More than 13,500 asylum seekers remain trapped on the Greek islands in deplorable conditions as winter begins on December 21, 2017. Greece, with support from its European Union partners, should urgently transfer thousands of asylum seekers to the Greek mainland and provide them with adequate accommodation and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures.

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

(New York) – The latest revisions to China’s Criminal Law impose up to seven years in prison for “spreading rumors” about disasters, Human Rights Watch said today. The revised law, which took effect November 1, 2015, does not clarify what constitutes a “rumor,” heightening concerns that the provision will be used to curtail freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet.

“The revised Criminal Law adds a potent weapon to the Chinese government’s arsenal of punishments against netizens, including those who simply share information that departs from the official version of events,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are once again criminalizing free speech on the Internet, which has been the Chinese people’s only relatively free avenue for expressing themselves.”

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee approved the addition of a provision to article 291(1) of the Criminal Law (Criminal Law Amendment Act (9)), which states that whoever “fabricates or deliberately spreads on media, including on the Internet, false information regarding dangerous situations, the spread of diseases, disasters and police information, and who seriously disturb social order” would face prison sentences – with a maximum of seven years for those whose rumors result in “serious consequences.” The vagueness of the provision means that individuals doing nothing more than asking questions or reposting information online about reported local disasters could be subject to prosecution.

In the past, the Chinese government has detained netizens who questioned official casualty figures or who had published alternative information about disasters ranging from SARS in 2003 to the Tianjin chemical blast in 2015, under the guise of preventing “rumors.”

The revision was made in the context of a wider effort to rein in online freedom since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013:

  • In August 2013, the authorities waged a campaign against “online rumors” that included warning Internet users against breaching “seven bottom lines” in their Internet postings, taking into custody the well-known online commentator Charles Xue, and closing popular “public accounts” on the social media platform “WeChat” that report and comment on current affairs;
  • In September 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the state prosecution) issued a judicial interpretation making the crimes of defamation, creating disturbances, illegal business operations, and extortion applicable to expressions in cyberspace. The first netizen who was criminally prosecuted after this took effect was well-known blogger Qin Huohuo, who was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2014 for allegedly defaming the government and celebrities by questioning whether they were corrupt or engaged in other dishonest behavior;
  • In July and August 2014, authorities suspended popular foreign instant messaging services, including KakaoTalk, claiming the service was being used for “distributing terrorism-related information”;
  • In 2015, government agencies such as the State Internet Information Office issued multiple new directives, including tightening restrictions over the use of usernames and avatars, and requiring writers of online literature in particular to register with their real names;
  • In 2015, the government has also shut down or restricted access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which many users depend on to access content blocked to users inside the country and also help shield user privacy;
  • In March 2015, authorities also deployed a new cyber weapon, the “Great Cannon,” to disrupt the services of GreatFire.org, an organization that works to document China’s censorship and facilitate access to information;
  • In July 2015, the government published a draft cybersecurity law that will requires domestic and foreign Internet companies to increase censorship on the government’s behalf, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance; and
  • In August 2015, the government announced that it would station police in major Internet companies to more effectively prevent “spreading rumors” online.
     

Activists in China are regularly prosecuted for speech-related “crimes,” Human Rights Watch said. The best known of these crimes is “inciting subversion,” which carries a maximum of 15 years in prison. But authorities have also used other crimes such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” as in the case of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been detained since May 2014 for a number of social media posts questioning the government’s policies towards Uighurs and Tibetans.

While providing the public with accurate information during disasters is important, the best way to counter inaccurate information would be to ensure that official information is reliable and transparent, Human Rights Watch said.

Above all, journalists should have unimpeded access to investigate and inform the public about these events, and the wider public should have the freedom to debate and discuss disaster response.

“The casualties of China’s new provision would not be limited to journalists, activists and netizens, but the right of ordinary people and the world to know about crucial developments in China,” Richardson said. “The best way to dispel false rumors would be to allow, not curtail, free expression.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Image of a US Army AH-64E Apache attack helicopter.

© 2020 US Army/Specialist Cody Rich
(Washington, DC) – The US Congress should block or delay sales of almost $2 billion in attack helicopters and munitions to the Philippines until the government adopts major reforms to end military abuses and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today. The Trump administration notified Congress in late April 2020 of two possible Foreign Military Sales by the US military to the Philippines, one for $1.5 billion including six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, a second for $450 million including six AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, both with accompanying guided missiles, rockets, and light cannon ammunition, as well as ongoing service contracts for training, parts, and maintenance.

The Philippines military has a long track record of violations of human rights and the laws of war during counter-insurgency operations against the communist New People’s Army and Moro armed groups, including disregard of civilian life, hundreds of extrajudicial executions, mistreatment of displaced people, and indiscriminate attacks. The military also has a poor record of holding those responsible for human rights abuses accountable.

“Approving contracts for attack helicopters would be sending a terrible message to the Philippine government that long-running military abuses without accountability have no consequences on the US-Philippines relationship,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Congress should be impressing upon the Philippine government that real reforms are needed to end military abuses before deals like this can be approved.” 

The Philippine military has a deeply rooted culture of impunity, Human Rights Watch said. Data from the Philippines Department of National Defense indicate that only one soldier has been convicted of an extrajudicial killing since 2001.

For much of the past decade, the US Congress has imposed conditions or restrictions on military assistance to the Philippines, communicating that cuts could only be restored if the Philippine government systematically improved its record, which the government never did. The arrest in August 2014 of Jovito Palparan, a retired Army major general implicated in numerous cases of abductions, torture, and killing, and his conviction in 2018, was a rare challenge to the impunity for military personnel, which multiple Philippine presidential administrations have failed to adequately address. There have been no other such convictions.

Unlawful attacks against leftists that the military accuse of being members of or sympathizers with the New People’s Army have continued, particularly in the central Philippine island of Negros. The government has also ramped up its dangerous anti-communist rhetoric against these individuals and groups.

The US State Department has not received any assurances about where these weapons systems would be deployed or for what purpose, Human Rights Watch said.

Congress has various means to stop or delay the sales. Members of Congress can introduce a “resolution of disapproval” and seek to vote it into law, and individual members on certain committees can place a “hold” on the sales pending further review.

If the sales goes forward, the US government should put the Philippines on notice that ongoing and future servicing and supply of parts for the weapons systems will cease in the event the systems are used illegally. Under US law illegal use of weapons constitute a violation of their End Use Certificates, which impose various restrictions on their use after a sale.

The proposed sales come at a time of a deeply deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. After President Rodrigo Duterte began his “war on drugs” in mid-2016, the police have killed more than 5,600 people in anti-drug operations, according to official statistics. Thousands more have died in killings attributed to unidentified gunmen. The killings have orphaned thousands of children who suffer from the emotional, psychological, and economic impacts of the campaign. More than 100 children have been killed between 2016 and 2018.

“The US should not be selling advanced military systems to an abusive, unaccountable Philippine military under cover of a global pandemic,” Sifton said. “Congress needs to act now.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A displaced family in their tent in al-Sowida camp for internally displaced people in Marib governorate, north Yemen, February 2020. The family had been displaced twice, the second time after fleeing to Marib to escape renewed fighting near the capital, Sanaa. 
 

© 2020 Ali Owidha

(Beirut) – Civilians fleeing renewed fighting in northern Yemen are particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today.

Fighting in Marib governorate between Houthi forces and the Saudi-led coalition and their Yemeni government allies has moved closer to overcrowded camps for internally displaced people that have inadequate health services and humanitarian aid. The parties to the conflict should take immediate steps to protect displaced people in insecure areas and facilitate access to aid. Poor camp conditions including recent flooding make the residents especially vulnerable to a Covid-19 outbreak, which Yemen lacks the capability to contain, especially as donors have reduced assistance.

“Yemeni government forces and Houthi forces need to protect fleeing civilians and ensure that they can get aid,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The heightened risk to millions of Yemeni civilians who rely on aid as their lifeline comes at a time of reduced foreign assistance and rising fear of a Covid-19 outbreak.”

The armed conflict that began in Yemen in March 2015 has displaced nearly four million people. Many have fled their homes due to serious laws-of-war violations, including the Saudi-led coalition’s unlawful airstrikes on homes, schools, and marketplaces and the Houthis’ indiscriminate shelling of neighborhoods. Since early 2020, fighting in northern Yemen has increased sharply, causing a significant displacement toward Marib. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that over 40,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of the year, and more displacement is likely as Houthi forces advance closer to Marib City.

Marib currently hosts 750,000 displaced people, outnumbering the city’s original population of 500,000. There are camps for displaced people and other shelter facilities across Marib, including in schools, a university campus, and a museum, according to Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Two aid workers told Human Rights Watch that coalition forces are deployed near some camps near current front lines, putting civilians at additional risk.

In February 2020, Houthi forces made military advances in north Yemen, taking control of the strategic district of Nehm and the city of al-Hazm, some 60 kilometers northeast of the capital, Sanaa, and about 60 kilometers northwest of Marib. Simultaneously, Houthi forces made military advances in the governorate of Al-Bayda', south of Marib, leaving Marib city surrounded by active fighting from both the north and south.

Since February, Houthi military advances have left Marib City surrounded by active fighting in both the north and south. Coalition airstrikes have continued, with Marib one of the hardest-hit areas. Two hospitals in Marib City that served displaced people were struck during clashes in February. The UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen described the attacks as “a completely unacceptable breach of international humanitarian law.”

International humanitarian assistance to Yemen has been hampered by a funding shortfall as well as Houthi obstruction of aid to those in need. International donors have not fulfilled their 2020 funding pledges, with only 27 percent of the Yemen humanitarian fund funded.

Pledges are also down in 2020, with only US$800 million in pledges compared with $2.6 billion pledged in 2019.

In April, the UN humanitarian coordinator warned that 31 of 41 major humanitarian programs in Yemen would be reduced or shut down “unless funding is urgently received.” Numerous aid workers told Human Rights Watch that displaced people would be among those most affected by funding shortages. UNHCR said that nearly one million vulnerable displaced people and refugees in Yemen risked losing their shelter, vital cash assistance for essentials like food and medicine, and other assistance. The agency said that it received only 28 percent of the 2020 funding needed to protect and provide critical aid to displaced people.

Several aid workers and journalists in Marib told Human Rights Watch that both the Houthis and the Yemeni government authorities have placed constraints on humanitarian aid operations in the city. The UN has previously accused Houthi authorities of obstructing aid, including diversion of World Food Program food assistance, demands for a 2 percent cut from the entire UN-led aid budget, refusing biometric registration conditions to reduce corruption, and otherwise unnecessary restrictions on northern Yemen relief operations.

Since early 2020, several donor governments have suspended funding in the north due to the Houthis’ increased restrictions. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) suspended at least $73 million out of $85 million for humanitarian programming in the Houthi-controlled north. After an outcry, the US on May 6 announced $225 million in emergency food aid for Yemen.  

One aid group told Human Rights Watch that after temporarily suspending funding over Houthi obstruction, Sweden’s International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) recently resumed its funding. Another humanitarian worker in Marib said that two other donor countries, without stating their reasons, have suspended funding to projects in Marib and other parts of the north, causing him to lose his job.

UN officials have raised concerns that some epidemiological projections estimate that the coronavirus could infect nearly 16 million people in Yemen, 55 percent of the population. The country’s shattered health system – under-resourced and buffeted by years of war – is inadequately prepared to care for Covid-19 patients and contain the spread of the virus.

Al-Meel camp is one of 126 camps for internally displaced people in Marib governorate, north Yemen, March 2020. 

© 2020 Ali Owidha

Displaced people, whom UNHCR warned are “the most vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19,” face even greater risks. Most displaced people are in dangerously overcrowded camps with substandard health care and inadequate access to clean water, sanitation, and other essential services, or the ability to follow social distancing guidelines or “self-isolate” when sick. Recent flash flooding in Marib has affected at least 16 sites, increasing the chances of another cholera outbreak.

As of mid-May, Marib has one confirmed Covid-19 case, and the risk will increase as the virus spreads to other Yemen regions. The internationally recognized Yemeni government’s Covid-19 committee reported on May 20 that there were 180 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 29 deaths in Hadramout, Aden, Taizz, and other governorates since April 10. As of 16 May, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen reported that there were 4 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 1 death in the capital, Sanaa.

Humanitarian groups told Human Rights Watch that the actual number of cases in Yemen is most likely much higher than those reported, in part due to limited testing capacity and the country’s weak health system. They also reported that warring parties have politicized the Covid-19 response by accusing one another of deliberately spreading the virus.

“Given Yemen’s existing humanitarian crisis, battered health system, and the imminent threat of a cholera outbreak, Marib’s displaced people now face the double threat of renewed fighting and the uncontrolled spread of a dangerous virus,” Nasser said. “The warring parties need to work with donors to prevent an even greater catastrophe.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Doha Skyline, Qatar.

© 2018 Šarūnas Burdulis

UPDATE: On May 19, 2020, in response to this report, Qatar’s Government Communications Office (GCO) issued a statement confirming the presence of the virus in its central jail. Denying prisoner statements referenced in Human Rights Watch’s report, the GCO statement said that inmates had, since mid-March, undergone regular health check-ups and that a proactive testing program had been carried out to monitor for new cases. The statement did not address reports of overcrowding in the prison, which makes practicing social distancing measures impossible. 

(Beirut) – Qatar prison authorities should take urgent measures to better protect prisoners and prison staff amid an apparent Covid-19 outbreak in the Doha central prison, Human Rights Watch said today.

Qatar’s authorities should reduce prison populations to allow for social distancing and ensure that everyone in prison has access to information and adequate medical care. The authorities should also put in place appropriate hygiene and cleaning protocols, including providing training and supplies such as masks, sanitizers, and gloves to reduce risk of further infection.

“Qatari authorities should move quickly to avoid wider spread of coronavirus that risks infecting prisoners, prison staff, and Doha residents,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Qatar can start by releasing vulnerable prisoners such as older people and those held for low-level or nonviolent offenses and by ensuring that the remaining prisoners have adequate access to medical care.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed six foreign detainees in recent days. They described a deterioration in prison conditions in Qatar’s only central prison in Doha after several prisoners were suspected of having contracted the virus. The detainees said that guards informally told them in recent weeks about the suspected outbreak, though Qatari authorities have not publicly confirmed it. 

Satellite image of the Penal and Correctional Institutions Department in Doha, where Qatar’s only central prison is located.

© 2020 Google, Imagery © 2020 TerraMetrics

The authorities sealed and isolated the block where the suspected outbreak occurred, but not before transferring some detainees from that block to other already-overcrowded and unsanitary sections of the prison. They said that the prison authorities also further restricted prisoners’ limited access to basic medical care, leaving older prisoners and prisoners with underlying health conditions at even higher risk of serious consequences if infected.

Prison authorities have given inconsistent and incomplete information to prisoners. A prisoner said that on May 2, 2020 a prison guard informed inmates that five prisoners in another block had contracted the virus, causing panic. “Since then more prisoners, possibly many who are infected, have come to our block,” the prisoner said. “We have beds for 96 people, and now we have around 150 prisoners in this block.” On May 6, the prisoner said, another prison guard told him that 47 cases had been recorded by then.

The prisoners said that their block has only eight bathrooms for 150 prisoners. “People are sleeping on the floor, in the [prison] mosque, in the library; and everyone is scared of each other, we don’t know who could infect us,” the prisoner said. “At a time when we should be isolated from each other, we are being kept like animals in a shed.” The other prisoners corroborated his report of overcrowding.

Prisoners said that over the previous week guards and prison staff started to wear masks and gloves and that medical staff had stopped visiting their block. “No one knows who could be sick,” said one prisoner. “This one person has [what appears to be] the flu in our block, but is it flu, is it virus, who knows? No one is checking. Until May, nurses used to come and check us and if we were sick and wanted to go to the hospital we could go, now there are no nurses and no hospital visits.

Another prisoner said: “The nurses who used to come and give insulin shots to patients with diabetes no longer come, the guards hand out the insulin injections and the patients inject themselves.”

The prisoners said that they have limited access to soap and water, have not received hand sanitizer, and that social distancing measures are impossible, given the crowding. Two said that as of May 7, they were all handed two masks each. One prisoner said that prison authorities have yet to sanitize their blocks and continue to provide only one bar of soap per month to each prisoner despite the need for better cleaning and hygiene protocols during the pandemic.

“Yesterday the guards gave me two masks for the first time,” one prisoner said on May 8. “They said wear them, but no one is wearing them. Most prisoners just put them away and the guards don’t really care, they aren’t telling anyone to wear them.” He said the administration has not officially confirmed to them the presence of the virus in the prison or communicated recent changes to them in a clear and transparent manner, causing increased fear and anxiety among the inmates.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Qatar continues to increase, with 1,733 cases recorded on May 14, the highest number recorded in the country in a single day.

Governments should reduce their prison populations through early release of low-risk detainees, including those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, or whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or unjustified, Human Rights Watch said.

Prisoners at high risk of serious effects from the virus, such as older people and those with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for release, taking into consideration whether the detention facility has the capacity to protect their health, including access to adequate treatment, and such factors as the gravity of the crime and time served. Prison authorities should publicly disclose their plans to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection in their facilities and the steps they will take to contain the infection and protect prisoners, staff, and visitors.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in a March 25 news release that governments need to prevent foreseeable threats to public health and have a particular duty to protect the physical and mental health of prisoners, calling on them to reduce detainee populations as part of overall efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bachelet said that “Covid-19 has begun to strike prisons, jails and immigration detention centres … and risks rampaging through such institutions’ extremely vulnerable populations.” She described the “potentially catastrophic” consequences of neglecting the duty to protect the health of people in custody and urged governments to “act now to prevent further loss of life among detainees and staff.”

“The reported spread of Covid-19 in Qatar’s central jail could fast become a public health disaster,” Page said. “Qatari authorities have the power to reduce the harm, but they need to act quickly and decisively.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Teenagers stand inside a prison cell at a reform centre in Dohuk, Iraq, February 12, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters/Azad Lashkari

(New York) – Many governments are not addressing the safety of detained children in their Covid-19 response, Human Rights Watch said today. Available data indicates that the virus is spreading rapidly through closed facilities, including jails and prisons.

 
Only about 20 countries are known to have released children from detention facilities in efforts to limit the impact of Covid-19. A global survey of media reports found that, by comparison, adult detainees have been released in at least 79 countries in response to the pandemic. While in Afghanistan, Chad, Indonesia, and South Sudan children have been explicitly included in release orders, in most other countries, they have reportedly been left out.
 
“Child detainees seem to be an afterthought, if they are considered at all, by many governments responding to the Covid-19 crisis,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should act to substantially reduce the number of children in detention facilities.”
 
Detainees are particularly vulnerable to infection due to close proximity and a higher incidence of underlying medical conditions. Access to water, sanitation, and basic medical services is often poor. In many countries, prisons are severely overcrowded.
 
In March, 2020, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, appealed for urgent action to prevent Covid-19 from “rampaging” through places of detention. In the United States, Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institute has one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world – more than 80 percent of the prison’s 2,000 inmates have tested positive for the virus. At a juvenile detention center in the same state, nearly half of the children detained have tested positive.
 
A 2019 global UN study found that on any given day, hundreds of thousands of children are detained in justice systems worldwide, and that as many as a million children are held in police custody each year. The study found that nearly three-quarters are in pretrial detention and have not been convicted of any offense. Many are held for “status” offenses such as truancy, running away from home, disobedience, underage drinking, and consensual sexual activity between teenagers. Studies in the US have concluded that most juvenile offenders could be released without jeopardizing public safety.
 
Restrictions imposed on detention facilities to prevent the spread of Covid-19 may help protect children from the virus but often have other negative effects. Many facilities now prohibit face-to-face family contact and restrict children to their cells for 23 or more hours a day. Such isolation can amount to solitary confinement. UN experts recommend a complete ban on solitary confinement for juveniles and say that for adults, solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture. In the US and UK, nearly all educational programs have been suspended.
 
International human rights law prohibits detention of children except as a last resort. A large body of research has found that community-based alternatives to detention are often cheaper and have better outcomes, including lower recidivism rates.
 
On April 9, the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, and the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action issued guidance regarding children in detention, urging governments to institute a moratorium on new children entering detention facilities, release all children who can be safely released, and protect the health and well-being of children who must remain in detention.
 
However, government release orders issued in response to Covid-19 have often prioritized older prisoners, nonviolent offenders, those who have served the majority of their sentence, women, and those in ill health – but did not include detained children. In Portugal, more than 1,500 adults have been released, but the Justice Ministry refused to release children, contending that juvenile detention facilities were under capacity and therefore safe. In South Africa, the president authorized parole for approximately 19,000 “low-risk” detainees nearing the end of their sentence, but children were not mentioned.
 
Afghanistan and Iraq have excluded from release detainees charged with terrorism or national security offenses, including association with armed groups. As a result, children who have been recruited as soldiers may be excluded from release orders. According to the UN, at least 2,588 children in conflict countries were detained for alleged association with armed groups in 2018. Under international law, children recruited illegally are victims and are entitled to rehabilitation and reintegration services.
 
Some jurisdictions have taken positive steps to release children or reduce the number of detained children in response to Covid-19. In Brazil’s São Paulo state, justice officials ordered the release of all children held for nonviolent crimes with staff follow-up after their release. In the US, a recent survey of juvenile justice agencies across 30 states found a 24 percent drop in the juvenile population during March due to a sharp reduction in new admissions and earlier releases. In the US state of Maryland, a judge ordered local courts to find alternatives to detention for child offenders and to review detention orders every two weeks.
 
The authorities should release all children held in juvenile detention facilities, prisons, and other places of detention who are not a substantial and immediate safety risk to others, Human Rights Watch said. They should provide a safe placement to those who do not otherwise have a safe home to return to.
 
When deprivation of liberty is unavoidable, children should have access to adequate hygiene, sanitary conditions, and medical services, adequate space to enable “social distancing,” and screening and testing for Covid-19 according to the most recent recommendations of health authorities.
 
“Children should never be detained unless all other options have been exhausted,” Becker said. “The threat of Covid-19 makes the release of children all the more urgent.”
 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A woman holds a packet of contraceptive pills, in Harare, Thursday, April 9, 2020. Lockdowns imposed to curb the coronavirus's spread have put millions of women in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere out of reach of birth control and other sexual and reproductive health needs. Confined to their homes with husbands and others, they face unwanted pregnancies and little idea of when they can reach the outside world again.

© 2020 AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi
“When I was 13… I got pregnant from my older brother… He raped me starting when I was 11,” a girl from Guatemala told one of us in 2015. She was one of the 2 million girls under 15 worldwide who give birth each year, often due to sexual violence.

The Covid-19 pandemic is putting girls like her at even greater risk. While lockdowns reduce the spread of Covid-19, they also drive a global spike in reported violence in the home, and leaving some women and girls isolated with abusers, leading to increased unwanted pregnancies.

The pandemic is putting enormous pressure on health systems around the world as governments work to contain the virus and treat sick people. But governments also need to sustain other essential services, which according to the World Health Organization include sexual and reproductive health services.

Overloaded hospitals, travel bans, lockdowns and border closures are making access to those services increasingly difficult. Poor and marginalized women and girls, including those with disabilities, especially risk losing access to needed services. And some governments’ responses are making matters worse by discriminating against women and girls who need them.

The pandemic is exposing and exacerbating existing inequalities. More than 5 million families in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean already spent more than 40 percent of their annual non-food household expenditures on maternal health services before the pandemic. With poor families hardest hit by the pandemic’s economic consequences, they are likely to find it even harder to get quality maternal health care.

Governments need to make sure that people can get these services, regardless of ability to pay, and that pregnant women not only get pre-natal and birth care and have the right to make decisions about their labor and delivery plan.

But they also need to protect everyone’s choice about whether to become pregnant or continue a pregnancy. The International Planned Parenthood Federation reports that the pandemic has forced them to close thousands of family planning facilities—either due to government orders or social distancing needs— Colombia, El Salvador, Pakistan, Germany, Ghana, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have each had to close at least 100 such facilities.

Directors for Marie Stopes, an organization that provides contraception and safe abortion services in many countries, in Uganda and Zimbabwe said they have waited in vain for supplies to arrive. “We’re expecting a huge shortage of contraceptives in African countries,” one said. In Venezuela, thousands of women who previously travelled to neighboring Colombia to obtain contraceptive supplies are now blocked by border closings. Manufacturers warn of a global condom shortage because manufacturers are locked down to halt the spread of the virus. The shortages of contraceptive supplies increase the risk of unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and the need for abortion.

Anti-choice politicians and organizations are capitalizing on the pandemic by urging governments to prohibit abortion care during the crisis. In the United States, 11 states have tried to limit access to abortionPoland’s Parliament is considering regressive legislation to eliminate legal access to abortion in some cases and to criminalize sexuality education.

Abortion cannot be delayed, and denying access violates human rights.

The right to non-discriminatory access to women’s health services is part of the right to health under international law and domestic law in most countries. Governments need to find ways to protect this right, even in the pandemic.

Denying these services will undermine women’s ability to recover from the pandemic. And increased pregnancies or unsafe abortions could increase pressure on already overburdened health systems.

The pandemic is reshaping our world, but it is also an opportunity to reshape reproductive health services. This might include expanded use of telemedicine, and making information available online. Expanding access to medical abortion at home, as England, Scotland and Wales have done, can help. In communities with limited access to technology, governments should ensure that health providers have the equipment and resources they need to safely reach patients.

Governments should monitor supply chains closely and seek solutions if contraceptive shortages arise, including redistributing available supplies across localities and even countries. They should ensure access to contraceptive information and services, including emergency contraception and abortion care.

Governments should put protecting sexual and reproductive rights up front in their response to Covid-19. These services are essential to women and girls—and their families– surviving and remaining healthy and are needed more than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic.

--

Anand Grover is the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and Ximena Casas is a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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

In this screenshot, a man helps a shop owner pick up a display stand after a group of teenagers vandalize the store in Chinatown San Francisco on March 16, 2020. 

© 2020 CrimesAgainstAsians/Facebook
(New York) – Governments should take urgent steps to prevent racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination linked to the Covid-19 pandemic while prosecuting racial attacks against Asians and people of Asian descent, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 8, 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” and urged governments to “act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.”

Government leaders and senior officials in some instances have directly or indirectly encouraged hate crimes, racism, or xenophobia by using anti-Chinese rhetoric. Several political parties and groups, including in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and Germany have also latched onto the Covid-19 crisis to advance anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic conspiracy theories that demonize refugees, foreigners, prominent individuals, and political leaders.

“Racism and physical attacks on Asians and people of Asian descent have spread with the Covid-19 pandemic, and government leaders need to act decisively to address the trend,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Governments should act to expand public outreach, promote tolerance, and counter hate speech while aggressively investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.”

The UN committee responsible for monitoring compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which 182 countries have ratified, has recommended that governments adopt “national action plans against racial discrimination.” Plans should lay out specific approaches to combat racism and discrimination, from enhanced policing of hate crimes to public messaging and education programming encouraging tolerance. Governments need to take urgent action to adopt new action plans to address the wave of Covid-19 racism and xenophobia.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Asians and people of Asian descent have been targets of derogatory language in media reports and statements by politicians as well as on social media platforms, where hate speech related to Covid-19 also appears to have spread extensively. US President Donald Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of “Wuhan virus” may have encouraged the use of hate speech in the US. Although by late March Trump stepped back from using the term and issued a tweet in support of “our Asian-American community,” he has not directed any specific governmental response toward protecting Asians and people of Asian descent.

The governor of the Veneto region of Italy, an early epicenter of the pandemic, told journalists in February that the country would be better than China in handling the virus due to Italians’ “culturally strong attention to hygiene, washing hands, taking showers, whereas we have all seen the Chinese eating mice alive.” He later apologized. Brazil’s education minister ridiculed Chinese people in a tweet suggesting that the pandemic was part of the Chinese government’s “plan for world domination.”

Increases in racist rhetoric have coincided with increases in racist attacks. Since February, Asians and people of Asian descent around the world have been subjected to attacks and beatings, violent bullying, threats, racist abuse, and discrimination that appear linked to the pandemic.

In Italy, the civil society group Lunaria since February has collected over 50 reports and media accounts of assaults, verbal harassment, bullying, and discrimination against people of Asian descent. Human rights and other groups in France, Australia, and Russia have also told Human Rights Watch of Covid-19-related attacks and harassment of people of Asian descent.

In the UK, Asian people have been punched in the face and taunted, accused of spreading coronavirus. Two women attacked Chinese students in Australia, punching and kicking one and yelling “Go back to China” and “you fucking immigrants.” Two men attacked a Chinese-American in Spain and beat him so badly that he was in a coma for two days. A man with a knife attacked a Burmese family in Texas.

In Africa, there have been reports of discrimination and attacks on Asian people accused of carrying coronavirus, as well as foreigners generally, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa. In Brazil, the media have reported harassment and shunning of people of Asian descent.

In some instances, governments have imposed strict lockdowns that indiscriminately affect only foreign workers without providing adequate health care, financial assistance, or other services that many workers now need to survive. In early May, the Malaysian authorities carried out mass raids to detain refugees and migrant workers, suggesting without basis that the migrant community and Rohingya refugees were responsible for the spread of Covid-19.

Across the Middle East, persistent racist rhetoric in public discourse against foreign workers intensified after several Covid-19 outbreaks occurred in densely populated segregated areas for foreign workers, most of whom are Asian.

Discrimination against Chinese people has also been reported in South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia.

Discrimination hasn’t been limited to Asians or people of Asian descent. In India and Sri Lanka, where leaders have done little to stop rising anti-Muslim discrimination in recent years, many apparent Covid-19-related cases of attacks and discrimination against Muslims have been reported. In Myanmar, ultra-nationalist leaders have used the pandemic to justify threats and hate speech against Muslims.

In early April 2020, Chinese authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, which has China’s largest African community, began a campaign to forcibly test Africans for the coronavirus, and ordered them to self-isolate or to quarantine in designated hotels. Landlords then evicted African residents, forcing many to sleep on the street, and hotels, shops, and restaurants refused African customers. Other foreign groups have generally not been subjected to similar treatment.

“Repeatedly and publicly condemning racism is an important part of any government’s response to the coronavirus,” Sifton said. “Governments also need to adopt special public education initiatives, strengthen policing of hate crimes, and offer support to communities victimized by discrimination and racially motivated attacks. “Social media companies have a responsibility to protect users against hateful and xenophobic content on their platforms, and should invest adequate resources to addressing it and mitigating its harm.”

Country-Specific Cases

United States

Anti-Asian incidents have continued in the US since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with numerous media reports in February and March about attacks and discrimination linked to Covid-19. By late April, a coalition of Asian-American groups that had created a reporting center called STOP AAPI HATE said it had received almost 1,500 reports of incidents of racism, hate speech, discrimination, and physical attacks against Asians and Asian-Americans.

In one typical incident, a Chinese-American reported “I was on the phone with my mom speaking in Mandarin when a woman walked by and yelled ‘get this corona virus chink away from me,’ directed at me.”

At least 125 of the incidents reported were physical attacks. Among the reported incidents: “A truck drove by and threw a [fast food franchise] drink on my back and yelled ‘Hey chink, you’re fucking nasty.’” In another, an Asian-American waiting for a bus said a man:

began berating me. I ignored him … [then] an object of substantial weight was thrown at me with high velocity – missing me but impacting the side of the bus with a sickening ‘thwack.’ Instantly, I sobered to an awareness in the amount of trauma the object would have caused if it had struck my head.

The group also reported hundreds of cases in which Asian-Americans were harassed in public or barred from businesses or transportation, yelled at in supermarkets, accused of “bringing coronavirus” to the US, or refused transport in car services like Uber or Lyft.

On May 4, the Anti-Defamation League released a list of near-daily incidents of racist attacks and cases of harassment from January through early May. For instance, on May 3, a stranger shouted at an Asian man on the New York subway “You’re infected China boy, you need to get off the train” and then attempted to pull the man out of his seat.

From March through early May, there were numerous public reports of violent physical attacks on Asian Americans including in California, Minnesota, New York, and Texas. NextShark, a website focused on Asian-American news, only received a few messages per day before the pandemic about cases involving anti-Asian bias; now it receives dozens.

Senior members of several Asian-American and other nongovernmental organizations have told Human Rights Watch that many members of the Asian-American community they work with have experienced abuse or harassment, or know someone who has.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other federal agencies have not taken any specific actions to address the rise in racist attacks and discrimination, although several state and local governments have set up hotlines and directed authorities to investigate cases of attacks or discrimination.

United Kingdom

Several violent attacks against people of Asian descent were reported when the Covid-19 outbreak began in the UK in February, including several physical attacks or beatings.

In early May, Sky News reported that data it had obtained through Freedom of Information requests to various regional UK police forces showed at least 267 anti-Asian hate crimes recorded across the country between January and March. In many jurisdictions, the figures for the first three months of 2020 were higher than all of 2018 or 2019. The figures from the British Transport Police between January and March, for instance, showed anti-Asian (or “anti-Chinese”) hate crime incidents matching the total number of complaints during all of 2019.

Stop Hate UK, an anti-racism group, reported in March that it had received increasing numbers of calls or reports of “racism, discrimination, and verbal abuse, arising from perceptions that they are members of the Chinese community.”

The senior-most UK police official responsible for hate crime nationally has stated publicly that police forces are monitoring anti-Asian hate crime and take such crimes seriously. In a recent release of crime statistics generally during the Covid-19 outbreak, however, police authorities focused on crime decreasing generally, without noting the rise in anti-Asian hate crime or indicating steps they are taking to stop it.

Several of the country’s local police forces did not provide information to the Sky News Freedom of Information requests about Covid-19-related hate crimes. This raises concerns about whether they are collecting data on anti-Asian hate crimes and whether they are monitoring and disaggregating hate crime by ethnicity, despite clear official guidance to do so.

Russia

On about February 20, after Russia banned Chinese citizens from entering the country, the state-owned transport company Mosgortrans began ordering drivers of public transport in Moscow to report Chinese passengers to the police. Staff stopped many passengers perceived to be Asian and asked for identification and the number of their metro pass to track their movements. The Chinese embassy sent a letter to the Moscow government on February 24 asking them to take steps to stop the discriminatory practice. During the last week of February, well before Moscow was placed under lockdown, police raided several locations to identify Chinese citizens and force them into quarantine, regardless of their travel histories.

The Russian group SOVA, which monitors xenophobia and racism, told Human Rights Watch that there had been increased attacks against Asians since February. It also reported a “wave of insulting and racist commentary directed at Chinese people and natives of Central Asia on social media” in relation to Covid-19.

A media report by Lenta on March 29 detailed several accounts, including cases of people yelling at Asians or Central Asians on the subway or in public, asserting that “the Chinese brought coronavirus to this country.” Through March, there were also reported incidents of discriminatory actions against Asian-looking people in Nizhnevartovsk, Ekaterinburg, Tatarstan, and Makhachkala, among other places.

Australia

A spate of cases of racist abuse and attacks and vandalism against people of Asian descent have been reported across the country since the outbreak of Covid-19. For example, there were reports in late March in Sydney of cases in which “Death to dog eaters” was painted in front of an Asian man’s house and of people screaming racist abuse at two sisters, calling them “Asian dogs” who “brought Coronavirus here” and “dumb whore.”

Near Melbourne, also in late March, a Chinese-Australian family’s suburban home was targeted with racist vandalism three times in the space of a week: on March 20, the family found the words “COVID-19 China die” spray painted on the door of their garage. Late the following night, an unidentified person threw a large rock though one of their windows. On March 29, the door of their garage was again spray painted, this time with the words “leave and die.”

On April 15, 2 women in a group attacked 2 female Chinese students at Melbourne University, yelling racist statements such as, “Go back to China” and “you fucking immigrants.” One of the women repeatedly punched one of the students in the head and, after pushing her to the ground, kicked her in the torso several times.

A survey focusing on Covid-19-related racism against Asians and Asian-Australians recorded 178 incidents during the first two weeks of April countrywide. The survey, by the community group Asian Australian Alliance, has received about 12 reports a day since April 2, ranging from racial slurs to physical assault. The majority of racist incidents reported – 62 percent – were against women. Australia’s Human Rights Commission also reported a spike in complaints about racist attacks. The Australian National University created a “prejudice census” to better collect information about the surge of incidents linked to Covid-19.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has criticized Covid-19-related racist attacks, telling Australians to simply “stop it.” Alan Tudge, Australia’s acting minister for immigration and multicultural affairs, also strongly condemned the rise in racist attacks, and a Labor parliament member, Andrew Giles, and other opposition leaders have called for the government to restart a national anti-racism campaign.

India

Hate speech against Muslims, already a serious and growing problem since the election of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2015, increased in connection with the spread of Covid-19.

In April, social media and WhatsApp groups were flooded by calls for social and economic boycotts of Muslims, including by BJP supporters. Several physical attacks on Muslims have also occurred, including of volunteers distributing relief material, amid falsehoods accusing them of spreading the virus deliberately.

Hate speech against Muslims appears to have grown after Indian authorities announced that a large number of Muslims had tested positive for Covid-19 after attending a mass religious congregation in Delhi, organized by the international Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat. BJP officials fanned the flames by calling the Jamaat meeting a “Talibani crime” and “CoronaTerrorism.” Some mainstream media supportive of the BJP have used terms like #CoronaJihad, causing the hashtag to go viral on social media.

The situation grew so serious that the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement of caution, noting that “it is very important that we do not profile the cases on the basis of racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not explicitly condemned hate speech against Muslims, but tweeted “COVID19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language, or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.” But Indian authorities at the national and local level have not taken adequate steps to stem the increasingly toxic atmosphere or conduct adequate investigations of attacks where appropriate.

Sri Lanka

Several government officials have made stigmatizing public comments about Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community in the context of the pandemic, as hate speech has been reported across the country. This includes claims that Muslims are responsible for deliberately spreading the pandemic, along with calls for boycotts of Muslim businesses. Muslim organizations wrote to the government on April 12 to draw attention to an increase in hate speech in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government issued a rule on March 27 that anyone who dies from Covid-19 complications must be cremated, which is at odds with Islam religious practice. The WHO has said that cremation should be “a matter of cultural choice and available resources,” and is not necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Four UN special rapporteurs issued a communication on April 8 finding that the rule was a violation of freedom of religion and also drawing attention to anti-Muslim hate speech and the stigmatization of Muslims who had tested positive for Covid-19. A Muslim man, Ramzy Razeek, who wrote against the cremation rule on Facebook, received death threats. When he complained to the police, he was arrested on April 9.

International Legal Obligations

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination obligates countries to “condemn racial discrimination” and undertake measures aimed at “eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and promoting understanding among all races” while undertaking “not to sponsor, defend, or support racial discrimination by any persons or organizations.” Countries need to “prohibit and bring to an end, by all appropriate means ... racial discrimination by any persons, group, or organization” and “discourage anything which tends to strengthen racial division.”

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), set up to monitor the treaty’s provisions, has stated in a general recommendation on combating racist hate speech that “[f]ormal rejection of hate speech by high-level public officials and condemnation of the hateful ideas expressed play an important role in promoting a culture of tolerance and respect.” The CERD committee recommends that governments undertake “information campaigns and educational policies calling attention to the harms produced by racist hate speech,” and that training for police and legal systems is “essential” to foster “familiarization with international norms protecting freedom of opinion and expression and norms protecting against racist hate speech.”

Given the upsurge in anti-Asian and other racism and xenophobia related to the Covid-19 pandemic, all governments should adopt new action plans to address emerging forms of discrimination and xenophobia tailored to the new and changing circumstances, Human Rights Watch said. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights outlined best strategies for adopting action plans in a set of guidelines released in 2014.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

School-age children in Lebanon.

Top photos, bottom left photo: © 2017 Amanda Bailly for Human Rights Watch. Bottom center and right photos: © 2017 Sam Koplewicz for Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Lebanon’s Covid-19 response has overlooked people with disabilities, who have not been provided with accessible information about the virus or consulted in preparing the government’s emergency response plans, Human Rights Watch said today.

People with disabilities are facing barriers in getting health care. Children with disabilities cannot access remote education on an equal basis with others, and families of children with disabilities do not have the support and services they need to help them cope with the crisis.

“The Lebanese government’s Covid-19 response has completely ignored the rights and needs of people with disabilities, who were marginalized long before the virus hit,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This exclusion is robbing people with disabilities of potentially life-saving information and services that they need to weather this crisis.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed six disability rights activists and six parents of children with disabilities, all of whom said that the government’s Covid-19 response overlooked the specific needs of people with disabilities.

The government should ensure that health care is accessible to all, without discrimination. But it has not made arrangements for people with disabilities – who may frequently need health care – amid the lockdown and stay-at-home orders, despite requests by activists, the activists and parents said.

Sylvana Lakkis, president of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union, said that her organization has been receiving a large volume of calls from people with disabilities asking for help in getting necessary medication. She said that some who need respirators for underlying health conditions said they have become more difficult to find amid the restrictions.

Accessible information on the pandemic is essential for people to make life-saving decisions about how to protect themselves and to get necessities and services during quarantine and self-isolation. But the government’s television and social media information campaigns may not be accessible and none target people with disabilities, said Dr. Moussa Charafeddine, president of the Friends of the Disabled Association in Lebanon.

Private initiatives and international organizations like UNICEF have produced some material about Covid-19 that is accessible for people with disabilities, but many people with disabilities are still not getting life-saving information, said Fadia Farah from the Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA) and Lakkis, of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union.

The government’s communication strategies should include qualified sign language interpretation for televised announcements, websites that are accessible to people with various disabilities, and telephone-based services that have text capabilities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, Human Rights Watch said. Communications should use plain language to maximize understanding.

The government should urgently consult with disability-rights experts to identify potentially life-threatening gaps in its Covid-19 response, Human Rights Watch said. Officials had contacted just one of the six groups Human Rights Watch spoke to, the Learning Center for the Deaf, to draft a guide for municipalities on people with disabilities in the pandemic. But Human Rights Watch was unable to determine whether the guide was finalized or published.

Children with disabilities have also been disadvantaged by school and institution closures since February 29 that have mandated online or remote learning without accommodating the needs of children with disabilities. Most children with disabilities in Lebanon are denied enrollment in schools, and for the few who can enroll, schools lack reasonable accommodations to help them learn. Some schools have set up distance learning, but this teaching method is often not accessible or cannot accommodate the needs of children with disabilities.

Video

Video: Schools Discriminate Against Children with Disabilities in Lebanon

Lebanon’s public education system discriminates against children with disabilities. Children with disabilities are often denied admission to schools because of their disability. And for those who manage to enroll, most schools do not take reasonable steps to provide them with a quality education.

Amer Makarem, from the Youth Association of the Blind, said that online classes and lessons are generally not accessible for students with visual disabilities. Some teachers are sending lessons on WhatsApp, sometimes as image files that are not accessible, he said. Nadine Ismail, from the Learning Center for the Deaf, said that remote learning is especially difficult for deaf children, who need large screens to focus and programs that allow a teacher to use sign language and show documents simultaneously.

Parents of children with developmental disabilities said that the private schools at which their children were enrolled were merely sending videos to watch at home and were not conducting one-on-one educational or therapy sessions that the children had in school. All the parents interviewed said that they had nowhere to turn for educational support.

Even before the pandemic, the government’s only option for the majority of children with disabilities was to enroll in one of about 100 specialized institutions funded by the Social Affairs Ministry. The ministry owes these institutions substantial payments, interfering with their ability to provide quality education, and the lack of government monitoring raises serious concerns about their ability, in some cases, to fulfill the children’s right to education.

Nonetheless, for many families the specialized institutions are the sole providers of learning and other services, including food and health care. Their closure has deprived children with disabilities and their families of these resources and services.

Disability rights advocates that operate some of these institutions said that the government had ordered them to close with no guidance on continuing their educational programming remotely. Dr. Weam Abou Hamdan, general director of the National Rehabilitation and Development Center, and Dr. Mousa Charafeddine, president of the Friends of the Disabled Association in Lebanon, which offers learning and rehabilitation services to children with intellectual disabilities, said that their institutions started distance learning programs on their own initiative.

Under both Lebanese and international law, all children should have access to a quality education without discrimination. The government should recognize the disproportionate impact school closures have on children with disabilities and engage in continuous social and policy discussion with educators and organizations of people with disabilities to assess needs and agree on education measures for students with various types of disabilities.

As the schools might be transitioning back to onsite learning starting June 1, the government should make equity a top priority, and include tools and guidance for schools to support students with disabilities and to provide remedial teaching. The government should also measure possible increases in drop-out rates of children with disabilities and work with advocacy organizations to ensure children return.

“The Lebanese government should urgently take into account the needs of people with disabilities,” Majzoub said. “This includes making sure they have access to information, health care, and the resources children with disabilities need to continue their education, while taking meaningful steps to make schools more inclusive.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three men in full combat gear wearing protective face masks against Covid-19, in Tripoli, Libya on March 25, 2020

© 2020 Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In early April, a photograph of three fighters on one of Tripoli’s front lines grabbed social media’s attention both for its poignancy and the absurdity of the situation. The photo was of three heavily armed men in full combat gear wearing protective face masks against Covid-19.

In Libya, the war to conquer Tripoli has intensified, with devastating consequences for the civilian population, since the country confirmed its first case of Covid-19 at the end of March. Forces affiliated with the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) under the command of Khalifa Haftar have increased their shelling of residential neighborhoods close to the front lines in the southern suburbs of Tripoli. The UN says that Haftar’s forces, who get most of their military support from the United Arab Emirates, inflicted the vast majority of civilian casualties in the first three months of the year.

Meanwhile, the Government of National Accord (GNA) and affiliated forces, supported mostly by Turkey, have made major advances since mid-April, but show little sign of changing their methods. In the past, they have failed to ensure that there were no civilians adjacent to the military facilities they targeted, heightening the risk of civilian harm.

These attacks contributed to the World Health Organization decision to include Libya among the countries at high risk from Covid-19. The organization also said that Libya had weak capacities to detect and respond to Covid-19. The risk of a total system being quickly overwhelmed should the disease spread in Libya is acute. The authorities, particularly in the conflict-ridden west and south, won’t be able to cope with large numbers of patients.

In its first quarter civilian casualty report for 2020, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya noted an increase of 45 percent in civilian casualties from the fourth quarter of 2019.

Over the past year, we have documented serious violations of the laws of war by groups affiliated with the GNA and LAAF as well as their foreign backers. Both sides are guilty of indiscriminate and other unlawful attacks against civilians that have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths since the conflict began in April 2019.

The attacks that often killed civilians included airstrikes and drone strikes as well as shelling of homes, businesses, schools, and health facilities. According to the UN, which attributed most of the casualties to the LAAF, airstrikes were the leading cause of civilian casualties in 2019.

After years of political divisions, neglect, and armed conflict, Libya’s health structures were already decimated, long before the coronavirus outbreak.

But the pandemic does not seem to have led either side to take more steps to protect civilians in the war, in which hospitals and medical staff have been repeatedly attacked.

During a December visit to Tripoli, I saw first-hand the devastating effect of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas that damaged vital civilian infrastructure, including healthcare facilities. I visited hospitals that had been damaged or shuttered, and field clinics that had been attacked, and documented cases in which ambulance drivers and emergency first responders were killed or injured in the line of duty.

The pandemic does not seem to have led either side to take more steps to protect civilians in the war, in which hospitals and medical staff have been repeatedly attacked.

In the Salaheddin southern suburbs of Tripoli, I visited two private clinics close to the front lines that had been affected by the fighting. The al-Umuma Clinic was shuttered after a rocket attack killed an ambulance driver and damaged the hospital. The driver Salem Infeis, a father of three, was killed by an LAAF airstrike that struck the ambulance he was driving in October. A lone mortar in November killed a 9-year-old boy who was accompanying his mother, a patient at the nearby Al-Nukhba Clinic, another private hospital that was still treating a small number of patients. Tripoli authorities accuse the LAAF in both incidents.

The World Health Organization reported 13 attacks on healthcare in Libya in 2020 through early May, damaging eight healthcare facilities and three transport vehicles. The attacks also resulted in 5 deaths of healthcare personnel, with 17 injured.

International humanitarian law – the legal framework governing the Libyan conflict –  covers the conduct of the fighting, including the protection of civilians, not whether there should be a cessation of hostilities during a pandemic. But it stipulates several key provisions relevant to a pandemic according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The parties are forbidden to attack, destroy, remove, or leave useless objects that are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as drinking water installations, and are obligated to take constant care to spare civilian objects. Given the current crisis, water supply facilities are of critical importance as any disruptions mean that civilians would no longer be able to do basic prevention by washing their hands frequently, which could lead to further spread of the virus.

The conflict parties in Libya tore up the rule book many years ago and have been operating with impunity, virtually unchallenged

Well-functioning and well-equipped medical facilities are necessary to provide medical care on a large scale, as necessitated by the Coronavirus outbreak. The parties are obligated to respect and protect medical personnel and their facilities and transports, as well as to respect and protect wounded and sick peoples and to make every effort to evacuate them without delay.

I can report that the parties to this conflict have violated these provisions many times over.

In fact, the conflict parties in Libya tore up the rule book many years ago and have been operating with impunity, virtually unchallenged, despite the International Criminal Court’s mandate over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide there since 15 February, 2011.

I have some hope that the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva will establish an International Commission of Inquiry during its upcoming session in June. As a first step toward accountability, such a commission should document violations, identify those responsible, including external actors, preserve evidence for future criminal proceedings, and publicly report on human rights conditions in Libya.

Emboldened after years of getting away with their crimes, armed groups in Libya are continuing to destroy the country’s fragile health infrastructure during a deadly pandemic.

What’s clear, though, is that masks will be of little use to anyone if those fighting in the war continue to destroy the little that is left of the Libyan medical and public health establishment whose job is to fight the spread of a virus so deadly that it has practically immobilized the whole world.

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

People stand by the banks of Bhasan Char, or floating island, in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, December 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Saleh Noman
(New York) – Bangladesh authorities have quarantined 29 Rohingya refugees without adequate access to aid on an unstable silt island in the Bay of Bengal, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities said that they are holding the refugees, who had been adrift at sea for over two months, on Bhasan Char to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the camps.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told the media on May 2, 2020, that the new arrivals were ethnic Rohingya who fled Myanmar to try to reach Malaysia. However, Human Rights Watch interviews with families found that at least seven of those detained are registered refugees from the camps in Bangladesh. Momen said that all future arrivals will be transferred to Bhasan Char, which experts have warned may not be fit for habitation and contains no access to humanitarian services provided by the United Nations or aid agencies.

“Bangladesh faces the tremendous challenge of assisting Rohingya boat people while preventing the spread of Covid-19, but sending them to a dangerously flood-prone island without adequate health care is hardly the solution,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Any quarantines need to ensure aid agency access and safety from storms, and a prompt return to their families on the mainland.”

Several trawlers, each packed with several hundred Rohingya, set out for Malaysia in March, but at least two were intercepted and turned away with a fresh supply of food and water. On April 15, the Bangladesh coast guard received one boat with nearly 400 people, who said that as many as 100 may have died on board before the rescue. At least two other boats remain stranded at sea with an estimated 700 refugees.

Early in the morning of May 2, at least 50 Rohingya from one of the trawlers were transferred to smaller boats by smugglers after families paid ransom, and landed on the Bangladesh coast. Many of the Rohingya were able to disappear into the camps, but the authorities captured 29.

Additional Rohingya refugees are soon expected to arrive in Bangladesh. Families told Human Rights Watch that they had paid the smugglers between 35,000 and 60,000 taka (US$400 to $700) on top of the amounts they paid for the initial journey, to ensure that their relatives returned safely ashore.

A Rohingya refugee from the Kutupalong camp said that after he paid the smugglers, his two daughters were brought from the trawler to the Bangladesh coast on May 2, but both now have been sent to Bhasan Char. “I’m worried about my daughters who have been taken to that island,” he said. “They informed me that they’re afraid they may not be able to return. It’s really painful.” He said that the Bangladesh authorities did not contact him before sending them to Bhasan Char: “My daughter told me that some government officer in Bhasan Char said, ‘your parents will be brought here to Bhasan Char.’ We did not care how much we had to pay to get our daughters back, but now there is uncertainty about whether they will return from Bhasan Char, or whether we will also be forced to relocate there by Bangladesh authorities.”

Another refugee said that the smugglers brought his sister back 54 days after she left the camp, but when he went to meet her at the police station, he was told she “had already been sent to Bhasan Char.”

Bangladesh authorities claim they do not want to “pollute” the Rohingya camps during the pandemic, but failed to provide the refugees with access to UN and other international agencies before sending them to Bhasan Char. A representative from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, told Human Rights Watch that they are prepared “to ensure the safe quarantine of any refugees arriving by boat to Cox’s Bazar,” near where the refugee camps are located.

Cox’s Bazar has facilities that include testing and quarantine centers established by agreement with the Bangladesh government. In April humanitarian agencies helped to organize the quarantine of about 400 refugees rescued from a boat. After completing the quarantine and testing negative for Covid-19, they returned to their families.

Bangladesh should not quarantine refugees at Bhasan Char until they coordinate with the UN and other agencies to ensure that proper medical and food assistance are provided, Human Rights Watch said. Once the quarantine period is over, they should immediately be taken back to reunite with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps.

Over 900,000 Rohingya refugees are living in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh after fleeing mass atrocities in neighboring Myanmar. Myanmar authorities have not created conditions for the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of Rohingya refugees despite entreaties from the UN and governments around the world.

Bangladesh says it cannot accept any more Rohingya refugees. Foreign Minister Momen said that the navy and coast guard are on alert to prevent any additional boats with Rohingya from entering Bangladesh. Such pronouncements contravene Bangladesh’s international legal obligations to respond to boats in distress, coordinate rescue operations, and not push back asylum seekers whose lives are at risk at sea.

Countries should ensure that there are adequate search and rescue services in their coastal waters to respond to boats in distress. Regional governments should ensure effective and coordinated search and rescue zones to save lives when they learn of boats in distress. There are heightened concerns for refugees stranded at sea ahead of a strong cyclone that is currently forming in Bay of Bengal.

“Myanmar’s culpability for the plight of the Rohingya does not give Bangladesh free rein to send people to an island where their lives could be in danger,” Adams said. “Support from international donors can help Bangladesh protect the refugee population from the pandemic while upholding the rights and safety of newly arriving boat people.”
 

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Zapotec woman washes her hands after learning from a local radio program about hand-washing and social distancing to avoid COVID-19, in Oaxaca state, Mexico, March 31, 2020. 

© 2020 REUTERS/Jose de Jesus Corte

President Jair Bolsonaro has been peddling the myth that only older people are at risk from Covid-19. At the same time, he has repeatedly dismissed their needs. His  disinformation and callous remarks about the country’s 28 million people over 60 make it harder for public health officials to save lives.

Data from Europe and the United States shows that people of all ages are susceptible to Covid-19, including to severe illness and death. But those over 60 are at higher risk of serious or fatal complications. About 95 percent of the deaths from Covid-19 in Europe have been  people over 60.

Yet President Bolsonaro has openly rejected the government’s duty to protect older people. “Each family has to protect its elderly, not throw that on the State,” he said in a television interview on April 8.

He is wrong. For one thing, more than four million older people live alone in Brazil. The government is obligated to protect them, as well as those who live with families or in institutions. The pandemic increases the risks to their health, but also to violence, neglect, and other abuses. Government services can extend a lifeline.

Data from a  Ministry of Women, Families and Human Rights  hotline indicates that the Covid-19 crisis has brought a significant daily increase in rights violations against older people, including mistreatment and exposure to health risks. Those who work with victims of domestic violence confirm a rise in violence against older women by their partners, their children, or caregivers. And the proportion of women 60 and over has increased in the past decades to  23.8 percent of women and girls over 15.

Erika Bueno, a lawyer at a support center in southern São Paulo City, recently helped an older woman whose son had assaulted her, and another whose abusive ex-husband had threatened her. Especially during a quarantine, the government should reach out to make sure that people know how to report abuses, Bueno said. The public defender’s office in São Paulo State is allowing people to report domestic violence online, for example, and getting judges to issue restraining orders or other measures remotely instead of requiring victims to appear in their office.

The president could be using his megaphone to get the word out about such programs. He could be extending support for food and medicine and other services to older people and others practicing physical distancing throughout the nation, reducing their forced dependence on their families and others and decreasing their risk for violence and abuse. But instead of projecting concern, broadcasting solid information, and directing life-saving aid, President Bolsonaro dismisses the value of older people and others at high risk.

To make matters worse, the president is picking a fight—not against the virus but against Brazil’s Health Ministry, many governors, and officials at all levels who are trying to follow scientific evidence in public policy to stem the tide of the pandemic. On April 16, President Bolsonaro fired Health Minister Luis Henrique Mandetta, who had been calling on all Brazilians to practice social distancing.

Instead of supporting such protocols, President Bolsonaro has suggested that only older people should stay at home, while other family members come and go from work. Health experts say that will not stop the spread of the disease or spare those who stay at home. Indeed, in other countries, most infections have been spread inside households. Some infected people show no symptoms, and bring the disease home to family members without knowing it.

Researchers from Imperial College London predict that requiring only older people to isolate could double Brazil’s number of Covid-19 deaths. The National Front of Mayors, representing Brazil’s largest cities, warned on March 27 that ending the protocols they call "social restraint" could lead to overwhelmed hospitals and the collapse of the country’s publicly funded healthcare system..

Governments have an obligation to protect everyone. Older people are no exception. The country’s leaders at the municipal, state, and federal levels—all the way to the man at the top—need to unite to fight the pandemic. They need to support protocols that protect everyone from exposure and prevent discrimination in access to treatment. They need to care for those who get sick. And they need to defend people from rising domestic violence and neglect related to the pandemic.

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

What are your biggest concerns about Covid-19 in the US?

My biggest concerns are around the intersectionality of health, poverty, gender, class, and race. We’re seeing all the inequities manifesting themselves in how Covid-19 is being addressed in the US. The people suffering disproportionately are low-income wage workers, part-time workers, who depend on these jobs to support families. People living in poverty, in crowded homes where social distancing is a privilege, are often unable to follow the guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Also, Black and Brown communities are the heaviest hit.

These communities were already behind the rest of the country in terms of access to health care and having underlying health issues linked to race and class.

Take, for example, the African American community. The latest data indicates they’re the hardest hit. They have historically had higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and obesity. They live in neighborhoods with higher rates of air pollution, putting their health at risk. They are more likely to have no health insurance. Pregnancy is more likely to kill Black women, as is cervical cancer. Our work in Tulsa, Oklahoma found differences in life expectancy of greater than 10 years between whiter, wealthier neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods where more Black people live.

People who have these types of health issues, who are in lower-income economic groups, and who have harder times accessing quality care, are now dealing with Covid-19 on top of these pre-existing conditions.

Unfortunately, the first data on Covid-19 cases and deaths did not include information on race, as many states didn’t report it, and some didn’t even collect it. It’s only in the last few weeks that the information exposing these disparities is beginning to be reported, and it is sounding a very loud alarm bell. In Milwaukee, we see the number of African Americans testing positive and the number of deaths. We see numbers coming out of Michigan, focusing on Detroit. All states should be collecting this data and sending it to the CDC, so we can see what’s happening nationwide.

Emergency room doctors and nurses wear personal protective equipment while manning desks due to COVID-19 concerns at St. Joseph's Hospital, Monday, April 20, 2020, in Yonkers, N.Y. 

(c) John Minchillo/AP Photo

Who else in the US is most likely to be adversely affected?

Our firefighters, our police officers, other first responders. This is also true for our healthcare workers at all levels, from the richest doctor with 10 degrees from Harvard to the workers cleaning and sanitizing floors. Thankfully, some of these groups, like emergency workers and healthcare workers, are receiving some additional assistance to help them better protect themselves. But, the workers at the lower levels of our economic chain, the grocery store workers, the food delivery service personnel – are highly exposed with less support in place to help keep them safe.

We have grave concerns about communities of people who either require care or who can’t provide for themselves. People who are detained in jails and prisons. People who are homeless, who live in shelters. People who live in nursing homes and psychiatric institutions. All of these people have to depend on others to care for them, to house them, feed them. The US as a nation is failing to protect them. We are seeing this manifesting in the nursing homes, with the number of deaths, and the Covid-19 cases identified in jails and prisons. In terms of the homeless community, we don’t have enough data, but we know many live in crowded shelters in unsanitary conditions. They don’t have the privilege of self-quarantining or social distancing, or even necessarily being able to access sufficient water to wash their hands. Now, often with the threat of criminal enforcement, homeless people are being pushed into these shelters where infections are beginning to emerge.

This goes for people in our immigration detention centers, who are also at risk. Our previous work shows that people in these centers often have limited access to regular bathing, are held in close quarters, and are living in unsanitary conditions. These conditions don’t allow for social distancing and regular handwashing, to say the least.

Children from low-income and poor performing school districts are at particular risk. These children, who were already struggling to receive a good education, now depend on family members and remote learning to continue their studies. Many of these are the children of the low-income workers who must continue working during this time and have limited ability to oversee homeschooling. These children may not have access to the internet, home computers, and other technology to learn at a high level while schools remain closed.

Signs made by prisoners pleading for help are seen on a window of Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, April 7, 2020, amid the spread of Covid-19.

© 2020 REUTERS/Jim Vondruska

Women are also extremely vulnerable to human rights abuses during this time. Early data points to a rise in reports of domestic violence since the start of this crisis. Many of the support mechanisms that are usually in place to support these victims are limited and overstretched as a result of the pandemic. Mothers – especially those who are single – are particularly challenged as they must now balance even more demands with, for some, a loss of income and limited ability to homeschool their children. We also see some state governments using the pandemic as a pretext for limiting women’s access to needed health care, like safe abortions. 

Low-wage workers are often in multiple at-risk groups. For example, many workers in the food supply chain, like farm and meatpacking workers, are people of color, immigrants, and women. They are subject to potentially unsafe living and working conditions. One massive cluster of infections in the country right now is in a South Dakota pork processing plant, which highlights the importance of protecting workers and ensuring safe working conditions throughout food supply chains, which may otherwise be disrupted. And the situation for these workers has worsened now that the US president has issued an executive order, requiring meat plants to remain open and in production despite the risks to the health of workers.

How has the US reacted to the virus in ways that are harmful to rights?

Where do I begin. There is a failure of leadership. The fact that the leader of the US ignored the early-warning signals from experts about how the disease was developing, how it would travel – this is unacceptable. The fact that the leader failed to take precautionary measures to protect Americans’ rights to health and life was a travesty. It’s the reason we are at this point right now in terms of the number of cases and deaths in the United States.

Related to that, the fact that our local health departments and healthcare providers and hospital systems are understaffed, underfunded, and don’t have the tools that they need to address this disease to care for the people who are infected, is also a rights issue. Given the wealth of this nation, this should not be.

It’s late April, and we had our first case of Covid-19 in January, yet many of these issues have yet to be addressed.

And, despite some steps in the right direction, President Donald Trump muddies the waters on an almost daily basis by sputtering inaccuracies and even promoting unsupported science regarding treatment options for the virus.

Amid social distancing during the Covid-19 outbreak, a cashier wears a mask while working behind a clear barrier between her and a customer at El Rancho grocery store in Dallas, Thursday, March 26, 2020. 

(c) LM Otero/AP Photo

There are also economic issues. With millions of people now out of work, as evidenced by the record-breaking applications for unemployment assistance, officials should be focusing on how to protect those most at risk. If you’re a low-wage worker waiting tables, delivering meals, cleaning office buildings, and servicing grocery stores, you can’t take that work home with you, but you also may be unable to pay for housing, food, or health bills. We also have not done enough to ensure that workers who do remain employed can do their jobs safely.

However, relief packages have fallen short on protecting low-wage workers, unemployed people, and immigrants. There are steps that state governments could take and the federal government could encourage, such as moratoriums on evictions, utility cut-offs, and debt collection, and there are still no guarantees that people can access affordable medical treatment for Covid-19. Inadequate payments from the government mean many still cannot afford basic necessities.

How have US states reacted to the virus in ways that respect rights?

Certain state governors in the US have been providing much-needed leadership during this crisis. I live in Maryland, and long before the White House issued orders, the Maryland governor said we’re going to shut down the schools and non-essential businesses. That was his way of saying we’re going to help people stay in place. But he also looked out for the working poor. The state isn’t going to allow any evictions, any foreclosures, or any utilities to be cut off. That includes “luxury” utilities like cell phones – which for many may be the way their children access schooling now. He found ways to ensure that the most essential government services were still available, while taking additional steps to protect people working there. For instance, early on, he ordered workers in the Motor Vehicle Administration to work remotely utilizing systems that were put in place to ensure their safety while meeting the demands of the public.

The governor of California is another good example. He has focused on supporting unemployed low-wage workers and others by expanding unemployment office hours to handle the groundswell of applications. He also allocated an additional $125 million dollars to help up to 150,000 immigrants without legal status receive unemployment assistance.

In other cases, governors have acted with apparently little regard for public health concerns. Alabama, Louisiana, Florida – their governors ignored warnings from the CDC and the World Health Organization about the virus. Georgia’s governor decided to partially reopen the state, focusing on bowling alleys and hair salons, against the advice of public health experts.

A window of the Wesley House across from New York-Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital displays words of gratitude for all essential workers on April 16, 2020, in Brooklyn, New York. 

(c) 2020 Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa via AP Images

How prepared are US states in terms of infrastructure to deal with Covid-19?

We had infrastructure problems long before Covid-19. Many people in the US do not have health insurance, and local healthcare departments have had their budgets slashed in the past decade. Before coming to Human Rights Watch, I was working for a nongovernmental organization on policy issues around human rights and social justice. I advocated with congress, pushing them to shore up infrastructure, from health care to roads and bridges and water systems. Right now, Human Rights Watch is pushing Congress for safer water and wastewater infrastructure, and to ensure everyone has running water – which is essential to preventing the spread of Covid-19 – even if they can’t pay. But the country has simply not done a good job responding to this. Our failure to do so is compounding the problems around Covid-19.

I think it’s crucial for the US to look at what comes next. There’s a rush right now to identify what problems exist at this moment. And I understand that, we’re in triage. The country is bleeding. But in some ways, there’s a greater need to look beyond Covid-19. What does a post Covid-19 US look like, and what changes do we have to make to do a better job to protect the rights of all people in the US in the future?

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

An Indian Muslim watches a policeman instructing a family riding on a scooter on social distancing on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan at the old quarters of New Delhi, India, Saturday, April 25, 2020. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Manish Swarup
“My mother has been asking me about detention centers,” my friend recently told me on the phone. “She has been very worried.”

My first reaction was shame. She is Muslim and I am Hindu. That never meant anything to us when we first met, studied together and hung out in New York. When her mother came to visit, I was always excited because it meant hot and delicious meals that eased the pain of missing home. But for several years now, home has come to mean something different to us. The crescendo in Muslim vilification, the increase in violent mob attacks that have killed and injured so many, the seeming acquiescence of many Indian Hindus, has meant our lived realities in our own country have diverged.

Today, as the world battles coronavirus (COVID-19), which has already claimed thousands of lives, India is also battling another threat to life – Muslim hate. In recent weeks, social media and WhatsApp groups have been flooded by calls for social and economic boycotts of Muslims and there have been numerous physical attacks on Muslims, including volunteers distributing relief material, amid falsehoods accusing them of spreading the virus deliberately.

It all started after the Indian authorities announced that they found a large number of coronavirus positive cases among Muslims who had attended a mass religious congregation in Delhi, organized by the international Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat. Even as the authorities raced to trace those affected, leaders from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had already called the Jamaat meeting a “Talibani crime” and “CoronaTerrorism.” Some mainstream media screamed “CoronaJihad” and the hashtag went viral on social media.

The Tablighi Jamaat situation led the World Health Organization to caution: “It is very important that we do not profile the cases on the basis of racial, religious and ethnic lines.” Medical experts worried that such stigmatization of one community would do great harm during an epidemic, making people fearful, “leading to concealment of cases and delays in detection.”

On 19 April 2020, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation criticized the “unrelenting vicious Islamophobiccampaign in India maligning Muslims for spread of COVID-19.” Less than an hour later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke up for the first time, tweeting: “COVID19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.”

However, coronavirus has simply highlighted what Muslims have been increasingly facing in India since Modi’s BJP government was first elected in 2014. BJP leaders have repeatedly made Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim remarks in their speeches and interviews. These have, at times, encouraged and even incited violent attacks by party supporters who believe they have political protection and approval. They have beaten Muslim men for dating Hindu women. Mobs affiliated with the BJP have, since 2015, killed and injured scores of members of religious minorities amid rumors that they traded or killed cows for beef.

Government policy has also reflected bias against Muslims. In December 2019, the Modi administration achieved passage of the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which for the first time in India makes religion a basis for granting citizenship. The law specifically fast-tracks asylum claims of non-Muslim irregular immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. However, the amended citizenship law, coupled with the government’s push for a nationwide citizenship verification process, aimed at identifying “illegal migrants,” has led to fears that millions of Indian Muslims, including many families who have lived in the country for generations, could be stripped of their citizenship rights, disenfranchised, and detained.

What was reassuring is that hundreds of thousands of Indians protested against these plans. It showed that many did not agree with the discrimination and targeting of minority groups. But it was deeply troubling that the police and other officials repeatedly failed to intervene when government supporters attacked Muslims and others protesting against the government’s proposed citizenship policies. Police, however, were quick to arrest critics of the policy and disperse their peaceful demonstrations, including by using excessive and lethal force.Several BJP officials mocked and threatened protesters, while some even called for the protesters, whom they described as “traitors,” to be shot, fueling further violence against Muslims.

In India’s northeastern state of Assam, such a citizenship verification process has already excluded nearly two million people, both Hindus and Muslims. Non-Muslims who are considered doubtful citizens or illegal immigrants because of inadequate documentation will have an opportunity to get citizenship under the newly amended law, but Muslims with similarly inadequate documentation will be at risk of statelessness and many may end up in detention centers that Assam and other states are already building.

These are the detention centers my friend’s mother was fearing. I know that her fears are not entirely unfounded. I met many families in Assam, living there for decades, but now struggling to get their loved ones released after being declared “foreigners.” I felt shame because if we were both asked to prove our citizenship, I will not be viewed with similar suspicion. And even if we both have inadequate documents, I will not likely end up in a detention center. Because in India these days, Muslims are being treated differently from Hindus.

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

Chinese paramilitary police wear face masks in Beijing, May 1, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo

As Covid-19 continues to cut a grim path across the globe, debates continue to rage about who is to blame. In one of his many moves to shift accountability for his own inept response to the crisis, US president Donald Trump said he would place a hold on funding for the World Health Organization, alleging that the agency “willingly took China’s assurances to face value” and “pushed China’s misinformation.”

But the truth is that everyone—the US government, the WHO, journalists, public health officials, and others—should have known better than to trust Beijing’s claims, whether in its initial dismissal of the possibility of human-to-human transmission, or in its current reports of infection and death-toll numbers. In China’s one-party authoritarian system, officials suppressing information and manipulating data for propaganda or career advancement is nothing new, and likely won’t change any time soon.

The Chinese government’s consistent record of censorship and manipulation of information during public health crises is in the public domain. It’s well documented. We would do well to look beyond the official Chinese numbers, rely on the information we can trust, and focus on what’s most important: containing and eradicating the deadly global pandemic.

Cover-ups, Apathy, and Inertia

Over the past two decades, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the Chinese government’s censorship and falsification of information during public health crises. A government worker in southern China told me that she had little confidence in the accuracy of the non-contact digital thermometers she and her colleagues were instructed to use to check local residents’ temperature at checkpoints. “We don’t think they actually work. It was just for show, in case the [national authorities] come to inspect,” she said.

In the 2000s, numerous mass lead poisoning incidents were reported as China was quickly becoming known as “the world’s factory.” In a 2011 report, Human Rights Watch documented that government officials in provinces with high rates of industrial pollution restricted access to lead testing, deliberately withheld or falsified test results, and denied children treatment. Family members and journalists seeking information about the problem were intimidated and harassed.

During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, authorities initially underreported infection rates and falsely proclaimed that the “atypical pneumonia” had “already been brought under effective control.” The cover-up contributed significantly to the spread of the disease. Contrary to current WHO praise for the Chinese government’s Covid-19 response, WHO officials at the time repeatedly expressed concern about underreporting and the lack of transparency.

In a 2005 report, Human Rights Watch detailed Chinese authorities’ harassment of AIDS activists and suppression of information that showed that China’s AIDS epidemic was largely caused by government-sponsored unsanitary blood-for-money programs.  In 2004, authorities in Henan, the province hardest hit at the time, said there were 25,036 carriers of HIV in the province, but local doctors and activists, based on their field research in affected villages, estimated that at least one million people had contracted HIV as a result of blood-selling schemes.

In the summer of 2008, for more than a month the Chinese government prohibited the domestic media from reporting on infants being poisoned by toxin-laced milk powder formula—which resulted in at least six deaths and sickened approximately 300,000 children. Ultimately, economic concerns prompted Chinese authorities to let up on media restrictions. Zhao Lianhai, the father of a poisoned-milk victim, was later sentenced to a two-and-a-half-year prison term for exposing the government’s failure to assist child victims.

In 2018, authorities across the country harassed, detained, and persecuted journalists, activists, lawyers, and families of victims for exposing China’s persistent faulty vaccine problems. News articles and social media posts that criticized the government’s failure to regulate the vaccine market properly were routinely censored.

The Value of Good Information

To be sure, ensuring accurate information on the number of people infected with Covid-19 and the number of deaths is not easy, and some governments are admitting this is a challenge that makes containing the global pandemic all the more difficult. But in China, investigations by scientists, journalists, and citizens continue to be suppressed, just as they have been for decades.

The apathy and inertia pervasive within China’s vast bureaucracy hampers both accurate reporting and adequate detection of Covid-19 cases. The country’s history of cover-ups should have served as a warning to anyone reading the news that official Chinese information about the virus simply isn’t reliable.

As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. No one should be fooled by information put out by the Chinese government the next time around.

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