of fundamental rights, stand up consistently for democratic institutions, and take positive steps to tackle deepening inequalities and abuses against migrants and minorities. 

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.  
Human Rights Watch highlighted union-wide concerns on migration and asylum, discrimination and intolerance, poverty and inequality, rule of law, and EU foreign policy. The World Report includes chapters on France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Spain, and on non-EU countries in the region such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, and the United Kingdom. 
The Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown measures, and ensuing economic recession had a disproportionate impact on people living on low incomes or in poverty. The EU eased rules to make funds available to member states to mitigate the effects, but unemployment, food insecurity, and unequal access to distance learning exacerbated existing inequalities. Homeless people and people living in inadequate housing, including Roma people and migrants in crowded reception facilities, faced increased health risks. 
The EU made limited progress in developing tools to hold to account member states that undermine the rule of law, with important rulings by the European Court of Justice, the first EU Commission report on rule of law in all 27 member states, and an agreement in November to tie access to EU funds to the rule of law.  Hungary and Poland held up voting on the EU budget and coronavirus relief until EU leaders made concessions that weakened the conditionality mechanism and will likely delay its implementation. 

Member states did not progress in their scrutiny of those two countries under article 7 – the treaty mechanism to address threats to EU values. 
The treatment of migrants and asylum seekers undermined the bloc’s credibility as a defender of human rights, Human Rights Watch said. The European Commission released a wide-ranging New Pact on Migration and Asylum in September, capping off a year marked by border closures, pushbacks, and increased vulnerability of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.  
Though promoted as a “fresh start,” the pact confirmed the focus on sealing borders and boosting returns, included proposals that could undermine safeguards and increase detention, and lacked innovative proposals for rights-respecting migration management.  
The European Commission published in September an action plan against racism, the first high-level recognition of structural racism in the EU. Intolerance, discrimination, and violence against Jews, Muslims, Roma, and other minorities were prevalent across the EU, with the pandemic serving as a pretext to attack members of social groups already experiencing discrimination, hate speech, and hate crime.  
In November, the Commission adopted strategy on LGBTIQ equality, amid an attack by Poland and Hungary on what they term “gender ideology” that threatened the rights of sexual and gender minorities, reproductive rights, and efforts to address violence against women. 
Violent attacks attributed to Islamist and far-right extremism in Germany, France, and Austria killed 22 people and wounded dozens. Amid concerns over public discourse stigmatizing Muslims, EU interior ministers pledged to counter terrorism while respecting fundamental rights and freedoms.  
In its foreign policy, the EU led initiatives in United Nations forums to expose violations and seek accountability, remained a staunch supporter of the International Criminal Court, and adopted a new EU global human rights sanctions regime. The EU and member states continued as major humanitarian donors and mobilized assistance to third countries affected by Covid-19. However, the bloc struggled at times to respond in a timely and principled manner to international developments, with some member states blocking unanimous action. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 11:00 am
Click to expand Image Police block protesting lawyers during a demonstration against a government draft bill to reduce the authority of Turkey’s leading bar associations. July 10, 2020, Ankara. © 2020 Tunahan Turhan / INA Photo Agency / Sipa via AP Images.

(Istanbul) – The Covid-19 pandemic in Turkey has enabled the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deepen autocratic rule by silencing critics and rapidly passing restrictive new laws to limit dissent, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.  
In 2020, Turkish authorities used the pretext of the pandemic to ban demonstrations by opposition parties and government critics and to target critics of the government. When introducing an early release program to ease prison overcrowding, the government deliberately excluded thousands of arbitrarily jailed prisoners from eligibility and rushed in new laws to deepen censorship of social media platforms and curb the authority of bar associations vocal on Turkey’s rule of law crisis. At the year end, the government passed a new law enabling arbitrary restriction of civil society organizations and threatening the right to freedom of association.   
“The Covid-19 pandemic became a pretext for the Erdogan government to double down on autocratic rule and stamp out criticism and opposition at the expense of uniting the country during a public health crisis,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The international focus on Turkey’s foreign policy should not be allowed to overshadow the assault on democratic safeguards at home, which accelerated during 2020.” 
In 2020 the Erdogan government’s main tensions with the European Union were focused on migration, gas reserves, and contested maritime boundaries in the East Mediterranean rather than Turkey’s domestic human rights record.  
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.  

The continuing detention in 2020 of prominent figures including Osman Kavala, a human rights defender; Ahmet Altan, a writer; Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, former co-chairs of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP); and many other former parliament members, mayors, and other officials from that party is evidence of Turkey’s lack of an independent judiciary and that prosecutorial and court decisions are indexed to the Erdogan government’s political decisions. Alongside prominent figures held for years in arbitrary detention are thousands of people also held on bogus terrorism charges for alleged links with the Fethullah Gülen movement, which Turkey deems a terrorist organization. 
Turkey remains host to the highest number of refugees in the world, with an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country, in addition to asylum seekers from other countries. In February-March 2020, Turkey’s government opened its border with Greece encouraging migrants and refugees to travel into the European Union. Greece responded by violently pushing back refugees and migrants it intercepted.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 11:00 am

(Washington, DC) – US President-elect Joe Biden should work with global leaders who have sought to shore up a defense of human rights around the world, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2021. His administration should also look for ways to entrench respect for human rights in US policy that are more likely to survive the radical changes among administrations that have become a fixture of the US political landscape.

“After four years of Trump’s indifference and often hostility to human rights, including his provoking a mob assault on democratic processes in the Capitol, the Biden presidency provides an opportunity for fundamental change,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in his introductory essay to the World Report 2021. “Trump’s flouting of human rights at home and his embrace of friendly autocrats abroad severely eroded US credibility abroad. US condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Israel.”

World Report 2021

World Report 2021, Human Rights Watch’s 31st annual review of human rights practices and trends around the globe, reviews developments in more than 100 countries.


Roth said that other governments recognized that human rights were too important to abandon, even as the US government largely abandoned the protection of human rights, and powerful actors such as China and Russia sought to undermine the global human rights system. New coalitions to protect rights emerged: Latin American governments plus Canada acting on Venezuela, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation defending Rohingya Muslims, a range of European governments acting on such countries as Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Hungary, and Poland, and a growing coalition of governments willing to condemn China’s persecution of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

“The past four years show that Washington is an important but not indispensable leader on human rights,” Roth said. “Many other governments treated Trump’s retreat as cause for resolve rather than despair and stepped up to protect human rights.”

Biden’s presidency provides an opportunity for fundamental change, Roth said. He said that the president-elect should set an example by strengthening the US government’s commitment to human rights at home in a way that cannot be easily reversed by his successors.

Biden should speak in terms of the human rights involved as he works to expand health care, dismantle systemic racism, lift people out of poverty and hunger, fight climate change, and end discrimination against women and LGBT people. The slim Democratic Party majorities in the US Senate and House may also open possibilities for more lasting legislation. Biden should also allow criminal investigations of Trump to proceed to make clear that no one is outside the rule of law.

Abroad, to better entrench human rights as a guiding principle, Roth said, Biden should affirm and then act on that principle even when it is politically difficult. That should include:

Curbing military aid or arms sales to abusive friendly governments such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel absent significant improvements in their human rights practices; Condemning the Indian government’s encouragement of discrimination and violence against Muslims, even if India is seen as an important ally against China; Re-embracing the UN Human Rights Council, even though it criticizes Israeli abuses; Voiding Trump’s sanctions on the International Criminal Court, even if he doesn’t like the prosecutor’s investigations; and Abandoning Trump’s inconsistent, transactional unilateral policy towards China and adopting a more principled, consistent, and multilateral approach that will encourage others to join.

“The big news of recent years isn’t Trump’s well-known abandonment of rights but the less-noticed emergence of so many other countries in leadership roles,” Roth said. “The Biden administration should join, not supplant, these shared efforts. These governments should maintain their important defense of rights, not relinquish their leadership to Washington, while Biden works to entrench a less variable US commitment to human rights.”

We asked four partners to respond to Human Rights Watch’s call on US President-elect Joe Biden and other leaders to prioritize human rights at home and abroad, and why international attention is important to their work. Here are selected quotes:

The United States
Dr Tiffany Crutcher, of the Terence Crutcher Foundation and Black Wall Street Memorial in Tulsa, recalls the racist history preceding the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and urges President-elect Biden to tackle white supremacy:

In 1921, it was a lie that incited the Tulsa race massacre where mobs of white rioters burned down the Black community of Greenwood. And almost 100 years later on January 6, 2021, it was a lie that incited mobs of white rioters to storm our nation’s capital to overthrow our democracy. Confederate flags were waved, nooses were erected, and white supremacy showed its ugly head.

Which is why I’m calling on the Biden administration to attack white supremacy head on its first 30, 60, 90 days of taking office. You must prioritize racial justice and you must re-engage on the issues of human rights, and most importantly you must reverse the regressions from the Trump administration. We don’t need another Breonna Taylor, we don’t need another Tamir Rice, another George Floyd, another Terence Crutcher. You must demand a just America and be the change that we so desperately need in this country right now.

Tatiana Glushkova, a board member of the Russian group Memorial Human Rights Center, recalls the arrest on bogus charges of Memorial’s lead researcher in Chechnya, Oyub Titiev, and the difference international attention made in his fate:

The goal was to force Memorial to close its office in Grozny and to complicate the collection of information about human rights violations in Chechnya. However, the case itself was so crudely and clumsily fabricated and so obviously in retaliation for Oyub’s human rights work, that it attracted intense attention from the international community. Oyub’s case was discussed at the Council of Europe, the UN, European parliament, and FIFA. It was discussed in foreign ministries of many different countries, and numerous human rights organizations, both Russian and international. For nine months, foreign diplomats and journalists regularly visited the Shali city court [where Titiev’s trial was held].

Such attention did not escape the authorities of the Chechen Republic. Their most important reaction was, of course, the fact that Oyub’s verdict was relatively light, and also that he was very quickly released on parole. Such a reaction by the Chechen authorities, given their longstanding and deep hatred for Memorial, can only be explained by their desire to quickly turn this page, get rid of this case, of this political prisoner, and of the intense interest of the international community. The result we now have, that our colleague has been free for over a year, would not have been possible without [this] international attention. We are extremely grateful to everyone who took part in this effort.

Cyrille Rolande Bechon, head of Nouveaux Droits de l’Homme Cameroun, a human rights organization based in Yaoundé, discusses the international response to the massacre of 21 civilians in Ngarbuh, Cameroon:

This is the place for me to thank the organizations that come together in the Coalition for Human Rights and Peace in the Anglophone Regions, international organizations like Human Rights Watch, [and countries like] France, the United States, who supported us and conveyed the message with us about the need to set up a commission of inquiry into this massacre.

Although this commission has announced its conclusions and a trial opened last December 17 against the four members of the security forces identified by the commission as having participated in this massacre, we’re still dissatisfied. Dissatisfied because the chain of responsibility in this massacre has yet to be established. We would like all those responsible, whether directly or indirectly, including high-ranking army officials, to be prosecuted and sentenced.

Feliciano Reyes, a Venezuelan human rights defender deeply involved in providing humanitarian support to Venezuelans in need, on the country’s humanitarian emergency:

The complex humanitarian emergency that has affected Venezuela for at least four years has caused enormous damage to the population, for example, their lack of access to food, health services, [and] education. [These things] also generate mass forced migration because it’s so hard to survive in the country. The root causes include political conflict and years of abuse of power, of erosion of the rule of law. The international community has a fundamental role to play, not only in terms of diplomatic political actions in fora such as the Human Rights Council, the United Nations General Assembly, [and] the Security Council, to help find solutions to the political conflict, but also in providing vital international humanitarian assistance for Venezuela.

This has produced visible effects but is still insufficient. We hope the World Food Program will enter the country this year, for example, since there are reports of Venezuelans facing serious levels of food insecurity. This work is fundamental. This work of political and diplomatic pressure and humanitarian cooperation to restore decent living conditions for the Venezuelan people, and, eventually, to redirect the country towards development and well-being for its people.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 11:00 am
Click to expand Image Hospital workers remember their colleagues who have died from coronavirus and call on UK health authorities to provide personal protective equipment at University College Hospital in London, April 2020. ©2020 Matt Dunham/ AP Photo

(London) – The United Kingdom government’s response to major challenges in 2020, often set aside human rights and sought to bypass the institutions that protect them, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. An inconsistent approach to promoting human rights in foreign policy undermined the country’s positive foreign policy initiatives. 
“The UK government needs to stop seeing human rights and democratic institutions as an impediment to getting things done,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Respecting people’s rights and letting parliament and the courts do their work, makes for stronger and more effective responses to the challenges the UK faces.” 
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.  
The UK left the European Union in January 2020 with an 11-month transition period to reach an agreement on future relations. A last-minute deal agreed by the UK and the EU in late December averted the predicted short-term impact on food and medicine imports. There are continued concerns that a future UK government could seek to weaken, in domestic law, workers’ and other rights previously protected by EU law.  
Moves by the UK government in 2020 adversely affected the rule of law and democratic institutions that serve as a check on its power. The government used rush tactics to pass pandemic-related emergency legislation without proper scrutiny. It sought to restrict media access to news conferences in the prime minister’s office. The government began a review of court powers, motivated by a desire to curb them, and a similar review of the framework and operation of the Human Rights Act.  
The Covid-19 pandemic had killed 73,512 people in the UK by the end of 2020, among the highest number of deaths in Europe, with particular concern about disproportionate mortality rates among older people and people of Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.  
The economic downturn following the pandemic led to an unprecedented surge in applications for unemployment support through the country’s social security systems, and doubling of demand at food banks. Pandemic school closures left children from low-income families, who rely on schools for their main meal of the day, going hungry. 
Concerns remained about whether the government would extend temporary measures to mitigate the pandemic’s impact, including providing housing for homeless people, an evictions moratorium, support for domestic violence victims, and a modest increase to social security payments. 
Violence against women increased during the pandemic lockdown without adequate government support for service providers, especially those operated by and for migrant, Black, and other minority ethnic women. 
There was inadequate progress in addressing injustice towards British citizens, primarily of Caribbean origin, from the “Windrush” generation, who have been treated as foreigners and denied their rights.  
The government introduced legislation in parliament that would effectively create immunity after five years for abuses committed abroad by UK soldiers, including torture and war crimes. In December, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court closed its preliminary examination into alleged war crimes by UK nationals in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, despite finding that UK forces were responsible for numerous war crimes in Iraq, including willful killing or murder, torture and other serious abuses of detainees, and rape and other sexual violence. 
The UK took some positive steps to strengthen international human rights protection, including by creating its own human rights sanctions mechanism, and showed international leadership, including on Belarus and Hong Kong, and at the UN Human Rights Council. Yet its overall approach lacked consistency, with the government announcing it would seek to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia, for example, the day after imposing human rights sanctions on some Saudi officials.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 11:00 am