Click to expand Image This image from an April 18, 2021 news report by Myawaddy TV shows people who security forces detained in the Yankin township of Yangon, Myanmar. © 2021 Myawaddy TV via AP

(Bangkok) – Myanmar security forces are arbitrarily arresting and detaining family and friends of activists, protesters, and opposition members, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all those wrongfully held and end all collective punishment, which violates fundamental principles of international human rights law.

Since the February 1, 2021, military coup in Myanmar, security forces have detained at least 76 people, including an infant, during raids when they were unable to find the person they sought to arrest, according to documentation by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). At least 48 of those people are still in detention, with some now held for more than three months.

“Seizing family members and friends as hostages is a thuggish tactic by Myanmar’s security forces to terrorize the population and coerce activists to turn themselves in,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The authorities should end the practice of collective punishment immediately and release everyone held on this illegal basis.”

Security forces unable to find specific suspects have arrested their parents, children, other relatives, and friends who happened to be present during the search. Cases include:

On March 8, security forces searching for lawyer Robert San Aung seized his daughter and brother-in-law and held them for 18 days before releasing them.    On April 22, security forces searching for Pu Do Sian Pau, a member of the opposition Civil Disobedience Movement, seized his mother and his 70-year-old father, a retired pastor of the Cope Memorial Baptist Church. Both are still in detention.   On April 29, security forces searching for Salai Bawi Uk Thang, the editor-in-chief of the Chinland Post newspaper, detained his father. He is still in detention.     On May 23, security forces arrested the parents and younger brother of a striking worker from the fire department. All three relatives are still in detention.  

In some cases, witnesses allege that the security forces beat the relatives before detaining them. Tin Htut Paing, an activist who is in hiding, told the media that, on May 2, security forces searching for him and his brother beat his 90-year-old grandmother and 64-year-old mother. Security forces detained his mother and charged her with “incitement.” On May 28, she was sentenced to three years in prison. According to the AAPP, security forces searching for Associate Judge Kaung Myat Thu of Chaung-U Township Court beat his mother before arresting her. His mother is still in detention

Young children and even an infant have also been detained, at least temporarily. Security forces detained five relatives of strike leader Ko Jay Lah, including two girls aged 2 and 4. Similarly, forces searching for protest leader U Tan Win detained his wife and 20-day-old baby. While in both cases the family members were released later the same day, the arrests send a chilling message to activists and members of the Civil Disobedience Movement that no member of their family is safe, Human Rights Watch said.

The detention of people based solely on their relationship to another person is a form of collective punishment, which violates the right to liberty and security of person and the right to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.

“Myanmar’s junta has taken unlawful detention to a noxious new level by detaining those close to people who themselves should not be facing arrest,” Robertson said. “Concerned governments should urgently impose targeted sanctions and a global arms embargo or expect the junta to continue to raise the stakes on abusive actions.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 14, 2021, 8:10 pm

Trending rights tweets this week: Two former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa say Israel is committing the crime of apartheid today; since the coup in Myanmar, women are reporting being sexually abused by police and military officials while in detention; police in Oromia, Ethiopia, publicly executed a seventeen-year-old-boy; and police in Colombia have committed egregious abuses against protesters, including 20 killings documented by HRW.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 8:32 pm
Click to expand Image Clearance operator from the Halo Trust clearing a steep, rocky hillside in Afghanistan. © 2004 Brian Liu/Toolbox DC

The United Nations, governments, and humanitarian groups working to eradicate landmines and explosive remnants of war are condemning the reprehensible killing of 10 Halo Trust deminers and wounding of 16 others in Afghanistan on Tuesday. As a co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Human Rights Watch joins them and expresses condolences to the victims and their families.

The victims died while sleeping, when attackers opened fire on their camp in Baghlan province, north of Kabul. The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility. International humanitarian law prohibits attacks on humanitarian workers. The Afghan government should work to bring the perpetrators of this apparent war crime to justice.

The HALO Trust operates in two dozen countries around the world, clearing land contaminated by landmines and unexploded ordnance. It started in Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s, mobilizing when refugees and displaced people were about to be repatriated to former conflict areas still riddled with mines and explosive remnants of war.

Anyone who has witnessed a mine clearance program knows the daily risk that deminers face in identifying, marking, surveying, and clearing areas contaminated by landmines and explosive remnants of war such as unexploded submunitions from cluster bomb strikes. Less obvious are the challenges that humanitarian workers face from protracted fighting, targeted killings, and dwindling aid budgets in countries where conflict is ongoing.

Over the past 30 years, mine clearance has saved countless lives by rendering dangerous land safe for people to live and work on. These programs have employed thousands of people, creating sustainable livelihoods.

The eradication of landmines and other explosive weapons is a work in progress. It is a goal that is steadily advancing under the framework provided by international treaties prohibiting antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions.

The attack on the Afghanistan deminers this week is a stark reminder of the dangers humanitarian workers around the world confront as they work to save lives and livelihoods.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 8:09 pm
Click to expand Image People walk from a rural area towards a food distribution site near the town of Agula, in Tigray, Ethiopia, May 8, 2021. © 2021 Ben Curtis via AP

G7 leaders meeting this week should galvanize an immediate global response to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

Yesterday, the United Nations and other aid agencies warned that some 350,000 people are already experiencing famine-like conditions in Tigray. Millions of others there are at risk of famine too, unless assistance is promptly provided. The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, says that some 33,000 severely malnourished children “are at high risk of death.”

That the Ethiopian government disputes these findings only underscores the urgency of international involvement. G7 leaders should demand from Ethiopia and its allies the resumption of basic services, unimpeded aid delivery and access, and make clear that any official who blocks assistance faces immediate sanctions.

The millions facing famine in Tigray cannot be explained away as a by-product of the seven-month armed conflict. Human Rights Watch research shows that warring parties have directly contributed to this man-made disaster. Government restrictions on aid access to the region and to basic services in the early months of the fighting pushed many people over the edge. Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces have also looted property, burned crops, and attacked factories, hospitals, and other infrastructure key to people’s survival.

While humanitarian access in some areas has reportedly improved, warring parties are still denying aid workers’ movement, intimidating and attacking them, and confiscating supplies. Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said that in May alone, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces were responsible for 130 out of 131 access violations.

Attacks on civilians, including large-scale massacres and executions of men and boys, arbitrary detentions, and numerous horrific acts of sexual violence against women and girls, are also impeding people’s ability to reach help.

Tigray has been here before. Human Rights Watch documented that Ethiopia’s military dictatorship under the Derg in the mid-1980s, plunged millions in Tigray and other areas into famine by destroying crops, bombing marketplaces, restricting movement, and deliberately targeting food distribution efforts.

While different eras and realities, the parallels in the warring parties’ tactics are chilling.

Iconic images of starving people from a BBC report during the 1984 famine justifiably sparked international outcry. They also became an image Ethiopia has long tried to escape. This time around, the alarm bells have been ringing for months. It’s an enduring shame that the African Union has largely remained silent, and Russian and Chinese objections mean the UN Security Council has been unable to hold a single public meeting on the crisis. G7 leaders should act now.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 4:14 pm
Click to expand Image People march with a giant rainbow flag from the parliament building in Budapest during the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Pride Parade on July 6, 2019. © 2019 Attila Kisbedenek/AFP via Getty Images

(Berlin) – Hungary’s parliament should reject a bill that would prohibit discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation, and violates Hungary’s international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. The law targets content “promoting” or “portraying” sexual and gender diversity and could have sweeping consequences for health providers, educators, and artists, among others.

The draft “Laws enabling stricter action against pedophile offenders and the protection of children” bans the “portrayal and the promotion of gender identity different from sex at birth, the change of sex and homosexuality” aimed at people under 18. The bill, sponsored by Fidesz, the ruling party, is due for a vote in parliament on June 15, 2021.

“Hungary’s ruling party is cynically deploying a ‘protection of children’ narrative to trample on rights and try to render LGBT people invisible,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Children do not need to be protected from exposure to diversity. On the contrary, LGBT children and families need protection from discrimination and violence.”

The draft law is the latest in a series of attacks on LGBT equality under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government. In May 2020 the government rushed through an omnibus bill that included provisions preventing transgender and intersex people from changing their gender marker on official documents, in defiance of their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In December, parliament adopted an amendment to the constitution effectively banning same-sex couples from adopting children.

Orban’s government has sought to scapegoat LGBT people as part of a wider strategy to sidestep human rights obligations and cement Orban’s brand of authoritarianism.

In the case of the current bill, Fidesz members of the legislative committee added language on “portrayal and promotion” of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations at the last minute to an existing draft bill on pedophilia. The bill already contained provisions hostile to LGBT people, including one that the state should protect “family relations based on parent-child relations where the mother is a woman, the father is a man,” and another aimed at “ensuring the right of children to an identity in line with their sex at birth.”

The new provisions take aim at any discussion of diversity, and seem to stem in part from efforts by artists and advertisers to promote inclusion and acceptance of sexual and gender minorities. In 2019, Fidesz threatened a boycott in response to Coca-Cola advertisements featuring same-sex couples sharing a soft drink. In 2020, when Labrisz, a lesbian, bisexual and transgender women’s organization published a fairy tale anthology entitled “Wonderland is for Everyone” featuring some LGBT protagonists, the government forced it to attach stickers to the books with the disclaimer that they contained “behaviour inconsistent with traditional gender roles.”

Hungary’s draft pedophilia law introduces provisions into the Child Protection Act, the Act on Business Advertising Activity, the Media Act, the Family Protection Act, and the Public Education Act that would establish administrative sanctions for licensed professionals or institutions that violate it, threatening the right to education and the right to health, including the explicit right to health information under international law. In addition, the law is likely to contribute to violence and other forms of harassment against LGBT youth, in violation of the rights to security of person and freedom from violence.

Fidesz efforts to silence speech acknowledging the existence and human rights of LGBT people echo the so-called “gay propaganda” law passed in Russia in 2013. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented how that law exacerbated hostility toward LGBT people and stifled access to LGBT-inclusive education and support services, with harmful consequences for children.

Russia’s propaganda law has been used to shut down online information and mental health referral services for children and to discourage support groups and mental health professionals from working with children. It stigmatizes LGBT children and their families and has had a chilling effect on mental health professionals who work with LGBT youth. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that the law was discriminatory and harmful to children. It held that authorities adopting such laws are seeking to reinforce stigma and prejudice and encourage homophobia, which is incompatible with the values of a democratic society.

The proposed bill in Hungary similarly violates the rights to freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch said. As the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for Human Rights has observed, “authorities have a positive obligation to take effective measures to protect and ensure the respect of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons who wish to … express themselves, even if their views are unpopular or not shared by the majority of the population.”

The right to freedom of expression includes the right to seek and receive information and ideas of all kinds. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has noted the right to seek and receive information includes “information on subjects dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity.” In recognition of children’s particular need for information, the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to ensure children’s “access to information and materials from a diversity of national and international sources.”

In June 2020 the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary violated its obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights to respect transgender people’s private lives, and has to provide a procedure to allow them to have their gender identity legally recognized on documents.

The EU Commission adopted in November 2020 its first-ever five-year LGBTIQ Equality Strategy and in March, the European Parliament declared the EU an “LGBTIQ Freedom zone.” This latest anti-LGBT attack in Hungary triggers a responsibility for the European Commission and other EU member states to take action and hold Hungary’s government to account. EU’s Equality Commissioner, Helena Dalli, should strongly denounce Hungary’s latest attack against non-discrimination, a core right under the EU treaties, and call on the Hungarian parliament to reject the draft bill.

“Equating sexual and gender diversity with pedophilia is in itself a frontal attack on the basic dignity and humanity of LGBT people, and poses real risks to their safety and well-being,” Ghoshal said. “Hungarian members of parliament should reject this effort to silence marginalized people and should instead redouble their efforts to protect the basic human rights of everyone in Hungary, including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 1:34 pm
Click to expand Image A 9-year old girl collects sand in search of gold at a mining site in Moroto District, Uganda. @2021 Angella Nabwowe Kasule for ISER ©

(Berlin) – A new law on human rights in supply chains adopted by the German Parliament on June 11, 2021, ushers in a long-awaited shift to mandatory company compliance rules in Germany, Human Rights Watch said today. The German parliament acted to adopt the law during the last days of the current legislative period, after months of negotiations.

“The German government has taken a critical step to ensure that companies operate responsibly,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate director, children's rights division, at Human Rights Watch. “Respect for human rights in global supply chains is not something that should be optional.”

The law, while imperfect, will require large companies to regularly and systematically identify and address human rights and environmental risks in their direct supply chains. Companies will have to publish a report annually outlining the steps they have taken to identify and avert human rights risks, and national authorities will be empowered to initiate administrative action or impose fines on companies that fail to carry out their obligations. 

The law only applies to companies with more than 3,000 employees beginning in 2023, and to companies with more than 1,000 employees from 2024.

The legislation is a compromise after polarized negotiations between politicians seeking to impose robust regulation and those wishing to minimize it. Industry associations lobbied heavily for weaker rules. While the law is an important step toward meaningful corporate accountability, it does not incorporate the highest international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Companies only have to take measures in specific incidents if they have “substantiated knowledge” of potential abuses, and the measures can be of a general preventative nature. The law does not require companies to undertake thorough and systematic due diligence on indirect suppliers further down the supply chain, which is often where the most serious abuses occur.

Under international norms, companies have a responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence throughout their whole supply chain – that is, to identify, address, prevent, and remedy abuses – regardless of whether they have foreknowledge of problems.

The law also does not create liability for companies that have been implicated in serious human rights abuses, and does not require companies to assess the compliance of their supply chain with important international standards in certain treaties, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, or in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

“The law is a step in the right direction, but has some serious weaknesses that should be addressed in the future,” Kippenberg said. “There is still a risk that human rights abuses further down in global supply chains will be allowed to continue because companies do not have to conduct due diligence for their whole supply chain. And abuses can occur in companies with fewer than 1,000 employees too.”

The next government, which will be elected in September 2021, should take steps to strengthen the law, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, supply chain legislation planned by the European Union and other European governments should go beyond the German law.

A coalition of civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch, has been advocating for a robust supply chains law in Germany. Some companies as well as a group of 130 economists have also pushed for such a law.

“The new German law is a good start, but more is still needed to really ensure the products we buy aren’t tainted by abuse and people don’t suffer for making them,” Kippenberg said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 9:00 am
Click to expand Image Student receives hand sanitizer at a public school in São Paulo on the first day of in-person classes, on February 8th. © Andre Penner/ AP Photo/ Picture alliance

(São Paulo, June 11, 2021) – The Brazilian government has failed to address the huge impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on education, leaving millions of children with little or no access to school, Human Rights Watch and Everyone for Education (Todos pela Educação), said today.

More than a year after the government ordered the initial closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Education Ministry urgently needs to increase support to states and municipalities to guarantee remote education, including online learning, and a safe return to schools, the groups said.

“School closures have affected the most economically vulnerable children most severely,” said Anna Livia Arida, Brazil associate director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to put education at the center of its Covid-19 recovery plan, restore the education budget, and spend those resources to ensure that millions of children, especially those at a greater risk of dropping out, are able to study.”

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 5 million children between ages 6 and 17 in Brazil didn't have access to education in November 2020, the worst situation in two decades. More than 4 million of them were enrolled in schools but had no remote learning or in-person classes in 2020. School closures affected children unequally, with the greatest impact on Black or Indigenous children and adolescents, and those from lower income households.

A Parliamentary Monitoring Committee that examined investment and expenses by the Education Ministry in 2020 found that there was “an abrupt and inexplicable decrease of federal resources in different areas of education, in a year in which the federal education budget should be revised to address new challenges, such as student connectivity and implementation of health protocols.”

Globally, school closures, coupled with families’ loss of income and jobs, will almost certainly lead to a higher school dropout rate, more child labor, greater food insecurity, and increased exposure to violence and exploitation for children, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported. It warned that higher dropout rates will have long-term effects on children and on the economy, resulting in lower wages and a reduced quality of life.  

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, IBGE), an official entity, 16.6 percent of children and adolescents living in households with per capita incomes of up to half of the minimum wage had no access to education, while among households with per capita household incomes of 4 or more times the minimum wage, the percentage was only 3.9 percent. Also, 46.7 percent of children who had no access to education last year were living in the economically marginalized North and Northeastern parts of Brazil.

In Brazil, fewer than a quarter of all students dedicated three hours or more a day to school activities in September, a study by several nongovernmental organizations showed. Almost 5 percent of students in primary school and more than 10 percent of high school students reported in January that they had dropped out of school.

Before the pandemic, 4.1 million students in Brazil had no internet access. There is little chance that this situation will improve without federal support, said Human Rights Watch and Todos pela Educação, a Brazilian group that seeks to improve the quality of public education in the country.

The federal Education Ministry has failed to spend money already available in the budget for projects that could have helped minimize the consequences of the pandemic. The Education Ministry has the legal authority to coordinate national education policy and to provide additional funding for education to states and municipalities. However, it has done little to fulfill its responsibility to coordinate with states and municipalities to reduce inequalities during the pandemic.

States and municipalities have mostly faced the problems of adapting activities for remote learning alone, as well as implementing health protocols and other measures needed to safely reopen schools. They have struggled in particular with adapting activities for students with limited or no access to the internet.

The Education Ministry had for Primary Education a R$ 48.2 billion budget for 2020 but spent only R$ 32.5 billion, the lowest amount in a decade, Todos pela Educação found. The Education Ministry also reduced spending on its Connected Education program, which aims for universal access to high-speed internet in basic education. It committed only R$ 100.3 million to the program, the Parliamentary Monitoring Committee reported, less than half of what it had allocated the previous year.

For 2021, President Jair Bolsonaro “blocked” or froze R$ 2.7 billion, or almost 20 percent, of the education budget. Milton Ribeiro, the education minister, supported a presidential veto – later overturned by Congress – of a bill that would have provided emergency funds to increase access to the internet for both students and teachers.

The Covid-19 pandemic affected the education of millions of children worldwide, but the Brazilian government’s disastrous response to the pandemic dramatically worsened its impact on children in Brazil. Instead of adopting the World Health Organization recommendations, Brazil’s government tried to block efforts by states to require social distancing, vetoed a law that required the use of masks in schools – later overturned by Congress, – and invested heavily in drugs that it claimed, without scientific evidence, prevented or cured Covid-19.

Only about 10 percent of Brazil’s population is fully vaccinated. That includes 234,000 education professionals nationwide, about 8 percent. Vaccine scarcity has contributed to high rates of new cases and deaths, which have kept schools closed longer in Brazil than in other countries: for a total of 40 weeks last year, twice the world average, according to UNESCO.  

International human rights law guarantees all children the right to education, even in times of emergency. Brazil urgently needs to place children and adolescents at the center of its recovery strategy and to prioritize efforts to ensure education for all, during and after the pandemic.

To comply with Brazil’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch and Todos Pela Educação specifically recommend that the federal government, through the Education Ministry and in conjunction with governors and mayors:

Allocate resources strategically to ensure access to education for children historically at risk of exclusion from education, including Black and Indigenous children, as well as those on rural areas and others whose education has been particularly affected during the pandemic. Make vigorous efforts to ensure that vaccines are available to all and continue efforts to make vaccines available and accessible to education professional across the country, including with targeted outreach to teachers in marginalized communities. Ensure there are clear indicators for when in-person school closures might be justified by risk of coronavirus transmission and define objective, evidence-driven parameters to guide decisions to reopen schools. Support states and municipalities, especially the most economically vulnerable ones, in providing schools with sufficient and relevant personal protective equipment for all students and staff, Covid-19 information, and resources to provide enhanced ventilation and carry out cleaning and hygiene protocols. Support states and municipalities to evaluate learning gaps and the loss caused by prolonged school closures and to meet the needs to close the gaps.  Adopt measures to furnish affordable, reliable, and accessible internet, including targeted measures to provide free, equitable access – and devices capable of supporting core educational content – for children who cannot yet attend in-person classes. Carry out national “back to school” communications and mass outreach campaigns, for a phased, safe, and effective return to schools, in communities to persuade children who have been out of school – either due to the pandemic or other reasons – to return to school, and their families to support these decisions. Identify children who do not return to in-person classes or drop out or do not regularly attend and engage in intensive outreach to them and their caregivers to provide any support they require to continue or resume their studies.


“The prolonged interruption of in-person classes because of the pandemic is causing a profound and cruel setback in Brazilian education, with serious repercussions for educational inequality, school learning, and the food, physical and socioemotional protection system for millions of children and young people,” said Priscila Cruz, executive president of Todos Pela Educação.

 

*This article has been amended to reflect that according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 5 million children between ages 6 and 17 in Brazil didn't have access to education in November 2020, the worst situation in two decades.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Roundabout at site of Amanuel Wondimu's execution on May 11, 2021, in Dembi Dollo town, Oromia, Ethiopia. © Nakoor Malkaa VOA

(Nairobi) – Ethiopian government forces summarily executed a 17-year-old boy in Ethiopia’s Oromia region in broad daylight, Human Rights Watch said today. The public execution of Amanuel Wondimu Kebede underscores the lack of accountability for security force abuses in the country.

On May 11, 2021, government forces apprehended and beat Amanuel in Dembi Dollo, a town in the Kellem Wellega zone of western Oromia. A video posted on social media by the town’s administration shows security forces taunting a bloodied Amanuel with a handgun tied around his neck. He was executed in public that day. In the ensuing weeks, the authorities intimidated and arbitrarily arrested other Dembi Dollo residents, including Amanuel’s family members.

“The Ethiopian authorities’ summary execution of a teenage boy shows astounding disregard for human life,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The callous way that security forces and local officials filmed and then publicized this horrific event demonstrates that these authorities believe they can act above the law without fear of consequences.” 

Western Oromia has been the site of a three-year-long conflict between federal and regional government forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group that broke from the political opposition party, the Oromo Liberation Front(OLF), in 2019. Afederal command post in western Oromia coordinates federal and regional security forces in the area, including Ethiopian Defense Forces, Oromia special police, Oromia regular police forces, and administrative militia forces. On May 1, Ethiopia’s parliament proscribed “Shene” – a government term for the OLA– as a terrorist organization. 

Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 Dembi Dollo residents and reviewed several videos and photographs posted on social media, media articles, and statements by government officials relating to Amanuel’s killing. 

Witnesses said that at about 8 a.m. on May 11, Oromia regional special forces, known as Liyu Hail, arrested Amanuel near his home in Dembi Dollo’s Kebele 07 neighborhood. Media accounts said that local authorities alleged that Amanuel had shot and injured a contractor, Gemechu Mengesha, in the town. Relatives said that Amanuel was 17-years-old and was still in school. Residents in Dembi Dollo were surprised that the authorities apprehended Amanuel, and described him as a grade 10 student, who worked at a church, and had always lived in the Kebele 07 neighborhood.

Two residents saw the Oromia special forces beating, punching, and kicking Amanuel. “They were using all means to beat him, with their boots, hands, with the stick and butt of the gun,” one witness said. “He was even beaten on his head. He fell to the ground. It was very shocking to see.” Residents later saw Amanuel trying to escape in the Kebele 05 neighborhood, but the soldiers shot him in the leg. 

A second video that Human Rights Watch reviewed shows Amanuel being paraded down a street, visibly limping on his right side, and surrounded by security forces, including Oromia special forces and local police. Amanuel is forced to repeat: “I am a member of Abba Torbee [an armed group in Oromia and with unclear links to the OLA]. Don’t do what I did. Learn from me.”

Witnesses said a mixture of command post forces, including Oromia special forces, Oromia police, local militia, and Ethiopian defense forces then ordered vehicles to stop and rounded up residents from the local bus stop. Nearby business owners were also forced to close up shop and watch the events. Other residents joined the crowd on their own. One man watching the scene said: “They brought everyone to the center of the town and told the people if anyone tries to attack the security forces in the town, he or she would face a similar fate.” 

Video corresponding with Dembi Dollo’s communication affairs Facebook post, which showed Amanuel with visible signs of beatings to the head, blood on his t-shirt, clothes torn apart, and his hands apparently tied behind his back at the town’s roundabout with a handgun hung around his neck. Blood appears visible next to Amanuel on the roundabout and the road. The video shows at least three Oromia special forces soldiers standing near him, two of whom are carrying Kalashnikov-style assault rifles. In the video, he is told to confirm his name and where he was born. 

Four witnesses described how the authorities ordered Amanuel to turn his head and then shot him at least two times in full sight of residents. A photo posted on social media appears to show Amanuel lying down with his hands still tied behind his back, slumped over at the town’s roundabout. 

Click to expand Image November 30, 2019 © CNES/ Airbus 2021; Source: Google Earth

After security forces executed Amanuel, they prevented residents from approaching the body. Security force personnel brought Amanuel’s parents, whom they had detained at a local police station that morning, to the roundabout. His mother started screaming when she saw her son’s body and Oromia special forces and local police started to beat her and Amanuel’s father in response. One witness said:

His mother was crying, shouting, requesting to be able to bury her son. She was extending her hands saying: “Maalo, maalo” [Afaan Oromo for “please, please”]. They beat her with sticks. [His] father also asked to pick up the body. He also extended his hands, trying to persuade them. The mother was beaten, she fell to the ground.

Community elders eventually negotiated with the security official in Kellem Wellega zone, who finally allowed them to retrieve Amanuel’s body for burial. 

Journalists asked Tesema Wariyo, the Kellem Wellega security head, why Amanuel was not taken before a court. He replied: “Amanuel was not a suspect, but clearly an enemy, an OLF-Shene member who came from the bush.” Human Rights Watch reached out by phone to the Oromia regional police commission and the Kellem Wellega security zone head but received no response. 

Since Amanuel’s killing, government authorities have intimidated and harassed Dembi Dollo residents, including Amanuel’s family members and friends. Oromia security forces arrested over a dozen people, including Amanuel’s father, who were gathered at the family home mourning Amanuel’s death. Other residents were warned not to visit the house anymore. While many of those arrested have since been released, Amanuel’s father remains in detention. “The case of Amanuel and his family is not unique,” one resident said. “We are getting used to these killings.” 

Human rights groups and the media have reported numerous abuses by government security forces, including extrajudicial killings, summary executions of detainees, arbitrary arrests, and repeated communications’ shutdowns in western Oromia. Armed groups in the area have allegedly also abducted or killed minority community members, police officers, and government officials, and attacked aid workers and their vehicles. 

International human rights and humanitarian law prohibits summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions, and torture and other ill-treatment of people in custody. Ethiopia is a party to international and regional treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Geneva Conventions, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, that contain special protections for children. 

The government’s continued failure to properly investigate security force abuses or hold those responsible to account in Oromia and elsewhere in Ethiopia has helped perpetuate a climate that facilitates such crimes, Human Rights Watch said. The Ethiopian authorities should publicly denounce extrajudicial killings and other serious abuses by Ethiopian security forces, and undertake a system-wide, structural reform of the security sector at both the regional and federal levels. 

“Ethiopian authorities have shown nothing but contempt in the face of alleged atrocities instead of investigating these abhorrent acts,” Bader said. “The authorities should demonstrate they are serious about ending the abuses that have wreaked havoc on Oromia residents like Amanuel, and ensure that all those responsible, whatever their rank, face justice.” 

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 11, 2021, 2:00 am
Click to expand Image Screenshot from the testimony of Dr. Fiona Hukula (right) at the Special Parliamentary Inquiry into Gender-Based Violence in Port Moresby on May 24, 2021.   © 2021 Facebook

(Melbourne) – The Papua New Guinea government should protect women accused of practicing “sorcery” from violence and hold the attackers to account, Human Rights Watch said today. At least five women have been attacked since March 2021, one of whom was killed.

“The Papua New Guinea government should urgently investigate all cases of violence following sorcery accusations, and prosecute those responsible,” said Stephanie McLennan, senior manager of Asia initiatives. “Gender-based violence is a persistent problem in Papua New Guinea, and the government is doing very little to stop it.”

Violence following allegations of sorcery is common in Papua New Guinea, with the most recent reported case on May 7 in the Hela Province. Mary Kopari was accused of sorcery following the death of a young boy in her village. She was tied up and burned alive in Komo-Magarima District. The attack was recorded on video and reported by Papua New Guinea television. Although the police know the identity of some of the attackers, no arrests have been reported.

Because sorcery accusations often arise in response to an unexpected death or illness in a community, the increase in such violence may be related to a surge in confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Papua New Guinea. On or around March 30, in Goroka, Eastern Highlands, a 45-year-old woman and her 19-year-old daughter were accused of causing the woman’s husband’s death, believed to be from Covid-19. They were held captive by the husband’s relatives and tortured with hot iron rods. Police rescued the pair.

On April 25, police rescued two women after a group of about 20 men tortured them in Port Moresby. The men accused the women of practicing sorcery and killing a woman who had recently died. The women were treated for severe burns and knife wounds.

“The Papua New Guinea government should address the root causes of sorcery accusations, including the lack of basic knowledge among the public about health problems,” McLennan said. “The authorities should act swiftly and effectively to correct misinformation about deaths from Covid-19 to prevent more sorcery accusations and attacks.”

While there are past cases of violence based on accusations of sorcery targeting men, the majority of these attacks target women. Such attacks are part of the larger problem of high rates of gender-based violence and impunity for the abusers in Papua New Guinea.

In November 2020 a coalition of parliament members convened the country’s first national summit on gender-based violence. A special parliamentary committee on the issue held its first hearings on May 24 and 25, and will continue its inquiry until June 30. Dr. Fiona Hukula, gender specialist for the Pacific Islands Forum, testified at the May hearings about violence against women accused of sorcery, saying that they are are “often tortured, often cut, sexually violated, their clothes are removed and they are often kept in captivity.”

As Human Rights Watch has documented, greater resources and increased political will are needed to respond to all forms of gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea. At the recent parliamentary hearings, East Sepik Governor Allan Bird said that, “there are 1.4 million cases of GBV [gender-based violence] every year in PNG … and only 100 convictions achieved.”

Papua New Guinea will participate in November in the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process under which member countries review the human rights situation in the country. The Human Rights Watch submission for that process highlighted the issue of gender-based violence and violence following accusations of sorcery.

“Papua New Guinea’s leaders should order the police to take gender-based violence seriously, provide sufficient resources for officials to prosecute these crimes, and provide all survivors with medical treatment, shelter and access to support services,” McLennan said. “The parliamentary inquiry should lead the way in exploring options for early warning, protection, and dispute resolution mechanisms that can help prevent such crimes.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 10, 2021, 11:35 pm
Click to expand Image A Sri Lankan woman holds a portrait of a relative who went missing, during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka,  February 14, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

The European Parliament today sent a powerful message to Sri Lanka’s government that its growing human rights violations will no longer be tolerated and may jeopardize bilateral and trade relations.

The resolution draws attention to abuses under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has long enabled prolonged arbitrary detention, torture and sexual abuse. The government is using the law to target members of minority communities and civil society, including activists, lawyers, and writers. The resolution specifically mentions Hejaaz Hizbullah, a prominent lawyer, and Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet, who are both arbitrarily detained under the act.

The European Parliament also denounced the Sri Lankan government’s obstruction of efforts to secure accountability for widespread human rights abuses during the country’s decades-long civil war. The resolution notes that several current and former military commanders implicated in serious abuses have been appointed to senior government positions. In March, the United Nations Human Rights Council mandated a new effort to collect and analyze evidence for use in future trials.

The European Parliament resolution provides a grim, but accurate, picture of “Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations.” Among numerous issues highlighted are discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, the situation of LGBT people, and a crisis of labor rights in garment factories.

Since 2017, Sri Lanka has benefited from a trading arrangement with the European Union called GSP+ which provides better access to European Union markets in return for progress implementing international human rights treaties. The resolution recalls that “one of the key commitments of Sri Lanka was to fully align its counter-terrorism legislation with international human rights conventions,” and calls upon the European Commission to “use the GSP+ as a leverage to push for advancement on Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations.”

Crucially, the resolution calls on the European Commission to urgently evaluate its funding for a UN project to support Sri Lanka on counter-terrorism. It instead calls for the EU and member states to increase support for Sri Lanka’s civil society.

The Sri Lankan government needs to realize that its international partners are watching with concern, and that friends around the world can act to promote fundamental rights in Sri Lanka.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 10, 2021, 6:30 pm

Millions of Syrians risk losing access to lifesaving aid, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, if Russia vetoes reauthorizing the only remaining UN aid corridor from Turkey into opposition-held northwest Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations Security Council should reauthorize full cross-border operations into the region and authorize a resumption of aid flows from Iraq to northeast Syria when the Council’s current resolution expires on July 10, 2021.

The UN humanitarian chief has said that shutting down this gateway into northwest Syria, which is under the control of anti-government groups, would be “catastrophic.” Non-UN aid groups in northeast Syria, which is mostly under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration, a quasi-autonomous authority, say they have been unable to bring in enough aid since the UN was forced to stop its cross-border operations between Iraq and Syria in January 2020. As of May 31, only 17,500 Covid-19 vaccine doses for healthcare workers and only limited other supplies to respond to the pandemic have reached the northeast from Syria’s capital, Damascus, and no aid reaches the northwest from there.

“Shutting down the only remaining UN lifeline into northwest Syria would cut off millions of people from aid and unleash a humanitarian calamity,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The people of northwest Syria, and millions of others in the northeast, should receive help, including Covid-19 vaccines and other crucial healthcare supplies, through all possible routes.”

Between April 14 and May 6, Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 aid workers from 10 different international and local nongovernmental organizations operating or supporting operations in northwest and northeast Syria about the humanitarian situation there and the obstacles they faced in assisting people. Human Rights Watch sent questions on May 31 to the Syrian government, but as of June 10 had not received a reply.

UN Security Council (UNSC) negotiations on an extension of cross-border aid access to areas in northwest Syria are underway. But in February, Russia signaled its intention to shut down the final remaining crossing, through Bab al-Hawa, when it comes up for a Council vote ahead of the July 10 expiration.

Ten years of conflict have decimated Syria’s infrastructure and social services, resulting in massive humanitarian needs and making millions of people reliant on aid. About 13 million Syrians needed humanitarian assistance as of early 2021.

Most of northwest Syria’s population of about 4 million, including at least 2.6 million displaced people, depend on humanitarian aid. As of mid-April, about 55,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines had reached the northwest region through Turkey. The UN has said that it is unclear how vaccines would reach the region if the Security Council does not reauthorize the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

In January 2020, the Security Council canceled the authorization for the UN to use the Yarubiyah border crossing between Iraq and northeast Syria. This has reduced aid groups’ ability to support the struggling healthcare system there and to address the Covid-19 pandemic. Available statistics show that between about 11,000 and 16,000 people have been infected by the virus in the northeast, but aid groups and the UN say the real number is most likely much higher due to the limited availability of testing. In early May, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said that “many hospitals are raising alarms and requesting basic essential support for items like oxygen, antibiotics, and personal protective equipment to cope with the increasing numbers of Covid-19 patients.”

The Syrian government has a long history of obstructing what is known as “cross-line” aid, supplies crossing from government-held parts of the country into non-government-held parts in the northwest and northeast. Russia has been unable or unwilling to pressure Damascus to allow aid to reach the northwest and to increase aid to the northeast.

In 2014, the Security Council recognized the Syrian government’s “arbitrary and unjustified withholding of consent to relief operations and the persistence of conditions that impede the delivery of humanitarian supplies” and authorized UN agencies to take supplies from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan into northwest, northeast, and southern Syria respectively.

However, responding to Russia’s threat to veto the mandate, on January 10, 2020, the Security Council officially removed two of the authorized border crossings, halting all UN cross-border aid into northeast and southern Syria. In July 2020, the Council also removed the Bab al-Salam crossing point, leaving the Bab al-Hawa crossing point as the only UN-coordinated option for aid groups into northwest Syria.

The 2014 resolution also authorized UN agencies to receive emergency funds for UN and international and Syrian nongovernmental groups’ aid programs, and to coordinate aid operations there. A senior UN official told Human Rights Watch that if the Security Council does not renew the July 2020 resolution authorizing the flow of aid from Turkey to northwest Syria, UN agencies will no longer have official authorization to procure supplies or carry out or finance others’ aid work.

Aid workers told Human Rights Watch that non-UN agencies have nowhere near the UN’s capacity to buy supplies and transport them into the northwest. They said that shutting down UN aid supplies through Bab al-Hawa and ending UN funding, including for thousands of doctors’ and nurses’ salaries, would deny aid to millions of people. The UN has repeatedly echoed those concerns in numerous reports and briefings to the Security Council, including at the end of May.

All aid workers Human Rights Watch interviewed said the simplest solution to the ongoing restrictions on aid from Damascus to northeast Syria involves reauthorizing aid, including Covid-19 vaccines and other supplies, through the Yarubiyah crossing.

Under the laws of war, Syria has an obligation to allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid for civilians in need and may not withhold consent for relief operations on arbitrary grounds. All other parties to the conflict, including Russia, and other relevant countries, must also allow and facilitate such aid.

Syria also has an obligation under human rights law to ensure the right to health, and to an “adequate standard of living,” including to food and shelter. Although limited resources and capacity may mean that this right can only be fully realized over time, the authorities are still obliged not to discriminate between various parts of the population, and they must justify any aid delivery limitations. The authorities must also ensure a “minimum core” standard of living for everyone at all times, including adequate food.

In July, the UN Security Council should reauthorize cross-border operations into northwest and northeast Syria and grant explicit permission for cross-border aid delivery to those regions through Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salam, and the Yarubiyah border crossings for one year.

International donors should press the Syrian authorities to facilitate the transfer of aid into all parts of northeast Syria and into the northwest, and not to block access on arbitrary or discriminatory grounds, or on the pretext of bureaucratic delays.

“It is shocking that the idea of abandoning millions of aid-dependent Syrians is even on the UN Security Council’s table,” Simpson said. “All of its members, including Russia, should focus on saving lives, not sacrificing them for political gain.”

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Massive Humanitarian Response in Northwest Depends on the Turkey Crossing

As of the end of March, 75 percent of the 4 million people in northwest Syria depended on aid to meet their basic needs and 85 percent of them receive it via about 1,000 trucks crossing the border each month from Turkey, according to the United Nations. A UN document obtained by Human Rights Watch shows this includes basic aid such as food, medical supplies, and shelter materials, which UN and non-UN agencies distribute throughout the region.

Aid workers told Human Rights Watch that non-UN international and local aid groups would be unable to buy, bring in, and distribute anywhere near the same amount of aid as the UN currently supplies to northwest Syria. In 2020, the UN World Food Program brought in and distributed emergency food aid to 1.4 million people a month on average. One aid worker said that under the best-case scenario, under which aid groups might receive a significant increase in their funding, as well as procurement and logistical support, they could reach about half that number.

Click to expand Image UN humanitarian aid trucks enter northwest Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey on June 1, 2021. © 2021 Associated Press

According to three aid workers, the UN’s budget and resources allow it to purchase far greater amounts of aid at a time than aid groups can, and only the UN can purchase some supplies, including anaesthetics and medicines to treat tuberculosis and leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease which can affect internal organs and cause skin sores.

Aid groups said that the UN gave US$300 million in 2020 for aid to northwest Syria, including $190 million under the multi-donor Syria Cross-Border Humanitarian Fund (SCHF), which funded 204 projects. Of this, $90 million funded the work of Syrian groups that would lose this support if Bab al-Hawa were not reauthorized. 

Aid workers said that while international aid agencies could try to replace some of this funding through private donors, many Syrian aid organizations are not allowed to receive funds from non-UN international donors due to internationally-imposed financial and legal restrictions on their work. The most senior health official in Idlib governorate, the health coordinator, Dr. Salem Abdan, said that the UN pays the salaries of Idlib’s 800 doctors and 2,000 nurses, either directly or through partner organizations. An aid worker said that UN funding procedures allow aid groups to apply for, and rapidly receive, additional UN funds to respond to emerging crisis situations affecting a large number of civilians, such as the periodic Russian-Syrian offensives in the region, whereas other donors are less flexible in releasing emergency funding.

On March 29, Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said that months of negotiations with the Syrian authorities to allow what is known as “cross-line” aid – sent from government-held territory to territory held by armed groups – to reach northwest Syria from Damascus had been unsuccessful. On May 26 he expressed hope that “at least an initial set of convoys” could soon cross. As of June 10, this had not happened.

Even if the authorities in Damascus were to agree to let some cross-line aid reach the region, the government is known to regularly impose severe restrictions on aid and humanitarian access to opposition-held areas in northeast Syria. It is also known to favor areas perceived to be pro-government in territory under its control. Most aid groups working with the UN in the northwest to distribute aid are not registered, or allowed to register, in Damascus. This means that even if the UN could bring aid to the region from Damascus, it would have no way to distribute it because the Syrian authorities prohibit the UN from having direct contact with non-UN aid groups working in nongovernment-controlled areas. According to two aid workers, authorities in northwest Syria also refuse to allow Syrian government-affiliated local organizations from operating in areas under their control.

In January, the offices of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which work on the aid response in northwest Syria, submitted an application to the COVAX facility for Covid-19 vaccines. COVAX is a global vaccine initiative created to help low- and middle-income countries access vaccines by sharing risk and pooling procurement. It began delivering vaccines to participating countries and economies in February, but has only been able to deliver 78 million vaccine doses to 129 participants by June 3, barely enough to cover 1 percent of their combined populations.

The UN Security Council’s cross-border authorization means that UNICEF and the WHO in Turkey have been able to get vaccines from COVAX and deliver them to northwest Syria, demonstrating how critical continued cross-border authorization is to people’s lives and health. As of April 21, 53,800 doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been delivered. On May 1, UNICEF and the WHO began to coordinate a three-week vaccination campaign there targeting healthcare workers.

Aid workers said that if UNICEF and the WHO are no longer able to bring Covid-19 vaccines in from Turkey, the vaccination process will stop entirely as they are the only agencies currently authorized under the application to COVAX to receive and distribute the vaccines. Aid workers said that UN agencies are also responsible for setting up the infrastructure – including for cold chains that prevent supplies from spoiling while being transported from warehouses to their final destination – that are needed to deliver vaccines, and that non-UN agencies do not currently have the capacity or mandate to do so.

In late April, Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, said that “it is not clear how future [Covid-19 vaccine] deliveries could reach northwest Syria unless you confirm the re-authorization of UN cross-border access.”

Aid Through Iraq Needed to Address Covid-19, Other Health Needs in Northeast

Health Needs in Northeast Syria

As of April, 1.8 million people living in nongovernment-held parts of northeast Syria needed humanitarian assistance, with over 70 percent of them in “extreme need.”

The region’s healthcare system, run by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration for northeast Syria, has been heavily affected by 10 years of conflict and Turkey’s October 2019 military offensive. Lowcock said that as of March, 70 percent of the population is considered to be in extreme need because “the availability and accessibility of health care in the north-east is insufficient,” and because “few health issues are adequately addressed due to the limited functionality and capacity of health-care facilities, the lack of adequately trained medical staff, and shortages of essential medicines.” In late May he said the region “continues to lack essential health supplies, including to prevent, test and treat Covid-19 infections.”

End of UN Aid from Iraq to Northeast Harms Covid-19 and Broader Healthcare Response

Between 2014 and early January 2020, the UN Security Council authorized UN agencies to deliver aid to northeastern Syria through a single border crossing, from Rabia village in Iraq to al-Yarubiyah town in northeast Syria, without the Syrian government’s permission.

Due to security concerns, the UN’s cross-border operations only started in April 2018. Aid groups said that throughout 2019, their healthcare programs in northeast Syria heavily depended on supplies from the WHO, UNICEF, and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) through al-Yarubiyah. The UN secretary-general’s February 2020 report on cross-border aid to northeast Syria also said that in 2019, only a limited number of healthcare facilities in northeast Syria received supplies from agencies or the authorities in Damascus and that most relied heavily on supplies received from the UN in Iraq, delivered through al-Yarubiyah.

The UN Security Council deauthorization of the Yarubiyah border crossing in January 2020 resulted in an immediate end to the UN cross-border operations from Iraq into northeast Syria. Since then, UN agencies based in Damascus are only authorized by the Syrian authorities to provide aid from government-held parts of the country to some parts of the northeast.

Aid groups said that since 2015, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has also allowed them to use other commercial border crossings from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to deliver aid, including some healthcare supplies and personnel, to northeast Syria and that this has continued since January 2020. However, they also say that they have been unable to match the amount of aid the UN used to deliver through al-Yarubiyah and have been unable to respond adequately to the health needs in northeast Syria since the UN ended its supplies.

According to aid groups, al-Yarubiyah’s deauthorization meant that 19 out of 50 UN-supported healthcare centers were forced to close between 2020 and March 2021. They said that between March and August, aid groups taking medical supplies into the region through commercial border crossings were unable to buy medication in, or import medication into, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq due to Covid-19-related transport restrictions there. This caused shortages of some essential medicines, including anesthetic and insulin.

The same aid agencies also said that since March 2020, problems in bringing in coronavirus testing kits have repeatedly caused the only coronavirus testing laboratory managed by the Autonomous Administration’s Department of Health, in Qamishli, to run out of kits. In early May, Doctors Without Borders said that the laboratory had only a two-week stock of coronavirus testing supplies.

Aid groups also said that they and other groups have struggled to supply healthcare centers in the region with certain types of drugs, including insulin, psychotropic medicines, and medicines for noncommunicable diseases. They say this is because they are unable to guarantee the cold chains needed to take the drugs to their final destination due to unpredictable administrative and transportation delays involved in using commercial border crossings between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and northeast Syria. They say that because of this and the UN’s inability to reach many nongovernment-held areas through cross-line aid, regular vaccination programs have faced serious interruptions in some areas, including in Kobani and Manbij sub-Districts.

Aid groups said it has been extremely difficult for them to bring in nutrition supplies and reproductive health kits because they have not been able to buy them in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and because it is too expensive to bring them in from elsewhere.

In April and May, Lowcock said non-UN aid agencies working in the northeast “have been clear … that the loss of … al-Yarubiyah has left the region woefully underserved in health services” and that the “overall, the [humanitarian] situation has worsened since the removal of the Yarubiyah authorized border crossing in January of last year.” In late March, he said that those agencies reported “imminent stock-outs of critical medicines like insulin, and cardiovascular and antibacterial medicines in multiple facilities” and that “neither cross-line support [from Damascus] nor increased cross-border shipments by NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] have since proved a sufficient replacement” for the aid the UN used to supply through the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

An aid worker said that the closure of al-Yarubiyah meant UN agencies had to stop funding aid groups in nongovernment-controlled parts of northeast Syria, including through the Syria Cross-Border Humanitarian Fund, and that as a result those groups lost $26.8 million in funding overnight for their work in 2020 in northeast Syria. Aid groups said that private and bilateral donors stepped in to help reduce the loss of funds but that between September and December, they still had a budget shortfall of about $7 million.

Aid groups also said that as the humanitarian situation in northeast Syria deteriorates, they require more financial support, but that their funding is decreasing and that a re-opening of the Yarubiyah crossing would help fill this gap by allowing the UN to resume its funding of aid operations in the northeast.

In late March, Lowcock said that “available resources will only cover 40 percent of estimated health supply needs for north-east Syria for 2021” and that “at least nine NGO-supported health facilities will close in the coming months if additional funding is not secured.”

As of April 4, the authorities in the northeast had reported 10,509 Covid-19 cases, 450 of them fatal, with cases rising dramatically in March. According to statistics collected by non-UN aid groups and healthcare workers across northeast Syria responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, at that time there were at least 15,000 positive cases. The same statistics show that 42 percent of coronavirus tests since July 2020 were positive. Aid workers said that this indicates a high likelihood of under-testing in the region, while Doctors Without Borders said that “it is clear that many cases have gone unidentified due to limited testing capacity in the region.”

The January 2020 closure of al-Yarubiyah means UN agencies cannot fund Covid-19-related work by aid groups in northeast Syria that are not registered in Damascus, those groups said. Some groups said that the resulting funding cuts have led to a severe shortage of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies in healthcare facilities designated for treating Covid-19, including testing kits and oxygen.

In early May, Doctors Without Borders said that the lack of supplies to prevent and treat Covid-19 in the region was “shocking.” One aid worker said that in one case, a non-UN agency had tried to bring 10,000 PCR tests from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq but that administrative and logistical delays meant that the kits were almost expired by the time they were ready to ship, which led the testing laboratory in Qamishli to reject them before they had even left Erbil.

Three aid workers said that the funding cuts also forced aid agencies in March and April to stop supporting 12 out of 20 facilities designated to treat Covid-19 in northeast Syria, as well as a vaccination center in Manbij and the city’s main hospital’s vaccination department. According to numerous aid agencies working in northeast Syria, two others were also forced to shut in March and May, leaving only six open. This includes a facility in western Deir al-Zour under the control of the Autonomous Administration that an aid worker said is due to close on June 20 due to a lack of funds.

The same aid groups said that as of early May, only Hassakeh governorate had facilities to treat severe Covid-19 cases, with none in the other three governorates of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa. They also say Raqqa and Deir al-Zour governorates, under the control of the Autonomous Administration, only had two Covid-19 treatment facilities each, with one in Deir al-Zour likely to close on June 20 due to a lack of funding.

An aid worker said that the funding cuts also mean non-UN aid groups have had to reduce their support to the testing laboratory in Qamishli.

Limited Aid Reaches Northeast Syria from Damascus

When Russia threatened to veto the Security Council’s renewal of the entire cross-border aid mandate in December 2019, it contended that it was no longer necessary as those areas were under the Syrian government’s control and could be reached from Damascus and that aid had been previously taken by “terrorists.” When Moscow again threatened to veto the entire mandate in January 2020, it said that the Yarubiyah crossing point from Iraq into northeast Syria was “totally irrelevant because humanitarian assistance to that region is coming from within Syria.”

However, the amount of healthcare aid reaching northeast Syria from Damascus is significantly lower than the amount that reached the region through the Yarubiyah border crossing before the UN stopped using it in January 2020.

Statistics seen by Human Rights Watch make clear that in 2019, the total storage space the UN used in all parts of northeast Syria was 4,680 metric tons, but that this decreased to 1,600 metric tons in 2020. A UN staff member said that it roughly reflected the decrease in aid received in the region from the UN.

In April, Lowcock said that “while the UN has scaled up cross-line deliveries, needs continue to outstrip our ability to respond. Many medical facilities remain short of the necessary supplies and equipment.”

Two aid workers said that UN agencies in Damascus still do not have permission from the authorities there to work in most nongovernment-held parts of northeast Syria. Another aid worker said that the WHO and UNICEF support government-held parts of northeast Syria, but that the amount of aid they provide to nongovernment-held parts of the region is limited to supporting other aid groups in a number of formally recognized camps for internally displaced people and to outreach work in a few urban areas.

They said this means that the vast majority of people in nongovernment-held parts of the region receive no healthcare-related aid from the UN and that aid groups not registered with Damascus supply those areas with aid from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. An aid worker confirmed that those groups still cannot receive supplies directly from UN agencies in Damascus.

An aid worker said that WHO and UNICEF healthcare supplies transferred through al-Yarubiyah until January 2020 were taken to Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) warehouses in northeast Syria from where non-UN aid groups collected the supplies. A second aid worker confirmed that the Kurdish Red Crescent remains those groups’ largest partner in the region and is responsible for most aid distribution there. A third aid worker said that in contrast, the UN in Damascus is often unable to get healthcare supplies to the Red Crescent, resulting in shortages of pediatric and noncommunicable- disease-related supplies in UN-supported primary healthcare centers. She also said that the UN in Damascus struggles to deliver supplies to the northeast Syria Autonomous Authorities’ Department of Health, particularly in Raqqa, Manbij, and Kobane, with the vast majority of supplies going instead to government-run hospitals or health committees in the region.

An aid worker said that aid groups working in northeast Syria that are registered in Damascus continue to face significant longstanding obstacles in transporting materials and personnel from Damascus to non-government-controlled areas of northeast Syria.

Another aid worker said that the WHO only sporadically supports one laboratory in one government-run hospital in Qamishli with PCR tests, and that the hospital carries out about 15 coronavirus tests a day. He also said that neither the WHO nor UNICEF deliver coronavirus testing materials from Damascus to the main laboratory in Qamishli, managed by the Autonomous Administration’s Department of Health, which carries out about 500 coronavirus tests a day with the help of non-UN aid groups, and do not support Covid-19-related case management, surveillance or mobile testing there because the Syrian government has not given them permission.

Aid workers also said that aid groups have no insight into whether supplies arriving in the northeast from Damascus are going to health facilities in areas controlled by the government in the region or nongovernment actors.

Covid-19 Vaccination Gaps in Northeast Syria

The Autonomous Administration in the northeast has not attempted to make its own application to the COVAX facility for Covid-19 vaccines. As a result, people in the northeast can currently only receive Covid-19 vaccines under Syria’s National Vaccination Deployment Plan, which says the authorities in Damascus and various “sub-national committees” are responsible for distributing them. Just over 350,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines had reached Damascus by late April. An aid worker said that as of early June, 17,500 had been transferred to the northeast. According to the National Deployment and Vaccination Plan for Syria, they were transferred to the Qamishli airport with the WHO’s support. An aid worker said that those doses are supposed to be distributed to healthcare workers in government and nongovernment-held parts of al-Hassakeh governorate and to nongovernment-held parts of Deir al-Zour governorate.

Three aid workers said that as of early June, there was no arrangement for the authorities in Damascus to hand over any of the vaccines to the Autonomous Administration in northeast Syria. However, one said that the Syrian authorities are considering a procedure under which health workers in nongovernment-held areas could register with Autonomous Administration-run hospitals to receive a “vaccination slip,” which they could present at designated hospitals in both government and Autonomous Administration-held areas.

According to two aid workers, nongovernment-held parts of northeast Syria that the UN in Damascus is not allowed to serve as of early June include Kobane sub-District, with a population of about 90,000 and Manbij sub-District, with a population of about 250,000. They also said that the Syrian authorities’ prohibition on the UN having direct contact with non-UN aid groups working in nongovernment-controlled parts of northeast Syria means those groups cannot help the UN reach Kobane, Manbij, and other areas that are off-limits to the UN to distribute Covid-19 vaccines.

Recommendations

The UN Security Council should immediately reauthorize cross-border operations into northwest Syria through Bab al-Hawa and authorize such operations through Bab al-Salam to the northwest and through al-Yarubiyah to northeast Syria by granting explicit permission for cross-border aid delivery for one year.

Russia should not oppose a UN Security Council reauthorization and authorization of border crossings to the northeast and northeast, especially as cross-line delivery of healthcare-related supplies from Damascus to northeast Syria remains insufficient, and there is no cross-line delivery of aid to northwest Syria. Russia should also use its influence to pressure the Syrian authorities to allow UN and non-UN aid agencies unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas in Syria, including areas not under the Syrian government’s control.

The Syrian government should immediately facilitate unimpeded access for UN and international aid agency staff to all areas of Syria, including areas not under Syrian government control. It should also ease restrictions that create undue bureaucratic delays around medical supplies and other aid reaching northeast Syria and allow aid groups to conduct independent needs and rights assessments and assist people on the basis of need, without any political constraints.

The WHO, the UN secretary-general, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator and the resident humanitarian coordinator in Syria should continue to press the Syrian authorities to allow WHO and other UN agencies in Damascus to provide aid supplies and personnel to all parts of Syria in an equitable manner and based purely on an objective needs assessment. They should also support international aid groups’ ability to procure urgently needed medical supplies that may not be commercially available in the region or elsewhere by providing access to the UN’s preferred vendors and supply chains. They should also explicitly and publicly advocate reauthorization and authorization of all three cross-border aid points in northern Syria, two in the northwest and one in the northeast.

International donors to the UN, including the US and the EU, should press the Syrian authorities to allow medical supplies and personnel to reach all parts of northwest and northeast Syria. Donors should also ask the UN resident coordinator in Damascus to provide regular updates of how many requests the UN, WHO, and international aid groups have submitted to the Syrian authorities to take aid from Damascus into the northwest and northeast, how many have been refused and on what grounds, how swiftly the rest have been approved, and how many of the supplies and staff have reached areas under government and non-government control. Such updates  should specify how the aid provided compares to  humanitarian needs in each area.

Donors should ask the UN Security Council to reauthorize UN agencies’ use of all available border crossing points to help supplies and staff reach northwest and northeast Syria. The secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator should continue to press the council to do so, while exploring ways to continue to ensure that lifesaving aid continues to move across borders if the mandate is not fully restored.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 10, 2021, 3:00 pm
Click to expand Image A 14-year-old boy from Dolakha district at a brick kiln in Bholachhe, Bhaktapur, Nepal where he lives with his aunt’s family. He works as a carpenter’s apprentice in the day and helps his aunt’s family make bricks in the mornings and evenings. He dropped out of school four years ago and believes that he’s too old to resume schooling. © 2021 Nikita Tripathi for Human Rights Watch

Ahead of the World Day Against Child Labor this weekend, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have just released shocking new figures. They estimate that 160 million children were engaged in child labor in 2020. This is 8.4 million more children than since the last estimate issued in 2016, and the first time in two decades that the numbers have increased. Previously, countries globally had made impressive strides, reducing child labor by nearly 40 percent between 2000 and 2016.

Alarmingly, these numbers pre-date the Covid-19 pandemic, which is forcing even more children into exploitative and dangerous child labor. Human Rights Watch, Friends of the Nation, and the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights recently interviewed dozens of children in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda to document the impact of the pandemic on their lives. They told us how their parents lost jobs when businesses closed, couldn’t get to markets to sell their goods, or lost customers during lockdowns. Their schools closed, and with little or no government assistance, the children felt they had no choice but to work to help their families survive.

The children worked at brick kilns, carpet factories, gold mines, stone quarries, fisheries, in construction, and in agriculture. Others sold food or goods on the street. They described working long hours for meager wages, often under dangerous conditions. One 12-year-old girl crushed rocks at a stone quarry for seven hours a day. Her salary was just US$1.11 a week, she said, but if her employer was unhappy with the size of the stones, he paid her even less.

Child labor is not an inevitable consequence of the pandemic. Many governments have successfully reduced child labor in the past by providing regular cash allowances to help families meet their basic needs without sending their children to work. But 1.3 billion children – mostly in Africa and Asia - are not covered by such programs. Scaling up cash allowances can help governments meet their international legal obligations to guarantee children an adequate standard of living, their right to education, and protection from child labor. In the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, this powerful policy tool is more important than ever.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 10, 2021, 1:21 pm
Click to expand Image The watchtower of a high-security facility near a “re-education camp” where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, in China's northwestern Xinjiang region on May 31, 2019. ©2019 GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

For members of the Uyghur diaspora – people of Turkic descent who have left the Xinjiang region of China, where state repression runs deep – the decision to speak publicly about arbitrarily detained family members or to criticize human rights violations can be excruciating. Will doing so bring greater protection or greater torment to their family members effectively held hostage by Xinjiang authorities?

In recent years, speaking out has become increasingly risky. Many Uyghurs in the diaspora have been cut off from their family members since 2017, after Chinese authorities stepped up their latest “Strike Hard” campaign and imposed collective punishments on relatives still in Xinjiang.

In September 2018, Washington, DC-based Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas learned that her sister, Gulshan Abbas, 56, a retired medical doctor in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, had gone missing. More than two years later, Abbas found out that her sister had been sentenced to 20 years in prison on “terrorism” charges.

In January 2018, the authorities detained 24 relatives of award-winning Radio Free Asia journalist Gulchehra Hoja, whom the government refers to as a “terrorist.” Her mother, Qimangul Zikri, spent 40 days in an Urumqi jail. This April the regional authorities began describing her father, Abduqeyum Hoja, a retired archaeologist who avoided the 2018 detention only because he had been hospitalized with a stroke, as a “terrorist” too.

Dolkun Isa, who fled China in 1994 and now heads the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, had for years been unable to contact family members inside China. In 2019 he learned that his 79-year-old mother, Ayhan Memet, had died in a “political reeducation” camp. He only learned about the death of his father, Isa Memet, 86, when it was reported on China state media last year. And just last month, Isa learned that his brother, Hushtar Isa, who has been arbitrarily detained since 2017, is now serving a life sentence, also on terrorism-related charges.

Chinese authorities frequently use vague charges of terrorism to silence critics of the government. They have not made public information to substantiate the charges brought against any of these people.

Governments that have expressed concern about the horrific rights situation in Xinjiang should call on Beijing to end its collective punishment of family members, and allow those who want to leave China to do so. It should not be left to these courageous activists alone to fight for their safety.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 9, 2021, 5:40 pm

Click to expand Image A member of ESMAD throws a tear gas grenade by hand at protesters on May 28, 2021 in Bogota, Colombia. © 2021 Ovidio Gonzalez/Getty Images.

(Washington, DC) – Members of the Colombian National Police have committed egregious abuses against mostly peaceful demonstrators in protests that began in April 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. Colombia’s government should take urgent measures to protect human rights, initiate a comprehensive police reform effort to ensure that officers respect the right of peaceful assembly, and bring those responsible for abuses to justice.

On April 28, thousands of people took to the streets in dozens of cities across Colombia to protest proposed tax changes. The government withdrew the proposal days later, but demonstrations about a range of issues – including economic inequality, police violence, unemployment, and poor public services – have continued. Police officers have responded by repeatedly and arbitrarily dispersing peaceful demonstrations and using excessive, often brutal, force, including live ammunition. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple killings by police, as well as beatings, sexual abuse, and arbitrary detention of demonstrators and bystanders.

“These brutal abuses are not isolated incidents by rogue officers, but rather the result of systemic shortcomings of the Colombian police,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Comprehensive reform that clearly separates the police from the military and ensures adequate oversight and accountability is needed to ensure that these violations don’t occur again.”

While the protests have been mostly peaceful, some individuals have committed grave acts of violence in the context of the protests, including burning police stations and attacking police officers, two of whom died.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 150 people, most by phone, including victims, their relatives and lawyers, witnesses, justice sector officials, officials of the human rights Ombudsperson’s Office, and human rights defenders, in 25 cities across Colombia. Human Rights Watch also met with Colombia’s vice president, who is also the foreign minister; the police chief; the attorney general; and the head of the Military Justice System.

Members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), an international group of prominent forensic experts, provided expert opinion on some evidence of abuses. Human Rights Watch also reviewed police and medical records, necropsy reports and photos of the victims, publications by local rights groups, and media reports. Human Rights Watch also corroborated more than 50 videos posted on social media and obtained information about the government’s response to past police abuses from the Ombudsperson’s Office, the Inspector General’s Office, and the Defense and Interior Ministries.

Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of 68 deaths occurring since the protests began. Human Rights Watch received reports of these deaths through local groups, including Temblores and Defender la Libertad, a coalition of rights groups documenting police violence, and independently documented each case with direct evidence.

So far, Human Rights Watch has confirmed that 34 deaths occurred in the context of the protests, including those of 2 police officers, 1 criminal investigator, and 31 demonstrators or bystanders, at least 20 of whom appear to have been killed by the police. Armed people in civilian clothes have attacked protesters, killing at least five.

Colombian authorities should carry out prompt and independent investigations into all cases of police abuse and other serious acts of violence, including by armed people in civilian clothes who have attacked protesters, Human Rights Watch said. They should also investigate any officers who may have failed to protect demonstrators from attacks by others.

Credible evidence indicates that the police killed at least 16 protesters or bystanders with live ammunition fired from firearms, Human Rights Watch found. The vast majority of them had injuries in vital organs, such as the thorax and head, which justice sector officials said are consistent with being caused with the intent to kill.

At least one other victim died from beatings and three others from inappropriate or excessive use of teargas or flash bang cartridges.

Click to expand Image

Over 1,100 protesters and bystanders have been injured since April 28, according to the Ministry of Defense, though the total number is most likely higher as many cases have not been reported to authorities. Human Rights Watch documented nine cases of severe eye injuries, including seven with likely permanent loss of vision in one eye, apparently from teargas cartridges, stun grenades, or kinetic impact projectiles fired from riot guns.

Victims injured include journalists and human rights defenders who were covering the protests, including many who wore vests identifying them as such.

On June 3, the Ministry of Defense said that, since April 28, police officers had detained over 1,200 people for crimes allegedly committed during the protests. Prosecutors had only charged 215. Hundreds were released after a judge or prosecutor concluded that there was no evidence linking them to a crime, or that their due process rights were violated during detention, the Attorney General’s Office told Human Rights Watch.

In addition, the police took into custody over 5,500 people using a legal provision that allows police officers to “transfer” a person to an “assistance or protection center” to “protect” them or others. Human Rights Watch documented multiple cases of arbitrary detention, including by misusing the “protection” provision.

On May 14, the Ombudsperson’s Office reported 2 cases of rape, 14 cases of sexual assault, and 71 other cases of gender-based violence by police officers, including slapping and verbal abuse. Colombian rights groups have reported additional cases. Human Rights Watch documented two cases of sexual violence by police officers against protesters.

Human Rights Watch also documented 17 beatings, often with police truncheons. One victim, Elvis Vivas, 24, died in a hospital after a brutal beating by police officers.

At least 419 people have been reported missing since the protests began. On June 4, the Attorney General’s Office said that it had found 304 of them. In some cases, the people who reported them missing were not aware that they had been detained.

While most demonstrations were peaceful, some individuals engaged in serious acts of violence, including attacking police officers and police stations with rocks and Molotov cocktails, looting, and burning public and private property. As of June 2, over 1,200 officers had been injured, at least 192 severely, 2 officers had died and 7 officers remained hospitalized, according to the Defense Ministry. Twenty police officers had been injured by firearms, the police chief said. On April 29, several people beat up and sexually abused a woman police officer as they attacked a police station in Cali.

Some protesters blocked roads for prolonged periods, at times limiting or impeding the distribution of food or the circulation of ambulances, particularly in the states of Valle del Cauca and Cundinamarca. These limitations have at times undermined access to health supplies, including oxygen for patients with Covid-19, the Health Ministry said. A newborn baby girl died on May 23 after protesters blocked the ambulance that was carrying her between Cali and Buenaventura.

“Violence against police officers and road blocking that impedes access to food or health services are unjustifiable, but they are no excuse for police brutality,” Vivanco said.

Incidents of abuse by the police in 2019 and 2020 prompted calls for comprehensive police reform, including from Human Rights Watch.

The Colombian police force is under the authority of the Defense Ministry and has been deployed to fight armed groups alongside the armed forces, in a manner that has often blurred their distinct functions. In situations involving armed conflict, the use of force is governed by international humanitarian law, and the rules are very different than in a civilian context, such as in protests. Police officers implicated in abuses are also often tried in military courts, where there is little chance of accountability.

Colombia needs a civilian force that is trained to respond to protests in a manner respectful of human rights, and whose members are held accountable for abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Establishing a clear separation between the police and the military is a key first step.

On June 6, President Iván Duque announced that his government would take steps to “transform” the police. Some of the initiatives, such as a proposed reform of the police’s disciplinary system, could have a positive impact on police abuses if properly designed and implemented, Human Rights Watch said. But other proposals seem cosmetic, and, overall, the changes announced fall short of the reforms needed to prevent human rights violations and hold those responsible to account.

President Duque has acknowledged that the police committed some abuses and said officers involved would be prosecuted and punished. But Duque has rejected other major proposals for police reforms, claiming that his government has “zero tolerance” toward abuse.

Yet the police’s internal disciplinary system, which lacks necessary independence, has failed to hold officers responsible for abuses in protests in 2019 and 2020, data obtained by Human Rights Watch shows. The Attorney General’s Office, which conducts criminal investigations, has also failed to achieve meaningful progress in investigations into abuses committed during those protests.

For detailed recommendations and further information on Human Rights Watch’s findings, please see below.

Arbitrary Dispersal of Peaceful Protests; Excessive Use of Force

The Colombian government deployed regular police officers and members of the police anti-riots squadron (ESMAD) to respond to the protests. The regular officers attend a 45-hour course on responding to peaceful demonstrations every two years, but do not receive anti-riot training, the police chief told Human Rights Watch.

Additionally, since May 1, President Duque has deployed the army to “assist” the police, though not to use force against protesters. On May 28, Duque increased the number of deployed soldiers, and ordered several governors and mayors to work with security forces to “adopt the necessary measures” to disperse “blockades.”

Under international human rights law, the authorities should protect peaceful assemblies and should not disperse them even if they consider them unlawful. They should avoid using force unless necessary and proportionate to respond to specific incidents of violence. Peaceful protests that block traffic may be dispersed, as a general rule, only if they cause serious and sustained disruptions.

However, Human Rights Watch has documented repeated instances in which the ESMAD or police violated these principles, arbitrarily dispersing peaceful protests, or using indiscriminate and excessive force, including firearms.

Unlawful Use of Lethal Weapons

Under international human rights standards, firearms may only be used when strictly necessary to address an imminent risk to life or physical integrity. The use of firearms to disperse an assembly is always unlawful.

Under Colombian law, police can use lethal weapons to defend themselves or others “when there is imminent threat of death or serious injury, or to prevent a particularly serious crime that involves a serious threat to life.”

The Colombian police chief told Human Rights Watch that police, including regular officers and members of the anti-riots squadron (ESMAD), have not used lethal weapons during the demonstrations.

However, Human Rights Watch corroborated several videos showing police officers shooting in the context of the demonstrations, in circumstances in which there appeared to be no risk to life or physical integrity.

Human Rights Watch documented 16 cases in which the police appear to have killed unarmed protesters or bystanders with live ammunition. In at least 15 of those cases, the victims had gunshot wounds in vital organs: 7 were shot in the thorax, 6 in the head, and 2 in the abdomen. Those injuries are consistent with an intent to kill, justice sector authorities told Human Rights Watch.

Kevin Antoni Agudelo

22, Shopkeeper Cali, Valle del Cauca More »

× Kevin Antoni Agudelo

Kevin Agudelo, 22, a shopkeeper, was shot at around 10:15 p.m. on May 3 in Cali, Valle del Cauca state. He died of his wounds. He had been participating in a candlelight vigil for people injured in previous protests, two witnesses said. Demonstrators at a roundabout were peacefully blocking traffic when ESMAD agents began firing flash bang cartridges and teargas, three witnesses said. Several protesters responded by throwing rocks. One witness said he heard shots that sounded like live ammunition. He said that Agudelo, who had been hiding behind a post, then ran toward him along with another protester. The witness said he saw a police officer shoot Agudelo from a short distance. The other protester was also injured, he said. Human Rights Watch reviewed three videos that appear consistent with the witnesses’ accounts, in which Agudelo is seen lying next to the injured protester. Human Rights Watch reviewed a photo of Agudelo’s body, with wounds to the chest and arms, which IFEG forensic experts said were consistent with being shot by live ammunition. A justice sector official familiar with the case said initial evidence indicates the police were responsible for the shooting.

Santiago Andrés Murillo

19, Student Ibagué, Tolima More »

× Santiago Andrés Murillo

Santiago Andrés Murillo, 19, a student, in the town of Ibagué, Tolima state, was shot at around 10 p.m. on May 1, as he walked home from his girlfriend’s house, his mother and girlfriend said. A video corroborated by Human Rights Watch shows several protesters attending to Murillo lying on the ground. Human Rights Watch reviewed photos of Murillo’s body, showing wounds to the left armpit and chest, which IFEG forensic experts said are consistent with having been shot by live ammunition. Military justice officials arrested two police officers on homicide charges on May 6 and released them on June 2. A prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court on May 11 to rule that only the Attorney General’s Office – not the military justice system – should investigate the case. A decision remains pending.

Nicolás Guerrero

26, Graffiti artist Cali, Valle del Cauca More »

× Nicolás Guerrero Nicolás Guerrero, 26, a graffiti artist, died from a gunshot to the left side of the head at around 1 a.m. on May 3, in Cali. Guerrero had been assisting injured protesters at a demonstration in the Calima neighborhood, a witness said, and joined the front row of protesters minutes before he was shot. Some of the protesters had been throwing rocks at police. The witness heard a single shot fired as he was leaving, and when he turned, he saw Guerrero wounded. He believes police fired the shot, as they were the only ones facing the front row of protesters, he said, and he had seen them open fire earlier that night. Human Rights Watch reviewed a photo of Guerrero’s body, showing the head wound. A justice sector official familiar with the case said that initial evidence points to a police shooter. Yinson Andrés Angulo Rodríguez

23, Electrician Cali, Valle del Cauca More »

× Yinson Andrés Angulo Rodríguez

Yinson Andrés Angulo Rodríguez, 23, an electrician, died from a gunshot at around 4:40 p.m. on May 1, in Cali. He and a friend had been walking, observing the protests, and stopped at the park in the Calimio neighborhood, his friend said. Protesters were throwing rocks, and police were responding with teargas and stun grenades. Two stun grenades hit demonstrators in the front row, the friend said, and as everyone ran, he heard several shots. He turned to look for Angulo and could not find him. He approached some people who were shouting, “Take him out, he has been shot, he has been injured.” They were bending over Angulo’s limp body. A motorcycle took him to the Joaquín Paz Borrero hospital. A justice sector official familiar with the case said that live ammunition killed Angulo and that initial evidence indicated that it belonged to the police.

Edwin Villa Escobar

38, Gas technician Cali, Valle del Cauca More »

× Edwin Villa Escobar

Edwin Villa Escobar, 38, a gas technician, was killed on April 30 in Cali. Villa was cooking soup outdoors for other protesters in the Diamante neighborhood, when at around 4:30 p.m., police tried to disperse the demonstration, a relative of the victim said. Some protesters threw rocks at the police in response and officers began firing live ammunition, videos corroborated by Human Rights Watch show. Villa was injured. A demonstrator took him to a local clinic, where doctors transferred him to a hospital for urgent surgery. He died hours later. Doctors told the family he had been injured with live ammunition in the left ear. A justice sector official familiar with the case said that the evidence indicates the police was responsible for the shooting.

Marcelo Agredo Inchima

17, Student Cali, Valle del Cauca More »

× Marcelo Agredo Inchima A police officer killed Marcelo Agredo Inchima, 17, a student, as he participated in a demonstration in Cali on April 28. Around 3:30 p.m., police officers dispersed a demonstration in a part of the city known as Puerto Rellena, said a relative of Agredo who was with him in the protest. Agredo and other demonstrators ran, a witness said, toward the nearby Mariano Ramos neighborhood. Agredo kicked an officer in the back, videos corroborated by Human Rights Watch show, and the officer turned and shot Agredo as he ran away. The relative said that he heard several shots and people shouting, “they killed him, they killed one!” When he approached, he found Agredo with a wound in his head. Justice sector officials familiar with the case said that he was killed with live ammunition. On May 12, the Attorney General’s Office arrested and charged an officer with his homicide.

Indiscriminate and Improper Use of Less Lethal Weapons

Police repeatedly used teargas against peaceful protesters, demonstrators and officials of the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office said.

It appears that police deployed teargas from riot guns in a reckless and dangerous manner on multiple occasions. Police should fire teargas cartridges toward the sky, to slow down the heavy projectile’s trajectory in a downward arc to land on the ground. However, interviews with multiple protesters and human rights officials and videos corroborate that police officers shot the cartridges straight into the crowd.

The Colombian police also used a launching system, known as Venom, to shoot up to 30 teargas, smoke or flash bang cartridges at a time. Human Rights Watch corroborated videos of its use in several cities, including Bogotá and Popayán (Cauca state). The system is supposed to shoot projectiles in a “parabolic” trajectory – that is, toward the sky – to avoid “direct impact” against protesters, police told Human Rights Watch in a letter. But the letter also says it shoots from an angle as small as 10 degrees, which would not make it “parabolic.”

Human Rights Watch corroborated videos of police shooting the Venom from the ground straight toward demonstrators in Popayán.

This launching system has wide-area indiscriminate effects and cannot be used in a way that distinguishes any legitimate threats, Human Rights Watch said. Its usage is inappropriate for peaceful protests. Even if isolated events of violence occur in the context of protests, police need to respond in a proportionate, not indiscriminate, manner.

Human Rights Watch documented cases of five people apparently injured by the impacts of teargas cartridges and three killed, including:

Brayan Niño Araque

24, Furniture store employee Madrid, Cundimarca More »

× Brayan Niño Araque Brayan Niño Araque, 24, a furniture store employee, was killed when a cartridge hit him in the eye at around 9 p.m. on May 1 in Madrid, Cundinamarca state. He was participating in a peaceful protest when ESMAD agents in an armored wheeled vehicle began shooting teargas cartridges directly at protesters as they ran away, several witnesses said. One said he saw a cartridge shot from the armored vehicle hit Niño, who was running away but had, seconds earlier, turned to look back. Human Rights Watch corroborated a photo of the wound to Niño’s right eye, which the IFEG forensic experts say is consistent with impact from a teargas cartridge. A justice sector official familiar with the case said that the blow to the eye caused Niño’s death. Human Rights Watch corroborated videos of an armored vehicle shooting what appeared to be teargas cartridges at protesters that night. Military justice authorities on May 6 ordered the arrest of a police officer on homicide charges. A prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court on May 13 to rule that only the Attorney General’s Office – not the military justice system – should investigate the case. A decision remains pending. Juan Pablo Fonseca

25, Student chef and assistant cook Bogotá More »

× Juan Pablo Fonseca

Juan Pablo Fonseca, 25, a student chef and assistant cook, saw an ESMAD agent fire the teargas cartridge that smashed his right eye during protests in a northern neighborhood of Bogotá on May 1. The agent fired straight at his face, he said. Another witness said that police were firing teargas canisters directly at protesters on the corner where Fonseca was hit. A passer-by took Fonseca to a clinic, where doctors removed his right eye. As of May 14, Fonseca had undergone four surgeries.

Joan Alejandro Martínez Díaz

20, Student Bogotá More »

× Joan Alejandro Martínez Díaz

Joan Alejandro Martínez Díaz, 20, a physics student, was participating in a protest on Avenida de las Américas, in Bogotá, on the night of May 4, when an ESMAD agent shot him in the face with a teargas cartridge, Martínez said. The front row of protesters was throwing rocks at police, Martínez said, but he was walking away, trying to distance himself from them. He turned to see the police beating a protester and saw an agent shoot him with the cartridge. The agent gave no warning, he said, shooting straight at him. A passer-by on a motorcycle drove Martínez to the hospital, where he was treated for bleeding, a bruised forehead, and swelling of his left eye. Human Rights Watch reviewed a doctor’s report that says he is unlikely to regain sight in that eye.

In 2019, Colombian police fired pellets using 12-gauge pellet shotguns against protesters, killing one protester. In January 2020, the Inspector General’s Office, an independent body, found that police officers had limited, if any, training on how to use the weapon. In September 2020, the Supreme Court suspended the use of those weapons by police.

The police chief told Human Rights Watch that police are not currently using any kind of pellet shotguns. He said the 12-gauge pellet shotguns remain stored in police stations.

The police said they are using riot guns to fire cartridges containing 12 or 24 balls that they said are made of plastic. Human Rights Watch documented several cases in which protesters appear to have been injured by these kinetic impact projectiles.

Some were hit by multiple projectiles at the same time, suggesting they were shot at close range, given that these projectiles scatter over a distance.

Juan Rojas, and Fernando Espinosa, and Camilo Rojas

Journalists Sibaté, Cundinamarca More »

× Juan Rojas, and Fernando Espinosa, and Camilo Rojas Juan Rojas, 35, and Fernando Espinosa, 35, both journalists, were covering a sit-in protest in Sibaté, Cundinamarca state, on May 6, a fellow journalist who was present said. As ESMAD agents approached, the three shouted that they were members of the press. But an ESMAD agent opened fire from no more than two meters away with a riot gun; Human Rights Watch corroborated a video showing the agent firing the weapon at them. The projectiles struck Espinosa in the chest, and Rojas in the left thigh, leaving bruises. Human Rights Watch reviewed photos of the bruises, which the IFEG forensic experts said are consistent with injuries caused by kinetic impact projectiles. Nicolás Saavedra

23, Electrician Bogotá More »

× Nicolás Saavedra

Nicolás Saavedra, 23, left work early on April 28 to participate in protests at Plaza de Bolívar, in Bogotá. He was watching performers, and the crowd was peaceful, when ESMAD agents burst into the square firing teargas, stun grenades and kinetic impact projectiles, he said. Saavedra heard an explosion close-by and felt searing pain. Shock kept him from running, as the people around him scattered. A childhood friend realized Saavedra’s right eye was bleeding profusely and took him to the hospital. A medical report Human Rights Watch reviewed noted multiple wounds not only to the right eye but to the hands, back, and right arm. Saavedra has lost all vision in his right eye.

“Emmanuel Lovato”

22, Student Pereira, Risaralda More »

× “Emmanuel Lovato”

Emmanuel Lovato (pseudonym), 22, a student, who like some others are identified by pseudonyms in this document for their protection, has less than half of the vision remaining in his right eye, after being hit by what he believes were kinetic impact projectiles. The demonstration at Parque Olaya, in the city of Pereira, Risaralda state, on May 2, had been peaceful, he said, until ESMAD agents arrived. Lovato saw the motorcycle agent who fired at his face from about 20 meters away, he said. Kinetic impact projectiles hit him below his right eye and impacted his right arm. The blow to the area of his eye caused the lower eyeball to burst, medical documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch said. Specialists are uncertain whether Lovato will regain some of his lost vision; he is avoiding sudden movement to prevent a total detachment of the retina, which they told him can result in permanent blindness.

“Luis Miguel Gómez”

25, Bus driver Cali, Valle del Cauca More »

× “Luis Miguel Gómez”

Luis Miguel Gómez (pseudonym), 25, was returning home after a sit-in in Cali, on May 1, when ESMAD and regular police agents, in a pincer movement, rounded him up with other protesters. They fired stun grenades and kinetic impact projectiles as they advanced, Gómez said. One of Gómez’s friends fell, and an ESMAD agent kicked him. As Gómez implored the agent to stop, a regular police officer approached and, from about two meters away, without giving any notice or command, shot his left wrist, Gómez said. A doctors’ report that Human Rights Watch reviewed said that a “rubber bullet” had broken Gomez’s radial bone and severed his tendon at the wrist, as well as injuring a finger.

Beatings

Human Rights Watch documented 17 cases of protesters or bystanders being beaten, often with police truncheons. Some were later detained. One died due to the injuries.

Elvis Vivas

24, Car assembly worker Madrid, Cudinamarca More »

× Elvis Vivas Police beat Elvis Vivas López, 24, on the night of May 1, in Madrid, Cundinamarca state, several videos Human Rights Watch corroborated show. The officers dragged him by his feet and arms to a nearby police station, the videos show. Two witnesses said that they saw Vivas leaving the police station that night. He had a large injury in the head, they said, and was disoriented. They took him to a hospital, where Vivas told doctors that the police beat him, a medical record Human Rights Watch reviewed shows. The doctors performed surgery and put him in an induced coma due to head injuries, his family members said. Vivas died on May 7. A justice sector official familiar with the case said that the evidence points to police responsibility. Kevin Díaz

18, Student Bogotá More »

× Kevin Díaz

Police beat Kevin Díaz, 18, and his 16-year-old girlfriend, near South Ecological Park in Bogotá, as they returned home from his sister’s house, Díaz said. Police and protesters had blocked the streets, and they found themselves being pushed with the crowds toward the center of the protests; then trapped near a police station where protesters and police were throwing stones, Díaz said. He and his girlfriend broke away, sometime after 9 p.m., and ran toward the park. At least 10 police on motorcycles chased them down and started beating them. Díaz tried to protect his girlfriend. An officer pointed a gun at her. Neighbors started screaming and the officers left, Díaz said. Human Rights Watch corroborated a video of the scene where a woman is checking Díaz’s injuries. Other people seen in the video say she is a nurse. Human Rights Watch also reviewed photos showing injuries on Díaz’s back, arms, right leg, and the left side of his face. His girlfriend was not injured.

“Samuel Rodríguez”

24, Student Medellín, Antioquia More »

× “Samuel Rodríguez”

Samuel Rodríguez (pseudonym), 24, a student, participated in a protest in the afternoon of May 1, in Parque de las Luces, Medellín, Antioquia state. Several protesters were throwing rocks at police, who responded with teargas, Rodríguez said. He was nearly 200 meters from the scene of the violence when, at around 4 p.m., a motorcycle rammed him. The officers on the motorcycle hit him with truncheons and fists, kicked him, and grabbed him by the neck, he said. Rodríguez could not breathe, he said. Police dragged him a few meters away, where more officers joined in the beating. An officer said they were going to detain him, but Rodríguez got away, bleeding heavily. Human Rights Watch corroborated a video that shows him, injured and bleeding, walking in a street in Medellín minutes later.

Joseph Felipe Fonseca Téllez

19, Student Bogotá More »

× Joseph Felipe Fonseca Téllez

Joseph Felipe Fonseca Téllez, 19, was walking with his sister and cousin along Avenida Caracas, in Bogotá, on the afternoon of April 28, when they ran into a group of police beating a young man, Téllez said. Téllez’s sister asked them to stop. Police responded by beating Téllez and his cousin, and detaining Téllez’s sister. An officer beat Téllez’s cousin with a truncheon while another one used a radio and a truncheon to hit his cousin in the head. Téllez and his cousin ran to escape the beatings, and an ESMAD agent threatened to shoot them with a teargas cartridge, Téllez said. Officers held Téllez’s sister for an hour. Human Rights Watch reviewed photos showing cuts on Tellez’s head and injuries to his cousin’s left cheek that are consistent with their statements.

Gender-Based Violence

On May 14, the Ombudsperson’s Office reported 2 cases of rape, 14 cases of sexual assault, and 71 other cases of gender-based violence by police officers, including slappings and verbal abuse. Colombian rights groups have reported additional cases. Human Rights Watch documented two cases of sexual violence by police officers against protesters:

Jessica Amaya

32, Artisan Yumbo, Valle del Cauca More »

× Jessica Amaya

Jessica Amaya, 32, participated in a protest that started on the morning of April 28 in the town of Yumbo, Valle del Cauca state. It was a peaceful event, with performances, Amaya said, and entire families attended. Around 9 p.m., ESMAD agents arrived by truck. Protesters started retreating and ESMAD officers chased them to the center of a traffic circle, Amaya said. An officer grabbed Amaya’s leg as she ran away and threw her to the ground. Beatings were “raining” on her, Amaya said. She covered her head and face with her arms, but after what she remembered as four heavy blows to the head, she passed out. She woke up about two hours later, under a bush, with blood on her clothes and a breast exposed. “I felt defiled, I feel that they have abused me, but I don’t remember what they did to me,” she said. The attack left her with abdominal pain, and she received eight stitches to repair various cuts on her head. She said the authorities told her they could only do a forensic medical examination after she filed a criminal complaint. She went to the prosecutor’s office in Yumbo the day after the incident, but it was closed due to the demonstrations. Human Rights Watch reviewed photos showing Amaya’s bruises and swelling. Amaya was examined in a private clinic on May 14. A group of medical doctors and psychologists who examined her concluded that she appeared to have been a victim of sexual violence, a medical report Human Rights Watch reviewed shows. Amaya reported the incident to prosecutors on May 21.

“Marta Alejandra Aguilar”

18, Student Palmira, Valle del Cauca More »

× “Marta Alejandra Aguilar”

Marta Alejandra Aguilar (pseudonym), 18, a student, was walking home, with four friends, from a protest in the city of Palmira, Valle del Cauca state, at around 4:30 a.m. on May 3, when a police officer asked to search one of Aguilar’s friends. The officer did not say why, Aguilar said. Her friend refused and other officers took four of them to a police station; the fifth escaped. A female officer took Aguilar to a bathroom, forced her to squat naked, and patted her down. A male officer entered the bathroom while she was still naked and asked the female officer to leave, Aguilar said. The male officer then started groping Aguilar. “He told me they were going to make me disappear, that they were going to take me to the back and rape me until I couldn’t take it anymore … that I was a whore,” she said. The officer led her toward the back of the station, but another officer stopped him and took Aguilar back to where her friends were. The officers handcuffed them all and photographed them with the milk and saline water that they had brought to the protests to relieve the effects of teargas. The officers let them leave after seven hours only after they signed a statement saying that they had not been harassed, mistreated, or beaten during their detention, Aguilar said. The police did not give them a copy. They were never accused of any crime or brought before a prosecutor or a judge.

Arbitrary Detention; Disproportionate Charges

Hundreds of protesters were detained by police and released after a judge or prosecutor concluded that there was no evidence linking them to a crime, or that their due process rights had been violated during detention, the Attorney General’s Office said. Human Rights Watch documented in detail 27 cases of people who appear to have been arbitrarily detained. Prosecutors, human rights officials, and victims’ lawyers reported scores of additional cases.

Prosecutors have also filed disproportionate charges of “terrorism” against some demonstrators who allegedly engaged in vandalism. While the penalty for destruction of property is between 16 and 90 months, the penalty for terrorism is up to 22 years-and-a-half in prison. International human rights standards require that criminal charges and penalties be proportionate to the gravity of the conduct at issue and the culpability of the alleged offender. Authorities should not arbitrarily use “terrorism” charges to address lower-level offenses, Human Rights Watch said.

The police also took into custody over 5,500 people using a legal provision that allows police officers to “transfer” a person to an “assistance or protection center” for their own “protection” or that of others. Human Rights Watch documented several cases in which police officers appear to have misused this provision.

The law allows for such “transfer” only when it is the “only means available to prevent a risk to life or physical integrity” and requires first contacting relatives of the person to see if the person can be transferred to their care; if the relatives cannot assume their care, police are to take them to an “assistance center,” health center, hospital, or other location specifically designated for such transfers by the municipal government, or to their homes if possible.

The law says that people may not under any circumstances be transferred to detention centers. In the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the police took people to police stations instead of to health centers or administrative detention sites and police did not call their relatives first, as required under Colombian law.

Stiven Álvarez

33, Musician Medellín, Antioquia More »

× Stiven Álvarez

As Stiven Álvarez, 33, walked home from a protest in downtown Medellín on the afternoon of May 1, uniformed officers on motorcycles accosted him, asking what he was doing. When he said he was doing nothing, they began beating him. Álvarez escaped, running, but the police chased him by motorcycle and finally ran him over, leaving his foot stuck under a wheel. Officers beat him again, Álvarez said, with truncheons, fists, and helmets. They kicked him and threatened to kill him, he said, then arrested him, without saying why, and took him by motorcycle to a police station. He spent almost three hours in an improvised cell, in the station’s patio, with sixteen other people. Police occasionally passed by to hit detainees and threaten them, Álvarez said. Human Rights Watch reviewed a document police gave him, which accuses him of being “part of a group of people that were committing vandalism.” Álvarez denied the accusation. After three hours, officers took him to a separate facility, under the provision of Colombian law allowing them to “transfer” people to “protect” them or others. They did not say why. After three more hours, they released him. Álvarez has not been formally charged with any crime.

Johan Sebastián Moreno Castro

27, Human rights defender Bucaramanga, Santander More »

× Johan Sebastián Moreno Castro

Johan Sebastián Moreno Castro, a 27-year-old lawyer and member of the human rights group Equipo Jurídico Pueblos, was documenting abuses at protests in the city of Bucaramanga, Santander state, on May 4, around 9 p.m., when he said two police officers attacked him. Officers threw him to the ground, kicked him, grabbed him by the neck, and shoved him violently against a wall. An officer beat his head with a stun grenade, he said. Police and ESMAD officers dragged him down the street, bleeding, unable to walk, and barely conscious, Moreno said. Human Rights Watch corroborated a video of the officers dragging him. They lifted Moreno onto a police motorcycle, and he recalls going in and out of consciousness while a police captain who was also on the motorcycle berated him: “Son of a bitch, you are not a human rights defender; you are a guerrilla fighter. I am going to show you how to faint for real.” At a police station, the captain told him he would be prosecuted for “violence against a public servant,” “obstruction of roads,” and “property damage.” Police videoed and photographed Moreno during a medical examination at a nearby hospital and a meeting with a prosecutor. He spent all night at the police station, handcuffed, sleeping on a chair by the door. Human Rights Watch corroborated a video of him upon his release the next morning, hardly walking, with blood on his shirt. Moreno has not been charged.

Police detained José Mauricio García Nieto, 24; Dan Brayer Andrade Bolaños, 22; José Mario Ramírez Álzate, 22; Daniel Navarrete Varón, 22; Jorge Andrés Noguera Flórez, 23; and Santiago Ramírez Duque, 26; in the afternoon of May 25 in Tuluá, Valle del Cauca. The police report said that at the time of their arrest, four of them were throwing rocks at buildings, one was lighting a plastic bottle to supposedly throw it at a police station, and the sixth was “inciting” people to “oppose a police operation.”

At an online hearing before a judge next day, whose video recording Human Rights Watch reviewed, the prosecutor charged the six individuals arrested in Tuluá with “terrorism.” The only evidence he presented was the police report and statements by police. The prosecutor acknowledged that the specific acts allegedly committed could amount only to a crime of destruction of property, but said the “terrorism” charge was justified because the detainees were part of a “mob” that “agitated” them. The prosecutor did not present any evidence that they were acting in coordination with each other or with other protesters, and acknowledged that they were not involved in the burning of the Tuluá courthouse, which happened that night. Colombian law does not allow pretrial detention of defendants charged with destruction of property, a minor crime, but it does for terrorism.

The prosecutor also said at the hearing the detainees had told him through WhatsApp calls that the police had beaten them. However, the detainees were not taken to see a medical examiner to document the injuries, a separate police report reviewed by Human Rights Watch shows, allegedly due to the unrest in the city. Without presenting any evidence, the prosecutor said that there was a “possibility” that they had resisted arrest and that it was “possible” that the use of force by the police was appropriate. The judged agreed – and ruled that the arrest was legal.

On May 28, the same judge ruled that the detainees were a “threat to the community” and ordered that they be held in pretrial detention. The six young men remain imprisoned in jail in Popayán, their lawyers and relatives told Human Rights Watch.

Alleged Participation of Armed Groups and Civilians

The Colombian government said that several armed groups, including the National Liberation Army (ELN) and groups that emerged from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had “infiltrated” the protests to commit vandalism and attack the police. The Attorney General told Human Rights Watch on June 4 that the authorities arrested 11 alleged members of armed groups in connection with violence during demonstrations.

Separately, armed people in civilian clothes have engaged in violence against protesters. In Pereira, Risaralda state, a group of people in civilian clothes appeared when Lucas Villa, a protester and social leader, was delivering a speech against the government during a protest on May 5. One of them shot and killed him, a witness who was also severely wounded told Human Rights Watch. Justice sector officials familiar with the case said that the evidence indicates local drug trafficking groups may be responsible.

In some cases, police officers failed to respond when people in civilian clothes engaged in violence against protesters. Human Rights Watch corroborated videos showing armed men firing at protesters while standing next to police officers in Cali on May 28. The police did not appear to take action to prevent or stop the attacks. The next day, a police commander acknowledged that the agents had “failed to comply with their duty” and said they would be investigated.

The director general of the Police, General Jorge Luis Vargas, said that no plainclothes police officers had been deployed for crowd control operations or to arrest protesters. However, Human Rights Watch corroborated videos showing that police officers in civilian clothes arrested protesters who were blocking a highway in Cali on May 17.

Limited Accountability for Police Abuses

Colombian authorities, including the Attorney General’s Office, which conducts criminal investigations, and the police and the Inspector General’s Office, which can carry out disciplinary proceedings, have made limited progress in investigating police abuse against protesters.

The Attorney General’s Office told Human Rights Watch on June 4 that it had charged only one police officer in connection with abuses committed during the recent wave of protests. He was charged on May 13 for the homicide of a protester, Marcelo Agredo Inchima. The Attorney General’s Office’s Unit of Citizen Security, which is conducting all the investigations into police abuses, said it had appointed additional prosecutors and investigators to handle these cases and that the head of the unit was conducting weekly meetings with prosecutors to assess progress in each case.

The director of the Military Justice System told Human Rights Watch on May 28 that military judges had opened 34 investigations in connection with the protests, including for 10 killings and 11 cases of injuries. Under regional human rights norms, grave human rights violations should not be tried before military courts.

The police chief said on May 31 that the police had opened disciplinary investigations into 170 officers for possible misconduct during the current wave of protests. Of those, three are under disciplinary investigation for homicide and have been temporarily suspended, two have been suspended for other alleged infractions, and the rest continue their regular work. The Inspector General’s Office, which also conducts disciplinary investigations, said on May 31 that it had opened 78 investigations into possible abuses of power and excessive use of force by police officers; the vast majority remained in preliminary stages.

Progress in investigating police abuses in previous protests has also been lacking. On June 4, the Attorney General’s Office told Human Rights Watch that it had opened 90 investigations into police abuses during the 2019 protests and other 116 during the 2020 protests. The office said a trial had started in five of the 2020 cases and that it had brought charges in two others. No officer has been charged in connection with abuses committed during the 2019 protests.

The Inspector General’s Office has also failed to achieve meaningful progress. On May 10, the office told Human Rights Watch that it had opened 24 investigations of police abuses during the 2019 protests and another five during the 2020 protests. No officer had been disciplined and most cases remained in preliminary stages.

On April 17, 2021, the Defense Ministry told Human Rights Watch that police had opened 40 disciplinary investigations in connection with the 2019 protests. Of those, 24 had been closed without any officer being disciplined, the ministry said, while the others were pending. The ministry said that 54 of the 92 disciplinary investigations the police had opened in connection with the 2020 protests had been closed, in most cases because the investigators could not identify the police officer involved. Only two officers had been disciplined in cases that appeared connected to human rights violations and four others had been acquitted.

The police disciplinary system lacks independence, Human Rights Watch found. There is no separate career for disciplinary investigators, the police chief said. This means that there are no safeguards to ensure that investigators do not end up working alongside, or under the command of officers they previously investigated. Colombian law also allows the police chief to revoke any disciplinary decision.

The police chief asserted that the disciplinary system is overwhelmed with proceedings for minor issues, which he said slow down the progress of investigations into serious offenses. He said he is working on a reform to improve the handling of the most serious offenses and transfer cases concerning “serious human rights violations” to the Inspector General’s Office, an independent body.

Possible Contempt of Supreme Court Ruling

In September 2020, the Supreme Court ordered several police reforms to prevent abuses during protests. Yet Human Rights Watch found that efforts to comply with the court’s ruling have been mostly pro forma and have had little impact on police actions. The main exception is the Supreme Court’s ban of the 12-gauge shotgun, a weapon which, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, police have not used during the current wave of protests.

The Supreme Court ordered the Colombian government to establish a new protocol on the “use of force during peaceful demonstrations.” The government did publish a new protocol in January 2021, but it does not include any new measures or oversight mechanisms to prevent excessive use of force during protests and ensure accountability when it occurs.

The court also ordered that human rights groups and UN organizations be allowed to “verify” detentions and “protection” transfers during protests. In October 2020, after that year’s protests, the Inspector General’s Office and the police created a committee for that purpose including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) but excluding local human rights groups. Human Rights Watch learned that the police and the Inspector General’s Office have in many cases failed to convene the committee during the recent protests.

The court also mandated the government to order, by October 2020, all executive branch officials to protect and respect all “non-violent protests,” including anti-government ones. The government has failed to do so.

The court also ordered the Ombudsperson’s Office to closely monitor ESMAD abuses against protesters. Officials of the Ombudsperson’s Office have been monitoring the response to the protests and seeking dialogue with protesters to end road blocking. But the limited staff devoted to the protests has struggled to keep up and the Ombudsperson has failed to periodically report on and unequivocally condemn police abuses.

On May 27, the Supreme Court initiated a formal review to determine whether the government had failed to comply with its ruling.

Recommendations

To the administration of President Iván Duque, including the national police chief:

Take immediate steps to end human rights abuses in the context of protests and begin to repair the harm done, including by: Unequivocally condemning human rights violations, including instances of excessive use of force and sexual violence by police, as well as cases in which police agents failed to stop attacks committed by armed people in plainclothes. Apologizing, on behalf of the Colombian state, for police abuses committed during the protests. Ensuring that all government officials refrain from using language that may be perceived as stigmatizing protesters. Ensuring that the police, including the ESMAD, protect and do not disperse peaceful protests and pursuing approaches that do not involve use of force in any efforts to end instances of streets blockings. Prioritizing disciplinary investigations into police abuses committed at least since the 2019 protests and committing to report periodically on progress in these investigations. The police should hold accountable through disciplinary investigations police officers who committed abuses during the protests and unit and operation commanders who may have ordered abuses, or who may bear responsibility under Colombian law for failing to take appropriate steps to prevent crimes or hold those responsible to account. They should also investigate any officers who may have failed to protect demonstrators from attacks by others. Banning the use of kinetic impact projectiles and the Venom launching system, pending an independent assessment of the danger they pose, of the protocols for their use, and of the training provided to officers. Conduct a thorough review of police crowd control protocols, practices, and equipment, as well as of police training on the use of force, to ensure respect for the right of peaceful assembly and other human rights. Provide reparations, as well as health services, to victims of police violence, including post-rape care and comprehensive services for victims of sexual violence. Convene the committee created to oversee detentions and “protection transfers” during demonstrations, and reform the protocol that created the committee to ensure participation of civil society representatives in it. Significantly expand crowd-control training for police officers, including for those who are not part of ESMAD. Strengthen systems to prevent and punish gender-based violence by police officers.

To the Colombian Congress:

Initiate a process with meaningful participation by civil society groups and international human rights agencies operating in Colombia to reform Colombia’s National Police including by: Transferring the police from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry or to a new Ministry of Security to ensure that the police are clearly separated from the military. Establishing strong safeguards to ensure that “protection transfers” are not used arbitrarily. Reforming the police’s disciplinary system to ensure its independence. Ensuring that the military justice system does not handle investigations into human rights violations committed by police officers. Reviewing police protocols on the use of force to ensure strong mechanisms are put in place to prevent excessive use of force by police officers. Ensuring strong independent oversight and control over police officers. Strengthening mechanisms to prevent and punish gender-based violence by police officers. Reform the Criminal Code to ensure that prosecutors are required to investigate ex officio any injuries, including those caused by police officers, regardless of whether they have received a criminal complaint.

To the Attorney General’s Office:

Prioritize criminal investigations into police abuses, including by investigating officers directly involved in abuses committed in the context of protests at least since 2019, as well as unit commanders and police commanders in charge of operations who may have ordered abuses, or who may bear responsibility under Colombian law for failing to take appropriate steps to prevent crimes or hold those responsible to account. Create a special group of prosecutors and investigators within the Unit of Citizen Security exclusively charged with investigating police abuses against protesters committed at least since 2019. File lawsuits asking judges to rule that the Attorney General’s Office—not the military justice system—should handle cases of human rights violations. Investigate ex officio any cases where judges have ruled that police officers have violated detainees’ due process rights in ways that may amount to a crime under Colombian law.

To the Inspector General’s Office:

Ensure disciplinary accountability for police abuses, including by investigating officers directly involved in abuses committed in the context of protests at least since 2019, as well as unit commanders and police commanders in charge of operations who may have ordered abuses, or who may bear responsibility under Colombian law for failing to take appropriate steps to prevent crimes or hold those responsible to account. Support lawsuits that seek to transfer cases of human rights violations from the military justice system to regular prosecutors and courts. Convene the committee created to oversee detentions and “protection transfers” during demonstrations, and reform the protocol that created the committee to ensure participation of civil society representatives in it. Investigate ex officio any cases where judges rule that police officers have violated detainees’ due process rights in ways that may amount to a disciplinary infraction under Colombian law.

To the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office:

Closely monitor abuses by the ESMAD during protests, as ordered by the Supreme Court in the September 2020 ruling. Increase the number of officials involved in monitoring police abuses during protests and ensure that they receive protection and adequate support to conduct their work. Report publicly and periodically on cases of police abuses documented during the protests.
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 9, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Protestors in central Bishkek demanding Orhan Inandi, who disappeared on May 31, be found, hold posters with his image that read “Orhan Inandi is a Kyrgyz citizen! He should be found!” © 3 June 2021. Bakyt Torogeldi uulu. RFE/RL

(Bishkek) – Kyrgyz authorities should investigate the disappearance of Orhan İnandı, founder of a network of education institutions in Kyrgyzstan, amid concern that he may be forcibly deported to Turkey, Human Rights Watch said today.

İnandı, a dual Turkish-Kyrgyz citizen, is likely to be persecuted for his alleged ties to the movement connected with US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the Turkish government deems a terrorist organization responsible for the 2016 attempted military coup in Turkey. If returned to Turkey, İnandı could be at risk of mistreatment or torture and would face arbitrary detention and an unfair trial.

“Orhan İnandı is a Kyrgyz citizen,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Kyrgyz government has a responsibility to investigate his disappearance, determine where he is being held, and ensure his safety and that he is not unlawfully removed to Turkey.”

The Turkish government in 2019 accused İnandı of links with the Gülen movement. He has been missing since May 31, 2021. His wife Reyhan İnandı said on June 6 that she has evidence that he is being held in the Turkish embassy in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

Over the past five years, scores of men alleged by the Turkish authorities to have links with the Gülen movement, living in countries around the world, have been arbitrarily detained and forcibly returned to Turkey. There they are incarcerated on bogus terrorism charges in violation of due process rights and protections.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued several opinions determining that Turkey has subjected such men to arbitrary deprivation of liberty. In many cases, in order to force their return to Turkey, the men have been subjects of enforced disappearances. In an enforced disappearance, a person is deprived of their liberty in an abduction-style detention and held in an unacknowledged location, outside the protection of legal procedures and in defiance of court decisions in the countries concerned.

The Turkish media have regularly reported these enforced disappearances as operations conducted by Turkey’s intelligence services in cooperation with authorities in the countries concerned. Most recently, on May 31, Turkish media reported that the intelligence services had captured and returned to Turkey another man with links to the Gülen movement. Once in Turkey, İnandı is at risk of ill-treatment and torture, and would face arbitrary detention and an unfair trial on terrorism charges.

İnandı, 53, is a founder and chairman of the board of Sapat Educational Institutions, a large network of prestigious schools and an international university in Kyrgyzstan. İnandı has worked in Kyrgyzstan since 1995, gaining Kyrgyz citizenship in 2012.

His car was found early on June 1 with doors open and valuables intact, suggesting this was not a case of robbery. Kyrgyz police initiated an investigation into İnandı’s disappearance on the same day, followed by an instruction from President Sadyr Japarov to the State Committee on National Security and the Interior Ministry to intensify the ongoing searches.

Reyhan İnandı said in her June 6 statement that an undisclosed source told her that her husband is being held against his will at the Turkish Embassy and tortured to renounce his Kyrgyz citizenship. This would simplify İnandı’s forcible transfer to Turkey, she said.

On June 7, Kyrgyzstan’s deputy foreign affairs minister, Aibek Artykbaev, confirmed at a parliament hearing that in 2019 the government of Turkey had requested İnandı’s extradition, which the Kyrgyz government refused at that time, referring to İnandı’s Kyrgyz citizenship. Artykbaev indicated the ministry’s readiness to engage with the Turkish Embassy, if the Interior Ministry makes a request to investigate Reyhan İnandı’s allegation about her husband’s whereabouts.

Protests demanding an effective investigation into İnandı’s disappearance have been ongoing in Bishkek since June 1. The protesters have expressed their intent to continue until İnandı is released and allowed return home.

Allowing İnandı’s rendition to Turkey would violate Kyrgyzstan’s obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which it ratified in 1997. Article 3 of the convention includes an absolute prohibition on extraditing or returning anyone to a place where they risk being tortured. His forcible return could also set a worrying precedent in Kyrgyzstan.

“Kyrgyzstan aspires to uphold international human rights standards, and this is a clear instance in which it is essential,” Sultanalieva said. “If the Kyrgyz authorities do not retrieve İnandı from wherever he is being held against his will, they will fail to meet their obligations to ensure his safety as required under international law and the Kyrgyz Constitution.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 9, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image An official with a megaphone during the release of prisoners from Insein prison after a presidential pardon in Yangon, Myanmar, April 17, 2020. © 2020 Thein Zaw/AP Photo

When “Mi Mi” (a pseudonym) prepared for anti-coup demonstrations in Yangon in late February, she carefully chose to wear a pair of jeans and sneakers so she could run from the abusive security forces. The last thing on her mind was to carry menstrual pads in case she was detained.

Myanmar’s police and military had begun to intensify crackdowns on protesters opposing the military’s February 1 power grab. As the security forces threw teargas onto the street and shot rubber bullets, she became disoriented, then trapped.

Seven male police officers beat and kicked her when she fell on the ground. “Once I was down, one of them kept me down while the others kicked me with their boots,” Mi Mi said. “Then they hauled me over to a police truck…One of them held my head back and another guy punched me very hard in the face.”

Mi Mi, 23, said the stress of the physical attack and arrest brought her menstrual period on early. Authorities eventually took her to Insein prison, the main detention facility, where she was held with more than 500 other women in facilities normally used for men. The women there had access to only two toilets with no water and no doors. Female prison guards repeatedly denied Mi Mi’s requests for sanitary pads until she bled heavily through her jeans. Finally, after 48 hours, they eventually gave her just one pad.

Mi Mi said the experience was humiliating and left her with trauma causing nightmares even after her release. She said the stigma in Myanmar about menstruation and degrading treatment of women made it difficult for her to speak more openly.

Female detainees have reported the “dehumanizing” experience of Myanmar prisons, explaining that they suffered during menstruation because prisons do not provide sanitary napkins. Since the coup, women have also reported sexual violence and other forms of gendered harassment and humiliation from police and military officials.

The lack of adequate toilets with running water and privacy, and insufficient menstrual hygiene supplies can constitute degrading treatment in violation of international human rights law. The Myanmar authorities should respect the right of women and girls to manage menstruation with dignity. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 9, 2021, 2:30 am
Click to expand Image Indonesia's religious minorities, including Christians, Ahmadis, Buddhists and native faith believers, celebrate Indonesia’s Independence Day outside the State Palace in Jakarta, and ask the government to reopen houses of worships closed under the "religious harmony" regulation, August 2016.  © Andreas Harsono/© 2016 Human Rights Watch

Hundreds of Muslims in Indonesia this week demanded that the local government in Sraten village, East Java, stop the Muhammadiyah congregation from building a mosque. The protest prompted the village head to order the construction halted until the Muhammadiyah group obtained a building permit. But the issue wasn’t about building construction requirements, but about freedom of religion and belief.

Muhammadiyah is the second largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, with around 30 million followers. But the proposed mosque is in an area dominated by the Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim group, with an estimated 80 million followers. Their rivalry, based on both religious and political differences, goes back decades.

Mohammad Ali Saifudin, a protest leader, told the media, “The construction of the Muhammadiyah mosque is very disturbing. The Nahdlatul Ulama congregation opposes it.”

Such problems began arising in 2006 when the Indonesian government under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a regulation dedicated to “Religious Harmony, Empowering Religious Harmony Forums, and Constructing Houses of Worship.” That regulation opened the way for a majority religious group in an area to effectively veto minority religious groups from constructing houses of worship – infringing on the rights to freedom of religion and belief recognized under international human rights law. Now the regulation is being used to pit Muslims against other Muslims. 

Many militant Islamist groups cited the regulation in their efforts to close down thousands of Christian churches in Muslim-dominated provinces across Indonesia. It was also used to clamp down on other religious minorities such as Ahmadis, Hindus, Buddhists, and native faith believers. Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has failed to record how many houses of worship have been forced to close down, or have been blocked in the building stage, since 2006.

Blocking the construction of the Muhammadiyah mosque should remind Indonesia’s government that this discriminatory regulation should be revised so that it meets international human rights standards. Religious freedoms in Indonesia will remain imperiled so long as it remains on the books.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 9, 2021, 2:00 am
Click to expand Image Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso attends the change of military command at the Carondelet Palace in Quito, Ecuador, on May 31, 2021. © 2021 Rafael Rodriguez/NurPhoto via AP

Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso has until June 10, 2021 to act on the recently-passed Law to Prevent Violence, Digital Harassment, and Violation of Privacy. The law addresses important issues regarding gender-based violence and violence against children but contains provisions that would severely undermine free speech in Ecuador. President Lasso should veto these provisions.

The law was approved in a rush vote on May 6 by a majority of the outgoing members of Ecuador’s National Assembly. It was proposed to address online gender-based violence, but as drafted, the law could end up silencing survivors of sexual violence from speaking up online.

Violence against women and girls in digital environments is a pressing human rights issue and governments have a human rights obligation to address it. But doing so does not require severely restricting the ability of journalists, digital rights activists, whistleblowers, and ordinary citizens to document and expose misconduct and human rights violations such as corruption and gender-based violence.

One problematic provision of the law imposes criminal penalties from one to three years in prison on anyone who reveals or disseminates audio, video, photos, or other digital content considered to involve “secret” or personal information without the subject’s consent. The provision goes beyond existing provisions in Ecuador’s Criminal Code concerning disclosures of secret information and contains no exceptions to allow for the exposure of information that is in the public interest. As a result, it threatens journalism and public accountability.

The new law also broadens the definition of criminal defamation, providing that it can be committed “through any of the information and communication technologies.” Criminal defamation laws are disproportionate and unnecessary to address reputational harms, and Ecuador should be abolishing, not expanding its own.

One of Lasso’s first actions as president was to introduce a new bill aimed at undoing the severe damage to free speech generated by former President Rafael Correa during his decade in power. Vetoing harmful provisions from the Digital Violence Law would be consistent with the international human rights standards that his office cited in his bill. It would also allow him to acknowledge the importance of preventing digital violence while sending a critically important message about his commitment to restoring freedom of expression and independent journalism in Ecuador.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 8, 2021, 11:08 pm
Click to expand Image Former Afghan interpreters hold placards during a protest against the U.S. government and NATO in Kabul, Afghanistan on April 30, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib

(Washington, DC) – Countries with troops departing Afghanistan should accelerate programs to resettle former Afghan interpreters and other employees who are increasingly at risk from Taliban forces, Human Rights Watch said today.

The planned withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan before September 11, 2021, has heightened fears that the Taliban will target Afghan interpreters, translators, embassy staff, and other assistants to foreign forces. The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, and other countries should urgently accelerate visa processing and relocation efforts.

“Afghans who worked with foreign troops or embassies face huge risks of retaliation from the Taliban,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “Departing countries should commit to assisting Afghans who reasonably face danger because of their work with foreign forces.”

The Taliban, in a June 7 statement, denied that former interpreters and others who worked for foreign forces were at risk, but warned them that they should “show remorse for their past actions and … not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country.” But the Taliban have long targeted civilians, particularly those they accuse of working for the Afghan government or foreigners. In January, Taliban insurgents reportedly killed one interpreter who had worked for the US for 12 years and had been waiting for a visa. Other former interpreters have said they have received death threats.

As of June 1, the US Defense Department was still developing options to possibly evacuate Afghans deemed to be at risk from the Taliban because of their work with US forces, but the Biden administration has not yet authorized any expedited plans. About 18,000 Afghan applicants are awaiting a decision on their US Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications.

Like the US, the UK has announced that it will expedite relocating Afghan staff who worked for the British government in Afghanistan and their families. However, advocacy groups have raised concerns that the program is proceeding too slowly and may not adequately cover all former Afghan employees who may be at risk.

On June 1, the Sulha Alliance, which advocates for former Afghan employees with the British armed forces, said that all NATO members should adopt relocation policies to protect former interpreters and other Afghan employees. It noted that NATO has been divided in its approach, with some members, such as Canada, offering no relocation plans. Australia and Germany have not expedited resettlement.

In April, 41 Afghan interpreters who worked alongside Australian soldiers pleaded with the Australian government for humanitarian visas, fearing they will be killed by the Taliban after Australian troops withdraw. “We sincerely request the Australian government to re-prioritise and accelerate our visa applications and treat us under exceptional circumstances due to the extreme threats we are exposed to,” the interpreters wrote.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne told a senate committee on June 1 that the assessment of visas for Afghan employees will follow the normal “Special Humanitarian Visa” process, not a rapid resettlement plan. Guards and other contractor staff at the Australian embassy have reportedly been asked to complete an application for an offshore humanitarian visa using a complex 34-page form that must be filled out in English. “We must apply ourselves to an email address,” one guard told the Guardian. “We don’t know what will happen, or what Canberra will decide about us.

The Australian veterans organization, the Returned & Services League of Australia, said that the Australian government should join the UK and the US in fast-tracking the Special Humanitarian Visa process for Afghan support staff.

While the Netherlands agreed in 2019 that interpreters who worked for the Dutch army should be granted a visa and allowed to apply for asylum, processing these applications has been slow. Applicants must complete a 20-page form that includes questions such as: “How do you know you are in danger because of your work for Dutch soldiers?” and “Could you live safely in another part of Afghanistan?” Few could definitively answer such questions. Out of concern about the government delay, on June 3 the lower house of the Dutch parliament submitted a motion to expedite the process, but its passage is uncertain. “Time is ticking on and these people are being threatened with death,” one member of parliament said.

About 450 Afghan staff who have worked with German troops have sought relocation. However, a German advocacy organization has reported that that process has suffered delays and places an unrealistic burden on applicants to prove that they face a risk. One Afghan interpreter who worked for the German military for 10 years said: “If we don’t leave the country, they’ll kill us.” The German group ProAsyl has called on the government to expedite resettlement for Afghan interpreters, saying “Leaving these people behind now would be life-threatening for them and their families.”

“The countries now withdrawing from Afghanistan have been far too slow in developing evacuation, relocation, and resettlement plans for their former Afghan employees,” Gossman said. “They should recognize that normal pathways will be too slow and that expedited timetables are needed for Afghans and their families who could be hunted down because of their work for coalition forces.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 8, 2021, 7:43 pm
Click to expand Image A resident of a "Red Zone" carries bags of rice donated to his house during the coronavirus pandemic. © 2021 Andy Ball / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should urgently address the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately harm Cambodia’s low-income population, Human Rights Watch said today. Recent severe lockdowns especially affected impoverished or unemployed people.

On May 11, 2021, the government introduced an “emergency social assistance program” to provide one-time cash transfers to low-income households, those affected by Covid-19 lockdowns, and families with members who died of or were infected with the coronavirus. The first cash transfers were scheduled for early June. While urgent social assistance is needed, the program should be expanded to safeguard the rights to an adequate standard of living, health, and social security. Identifying at-risk households and providing cash transfers should be transparent and closely coordinated with the United Nations Country Team in Cambodia and development partners, Human Rights Watch said.

“Millions of Cambodians are going hungry and fear losing their homes during the pandemic because there is no government social protection system,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sporadic one-off cash transfers won’t address basic needs. The Cambodian government should provide timely social protection to everyone in need under a social protection system that protects rights and contributes to an equitable recovery.”

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers in the garment, entertainment, and tourism sectors have been laid-off or suspended. Few have sufficient savings or have received adequate government subsidies to sustain them.

In late May, Human Rights Watch interviewed five low-wage workers in the entertainment sector in Phnom Penh whose work was suspended on March 1 and who have received 40 percent of their salaries from their employer since then. Starting in April, all were locked down for up to 35 days in one of the so-called “red zones” in Phnom Penh, areas with a total of at least 300,000 people that were considered high risk for Covid-19 transmission. Residents were prohibited from leaving their homes, even to purchase food.

The government’s food aid in red zones was haphazard and selective, and relief packages were inadequate and insufficient to address the food emergency, as was reported by media outlets and Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations. Government aid packages consisted of 25 kilograms of rice, six bottles of soy and fish sauce, and a carton of dried noodles per household, regardless of household size.

Residents told Human Rights Watch that the packages were not enough for their often-large households, and that no one had received more than one package. One family had not received any food though they were registered with the local village chief. None of those interviewed had received any other government support, “I had to eat what I had in the house,” said a 29-year-old mother of two children. “Only after 25 days did I receive a one-time food donation from the government.”

The interviewees said that they had coped with the lack of access to food and other necessities by skipping or rationing meals. “Lunch leftovers are eaten in the evening,” said Bin Sreynich, a 28-year-old mother and caretaker of her sick mother and grandmother. “We can’t afford to waste food.” Samol Ratanak, 29, who lives alone in a rented room, finished his remaining food after three days in lockdown and had to rely on his neighbors for help. All interviewees said they had relied on assistance from relatives, neighbors, or other networks.

“I’m most afraid of being caught in a debt trap,” said Ratanak, referring to the micro-loan that he has been unable to repay since his suspension from work in March. Others echoed this fear, saying that they had asked for suspension of their loan repayments. Their requests were denied, and lenders threatened them with blacklisting if they failed to repay, effectively banning them from taking out future loans though many low-income people depend on these loans to survive. 

Seng Naroeun, a 37-year-old mother of two children, said that she was suffering from severe anxiety because she was afraid the mortgage company would seize her house if she did not pay off her debt. She also did not have enough money for food for her family. “I lie to my children, saying that there is no food to buy,” she said. “But actually, it’s because we don’t have money to buy food.”

Monika Vann, a 29-year-old mother of two children and the family’s breadwinner, said that her financial situation worried her, and she feared that she soon would be unable to afford rent: “No home means we may become homeless.”

On May 20, the authorities removed the red zone designation, though food and economic insecurity remain.

In March 2021, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated poverty to have almost doubled in Cambodia due to the Covid-19 pandemic, climbing to 17.6 percent of the population. A UN-led study in April “showed that in the last six months, households have increasingly adopted coping strategies to access food including reducing food intake, relying on cheaper options, and borrowing.”

The World Bank found that people who had escaped poverty prior to the pandemic only did so by a small margin, with about 4.5 million people remaining near poor and vulnerable to fall back into poverty upon exposure to economic shocks.

In reaction to the Covid-19 economic crisis, the government in April 2020 provided flat-rate partial wage subsidies to furloughed garment and tourism workers. The labor rights group the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL) reported that implementation was flawed, with support not received or received late.

In June the government began monthly cash transfers through its “Identification of Poor Households (IDPoor) Program.” The Asian Development Bank reported that by October, the government had provided cash transfers to over 660,000 households, encompassing over 2.6 million people. The World Bank emphasized that while cash transfers mitigated the pandemic’s impact on people in poverty, they do not fully compensate for the loss of welfare.

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Cambodia acceded in 1992, the government has an obligation to ensure the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living, so that everyone enjoys the rights necessary to live in dignity, including the rights to adequate food and nutrition, health and well-being, water and sanitation, and housing. Countries with limited resources still have an obligation to ensure an adequate standard of living.

The Cambodian government has international legal obligations to establish under law a social protection system, defining people as rights-holders and guaranteeing them access. In its General Comment No. 19, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated that the right to social security requires countries to ensure that benefits are adequate in amount and duration, and to respect human rights principles.

“Foreign governments, the UN, and international financial institutions providing financial assistance and Covid-19 emergency funds to the Cambodian government should work with the authorities to ensure that social protection is a top priority,” Adams said. “Donors should provide resources and technical assistance so that measures to ensure an adequate standard of living are independently monitored and reach all Cambodians.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 8, 2021, 4:20 pm