Click to expand Image Myanmar military personnel march during a parade to commemorate Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

(Tokyo) – A Myanmar army general who received military training in Japan served as a high-ranking officer in a regional command that has been implicated in serious abuses in ethnic minority areas, Human Rights Watch said today. From August 2021 to July 2022, Brig. Gen. Tin Soe was based at Eastern Command headquarters, which oversees operations in southern Shan and Karenni (Kayah) States and whose forces were responsible for a massacre of civilians and other atrocities.

The Japanese government should immediately halt its training program with Myanmar and investigate whether program participants have been involved in operations violating the laws-of-war.

“Myanmar graduates of Japan’s military training program are serving in conflict areas where Myanmar military abuses are rampant,” said Teppei Kasai, Asia program officer at Human Rights Watch. “The Japanese government should stop playing with fire and immediately end its support of Myanmar’s military.”

Then-Colonel Tin Soe received training at Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force Staff College from August 2016 to March 2017, based on information from the All Japan Defense Association and a Defense Ministry document. Tin Soe served as military attaché for the Myanmar embassy in Tokyo from 2019 to 2021, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter and state media reports. Two sources said that Tin Soe left Japan after the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar and was appointed a brigadier general. He was deployed to the Eastern Command headquarters in Shan State’s Taunggyi in August 2021. In July 2022, Tin Soe was relocated to Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, a source said.

The Eastern Command, one of 14 regional commands of Myanmar’s armed forces, controls more than 40 infantry battalions in southern Shan and Karenni States, areas that have had increased fighting since the coup. Since the renewal of military operations in the region in May 2021, the United Nations, human rights groups, and independent media outlets have documented extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, looting, and arson, as well as offensives targeting civilians, indiscriminate attacks, and use of landmines by Myanmar forces under the Eastern Command.

On December 24, 2021, in Karenni State’s Hpruso township, security forces summarily executed at least 39 people, including 4 children and 2 staff members from the international aid group Save the Children. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that many of the victims were bound, gagged, and showed signs of torture, and some may have been burned alive. “It is one of the most shocking and depressing things I have ever experienced,” said a doctor who performed autopsies on the victims.

In February, the European Union sanctioned Brig. Gen. Ni Lin Aung, head of the Eastern Command and Tin Soe’s superior at the time, stating that he “directly commands the units in the State of Kayah, including those responsible for that massacre.” The EU also sanctioned Lt. Gen. Aung Zaw Aye, the commander of the Bureau of Special Operations No. 2, which oversees the Eastern Command.

Light Infantry Battalion 531, which operates under the Eastern Command, was implicated in the massacre, as was Light Infantry Division (LID) 66. A LID 66 commander told Amnesty International that all ground operations in Karenni State were overseen by the Eastern Command.

Other abuses against civilians have been reported in military operations against anti-junta armed groups and ethnic forces in Karenni State. The UN special rapporteur on Myanmar reported in March, “Instead of limiting its attacks to combatants from these groups, the military has targeted civilians, including by striking the region’s larger towns. The military has also pursued civilians as they flee, launching attacks on places where IDPs [internally displaced persons] are sheltering.”

In May, Amnesty International reported on abuses carried out during Eastern Command operations including “unlawful attacks, village burning, pillage, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, and persecution of ethnic Karenni communities.” Infantry Battalion 102, under an Eastern Command combat division, committed several indiscriminate shelling attacks. Amnesty also reported on the military’s use of antipersonnel landmines “on a massive scale” in Karenni State, which the Karenni Human Rights Group said were responsible for killing or seriously injuring at least 20 civilians since June 2021.

In May, the Shan Human Rights Foundation identified four infantry battalions under Eastern Command linked to human rights violations in southern Shan State’s Ywangan township, including the massacre of nine villagers in mid-April.

Since 2015, the Japanese government has accepted cadets and officers from Myanmar under article 100 of the Self-Defense Forces Act, which permits training and educating foreign nationals in Defense Ministry facilities with the defense minister’s approval. In 2021, following the Myanmar coup, Japan accepted two cadets and two officers from Myanmar. In 2022, Japan again accepted two cadets and two officers from Myanmar for training.

Previously, Human Rights Watch and Justice For Myanmar identified Hlwan Moe, a Myanmar Air Force lieutenant colonel trained by the Japanese government who was based at Magway Air Base in Magway region. Aircraft from the air base have been implicated in possible indiscriminate airstrikes since the coup. The Myanmar military has also committed summary executions, arson, and other abuses in Magway region.

Human Rights Watch in December 2021 said that the Japanese government should immediately suspend the training program because it risks making Japan complicit in military atrocities. A Japanese Defense Ministry official responded that the ministry did not have any information about what the cadets and officers trained in Japan were doing once back in Myanmar.

However, on April 26, during a parliamentary committee session on security, a defense official said the ministry “knows to a certain extent” what “positions” these program participants currently hold, but declined to disclose any details due to Japan’s “relationship” with “the other country.” On June 22, during an ASEAN defense ministers meeting, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said it will be “difficult to accept” officers for training if they are “complicit in oppression against civilians” once back in Myanmar.

For decades, the Myanmar military has been responsible for war crimes in long-running armed conflicts with ethnic armed groups, and crimes against humanity and acts of genocide against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said.

The Japanese government has called for a restoration of democratic rule in Myanmar and the release of elected government officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto Myanmar leader prior to the coup. On March 28, 2021, Japan’s Defense Ministry issued a joint statement with 11 other countries criticizing the military’s attacks against “unarmed civilians.” The Japanese government halted new non-humanitarian Official Development Assistance projects earlier in 2021, while allowing existing aid projects to continue. The Japanese Diet passed a resolution in June 2021 that condemned the coup and called for a “swift restoration of the democratic political system.”

“The longer the Japanese government continues to train Myanmar soldiers and officers, the more harm it does to its own international reputation, as well as the lives of Myanmar people,” Kasai said. “As a country that wants to be recognized for promoting human rights, Japan should stand up for the rights of Myanmar’s people and cut defense ties with the junta.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 10, 2022, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image An illustration depicts queer people in Malaysia, who face widespread societal pressure to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. © 2020 Row Yow

(Kuala Lumpur) – Persistent Malaysian government-sponsored discrimination threatens the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Malaysia, Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters said in a report released today. The government should decriminalize same-sex conduct and gender diversity, and should discontinue programs and rhetoric suggesting that LGBT people should be “rehabilitated” or “cured.”

The 71-page report, “‘I Don’t Want to Change Myself’: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia,” documents that government officials have fostered a hostile climate in which LGBT and gender diverse people face discrimination and punishment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters examined how criminal penalties, conversion practices that seek to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and anti-LGBT rhetoric from government officials all undermine LGBT people’s basic rights.

August 10, 2022 “I Don’t Want to Change Myself”

“Malaysia’s current rehabilitation and criminalization approaches to LGBT people are based neither in rights nor evidence,” said Thilaga Sulathireh, co-founder of Justice for Sisters. “The programs, while framed as compassionate, internalize societal and structural discrimination and foment self-hatred among LGBTQ and gender diverse persons and hostility among the rest of the population.”

Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters interviewed 73 LGBT people in Malaysia between 2018 and 2021, including people living in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan, Penang, Pahang, and Kedah, along with journalists, human rights practitioners, lawyers, and other informed sources.

Malaysia’s federal penal code punishes oral and anal sex with up to 20 years in prison, with mandatory whipping. Each state and the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya also have Sharia – Islamic law – codes in place that typically criminalize same-sex activity as well as gender nonconformity via laws that prohibit “a man posing as a woman.”

The government has also funded retreats, known as mukhayyam, that aim to “rehabilitate” or change LGBT people. As of June 2021, at least 1,733 people had attended these programs, the government reported. These programs jeopardize the equality, dignity, and rights of those who attend them, but also send a dangerous message to the wider public that LGBT people can and should change their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

In recent years, the government has also shut down events and programming designed to promote LGBT rights and has censored content about LGBT people in music and films. Universities have also stifled LGBT awareness raising programs and have provided platforms and support for anti-LGBT messages and programming.

LGBT people interviewed said that the environment in Malaysia was becoming increasingly hostile. An activist in Kuala Lumpur said, “We are regressing, in many aspects, as conservative strand of Islam becomes dominant in shaping the politics and policies that dictate the lives of the country’s citizens including LGBT persons.” He said, “Scapegoating transgender persons has become a tactic applied by ultra conservative and nationalist politicians,” and that “The exploitation of societal homo/transphobia has proven a convenient way to divert public attention away from government failure to address pressing social issues and rising inequalities.”

“The government’s use of the law to criminally prosecute LGBT people is only part of the story in Malaysia,” said Kyle Knight, senior LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Pervasive antipathy toward sexual and gender diversity influences law enforcement, judicial outcomes, family behavior, and public discourse in media toward and about LGBT people.”

In a high-profile case in 2021, Nur Sajat, a transgender woman and cosmetics entrepreneur, failed to appear in court in the western Malaysian state of Selangor to answer to criminal charges for “insulting Islam” based on her attire. The state’s religious department issued a warrant for her arrest and announced that it had mobilized 122 religious affairs officers to hunt her down.

Months later, when Nur Sajat resurfaced in neighboring Thailand, Malaysia sought her extradition, insisting that Sajat need not worry: the massive deployment of law enforcement and diplomatic wrangling to force her back to Malaysia was intended not to “punish” but rather to “educate” her. After a public outcry in her defense, Thailand allowed Sajat to stay in the country under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and eventually to settle in Australia.

Nur Sajat’s case illustrates the extent to which authorities in Malaysia are willing to go to enforce the rigid and discriminatory gender norms by which they compel all Malaysians to abide, Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters said.

Lawmakers at the federal and state levels should decriminalize same-sex conduct and gender diversity, Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters said. Officials should also immediately stop supporting programs that seek to “rehabilitate” LGBT people and should publicly affirm the equality and dignity of LGBT people. To more fully protect the human rights of LGBT people, lawmakers should also take steps to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, allow transgender people to update their identity documents, and address bullying against LGBT students and other vulnerable groups in schools.

The Malaysian government should immediately stop sponsoring, funding, and otherwise supporting conversion practices and should, in consultation with LGBT community groups, educate public officials, including police, judges, and government staff, on gender, diversity, and human rights. The government should also promptly repeal laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 10, 2022, 7:00 am
Click to expand Image Children in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, located in the Brazilian states of Roraima and Amazonas, in June 2021. © Gabriel Chaim

(São Paulo) – The Brazilian government has adopted policies that seriously threaten the rights of Indigenous peoples, Human Rights Watch said today, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

The administration of President Jair Bolsonaro has undermined the government agency tasked with protecting those rights, issued regulations that are harmful to Indigenous people, and halted the recognition of their traditional lands. The government has also weakened the federal environmental protection agencies, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA, its Portuguese acronym) and the Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio), leaving Indigenous territories even more vulnerable to encroachment.

“The Brazilian government has transformed an agency charged with promoting and protecting Indigenous rights into an agency that jeopardizes them,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s anti-Indigenous rights policies and statements have emboldened miners, loggers, land-grabbers, and poachers to encroach on Indigenous territories with impunity, leading to devastating consequences for Indigenous people and the environment.”

During his electoral campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro lambasted Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency (FUNAI) for protecting Indigenous rights and pledged to “scythe” it. Once in office, he has delivered on that pledge, Human Rights Watch said.

Marcelo Xavier, appointed by President Bolsonaro to preside over FUNAI in July 2019, has removed experienced career public servants from leadership positions. He has asked the police to open criminal investigations against employees, Indigenous leaders, and even prosecutors for defending Indigenous rights; hampered efforts to protect Indigenous territories; and adopted policies that facilitated encroachment.

Xavier has not responded to a request for comment that Human Rights Watch sent to his office.

Just two of 39 regional coordinators – who are in charge of protecting the rights of Indigenous people in their region – have permanent appointments, according to a joint report by United Indigenist (INA), a non-governmental association of FUNAI employees, and the non-profit Institute for Socio-Economic Studies (INESC). Another ten are career civil servants who are acting coordinators.

The other regional coordinators are political appointees, including 21 active or retired military or police officers with little or no expertise on Indigenous issues. Xavier himself is a federal police officer. A recent news report published a list of candidates for leadership positions allegedly produced by the office of FUNAI’s administrative director that indicated whether the candidates supported the government. The article said the list was used to decide on leadership appointments.

Three FUNAI employees and a federal prosecutor told Human Rights Watch that Xavier has created a climate of fear and intimidation within the agency.

Federal prosecutors said in a statement that Xavier, in a report, accused several FUNAI employees and members of an Indigenous association of crimes “even though he knew they were innocent.” According to prosecutors, he did that “as a means of political pressure” for approval of an electric power line through Indigenous territory. Xavier sent that report to federal police, calling for their prosecution, and to Brazil’s intelligence agency, ABIN, federal prosecutors said. After a federal prosecutor closed the case, Xavier requested that the prosecutor be subject to a criminal investigation. In July 2022, federal prosecutors charged Xavier with knowingly making false accusations of criminal activity. Xavier has not publicly responded.

Ubiratan Cazetta, president of the National Association of Federal Prosecutors, told Human Rights Watch that on several occasions Xavier has asked federal police to investigate federal prosecutors who defended Indigenous rights and has asked the federal prosecutor’s internal affairs office to conduct disciplinary investigations. “He has been trying to intimidate prosecutors,” Cazetta said.

Xavier also asked the federal police to investigate APIB, Brazil´s main coalition of Indigenous organizations, after it criticized the government. He also requested an investigation of an Indigenous leader and that the intelligence agency “monitor” the activities of the Indigenous people the leader belongs to.

INA, the FUNAI employees’ association, asserts that the agency’s leadership has transferred staff when their reports supported Indigenous claims and in some cases asked the agency’s internal affairs office to investigate their conduct. In one case, Xavier asked for investigations into an employee who wrote a report, requested by the agency’s legal department, that recommended opposing a lawsuit that sought to stop the demarcation of an Indigenous territory, the employee association said. Xavier has not publicly responded to the allegations, it said.

The agency leadership has also introduced bureaucratic hurdles that severely hamper the work of staff, several employees told Human Rights Watch. Employees have to seek permission 15 days in advance to travel to an Indigenous territory. making it virtually impossible to respond to emergencies. The agency routinely denies permission for trips to Indigenous territories that are in the process of being demarcated, an employee said.

Conducting studies leading to the demarcation of Indigenous territory is one of the agency’s main tasks.  Under Brazilian law, demarcation sets out clearly what land belongs to Indigenous peoples and provides them with secure collective legal rights over that land. That recognition is extremely important for their cultural and physical survival, Eliana Torelly, a federal prosecutor, told Human Rights Watch.

Demarcation is pending for 241 Indigenous territories. During the 2018 campaign, Bolsonaro pledged not to designate “one more centimeter” of Indigenous territory. As president, he has not granted titles for any Indigenous territory. FUNAI’s leadership has effectively halted all processes to identify and demarcate Indigenous territories, employees told Human Rights Watch.

In addition, the Bolsonaro administration has been seeking to erode Indigenous rights in the law, promoting a bill that would prevent or hinder many Indigenous peoples from claiming their traditional lands. The bill would require them to prove that they were physically present there on October 5, 1988, the day Brazil’s Constitution was enacted. A case on this matter is pending before the Supreme Court.

The government has also weakened the protection of Indigenous territories whose demarcation is pending.

A regulation issued by FUNAI in 2020 allows individuals to register land they claim to own inside Indigenous areas awaiting demarcation. Such registration could jeopardize the recognition of Indigenous rights and fuel land disputes and encroachment on Indigenous territory. Courts have suspended the regulation in at least 13 states. Yet a media investigation showed that people have registered to their name 239,000 hectares inside Indigenous areas in the past two years.

In 2021, FUNAI issued policies asserting that staff should not conduct activities seeking to protect non-demarcated Indigenous territories, but in February , Brazil’s Supreme Court suspended them. Justice Luis Roberto Barroso wrote that the policies “may constitute an invitation to invade areas that are known to be coveted by land grabbers and loggers.”

The FUNAI leadership has virtually severed ties with other agencies and civil society organizations with which it had cooperated to protect Indigenous territories under previous governments. Torelly, the federal prosecutor, said that the relationship between FUNAI and the unit specializing in Indigenous affairs at the Attorney General´s Office, which she leads, has worsened to the point that currently “it is almost non-existent.”

A federal police agent, who asked not to be identified, told Human Rights Watch that they no longer involve FUNAI in raids to fight environmental crime for fear that it alerts criminals. The agent cited the case of a FUNAI regional coordinator, retired from the military, whom federal prosecutors accused of facilitating illegal cattle raising within an Indigenous territory in Mato Grosso state, among other crimes. In a public statement, FUNAI said that renting out land within Indigenous territory is illegal and that the coordinator would be removed.

Indigenous leaders told Human Rights Watch the paralysis at FUNAI has empowered criminal groups involved in environmental destruction.

Across Brazil, illegal logging, mining, poaching, and land grabbing in Indigenous lands increased by 137 percent in 2020, compared with 2018, the year before President Bolsonaro took office, according to the latest data by the Indigenist Missionary Council, a nonprofit organization. The total area deforested in Indigenous territories in the Amazon during President Bolsonaro’s first three years in office was 138 percent higher than in the previous three years (2016-2018), according to the non-profit Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA).

Along with environmental destruction came violence. Indigenous people in the Javari Valley, which has the largest concentration of Indigenous people living in voluntary isolation in the world, had collaborated with FUNAI in protecting the forest until 2019, Beto Marubo, one of the leaders of UNIVAJA, a local association of Indigenous peoples, told Human Rights Watch. Due to FUNAI’s weakening, they have felt they had to start patrolling the forest on their own, he said.

In 2019, a FUNAI agent, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, was killed in Tabatinga, execution-style. His murder remains unsolved. Bruno Pereira, who was on leave from FUNAI, was killed in 2022, along with journalist Dom Phillips. Pereira had been the director of FUNAI’s office for uncontacted people but was removed after he led a successful operation against illegal mining in the Javari Valley in 2019. Federal prosecutors have charged three men allegedly involved in illegal fishing with Bruno Pereira and Phillips’ murders.

Other FUNAI agents told Human Rights Watch that they fear for their lives and feel left without support by the agency’s leadership. “There is a real chance that what happened to Bruno and Maxciel will happen to me,” an agent said.

“As the beginning of the electoral campaign approaches, candidates should tell voters how they will ensure that FUNAI will fulfill its mission again, how they will protect Indigenous rights, and how they will dismantle the criminal groups that are both destroying Brazil’s environmental riches, and threatening and attacking forest defenders,” Canineu said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 10, 2022, 12:20 am

Philippine police on Monday arrested Walden Bello, a 76-year-old social activist, academic, and former congressman, at his home in Quezon City on charges of cyber-libel. The arrest was based on allegations by Jefry Tupas, a former information officer for Vice President Sara Duterte. Bello spent the night in jail before being released after paying bail.

Click to expand Image Then-Congressman Walden Bello, center, addresses protesters during a rally outside of the Chinese consulate in Manila, Philippines, June 8, 2011. © 2011 AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Tupas, who worked for Duterte when she was mayor of Davao City, filed two counts of cyber-libel against Bello in March for a Facebook post alleging that Tupas was involved in illegal drugs after attending a party in November 2021 that was raided by the police.

Bello, a leftist progressive voice well-known in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, unsuccessfully ran for vice president in May. He used his candidacy as a platform to highlight progressive and social justice issues during the campaign. He is a long-time critic of the late Ferdinand Marcos, father of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, and of former President Rodrigo Duterte, father of Vice-President Duterte. Sara Duterte denied any role in the libel case.

The Philippines’ cyber-libel law, passed in 2012, has been used several times against journalists, columnists, critics of the government, and ordinary social media users. The Office of Cybercrime at the Department of Justice reported that 3,700 cyber-libel cases were filed as of May 2022. Of that number, 1,317 were filed in court while 1,131 were dismissed. Twelve cases ended in a conviction.

Bello’s arrest underscores the need to revoke criminal libel and cyber-libel laws in the Philippines and elsewhere. As the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated in its general comment on freedom of expression, “imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty” for defamation. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Irene Khan, said in July after a Manila court upheld the cyber-libel conviction of Nobel Prize laureate Maria Ressa, “Criminal libel law has no place in a democratic country and should be repealed.”

As Human Rights Watch stated before the law was passed, criminal libel – against both offline and online expression – harms free speech and is frequently used to  target critics of government officials. Laws like the cyber-libel law should be amended to remove criminal defamation provisions, in line with internationally accepted human rights and free speech standards.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 9, 2022, 2:11 pm
Click to expand Image Sri Lankan president Ranil Wickremesinghe, Colombo, Sri Lanka, August 3, 2022. © AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

(New York) – Sri Lanka’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, should ensure that his administration adopts measures to protect the basic rights of all Sri Lankans, Human Rights Watch said in a letter published today outlining key human rights concerns. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as president on July 21, 2022, after then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stepped down after months of widespread protests against economic mismanagement and corruption.

Sri Lanka is in the midst of a political, economic, and human rights crisis following years of misgovernance and rights violations. The government should prioritize protecting the public from further hardship by putting in place appropriate social protection policies and addressing endemic corruption, while respecting fundamental rights, including freedoms of expression and association, and ending abuses by the security forces.

“President Wickremesinghe faces immense challenges, but imposing draconian emergency regulations, politically motivated arrests of protest leaders, and heightened surveillance of activist groups will not solve Sri Lanka’s dire problems,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lanka’s partners have been clear that international economic assistance will only be effective if the government adheres to human rights and the rule of law and addresses the root causes of the crisis.”

On July 18, Wickremesinghe imposed a state of emergency that gives the security forces sweeping powers, suspends numerous basic rights, and imposes harsh penalties for minor or vaguely defined offenses. A day after his inauguration, Wickremesinghe sent the police and military to disperse protesters from a site they had occupied for months in central Colombo. Over 50 people, including lawyers and journalists, were beaten and injured. During the ongoing crackdown on dissent, the authorities have detained at least 30 protest organizers, in many cases without a warrant or using officers in civilian clothes who carry out arrests without due process.

In May, Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign loans, and the government is currently attempting to negotiate debt restructuring and an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. The economic crisis has resulted in severe shortages of imported goods, including fuel, and rampant inflation, pushing millions of people into poverty.

Among Human Rights Watch recommendations to President Wickremesinghe are:

Ensure that people are able to freely and peacefully express their views without fear of reprisal or arrest; Withdraw emergency regulation provisions that are are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate or that violate fundamental rights; Announce a formal moratorium on the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) until rights-respecting counterterrorism legislation is enacted, and release prisoners arbitrarily detained under the PTA; Establish a new social protection system that is both adequate to protect everyone’s rights from the effects of the economic crisis and designed to prevent mismanagement and corruption; Resume Sri Lanka’s participation in the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) initiative, a World Bank and United Nations partnership to support international efforts to end safe havens for corrupt funds, and commit to doing so as part of an agreement with the IMF; and Conduct independent and impartial investigations into allegations of serious human rights abuses and high-level corruption, and appropriately prosecute those responsible.


“In recent months many Sri Lankans have bravely taken to the streets to call for reform, accountability for corruption, and the protection of fundamental rights,” Ganguly said. “Instead of trying to silence the protesters, President Wickremesinghe should listen to them.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 9, 2022, 10:30 am
Click to expand Image A burned-out bus outside Kuje prison following a jail break, Kuje, Nigeria, July 6, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Chinedu Asadu

(Abuja) A series of attacks and threats within close proximity of Nigeria’s seat of government in Abuja by Islamist and other armed groups are causing fear and apprehension among citizens in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and across the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Nigeria Police Force has assured citizens that it has scaled up security in the federal region, which includes Abuja, but these attacks and threats, even to kidnap the president, indicate an alarming deterioration of the nation’s security situation. The authorities need to ensure adequate security for all civilians while respecting human rights.

“The recent events unfolding in the capital confirms many Nigerians’ fears that the threat from Islamist insurgents and other armed groups are now national threats that have reached critical levels,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The ability of the groups to expand outside their base even to the nation’s capital means that the authorities need to greatly expand their efforts to protect people.”

For over a decade, Nigeria has been embroiled in conflict in the Northeast region with Boko Haram, an Islamist insurgency group, and its breakaway factions including the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). These groups kill and kidnap people in their quest to topple the government and establish an Islamic state. In the Northwest, years of conflict between nomadic herders, mainly of Fulani ethnicity, and farming communities of Hausa ethnicity have given rise to a proliferation of powerful criminal gangs with sophisticated weaponry that terrorize communities and kill, pillage, and kidnap people, including schoolchildren, for ransom.

On July 5, armed men attacked a minimum security prison in Kuje, a community within the federal district, about 40 kilometers from Abuja. During the attack, for which the Islamic State West Africa Province claimed responsibility, about 900 inmates escaped, including more than 60 Boko Haram suspects. Security analysts have also highlighted the involvement of Ansaru, an Al Qaeda-backed splinter faction of Boko Haram, in the attack, though the extent of its involvement is unclear.

On July 25, unidentified assailants killed six officers of the presidential guard brigade, an elite force of the army responsible for protecting the president and the federal area, in Bwari, a community in the federal region where a campus of the Nigeria Law School is located. The officers were deployed to provide security after the management of the law school received a letter from unidentified sources threatening an imminent attack on the school.

In response, the Federal Education Ministry announced the immediate closure of all federal government colleges in the federal region to ensure students’ safety, affecting thousands of students.

On July 29, media reported that gunmen attacked a military checkpoint in the federal region along the Abuja-Kaduna Highway, which has become notorious in recent years for kidnappings and other attacks against citizens.

On July 24, a video surfaced on social media showing kidnapped victims of a March attack by suspected members of ISWAP on a train that left Abuja, heading for Kaduna state, being beaten by their captors. In the video, members of the armed group threatened to kill or sell off the victims as captives to others if the government did not adhere to their demands, including the release of some ISWAP members and payment for ransom. They also threatened to kidnap President Muhammadu Buhari and other government officials.

These incidents as well as other reports of kidnapping in the federal region have spread fear, panic, and apprehension among citizens.

A local taxi driver, who carries passengers from Abuja to Mararaba and Nyanya in neighboring Nasarawa state, told Human Rights Watch: “The kind of fear I am experiencing is overwhelming, as I am moving on the road. I don’t know where or how it [an attack] can happen, so I am always on high alert. I panic at every checkpoint because I don’t know if it is bandits or police there. Even the passengers are suspects because there is no way of knowing if I am carrying a bandit or a terrorist that can harm me.”

Another taxi driver plying the same route said: “The reports are so alarming and have made everyone very conscious of their safety. Before we could be on the road carrying passengers past 10 p.m., but now we try to wrap up and get home by 8 p.m. and this makes us lose up to 30 percent of our daily earnings.” The taxi driver said that he and many of his colleagues have also observed that there are not many passengers on the road anymore after 8 p.m., possibly because everyone is afraid.

A 45-year-old civil servant from Borno State, the center of the Boko Haram conflict, who moved his family out of the state in 2008, during the early stages of the crisis, said he is concerned with the insecurity playing out in the federal region because it looks a lot like the beginning of the crisis in Borno state, with worrying spates of attacks and threats: “If the government does not take necessary action, the FCT will boil over and everyone will run out like we ran from Borno state to find safety in other places.”

Confidence MacHarry, the Lead Security Analyst at SBM Intelligence, an organization that follows Nigeria’s security issues, said that the security situation in the federal region is worse than it has ever been, even in comparison to the earlier days of the Boko Haram conflict when places like the United Nations office in Abuja were attacked.

He said this is because there are now more groups apart from Boko Haram posing threats and the security forces are stretched thin in trying to respond. MacHarry also said that the authorities use words like “bandits” or “terrorists” to sweep various groups under the same cover, rather than specifically identifying groups so that they can formulate appropriate responses.

In response to the attacks and threats, Nigeria’s Police Chief has deployed more officers to the area, and the Federal Executive Council approved 2.6 billion naira (US$6.2 million) for vehicles and equipment for security agencies operating there.

Despite huge budgetary allocations to the country’s security sector in recent years, the security forces remain poorly equipped, while corruption scandals continue to emerge. The security forces have also been implicated in gross human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings, while responding to security crises across the country, and have repeatedly failed to hold officers responsible for the abuses accountable through the justice system.

“The Nigerian authorities should ensure adequate security measures are in place to keep citizens safe, pursue the attackers, and bring those responsible to account in accordance with human rights laws,” Ewang said. “Anything short of this will spur more grievances against the government, which may worsen an already tense situation and fuel additional cycles of violence.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 9, 2022, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image Leaders attend ECOWAS summit to discuss transitional roadmap for Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, in Accra, Ghana, July 3, 2022. © 2022 REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

(Nairobi) Mali’s authorities should act to uphold fundamental freedoms and the rule of law during the new two-year timetable for transitioning to civilian rule, Human Rights Watch said today. They should promote respect for freedom of expression and the media, ensure due process rights for criminal suspects, and end torture and enforced disappearances.

On July 3, 2022, the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) lifted economic and financial sanctions, imposed in January, after Mali’s transitional government agreed to a new timeline for elections and other reforms by March 2024. The ECOWAS mechanism set up to monitor adherence to the timetable should include benchmarks on improved respect and protection of human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“Mali’s leaders have taken steps toward civilian rule, but achieving a democratic society means ensuring respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” said Jehanne Henry, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should foster open dialogue that allows journalists, commentators, and human rights activists to speak out without fear of reprisals.”

Human Rights Watch researchers visited Bamako, Mali’s capital, between June 29 and July 8, and met with 3 current and former detainees, detainees’ family members, 3 lawyers, and 25 media professionals, civil society activists, political party members, and analysts. Authorities responded to Human Rights Watch’s request for comments by letter on August 6, reaffirming their commitment to protecting human rights as enshrined in international and Malian law, but failed to address specific findings of violations described below.

Mali’s transitional government took over following a military-led coup in August 2020 against then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. In May 2021, military leaders consolidated power through a second coup, installing Col. Assimi Goïta as interim president. Since then, the media, civil society groups, lawyers, and analysts have reported increasing repression by the transitional government.

Violence has surged across Mali during this period. Attacks by armed Islamist groups and government-led counterterrorism operations have resulted in the killing of several hundred civilians since the beginning of 2022. This coincides with the departure of French and other Western forces supporting the government’s military efforts, and the reported arrival of Russian forces from the Wagner Group – a military security contractor with apparent links to Russia’s government.

The transitional government has increasingly restricted the United Nations peacekeeping mission, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. It has barred the peacekeepers from areas where government forces were implicated in abusive operations, such as the town of Moura, where Human Rights Watch documented serious abuses in March by the Malian army and foreign soldiers identified as Russian fighters. In June, Malian authorities rejected the UN Security Council’s call to allow the mission access to all areas.

During the two-year transition, the authorities should address the following human rights violations, as well as persistent laws-of-war violations:

Detention, Harassment of Perceived Critics

Malian authorities have detained perceived opponents and critics of the government, holding some for months without trial on politically motivated charges. In January, security forces arrested Dr. Étienne Fakaba Sissoko, a professor of economics for alleged “subversive” speech. Sissoko said that prosecutors accused him of “ethnic discrimination,” apparently based on his comments that government appointments were based on ethnicity, and of falsifying university diplomas. Observers said these charges were pretexts to silence him. Sissoko was conditionally released in June without being convicted of any crime but remains banned from travel.

Officials from the opposition party Solidarité africaine pour la démocratie et l'indépendance (SADI) said that their leader, Dr. Oumar Mariko, was arrested on December 6, 2021 for criticizing interim Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga and detained for nearly a month. He has been in hiding since April, when authorities tried to arrest him, allegedly for denouncing army abuses in Moura. A Convergence pour le Developpement du Mali (CODEM) opposition party official confirmed that their leader, Housseini Amion Guindo, narrowly escaped arrest for urging the transitional government to respect an 18-month transition timetable.

In October 2021, the authorities arrested Issa Kaou N’djim, a well-known politician and vice president in the interim parliament, after he criticized the expulsion of an ECOWAS representative. He was released after two weeks, then convicted of insulting the state via social media. N’djim, though a supporter of interim President Goïta, has publicly criticized the prime minister.

The authorities also detained Fily Bouare Sissoko, a former economy and finance minister, and Mahamadou Camara, a former presidential chief of staff, since August and September 2021, respectively. They were charged, along with former prime minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, who died in custody in March, in a high-level corruption case. The trials have not gone forward and a judge has denied their requests for conditional release.

International human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The covenant favors releasing accused people pending trial. Under Malian law an accused person may request conditional release, but lawyers said that conditional release is often not granted even when legal requirements are met. Moreover, even when a court decides to grant conditional release or acquits an accused person, the prosecutor may appeal this decision, automatically suspending the court’s orders.

Restrictions on Media and Free Expression

In January, Malian authorities announced they would reintroduce media accreditation procedures. In February, they expelled a longtime reporter with Jeune Afrique, Benjamin Roger, for not having accreditation, and stopped providing new accreditations. In March, they suspended both Radio France International and France 24 from operating in the country after both outlets reported on security force abuses in Moura. In April, the authorities announced that those suspensions would be final. The UN high commissioner for human rights denounced the media restrictions as “the latest in a string of actions curtailing press freedom and the freedom of expression in Mali, and come at a time when more, not less, scrutiny is needed.”

The authorities have also detained people for their online expression. In May, four women; Sara Yara, Ramata Diabate, Dede Cisse, and Amy Cisse; were detained for their alleged involvement with a Facebook blog post that criticized the head of the state security agency, family members and lawyers for the women said. The women remained in custody despite a judge’s ruling for conditional release in June, pending the prosecutor’s appeal. They face several charges under the penal code and the 2019 law against cybercrimes, which provides penalties of imprisonment and fines. In July, the authorities detained an online commentator, Alhassane Tangara, after a pro-government group denounced him on Facebook.

Media professionals and activists said that online commentators, known as “video men,” have increased their harassment of critics of the government. The journalist and blogger Malick Konate said he had received dozens of online threats and harassment for his reporting for Radio France International and his political commentary on television and social media, accusing him of being pro-French and against the transition. On June 4, unidentified assailants threw bricks that broke his car’s windows.

“Everyone is afraid of talking, whether good or bad,” said one activist. “Most have chosen silence.” Another said: “I am silent because I do not want to go to prison.” Media professionals said it has become more difficult to invite outspoken guests to public debates. Some organizations said they have stopped issuing public statements altogether. “I live with fear in the stomach,” the director of a democracy association said. “Any day they can come arrest me.”

“The crackdown on the media and detentions of critics have had a chilling effect on Mali’s political life and civic space,” Henry said. “Mali’s authorities need to reverse this trend to ensure the credibility of the political transition.”

Torture and Enforced Disappearance

Human Rights Watch and others have previously reported torture and other ill-treatment by Mali’s security forces, often in unauthorized detention facilities, and enforced disappearances.

Six men arrested in September and October 2021, including a jurist and adviser to top officials, Dr. Kalilou Doumbia, remain in detention, accused of plotting a coup, despite a court decision in June to acquit two of them. The authorities allegedly subjected the men to electric shock, “waterboarding” or simulated drowning, repeated beatings, and sleep deprivation to extract confessions and other information.

On May 16, security officials detained seven military personnel, including a member of the transitional parliament, on charges of plotting a coup “supported by a Western state,” media reported. The authorities have not provided any information about the men’s condition and whereabouts. Mali’s national human rights commission, Commission Nationale des Droit de l’Homme (CNDH), requested access to the detainees and raised concerns of enforced disappearance, but has received no answer.

International law defines enforced disappearance as the detention of a person by state officials or their agents and a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

The ECOWAS monitoring mechanism for the transitional period should include benchmarks for progress on key human rights concerns, including arbitrary detention and harassment of opposition figures, freedom of expression and the media, and torture and enforced disappearances, Human Rights Watch said.

“Mali’s leaders should comply with their obligations under international human rights law by investigating allegations of torture and enforced disappearances, and appropriately prosecuting those responsible,” Henry said. “Upholding human rights and the rule of law are integral to a successful transition to civilian rule.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 9, 2022, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Haiti’s former minister of sports, Evans Lescouflair, speaks at the Global Sports Forum in Barcelona, Spain, March 10, 2010. © 2010 AP Photo/ David Ramos

Thanks to the courage of survivors and whistleblowers, Haiti’s government is taking important steps to bring top sports officials implicated in child abuse to justice and out of sport.

On July 2, Haiti’s former minister of sports, Evans Lescouflair, was arrested by Interpol in Panama where he had sought to escape Haitian justice. Lescouflair stands accused of repeatedly raping an 11-year-old student while he was a teacher. He is also facing a civil lawsuit brought by several other people who have brought forward evidence that he sexually abused them.

“With Lescouflair in jail facing justice at last, our goal as survivors is to send a message that all children in Haiti and worldwide deserve full protection from sexual abuse at all times,” said Claude-Alix Bertrand, a childhood survivor of abuse who is also Haiti’s ambassador to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “Sport should should not be a place where powerful leaders abuse children and get away with it. We must use this case as a catalyst for permanent change to protect children in sport and beyond.”

Lescouflair was also a top official at the Haitian Football Federation, and was president of a youth football club.

This case follows the December 2020 suspension and lifetime ban for Haitian Football Federation President Yves Jean-Bart for sexually abusing women and girls on Haiti’s national football team. After an investigation, FIFA, the world football federation, banned Jean-Bart from football for life.

However, FIFA has not removed other Haitian federation officials who were involved in covering up sexual abuse and who still work with Haiti’s women’s national team, and has not attempted to collect the US$1 million fine it issued Jean-Bart.

Whistleblowers and survivors have been threatened to prevent them from bringing evidence of sexual abuse. After Jean-Bart’s appeal hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in April, witnesses received threats by text that read: “I have your coffins prepared.”

Human Rights Watch has reported on new waves of violence threatening the justice system in Haiti. Haitian authorities should take steps to ensure access to justice, to protect whistleblowers and survivors, and to arrest and sanction sexual abusers in sport and their accomplices.

International sports bodies FIFA and the International Olympic Committee should support athlete survivors by banning child abusers from sport and upholding their own child safeguarding policies.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 8, 2022, 1:30 pm
Click to expand Image Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza in Moscow. © 2021 AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

(Berlin) – Russian authorities’ new spurious charge against opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza is a thinly veiled threat to the Russian public not to engage in dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities should immediately free Kara-Murza and drop all charges against him.

Kara-Murza was informed of the new charge, of involvement in an “undesirable” foreign organization, on August 3, 2022. He has been in detention since April on a trumped-up charge of spreading “fake news” about the Russian Armed Forces for his public criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It is now a pattern for the Kremlin to throw its critics behind bars on spurious charges and then continue to add new bogus charges against them to keep them there,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new charge against Kara-Murza is a blatant attempt to instill more fear among Russia’s civil society and deter it from mobilizing against the Kremlin and its war against Ukraine.”

Kara-Murza’s detention and prosecution is part of Russian authorities’ accelerated efforts to punish and silence all dissent, Human Rights Watch said.

In April, the police detained Kara-Murza on administrative grounds near his home in Moscow, claiming, falsely, that he had disobeyed police orders. While he was in detention, the authorities brought criminal charges of spreading “deliberately false information” about the Russian army for a speech he made before the Arizona House of Representatives in the United States, in March.

During his speech, he said that “the whole world sees what Putin’s regime is doing to Ukraine: the cluster bombs on residential areas, the bombings of maternity wards and hospitals and schools,” referring to these acts as war crimes. The prosecution claims that Kara-Murza’s speech was guided by “political hatred” against Russian authorities, an aggravated circumstance. Kara-Murza faces up to 10 years in prison on these charges.

The new charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison. The investigators also opened a new case against Kara-Murza in July, alleging that he used funds from the US-based Free Russia Foundation, which the Russian authorities banned as “undesirable” in 2019, to organize a conference in October 2021.

Under Russia’s repressive “undesirables” laws, the prosecutor’s office can designate as “undesirable” any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. The organization must then cease its activities in Russia, and Russian citizens’ continued involvement with such organizations carries a criminal penalty of up to six years in prison.

More than 60 organizations have been blacklisted as “undesirable.” Russian authorities continue to expand the law to widen the scope of people who can be designated “undesirable” and of what constitutes “involvement.” So far in 2022, Russian courts have sentenced two activists to several years in prison on “undesirable” charges.

Kara-Murza had been a vice president of the Free Russia Foundation and a coordinator of Open Russia civic movement, both designated as “undesirable” by Russian authorities. He stepped down from his position at Free Russia Foundation in 2019 and Open Russia closed in May 2021.

In cruel irony, the conference that the authorities are using to incriminate Kara-Murza was dedicated to political prisoners in Russia and was co-organized by Russia’s prominent human rights group Memorial and the Sakharov Center, Human Rights Watch said. Co-organizers Sergey Davidis, of Memorial, and Sergey Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Center, publicly stated that the 2021 conference was organized together with Kara-Murza in his individual capacity, and that Free Russia Foundation had no involvement.

Kara-Murza’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, told Human Rights Watch that he believes the authorities have made these spurious charges against Kara-Murza “to demonstrate that they can do whatever they want.”

When the police detained Kara-Murza in April, they denied his lawyers access to him at the police station for at least 12 hours, and his defense team is experiencing difficulties transmitting case materials to and from his detention facility. The courts have repeatedly closed preliminary hearings in Kara-Murza’s case to the public. His defense team is concerned that the trial may also take place behind closed doors, compounding concerns that Kara-Murza will be denied a fair trial.

Kara-Murza has been a vocal critic of Kremlin for years and was a close friend of the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. He survived two near-fatal poisonings, in 2015 and 2017, which Bellingcat investigative journalists reported was most likely orchestrated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). He has called for sanctions against the Kremlin and has spoken before political bodies throughout Europe, in the US, and at many international and intergovernmental forums, including the UN.

“The fake charges against Kara-Murza are purely politically motivated, and he should be immediately and unconditionally released, as should the many other Russians prosecuted on outrageous ‘fake news,’ ‘undesirable,’ and similar charges,” Williamson said. “The Russian authorities need to stop misusing and manipulating the justice system in their desperate efforts to stomp out dissent and opposition.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 8, 2022, 1:24 pm
Click to expand Image Noureddine Adam, the chief of the FPRC, the main Central African armed group, poses in Birao, northern Central African Republic, on December 20, 2017. © 2017 ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images

Last week the International Criminal Court (ICC) made public an arrest warrant for a rebel leader in the Central African Republic, Noureddine Adam.

The warrant, which was previously sealed and dated back to January 2019, states that Adam is wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture. Adam’s warrant is consistent with the ICC seeking to target the highest-ranking rebel leaders responsible for atrocities in the Central African Republic.

Adam was the number two leader of the Seleka, an armed rebel group that tore its way through the Central African Republic in 2013. One of the first leaders to arrive in the capital, Bangui, when the rebels took the city, Adam became the Minister of Public Security, then later national security advisor. In 2014 he fled Bangui with the rest of the Seleka, and has since moved between Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic.

The arrest warrant points to allegations that Adam oversaw torture.

He oversaw Seleka fighters, and in 2013 when we met and presented him with documentation of serious crimes perpetrated by the Seleka, he had one response: blanket denial. He blamed the wanton killings of women and children on anyone but Seleka fighters, even denying we spoke with villagers fleeing an attack who had identified Seleka soldiers. Yet evidence indicates that soldiers under his command brought chaos to Bangui and the provinces.

After he fled Bangui, Adam took command of other armed groups, emerging as a prime example of how abusive leaders who enjoy impunity continue to commit crimes.

Another Seleka commander, Mahamat Said Abdel Kan, is also facing charges at the ICC. His trial is due to begin in September. But Said did not have the same level of command that Adam held during the Seleka’s reign of terror. Prominent leaders from the anti-balaka militia – who fought the Seleka for years – have also been sent to The Hague for trial. One such leader, Maxim Mokom, was surrendered to the ICC last March by Chad.

Adam is reported to be in Sudan, where he continues to evade justice. Sudan should follow Chad’s lead and surrender ICC suspects to the court. Bearing in mind, Sudan has not yet handed over to the court its own alleged war criminals: three ex-officials, including former president Omer al-Bashir. Still, Adam should become an example of justice, not impunity, in the Central African Republic.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 8, 2022, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Cambodian authorities force NagaWorld strikers onto city buses to remove them from picket lines near the NagaWorld Casino in Phnom Penh, February 23, 2022. © 2022 CamboJA News

(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should press Cambodian authorities to stop using Japan-funded public buses to forcibly remove striking workers from picket lines in Phnom Penh, Human Rights Watch said today. The Cambodian government’s actions against workers have violated their basic rights to strike and to freedom of association and expression.

Since the NagaWorld Casino laid off 1,329 workers in April 2021, former employees have been protesting outside the casino in central Phnom Penh and went on strike in December. Local authorities have arrested dozens of striking union activists and forcibly removed them from the strike site in Japan-funded public buses, transporting them to the outskirts of the capital city or to Covid-19 quarantine sites.

“Japan should demand that Cambodian authorities stop misusing buses provided with Japanese taxpayer money or face being complicit in Cambodian government abuses against striking workers,” said Teppei Kasai, Asia program officer at Human Rights Watch. “The Japanese government should be promoting workers’ rights abroad, not allowing foreign aid to be used to undermine them.”

On September 27, 2016, the Japanese government signed a grant program of nearly 1.4 billion yen (US$10 million), to donate 80 buses to Phnom Penh.

In a June 24, 2022 letter, Human Rights Watch asked Japan’s foreign aid agency, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to disclose whether the Japanese government had expressed concerns or taken any action regarding the Cambodian government’s misuse of the buses. The agency responded on July 28 that “the Japanese government and JICA have been in close contact on a daily basis with the Cambodian government, including about the human rights situation, and are working on this matter in an appropriate manner, but considering this is a diplomatic matter, we would like to refrain from commenting on the details of the communication.”

It is evident from video footage circulating on social media that officials are using the buses to assist in strike-breaking. One video shows at least five uniformed police, accompanied by three men in civilian clothing – one of whom is holding a walkie-talkie – pushing and dragging three female strikers onto a bus stairwell. Human Rights Watch verified the authenticity of the video, identified the exact location, and matched the bus’s interior with the buses financed by Japan.

NagaWorld Casino’s mass layoff in April 2021 included the president of Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), Chhim Sithar, and other union leaders and activists. Since then, the union has demanded the reinstatement of dismissed workers, in particular union leaders, and payment of fair compensation for those terminated in accordance with Cambodia’s Labor Law.

In December, the Cambodian authorities immediately and without basis labelled the union’s industrial action “illegal,” yet workers continued their strike. The authorities detained 11 union activists, including Chhim Sithar, on the basis of groundless “incitement” charges as well as alleged violations of Cambodia’s abusive “law on measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other deadly infectious diseases,” even though strikers complied with the required Covid-19 measures.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Cambodia has ratified, provides for the right to strike. The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association has stated that the right to strike is a right that workers and their organizations, including trade unions and federations, are “entitled to enjoy,” that any restrictions on this right “should not be excessive,” and that the “legitimate exercise of the right to strike should not entail prejudicial penalties of any sort, which would imply acts of anti-union discrimination.”

In 1991, Japan issued its charter on Official Development Assistance (ODA), which includes human rights as one of its principles. The principle regarding how aid should be used in Japan’s ODA Charter states: “Full attention should be paid to efforts for promoting democratization and the introduction of a market-oriented economy, and the situation regarding the protection of basic human rights and freedom in the recipient country.”

The Cambodian government’s use of the vehicles to assist in forcibly disbanding peaceful union protests, undercuts workers’ rights to strike, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and to bargain collectively, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Japanese government’s commitment to abide by its development assistance charter will raise serious doubts if no immediate and effective action is taken to end Cambodia’s misuse of its buses,” Kasai said. “Tokyo should send a clear message to the Cambodian government that respect for human rights is central to the bilateral relationship.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 8, 2022, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with African ministers at United Nations headquarters, May 18, 2022. © 2022 Eduardo Munoz/Pool Photo via AP

(Washington) – The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to Rwanda from August 10 to 12, 2022, will come amid heightened concerns that the M23 armed group is, again, receiving Rwandan support for abusive operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said today. Blinken will also visit Congo where the M23 has expanded its control in the North Kivu province, in the eastern part of the country, targeting civilians with summary killings.

The visit provides an opportunity to condemn these attacks, including war crimes, and any documented support by Rwanda enabling the abusive conduct. The visit should also be used to highlight systematic human rights violations, including crackdowns on opponents and civil society, both within and across Rwanda’s borders. Secretary Blinken should press the authorities to release critics and opponents who have been jailed for exercising basic rights.

“Secretary of State Blinken should speak some hard truths during his trips to Rwanda and Congo,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Failing to address Rwanda’s abysmal human rights record has emboldened its officials to continue to commit abuse, even beyond its borders.”

Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), has waged a brutal campaign against real and perceived critics of the government for years. Recently, high-profile critics, including internet bloggers, have been arrested and threatened. Some have recently said they were tortured in detention. The authorities rarely credibly investigate enforced disappearances or suspicious deaths of opponents. Arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in unofficial detention facilities is common, especially around high-profile visits or large international events such as the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Blinken is set to raise the case of Paul Rusesabagina, whose arrest and detention in August 2020 falls within well-documented patterns of abuse against critics and raised grave concerns over the politicization of Rwanda’s judiciary. Rusesabagina, now a Belgian citizen, was living in the US when he travelled from the US to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He was forcibly disappeared until the Rwanda Investigation Bureau announced it had Rusesabagina in custody in Kigali. Human Rights Watch documented several due process and fair trial violations throughout Rusesabagina’s trial, which resulted in a lengthy sentence.

Blinken should also raise the cases of journalists, commentators, and opposition activists jailed for exercising their rights to freedom of association and expression. On May 30, a detained commentator popular on YouTube, Aimable Karasira, told a judge that he was tortured in detention and denied medical treatment. In a July 7 court appearance, he said he had been punished for revealing his treatment in detention and beaten again.

Attacks and threats against Rwandan refugees living abroad, including in Uganda, Mozambique, and Kenya, continue unabated. The victims have tended to be political opponents or critics of the Rwandan government or of President Paul Kagame.

Commentators, journalists, opposition activists, and others speaking out on current affairs and criticizing public policies in Rwanda have been forcibly disappeared, and some have died under suspicious circumstances. The Rwandan government consistently fails to effectively investigate allegations of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, deaths in custody, arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment, or ensure accountability. In many of these cases, the evidence points to the involvement of state security forces. This has created a climate of fear among the population and widespread impunity.

Among these cases is the suspicious death in police custody of well-known activist and singer Kizito Mihigo, despite calls from international partners including the then assistant US secretary of state for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy. Innocent Bahati, a popular poet who published his work focusing on social and human rights issues on YouTube, disappeared in suspicious circumstances on February 7, 2021, and remains missing. The authorities have made vague and unsubstantiated claims that he has left the country.

Blinken should ask for concrete updates on investigations and any steps taken by the authorities to deliver justice in these cases, Human Rights Watch said. The US should urgently signal that there will be consequences for the government’s repression and abuse in Rwanda and beyond its borders.

The M23 was originally made up of Congolese army soldiers who participated in a mutiny in early 2012. These soldiers had previously been rebels in a Rwandan-backed armed group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People. M23 committed widespread war crimes and took over large parts of North Kivu province throughout 2012, with direct support from Rwandan army troops deployed to eastern Congo.

UN investigators at the time also said that Ugandan army commanders had sent troops and weapons to reinforce some M23 operations and assisted the group with recruiting. In 2013, after the M23 briefly captured Goma, UN-backed Congolese government troops forced the M23 back into Rwanda and Uganda. Congolese authorities issued arrest warrants for UN-sanctioned M23 senior commanders in 2013. Rwanda and Uganda never acted on these extradition requests.

As Congo failed to demobilize the group over the last decade, the M23 began recruiting and rebuilding its ranks in 2021. Since May, the M23 has demonstrated a capacity to overrun UN-backed Congolese forces. UN sources and a senior Congolese official have suggested to Human Rights Watch that the group is receiving sustained external assistance.

On June 14, the United States embassy in Congo said it was “extremely concerned about the recent fighting in eastern [Congo] and the reported presence of Rwandan forces on [Congo]’s territory.” The UN Group of Experts on Congo, mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor the implementation of its sanctions regime, confirmed in its June report the presence of men in Rwandan military uniforms in M23 camps. On August 4, media reported that the UN Group of Experts report found “solid evidence” of Rwandan forces fighting alongside and providing other support to M23. The government of Rwanda has repeatedly denied supporting the M23.

As in 2012, the M23 are committing war crimes against civilians, Human Rights Watch said. Witnesses described summary killings of at least 29 people, including children, in June and July 2022. The US should raise with Rwanda the reliable reports that it is again supporting the M23’s abusive conduct in eastern Congo. Secretary Blinken should publicly condemn the M23 attacks in the strongest terms and warn of consequences to Rwanda for any support to the M23 in carrying out such abuses.

Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on July 20 that he would place a hold on US security assistance to Rwanda in Congress over concerns about its human rights record and its role in the conflict in Congo. In a letter to Blinken, Menendez asked for a comprehensive review of US policy toward Rwanda.

“The M23 thrives on impunity and cycles of violence fuelled by a disregard for basic human rights,” Mudge said. “Secretary Blinken should not gloss over the abuse in both Rwanda and Congo but instead put human rights front and center during his visit.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 8, 2022, 10:00 am
Click to expand Image US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with African ministers at United Nations headquarters, May 18, 2022. © 2022 Eduardo Munoz/Pool Photo via AP

(Washington, DC) – United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken should publicly promote free and fair elections, respect for human rights, and anti-corruption efforts during his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo on August 9 and 10, 2022, 17 US and Congolese organizations and experts said today. Blinken’s visit comes as the abusive M23 armed group has expanded its control in eastern Congo, attacking villages and summarily killing civilians. The UN Group of Experts on Congo recently confirmed renewed support for the M23 from the Rwandan military.

DR Congo under President Félix Tshisekedi is facing widespread human rights abuses and corruption, protracted attacks on civilians by numerous armed groups, and failed democratic institutions. The Congo Basin’s forests and peatlands, which are essential in the fight against climate change, are at increasing risk of logging and mining.

“The DR Congo’s government needs to demonstrate the political will to advance democracy, combat corruption, and address the country’s intensifying crises,” said Floribert Anzuluni of The Sentry and FILIMBI. “Secretary Blinken should denounce the escalating repression against activists, protesters, and journalists and warn that growing intolerance toward critics risks free, credible, and timely elections in 2023.”

Blinken should highlight the need for democratic elections that meet international standards, the groups said. The last elections, in 2018, were marred by widespread irregularities, including voter and candidate suppression, and non-credible official results, not meeting basic international standards for a democratic election. Congolese authorities should develop an accurate registration process with the timely publication of a voters’ list, make a commitment not to exclude lawful candidates or voters, ensure free campaigning by candidates and parties, and require transparent vote tabulation and reporting of results.

Blinken should also publicly condemn security force suppression of peaceful demonstrations and dissent. These problems have been particularly acute in eastern Congo, where the authorities have used martial law to curtail peaceful protests and other rights.

The resurgence of the M23 in the east has exacerbated fighting and abuses by dozens of armed groups in the region. Foreign military forces from Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi have also been implicated in abuses against civilians.

The M23, originally made up of soldiers who mutinied in early 2012, went on to commit widespread war crimes, with support from Rwandan troops. Over the past decade, Congo failed to demobilize the remnants of the group. In 2021 the M23 began rebuilding its ranks. Since May, M23 forces have at times overrun UN-backed Congolese forces in eastern Congo. Over the course of the renewed fighting, hate speech, in some cases by government officials, and stigmatization of communities linked to neighboring countries have been growing.

The UN Group of Experts on Congo, mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor the implementation of its sanctions regime, confirmed in June the presence of men in Rwandan military uniforms in M23 camps. On August 4, media reported that the Group of Experts found “solid evidence” of Rwandan forces fighting alongside and providing other support to the M23. The government of Rwanda has repeatedly denied supporting the M23. Additionally, violence by other armed groups has increased throughout the region, including around Beni and Ituri.

Blinken should make clear that the US will impose targeted sanctions on government officials and others found to be supporting abusive armed groups. He should also press for reform of the national army, riven by patronage relationships and embezzlement. Any settlement of the armed conflicts in the east should reject an amnesty for those responsible for grave international crimes, should not permit abusive commanders to integrate into Congo’s armed forces, and should include a vigorous disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program under new leadership.

“Secretary Blinken should inform Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, as President Barack Obama did in 2012, that the US will not tolerate any support for M23,” said Father Rigobert Minani Bihuzo of the Centre d'études pour l'Action sociale (Center of studies for social Action, CEPAS). “He should emphasize the Congolese government’s need for military reform, including improved anti-corruption mechanisms, the vetting and removal of abusive officers, and investigations of officers implicated in past war crimes.”

President Félix Tshisekedi has made very little progress in dismantling high-level corruption, which stymies security, development, and responsible investment. Unrestrained corruption in the lucrative mining sector denies the Congolese people the benefits of the country’s vast natural wealth and deters responsible businesses from making long-term investments in the country. 

Blinken should urge the government to publish all mining contracts, including those with Dan Gertler, a businessman under US sanctions, the groups said. The government should make a genuine effort to combat systemic corruption, including in the mining and logging sectors, and impose accountability on those complicit in looting the country. It should address the findings of the “Congo Hold-Up” investigations, an account of large-scale corruption by a consortium of media and international groups.

Conflict across the Great Lakes region and political turmoil and violence in Congo necessitate a new regional policy strategy by the Biden administration to address urgent security and humanitarian issues, the groups said, including appointing a special envoy for the region. Past US special envoys to the Great Lakes Region who had senior diplomatic status and sufficient resources have played a vital role in mitigating conflict and addressing democracy and human rights issues, so long as they were sufficiently senior, pursued goals through diplomatic and financial pressure, and were well staffed. A special envoy could also help pursue administration priorities on global warming and protection of the Congo rainforest.

“Secretary Blinken’s trip to Congo should reinforce efforts to advance democratic elections, combat corruption, and end rights abuses,” said Ida Sawyer, director of the Crisis and Conflict Division at Human Rights Watch. “The US should appoint a special envoy to the Great Lakes region to demonstrate that it takes these problems seriously and wants to assist in meaningful democratic reforms.”

Signatories:

American Jewish World Service

Anthony W. Gambino, Former USAID Mission Director, DRC

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

CREDDHO (Centre de recherche sur l’environnement, la démocratie et les droits de l’homme)

FILIMBI

Fred Bauma, Executive Secretary at Ebuteli, Lucha (lutte pour le changement) activist

Human Rights Watch

Jason Stearns, Assistant Professor, Simon Fraser University (SFU)

Jewish World Watch

Joshua Z. Walker, Director of Programs, Congo Research Group, New York University Center on International Cooperation

Lucha (Lutte pour le changement)

Never Again Coalition

Panzi Foundation

RODHECIC (Réseau d'organisations des droits de l'homme et d'éducation civique d'inspiration chrétienne)

Stephen R. Weissman, Former Staff Director, US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa

The Sentry

UNIS

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 8, 2022, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image Protesters at a rally in Minneapolis call for justice for George Floyd after closing arguments in the Derek Chauvin trial ended on April 19, 2021. © 2021 Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

(Geneva) – The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination should recommend the United States government to take immediate, tangible measures to dismantle structural racism in the US, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said today, releasing a joint report to the committee.

The United States, which in 1994 ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, will appear before the committee for a review of its compliance with the convention on August 11-12, 2022, in Geneva.

August 8, 2022 Racial Discrimination in the United States

“Decades after the US committed to end racial discrimination, systemic racism continues to infect our institutions,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program. “The Biden administration has shown it can name the problem, but the time has come to take bolder action to radically transform these abusive systems and fully implement US human rights obligations.”

President Joe Biden stated that “systemic racism” is “corrosive,” “destructive,” and “costly” when he adopted an executive order aimed at achieving racial equity in the United States. He is also the first US president to officially commemorate the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Yet his administration has not adopted an executive order to create a commission to study the need for reparations and develop specific remedies for the enslavement of people in the United States and its myriad legacies. Such a commission is also pending before the US Congress in a bill known as H.R. 40, and its Senate companion S. 40.

Under the anti-racism convention, the US is obligated to provide effective remedies, including reparations for racial discrimination, including ongoing structural discrimination that flows from the legacies of slavery.

“In the absence of congressional action to pass H.R. 40 and S. 40, President Biden should establish the commission to study and develop reparations for the legacies of slavery through executive order,” said Dreisen Heath, racial justice researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “The US government needs to build an equitable future for all, and that requires going beyond ordinary public policy to take concrete measures to begin to comprehensively tackle everything from the yawning Black-white wealth gap to the terror of white supremacy.”

The anti-racism convention not only prohibits government actions that have a racist purpose or intent, but also those that have a racist effect or impact. In their report, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch detail the engrained policies in the United States that have disproportionately harmed non-white racial groups, especially Black Americans, including those leading to mass incarceration, police and immigration law enforcement killings and abuse, and policies affecting education, health, and reproductive rights.

The negative effects of these policies include:

The average white family in the US has roughly eight times the wealth of the average Black family, and white college graduates have over seven times more wealth than Black college graduates. Almost two million people are locked up across the United States, with Black people imprisoned at a rate three times higher than white people. Black women are imprisoned at 1.7 times the rate of white women. Discrimination in enforcement of US immigration laws, including the US criminal re-entry statute, which a federal judge found was “enacted with discriminatory purpose” and would not have been enacted absent racial animus, continues unabated. In 2020, the US had an estimated 580,000 unhoused people, 39 percent of whom were Black, even though Black people are only 12 percent of the US total population. Though Black and white people use drugs at similar rates, Black people are imprisoned for drug crimes at five times the rate of white people. Police in the US continue to kill Indigenous, Latinx, and Black people at significantly higher rates, as much as 350 percent more frequently, than white people. Even greater racial disparities attend nonfatal uses of force by police.

On these issue areas and many others, the US government submitted its own report to the UN anti-racism committee in June 2021, claiming progress. In addition to refuting several of the US government’s claims, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, in their report, outline many of the areas in which the US is failing to uphold its obligations under the anti-racism convention, while recognizing some improvements. The groups also provide detailed steps the executive branch should take to begin to rectify the egregious failures under the convention.

“Since it ratified the treaty 30 years ago, the US has had plenty of time to come into compliance, but has miserably failed,” Dakwar said. “It’s long overdue for the US government to finally live up to its human rights promises, confront root causes of systemic racism, and adopt a plan of action to implement its international racial justice obligations. We expect the UN committee to hold the US to account. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch have provided the administration a roadmap toward compliance; they must use it, starting today.”

The joint report was drafted by a team of 10 former legal fellows at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU as a means of honoring the legacy of Aryeh Neier, former executive director of both organizations, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the creation of the joint Aryeh Neier Fellowship. Both organizations have engaged in decades of work alongside countless grassroots- and movement-based organizations to hold the US government accountable for racial injustice.

“Achieving racial justice in the United States requires unflinching dedication and substantive actions to end the compounding structural harms that stems from the enslavement of Black people and the legacies of settler colonialism,” Heath said. “This UN review should be a landmark moment of reckoning that furthers the cause of human rights for everyone in the United States.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 8, 2022, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Sri Lankan anti-government protesters call for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's resignation,  Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 29, 2022. © 2022 Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via AP

Sri Lanka’s economic turmoil has become a full-blown political crisis and humanitarian emergency. The government defaulted on its debt in May, for the first time in its history, after years of economic mismanagement that has enriched a small number of elites and emptied the public coffers. Since then, protesters have driven President Gotabaya Rajapaksafrom power, demanding an end to the corruption and misgovernance that has left millions of people facing acute shortages of food, fuel, and medicine.

Despite the many challenges facing the country, the new government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe seems more focused on suppressing dissent than on solving the economic crisis, even as it negotiates a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The conditions the IMF places on this loan could either exacerbate the political and economic hardship or provide desperately needed relief while addressing underlying causes. The IMF should make clear to President Wickremesinghe that he needs to engage with the public, not silence them.

The program is expected to cap public spending, including public-sector wages, despite the IMF’s own guidanceacknowledging that public-sector wage cuts disproportionately harm women and encouraging alternative policies. It may also remove fuel and electricity subsidies and increase value-added or consumption taxes, which would drive up prices when millions are already struggling.

The IMF should use its leverage to ensure funding provides broad relief to Sri Lankans in a way that is transparent and accountable. A universal social protection program, recommended by the United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF, would avoid the staggering error rates and systemic corruption that has undermined the efficacy of Sri Lanka’s main safety net program, Samurdhi.

To finance an expansion in social protection, the IMF and government should look to introduce progressive taxation. It should also heed protesters’ calls, backed by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to root out systemic corruption and strengthen the rule of law.

Concrete measures the government can take include passing three anti-corruption bills that are currently before Parliament and reversing recent constitutional amendments that have undermined the independence of the judiciary, the human rights commission, and the bribery commission. It should also allow credible and independent investigations into corruption and support foreign governments to investigate, and if appropriate, return stolen assets hidden abroad.

Sri Lankans desperately need IMF support, but recent protests make clear that many seek reforms that will increase accountability and tackle the root causes of the country’s problems. The IMF’s actions should support these demands.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 5, 2022, 2:50 pm
Click to expand Image Révérien Ndikuriyo on the day of his election as secretary general of Burundi's ruling party in Gitega on January 24, 2021.   © 2021 Private

The head of Burundi’s ruling political party gave an appalling speech at a public event this week commemorating Lt. Gen. Adolphe Nshimirimina, who, before he was killed seven years ago, oversaw human rights violations including the killing, torture, and arbitrary arrest of suspected political opponents.

The speech was given by Révérien Ndikuriyo, the secretary general of the Burundi’s ruling party, to which Nshimirimina also belonged, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD). Ndikuriyo's words were a slap in the face for Nshimirimana’s victims.

Ndikuriyo then launched a shocking attack on international human rights organizations documenting abuse in Burundi today, including by members of the ruling party’s notorious youth league, the Imbonerakure. Ndikuriyo boasted about the party’s strategy to militarize the youth league, whose members commit abuses across the country.

That a known human rights violator continues to be idolized is bad enough, but it is compounded by the diplomatic community’s failure to take a public stance against these developments. On the same day that Ndikuriyo was attacking international human rights groups, the European Union ambassador to Burundi held a meeting with President Évariste Ndayishimiye.

Seven years ago, on August 2, 2015, Nshimirimana, the former head of the intelligence service and a close ally of then-President Pierre Nkurunziza, was killed when unidentified men opened fire on his vehicle in Bujumbura, Burundi. One of the country’s most powerful and brutal figures, he was seen as untouchable.

Nshimirimana’s assassination took place as the country descended into a protracted human rights crisis, triggered by Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a controversial third term. Protesters were killed, tortured, and jailed. Civil society organizations and independent media were decimated, with almost all of their leaders forced into exile. The day after Nshimirimana’s death, a leading Burundian human rights defender, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, was shot and injured.

At the time, the international community reacted forcefully to the unfolding human rights crisis, by imposing targeted sanctions, restrictions on funding, and establishing a United Nations commission of inquiry on Burundi to investigate grave human rights violations.

This week, Ndikuriyo's defiant speech shows how little interest ruling party leaders have in addressing the country’s abysmal human rights record. Today’s diplomats should seize every opportunity to raise human rights issues with Burundi’s leaders, making clear their concern about this kind of inflammatory rhetoric.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 5, 2022, 12:30 pm
Click to expand Image Afghans waiting in lines to receive emergency assistance from the World Food Program (WFP) in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 3, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Bram Janssen

(Washington, DC) – Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis cannot be effectively addressed unless the United States and other governments ease restrictions on the country’s banking sector to facilitate legitimate economic activity and humanitarian aid, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch issued an updated question-and-answer document outlining the economic crisis and steps to overcome it.

August 4, 2022 Economic Causes of Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Crisis

Questions and Answers on Sanctions and Banking Restrictions on the Taliban

The US and other governments and the World Bank Group revoked the credentials of the Central Bank of Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover on August 15, 2021. The US air strike on July 30, 2022, killing the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, should not derail ongoing discussions between the US and Afghanistan to urgently reach an agreement allowing ordinary Afghans to engage in legitimate commercial activity.

“Afghanistan’s intensifying hunger and health crisis is urgent and at its root a banking crisis,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Regardless of the Taliban’s status or credibility with outside governments, international economic restrictions are still driving the country’s catastrophe and hurting the Afghan people.”

Despite actions by the US and others to license banking transactions with Afghan entities, Afghanistan’s central bank remains unable to access its foreign currency reserves or process or receive most international transactions. As a result, the country continues to suffer from a major liquidity crisis and lack of banknotes. Businesses, humanitarian groups, and private banks continue to report extensive restrictions on their operational capacities. At the same time, because outside donors have severely cut funding to support Afghanistan health, education, and other essential sectors, millions of Afghans have lost their incomes.

Acute malnutrition is entrenched across Afghanistan, even though food and basic supplies are available in markets throughout the country. An Afghan humanitarian official told Human Rights Watch in mid-July, “People have nothing to eat. You may not imagine it, but children are starving…. The situation is dire, especially if you go to the villages.” He said he knew of one family who had lost two children, ages 5 and 2, to starvation in the last two months: “This is unbelievable in 2022.” He said that he knew of no shortages in food supplies and that the causes of the crisis were economic: “A functioning banking system is an immediate and crucial need to address the humanitarian crisis.”

Almost 20 million people – half the population – are suffering either level-3 “crisis” or level-4 “emergency” levels of food insecurity under the assessment system of the World Food Programme (WFP). Over one million children under 5 – especially at risk of dying when deprived of food – are suffering from prolonged acute malnutrition, meaning that even if they survive, they face significant health problems, including stunting. Recently, the WFP reported that tens of thousands of people in one province, Ghor, had slipped into “catastrophic” level-5 acute malnutrition, a precursor to famine.

Overall, more than 90 percent of Afghans have been suffering from some form of food insecurity since last August, skipping meals or whole days of eating and engaging in extreme coping mechanisms to pay for food, including sending children to work. Afghanistan’s economic collapse was caused in part by a collapse in most families’ incomes following the Taliban takeover and foreign donors’ decisions to suspend outside budgetary support for numerous government, humanitarian, and development sectors, including education and health.

US and World Bank decisions to restrict Afghanistan’s banking sector have significantly amplified the crisis by hampering most legitimate economic activities, including humanitarian efforts. The Central Bank of Afghanistan is unable to carry out basic central banking functions, including holding currency auctions, importing banknotes, and processing or settling legitimate commercial and humanitarian transactions. Because of these incapacities, even basic economic activities remain severely curtailed.

“Importers are struggling to pay for goods, humanitarian groups are facing problems with basic operations, and the Afghan diaspora can’t send enough money to their relatives and friends,” Sifton said. “Millions of hungry Afghans are experiencing the abysmal reality of seeing food at the market but being unable to purchase it.”

Making matters worse, Afghanistan’s economic crisis is occurring as inflation and cost increases have been accelerating, with an over 50 percent increase for basic household items since July 2021. According to World Bank data, prices for staples such as rice and wheat have almost doubled in the last two months. At the same time, prices for agricultural inputs like fertilizer and fuel have doubled, and they are in short supply, meaning Afghanistan’s own domestic food production is set to decrease in 2022.

The crisis’ impact on women and girls is especially severe. An Afghan woman working for a civil society group said that restrictions on women’s basic rights to freedom of movement and work have made it difficult “even for educated women who used to be financially independent,” and fall particularly hard on widows. “Pregnant women are really affected by the situation, especially because of the limited access to health care. I know dozens of widowed women who send me messages every day asking for help.”

Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation would be even worse had the United Nations and other aid providers not substantially increased their operations in 2022, Human Rights Watch said. As the World Food Programme stated in a food security assessment for June through November 2022, “The severity of the situation is only partially mitigated by the unprecedented surge of humanitarian assistance that covers 38 percent of the total population of Afghanistan in the current period. In the absence of such assistance, the magnitude and severity of needs would be dramatically higher.”

The Taliban leadership should recognize that their poor human rights record is imperiling hopes to reach any agreements to resolve the banking crisis, Human Rights Watch said. Since last August, the authorities have imposed strict restrictions on women and girls that violate their rights to education, work, health care, and freedom of movement and speech. Taliban authorities have also suppressed media and arbitrarily detained and at times executed perceived critics or opponents.

Taliban authorities are reportedly prepared to accept independent monitoring of the central bank by outside auditors, a key demand of the US government and World Bank. But they continue to reject key demands from governments to remove sanctioned officials from the central bank’s leadership and to reverse their position denying secondary education to girls and women. 

“The Taliban seem more interested in restricting the human rights of Afghan women and girls than in preventing starvation,” Sifton said. “If their leadership is seeking legitimacy, they need to rethink their priorities.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 4, 2022, 10:00 am
Click to expand Image Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, left, speaks with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she prepares to leave Taipei, August 3, 2022. © 2022 Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP

“F***, she got off the plane!” a man in China yells, as he smashes chairs in a video posted on the popular Chinese microblog platform Weibo. “She” refers to Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of United States House of Representatives. The man is upset that the Chinese government allowed her plane to land in Taiwan instead of shooting it down.

Chinese social media is awash with similar videos and posts calling for violence against Taiwan. Around the time of Pelosi’s arrival, the sheer volume of discussion on Weibo overwhelmed the platform; users reported difficulty loading the website and the mobile app.

China’s sealed-off internet has made it difficult for outsiders to see the depth of hostility circulating there. The authorities block many popular international websites in the country while also making it harder for people outside the country to access Chinese websites. What’s said on Chinese social media might not be representative of the thinking of the average person in China, but the volume of hate suggests an upswing in ultra-nationalism in recent years. This reflects in part incessant state propaganda and censorship over territorial, ethnic, and human rights issues.

“Taiwan has always been an inseparable part of China.” As someone who grew up in China, this propaganda line – whose accuracy has been widely rebuked by experts – and many others are so imprinted in my mind that I can still easily recite them even after years living abroad. Discussions challenging these Chinese Communist Party platitudes are strictly prohibited and could send one to prison. Many human rights lawyers, activists, and writers who advocated for dialogue, reconciliation, and freedom have been jailed or driven to exile. Much of what remains online is a cacophony of rage and hate.

Beijing is now tasting the bitter fruit of its own oppression. Some netizens are calling on the Chinese government to dissolve the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, the government body dealing with Taiwan, arguing that these officials are “traitors” in need of “punishment.” After many posts where users had shifted their anger away from Pelosi and towards the Chinese government for failing to stop her Taiwan visit, social media platforms and accounts belonging to state media started to censor user comments.

 

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 3, 2022, 8:19 pm
Click to expand Image A protest by the Irish-Syria Solidarity Movement outside the Danish Embassy on June 4, 2021, in Dublin, Ireland. © 2021 Artur Widak/NurPhoto via AP

Denmark’s controversial move to designate parts of Syria ‘safe’, thereby opening the door for the potential return of hundreds of Syrian refugees, is losing ground.

The intervention comes by way of the Netherlands’ Council of State ruling on July 6 that Syrian asylum seekers in the Netherlands cannot be automatically transferred to Denmark under the European Union’s “Dublin” arrangement that concluded that it cannot be assumed “the prohibition of inhuman treatment is respected by the Danish authorities.”

Under “Dublin”, the first EU country reached by an asylum seeker is usually responsible for processing their claim; the “Dublin system” permits an EU member state to automatically transfer an asylum seeker to the member state of first arrival. The system is premised on the assumption that EU member states share similar asylum standards and procedures, so asylum claims will be fairly examined wherever processed.

Following Denmark’s decision that two Assad-controlled areas, Damascus and Damascus Countryside, are now ‘safe’ for refugees to return to, the Netherlands will require an individual assessment to take place in each case before a transfer is considered.

It is astonishing that Denmark needs reminding that none of Syria is safe for refugee returns. The country is largely controlled by authorities responsible for crimes against humanity against their own citizens, buoyed by a network of state security agencies. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that Syrian refugees returned  from Lebanon and Jordan between 2017 and 2021 faced human rights abuses and persecution by the Syrian government and affiliated militias. The UN Refugee Agency maintains the position that it is not safe to return to Syria and it is neither facilitating nor promoting returns. It is also calling on host countries to maintain asylum protections for Syrian refugees. Also, on August 1, the US government redesignated Syria for Temporary Protected Status.

The Dutch decision will not overhaul the Danish designation that parts of Syria are safe – only the Danes can see to this. But it is telling that in 71 percent of cases, Denmark’s own Refugee Appeals Board has reversed decisions to remove temporary protection from Syrian refugees and granted them full refugee status. How long will it take for Denmark’s Immigration Service to get the message that Syria is not safe and repeal its dangerous designation?

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 3, 2022, 6:34 pm

(Beirut) – The United Nations Human Rights Council should pass a resolution at its September 2022 session to create an impartial fact-finding mission into the Beirut port explosion, 11 human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, said today, on the second anniversary of the explosion. The following is their statement:

We, the undersigned Lebanese and international organizations, call on the members of the United Nations Human Rights Council to put forward a resolution at the upcoming council session in September 2022 that would dispatch, without delay, an independent and impartial fact-finding mission for the August 4, 2020, Beirut explosion. The mission should establish the facts and circumstances, including the root causes, of the explosion, with a view to establishing state and individual responsibility and supporting justice for the victims.

The  explosion at Beirut’s Port was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in global history. The explosion sent shockwaves through the city, killing at least 220 people, wounding over 7,000, and causing extensive property damage. An initial investigation by Human Rights Watch points to the potential involvement of foreign-owned companies, as well as senior political and security officials in Lebanon.

Two years on, the domestic investigation has stagnated with no progress sight. The Lebanese authorities have repeatedly obstructed the course of the domestic investigation into the explosion by shielding politicians and officials implicated in the explosion from questioning, prosecution, and arrest. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Legal Action Worldwide, Legal Agenda, and the International Commission of Jurists have documented a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation, including flagrant political interference, immunity for high-level political officials, lack of respect for the fair trial standards, and due process violations.

The politicians suspected in the case have filed over 25 requests to dismiss the judge leading the investigation, Tarek Bitar, and other judges involved in the case, causing the inquiry to be repeatedly suspended while the cases are adjudicated. The latest series of legal challenges filed against Judge Bitar have resulted in the suspension of the investigation since December 23, 2021.

It is now, more than ever, clear that the domestic investigation cannot deliver justice, making the establishment of an international fact finding mission  mandated by the UN Human Rights Council all the more urgent.  

"I am still breathing, but I am dead inside,” said Mireille Khoury, mother of Elias Khoury who was killed by the explosion at the age of 15. “It is my right to know why my son was taken away from me and who was responsible. This is my son's and my right. So far, Lebanon and the international community have failed us, the victims and the survivors of the explosion."

The survivors of the explosion and the families of the victims have previously sent two letters to the member and observer states of the Human Rights Council urging them to support a resolution establishing such an international investigation. Another letter was sent to the High Commissioner of Human Rights in March 2022 which remains unanswered. The international community has failed to heed their demands around the importance of uncovering the truth behind the Beirut Port Explosion, to break the cycle of impunity and recurrence at a crucial juncture in Lebanon’s history.

“As the Lebanese authorities continue to brazenly obstruct and delay the domestic investigation into the port explosion, an international investigation is the only way forward to ensure that justice is delivered,” said Diana Semaan, acting deputy director at Amnesty International. “The Lebanese authorities tragically failed to protect the lives of its people killed in the port explosion and since then they have stood against victims in their fight for justice.”

The Beirut explosion was a tragedy of historic proportions, arising from the failure to protect the fundamental right to life – and its impact will be felt for far longer than it takes to physically rebuild the city. Establishing the truth of what happened on August 4, 2020, is the critical foundation for providing redress and rebuilding after the devastation of that day as well to reduce the chance of similar catastrophic failures arising again in future.

The thousands of individuals whose lives have been upended and the millions who saw their capital city destroyed deserve nothing less.

"After two years of the failure of the domestic investigation, we call for an independent and impartial fact-finding mission to investigate the Beirut Port explosion.” said Antonia Mulvey, Executive Director of Legal Action Worldwide. “It is absolutely vital to achieve justice and uncover the truth, not only for victims, survivors, and their families but also for Lebanon. Lebanon cannot be built on shaky foundations."

Signatories:

Amnesty International

HELEM

Human Rights Research League

Human Rights Watch

Legal Action Worldwide

Mwatana for Human Rights

The Socio-Economic Justice Initiative- MAAN and Beirut607

The Swiss Foundation Accountability Now

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)

Tunisian Human Rights League 

Dr. Nasser Saidi

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 3, 2022, 6:00 am

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