Click to expand Image Women participate in a march in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, for International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019. Some wear green handkerchiefs, a symbol of the abortion rights movement, and carry signs protesting violence against women. © 2019 Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – Honduran lawmakers should reject a proposed constitutional amendment that would entrench current harsh restrictions on reproductive rights and the prohibition on same-sex marriage, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 21, Congress approved in its first reading an amendment that would increase the number of votes needed in Congress to amend two articles of the constitution which prohibit abortion and same-sex marriage. It would increase the votes needed from the current two-thirds majority of the legislature to three-quarters, making future reform of these provisions extremely difficult. The proposed amendment still needs a second vote to be ratified. The next legislative session will begin on January 25.

“Honduras’ draconian legislation already bans abortions, even in cases of rape and incest, when the person’s life and the health are in danger, and when the fetus will not survive outside the womb,” said Ximena Casas, Americas women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This decree will make it virtually impossible to carry out the recommendations from multiple international human rights bodies to end this violation of reproductive rights.”

Abortion in Honduras is already illegal in all circumstances. The country’s criminal code imposes prison sentences of up to six years on people who undergo abortions and medical professionals who provide them. The government also bans emergency contraception, or “the morning after pill,” which can prevent pregnancy after rape, unprotected sex, or contraceptive failure.

Honduras also bans same-sex marriage. The 2005 constitutional amendment prohibits recognizing marriage between people of the same sex, including same-sex marriages contracted in other countries. Honduras also bans adoption by same-sex couples.

“By seeking to permanently and comprehensively block any possibility of accessing marriage for same-sex couples, the Honduran Congress is entrenching state-sponsored homophobia,” said Cristian González Cabrera, Americas lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In a country where LGBT people already experience high levels of violence and discrimination, this effort to amend the constitution is sending the message that these people may be further stigmatized.”

Currently, all constitutional changes need to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in Congress in order to take effect. On January 21, Congress preliminarily approved the amendment after one debate session, even though its rules of procedure require three debates unless there is an “urgency” for any draft bill.

The Special Commission charged with reviewing the proposed constitutional amendment held one consultation with feminist groups on January 19. One activist told Human Rights Watch that they were notified about the consultation less than 24 hours in advance. A group working on the rights of LGBT people told Human Rights Watch that LGBT groups were not consulted.

The reform violates international human rights law, which establishes that denying women and girls access to abortion is a form of discrimination and jeopardizes a range of human rights. The bill misleadingly refers to Article 4(1) of the American Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has made clear that Article 4(1) does not recognize an absolute right to life before birth. The court has also found that the embryo cannot be understood to be a human being for the purposes of Article 4(1).

Human Rights Watch has researched and seen firsthand the devastating consequences of banning abortion in Honduras. Among others, Human Rights Watch interviewed a woman forced to bear her rapist’s child; a woman facing jail after having a miscarriage; a pro-choice pastor who has faced death threats for her activism; and a doctor who cannot always act in her patients’ best interests.

June 6, 2019 Life or Death Choices for Women Living Under Honduras’ Abortion Ban

Women Tell Their Stories

Criminalizing abortions does not prevent people from ending unwanted pregnancies. It just forces them to put their health and lives at risk to end pregnancies in unsafe settings, desperate, in fear of prosecution, and without access to medical care.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in countries where abortion is prohibited or only permitted to save the life of the person who is pregnant, the abortion rate is higher than in those where abortion is allowed. The Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice estimated during its visit to Honduras in 2018 that between 51,000 and 82,000 unsafe abortions occur each year in the country.

The Special Commission charged with reviewing the proposed constitutional amendment noted that “creating a constitutional shield that makes it impossible to legalize the practice of abortion” is, in part, a response to advances in “Puerto Rico, Cuba, Uruguay and lately Argentina.” This, in addition to organizing by religious groups, suggests a concerted effort within Honduras to make it harder for the country to join others that are making progress toward compliance with international human rights law on this issue.

With respect to same-sex marriage, the proposed law violates regional human rights standards that prohibit arbitrarily treating same-sex couples differently from different-sex couples, including with respect to marital rights. In a landmark 2017 opinion, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights stated that all rights applicable to family relationships of heterosexual couples should extend to same-sex couples. This opinion is applicable in all 23 states party, including Honduras.

The legislation would also put Honduras out of step with its neighboring countries. Several of Honduras’ neighbors have heeded the Inter-American opinion. In 2018 and 2019, respectively, the Costa Rican and Ecuadorian constitutional courts ruled in favor of marriage equality, citing the Inter-American opinion. These advances follow a wave of earlier progress in Latin America, with Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay recognizing same-sex marriages before the Inter-American opinion. In Mexico, 20 states have marriage equality, while same-sex couples in other states can marry but need authorization from a court.

Honduras’ own penal code prohibits denying access to public services on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It also prohibits inciting discrimination.

“This proposed constitutional amendment represents an effort to block the long-overdue progress that we’re seeing across much of the Americas region on sexual and reproductive rights and same-sex marriage,” Casas said. “The Honduran Congress should recognize that access to abortion and same-sex marriage is protected by international human rights law and reject this abusive amendment.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 23, 2021, 2:30 pm

January 23 marks two years of house arrest for Russian activist Anastasiya Shevchenko. Police raided her apartment in Rostov-on-Don on January 21, 2019, before a court placed her under house arrest two days later. Shevchenko’s daughter has become her mouthpiece on social media.

Click to expand Image Anastasiya Shevchenko.  © Facebook

After a year, Shevchenko was permitted to call her mother on the phone and go for short walks. In January 2020, she discovered the police had violated her privacy by installing a hidden camera in her bedroom and had been secretly filming her for several months. Her trial began in June 2020 and is ongoing.

You may think a person locked up for such a long time stands accused of a grave crime. But Shevchenko’s only “crime” is participating in a public debate and reposting information about peaceful protests. The prosecution argues that her activities were linked to a banned foreign organization, Open Russia Civic Movement (ORCM). Under a highly controversial law, once designated “undesirable,” a foreign or international organization must cease all activities in Russia and anyone deemed to maintain liaisons with it can be held criminally liable.

ORCM was an unregistered pro-democracy movement which Russian authorities view as part of an organization registered in the United Kingdom under the same name and designated “undesirable” by Russia in 2017, apparently due to its affiliation with ousted tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. ORCM activists insisted they had no affiliation with the UK-based organization or Khodorkovsky. In 2019, ORCM announced it would cease activities, but that did not prevent the authorities from opening new criminal cases against its supporters.

Shevchenko was the first but not the only person accused of involvement with ORCM. Over the past two years, authorities opened criminal cases against at least five other activists. Two of them were sentenced to several hundred hours of mandatory labor; the other cases are pending.  Like Shevchenko, the alleged offending behavior of these activists ranges from reposting social media posts critical of the authorities, to taking part in peaceful protests or, in one case, providing premises for a supposed ORCM event. In each case, police, sometimes brutally, raided the apartments of the suspects and others considered associated with them.

Russian authorities’ targeting of civic activists like Shevchenko is indefensible and needs to stop.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 8:09 pm
Click to expand Image A restaurant employee with her son leaves with her paycheck, in Brooklyn, New York, March 19, 2020. The restaurant company, which has closed its four locations due to the coronavirus, laid off 650 of 850 employees.  © 2020 AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

In the US, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit families with children the hardest. Households with children have been most likely to lose employment due to the pandemic. More than 40 percent of US families with children – and more than 55 percent of Black and Latino families – say they have trouble paying for basic expenses. Nearly one in five families report that they do not have enough food to eat.

To help US families, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” proposes an emergency increase of the Child Tax Credit from $2000 per child to $3000 per child (and $3600 for children younger than 6). The impact could be huge. According to Columbia University researchers, the initiative – based on legislation introduced in 2019 by Senators Bob Bennett of Colorado and Sherrod Brown of Ohio – could move 4 million children out of poverty and boost incomes for millions of families.

Child allowances have been used by dozens of countries to reduce poverty for both children and adults. They increase children’s educational outcomes, improve their health, reduce child labor, and even lower rates of domestic violence. They are common in Europe and were instrumental in halving the UK’s child poverty rate.

Biden’s proposal allows families to opt for monthly payments, rather than wait for an annual lump sum at tax time. This way families can use the funds when they need to cover rent, food, and other basic needs for their children.

The plan also allows the poorest families to apply for the payments, even if they make too little to pay taxes. But requiring them to apply means that between 20 to 60 percent of eligible families may be left behind because they don’t know about the benefit, or how to access it. In the US, where 3.7 million households with children lack internet, online applications would be a huge barrier.

An increased Child Tax Credit will help millions. But child allowances shouldn’t be a short-term, emergency measure. Even before the pandemic, nearly one in six US children – and one in three Black children – lived in poverty. Congressional leadership is reportedly working on a plan to make increased monthly child allowances permanent. If they succeed, the results could be dramatic and long-lasting.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 6:58 pm
Click to expand Image United Nations Mission in Darfur peacekeepers stand guard in Shagra village, North Darfur, October 18, 2012.  © 2012 Reuters

The mid-January attacks on civilians in west Darfur were the Sudanese government’s first big test of its readiness and ability to protect Darfuri civilians. It failed miserably.

No one should be surprised. On December 22, the United Nations Security Council unanimously decided to terminate the mandate of the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). This decision was taken despite evidence of mounting intercommunal violence in the region.

The Security Council was repeatedly warned that a full pullout of UNAMID peacekeepers would leave Darfuris even more vulnerable to renewed violence. It did not listen.

Just two weeks after the mission ended, the expected happened.

On January 16, armed ethnic Arab militia attacked ethnic Massalit residents of al-Genaina city. They also attacked Kirindig camp, which houses internally displaced ethnic Massalit. The violence, which started as a personal fight between two men from each community, lasted two days.

One man saw his relative shot dead by Arab militias. “My relative tried to help a wounded friend,” he said. “Militiamen appeared and shot him eight times and left him there. By the time we reached him, he was dead.”

Doctors put the death toll at around 150, with 190 injured, including many children. Doctors fear the number will rise as many of those injured could not get adequate medical care.  The UN reported that the fighting displaced 50,000 people.

The attorney-general opened an investigation into the violence. A previous investigation by his office into a similar attack in late 2019 has so far not led to accountability.

This event was horrific, but completely predictable. The Security Council ended UNAMID’s mandate without ensuring that civilians had reliable protection. And the new UN political mission, UNITAMS, tasked to support Sudan’s political transition, has no mandate to provide physical protection and is still not fully operational.

The Sudanese government forces responsible for protecting these communities have problematic rights records, notably in Darfur. On the fatal day, they were largely absent, allowing Arab militias to attack unchecked.  

The UN Security Council can still do right by Darfur. It should strengthen the mandate of UNITAMS to protect Darfur’s vulnerable communities. And the Council and other concerned governments should press the Sudanese government to provide justice for Darfuris harmed by holding those responsible for abuses against civilians to account.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 5:38 pm
Click to expand Image Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, center, sings the national anthem during an event to mark the anniversary of country's independence from British colonial rule in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

Sri Lanka’s grim record is under scrutiny at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, so the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced yet another internal inquiry. Foreign governments should not be swayed by this disingenuous attempt to avert urgently needed international action.

There have been at least a dozen domestic commissions of inquiry during the decades of Sri Lanka’s civil war, often created to forestall international pressure on human rights. None has led to prosecutions, or helped families trace missing relatives. Their findings have often gone unpublished, and recommendations never implemented. International observers, UN experts, and the UN high commissioner for human rights have repeatedly highlighted deep systemic problems in Sri Lanka’s judicial processes.

The Human Rights Council has engaged on Sri Lanka for years. Atrocities at the end of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam shocked the world in 2009, and a series of UN reports found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2012 the council passed a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to implement recommendations of an earlier inquiry. When that did not happen, it recognized the need for an international role to address international crimes.

In 2015 Sri Lanka joined a consensus resolution of the Human Rights Council with commitments to ensure truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence including an accountability mechanism involving international judges, prosecutors, investigators, and defense lawyers. There was progress, albeit slow, which encouraged the council to extend the mandate.

But in November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president and quickly reversed that progress. Last February, the government said it would no longer honor its commitments in the council resolution. This is not surprising. As defense secretary between 2005-2015, Rajapaksa is implicated in many of the worst abuses. As president he has appointed alleged perpetrators to senior positions, and even pardoned one of the few soldiers ever jailed for killing civilians.

Fear has returned to Sri Lanka as victims of past abuses, activists, journalists, lawyers, and even police investigators and are silenced. Rajapaska’s government has persecuted vulnerable minorities, and this month it demolished a monument to Tamil civilian victims of the war.

The warning signs are obvious. It is crucial that the Human Rights Council adopts a new resolution to ensure continued monitoring, as well as the collection, analysis, and preservation of evidence for future prosecutions. Member countries should not be swayed by the latest outrage or false promises of Sri Lanka’s government.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 5:32 pm
Click to expand Image Photo released by the Vietnam News Agency on January 5, 2021 shows Vietnamese bloggers Pham Chi Dung (right), Nguyen Tuong Thuy (front left), and Le Huu Minh Tuan (back left) during their trial in Ho Chi Minh city.  © 2021 STR/Vietnam News Agency/AFP via Getty Image

(Bangkok) – The Vietnamese government’s crackdown on dissidents has been unrelenting prior to the major Communist Party Congress set to begin on January 25, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. During this 13th Party Congress, meetings held every five years since 1986, officials will set new plans and select the politburo, the party’s leadership, the leader of the national assembly, and the country’s president and prime minister.

“Vietnam’s Communist Party is preparing for the pageantry of its party congress while sending people to prison for posting their views and opinions on Facebook, as millions worldwide do every day,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “For all its propaganda about an ‘era of independence, freedom, and happiness,’ the Vietnamese government is really only interested in its citizens’ silence and servility.”

On January 20, the authorities put Dinh Thi Thu Thuy on trial for articles and Facebook posts critical of the party and government. She had been arrested in April 2020 and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code. After a perfunctory trial, a court in Hau Giang convicted and sentenced her to 7 years in prison.

On January 5, in a trial that lasted less than six hours, a court in Ho Chi Minh City ruled that the prominent bloggers Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan were guilty of conducting propaganda against the state. The three were associated with the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, founded in July 2014 to promote media freedom and democracy. The court sentenced Pham Chi Dung to 15 years in prison. Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan each received 11-year sentences. Each will have to serve an additional three years on probation after completing their prison terms.

In October, the police arrested Pham Doan Trang, a prominent dissident who co-founded the Liberal Publishing House to publish nonfiction books by Vietnamese authors on various social and political topics. In June, the police arrested three other contributors to the Liberal Publishing House: a former political prisoner, Can Thi Theu, and her sons Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu. All four were charged with conducting propaganda against the state.

The 13th Party Congress will determine the next national leaders for a country of more than 96 million people. The congress is neither democratic nor transparent. Vietnamese citizens are prohibited from discussing candidates for the top four positions of party secretary, prime minister, president, and chairman of the National Assembly, all of which were designated “top secret” (tuyet mat) under a decision signed by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in December.

“Concerned governments should speak out in support of Vietnam’s courageous dissidents and expand their calls for democratic reforms,” Sifton said. “The critics of one-party rule in Vietnam are not going away.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 5:15 pm
Click to expand Image Aftermath of the explosion in Beirut’s port that devastated the city, killing more than 200 people, injuring more than 6,000, and leaving 300,000 people without shelter. © 2020 Marwan Naamani / AP Images

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, as I was wrapping up a conference call with a colleague, I started to feel small vibrations and my desk began to wobble. An earthquake, I thought. We experience them from time to time in Lebanon, and normally such a tremble would not warrant more attention than the moments it lasts.

But there is nothing normal about the times we are living in Lebanon.

On August 4, sitting in my son’s room as I nursed him, the same thought crossed my mind. Earthquake. But it wasn’t. In the moments that followed, my husband rushed towards us carrying our daughter, using his body to shield us from the explosion that his years growing up in Lebanon’s civil war taught him to see coming.

I’ve spent a decade documenting war crimes in conflicts around the world, but never have I experienced or reported on a blast so instantaneously devastating. Beirut made history again for all the wrong reasons.

And now, nearly six months after the blast, even for those of us “lucky” enough to have emerged unscathed, the events of that day haunt us. More than 200 people were killed in the blast, thousands were injured, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes and businesses. These are not just numbers - these are our friends, our family, our community.

By leaving us without answers, without justice, the government has left this wound open. I am not alone in worrying it could happen again. In the weeks following the blast we were terrorized by not one, but two, fires at the port.

We want answers. Who is responsible for this? How can we keep it from happening again?

Even though senior Lebanese political and security officials knew about the ammonium nitrate haphazardly stored in Beirut’s port, no one has been held accountable. Instead, a domestic investigation riddled with due process violations and allegations of political interference suffers delay after delay. If we are to have our answers, we cannot rely on the hope of domestic prosecutions alone.

This is why families of victims, and groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have called for an international investigation into the blast. Time has moved on, but for the victims of the blast, we cannot begin to until there is an honest reckoning of what happened on that day.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 5:09 pm
Click to expand Image Police detain protesters at a protest against impunity for far-right violence, Kyiv, Ukraine, January 19, 2021. © 2021 Центр прав людини ZMINA.

Ukrainian activists gather every year on January 19 to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, both gunned down by a radical nationalist in Moscow in 2009.

In previous years, violent thugs from far-right radical groups, including C14, Traditsii I Poryadok (Traditions and Order) and others threatened such protests. The police detained several activists in 2018 but did not disperse the gathering. The protests also went ahead in 2019 and 2020. But not this year.

Immediately after some 30 activists gathered at Kontraktova Square in Kyiv, police approached and said there was “not going to be a protest today,” a protest organizer told me. When the activists raised their constitutional right to gather peacefully, the police responded: “The Constitution is not working now.”

The police detained 13 participants, claiming they were “invited” to the police station voluntarily. Video footage and journalists’ accounts tell a different story: police dragged people off to a police bus, where the protester organizer told me a policeman punched him in the face, and officers shoved, hit, and verbally abused others.

The protesters were charged with violating Ukraine’s Covid-19 quarantine regulations. Everyone was released pending court hearings but faces significant fines of up to 17,000 hryvnas (approximately US$600).

The police also stopped a second protest, planned for Mikhailivski Square, later that day.

Ukraine authorities have the power to limit public gatherings to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but they have used it inconsistently. For example, mass protests against a rise in housing and utilities rates took place across Ukraine during the January lockdown. Some went on for days, with hundreds of people and zero police interference.

The authorities treat rising far-right violence as a “taboo” topic, another protest organizer said, adding: “The radicals believe the police are on their side, even boast about it on social media”.

Activists have repeatedly urged the Ukrainian government to adopt a “zero-tolerance” stance towards rising right-wing violence. However, law enforcement officials rarely open investigations and often fail to identify perpetrators, even when they brazenly claim responsibility for hate crimes. The impunity only emboldens them further.

Ukrainian authorities should protect the right to protest peacefully and hold accountable those who promote violence or hate crimes. People in Ukraine should not have to wonder whose side the police is on.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 2:12 pm
Click to expand Image Police officers detaining Alexei Navalny's supporter at Vnukovo airport, Moscow, on January 17, 2021. © 2021 Emin Dzhafarov/Kommersant/Sipa via AP Images

(Moscow) – Russian authorities are harassing, intimidating, and detaining activists and students ahead of protests planned for January 23, 2021 in solidarity with the detained opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities also ordered social media companies to take down all posts calling for people to participate in protests, threatening hefty fines for failure to comply.

The authorities should cease these unlawful attacks on freedom of expression and instead focus on ensuring safety measures to protect those who wish to assemble peacefully.

“In the past year Russian authorities have effectively banned all peaceful protest by the political opposition and prosecuted anyone who has refused to comply,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “People have every right to peacefully protest injustices, including in Navalny’s case, through free speech and peaceful assemblies, and the authorities have an obligation to allow them to safely do so.”  

Navalny was arrested immediately upon his return to Russia on January 17, after medical treatment in Germany for a near-fatal poisoning. At an extraordinary hearing at a police station, a judge authorized his detention for 30 days during which his suspended sentence could be revoked and replaced by prison time, allegedly for parole violations. Several prominent lawyers condemned the ruling as unlawful. The authorities put Navalny on a wanted list for failure to report to a parole officer while he was in Germany one day before his parole period expired.

In a video address recorded at the police station, Navalny called on his supporters to take to the streets to protest. Soon thereafter, his team called for coordinated protests on January 23.

Moscow authorities announced that they will deny any requests from Navalny’s supporters to hold protests because there is a blanket ban on public assemblies imposed in the city since November 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Authorities in several cities across Russia issued similar statements, quoting pandemic restrictions or noncompliance with the minimum 10-day advance notification rule, as activists attempted to obtain official authorization to gather, required by law. The head of Navalny’s Moscow team headquarters stated that they see no point in seeking official authorizations for protests because they would not be authorized.

Russian youth took to social media to call on others to attend the protests. In response, the Russian authorities demanded that social media companies take down those videos and threatened them with hefty fines. The prosecutor’s general’s office demanded that the companies restrict access to “illegal information” online.

Media and activists report that the administrative authorities in several Russian state universities, colleges, and schools threatened students with expulsion and some scheduled mandatory classes on January 23 to prevent attendance at the Navalny protests. In at least one case, a college administration reportedly compiled and published lists of students subscribing to Navalny groups on social media, disclosing personal data including their names and home addresses.

The Interior Ministry announced that police are already “preparing” for protests and threatened to prosecute anyone calling on people to participate.

In parallel, the authorities harassed numerous well-known civic activists and several media personalities with written and verbal warnings about liability for participation in “unauthorized gatherings.”

Police also visited the homes of staff from the Foundation Against Corruption (FBK) affiliated with Navalny and his team’s offices, and delivered warnings about what could happen if they participate in protests.

Police detained several FBK’s staff and members of Navalny’s team on January 21. Vladlen Los, a lawyer with FBK, was detained in a hotel, where he was staying after he noticed surveillance outside his house the previous day. He was charged with disobeying police orders and as a Belarussian national was ordered to leave Russia by January 25 with a ban on re-entry until November 2023.

Another FBK lawyer and opposition politician, Liubov Sobol, was detained for publicly calling for participation in the unauthorized protest. Her lawyer who was with her when she was arrested was not allowed access to her at the police station for four hours. Georgiy Alburov, a FBK staff member, was detained at a train station in Moscow. Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmish, was detained at her home and charged with violating the rules on public assemblies.

At least two activists from regional headquarters of Navalny’s team – Anastassiya Panchenko in Krasnodar and Ragnar Rein in Kaliningrad – were also detained on January 21. It is likely that more activists could be detained ahead of the protests.

Russia’s parliamentary commission on foreign interference announced on January 21 that it will be looking for evidence of “foreign hands” behind the planned protests.

The efforts to prevent people from participating in peaceful public protests violate rights to freedom of expression and assembly and the prohibition on arbitrary detention, guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and in Russia’s own constitution.

International law requires any limitations on peaceful assemblies and free speech to be both necessary and proportionate. As the European Court of Human Rights has made clear, the freedom to take part in a peaceful assembly is of such importance that a person cannot be subject to a sanction, even a minor one, for participation in a demonstration that has been prohibited, so long as this person does not commit an act of violence or similar crime.

The Russian authorities have the discretion to limit public gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, but these must be strictly necessary, proportionate, and not applied in an arbitrary nor discriminatory manner, Human Rights Watch said.

Russia has not announced a state of emergency in relation to the pandemic and has not sought to justify its extreme limitations on peaceful assemblies as an act of derogation (or exemption) from its obligations under human rights treaties. The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner earlier called on the Russian authorities to overhaul its legislation and practice governing freedom of assembly and of expression, including in the context of the pandemic, to align them with European human rights standards. The commissioner reiterated that that the health restrictions introduced to fight the Covid-19 pandemic must not be used to unduly limit human rights and freedoms.

The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated that “[s]tates’ responses to Covid-19 threat should not halt freedoms of assembly and association” and that while “[r]estrictions based on public health concerns are justified, ... [i]t is imperative the crisis not be used as a pretext to suppress rights in general or the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly … in particular.”  

“Russia’s authorities should stop invoking Covid-19 as pretext to violate freedom of assembly and should end its practice of equating peaceful criticism with unlawful activity,” Williamson said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Bahraini anti-government protesters raise signs with images of jailed human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja Friday, April 6, 2012, in Jidhafs, Bahrain. © 2012 AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

(Beirut) – The Danish government should renew and strengthen efforts to secure the immediate and unconditional release of a prominent human rights defender and dual Danish-Bahraini citizen, 118 international and Bahraini rights groups said today in a joint letter to Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark. The rights defender, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, 59, is serving a life sentence in Bahrain’s Jau prison for his peaceful political and human rights activities, in violation of his right to freedom of expression.

Khawaja was arrested on April 9, 2011, for his role in organizing protests seeking political reform during the pro-democracy popular movement that began in February 2011. Security forces violently arrested Al-Khawaja and subjected him to additional severe physical, psychological, and sexual torture in detention. Al-Khawaja was sentenced in June 2011, following unfair trials in courts that did not comply with Bahraini criminal law or international fair trial standards.

“There is no doubt that the conviction and sentencing of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was unfair and oppressive and tried to silence his prominent voice demanding the rights of Bahrainis,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Al-Khawaja should not have had to spend a single minute behind bars, yet he has been unjustly detained for almost a decade.”

Al-Khawaja, an internationally recognized human rights defender, is the co-founder of both the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), of which he is also the former president. He had worked as the Middle East and North Africa protection coordinator for Front Line Defenders from 2008 until early 2011.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 9:00 am
Click to expand Image Police patrolling Wonpo township, Kandze (Ch: Ganzi) prefecture, a Tibetan area within Sichuan province, in late 2019.  © 2019 Private

(New York) – Chinese authorities should account for the death of a 19-year-old Tibetan monk recently released from police custody, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities also should release six other young Tibetans – including a 16-year-old boy – sentenced to up to five years in prison for involvement in the same peaceful protests.

The young monk, Tenzin Nyima (also called Tamay), was from Dza Wonpo monastery, in Wonpo township, Kandze (Ch: Ganzi) prefecture, a Tibetan area within Sichuan province. The authorities initially detained him on November 9, 2019, two days after he and three other Wonpo monks briefly distributed leaflets and shouted slogans calling for Tibetan independence outside the local Wonpo government office. The protests occurred as local officials increasingly put pressure on forcibly resettled nomads and local residents to publicly praise the government’s “Poverty Alleviation” program.

“Chinese authorities have once again turned arbitrary detention into a death sentence,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “They should hold to account all those responsible for the brutal killing of the Tibetan monk Tenzin Nyima.”

The authorities released Tenzin Nyima in May 2020, but rearrested him on August 11, apparently for sharing news of the arrests online, including with contacts in India. In early October, prison authorities told his family to collect him from the prison due to his medical condition. Tibetans in exile with knowledge of the case said he was unable to speak or move and was suffering from serious injuries and an acute respiratory infection, which they believed was due to beatings, malnourishment, and mistreatment in custody.

On October 9, Tenzin Nyima was admitted to a hospital in the provincial capital, Chengdu, by which time he had lost consciousness. A hospital report that Human Rights Watch obtained indicates that he had been in critical condition for 10 days before being handed over to his family. Hospital treatment appears to have been delayed until his relatives raised the necessary funds (RMB 40,000, or US$6,200). After he spent several weeks in the hospital, doctors declared his injuries to be beyond treatment and discharged him.

On December 1, his family succeeded in having him admitted, still comatose, to a hospital in Kandze prefecture, Dartsedo (Ch: Kangding). Doctors at that hospital also discharged him on the grounds that his condition is terminal. Further evidence seen by Human Rights Watch indicated that he was paralyzed and gravely ill. He died soon after relatives brought him home.

Chinese police and prison authorities routinely torture and abuse inmates, and the situation is particularly severe in ethnic minority regions. The Chinese government should order a prompt and impartial investigation into the alleged torture of Tenzin Nyima and hold his abusers accountable, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities should provide his family with fair and adequate compensation, as required under the United Nations Convention against Torture, to which China is a party.

United Nations standards adopted by the General Assembly set out that all death-in-custody cases should be subjected to “prompt, impartial and effective investigations into the circumstances and causes” of the death. As the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions has noted, since there is a presumption of state responsibility due to the custodial setting and the government’s obligation to ensure and respect the right to life, the government has to affirmatively provide evidence to rebut the presumption of state responsibility. Absent proof that it is not responsible, the government has an obligation to provide reparations to the family of the deceased.

Chinese government rules dealing with deaths in custody require the police to “immediately conduct” an investigation into the cause of death by viewing and preserving the surveillance video of the detention cell, and questioning fellow detainees, doctors, and guards, among other measures.

The need for independent investigation of the range of human rights violations by the Chinese government was underlined by a collective statement from UN human rights experts in June 2020. They expressed grave concern over China’s failures to respect human rights and abide by its international obligations, and recommended the establishment of an impartial and independent UN mechanism to monitor and report on abuses “in view of the urgency of the situations” in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet.

The trials of Tenzin Nyima and six other Tibetans took place at the Intermediate People’s Court in Sershul on November 10 and 12. On December 14, four other monks from Wonpo monastery and two local youths, all between ages 16 and 23, were sentenced for involvement in one of two protests in Wonpo in November 2019 or for spreading news about the first incident. The sentences ranged from one to five years.

The court sentenced the Wonpo monks Choephel (also called Kunsel), 20, to four years; So-tra (also called Woezer), to three years; and Tsultrim, 16, to one year. All three were accused of distributing leaflets and shouting slogans on the night of November 7, 2019, and were charged with “incitement to split the country.” Tenzin Nyima was charged with the same offense, but the court did not announce his sentence, presumably because of his medical condition.

The longest sentence, five years, was imposed on Nyimay, a 22-year-old monk who had not taken part in the leafleting protests, but had posted news on social media about the detention of the four other monks. Nyimay had been detained on November 18, 2019, 11 days after the others, also on grounds of “incitement to split the country,” but local sources report that he was also accused of revealing state secrets for posting news of the earlier detentions.

The sentencing of Tsultrim, who was 15 or under at the time of the protest, is contrary to Chinese law, since children under age 16 are not deemed criminally responsible in China and cannot be tried for criminal offenses, except for certain violent crimes such as murder and arson (Chinese Criminal Code 1997, article 17). Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which China is a party, the detention of children shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period.

Two other young men from Wonpo, Nyimay’s elder brother Choegyal and his friend Yonten, were sentenced to four years in prison, also for “incitement to split the country,” after distributing leaflets and shouting slogans outside the local government offices in Wonpo on November 21, 2019. In court they testified to having also sent a video clip showing pro-independence leaflets and photos of the Dalai Lama to Choegyal’s uncle in Switzerland shortly before their protest.

Choegyal and Yonten had also posted statements on social media. Choegyal had written, “Loyalty to our people rests on each of our shoulders, and must never be abandoned.” Yonten wrote, “I heard of the misery suffered by those heroes who have given their lives for the sake of our people, the warriors who have struggled for our independence, and now I am terribly saddened that our brothers from Wonpo have been thrown in jail. May our brothers soon be released!”

Altogether, the authorities detained about 30 Wonpo residents, both monastic and lay people, following the protests on suspicion of involvement in the incidents or of showing support for protesters. Armed police were deployed in the town to patrol the streets and conduct military exercises, apparently intended to intimidate residents. Local officials also held two weeks of political education meetings at Wonpo monastery. By the end of December, all of those detained had been released except for the seven who were eventually brought to trial.

“Urgent, grim cases like the imprisonment of the young Tibetans have prompted UN experts to call for a mechanism to monitor and report on grave abuses by Chinese authorities,” Richardson said. “A failure to hold accountable those responsible for Tenzin Nyima’s death enables further appalling violations.”

For details about the situation in Wonpo and about the people detained, please see below.

Situation in Wonpo

Informants in exile with knowledge of developments in the Wonpo area said that the November 2019 protests took place against a background of heightened discontent after local officials placed increasing demands on resettled herders and other residents. The officials had required the former herders to publicly praise the Chinese government’s “Poverty Alleviation” policies, which are being carried out throughout China and which in Tibet generally include the compulsory resettlement of nomads and other rural dwellers.

Officials had reportedly ordered former herders and other poor families in Wonpo, which has approximately 2,000 households, to declare on camera or to visiting officials that their lives had improved as a result of the anti-poverty drive. “Poor families are made to borrow other peoples’ cattle and furniture and so on in order to put on a show of having been made richer,” the source said, and local officials “threatened many poor households that if they didn’t have those things, then they should borrow them from others and put on a show, or else later they would be detained and punished.”

The source said that local officials in Wonpo “were planning another such show just before November 7 [2019] and … this made people angry. There was a lot of opinion and writing about it and it was at that time that this protest took place.”

Radio Free Asia reported that during the first Wonpo protest in November 2019, “the nomads’ livelihoods have gone from bad to worse [following resettlement], and, not having any other sources of income, they have to depend solely on government subsidies for their survival.” The report quoted a local source as saying at the time, “during tours to the area by Chinese officials, the resettled nomads

are forced to put up pictures of Chinese national leaders and praise China’s ruling Communist Party in public speeches, which are then filmed and distributed to Chinese mass media.”

During a wave of protests by Tibetans against Chinese rule in 2008, monks at Wonpo monastery refused to hoist Chinese national flags on the monastery’s roofs. An ensuing crackdown led to searches of Tibetan homes and scores of detentions, with at least three monks given prison sentences, according to foreign media reports.

Armed police were deployed in the local community, which was singled out for surveillance and restrictions by the authorities, leading to further protests and arrests in 2012. Two other Wonpo monks, Lobsang Lhundrub and Choechok, were detained in December 2017 and March 2018 respectively; Choechok was released two years later.

 

Summary of Cases

Click to expand Image Choephel, also known as Kunsel. © Private

Choephel, Ch.:Qiupai 求排, also known as Kunsel, 20, father’s name Shiring, mother’s name Jangri. Monk at Wonpo monastery. Detained on November 9, 2019 for involvement in protest on November 7, 2019. Sentenced on December 14, 2020 to four years for incitement to split the country (煽动分裂国家).

 

 

 

 

Click to expand Image So-tra. © Private

So-tra, Ch.: Suozha 所扎, also known as Woezer, about 20, father’s name So-tse, mother’s name Golo. Monk at Wonpo monastery, detained November 9, 2019 for involvement in a protest on November 7, 2019. Sentenced on December 14, 2020 to three years for incitement to split the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click to expand Image Tsultrim. © Private

Tsultrim, Ch.:Cicun 次村, 16, father’s name Pembar, mother’s name Yangchuk. Monk at Wonpo monastery, detained November 9, 2019 for involvement in a protest on November 7, 2019. Released May 9, 2020; re-detained August 11, 2020. Sentenced on December 14, 2020 to one year for incitement to split the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click to expand Image Tenzim Nyima. © Private

Tenzin Nyima, Ch.: Danzeng Nima 旦增尼玛, also known as Tamay, born August 5, August 2001, father’s name Punday, mother’s name Drolma. From Ajia Village. Monk at Wonpo monastery, detained November 9, 2019 for involvement in a protest on November 7, 2019. Released around May 9, 2020, but re-detained August 11, 2020. Released on medical grounds in early October 2020. Tried on December 14, 2020 for incitement to split the country but awaiting sentence. Died in January 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click to expand Image Nyimay. © Private

Nyimay, Ch.: Niming 尼名, 22, father’s name Yonga, mother’s name Tolha. Detained on November 18, 2019 for distributing news about the protest on November 7. Sentenced on December 14, 2020 to five years for incitement to split the country and distributing state secrets.

 

 

 

 

 

Click to expand Image Choegyal. © Private

Choegyal, Ch.: Qujia 曲加, 23, father’s name Yonga, mother’s name Tolha. Detained on November 21, 2019 for involvement in a protest on that day. Sentenced on December 14, 2020 to four years for incitement to split the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click to expand Image Yonten. © Private

Yonten, Ch.: Yongdeng 拥等, 22 or under, father’s name Oepa. Detained on November 21, 2019 for involvement in a protest on that day. Sentenced on December 14, 2020 to four years for incitement to split the country.

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 22, 2021, 12:00 am
Click to expand Image Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 24, 2019. © 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

(Geneva) – Saint Lucia and Saint Kitts and Nevis should decriminalize same-sex relations and adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, Human Rights Watch said today.

During the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the two countries’ human rights records on June 19 and 20 at the United Nations Human Rights Council, United Nations member states expressed serious concern over the nations’ laws that criminalize same-sex sexual conduct, in violation of international human rights law. Both countries prohibit “buggery,” imposing sentences of up to 10 years. Saint Lucia also criminalizes “gross indecency” in private between consenting persons of the same sex.

“While colonial-era buggery and gross indecency laws in Saint Lucia and in Saint Kitts and Nevis are seldom enforced against consenting people, their impact is pernicious,” said Cristian González Cabrera, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Laws criminalizing same-sex conduct reinforce prejudices and provide social and legal sanction for discrimination, violence, and prejudice against LGBT people.”

Established in 2006, the UPR involves a comprehensive review of the human rights records of all UN member states by other countries every five years. Nongovernmental organizations, as well as the country under review, can contribute reports to inform the review process. Saint Lucia and Saint Kitts and Nevis are required to respond to the recommendations by June.

UN member states also said that Saint Lucia and Saint Kitts and Nevis should adopt comprehensive laws that prohibit discrimination on grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation, such as in housing, education, or health care.

A 2018 Human Rights Watch report “‘I Have to Leave to Be Me’: Discriminatory Laws against LGBT People in the Eastern Caribbean” documented discrimination, violence, stigma, and prejudice against LGBT people in Saint Lucia and in Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Toby, a 38-year-old gay man in Saint Lucia, told Human Rights Watch that exclusion and ostracism by his family drove him to five suicide attempts and to leave home. Toby also said members of the public pelted him with stones in 2015 during Carnival. In April 2016, he and his partner were attacked as they were entering their home one afternoon: “[I knew] it was motivated by us being gay because the term ‘buller’ was used. As we were entering the house, a car pulled out, two persons jumped out … a gun was raised and they tried to pull the trigger, but the trigger did not work. I told my boyfriend to run. They stabbed me, several times, the deepest one was below the navel. My boyfriend was also attacked with stones.”

Nicholas, a 20-year-old gay man from Saint Kitts and Nevis, told Human Rights Watch he lived with constant fear and uncertainty. “You are not safe,” he said. “You have to hide who you are. Otherwise they will get physical, shouting things … I was threatened by my own mother, [she told her sons that] if any of us is ‘anti-man’ she would kill us.” When Nicholas and his boyfriend were outed on social media while they were both high school students, Nicholas was taunted and aggressively harassed for the remainder of his school days. Nicholas experienced suicidal thoughts and once attempted suicide due to social exclusion.

International human rights law establishes that matters of sexual orientation and gender identity, including consensual sexual relations, are protected under the right to privacy and the right to be protected against arbitrary and unlawful interference, or attacks on private and family life and one’s reputation or dignity. Criminalizing same-sex intimacy violates these international standards, as the UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity has affirmed.

The Organization of American States has urged states “to adopt the necessary measures to prevent, punish, and eradicate” discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Core treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights – which Saint Lucia and Saint Kitts and Nevis should ratify, as many states recommended during the review – have been interpreted by courts and authoritative treaty bodies to ban such discrimination, as have a variety of other international instruments and sources of law.

“Saint Lucia and Saint Kitts and Nevis should heed the recommendations of UN member states and provide their residents protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” González said. “LGBT people are part of the social fabric of the island nations and deserve the same respect and rights as everyone else.”

Background

Section 133 of Saint Lucia’s Criminal Code on “buggery” criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct. Section 132 of the Code on “gross indecency” exempts from punishment any act “committed in private between an adult male person and an adult female person, both of whom consent,” but lacks protection for private acts between same-sex persons.

Saint Kitts and Nevis’ Offences Against the Person Act 1986, Chapter 4.21, Section 56 criminalizes “sodomy and bestiality” and defines the terms by referencing “the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal.” Section 57 of the same Chapter allows courts to add “hard labor” to a criminal sentence.

Neither country has a comprehensive law that prohibits discrimination on grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation. Section 131 of Saint Lucia’s 2006 Labour Act does prohibit employers from “unfairly dismissing” a person on the basis of their sexual orientation or sex, but does not explicitly prohibit such dismissal on the basis of gender identity.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 5:36 pm
Click to expand Image Perdana Menteri Malaysia Muhyiddin Yassin berbicara dalam sebuah konferensi pers setelah pertemuan kabinet pertama di kantor perdana menteri di Putrajaya, Malaysia, 11 Maret 2020. ©

(Bangkok) – Malaysia’s recently announced Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance is overly broad and should urgently be revised to meet international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today.

The ordinance, announced on January 14, 2021, provides Malaysia’s military with police powers, allows the forced confiscation of property with no ability to challenge the compensation offered, and gives the government and military near total immunity for acts taken under the ordinance. The ordinance also indefinitely postpones the holding of any elections and the sitting of the country’s parliament and state assemblies.

“Malaysia’s Emergency Ordinance provides officials with immunity and empowers the military to engage in policing, magnifying the risk of unchecked rights abuses,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The indefinite suspension of parliament and elections threatens every citizen’s political rights.”

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin earlier asked the king, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, to proclaim a state of emergency under Malaysia’s constitution “to control the spread of Covid-19.” On January 11, the government announced, under its existing powers, strict new movement control orders in five states and three federal territories.

Under the emergency ordinance, deemed to have come into effect on January 11, members of Malaysia’s armed forces “shall have all the powers of a police officer.” Defense Minister Ismail Sabri said that this provision will allow the military to help enforce the movement control orders and to arrest and detain undocumented migrants.  

Giving the military police powers carries substantial risks of abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Military forces are not trained to arrest and detain civilians in a manner that respects rights, which increases the likelihood of the use of excessive force. The current government’s expressed hostility toward undocumented migrants adds to the risk of such abuses.

Immediately following the Proclamation of Emergency on January             12, the Malaysian Multimedia and Communication Commission warned that it was “monitoring social media closely for misinformation and content that is offensive to race, religion and the royalty,” raising concern that the emergency heralds an intensified crackdown on freedom of expression.

The law also leaves little legal recourse for people whose rights are violated because it prohibits the filing of any legal action against the government or “any public officer” “in respect of any act, neglect or default” in carrying out the provisions of the Emergency Ordinance so long as they were taken “in good faith.” 

Under international law, the government may limit certain rights on grounds of public health, but only when such actions are strictly necessary, proportionate to achieve the objective, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. They must also be of limited duration, based on scientific evidence, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review. Providing blanket immunity to the government and public officers is not necessary for controlling the pandemic, and violates the rights of those seeking redress for violations.

The ordinance also allows the government to seize private property or to demand to use resources deemed necessary in the fight against Covid-19, and precludes those affected from challenging the amount of compensation provided, if any. Those who fail to comply with orders relating to their property face a fine of up to RM 5 million (US$1.2 million) or imprisonment for up to 10 years.

The indefinite postponement of elections under the Emergency Ordinance raises serious concerns about respect for political rights, Human Rights Watch said. The ordinance contains no end date, and the government appears to envision a possible long-lasting delay. Under article 12(4) of the Emergency Ordinance, the constitutional requirement to hold elections every five years has no effect “for so long as the Emergency is in force.” The next general election would, in the absence of the ordinance, be required to be held by 2024. Similarly, elections to fill vacant seats in the federal parliament and state assemblies are postponed until “sixty days after the Proclamation of Emergency is revoked or annulled.”  

Under international standards, elections may only be delayed for publicly stated reasons of public health if conditions are such that free and fair elections cannot be held under the circumstances. Any proposed delay should have a legal basis, be strictly necessary, and be proportionate to achieve the objective. A postponement should be as short as possible under the circumstances and should not be indefinite. In the event of a postponement, the government should also announce concrete steps it is taking to adapt electoral processes to ensure free and fair elections as soon as possible while also protecting public health. The Emergency Ordinance does not meet international standards for holding elections, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Emergency Ordinance’s broad sweep leaves Malaysians with little recourse against abuses by government officials or military personnel,” Robertson said. “The law should be urgently revised to remove the military’s police powers and end government immunity. Tackling the Covid-19 crisis and protecting public health will require government accountability, not free rein for the authorities.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 5:09 pm
Click to expand Image People demonstrate in support of sex workers, April 14, 2018.  © 2018 Alain Apaydin/Sipa via AP Images

Norwegian police have arrested sex workers over accusations that they violated quarantine restrictions. Although not accused of any crime, the workers, from other European countries, face detention and expulsion from Norway. Media reports suggest some have already been forced to leave although their clients do not appear to have been arrested.

These cases illustrate how governments are failing to respect the rights of sex workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Rights organizations drew attention early in the pandemic to its devastating impact on sex workers — how they faced additional stigma, difficulty working safely, and heightened risk of infection. Sex workers often struggle to access financial safety nets due to the marginalized nature of their work and because many are migrants or members of other groups facing discrimination.

These problems are worsened by laws criminalizing sex work in countries, including Norway. Norway uses the so-called “Nordic model” — criminalizing the purchase of sex. Human Rights Watch research finds that criminalization of buying sex also harms people who sell sex. It makes it harder for them to find safe places to work, work together, advocate for their rights, or even open a bank account. It stigmatizes sex workers and leaves them vulnerable to abuse by police.

Groups advocating for sex workers urged governments to ensure their inclusion in plans to address the Covid-19 public health crisis and its economic fallout. Public health experts highlighted lessons from the HIV epidemic about the need for targeted assistance to sex workers to protect them.  

These warnings were largely ignored by governments, including Norway. An organization assisting sex workers documented how sex workers were excluded from pandemic-related public health and financial assistance initiatives in Norway and other Nordic countries. Others have documented how sex workers around the world lost income and access to specialized programs, and were cut off from services.

Governments should ensure Covid-19 health measures include specific outreach and assistance to sex workers. They should ensure specialized services for sex workers continue and fund their expansion where needed. Governments financially assisting freelancers and others in financial crisis should specifically include sex workers. They should ensure sex workers know they can access these programs, and remove barriers, such as the need to provide proof of past income in places where sex work is criminalized. Finally, they should decriminalize sex work and end measures that further harm sex workers like Norway’s approach of arresting and expelling them.   

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 2:11 pm
Click to expand Image Members of the citizens’ movement Lucha after they were acquitted by a military court in Beni territory, Democratic Republic of Congo, on January 20, 2021. © 2021 Private

On Wednesday, a military court in Beni territory, Democratic Republic of Congo, acquitted eight members of the citizens’ movement Lutte pour le Changement (Struggle for Change, or Lucha). The youth activists had spent a month in detention. While news of their acquittal is a relief, they should never have been arrested in the first place.

Eze Kasereka, Clovis Mutsuva, Consolée Mukirania, Elie Mbusa, Patrick Nzila, Délivrance Mumbere, Aziz Muhindovegheni, and Lwanzo Kasereka faced 10 years in prison. Their crime? On December 19, 2020, they marched to call for peace and to criticize the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo. Armed groups and state security forces have killed at least 670 civilians during attacks in Beni territory in the past year alone.

The activists’ trial sparked a public outcry in Congo. They had been brought before the military court on fabricated charges of “sabotage and violence against state security guards.” Among other falsehoods, the group was accused of breaking a flagpole at a police station in Beni. Instead, Lucha activists told my colleagues police beat them while in custody and used teargas on some of them.

The government’s request for 10-year prison sentences turned the proceedings into a grotesque parody of justice. Thankfully, the judges put an end to the farce and concluded the charges were baseless. But the arrests highlight the risks involved for those peacefully demonstrating in Congo.

The use of military courts to try civilians also violates international law, including the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Congo ratified in 1987. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated that civilians should never face military trial.

People’s rights have been increasingly threatened over the last year in Congo. When state agents or officials use their position to crack down on peaceful critics, impartial judges remain the ultimate hope for justice. Like those who acquitted the eight Lucha activists in Beni, Congolese judges should be uncompromising in their respect of human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 11:00 am

(Brussels) – The European Parliament should seize the chance to strengthen the accountability of companies operating in Europe by requiring them to respect human rights and the environment throughout their global supply chains, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 27, 2021, the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee will vote on a proposal to request EU legislation to hold companies accountable, including recommendations for its content. If the committee approves the proposal, it will go to the European Parliament for a vote. The Parliament’s recommendations could help shape the corporate accountability law initiative announced by Didier Reynders, the European justice commissioner, in April 2020.

“Companies operating in the EU need to be held accountable if they fuel human rights abuses and environmental destruction at home and abroad,” said Lotte Leicht, European Union advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “European lawmakers should adopt robust recommendations and pave the way for strong corporate accountability legislation.”

People all over the world face human rights abuses and environmental impacts linked to the way businesses operate, but the vast majority of companies globally do not investigate and address human rights abuses or environmental harm in their supply chains. From Ghana’s gold mines to garment factories in Asia and beyond, workers have suffered serious labor rights abuses, including hazardous work conditions, forced overtime, wage theft, forced labor, and child labor.

In addition, entire communities have suffered human rights impacts from companies’ toxic pollution, for example by palm oil factories in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Globally, everyone is threatened by the continued failure of fossil fuel companies – and the financial institutions that keep them afloat – to act decisively on the climate crisis. Neglect for human rights and the environment can have devastating consequences, as illustrated by the 2019 Brumadinho dam disaster, in which 259 people were killed when a mining dam in Brazil collapsed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the plight of workers in global supply chains. In the garment industry, scores of clothing brands and retailers have canceled orders without assuming financial responsibility, even when workers had finished making their products, resulting in dismissals and temporary layoffs. In the small-scale mining sector, activity has often been reduced or halted due to lockdowns and blocked trade routes. Where mining has continued, workers and affected communities have been exposed to increased human rights risks, including infection with Covid-19 and economic exploitation. In some small-scale mining areas, child labor is on the rise.

Under international rules, companies have a responsibility to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence to ensure that they do not cause or contribute to rights abuses in their supply chains, in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. “Due diligence” refers to a company’s process to identify, prevent, address, and remediate human rights and environmental impacts in its own operations and in its supply chains.

Yet, Human Rights Watch research in the garment, jewelry, and agricultural sectors has found that companies – including European companies – often do not carry out adequate human rights and environmental due diligence processes.

Human rights activists, environmental groups, and trade unions have been pushing for robust regulation of companies at the EU and globally. Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity, told Human Rights Watch: “The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how workers in the global supply chains are at the receiving end of empty promises. A law governing the due diligence obligations of companies is important to protect human rights and workers’ rights and ensure that when businesses create jobs in other countries through their global supply chains, they create jobs with dignity.”

Farai Maguwu, director of the Zimbabwean Centre for Natural Resource Governance, said about the EU initiative: “We support any and every effort aimed at holding extractive industries accountable. Corporate impunity is posing an existential threat to people living in areas endowed with natural resources.”

Following a commitment in April by Commissioner Reynders to passing an EU law that would make human rights and environmental due diligence mandatory for companies operating in the EU, the European Parliament is preparing a report to request the European Commission to submit a formal legislative proposal in line with its recommendations. The Commission is conducting a public consultation to gather input from civil society, the private sector, and member states. Once the Commission offers a proposed law, the European Parliament and the EU’s 27 member states will have to agree on the text for it to come into force.

For the EU due diligence law to be effective, companies should be required to address human rights and environmental risks throughout their entire business chain, and publicly disclose information about the entities in the chain and the steps they have taken to fulfill their due diligence obligations. To be effective, the EU directive should carry consequences for noncompliance, including penalties, and create a civil course of action and access to judicial remedies.

Company certification under existing voluntary certification processes or participation in responsible business multi-stakeholder initiatives should not be considered sufficient evidence of effective human rights due diligence, Human Rights Watch said.

The EU due diligence law should explicitly address business actions that contribute to the climate crisis. Companies – and financial institutions – should measure their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and reduce them in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the European Green Deal.

Human Rights Watch provided more detailed recommendations for the new EU due diligence legislation in a June 2020 letter to Commissioner Reynders and European Parliament members, and in a Q&A.

“Workers at the lowest rung of global supply chains often risk their lives and limbs in hazardous working conditions as companies ruthlessly pursue a race to the bottom,” Leicht said. “Binding EU law governing companies’ human rights and environmental due diligence obligations is urgently needed to protect workers and their communities.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 7:00 am
Click to expand Image On January 3, 2021, two French Mirage 2000 jet fighters like this one dropped three bombs near Bounti, Central Mali.  © 2013 Reuters/Benoit Tessier 

The Malian and French governments should promptly and impartially investigate the French airstrike on January 3, 2021, in central Mali that killed 19 people alleged by local residents to be civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. In a January 7 statement, the French armed forces said the attack was carried out at about 3 p.m. by two Mirage 2000 fighter jets that delivered three bombs on “a group of about 40 adult men,” killing about 30 they claim were armed Islamist fighters, north of the village of Bounti.

A local nongovernmental organization reported on the evening of the attack that a wedding ceremony outside Bounti had been bombed, killing civilians. On January 5, the French counterterrorism force operating in Mali confirmed that they had carried out airstrikes in the area that day, but contended that there was no wedding and that they had targeted the gathering of an armed Islamist group that they had been tracking over several days. Three Bounti residents, including two who were injured in the attack, told Human Rights Watch that the gathering was a wedding with many civilians present.

“Serious allegations that any civilians were killed in airstrikes need to be promptly investigated to determine the legality of the strikes under the laws of war,” said Jonathan Pedneault, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Malian and French authorities have an obligation under international law to ensure that a credible investigation is conducted thoroughly and impartially.”

On January 6, French media reported that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission to Mali (MINUSMA) had initiated its own investigation into the Bounti incident. The following day, a source at the Malian Defense Ministry told Turkish media it was also conducting investigations. The Malian and French forces should fully cooperate with the ongoing investigation by the Human Rights Division of MINUSMA, including by providing flight plans and access to the site.

The French airstrike, carried out by its 5,000-member Barkhane force, took place days after two separate attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), on December 29, 2020 and January 2, killed a total of five French soldiers within 100 kilometers of Bounti. The area around Bounti, the Cercle de Douentza in central Mali’s Mopti region, is a known area of operations for armed Islamist groups. These groups have committed numerous abuses against local civilians and state agents since 2015.

While the French statement said the Barkhane force conducted the strikes following a multi-day intelligence operation, it also said that the group targeted was only identified an hour before the strikes, when a Reaper aerial drone “detected a motorcycle with two individuals” joining the larger group.

The drone observed the gathering and ensured that no women or children were present, the statement said. The French armed forces contend that these observations, coupled with intelligence gathered over previous days, were sufficient to determine that the men targeted were part of an armed Islamist group.

In a January 10 interview with France Inter, Florence Parly, the French army minister, said she had personally verified that there was “no wedding, no women, no children, that there were men and exclusively men.”

The three Bounti residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch each said independently, however, that there was a wedding and that the men had gathered separately from the women and children due to gender segregation restrictions imposed by armed Islamist groups active in the area.

They said that the wedding had been planned over a month earlier and that people had come from other towns and villages to attend. The marriage, which the family had arranged several years earlier, was between a 16-year-old girl and a 25-year-old distant relative. Child marriage is lawful in Mali and 54 percent of girls in Mali marry before age 18. A sheep had been slaughtered and prepared in the village and women were about to deliver the meal when the attack occurred, the residents said.

“Suddenly, we heard the jet’s noise, and everything happened quickly,” a 68-year-old man from Bounti told Human Rights Watch. “I heard a powerful detonation, boom, and then another detonation. I lost consciousness for a few minutes and when I woke up, my foot was bleeding because of shrapnel, and all around me were wounded and dead bodies.”

Another man, in his 40s, who was present said the first bomb exploded and killed 17 men, while the second wounded nine, two of whom died later. “We want a thorough investigation and protection, because the state needs to avoid confusion [between civilians and combatants] in its operations,” he said.

A statement by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders or MSF) an international nongovernmental health organization, said that most of the eight men they treated were elderly. An ambulance with an MSF logo carrying three gravely injured attack survivors was forcibly held for several hours by unidentified armed men on January 5, leading to the death of one of the patients.

A witness reported that on January 15, Malian security forces arrested two men who had been injured in the Bounti attack and were being treated at the hospital in Sévaré, a town about 200 kilometers from Bounti.   

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which governs the conflict in central Mali, requires that all attacks be directed at military targets. While not all civilian casualties indicate a violation of the laws of war, attacks cannot be indiscriminate or cause disproportionate civilian loss. Attacking forces are obligated to do everything feasible to verify that their targets are military and assess whether any expected civilian loss is excessive compared with the anticipated military gain. State parties to an armed conflict are obligated to investigate credible allegations of serious laws-of-war violations, which may be war crimes. 

Malian and French authorities should assist the MINUSMA investigation by providing investigators with flight logs, strike coordinates for all aircraft operating in the area that day, and intelligence information that led to the strike. Malian authorities should immediately ensure the protection of the witnesses and victims and open a judicial investigation.

Meanwhile, the French government should investigate the strike, including the role within the chain of command. Should the investigations determine the strike to be unlawful, France should compensate civilian victims and their relatives and consider providing amends to civilians harmed regardless of any finding of wrongdoing.

“The quicker credible and impartial investigations are set up and provided with the necessary data, the more likely they will yield accurate findings and dissipate doubts and rumors,” Pedneault said. “By helping MINUSMA carry out this investigation and opening its own independent inquiry, the Malian and French governments will not only abide by their international obligations but demonstrate a commitment to protecting local populations and upholding the rule of law.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image Migrants warm their hands above a fire at the Lipa camp, outside Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Monday, January 11, 2021. The camp was closed on December 23, 2020 and destroyed in a fire the same day.  © 2021 AP Photo/Kemal Softic 

(Brussels) – Bosnian authorities should immediately provide adequate, winterized accommodation for migrants and asylum seekers stranded in freezing temperatures in the northwestern part of the country, Human Rights Watch said today. After a fire destroyed the temporary emergency camp in northwest Bosnia on December 23, 2020, hundreds are housed in tents that do not meet basic humane housing conditions.

“Hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers in northwest Bosnia are spending the winter in dire conditions because the authorities have repeatedly failed to address their basic needs,” said Lydia Gall, senior Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Local, federal, and national authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina should immediately take concerted urgent action to ensure that the migrants have access to winterized housing and the medical and other assistance they need.”

Conditions in the Lipa temporary emergency camp were poor before the fire, with a lack of basic services including critical hygiene and sanitation services such as sewage and running water. The camp had been operating since April 2020, when it was set up as part of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which ran the camp with EU funds, warned the authorities several times that the camp was unfit for winter conditions. It had said the camp should be made suitable for winter – a process that would involve installing adequate heating, flooring, and insulation – and that the authorities should provide alternative accommodation while that work was being carried out.

Ignoring that advice, the Bosnian Council of Ministers, the executive authority of the Bosnian federal government, had agreed on December 21 to convert Lipa to an official reception center for asylum seekers and migrants. IOM decided to shut the camp down on December 23. On the same day, fire destroyed the camp, leaving an estimated 1,200 people stranded outdoors.

Many of the migrants in the area are seeking to enter Croatia to seek protection or a better life in the European Union. Croatia has responded with violent police pushbacks that breach EU, human rights, and refugee law and exacerbate the degrading conditions for migrants.

The failure by Bosnian authorities to ensure humane treatment for migrants and asylum seekers in northwest Bosnia is a persistent issue. In 2019, the Bosnian authorities faced criticism for housing migrants and refugees in inhumane conditions at the Vucjak camp near Bihac and close to the Croatian border. The camp was dismantled in December 2019 following international pressure, but the authorities have failed to put in place alternative long-term solutions.

Nicola Bay, Danish Refugee Council director in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told Human Rights Watch that within days following the December 23 fire, about 350 people who were able to pay the bus fare were transported to a camp in Sarajevo at their own expense, while the remaining 850 people were stranded at the destroyed camp site or forced to seek shelter in the nearby forest.

Bosnian authorities have done little to address the unfolding humanitarian emergency. Two weeks after the fire, authorities set up 30 tents near the former camp site, each with the capacity for about 30 people. Some tents are not suitable for winter conditions, the Danish Refugee Council said. Some generator-powered air cannons used to heat the tents have failed during the night, leaving people to roam the camp looking for the warmest tent. The site is now being managed by the Bosnian Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, a unit within the Federal Security Ministry.

The crowded conditions and inability to distance and isolate people is of growing concern due to the risk of coronavirus spread. Bay, of the Danish Refugee Council, said that providing medical treatment remains a challenge. With no running water on the site, basic hygiene practices and preventing and treating conditions that are common in cramped settings, like scabies, are impossible. The International Organization for Migration had for months criticized the failure to connect the former camp to the water and sewage system.

In December, Bosnian state authorities attempted to relocate about 50 former Lipa camp residents to the empty Bira camp in nearby Bihac, which offers more suitable reception conditions. Bira had been closed in September due to pressure from local residents. The town and both camps are in Una Sana Canton. This relocation effort failed due to local resistance fueled by municipal authorities in the aftermath of local elections in November marred by significant anti-migrant rhetoric.

International officials have previously urged the authorities to reopen Bira. They included the EU special representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Johann Sattler; the EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson; and the EU high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell as well as human rights groups.

Bay told Human Rights Watch that in addition to the 850 asylum seekers and migrants who remain at the Lipa site, another 900 migrants and asylum seekers, including families with a total of 31 children, are elsewhere in the Una Santa canton, with no access to housing or basic services. They have been forced to sleep in the open or squat in abandoned buildings.

Failure by Bosnian authorities at all levels to cooperate on migration management and humanitarian assistance has contributed to the current crisis. While most migrants and asylum seekers in Bosnia are stranded in the Una Sana Canton, the authorities in Republika Srpska and other parts of the Federation have refused to allow relocation, even though that could help alleviate local tension or to share responsibility for humanely hosting migrants and asylum seekers.

Reopening the Bira camp, even if only temporarily, currently appears the most viable option to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers previously in Lipa can be housed during the winter months in winterized buildings with heating, electricity, toilets, and showers, Human Rights Watch said.

EU institutions should call on Bosnian authorities on state, entity, cantonal, and local levels to immediately ramp up cooperation to adequately address the ongoing humanitarian crisis and ensure that the €28,5 million of EU funding allocated to Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 2020 and January 2021 for managing migration and providing humanitarian assistance serves its purpose, Human Rights Watch said. Since early 2018, the EU has provided €88 million to Bosnia and Herzegovina for migration management, including €13.8 million for humanitarian assistance.

The European Commission should also seek meaningful long-term solutions to the situation faced by migrants and asylum seekers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, instead of allocating largely short-term and emergency funding, and tie its support to the Bosnian authorities to clear progress in terms of suitable reception conditions and fair and effective access to asylum. The Commission should also hold the Croatian government to account and trigger legal action against Zagreb for the continued patterns of violent pushbacks at its border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“As the main donor to Bosnia’s migration management, the EU has a responsibility to ensure that its support helps those most in need,” Gall said. “In addition to funds, the EU Commission should engage actively with Bosnian authorities to develop a functioning asylum system and ensure that migrants and asylum seekers are treated humanely and with dignity.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Ugandan soldiers patrol near the house of Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine in Magere, Uganda. ©Sally Hayden / SOPA Images / Sipa via AP Images

(Nairobi) – The weeks leading up to Uganda’s recently concluded elections were characterized by widespread violence and human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuses included killings by security forces, arrests and beatings of opposition supporters and journalists, disruption of opposition rallies, and a shutdown of the internet. The authorities should ensure thorough investigation and prosecution of those responsible for abuses.

Since election campaigns began in November 2020, security forces have clamped down on opposition members and journalists, violently arresting scores of people, including the presidential candidates Patrick Amuriat of the Forum for Democratic Change and Robert Kyagulanyi, of the National Unity Platform. On November 18 and 19, security forces clamped down on protesters demanding the release of then detained Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, resulting in at least 54 deaths.

“A democratic playing field for free and fair elections was worryingly absent during these elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of restricting free expression, movement, and assembly, the Ugandan government should take concrete steps to improve respect for human rights for all and remove all remaining restrictions.”

Two days before the January 14, 2021 elections, the Uganda Communications Commission ordered internet service providers to block access to social media. The next day, the government shut down internet access across the country for five days. Access to social media sites including Twitter and YouTube remains restricted.

On January 16, the Electoral Commission declared President Yoweri Museveni, 76, the winner for his sixth term as president. The day after the election, security officials surrounded the home of Kyagulanyi, his closest rival, and have since prevented anyone from going in or out. On January 18, security forces blocked access to his party’s head office in Kampala, allegedly to “counter any plans to violent demonstrations and mass riots.”

Security forces have turned away people attempting to visit Kyagulanyi, including the United States Ambassador to Uganda, Natalie E. Brown. Media reported that soldiers beat Francis Zaake, an opposition member of parliament, when he attempted to visit.

During the campaigns, police fired teargas - and, in some cases, local media reported, live bullets - to disperse crowds during opposition rallies, citing government Covid-19 regulations restricting public gatherings. On November 9, police fired teargas to disperse supporters as Amuriat traveled through Mbale to begin his campaign, and later in various other parts of Uganda such as Kitgum, Gulu, Rukungiri, Kiryandongo, Masindi, Kayunga, and Masaka. Since November 3, police have arrested Amuriat at least five times. On January 6, a policeman reportedly shot at Amuriat’s convoy, shattering the windows of one of his escort cars in Kitagwenda, Western Uganda.

Police fired teargas during several of Kyagulanyi’s rallies, including in Lira, Mayuge, and in Kasese on November 24, where up to six people were reported injured after police fired live bullets. Security forces briefly detained Kyagulanyi and arrested scores of his supporters during a rally on an island in Kalangala on December 30.

On November 18, in Luuka, Eastern Uganda, the police arrested and detained Kyagulanyi for allegedly breaching Covid-19 regulations by mobilizing a large crowd. He was charged with "doing an act likely to spread infection of disease" and was released on bail two days later. Police responded to crowds of people protesting Kyanguanyi’s detention with teargas, beatings and live bullets, leading to at least 54 deaths. Security Minister Elly Tumwine, who warned against any further protests, told the public that the police have the right “to shoot you and kill you.” On November 29, Museveni promised to investigate the killings and to compensate some of the victims.

On January 8, police charged 49 of the National Unity Platform supporters arrested in Kalangala in December at a military court for allegedly being in possession of ammunition belonging to the Ugandan army.

The authorities restricted the media from covering opposition party members, and in some instances, beat and shot at journalists. On November 5, police shot Moses Bwayo in the face with a rubber bullet as he was filming Kyagulanyi arriving at his party’s office in Kampala. A journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Human Rights Watch that on December 1 a policeman shot her in the leg with a rubber bullet while she covered a Kyagulanyi rally in Kayunga. On December 27, Ashraf Kasirye, a journalist with the National Unity Platform-owned Ghetto Media, was badly injured while covering a rally in Masaka, Central Uganda, after police fired at him. Francis Senteza, Kyagulanyi’s bodyguard, was killed later that day when a military truck allegedly ran him over. On January 8, the Inspector General of Police Martin Okoth Ochola told journalists during a news conference that, “we shall beat you for your own sake to help you understand that don’t go there.”

The authorities have similarly restricted the work of activists and civil society groups, including by blocking National Elections Watch Uganda, a coalition of local organizations, from monitoring the elections. On January 14, police arrested over 20 members of the Women’s Situation Group, an election monitoring group, for operating a “parallel tallying center.”

On December 22, police arrested a human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, alongside three other lawyers ­- Herbert Dakasi, Anthony Odur, and Esomu Obure - and Hamid Tenywa, a National Unity Platform official, at a restaurant in Kampala. The authorities later charged Opiyo with money laundering, alleging that he received $340,000 on behalf of Chapter Four Uganda, the organization he leads, knowing that the funds were “proceeds of crime.” Chapter Four Uganda says the funds were part of a routine grant to support its human rights work.

The Ugandan authorities should immediately end all forms of harassment and intimidation of journalists, opposition supporters, and leaders, including Robert Kyagulanyi, Human Rights Watch said. Instead, the authorities should protect rights, including freedom of movement, and ensure respect for the rule of law.

Ugandan security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which require law enforcement officials to apply nonviolent means and to use force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The principles also require governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under national law.

“The widespread violations of rights by government forces undermined the credibility of Uganda’s elections,” Nyeko said. “The authorities should take urgent steps to ensure the impartiality of security agents during elections and hold to account those involved in abuses.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 21, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Australia’s placard at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva © 2015 Human Rights Watch

(Geneva) – The Australian government should seriously address the criticisms of its human rights record and scores of recommendations raised by United Nations member countries, Human Rights Watch said today. Australia appeared before the UN Human Rights Council for its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva on January 20, 2021.

“UN member countries rightly criticized Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and questioned why incarceration rates of First Nations peoples remain so high,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN review made it clear that the Australian government hasn’t followed through on some of its key past pledges to the UN Human Rights Council.”

The Universal Periodic Review, begun in 2006, is a comprehensive review of the human rights record of each UN member state conducted every five years. The country under UN review, along with local and international organizations, has the opportunity to contribute reports to inform the review process. Human Rights Watch submitted an assessment of Australia’s record in July.

At the review, countries praised Australia for passing its marriage equality law, and the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), since the last review in 2015. Australia informed this year’s review that it had carried out in full or in part 183 out of 290 recommendations from its 2015 review.

However, more than 40 nations questioned Australia’s policies toward asylum seekers and refugees, from Brazil to Germany, South Korea to the US. Among the concerns raised was Australia’s continued use of offshore processing and prolonged detention for asylum seekers. Some countries said that Australia should place a time limit on immigration detention and provide regular judicial review.

Australian officials reiterated their longstanding support for “strong border protection” policies, including offshore processing.

“It’s disappointing to see the Australian government doubling down on policies that have caused immense harm to asylum seekers and have been repeatedly condemned by UN officials and other governments,” Pearson said. “While Australia has abandoned its responsibilities towards these people, it’s good to see the rest of the world has not.”

Several countries raised Australia’s continued failure to reduce the significant over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 29 percent of Australia’s adult prison population, but just 3 percent of the national population.

Other concerns raised included the severe inequality experienced by Australia’s First Nations people, and the lack of legal safeguards to protect the rights of journalists, whistleblowers, lawyers, activists, and others making disclosures in the public interest.

Twenty-seven countries urged Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility, currently 10 years old, a policy that disproportionately affects Indigenous children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that countries increase their minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14. 

Australian officials acknowledged that the age of criminal responsibility had been considered but said criminal justice issues were not a federal responsibility but a matter for Australian states and territories. However, under international law, federal governments remain responsible for human rights violations committed at the local level.

“The Australian federal government should show leadership by working with its states and territories to change their laws to raise the age of criminal responsibility and comply with international standards,” Pearson said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 20, 2021, 11:44 pm