Click to expand Image UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left), then Foreign Secretary, and Paul Kagame (right), President of Rwanda, meet during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, April 17, 2018. © 2018 Press Association via AP Images

(Nairobi) – Rwandan authorities rounded up and arbitrarily detained over a dozen gay and transgender people, sex workers, street children, and others in the months before a planned June 2021 high-profile international conference, Human Rights Watch said.

They were held in a transit center in Gikondo neighborhood of the capital Kigali, unofficially called “Kwa Kabuga,” known for its harsh and inhuman conditions, which appear to have deteriorated further due to the increase in the number of detainees held there and the pandemic. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), first scheduled for June 2020 and rescheduled for June 2021, was eventually postponed indefinitely in May.

“Rwanda’s strategy to promote Kigali as a hub for meetings and conferences often means continued abuse of the capital’s poorest and most marginalized residents,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “As the meeting is rescheduled, Rwanda’s Commonwealth partners have a choice: either speak up for the rights of the victims or be silent as the crackdown is carried out in their name.”

Following reports on abuses at the Gikondo transit center in 2015, 2016, and 2020, this practice was condemned during Rwanda’s review by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, a Geneva-based treaty body, in February 2020. Between April and June 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed via telephone 17 former detainees from Gikondo. Interviews with nine people who identified as transgender or homosexual, three women who were detained with their babies, four men who worked as street vendors at local markets, and a 13-year-old boy living on the streets in Kigali, confirmed that patterns of abuse that Human Rights Watch documented previously are ongoing. Due to fear of reprisals against interviewees, Human Rights Watch has withheld all identifying information.

At Gikondo, detainees are held in overcrowded rooms in conditions well below standards required by Rwandan and international law. The former detainees said they have inadequate food, water, and health care; suffer frequent beatings; and are rarely allowed to leave filthy, overcrowded rooms. People were detained there without basic due process standards. None of the former detainees interviewed were formally charged with any criminal offense and none saw a prosecutor, judge, or lawyer before or during their detention. There were no measures to protect people from Covid-19, and former detainees said they did not have access to testing, soap, masks, or basic hygiene and sanitation amenities.

People interviewed who identified as gay or transgender said that security officials accused them of “not representing Rwandan values.” They said that other detainees beat them because of their clothes and identity. Three other detainees, who were held in the “delinquents’” room at Gikondo, confirmed that fellow detainees and guards more frequently and violently beat people they knew were gay or transgender than others.

In the past, round-ups have been connected to high-profile government events, ahead of which security forces may ramp up efforts to “clear up” Kigali’s streets. Human Rights Watch documented a similar round-up in 2016 before an African Union Summit held in Kigali. Ahead of the now postponed 2021 Commonwealth meeting, several former detainees said the police told them they did not want them on the streets during the event.

A civil society activist in Kigali said: “The streets were empty before the meeting. You couldn’t see any street children in town. Even the fruit vendors were taken [to Gikondo]. But now you can see them in the streets again.” Sources in Kigali confirmed that fewer people were living or working on the streets in the month preceding the date for the meeting. Several former detainees said the conditions at Gikondo had worsened in the lead-up to the meeting due to severe overcrowding.

An 18-year-old woman, a street vendor arbitrarily detained for two weeks with her 9-month-old baby, said: “[The police] said the government wanted to clear the city because of CHOGM. They said they would detain us until CHOGM has happened without our filth on display.”

Rwanda is one of a few countries in East Africa that does not criminalize consensual same-sex relations. Vagrancy, begging, and sex work are not criminalized either. Yet the authorities continue to use Gikondo Transit Center to imprison people accused of “deviant behavior that is harmful to the public,” including street vending and homelessness.

Rwanda should urgently close the transit center in Gikondo and amend the legal framework governing the National Rehabilitation Service. The authorities should promptly investigate all reported cases of ill-treatment and beatings of detainees by police and transit center personnel – including reports of detainees dying in detention – and prosecute the suspected abusers, Human Rights Watch said.

“Based on past experience, there is every likelihood that similar patterns of abuse will occur ahead of whatever new date is set for the Commonwealth meeting,” Mudge said. “Locking up marginalized people and abusing them simply because the authorities believe they tarnish their country’s image violates human dignity, and Commonwealth leaders should not tolerate this.”

Gikondo Transit Center

Since 2017, legislation and policies under the government’s strategy to “eradicate delinquency” have sought to legitimize and regulate so-called transit centers, presenting them as part of a “rehabilitation” process aimed at supporting poor and marginalized people. The authorities acknowledge that there are 28 “transit centers” in Rwanda, including “Kwa Kabuga,” the unofficial name of Kigali’s transit center situated in the Gikondo residential suburb of Kigali.

Click to expand Image Satellite image showing the location of Gikondo Transit Center, Kigali, Rwanda. © Maxar Technologies 2020. Source: GoogleEarth

A January 2020 Human Rights Watch report found that the 2017 legislation provides cover for the police to round up and arbitrarily detain people accused of so-called “deviant behaviors” at Gikondo in deplorable and degrading conditions, and without due process or judicial oversight. Detainees are released with very little formal procedure, reflecting the arbitrary manner in which they were initially arrested.

Based on the 2017 legal framework and statements by Rwandan authorities, the broader objective of Gikondo is to serve as a short-term screening center to allow authorities to process detainees to send on to rehabilitation centers. However, in practice, there is no judicial process to determine the length of time people spend at the center or whether they are released or transferred. Some people interviewed said they were released when the center was overcrowded. Two said they were released in June 2021, after the decision to postpone the Commonwealth meeting was announced.

The 13-year-old boy said he was held for two weeks in late April and May, in a room with over 200 other street children, and was released after the announcement: “The police told us: ‘Don’t be afraid, children. The meeting isn’t happening; you’ll be released tomorrow.’” He said that district authorities collected all children detained at Gikondo and returned them to the streets of Kigali. He was not offered support to rejoin his family or return to school.

The civil society activist confirmed that, “Children were detained, moto-taxis had to stop working, street vendors were harassed – all because of the Commonwealth meeting. Since it’s been postponed, the abuse has calmed down.”

Former detainees said police told them that they were “trash,” and that they would be detained during the meeting and released in August. “Before the [Commonwealth] meeting, they would arrest us and seize our goods,” said a 20-year-old street vendor, who was detained for two weeks in April with her 9-month-old baby. “With this meeting coming up … Gikondo [was] very overcrowded.”

Arrest and Transfer to Gikondo

Round-ups by police or officers from the District Administration Security Support Organ (DASSO), a local state security body, are often the first step toward arbitrary detention at Gikondo. The arbitrary nature of the detention is reflected in the complete absence of due process once people are taken to Gikondo. In most cases, detainees are held in various police stations or sector (local government) offices across Kigali before being transferred to Gikondo. None of the interviewees were taken before a judge or given access to a lawyer before being transferred to Gikondo.

Detention of Gay and Transgender People

The detention of transgender people at Gikondo was reported in the media in November 2020. The nine transgender or gay people interviewed by Human Rights Watch were detained at Gikondo between December 2020 and April 2021. They said they had been targeted due to their sexual orientation or gender identity and treated worse than other detainees.

Several said the police or local security officers detained them after members of the public reported seeing them with their partners and other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, or wearing women’s clothing if they were perceived not to be female. At Gikondo, police officers or guards accused them of being homeless, thieves, or delinquents and held them in a room reserved for “delinquent” men. One 27-year-old transgender woman said:

They took me at Kabuga and said I was causing problems in Rwanda…. When I arrived, police asked why am I looking like this? Why am I looking like a girl? They asked: ‘Are you a prostitute?’ I said, ‘No, I am a Rwandan.’ They jailed me with other people who were [accused of being] thieves.

One said he was arrested in late December 2020, after leaving a bar in Nyamirambo neighborhood in Kigali: “When we were about to get on motorbikes, local patrol men came and asked us who we are and what we are doing here … they said we don’t represent Rwandan customs. My friend [a transgender woman] has long hair and was wearing a skirt.” Another former detainee was arrested by local security officials in February 2021 after kissing his same-sex partner in a bar. He said customers from the bar insulted them and called the security patrol, who took them straight to Gikondo transit center.

Transgender and gay people interviewed described being harassed, insulted, and beaten by security officials during their arrest and detention. A former detainee who was arrested by DASSO officials in December 2020 said she was taken to the Nyabugogo police station. “They asked me what I was doing … if I am a girl or a boy,” she said. “I said I am a girl and that’s when the problems started … At Kabuga, we were beaten by the leaders. They asked if we were boys or girls.”

A transgender woman detained at Gikondo in February 2021 said: “Police said we were cursed, and asked how we could behave in this way, having sex with people of the same sex as us. They said we’re delinquents and put us in that room. But in the room, we were badly beaten by other detainees and police did nothing despite our cries.” Another gay former detainee who was arrested with a group of transgender people said a policeman beat his feet and told him he should be “rehabilitated.”

Several other former detainees confirmed these patterns of abuse. An 18-year-old street vendor accused of “delinquency” was detained with about 1,000 other men, where he said “men who dressed as women” – referring to transgender people – “were beaten more than the others. We were all beaten but they were really badly beaten.” All transgender women interviewed were housed in male facilities.

Beatings

Beatings often begin as soon as people are rounded up and taken to a nearby police station or post. A 30-year-old woman with a 3-year-old child said:

I was taken to the police, where they kept us in a room with others who had been arrested. At that point we were violently beaten. I had a baby with me, but they still beat me, although they didn’t beat him. At 2 a.m. they transferred us to “Kwa Kabuga.” They told me: “Your baby is none of our business. Get in with the others.” I insulted them, so they beat me badly. They said they don’t want me to do this kind of business [on the streets].

Once detainees arrive at Gikondo, they are registered and often beaten by other detainees. Long-term detainees at Gikondo, known as “counsellors,” are often in charge of daily life in the rooms and beat other detainees. The 30-year-old street vendor said that other detainees in the women’s room beat her and her child: “An adult woman is hit twenty times, whereas her child will be beaten four times. It’s only babies under one year old that are not beaten.”

Interviewees detained in the women’s room also said they were beaten when their child defecated or cried: “We were beaten every day. We were also beaten when we asked for permission to use the toilet. If a baby cried, or urinated, its mother would pay the price,” said the 23-year-old mother of a 2-year-old child, who was detained at Gikondo for three weeks in April.

Guards or “counselors” also regularly beat detainees in the children’s room or rooms for adult men. Children are often beaten when they make noise or play together. “We were beaten a lot…. If you fight, if you make a mistake, or if you shout, they beat you with sticks,” the 13-year-old boy said. A 21-year-old street vendor held in the room for “delinquents” said that detainees are beaten for spending too long in the bathroom, for talking too loudly, or “for any fault you commit.”

Conditions at Gikondo

Conditions in Gikondo Transit Center, as Human Rights Watch has extensively documented since 2006, fall well below international standards and violate Rwandan law.

Click to expand Image Rwandans sit in the Gikondo transit center in Kigali on September 24, 2015. © 2015 Stéphanie Aglietti/AFP via Getty Images

In March 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture called on governments to “reduce prison populations … wherever possible by implementing schemes of early, provisional or temporary release.” Yet Rwandan authorities continued to detain people in Gikondo transit center, without due process or judicial oversight. Overcrowding and poor hygienic and sanitary conditions at Gikondo put people at greater risk of contracting Covid-19 due to close proximity, inability to practice “social distancing,” a lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene, and lack of adequate medical care, including a lack of Covid-19 testing.

During their arrest and transfer to Gikondo, people interviewed said, they were not tested for Covid-19, were not given masks to wear, and were not given the space to maintain distances from other detainees. Many were taken to Gikondo in an overcrowded truck with windows closed. Some said that upon arrival, they washed their hands with water, but were not given soap. One former detainee said hand sanitizer was confiscated by the authorities upon arrival.

Former detainees who were held at Gikondo between 2019 and 2021 estimate that between 50 and 200 girls and boys detained together at a time in the “children’s room,” in deplorable and degrading conditions. But they described conditions in the room for male “delinquents” – which also holds teenage boys – and facilities for adult women with their infants as far worse.

In those two rooms, some children were held together with adults in severely overcrowded conditions and many detainees were forced to sleep on the concrete floor. Former detainees held in the room for “delinquents” estimated that over 1,000 people were held together. One person interviewed said it was not possible to see the floor at night when the detainees attempted to lay down to sleep on the concrete floor.

Most former detainees said they were given food once a day, in insufficient quantities and with poor nutritional value. Food is particularly insufficient for young children and babies, who regularly get sick. One woman said she was released after her baby got so ill he had blood in his stool, while another said her baby had to be transferred directly to a hospital due to malnutrition.

Detainees in the rooms for women and “delinquents” had irregular access to drinking water, sometimes only once a day. “Sometimes we go an entire day without drinking water, and then they give a tiny amount that we all have to share,” said one interviewee who was held at Gikondo for almost all of April.

Sanitation and hygiene conditions are very poor, and many interviewees reported being allowed to wash at most once a week. One former detainee said: “When it’s time to wash, they take a 20-liter basin and around 20 to 30 people wash at the same time.” Former detainees said they were rarely given soap. The mother of a 3-year-old said: “We only washed once a day with filthy water that had worms in it, mostly without soap … we didn’t change our clothes.”

Three interviewees said that during their time at Gikondo, they saw or heard of detainees who had died due to the poor conditions and lack of appropriate medical care. “In the two weeks I spent [at Gikondo] there were three nights where we couldn’t sleep because there were too many people in the room,” said a 40-year-old street vendor detained at the transit center in April. “Two people died because of this treatment and illnesses…. They were ill and had diarrhea and skin rashes. They were refused permission to see a doctor, and one morning they were found dead. I don’t know what caused their death or what their names are.”

Human Rights Watch requested information on these allegations from the Justice Ministry and the National Rehabilitation Service but received no response and was not able to independently verify them.

Lack of Government Response; Criticism by Regional and International Entities

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which reviewed Rwanda’s record on January 27 and 28, 2020, said it was concerned that the reference to “deviant behaviors” in Rwanda’s legislation was leading to “the deprivation of liberty of children in need of protection.” The committee said the abusive detention should end and that the government should change the law.

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

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

On December 4, 2020, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights held that states’ laws enabling the detention of people who, often because of poverty, are forced to live on the street, violate human rights law. The opinion issued in response to a request by the Pan African Lawyers Union, upheld the rights of people deemed “vagrants” by the state. The opinion concluded that laws permitting the forcible removal or warrantless arrest of a person declared to be a “vagrant,” violate the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights instruments.

On February 6, 2020, December 14, 2020, and August 23, 2021, Human Rights Watch wrote letters to then-Justice Minister Busingye following up on these statements, requesting access to Gikondo and other transit centers in Rwanda, and asking about steps taken by the Rwanda authorities to remedy the abusive legal framework governing its National Rehabilitation Service. He has not responded.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 27, 2021, 4:01 am
Click to expand Image “I Am Samuel” documentary, 2020

I have never met Samuel, the gay Kenyan protagonist of the acclaimed documentary “I Am Samuel.” But I feel as if I know him. Not only does filmmaker Peter Murimi’s quiet, steady, honest portrayal of Samuel’s daily life create a sense of intimacy and familiarity, but Samuel is the kind of person you know.

Because in spite of laws criminalizing their relationships, discrimination, and the threat of violence, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Kenya are ordinary people living ordinary lives. They work as construction workers, like Samuel; as hawkers (street vendors), nurses, accountants, and lawyers. If they live in Nairobi, like Samuel, they visit their families in “shags” (Nairobian slang for rural places of origin), and find both commonality and difference with rural relatives, who struggle to understand aspects of their urbanized lives. If they find love, a community of friends and often family members celebrates and supports them. Life isn’t easy when your government officially designates you a second-class citizen, but daily routines, challenges, and small joys remain, all of which are documented as part of Samuel’s life in Murimi’s film.

On September 23, Kenya’s Film Censorship Board (KFCB) slapped a ban on “I Am Samuel,” claiming the film contravenes Kenyan values. Which values? During my years living in Kenya, the values I saw in action every day included care and kindness, tolerance, and openness to difference. Kenya is diverse in every way: geographically, ethnically, religiously, and, yes, in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. For over a decade, LGBT people have publicly staked out their place within Kenya’s vibrant social fabric, challenging discrimination and claiming their rights.

KFCB may want to silence them with flimsy claims that reduce Samuel and his partner Alex’s rich relationship to a “same sex marriage agenda.” It will not succeed; censorship rarely does. Like the lesbian-themed film “Rafiki,” banned by KFCB in 2018, Samuel's story will be seen by Kenyans who will make up their own minds. In trying to force on the blinders to deny LGBT people’s existence and rights, KFCB is on the wrong side of history.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 27, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image In Guinea’s capital, Conakry, family members cry after identifying the body of a relative killed on September 28, 2009, when security forces fired on opposition supporters as they marched to and later held a rally in the September 28 Stadium. The body of their relative was one of 57 dead displayed at the Grand Fayçal Mosque on October 2, 2009. © 2009 Reuters

(Conakry) – The trial of suspects in the massacre of more than 150 people and the rape of dozens of women in a Guinea stadium on September 28, 2009, should begin as soon as possible, six human rights groups said today. Twelve years later, victims and their families should not have to wait any longer for justice to finally be delivered.

As Guinea embarks on a political transition process after the September 5, 2021 coup, the opening of this trial would send a strong signal that the authorities are willing to put respect for human rights and the fight against impunity at the center of their priorities.

The groups are the Association of Victims, Relatives and Friends of September 28, 2009 (AVIPA), Equal Rights for All (MDT), the Guinean Human and Citizen Rights Organization (OGDH), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

Although 12 years have gone by, the need for justice remains as strong as ever for the survivors of the massacre and victims’ families. Just one year ago, the six groups had denounced the delays and time wasted in organizing the trial. The wait has become unbearable for the survivors and victims’ families, the groups said, given that the investigation phase concluded in late 2017. The Guinean government has promised several times to begin the trial as soon as possible, and no later than June 2020. The organizations remain concerned by an evident lack of will to complete preparations for this trial in Guinea.

In recent months, the steering committee overseeing the preparations for the trial, made up of government officials and international partners, had resumed its work and adopted a road map. Construction had progressed at Conakry’s Court of Appeal, where the trial is to take place, and a training session for judges was planned by the French government. However, despite these efforts, no trial date has yet been set.

“Given the deteriorating health of the survivors, we, together with the Association of Victims, Relatives and Friends of September 28, 2009, are calling for this year to be the last commemoration before justice is done,” said Aissatou Diallo, a survivor of the September 28 events. “It is urgent for the trial to be held and reparations awarded before all the victims die.”

The investigation by Guinean judges began in February 2010. More than 13 suspects were charged, 11 of whom were sent for trial. Among them is Moussa Dadis Camara, the former leader of the National Council for Democracy and Development junta that ruled Guinea in September 2009, who is living in exile in Burkina Faso. Some of the suspects who have been charged held influential positions until the recent coup, including Moussa Tiegboro Camara, who was in charge of fighting drug trafficking and organized crime.

The organizations are closely following Guinea’s period of political transition after the National Committee for Reconciliation and Development (Comité national du rassemblement et du développement, CNRD) took power on September 5, and reiterated their call for the respect of human rights and fundamental liberties of all Guineans. As the CNRD leader, Mamady Doumbouya, stated that “justice will be the compass guiding every Guinean citizen,” the fight against impunity should to be at the heart of the authorities’ actions, the groups said.

“It is more than urgent for Guinea to put an end to the cycle of impunity that has deeply marked the country’s history for more than 60 years,” the groups said. “We remind the authorities that international law requires states to provide effective remedies to victims of human rights violations and that any lack of justice or the adoption of an amnesty for serious crimes is incompatible with these requirements.”

“It is also essential for the new authorities to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders and activists who have suffered numerous violations of their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly for years,” the groups said. “The new authorities should make justice a prerequisite of their actions.”

The International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary examination of the situation in Guinea in October 2009. Designed as a court of last resort for the most serious crimes, the ICC steps in when national courts are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute such cases. In its latest report, the ICC had expressed its disappointment that “the trial has not yet started and no timeline or action plan for the opening of the trial has been communicated by the Government of Guinea.” The ICC had indicated that “the Guinean authorities must demonstrate, in the coming months, their will and ability to combat impunity and to prevent renewed cycles of violence.”

Guinea’s partners, particularly the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the European Union, the ICC, and the United Nations should pay increased attention to the current situation in the country and strengthen their actions and support, on the one hand, for the September 28 trial to be organized as soon as possible, and on the other, for the new authorities in Guinea to respect human rights.

Background

Shortly before noon on September 28, 2009, several hundred members of Guinea’s security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of people who had gathered peacefully at the 28 September stadium in Conakry for a march against Dadis Camara’s intention to run for president. The security forces also individually or gang raped more than 100 women and sexually assaulted some of them with objects such as batons or bayonets, during or soon after the events. The security forces killed more than 150 people and wounded hundreds of others.

The security forces then organized a cover-up operation, sealing off all the entrances to the stadium and morgues and removing the bodies to bury them in mass graves. Many of the graves have yet to be identified.

After the investigation was completed, in April 2018, the then-justice minister, Cheick Sako, set up a steering committee to organize the trial. It set Conakry’s Court of Appeal as the location.

In January 2020 justice minister Mohammed Lamine Fofana announced to the United Nations his government’s “unequivocal” support for opening the trial. Despite his announcement that proceedings would begin in June, following completion of construction on the courtroom facility, the trial did not move forward during this past year.

In June Mory Doumbouya was appointed justice minister. Minister Doumbouya said that he supported the trial, but that the judiciary was responsible for organizing it.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 27, 2021, 12:40 am
Click to expand Image Afghan women in their bedroom at a women's shelter in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 20, 2017. © 2017 REBECCA CONWAY/AFP via Getty Images

“My parents warned me they will kill me if I ever leave this shelter,” Najla, a woman of about 30, told me. “The worst thing is that I don’t have anyone to support me.” She has been in a shelter in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat for several years, ever since she went to the police to report her husband, who had repeatedly beaten her. When I spoke with her, her husband was being prosecuted but the court had not yet reached a verdict.

The case of Najla, a pseudonym, is similar to those of many women and girls I spoke with who had tried to pursue justice in cases of family violence. Their only legal tool was Afghanistan’s Elimination of Violence Against Women law, one of the most important developments for women in Afghanistan in the post-2001 era. Adopted in 2009, the law provides women and girls with legal protection from domestic violence, and established services for survivors of violence, including access to free health care, legal aid, and shelters.

For many women fleeing violence, shelters – which were entirely funded by foreign donors –were the only refuge. Filing a complaint about family violence or sexual assault has never been easy, but with access to these shelters some women were able to escape harmful environments and start new lives. Many are dealing with anxiety and other effects of the years of abuse they experienced, for which there are few resources to help them.  

Maryam, a pseudonym, who was 17 when I interviewed her at a shelter in the city of Bamiyan, had been raped and was being pressured by her family to marry the perpetrator. She refused to do so, and instead took refuge in the shelter to protect herself from her own relatives. 

With the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, the future for Maryam, Najla, and other women and girls like them is bleak. The prosecutors, judges, and lawyers who had tried to provide women with a measure of justice are in hiding themselves, fearing reprisals by the Taliban. And with shelters closing, those who called them home have no choice but to return to their abusive families. Afghanistan’s hard-won progress on women’s rights is abruptly disappearing before their eyes.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 24, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Myanmar residents in Japan stage a protest rally in Tokyo on August 1, 2021.  © 2021 Kyodo/AP Images

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will hold its party presidential election on September 29. The winner will almost certainly become Japan's next prime minister.

Four candidates – two women and two men – are running: the former foreign affairs and defense minister, Taro Kono; the former foreign minister, Fumio Kishida; the former communications minister, Sanae Takaichi; and the former internal affairs and communications minister, Seiko Noda.

Japan has long been one of Asia’s rights-respecting democracies. But despite widespread abuses and suffering in the region, successive governments have done little to promote respect for human rights or democracy in its foreign policy. Whether it’s severely oppressed Uyghurs or Tibetans in China, people in Myanmar standing up against the military junta, or Cambodians taking great risks for free and fair elections, Japanese leaders almost invariably side with those in power over the population.

Japan should reverse course.

In recent years, many countries, including in the European Union, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have enacted so-called global Magnitsky-style laws, which impose sanctions on human rights violators abroad with visa bans and asset freezes.

Japan is the only country among the Group of Seven (G7) economic powers that does not have such a law. But in an encouraging sign, elected officials in Japan are now discussing it. In May, the Nonpartisan Parliamentary Association for Reconsidering Human Rights Diplomacy issued  a draft bill outline, which would allow for the freezing of assets and the denial of entry into Japan of serious violators of international human rights law. Also in May, the LDP’s foreign policy committee’s human rights diplomacy team recommended that outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga start discussing the introduction of such a law.

Ahead of the LDP elections, Human Rights Watch and other organizations asked all four candidates to commit to introducing such a law if they became LDP president.            

Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi, and Seiko Noda said they would, while Taro Kono would not commit one way or the other.

Japan’s next prime minister, the LDP, and all Japanese political parties should endorse the introduction of a global Magnitsky-style law so that Japan can promote greater respect for human rights around the globe.

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Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 24, 2021, 1:00 am
Click to expand Image © Human Rights Watch

On Friday, September 24, young climate activists from around the world will be marching once again to call on governments to cut carbon emissions and tackle the climate crisis. Millions marched in 2019, but this will be the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic that a large global strike appears possible again in several countries. Fridays for Future has registered over 1,300 climate strikes for that day. While the majority are planned in Europe, marches are also happening in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The young protesters say loud and clear that climate action is more urgent than ever; something recently confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and illustrated by this year’s forest fires, heat, floods, and other extreme weather events linked to a warming planet. The youth climate activists call upon today’s leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 C° by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Greta Thunberg will join the march in Berlin, where the climate strike takes place just two days before national elections. The German elections will determine the country’s approach to the climate crisis at a critical moment. Germany is still the European Union’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, contributing to the climate crisis which is causing ever-increasing damage to the protection of human rights around the globe. Germany’s current efforts to reduce emissions are insufficient to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, necessary to limit the most catastrophic climate outcomes. Thunberg says she is joining in Berlin “because a lot is at stake in Germany,” emphasizing that she is not supporting a particular political party.

The climate crisis is a children’s rights crisis. All over the world, children face death, illness, hunger, displacement, and other serious impacts from forest fires, droughts, storms, floods, and rising temperatures due to inadequate government action on the climate crisis. Children’s lives, and those of future generations, are at stake. The young protesters marching this week know this. Leaders in Germany and around the world should listen carefully.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2021, 1:43 pm
Click to expand Image A sign language interpreter records sign language lessons that are broadcast on public television, at an elementary school in Athens, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.  © 2020 Thanassis Stavrakis/AP Images

Imagine that during a national emergency, you and your loved ones are at risk. The government is announcing information that could have a profound impact on your safety, but you don’t have access to it because it hasn’t been made available to you.

This is the situation many deaf people have found themselves in during the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, when important information was broadcast on TV, often it was not made available in sign language. And safety measures such as wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing made communication more complicated. As schools around the world closed due to the pandemic, remote learning alternatives often failed to meet the needs of children who use sign language, leaving them isolated and excluded from schooling for extended periods of time.

But even without an ongoing crisis, Human Rights Watch research has found that people who are deaf and hard of hearing face numerous barriers to accessing information and basic services. In Russia, Iran, Zambia, and other countries, lack of sign language interpreters and information in accessible formats prevent deaf people from accessing healthcare. “Whenever I go to a hospital without someone to interpret for me, they write on a piece of paper that I should come back and bring someone with me,” said a woman with a hearing disability in Gaza. “This experience made me feel less of a person.”

Our research in China, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal found that deaf children face barriers in accessing education in sign language, while in many other countries, including India and Peru, communication barriers hinder access to public services.

"Sign language should be respected just as any other language. It’s our fundamental right and it enables us to communicate and be equal members of our communities," said Jenny Nilsson, member of Human Rights Watch Disability Rights Advisory Committee and Ombudsman for children with disabilities in Sweden.

Today we celebrate the International Day of Sign Languages under the theme “We Sign For Human Rights.” As governments continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and plan to “build back better,” they should ensure the human rights of people who are deaf and hard of hearing are respected and they are equally and meaningfully included in society.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2021, 5:01 am
Click to expand Image A Taliban member watches as women demonstrate for human rights in Herat, Afghanistan, September 2, 2021.  © 2021 AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – The Taliban in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat are committing widespread and serious human rights violations against women and girls, Human Rights Watch and the San Jose State University (SJSU) Human Rights Institute said today. Since taking over the city on August 12, 2021, the Taliban have instilled fear among women and girls by searching out high-profile women; denying women freedom of movement outside their homes; imposing compulsory dress codes; severely curtailing access to employment and education; and restricting the right to peaceful assembly.  

Women in Herat told the two organizations that their lives had been completely upended the day the Taliban took control of the city. The women had been employed outside their homes or were students and played active and often leadership roles in their community. They said that immediately after the Taliban’s arrival, they found themselves trapped indoors, afraid to leave their house without a male family member or because of dress restrictions, with their access to education and employment fundamentally changed or ended entirely. They said they faced economic anxieties due to lost income and their inability to work. They also faced distress and other mental health consequences as they contemplated an abrupt end to the dreams they had worked toward for many years.

“For the women in Herat we interviewed, life as they knew it had vanished overnight, and they were left hiding indoors, waiting in fear to see whether the Taliban would come for them,” said Halima Kazem-Stojanovic, a core faculty member of SJSU’s Human Rights Institute and a scholar on Afghanistan. “For these women, the best-case scenario is to be unharmed but forced to live a drastically diminished existence. The worst-case scenario is to be arrested or attacked for their past achievements or for their fight to keep their hard-earned rights.”

Human Rights Watch and the SJSU Human Rights Institute conducted in-depth interviews by telephone in Dari with seven women in Herat, including activists, educators, and university students, about their experiences since the Taliban took over the city. The women all spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear for their safety.

Women in Herat were among the first to organize protests in defense of women’s rights after the Taliban gained control of Kabul and most of the country. Organizers and protesters said they were not engaging in anti-Taliban protests or supporting the former government but were calling for the Taliban to respect their rights: to live without fear of reprisal against them and their family members; to be able to continue going to their jobs without requiring a mahram (male family member as a chaperone); and to have girls above grade six return to school.

Within days of the Taliban takeover of Herat, a group of women asked to meet with local Taliban leaders to discuss their rights, and several days later they were able to meet with a Taliban representative. However, the official was inflexible: he told the women to stop insisting on their rights and that if they supported the Taliban, they would be rewarded with full amnesty for their past activities and maybe even get positions in the new government.

Some of the women felt they had no choice but to protest and organized two demonstrations. About 60 to 80 women attended the first one, on September 2, and the Taliban did not intervene. But the Taliban’s response to the second protest, on September 7, was violent and abusive. Taliban fighters lashed protesters and fired weapons indiscriminately to disperse the crowd, killing two men and wounding at least eight more. The Taliban subsequently banned protests that did not have prior approval from the Justice Ministry in Kabul, ordering organizers to include information about the purpose of any protests and slogans to be used in any requests to the ministry.

“Afghan women have the right to express their views on any matter, especially when their most basic rights – to study, work, and even leave their own homes – are in jeopardy,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Taliban compound the abuses they are committing against women when they also deny them their right to speak out.”

The women interviewed expressed particular concern that the Taliban would again enforce the policy of requiring them to have a mahram with them whenever they left their home, as the Taliban did when they were previously in power, from 1996 to 2001. This requirement barred women from most public life, cut them off from education, employment, and social life, and made getting health care difficult. It also and made them completely dependent on male family members, blocking them from escaping if they experienced abuse at home.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, said in an interview in Kabul on September 7 that being accompanied by a mahram would only be required for travels longer than three days, not for daily activities such as attending work, school, shopping, medical appointments, and other needs. But Taliban officials in Herat have not been consistent in carrying out the policy. Some of the women interviewed said that Taliban fighters had stopped them on the streets, at universities, and other public places, and barred them from going about their business if they were not accompanied by a mahram.  

“The experience of women in Herat raises grave concerns about the extent to which the Taliban leadership in Kabul is able or willing to control the actions of their members across the country on human rights, including women’s rights,” Kazem-Stojanovic said. “The Taliban leadership should ensure that their statements upholding rights are respected in practice in all Afghan provinces. Claims by Taliban leaders to respect women’s rights will be meaningless if women and girls have to live in constant fear of abuse by the Taliban on their street.”

For detailed accounts by the women interviewed, please see below.

Panic and a Rush to Hide

Afghan women interviewed described the Taliban takeover of Herat as a shocking surprise. “Every day we were dressing the way we dressed in the past, and we were getting ready to go to work, to our job and duties,” said a university professor. “And we were hearing reports of Taliban capturing districts, but it was impossible for us to believe that [the] Taliban could defeat [the] government.”

The women said that based on past experiences of living under Taliban rule or hearing about life under the Taliban from others, they were fearful as the Taliban gained control of the city. “Seeing the Taliban is horrifying,” a school director said. “My body shakes just seeing them.”

“The first days, I couldn’t talk, couldn’t show any emotion,” the university professor said. “Twenty years ran through my memory. I worried so much. I had to go to a psychologist. I had no hope and was depressed.” Several women said they were anxious about the disappearance of the police as the Taliban rolled into the city and feared that crime and violence would escalate. Reports that the Taliban had released the city’s prisoners heightened their fears.

The women said that the Taliban who took charge of the city included people they knew and who also knew them. A professor discovered that one of her students was the sibling of a Taliban member. A student described a male classmate taunting women in the class chat group with his delight over the Taliban’s triumph.

A teacher said she fled from fighting in her area to what she thought would be the safety of her in-laws’ home, only to find her brothers-in-law jubilant over the Taliban’s triumph. “I thought they were friends, but they [were like the] Taliban,” she said, adding that they insisted that her 10-year-old daughter had to wear a long veil. “My brothers-in-law turned against me,” she said. “They told me to wear a burqa. …They were telling me, ‘You made a lot of efforts for 20 years, and what is that? Your work was useless, baseless, and Sharia [Islamic law] is victorious.’ Things like that.”

Others worried that acquaintances might report them to the Taliban. “I fear people might tell the Taliban about me regarding complaints I have made over the years about men and people who have harassed my students,” the school director said.

Interviewees described a frantic scramble to conceal evidence of their prior lives and activities that might lead to reprisals against them and others, should it fall into the hands of the Taliban. Taliban forces have in the past committed reprisals against people seeking to educate girls. “I had to run to my school and hide everything,” the school director said. “Photos, awards, certificates on the halls of the school. Prizes we had won. I called co-workers to come help collect it all, put them in boxes, and put them away.”

Women feared not only for themselves, but also that the Taliban might target their family members in retaliation for their women’s work and activism. The Taliban have a history of abusing family members of people they seek to punish.

Taliban Searches for High-Profile Women

The women interviewed said that they had heard reports that the Taliban had searched for at least some women’s rights activists and high-profile women in Herat, and one of the women had seen her own name on a Taliban flyer. One woman said that elders in her neighborhood told her that the Taliban had come to them with a list of 25 high-profile women, including her, and had asked them for help finding those women. The elders said they protected her by saying they did not know her. “Those 25 were with big organizations, government offices, and were reporters, civil society activists, and those who spoke against the Taliban in the media or criticized the Taliban – they said all were listed there.” She named several high-ranking female members of the former provincial government whom she said were also reportedly listed.

A professor active in women’s rights said: “Now when I go out, I have the veil on. I cover my whole body and I try to be very organized not to be recognized because I heard and I see that the Taliban are in a clash with those women and girls who were previously active and civil society activists, and they do not like those women and girls. They consider those women and girls to be not Muslim and things like that.”

Barriers to Flight

The frantic rush by many Afghans to Kabul’s airport after the Taliban takeover included women’s rights activists and high-profile women who feared being targeted. In Herat, the Taliban takeover happened so swiftly and unexpectedly that there was almost no chance to flee, as the airport closed abruptly. Some women interviewed said that they feel they have no choice but to flee the country but are unsure of when and how that will be possible, and whether they will be able to remain safe until they can escape.

One woman was able to flee the city by bus but said that she was able to do so only because she was accompanied by a mahram. The bus driver was not allowing women onto the bus without a male relative for fear that the Taliban would punish him. She described feeling terrified as they passed through checkpoints in various provinces.

“I want to leave Afghanistan; my life is not the same,” a woman running a school said, but she did not know how this would be possible. “All the borders are closed. It is not easy to get into Iran now, and there are no flights out of Kabul.”

Others wrestled with whether to stay or go. “I have never been out of the country,” a professor said. “And I really do not want to leave the country. But you know, if the situation stays like this, and that results in threats to my family and myself, then I'll have no other choice than leaving the country.”

Freedom of Movement

Overnight, women in Herat found themselves virtual prisoners in their own homes. “I used to be out from 8 a.m. until late afternoon for work, teaching, and social activism reasons,” one woman said. “I was one of the courageous ones. Now I haven’t been out except for taking my mom to the hospital and for that, I had to go with my brother.”

A university student who had left her home only twice since the Taliban takeover said, “It's not ordinary; you have no studies, no lessons, nothing. Just looking at the walls. And this is like a prison, and it did cause depression for us and most of the women and girls that I speak with.”

A homemaker living outside Herat city said she used to travel alone by bus into the city, but can no longer do so without a mahram and a burqa, so she does not go: “We used to go to friends' houses, to the store, to the park, the river, and to other recreational places…. We can't even leave the house now. I used to go with my girls, now I can't…. In the past, we used to leave the main door to our compound open but now we lock it.”

Women are confined to their homes in part because of their fears, but those who have ventured out often find that their fears are justified as they deal with harassment and abuse from Taliban members. Although a Taliban spokesperson in Kabul said a mahram was not required for daily activities, some Taliban members on the streets of Herat are taking a different view.

A professor described the gap that she sees between Taliban statements and the reality: “There is a big difference between the words and action of the Taliban: what they say in Dubai and Qatar, and what they do, actually, in Herat.… I don't think what the leaders of the Taliban are saying in the media – international media – reflects exactly the things that you're seeing in practice and how they behave with people.”

“A neighbor friend went to the store with my cousin,” a student said. “The Taliban stopped them and said, ‘Call your mahram.’ They had to wait in a street for an hour for the girl’s fiancé to come and then had to lie about him being the other girl’s brother.… The Taliban allowed them to leave and told them not to come out without a mahram.” Another woman described her colleague going to a government office to try to get a passport and being turned away because she was not escorted by a male family member. A student said that the Taliban rules give even boys power over the women in their families: “I have a 16-year-old brother. He can be my mahram under the Taliban rules. Even a 5 or 6-year-old boy can be a mahram to his mother or sister.”

Even if the Taliban only occasionally stopped women who went out without a mahram, women and girls still feel insecure and are unable to leave their homes, including to commute to school or work, cutting them off from daily activities. The professor said:

I was a brave woman, and I didn't think I would be like this. I think I lost my morale and courage now, and I haven't been out of the house or home [by myself] even once since the return of the Taliban.… I'm unmarried and my brother is out of the house, and if I need anything – medicine, food, and other items that are needed for the house – what should I do? How can I provide those things for myself?

She believed she would have no choice but to quit her job as her brother would not be able to escort her to and from work each day.

Two unmarried women said they now felt they had to consider getting married out of fear that they will not be able to work or move around the city anymore without a mahram. “I don’t want to get married,” a woman in her early 30s said. “I have more goals to accomplish, I don’t want to be forced into a marriage. The life I imagined isn’t going to happen.”

Another woman considering marriage said:

We are currently looking at a situation where we don't have freedom, we don't have food, we don't have independence.… I have to find a scenario for my life. And the traditional scenario in Afghanistan is this [getting married]. I decided wisely not to get married and to work for women and the long-term goals that I have, so there is equality in the society. And now? What should I do now?


Compulsory Dress Codes

Another factor keeping women from leaving their homes is the fear of Taliban harassment over their clothing, and lack of clarity regarding the Taliban’s rules regarding women’s dress. When the Taliban gained control of the city, women were suddenly afraid to go out wearing less than the full covering the Taliban had demanded when in power 20 years ago. Some women said they rushed to buy a burqa from the bazaar because they had never owned or worn one before.

Taliban leaders in Kabul have not provided clear guidance on what women should wear, aside from general statements about the need for women to observe hijab and some specific, and very restrictive, guidance for women participating in higher education. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters in Herat are imposing their own rules, which are often very restrictive.

A teacher said that an armed Taliban member stopped her on the street and told her to wear a face covering and to cover her hands. Her husband responded apologetically to the fighter, saying she would obey. The teacher said she wanted to object but her husband did not let her speak: “My husband said, ‘If you spoke there the Taliban would have beaten me and you, and nobody would say anything. So it’s better that you were silent.’ So, in that way I didn’t say anything.”

A professor said someone she knew was stopped on the street for wearing shoes that exposed her bare feet. “The Taliban member fired some bullets and shots so close to her feet and warned her that she should not come out like that or dress like that in the future,” she said. “And that incident really shocked the whole of Herat, and it gave a lesson to all the women of Herat that a woman should wear socks and that women should wear those long veils … and should cover the whole body.” Men also faced restrictions, being told by the Taliban that they must only wear traditional – not Western – clothing.

Access to Employment

Barriers to women’s freedom of movement and fears of Taliban abuses have directly affected women’s ability to work. Fear of armed Taliban members in the streets and that they will enter workplaces has left many women in Herat scared of going back to work, even after primary schools and businesses reopened on September 4. “I have only gone to work four days in the past month because I am afraid the Taliban will come looking for me at my job because I was part of the protests,” said a school employee.

There are also new direct restrictions on women being permitted to work. The Taliban have said that some women are permitted to resume their jobs, especially if they work in health and education. However, the women interviewed said that many female teachers who taught boys after sixth or seventh grade have been dismissed from their jobs. The Taliban have imposed new restrictions related to gender segregation, limited roles for women, and made changes in permissible women’s dress that limit women’s ability to fully participate at work and violate their right to free expression.

One woman visiting her university to get a copy of her diploma found that classes were suspended but offices were open. “They have separated the offices for men and women, and there is a curtain in the corridor,” she said. “On one side, there are women and on the other side the men.… There were three women, all of them having [surgical] face masks [to prevent Covid-19].” A school employee said, “We may be able to work but our dreams are zero now. We can’t raise our voices anymore.”

Several women said that their immediate fear was being unable to work. Without employment, their families lose crucial income needed to survive at a time when the United Nations Development Program warns that 97 percent of Afghans could be below the poverty line by mid-2022. “Until our women can go back to our work, we won’t support the Taliban regime,” an activist said. Desperation about being able to work was the main factor prompting the protests women organized in Herat on September 2 and 7.

Women have also been affected by the many men who have lost their jobs or cannot find work. “There is no work,” the homemaker said. “All the jobs are closed, especially for illiterate workers … There is no fighting. But there is fear, men and women are fearful.”

Access to Education

Secondary schools in Herat and the rest of the country have remained closed for girls, although they reopened for boys on September 18. “Still no girls and boys past sixth grade [the last grade in primary school] are going to school.” a professor said before boys’ schools reopened. “They want to paralyze society.”

Even before the Taliban issued new rules, the Taliban and school officials had already informed women who taught older boys that they no longer have jobs. “I was a teacher at a boys’ school for grade nine,” one teacher said. “I’m not allowed in my school anymore.” She said the provincial education director explained the new rules: no women may teach boys above grade six or seven, and all staff of the school have to be the same gender as the students. “Even the doorkeeper of the school is not allowed to enter a girls’ school if it is a man, or, if it is a woman, she cannot enter a boys’ school,” she said. She said the majority of the female teachers at her school had been dismissed because of this new rule.

Women teaching at universities had been told that they may only teach women, and several of those interviewed raised concerns that the Taliban will ban women from studying some subjects, such as law.

Women’s fear of going to work or inability to travel without a mahram has also disrupted education for students of female teachers. “I haven’t been to the university since [the Taliban takeover],” a professor said, adding that many of her students call her. “When they speak with me, they are not in a good condition. They are distraught, crying, and things like that. They're saying that they belong to a generation that is so unlucky and living in darkness and uncertainty. And I don't have any answer to the kinds of questions they raise, really.”

Efforts to Negotiate With the Taliban

As Taliban forces entered Herat, networks of women who had worked together for years advocating women’s rights quickly dispersed. One woman cried as she described a chat group she belongs to with other activists: “After the return of the Taliban, everybody was silent. And they were leaving the group's virtual chats…. I was telling them, ‘Don't leave! You are leaders, you are fighters, you should not submit so easily!’ But they deactivated their Facebook pages, and they removed all the pictures from their profile pictures. So suddenly silence conquered everywhere.”

A woman living outside the city said: “I was in our village women's shura [council] and we had programs and projects. We had a budget as well. We were active right until we found out that the Taliban were coming. The women know the Taliban will not agree with these activities.”

Within days, however, some women began contacting each other searching for solutions. “A group of women went to the provincial headquarters to meet with the Taliban representatives,” an activist said. “They wanted to demand their rights back.”

The women first sought a meeting two days after the Taliban took over the city. They were initially refused but were granted a meeting two days later with a lone Taliban official. He seemed deeply uncomfortable, telling them it was a sin for him to hear a woman’s voice or meet with women. “We had questions like, when can we go back to our offices? And when would the universities open?” an activist said.

Women leaders were eventually able to have some discussions with two Taliban officials, but without significant concessions or assurances on the issues the women were concerned about: their freedom of movement, especially whether they would need to have a mahram with them at all times; whether they would be able to work, in what occupations, and how soon; and whether girls and women would be able to continue their education, at all levels and in all disciplines.

The response from the officials was to lecture them that they should leave their homes only when absolutely necessary and with a male family member. For unmarried women who did not have a male family member, they suggested the solution was to marry. Employment for women, the women were told, would be permitted only in areas in which the Taliban felt it was necessary for women to do jobs, presumably some education and healthcare roles working with girls and women. The officials emphasized that the Taliban had made a concession by allowing girls even primary education and said girls could have basic education by learning to read and write, and that would suffice. They urged the women to support the Taliban and warned of harsh action if they opposed the Taliban or protested. 

Protest and a Violent Response

After the meetings with the Taliban officials, the activists felt they had no choice but to protest. One woman said, “The group of women I was with today cried and said, ‘Why are we left in this position after 20 years and millions of dollars spent on women’s projects and programs?’”

They said they had enormous fears about how the Taliban would respond. One messaged an author of this report the night before the first protest, saying the women felt they could not live under these conditions anymore. She said she was writing to say goodbye in case something happened, and she was killed the next day.

Women participating in the first demonstration, on September 2, did not face abuse and the protest ended peacefully. But the Taliban responded to the second demonstration, on September 7, with violence. Taliban fighters lashed protesters with whips and fired indiscriminately to disperse the crowd, killing two men and wounding at least eight bystanders and participants. Taliban attacks on protests by women’s rights activists in other cities escalated in the following days, with beatings directed at protesters and journalists covering the protests and shooting in the air. On September 8 the Taliban banned protests conducted without prior approval from the Justice Ministry.

Recommendations

The Taliban should fully respect all women’s rights and ensure full gender equality in accordance with Afghanistan’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and other human rights treaties to which Afghanistan is a party.

As urgent interim steps, Taliban leaders in Herat should:

Clarify that women and girls are free to leave their homes at any time, alone or with others, and dress as they choose, with no need to be accompanied by a mahram; Appropriately discipline Taliban members and supporters who harass and intimidate women and girls, and establish a meaningful system for women and girls to report abuses; Reopen government secondary schools and universities to women and girls, and encourage and facilitate the reopening of private educational institutions for girls and women; Permit all women to participate in any form of employment.
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2021, 4:30 am
Click to expand Image Activists outside Pfizer headquarters call on US President Joe Biden to support the TRIPS Waiver, New York City, April 22, 2021.  © 2021 Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/AP Images

Leaders from the “Quad” countries – the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – will hold their first in-person summit in Washington, DC, on September 24, amid a global Covid-19 vaccine shortage crisis and deeply inequitable access to vaccines. Three-quarters of the more than five billion vaccine doses administered worldwide have gone to just ten countries, according to the World Health Organization. While some rich governments have begun distributing third “booster” shots, only 2 percent of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated.

Ahead of the summit, Human Rights Watch, along with Japanese nongovernmental organizations, called on Quad leaders to publicly and vocally support the TRIPS waiver, a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive global trade and intellectual property rules. In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed this TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and related products until widespread vaccination is in place globally. The waiver would help enable quicker and fairer access for low-income countries.

More than 100 governments, including the US and Australia, support the TRIPS waiver. Japan's minister of foreign affairs, Toshimitsu Mogi, announced that Japan would not oppose the waiver, but did not endorse it.

However, a handful of high-income countries, especially Germany, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland, have stalled the proposal. Pharmaceutical companies have not shied away from lobbying these governments about their own opposition to the waiver. These wealthy governments are reducing life-saving health care to a tradeable commodity and using their power at the WTO to make the right to health subservient to the interests of the pharmaceutical industry and trade.

Quad leaders should stand up and issue a joint public statement endorsing the TRIPS waiver at this week’s summit, and address the deep inequities in access to health products that can save lives. With new variants emerging and some evidence that repeat vaccine boosters may be needed, the TRIPS waiver will enable governments around the world to be prepared for a long-term response to Covid-19.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2021, 1:52 am
Click to expand Image Commodifying Life-Saving Medical Products Undermines Global Health Response © Álex Cámara/NurPhoto via AP)

Leaders at a virtual Covid-19 summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2021, pledged to mobilize millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines and billions of dollars to “build back better,” but these promises failed to address issues central to meeting global need, Human Rights Watch said today.

By focusing more on redistributing existing supplies rather than on how to swiftly enable factories around the world to make more desperately needed Covid-19 vaccine and related products, governments at the summit missed an opportunity to take transformative action urgently needed to beat the pandemic and prepare for future threats.

“Dose sharing is helpful, but rich countries cannot donate their way out of this crisis as there simply aren’t enough shots to go around,” said Akshaya Kumar, crisis advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Without fixing the supply side of this problem, we’ll be stuck pushing this boulder up a hill only to watch it come crashing down once again.”

The US sought to rally support at the summit for a set of concrete targets that it developed alongside the Multilateral Leaders Taskforce on Covid-19. But it excluded technology transfer hubs, technology access pools, and sharing intellectual property from the list of actions it is promoting as needed to address the pandemic.

The Biden administration has promised to organize additional multilateral meetings, later this year and in early 2022, to follow up on implementation of the targets themselves. Follow up is important since, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 15 percent of the vaccine donations pledged to date have actually “materialized.” With the announcement at the summit that the US government would donate 500 million more vaccine doses to lower income countries, the Biden administration has pledged to donate 1.1 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by September 2022, with the bulk of those donations scheduled for next year. So far, the US government reports it has shipped 160 million vaccine doses abroad.

In his remarks at the summit, Biden spotlighted US financial support for vaccine manufacturing in India and South Africa, a theme that is included among the summit targets. A factsheet issued following the summit recalled the financial support already invested by the US International Development Finance Corporation in manufacturers in “Africa and India, which it stated would enable those facilities to produce up to 2 billion vaccine doses for developing countries in 2022.”

In June, the WHO and COVAX announced a COVID mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub, to be set up in South Africa. In 2020, the WHO created a Covid-19 Technology Access Pool. Both efforts, which seek to enable greater vaccine manufacturing globally, remain hobbled by lack of participation from wealthy governments and companies that hold the intellectual property needed to make Covid-19 vaccine and related products, Human Rights Watch said. However, the document laying out the global targets did not identify technology access pools or transfer hubs like these as key operational objectives to achieve this greater and more distributed manufacturing.

In the coming weeks, as they work to operationalize their commitments to the targets agreed at the summit, wealthy governments, especially the US, Germany, Australia, Japan, UK, and European Union should immediately boost funding for efforts to scale up global manufacturing and distribution of Covid-19 health products. Following the summit, the US and European Commission made public a statement to launch a “taskforce” on Covid-19 manufacturing and supply chains, which includes a commitment to coordinate initiatives to boost global production of vaccines and therapeutics. They should urgently pursue negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive some intellectual property rules, which are handcuffing potential producers from contributing to global efforts to increase supplies, Human Rights Watch said.

The WHO is calling for governments to mobilize to ensure that at least 40 percent of the world’s population is vaccinated by year end, with a goal of 10 percent by the end of September. More than 70 percent of the world’s high-income countries have reached the 40 percent target and almost 90 percent have reached the 10 percent target. In contrast, at the beginning of September, not a single low-income country had reached either target. According to the UN Development Program, high income countries have covered approximately 60 percent of their populations, while the world’s poorest countries have covered just 3 percent, a coverage gap of a factor of 20.  

COVAX is largely supplied by AstraZeneca, which in turn has relied on only one manufacturing partner in India, the Serum Institute. As India struggled with a huge surge in deaths and infections with the second wave of Covid-19, the Indian government halted all exports of vaccines to be able to meet the growing public health crisis in the country. Human Rights Watch and others have urged COVAX to enhance transparency and publish procurement contracts and prices. While COVAX has said it is “working with manufacturers committed to minimal profit pricing,” it has not yet published details about procurement pricing and profits in its agreements with vaccine developers and manufacturers. On September 20, India announced that it would resume exports of vaccines produced there in October, which Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, called an “important development in support of reaching the 40 percent vaccination target in all countries by the end of the year.” This does not displace the responsibility of other countries that have funded the research and development of vaccines to oversee more widespread licensing and manufacturing.

In May, the United States signaled that it would support negotiations on the text of a proposal to waive some intellectual property rights at the WTO’s TRIPS Council. But the European Commission, representing the European Union member states, Switzerland, and several other high-income governments have consistently stalled and blocked efforts to adopt the waiver. Negotiations resumed in Geneva on September 14 but have yet to progress to text-based negotiations.

At the Summit, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to their governments’ efforts to secure a TRIPS waiver, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mentioned the importance of resolving intellectual property issues at the WTO, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed her government’s support of the waiver, but President Biden did not mention the issue. A statement issued by the White House following the summit stated the “United States supports a waiver of intellectual property protections in the WTO TRIPS Agreement for COVID-19 vaccines in service of ending this pandemic.” The waiver proposal currently being advanced by India and South Africa would cover a variety of Covid-19 medical products, not just vaccines.

The General Assembly itself has been marked by wrangling around inequitable global access to Covid-19 vaccines, as New York City sought to mandate vaccination for all those in the main General Assembly Hall, which it treats as a convention center. In practice enforcement of the mandate was left to an “honor system.” The city of New York offered free Covid-19 tests and a single dose Covid-19 vaccine to all delegates through a mobile clinic outside the main General Assembly building.

“While world leaders and their delegations had a chance to benefit from the abundant supply of Covid-19 vaccines in the US, the summit organized by the Biden administration missed the opportunity to offer the same to their populations back home,” Kumar said. “Leaders should have used this moment to invest in developing a pandemic-resilient future for everyone.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2021, 10:30 pm
Click to expand Image Chinese-built Java 7 coal-fired power plant in Serang, Banten, Indonesia, October 2020. © 2020 RONALD SIAGIAN/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that the Chinese government would “not build new coal-fired power projects abroad” and would instead “step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy.” If implemented, this could mark the beginning of a shift by China to support clean energy and end coal plant construction in the Global South. It would be a major step forward for global efforts to address the climate crisis.

Coal-fired power projects are a major contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change and the air pollution that takes the lives of millions prematurely each year. China remains the world’s largest emitter. Many of the world’s largest economies have committed to phase out coal and embrace cleaner energy. Yet Beijing has given coal a lifeline by providing over US$115 billion in support for overseas coal between 2000 and 2017, mostly in the Global South. Significant progress in tackling the climate crisis is hard to imagine without Beijing moving away from coal.

But major questions remain. Will the policy apply to the many coal projects that Beijing is already supporting overseas? And which financial institutions and enterprises are included in this pronouncement given the dozens of Chinese companies involved in overseas coal?

The Chinese government’s support for domestic coal also continues to be a major problem. There are few signs that the government is moving away from coal domestically as it commissioned 76 percent of global coal plant starts in 2020. China’s 38.4 gigawatts (GW) of new coal plants is more than all of those retired globally in 2020. Chinese cities regularly have some of the most polluted air on Earth, which caused the premature deaths of 1.24 million people in China in 2017 alone.

President Xi wants to be seen as a climate leader and this announcement is a step in that direction. His strong statement aligns with other major emitters who are phasing out coal and could mark significant progress for China’s climate ambitions. But to be a genuine leader, Beijing needs to confront its own domestic coal problem by not building new coal plants and phasing out existing plants, and raise the bar for major emitters to increase their own ambitions ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasglow in November.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2021, 9:07 pm
Click to expand Image The Sundiata Keïta army base in Kati, Mali, May 25, 2021.  © 2021 Amadou Keita/Reuters

Dr. Kalilou Doumbia, a respected jurist and advisor to Mali’s top political figures, went missing while en route to a meeting on September 6 at the University of Bamako, where he lectures on legal and political studies. “He told me he was on his way, but when he didn’t show, we started calling people along the route he would’ve taken to work, to see if they’d seen anything suspicious,” a colleague told Human Rights Watch.  

The next day his family filed a missing person’s report, but two weeks later, they have received no official word regarding his whereabouts. Several individuals, including a United Nations official, told Human Rights Watch that, according to inside sources, Mali’s intelligence services had apprehended Doumbia and held him incommunicado for 10 days at an unauthorized detention facility in Sundiata Keïta military camp, in Bamako’s suburb of Kati.

“We heard he was being held in Kati camp, but no one dared ask after him,” a family member said. “We are terrified to approach that place.”

Inside sources informed them on September 17 that Doumbia may have been transferred to a gendarme camp in Bamako. He has not been brought before a judge or charged, as required by international human rights law.

Doumbia, 35, had been an advisor to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was deposed in 2020, and secretary general for the subsequent transitional president, Bah N’Daw, who was deposed in May 2021.

Doumbia’s arbitrary detention is the latest of several cases involving political figures. After the 2020 coup, military authorities detained several high level officials. In December, they detained five men, including a former prime minister and a journalist, for allegedly plotting to overthrow the transitional government; all were released in April for lack of evidence. The military placed deposed President Bah N’Daw and his prime minister under house arrest for three months starting in May. In July, a man accused of attempting to stab interim President Assimi Goïta died in custody under suspicious circumstances.

The authorities have an obligation to bring those arrested promptly before a judge and charge them with a credible offense.  Holding people such as Doumbia incommunicado could amount to enforced disappearance. If he hasn’t been charged, he should immediately be released.

The political turmoil in Mali over the past year, including two military coups, has undoubtedly undermined Malians’ trust in their government. An impartial and independent justice system is needed now more than ever.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2021, 6:48 pm
Click to expand Image US President Joe Biden speaks on how his Build Back Better agenda will lower prescription drug prices, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 12, 2021. © 2021 Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA/AP Images

Critics in the United States who argue about the cost of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package pending in the US Congress, which would expand government investment in the country’s broken social safety net and protections for workers, are missing the point. It’s not the price of the package, but the cost to human rights – including rights to an adequate standard of living, workers’ rights, and non-discrimination – if the US does not sufficiently invest in them.

Lawmakers are spending September discussing the details of what could be one of the most consequential US legislation in generations, aimed at combatting growing economic and racial inequality that leaves millions unable to access adequate and affordable housing, health care, or other basic protections.

The spending package would:

Protect the right to affordable housing by significantly expanding critical housing assistance programs and making a historic investment in public housing, home to nearly two million people in the US Create a permanent family and medical leave program Empower millions of workers to bargain collectively for fair wages, adequate benefits, and safe working conditions by including components of the PRO Act, which limits companies’ ability to discourage unions Reform the drug pricing system and provide affordable health insurance coverage for millions of people with low incomes by closing the Medicaid coverage gap and making permanent the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace subsidies Cut child poverty by extending the Child Tax Credit expansion Provide the largest federal investment in jobs aimed at tackling climate change

Even if the reconciliation package passes, legislators will still have work to do to create a strong safety net. US policymakers should expand eligibility for unemployment insurance, which, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, excluded two-thirds of unemployed workers. Earlier in the pandemic, unemployment benefits were temporarily expanded, keeping 5.5 million people who lost work out of poverty in 2020, without affecting the aggregate employment level. These benefits should be permanently extended to all workers, including app-based “gig” workers, when they lose their jobs.

US Census Bureau data show that these types of benefits work: all government aid combined protected 53 million people in the US from poverty in 2020. With 60 million adults still struggling to cover everyday expenses, legislators should not water down these reforms. Congress should seize the opportunity to prevent further hardship and protect essential benefits.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2021, 3:56 pm
Click to expand Image President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi appears with UNDP officials at the release of the new UNDP Egypt report in the new administrative capital, east of Cairo, September 14, 2021.  Screenshot from Egyptian Presidency Official YouTube Channel

The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Egypt office issued a press release last week lavishing praise on President al-Sisi’s government’s supposed “good governance and accountability.” This is a very different Egypt from the one Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations have been monitoring.

Instead, we have documented a brutal crackdown on human rights across the country, characterized by routine arbitrary detention of rights activists and civil society leaders, widespread torture, and extrajudicial killings.

UNDP Egypt cites improvements in prison conditions. But what of the many documented deaths of detainees from torture and medical neglect? The authors of the UNDP report should have consulted the human rights experts appointed by the UN itself, including the special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, who wrote after former President Morsy died in detention in 2019 that the awful conditions of detention mean “thousands more detainees across Egypt … may be at high risk of death.”

Another UNDP claim at odds with reality is its assertion that Sisi’s “Egypt has worked to strengthen accountability mechanisms” but this is far from the case when it comes to human rights. In fact, very few security officials responsible for rampant torture and extrajudicial executions have been investigated or held to account for violations they’ve committed.

The UNDP even cites favorably Law 149/2019 on NGOs, which reflects President al-Sisi’s determination to throttle the work of independent human rights groups and other civil society organizations and mandates security agency intervention in almost every detail of their work. The law’s enforcement may well bring about the demise of the few remaining independent organizations in the county.

The UNDP needs to reverse course and avoid whitewashing Egypt’s human rights record. The Sisi government will use this report to deflect questions about the country’s abysmal human rights situation. Lending institutions like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and states like the US, France, and others that sell arms to Egypt and support al-Sisi’s government financially, should not be deceived by the UNDP’s report. They need to confront the brutal reality in Egypt by ending security assistance and sanctioning abusive institutions.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2021, 2:30 pm
Click to expand Image Demonstrators stopped by gendarmes and police in Bafang, West Cameroon, on September 22, 2020. © 2020 Private

(Dakar) – Cameroon’s authorities should ensure accountability for their security forces’ crackdown on opposition leaders, supporters, and peaceful protesters in September 2020, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. They should immediately and unconditionally release all those held for expressing their political views or for exercising their right to peaceful assembly, and end the campaign of repression against peaceful protesters and critics.

“Last September, Cameroonians courageously challenged their government, and they were met with violence and contempt,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “One year on, the repression continues, with more protests banned and peaceful protesters still behind bars.”

On September 22, 2020, security forces fired teargas and water cannons to disperse peaceful protests across Cameroon. They arrested over 500 people, mainly opposition party members and supporters. The authorities beat many people during those arrests and in custody.

These protests had been organized following calls by the opposition party, Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun - MRC), other opposition parties, and civil society organizations to take to the streets over the government’s decision to organize regional elections. Opposition parties had expressed concerns that the elections could not be conducted freely and fairly without reforming the electoral code and addressing the lack of security in the Anglophone regions.

Maurice Kamto, the MRC leader, was arrested in January 2019 after countrywide peaceful protests, and was released following a presidential decree in October 2019. He was rearrested on September 20, 2020, and was held under de facto house arrest until December 8, with heavy security apparatus outside his residence. The authorities never charged Kamto or provided an explanation for his house arrest.

According to a committee of MRC lawyers, at least 124 MRC members and supporters, including the prominent leaders Olivier Bibou Nissack and Alain Fogué Tedom, remain in arbitrary detention in the following locations: in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital; Douala, in Littoral region; Bafoussam, in West region; and Mfou, in Centre region. In all, 116 face trial before military courts, on charges stemming from their participation in protests or for their activism. Eight have been convicted before a civilian court on similar charges and are serving two-year prison sentences.

On August 3 the prosecutor of the Yaoundé military court dismissed a complaint filed by Alain Fogue Tedom’s lawyers on January 13, alleging that he was tortured in detention between September 22 and November 3, 2020, at the State Defense Secretariat (Secrétariat d’Etat à la défense, SED), a detention facility in Yaoundé. Human Rights Watch has documented routine use of torture at the SED facility.

“It has become abundantly clear that civilians cannot get a fair trial before military courts, which lack independence,” a Cameroonian human rights lawyer, Michelle Ndoki, told Human Rights Watch. “The use of military courts to try civilians violates international law, and Cameroon should once and for all reverse this troubling trend.”

In a statement on September 9, the committee of MRC lawyers decided “… to withdraw from the ongoing legal proceedings,” as “it cannot associate itself with arbitrariness and illegality.” In a separate statement, issued the same day, the 124 detainees, calling themselves “Paul Biya’s political hostages,” referring to the country’s president, said they would no longer appear before Cameroonian jurisdictions because they do not want to support “a parody of justice.”

In a separate incident, on September 18, 2020, gendarmes arrested four members of the civil society platform Stand Up for Cameroon who had attended a meeting at the headquarters of the opposition Cameroon People’s Party in Douala. A year later, they remain arbitrarily detained at Douala New Bell prison, facing trial before a military court on charges of attempted conspiracy, revolution, and insurrection. On September 15, the Douala military court adjourned the trial for the sixth time, until October 13.

The Cameroonian authorities have not opened an investigation into the violations by security forces and other government personnel during the September 2020 crackdown, and no one has been held accountable.

Indeed, government repression of opposition and dissent continues. Authorities prohibited an MRC demonstration planned for July 25 in Yaoundé, citing concerns around Covid-19 and general public order. On the same day, however, a demonstration by supporters of the ruling party took place in Bertoua, Eastern region.

On August 9, gendarmes arbitrarily arrested a prominent tech entrepreneur and vocal critic of President Biya, Rebecca Enonchong, in Douala. She was detained for “contempt of a magistrate,” until August 13, then was released and all charges against her were dropped. She had previously supported human rights campaigns and denounced violations by government forces.

The European Union noted that “civil and political rights continue to be subject to limitations” in Cameroon, in a statement to the Human Rights Council on September14.

“One year after violently quashing peaceful demonstrations, Cameroonian authorities are still resorting to their old repressive tactics,” said Fabien Offner, Amnesty International’s Central Africa researcher. “The African Union, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Economic Community of Central African States, and Cameroon’s other regional and international partners should press the government to ensure accountability for security forces’ violations and demand the immediate and unconditional release of all those arbitrarily detained, and the respect of free speech and peaceful assembly.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image In June 2021, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for Sri Lanka to comply with its human rights obligations if it is to continue enjoying European Union trading preferences known as GSP+.  © 2021 Julien Warnand, Pool Photo via AP

(Brussels) –  The European Union should publicly set out a clear framework with short timelines for Sri Lanka to comply with its human rights commitments and retain tariff-free access to the EU market, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the European Commission this week.

HRW Letter to EU GSP+ Re: Sri Lanka HRW Letter to EU GSP+ Re: Sri Lanka

EU pressure over a sharply deteriorating human rights situation has led the Sri Lankan government in recent weeks to promise reforms, but these gestures have been superficial and unreliable. The EU should be clear during the forthcoming GSP+ assessment that concrete improvements, not mere pledges, are urgently needed for Sri Lanka to maintain its trading privileges.

“Under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan government has suppressed civil society, silenced protesters, targeted vulnerable minorities, further misused the abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act, and reversed any progress on accountability for war crimes,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should call out these blatant violations of Sri Lanka’s obligations under the GSP+ rules and be clear about the consequences if human rights violations and impunity for war crimes persist.”

In 2017, Sri Lanka rejoined the EU’s GSP+ program, which grants Sri Lankan exporters tariff-free access to the EU market in exchange for ratifying and complying with 27 international conventions, including human rights conventions. At the time of the EU’s previous assessment two years ago, Sri Lanka was already violating those obligations. The government’s rights record under President Rajapaksa has only worsened since then, leading the European Parliament to adopt a resolution in June calling for GSP+ to be withdrawn unless there is sufficient improvement.

A key commitment Sri Lanka made to the EU was to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has enabled torture and lengthy periods of arbitrary detention since it was introduced as a “temporary” measure in 1979. Hundreds of prisoners, most from minority communities, have been held for years under the PTA without trial or judicial oversight, or are serving long sentences following convictions based on evidence obtained under torture.

In June, following the adoption of the European Parliament resolution, Rajapaksa pardoned 16 PTA prisoners who were nearing or had passed the end of their sentences. He has also appointed an “advisory board” that may recommend releasing other prisoners, but such ad hoc measures provide no credible legal protection against ongoing abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The Rajapaksa administration is also reportedly preparing to present EU officials with proposed PTA reforms. But after many years, repeated pledges to take action lack any credibility and would fall short of the need to repeal a law that contravenes fundamental human rights standards, Human Rights watch said.

The Rajapaksa government has rejected United Nations resolutions to promote accountability for past violations, including the EU-backed Human Rights Council resolution 46/1 adopted in March to collect and analyze evidence of international crimes. The authorities have suppressed peaceful protests and the activities of civil society groups. Victims of past abuses and their families, human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and others are routinely harassed, threatened, and in some cases arbitrarily arrested and detained.

UN rights experts and the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, have repeatedly expressed alarm over rights developments in Sri Lanka. They include the removal of constitutional safeguards; restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression; discrimination and incitement of hatred and violence against minorities; torture and abusive detention conditions; failure to investigate enforced disappearances; increasing militarization; systemic impunity for grave violations; and lack of progress on transitional justice.

The EU should set clear benchmarks for compliance and action, with short timelines for implementation, and send a strong message that Sri Lanka is in breach of its human rights obligations and needs to take concrete, urgent, and meaningful action to keep its GSP+ benefits.

The EU should appropriately use GSP+ to address the deepening human rights crisis in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said. The EU should also consider UN High Commissioner Bachelet’s recommendation to impose targeted sanctions against individuals implicated in grave violations in Sri Lanka, as provided for by the EU’s Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

“The EU should insist that the blatantly abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act be repealed immediately, and make it clear that it has had enough of empty pledges from Sri Lanka’s unreliable government,” Leicht said. “The forthcoming GSP+ review is the right time to secure meaningful reforms across the full range of pressing human rights concerns in Sri Lanka.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image A woman collects water at a borehole in Mabvuku, Harare in Zimbabwe, August 28, 2021. © 2021 Stanford Kondwani Msiska

(Johannesburg) – Residents of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, face a potable water crisis three years after a deadly cholera outbreak, Human Rights Watch said today. Zimbabwe’s central government and the Harare City Council should urgently act to ensure clean water for millions of people affected.

The water situation in Harare is largely the same as in 2008, when Zimbabwe experienced the most devastating cholera outbreak in Africa in 15 years. The outbreak killed 4,200 people and infected at least 100,000. Human Rights Watch found that the city’s perennial water crisis, which is linked to the cholera outbreak, is the result of the city’s obsolete water infrastructure, a ballooning population, severe droughts, and pervasive government corruption and mismanagement. Poor governance and disputes between the central government and the Harare City Council have hindered efforts to address the problems.

“Harare’s long unresolved water crisis is a ticking time bomb of magnified health risks that forces residents to seek alternative, often unsafe water sources,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Zimbabwean authorities at the national and local levels should work together to promptly and permanently end Harare’s dangerous water problems.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 85 people in October 2019 and July and August 2021 water in five densely populated, or high-density, areas (Budiriro, Glenview, Highfields, Mabvuku, and Mbare) who had no access to safe drinking water: in Harare, the peri-urban informal settlement of Epworth near Harare, and the surrounding towns of Chitungwiza, Norton, and Ruwa. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 11 central government and municipal officials, public health experts, legal experts, city council employees, and staff of nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies in Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports from the government, UN, nongovernmental groups, and the media on water issues in Harare.

The infrastructure for piped water in Harare was developed in the 1950s, before Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, and designed for a population of 300,000 people. Currently, Harare’s greater metropolitan area has about 4.5 million people, more than half of whom have no access to clean water and are at risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

The water crisis in Harare has affected people’s rights to water and sanitation as well as other related rights, including the rights to life, food, and health. “Sometimes we get city council water in the taps,” a woman from the high-density suburb of Mabvuku told Human Rights Watch. “It is not clean. We cannot drink it and, because it smells badly, we cannot use it to cook.”

Common water sources, namely shallow wells, taps, and many boreholes – deep, narrow wells – are often contaminated, Human Rights Watch said. However, despite the known risk of contaminated water, there is no specific official information on which water sources are safe, leaving residents to take their chances.

“The water that comes out from the taps is neither clean nor safe to drink, so we have to depend on borehole water, which we feel is better,” said a 46-year-old woman from Harare’s Glenview suburb. “But we know that even borehole water is not safe for drinking.”

More affluent families in Harare’s low-density suburbs drill safe boreholes and purchase bottled water, options not available to the vast majority of the population. The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) in Zimbabwe has developed a method of protecting new boreholes from contamination with sanitary seals, but local governments have not adopted this solution, which costs several thousand US dollars per borehole.

Under section 77 of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution, “every person has the right to safe, clean, and potable water.” The government is obligated to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within the limits of available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of the right to water. Zimbabwe is also a party to African regional and international human rights treaties that recognize the right to water and sanitation.

The government at the national and local levels should urgently act to ensure alternative sources of safe drinking water, such as safe boreholes and protected wells, for the entire population, Human Rights Watch said.

“Zimbabwean authorities should not wait for the next cholera outbreak to provide access to safe drinking water for everyone,” Mavhinga said. “The government should invest in low-cost water equipment and distribution systems to uphold the right of millions of Zimbabweans to potable water.”

For additional information on the Harare water crisis, witness accounts, legal standards, and recommendations, please see below.

Harare’s Water Crisis

The millions of residents of Harare and the surrounding areas have been hard hit by the region’s water crisis. In Mbare, a high-density suburb of Harare which has the country’s biggest and busiest bus terminus and a vegetable market visited by thousands of people daily, water and sanitation facilities are insufficient, residents said.

Blocks of “bachelor flats” in Mbare, built and designed for one-person occupancy during colonial times, now house large families, severely straining the limited water resources. Because of the lack of water, the flush toilets are severely inadequate, unsanitary, and in many cases as a result are nonfunctional. Both Harare and Chitungwiza have numerous open markets in which thousands of people set up stalls to sell meat, vegetables, fruit, and livestock, but the markets lack adequate water and sanitation facilities. For instance, at the Kamunhu Shopping Centre, the Harare City Council established about 2,000 market stalls for traders, but it did not provide running water.

Residents who at times get tap water described the water’s quality as poor. A 53-year-old woman from the Mabvuku high-density suburb said that: “Now we get water in our taps twice a week in the evenings, but we cannot drink that water, we only use it for washing. For drinking and cooking water, we [go to] boreholes where we wait sometimes four hours to get it.”

Those who have no access to tap water rely on boreholes for all their water. A 32-year-old mother of two in the Highfields high-density suburb said that her tap water was shut off after she failed to pay Zim $6,000 (US$70) in water bills over six months. Consequently, she depends on the potentially dangerous water from the borehole. “Many people queue to get water from the borehole, but we do not know if the water is safe to drink,” she said.

The boreholes are also not always reliable or accessible. A 56-year-old mother of three in the Budiriro high-density suburb said:

In 2019, we had a borehole that was working here in Budiriro 5. We would spend over six hours waiting for water, but it was better we had a borehole nearby. The borehole broke down and has not been working for the last five months. We must now walk a long distance to Mufakose, another residency area, sometimes at night, to fetch water from boreholes there.

The Chitungwiza municipality depends on treated water supplied by the Harare City Council. The water supply in Harare directly affects the Chitungwiza municipality, which gets rationed water as a result. Epworth, an informal settlement adjacent to Harare, has no water infrastructure for its 120,000-plus residents. Instead, tens of thousands of Epworth residents have depended on a dam with stagnant, unsafe water for more than three decades, even though the water is unfit for human consumption. A 21-year-old woman who has lived her entire life in Epworth without tap water said:

I know that the dam water is not safe to drink, sometimes we fall sick after drinking the water, but I have no choice. I need the water to survive, and I have nowhere else to get water.

In Harare’s low-density suburbs in the north and east of the city, more affluent families have devised alternatives, including drilling safe boreholes and using bottled water, which costs Zim $86 (US$1) for a one-liter bottle. That is unaffordable for the vast majority of Zimbabweans, many of whom live well under the poverty line.

Médecins Sans Frontières in Zimbabwe, which since 2015 has worked to bring safe, clean water to vulnerable communities, in 2017 introduced new drilling and cementation techniques, placing sanitary seals to protect newly drilled boreholes from contamination. MSF reported that tested water from these boreholes showed “‘zero’ bacteriological and chemical contamination.”

MSF has since advocated drilling these safe boreholes to prevent contamination, including through the dissemination of a toolkit on good practices in water, sanitation, and hygiene that explains how to protect borehole water from contamination. However, the average cost is very high, ranging from US$5,400 to $6,000 per borehole, and Harare and surrounding towns have not adopted the cementation technology.

Water Crisis Causes

Several factors have contributed to Harare’s severe water problems, including economic decay; perennial droughts affecting Lake Chivero, which is dammed to supply Harare with water; the lack of maintenance of the old water infrastructure; the inability to procure the necessary chemicals to treat water sources; political struggles between the central government under the ruling party and the opposition-controlled city council; and corruption.

Economic Decay, Dilapidated Water Infrastructure

Harare’s water supply comes from Lake Chivero dam water, which the city’s mayor, Jacob Mafume, says is so heavily contaminated with raw sewage that it requires many different chemicals to purify. Harare City Council’s water department uses 12 chemicals, including chlorine gas, aluminum sulfate, sulfuric acid, sodium silicate, activated carbon, and hydrated lime, to treat and purify water from the Lake Chivero dam. Most of these chemicals are imported and very expensive, creating a huge challenge for a country facing severe foreign currency shortages.

Ian Makone, a Harare city councilor, blamed leakages in the old, dilapidated, and inadequate water distribution network for the water crisis. “More than 40 percent of pumped treated water is not delivered due to leakages,” Makone said. There are cracks in both the water and sewage pipes because of the city’s failure to replace decades-old pipes several years ago, causing flowing tap water to be mixed with sewage in several places across Harare.

Conflicts Between National and Local Authorities

Zimbabwe’s government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that the right to water is met, regardless of whether the policies are carried out by the national government or delegated to local authorities. Political tensions between the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, which controls the central government, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDCA), which controls the Harare municipal government, has adversely affected water service delivery in the region.

The central government has not fulfilled constitutional provisions that allow for the devolution of power from the central government to the municipal level. Zimbabwe’s Parliament has not enacted legislation to establish appropriate systems and procedures to facilitate coordination between the central government and local authorities. Thus, while the Harare City Council has the responsibility to supply clean water to residents, the central government, through the Ministry of Local Government, wields the decision-making power. At the same time, the central government is responsible for constructing dams to provide water for cities, but no new dams have been constructed for Harare and Chitungwiza despite the existence of such plans for decades.

Harare’s Mayor Mfume told Human Rights Watch that inadequate laws authorizing the local government to provide water have hampered the city council’s efforts to address the water crisis and improve service delivery for the metropolitan area. “Currently, we are unable to operate effectively because our hands are tied by the Ministry of Local Government and the centralization that inhibits the operations of municipalities,” he said. “The mayors have no real powers.”

The MDC Alliance president, Nelson Chamisa said:

The [ZANU-PF controlled] Ministry of Local Government still enjoys superpowers. It appoints all town clerks, CEOs, and other officials. This means they continue to sabotage our efforts for change. The government still approves and limits our budgets. We are not able to determine rates, leaving us unable to make enough money to provide adequate services.

The ZANU-PF party minister for the Harare metropolitan province, Oliver Chidawu, said the central government acknowledged the challenges of decentralization and the water crisis, and is in discussions about long-term plans, including the construction of new dams, but said the major challenge is funding. He said the government needs support from international donors to be able to have a comprehensive response to the water crisis.

Existing legislation makes it complicated and difficult for municipal authorities to address problems like access to clean water, the former mayor of Harare, Herbert Gomba, said. For instance, under the Joint Ventures Act, before the city can engage a private company for services, it must first send a resolution to the national Ministry of Local Government, which must then send a resolution to the Office of the President and Cabinet for approval. The Urban Councils Act prohibits cities from borrowing money or entering into contracts without Ministry of Local Government authorization. In addition, the Procurement Act removed procurement powers from local authorities and put the powers in the Office of the President and Cabinet.

The local and central governments have continued to blame each other without resolving Harare’s water crisis.

Local and National Government Corruption

Public sector corruption and mismanagement at the local and central government levels have exacerbated the government’s neglect of water infrastructure over the last two decades, compromising access to safe, clean water. Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index found that corruption is extremely high in Zimbabwe, ranking it 157 out of 179 countries. Corruption is rife in the central government as well as within the Harare City Council and Chitungwiza municipality, negatively affecting service delivery.

In July 2020 the anticorruption unit in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s office arrested the then-mayor of Harare, Herbert Gomba, and other top city council officials, on allegations of corruption and abuse of office regarding approval irregularities in the sale of land and alteration of plans. Gomba’s case is still in the courts. Four months later, Mafume, who replaced Gomba as mayor, was also arrested on allegations of corruption, prompting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to assert that the Zimbabwean government was using its law enforcement agents to target council officials from the MDCA. Mafume’s case is also still before the courts.

Domestic and International Legal Standards Guaranteeing the Right to Water

Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution protects the right to water. Section 77 of the constitution states that every person has the right to “safe, clean, and potable water.” Under the constitution, the state “must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within the limits of the resources available to it, to achieve the progressive realization of this right.”

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Zimbabwe has ratified, does not expressly include the right to water. However, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has interpreted the right to water as being implied by various rights codified in the African Charter, including the right to “a general satisfactory environment” favorable to peoples’ development, which is unattainable without access to water and sanitation. The African Commission in 2020 published Guidelines on the Right to Water in Africa, which it said was grounded in regional treaties’ protection of economic, social, and cultural development; health; access to natural resources; the environment; and food

In 2010 121 countries, including Zimbabwe, voted in the UN General Assembly to recognize a freestanding right to water. In 2011 the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the right to safe drinking water and to sanitation as basic rights.

The General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2015 that states that the right to water entitles everyone, without discrimination, “to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use.”

The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has interpreted international law on the right to water, as well as state obligations, in its General Comment No. 15. The state’s minimum core obligations include ensuring people’s access to sufficient, safe water and physical access to water facilities or services that are a reasonable distance away.  

Zimbabwe has ratified international human rights treaties that contain – explicitly or implicitly –  provisions on the right to water, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Recommendations to the Zimbabwe Central Government  

Implement legal and other reforms to ensure the full promotion, protection, and enjoyment of the right to water enshrined in section 77 of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution and African regional and international human rights law. Ensure residents’ access to potable water either directly through central government authority or by adequately empowering local governments. Work with city councils to develop and implement a system, such as sliding scale fees, to ensure the delivery of affordable and safe piped water to low-income families. Work with local authorities to ensure that all public boreholes are regularly tested for water quality and that these results are disseminated to residents. Provide regular, up-to-date information to residents on the water quality of both taps and boreholes in their areas so they understand the health risks and benefits of available water sources. Upgrade the water infrastructure in Harare and surrounding areas. Take steps to reduce corruption, including by developing and enforcing transparency and accountability measures regarding the allocation of finances and expenditures. 

Recommendations to the Harare City Council  

Ensure residents’ access to potable water either directly through central government authority or by adequately empowering local governments. Develop and implement a system, such as sliding scale fees, to ensure the delivery of affordable and safe piped water to low-income families. Upgrade the water infrastructure in Harare. Provide regular, up-to-date information to residents on the water quality of both taps and boreholes in their areas so they understand the health risks and benefits of available water sources. Ensure that all public boreholes are regularly tested for water quality and that these results are disseminated to residents. Take steps to reduce corruption, including by developing and enforcing transparency and accountability measures regarding the allocation of finances and expenditures.
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Farmers participate in a protest against farm laws in Haryana, India on September 7, 2021.  © 2021 Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto/AP Images

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will join world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly this week, to address global issues and list his government’s “achievements on the domestic front.”

But back home, authorities are targeting critics of the government with surveillance, politically motivated prosecutions, harassment, online trolling, and tax raids. They are shutting down activist groups and international donor organizations.

Such attacks are becoming increasingly widespread and heavy handed.

After seven years in office, winning a massive mandate on the promise of corruption-free, efficient governance, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led administration is struggling to keep its mission. Decades of previous gains in reducing unemployment, inflation, and poverty have been reversed.

While citizens struggle to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, the government spends on trophy projects. Ruling party leaders, perhaps in an effort to cover up their failure to deliver on electoral promises, make rabble-rousing speeches to demonstrate their Hindu nationalism, in particular targeting Muslim minorities, which in turn has incited violent hate crimes by BJP supporters. The government has also adopted laws and policies that systematically discriminate against Muslims and other minorities.

Such divisive politics has repeatedly drawn international criticism, and protests have broken out, some led by farmers and students, to oppose state policies.

Instead of accepting mistakes, taking on difficult tasks to address inequity, and reversing discriminatory policies, the authorities have chosen to silence the messenger and play victim.

The government had already been using counterterrorism laws, allegations of sedition, and other serious charges to jail peaceful activists. Now, the list of those the government and its supporters view with suspicion has grown, including a philanthropic actor, poets, jewelers, journalists, social media executives, entertainment companies, and other businesses. The commerce minister recently blamed Indian industry for ignoring national interests, while a Hindu nationalist magazine criticized a software company because it funds civil society groups.

The Modi administration still enjoys popular support because of the expectation that it will make good on its pledge of equitable development. But to succeed, leaders should stop passing the buck, stop abusing laws and state institutions to target critics, and start the hard work towards addressing urgent needs. Otherwise, instead of achieving the global recognition it craves, the Modi administration will only have created a legacy of abuse.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 21, 2021, 11:38 pm
Click to expand Image   Police officer wearing face mask stands on duty at the polling station on July 1, 2020 in St. Petersburg, Russia. © 2020 Alexander Koriakov/AP Images

Apple and Google capitulated to Russian authorities last week when they removed access to the Navalny Smart Voting app on the eve of the weekend’s parliamentary election. The move helped undermine Russian voters’ ability to access information about their choice.

For weeks, the Russian government pressured the companies to remove the app, which was built by associates of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny to help Russian voters choose a candidate with the best chances of defeating the ruling party candidate. Google also reportedly restricted access to YouTube videos containing the names of candidates recommended by the Smart Voting project and Google Docs with the list due to pressure from Russian authorities.  

Neither company has publicly explained why it bowed to the Russian government’s requests.

An aide to Navalny tweeted a screenshot of an email from Apple that indicated the governmental communications oversight body, Roskomnadzor, ordered the app’s removal because it included content deemed illegal in Russia, and doesn’t comply with App Store policies. Russian state news agency TASS previously reported that Roskomnadzor demanded both companies remove the app due to a requirement from the Russian Attorney General’s Office to restrict access to information linked to Navalny’s organization, which has been designated “extremist” and is banned in Russia. According to the New York Times, Google removed the app after Russian authorities named specific in-country staff who would face prosecution.

Neither company responded to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment at the time of publication.

These events were part of a broader onslaught on critics ahead of the election and a larger campaign by Russian authorities to tighten control over online communications and social media platforms.  

While companies are understandably concerned for their in-country staff, they also have a responsibility to respect rights. This showdown was entirely predictable and underscores the importance of conducting ongoing human rights due diligence. These companies also owe the millions of people who rely on their services an explanation of how they justify their actions in light of their human rights responsibilities, and how they plan to avoid similar situations in the future.

If these developments are any indication of how tech companies respond to threats to in-country staff, the spate of “hostage-taking” laws being adopted in several countries that require companies appoint in-country representatives may mean a wave of corporate-assisted censorship is on the horizon.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 21, 2021, 9:20 pm
Click to expand Image Workers harvest cantaloupe on a farm during a drought in Firebaugh, California, US, on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. © 2021 David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The administration of US President Joe Biden announced yesterday a major interagency initiative to respond to the impacts of extreme heat in the United States. This effort, which closely follows the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, will seek to develop the first-ever federal heat standard to protect workers.

Extreme heat – exacerbated by climate change – has been linked to almost half a million deaths globally every year. Human Rights Watch has documented the impacts of extreme heat on at-risk populations including children, older people, people with disabilities, pregnant people, migrants, and farmworkers. Also at high risk of heat-related illness or death are those living in poverty or institutions, among other marginalized groups.

In the United States, heat kills more people than any other type of extreme weather. In June alone, during the heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, states reported hundreds of deaths and thousands of emergency room visits due to heat-related illness. Scientists determined that a heatwave this intense would have been virtually impossible without climate change.

At particular risk of climate-induced heatwaves are the millions of people in the United States who are exposed to extreme heat in their workplaces. In the US, essential jobs with high exposure levels – like farm work – are predominantly held by Black and brown workers. To better protect outdoor laborers, the Biden administration’s plan seeks to develop a workplace standard on heat.

Moreover, the plan will include cooling assistance for households and communities, and will establish a heat-specific working group to engage stakeholders and inform ongoing initiatives.

As part of the strategies outlined in the plan, the Biden administration’s approach to extreme heat should ensure that cooling benefits extend to people living in institutions such as nursing homes, and that the workplace heat standard includes even stronger protections for pregnant workers, who are particularly at risk. It should include reforms to harsh border enforcement policies that drive migrants into dangerous terrain and make them vulnerable to heat impacts, and include consultations with representatives from the most at-risk and impacted communities, including people with disabilities, to explicitly address their situations.

This new approach to extreme heat is a testament to the persistence of the grassroots organizations that pushed for it. The Biden administration should now take the next step to protect against the impacts of extreme heat by making good on their plans to drastically reduce US greenhouse gas emissions.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 21, 2021, 8:37 pm