(Beirut) – Syrian refugees in Arsal, a Lebanese town on the border with Syria, do not have adequate shelters to withstand the harsh winter months, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a video showing their dire living conditions.

More than 15,000 Syrian refugees in Arsal are experiencing their second winter since a 2019 order from the Higher Defense Council, which is chaired by the president and responsible for implementing national defense strategy, required them to dismantle their shelters. The order has forced them to live without adequate roofs and insulation, exposed to harsh winter conditions, including subzero temperatures and flooding.

“Living conditions for the Syrian refugees living in Arsal forced to dismantle their shelters in 2019 remain dire,” said Michelle Randhawa, refugee and migrant rights senior coordinator at Human Rights Watch. “Their situation, compounded by Covid-19 movement restrictions, threatens their safety and their very lives.”

In November and December 2020, Human Rights Watch researchers returned to Arsal to interview seven refugees first interviewed during the summer of 2019 to assess the impact of the demolitions on their standard of living, and in particular on their access to adequate shelter during the winter months. The refugees described dire living conditions. They also said they lack information and resources to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

All seven refugees interviewed described harsh weather conditions and inadequate building materials. Due to flooding and heavy rains, four said that mold had formed on the wood used to rebuild the top portions of the shelters. A few said the mold caused health problems for children and asthmatic relatives.

“[An NGO] gave us one tarp to cover the roof and we had to buy the rest ourselves,” said a Syrian refugee from Homs who said her daughter coughs because of the mold. “We just have five cinderblocks of protection, the rest is wood. The water comes from under [the walls]…. There is a smell coming from the mold.”

Arsal is in the Bekaa Valley, a mountainous region on the border with Syria known for harsh winters. Last winter a storm had a devastating impact in Arsal. Refugees who had been forced to dismantle their shelters seven months earlier were left with plywood and tarp roofs to shield them from the heavy snow and extreme wind. Temperatures reported at that time were as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).

The 2019 Higher Defense Council order is based on the Lebanese Construction Law Act, No. 646. The Construction Law stipulates that only “non-permanent” building materials, including wood, stone, and canvas, can be used for building on agricultural land and that full concrete structures, including cement foundations, are not allowed. While the Construction Law Act has been on the books since 2004, it had remained largely unenforced until the 2019 order. Building materials for upper walls and roofs can only consist of wood and tarp. The 2019 order permits a foundation five cinderblocks high, or about one meter, for shelters in Arsal. In the rest of the country, hard foundations can be no higher than two cinderblocks.

The order was first implemented in Arsal, where Syrian refugees were given a deadline of July 1, 2019 to dismantle their shelters or risk having the Lebanese Army demolish them. On the July 1 deadline, the Lebanese Army bulldozed 20 non-compliant shelters. Refugees in Akkar, in northern Lebanon, were given until August 7, 2019. On August 8, the Lebanese Army partially demolished 350 non-compliant shelters in Akkar.

Since clashes in Arsal in 2014, involving the Lebanese Army, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and Jabhat al-Nusra (a listed armed group now part of an armed coalition known as Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham), the Lebanese Army has conducted frequent military raids on refugee camps there. Arsal and the camps located within its borders are now surrounded by military checkpoints, restricting movement in and out of the town and the refugee camps.

Tensions have flared periodically between some members of Lebanese host communities and some refugees since the Syrian civil war began almost a decade ago. In November 2020, a Syrian refugee allegedly killed a Lebanese resident of Bcharre, a town in the North Governorate of Lebanon, two hours from Arsal. Soon after, a group of Lebanese residents demanded the eviction of Syrians from the area and set fire to refugee homes in the town. Hundreds of Syrian refugees subsequently fled.

At the end of December, a fight between a Lebanese family and Syrian workers in Minyeh, just north of Tripoli, led some Lebanese residents to set fire to a nearby Syrian refugee camp, displacing hundreds.

Humanitarian response programs for Syrian refugees in Lebanon that provide shelter are massively underfunded. According to the 2020 Update of the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, a joint effort between the Lebanese government and local and international partners to address the needs of vulnerable populations in Lebanon, groups providing shelter needed roughly US$155.6 million. As of November, they had only been able to fund US$27 million – just 17 percent.

Due to Lebanon’s rapid inflation, Syrian refugees there have faced soaring prices and rents, sometimes forcing them to choose between buying food and essential items, and paying bills. The preliminary 2020 findings of the Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, conducted jointly by World Food Program, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), and UNICEF, show that the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have pushed 89 percent of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon below the extreme poverty line.

Half of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon is now food insecure. Three of the refugees Human Rights Watch spoke with raised concern with rising costs to send children to school, rents, and electricity. “We pay more rent than before now,” said a Syrian refugee from Damascus. “We used to pay 125,000 pounds [LBP] per month and now we pay 300,000 pounds [LBP] per month because of the situation.”

All of the Syrian refugees interviewed raised concerns about the lack of information and resources available to them to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Three said that since the beginning of the pandemic, they were only visited once by an aid group, which gave them some masks and disinfectants. Most refugees said that they did not know whom to contact or what to do in case someone in their family develops symptoms. “At the beginning they gave us a box [of supplies] for Covid-19,” the refugee from Damascus said. “They came just one time. If someone is sick, there are no doctors to call.”

Since early March, Lebanese municipalities have used the Covid-19 pandemic to impose discriminatory curfews and movement restrictions that apply only to Syrian refugees. Most of those interviewed expressed concerns regarding their ability to access health resources and essential supplies amid these discriminatory restrictions and stigma. “The difference between us and the Lebanese who live here is that we can’t leave our homes,” the refugee from Homs said.

The worsening economic crisis, the devastating Beirut port explosion, and Covid-19 have overwhelmed Lebanon’s health sector. Hospitals are almost at capacity as healthcare workers warn of a Covid-19 “catastrophe.”

UNHCR and partner organizations have set up Covid-19 response plans for Lebanon’s refugee populations, but information sharing varies across regions. UNHCR said that it will only cover the cost of testing and treatment if a refugee has first contacted the Health Ministry’s hotline and followed its instructions.

Despite their dire living conditions, none of the Syrian refugees interviewed said it was safe enough for them to return to Syria.

The Lebanese government and donor organizations and governments should ensure that everyone’s right to adequate housing is fully protected, Human Rights Watch said. This should include increased support for winterizing the homes of Syrian refugees to protect vulnerable families from harsh weather and to enable them to live in safety and dignity. Donors should also continue to urge the Lebanese government to review its policies on materials permitted in informal settlements and to allow the distribution of more sustainable shelter materials.

“Facing inadequate shelter, Covid-19 restrictions, and rampant inflation, Lebanon’s Syrian refugee population urgently needs assistance, especially during these harsh winter months,” Randhawa said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 19, 2021, 5:01 am
Click to expand Image Mathematics and mechanics graduate student at Moscow State University Azat Miftakhov before the court session in Golovinsky district court. September 05, 2019.  ©Ivan Vodop'janov/Kommersant/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

A court in Moscow has sentenced Azat Miftakhov, a postgraduate math student and political activist, to six years in prison on highly controversial hooliganism charges. His conviction follows investigation and a trial marred by allegations of torture, and reliance on unfair “secret witnesses.”

Miftakhov spent nearly two years in pretrial detention before yesterday’s verdict. He and two other political activists were accused of breaking a window and throwing a smoke bomb inside an empty Moscow office of United Russia, the country’s ruling party, in January 2018. The prosecution qualified the act as hooliganism aggravated by ‘political hatred.’ The other two defendants received suspended sentences of between two and four years.

Police first detained Miftakhov in February 2019, more than a year after the incident, and initially accused him of making explosives. He alleges that during his detention, police beat him to force a confession and threatened to rape him with a cordless drill. Members of the Public Monitoring Commission, an independent body which monitors places of detention, said they observed marks on his body consistent with apparent ill-treatment. Another activist detained in connection with the case alleged that police tortured him to extract evidence against Miftakhov.

Several days after his detention, police dropped the case against Miftakhov and released him, only to immediately re-detain him on a different charge in connection with the attack on United Russia’s office a year earlier. The prosecution accused Miftakhov of having organized the attack. He denies the allegations and still protests his innocence.

The other two accused in the case, Yelena Gorban and Andrey Yeykin, confessed to having perpetrated the attack but denied Miftakhov’s involvement.

The key evidence against Miftakhov was testimonies of secret witnesses. These are witnesses whose identity was never disclosed to him or his lawyers. One of them supposedly recalled that he saw Miftakhov at the time but only reported it to police one year after the incident. Miftakhov’s lawyer told the press that she believes secret witnesses were used in this case because the prosecution never had any real evidence against him. In September 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in a separate Russian case that the use of secret witnesses had violated the defendants’ right to a fair trial.

Azat Miftakhov’s conviction is clearly unjust and unfair, and authorities should immediately and unconditionally overturn it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 18, 2021, 7:02 pm

A judge in Moscow ruled today that Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician, be detained for 30 days pending a court hearing regarding his alleged breach of parole. If found guilty, he could face three-and-a-half years in prison.

Click to expand Image Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny takes part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia, February 29, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File

Authorities detained Navalny, an outspoken Putin critic, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, where he arrived after a five-month recuperation in Germany following his near-lethal poisoning by a powerful nerve agent last August. Navalny’s flight was supposed to land at another airport, Vnukovo, but was diverted to Sheremetyevo in an apparent attempt by the authorities to prevent his supporters from greeting him on arrival.

Navalny’s treatment has been a travesty of justice. Held overnight at Khimky police station on the outskirts of Moscow, he had no access to his lawyers for 15 hours, despite his and their repeated requests. The next day, instead of taking him to court for a hearing, authorities brought the judge to the police station and informed Navalny’s lawyers of the hearing only a few minutes before it began.  

Navalny is accused of non-compliance with the terms of his parole in connection with the sentence he received in December 2014, in a politically motivated fraud case against him and his brother, Oleg. This despite the fact that in October 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Navalny’s conviction in this case was “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable,” and that the government had violated his right to a fair trial. Not only did  Navalny’s parole period expire last year, but he also supposedly breached his parole by not attending meetings with parole officers while he was being treated in Germany for the poisoning. Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service alleges it could not establish his whereabouts, even though his transfer to Germany for medical treatment had been supported by the Kremlin, and made international headlines. “This is the highest degree of lawlessness,” Navalny said about his rushed hearing at the police station. Amnesty International designated him a “prisoner of conscience.”

Instead of investigating Navalny’s credible allegations that Federal Security Service officers poisoned him with Novichok nerve agent in Siberia last year, Russian authorities cynically jailed him as soon as he set foot in the country. His wrongful and cruel arrest can only be seen as the Kremlin’s latest attempt to silence a prominent political opponent ahead of parliamentary elections in September.   

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 18, 2021, 6:56 pm
Click to expand Image U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. © AP Photo/Jeenah Moon


Update: The meeting over the cybercrime treaty has been delayed until May. 

United Nations member states are meeting this week to start a process for a cybercrime treaty. Among its champions are some of the world’s most repressive governments, and the initiative raises serious human rights concerns.  

That Russia proposed this treaty should give UN delegations pause. In recent years, Russia has significantly expanded laws and regulations tightening control over internet infrastructure, online content, and the privacy of communications. A UN cybercrime convention could severely undermine the ability of people to exercise their human rights online, including freedom of expression and freedom of access to information, if it’s modeled after Russia’s domestic approach to internet policy.

The controversial UN resolution that set this process in motion is exceedingly vague in how it defines cybercrime. In many countries, legislation and policies aimed at combating cybercrime use vague and ill-defined terms to criminalize legitimate forms of online expression, association, and assembly. These give wide-ranging power to governments to block websites deemed critical of the authorities, or even entire networks, applications, and services that facilitate online exchange of and access to information.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of governments using vaguely worded and repressive cybercrime laws that restrict rights, including by governments that co-sponsored the resolution, like Egypt, where authorities continue to silence journalists, bloggers, and critics on social media amid escalating use of the country’s repressive 2018 cybercrimes law. Additionally, some initiatives to combat cybercrime, especially those that provide for cross-border access to data in criminal investigations, raise significant privacy, data protection, and due process concerns.

To mitigate these risks, UN delegations should champion civil society participation in person and remotely, webcast meetings, and make all relevant documentation available online. They should also ensure that all efforts to combat cybercrime are guided by states’ existing obligations under international human rights law.

Cybercrime poses a real threat to people’s human rights and livelihoods. But efforts to address it need to protect, not undermine, rights. Delegations should think hard about these risks as they engage in the process and insist on transparency, inclusion, and respect for human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 18, 2021, 2:37 pm
Click to expand Image Sri Lankan municipal cemetery workers carry the coffin of a Covid-19 virus victim for cremation in Colombo, Sri Lanka, December 21, 2020.  © 2020 Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – Sri Lanka’s requirement to cremate anyone who dies from Covid-19 goes against public health guidance and discriminates against the Muslim community, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s spurious argument that burial in accordance with Islamic tradition poses a public health risk stigmatizes, oppresses, and causes immense distress to a vulnerable minority.

The Sri Lankan government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has claimed that burying people who died of Covid-19 complications may “contaminate ground water.” It has not changed the policy, first codified in a March 31, 2020 regulation, despite World Health Organization guidelines that burial is safe, and growing opposition from United Nations experts, medical professionals in Sri Lanka, and religious leaders of all major faiths in the country. Among those cremated against the wishes of their family have been a 20-day-old infant and a woman whom the authorities later acknowledged did not have Covid-19.

“For families already grieving the loss of a loved one, the Rajapaksa government’s forced disposal of remains in a manner contrary to their beliefs is an outrageous and offensive assault on religious rights and basic dignity,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This policy only serves to cultivate intolerance and social division.”

In recent weeks the policy has sparked protests around the country. Authorities removed strips of white cloth that activists tied to the fence of the Borella crematorium in Colombo to protest the forced cremation of the baby.

Several Muslim families have decided to leave the body of their loved ones who died of Covid-19 complications in hospital mortuaries rather than to permit cremation. Others say they have been coerced into allowing the cremation, or that it occurred without their knowledge.

“My friends and family asked the authorities how they can go ahead with the cremation when neither of the parents had signed any document giving consent,” Mohamed Fahim, the father of the baby, named Shaykh, told reporters. “It is as if they rushed to cremate our baby. When we asked questions, they didn’t have any proper answer.”

Sri Lankan civil society groups, in a joint statement after the ban was introduced, warned that there were already “outpourings of vitriol, and hate speech against Muslims” and that it was “important to ensure that decisions regarding matters of public health do not result in the persecution or marginalization of the Muslim population.”

The government has done little to combat incitement against Muslims, such as false rumors that the community deliberately spread the coronavirus, which are often shared by government supporters and in pro-government media. A Muslim social media user, Ramzy Razeek, was arrested and detained for five months after opposing the burial ban and calling for religious tolerance on Facebook.

Opposition to the policy has grown in recent weeks. The Sri Lanka Medical Association on January 1, 2021, said that the novel coronavirus cannot be transmitted by dead bodies. The College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka said on December 31 that there is “no solid evidence” supporting the regulation. Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders wrote in a joint letter on December 26 that religious rights are protected by the Sri Lankan constitution. A Health Ministry expert panel recommended on December 29 that disposal of bodies could include burial as well as cremation.

In April, four United Nations special rapporteurs wrote to the government stating that the regulation violated the right to freedom of religion, and that the government should combat attempts to instigate religious hatred and violence.

In November the Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the policy as a violation of religious rights guaranteed by international law.

Several fundamental rights petitions were filed against the regulation at the Supreme Court, which dismissed the cases on December 1 without explanation. The court’s independence has been undermined by parliament’s adoption, in October, of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which gives the president control over Supreme Court appointments.

President Rajapaksa, whose 2019 election campaign courted Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority, said in a November 2020 speech that there are “legitimate fears that the Sinhala race, our religion, national resources and the heritage would be threatened with destruction in the face of various local and foreign forces and ideologies that support separatism, extremism and terrorism.”

In December, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives wrote on Twitter that President Rajapaksa had asked the Maldives to allow Sri Lankan Muslims to be buried in the Maldives, a majority Muslim country. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said that the proposal “could end up enabling the further marginalization of Muslim communities in Sri Lanka.”

“We want to be buried on our own soil,” said Ali Zahir Moulana, a Sri Lankan Muslim and former member of parliament.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government has adopted various policies and practices that have a discriminatory impact on Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Tamil minorities in particular. During Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war which ended in 2009, Rajapaksa, as defense secretary during the government of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, was implicated in war crimes and human rights abuses against Tamil civilians. After becoming president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa renounced Sri Lanka’s earlier commitments to justice and accountability made to the UN Human Rights Council.

Michele Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has warned that “continuing impunity risks fuelling communal or inter-ethnic violence, and instability.” The UN Human Rights Council, at its session beginning in February, will consider a resolution to uphold international law in Sri Lanka and to seek to protect vulnerable minorities from further abuses.

“Denying Sri Lankan Muslims the right to bury their dead is causing intense distress, stoking communal hatred, and is without any scientific basis,” Ganguly said. “Foreign governments need to recognize Sri Lanka’s dangerous downturn and act before the situation deteriorates further.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 18, 2021, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives the second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Ramat Gan, Israel on January 9, 2021. © 2021 AP

(Jerusalem) – Israeli authorities should provide Covid-19 vaccines to the more than 4.5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said today. While Israel has already vaccinated more than 20 percent of its citizens, including Jewish settlers in the West Bank, it has not committed to vaccinate Palestinians living in the same occupied territory under its military rule.

Israel’s duties under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure medical supplies, including to combat the spread of pandemics, are heightened after more than 50 years of occupation with no end in sight. These responsibilities, alongside its obligations under international human rights law, include providing vaccines in a nondiscriminatory manner to Palestinians living under its control, using as a benchmark what it provides for its own citizens. The Palestinian authorities’ own obligations to protect the right to health of Palestinians in areas where they manage affairs do not absolve Israel of its responsibilities.

“Nothing can justify today’s reality in parts of the West Bank, where people on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “Everyone in the same territory should have equitable access to the vaccine, regardless of their ethnicity.”

Israeli authorities had, as of January 14, 2021, provided doses of the vaccine to more than 2 million Israeli citizens. Priority has been given to health workers, at-risk groups, and those over age 60, the vast majority of whom have received doses of the vaccine. The vaccination drive covers Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as residents of occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the government will vaccinate all of its citizens over age 16 by the end of March. He declared on January 7 that “we will vaccinate the entire relevant population and everyone who wants to will be able to be vaccinated.”

Everyone, that is, except Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (outside East Jerusalem). Israeli authorities claim that responsibility for vaccinating this population, under the Oslo Accords, falls on the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s Health Minister told Sky News that “they have to learn how to take care of themselves” and that “I don't think that there's anyone in this country, whatever his or her views might be, that can imagine that I would be taking a vaccine from the Israeli citizen, and, with all the good will, give it to our neighbors.”

However, the Fourth Geneva Convention obliges Israel, as the occupying power, to ensure the “medical supplies of the [occupied] population,” including “adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventative measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics” to “the fullest extent of the means available to it.” Israel remains the occupying power in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza under international humanitarian law, given the extent of its control over borders, the movement of people and goods, security, taxation, and registry of the population, among other areas.

This obligation, as well as the customary international law requirement rooted in Article 43 of the Hague Resolutions of 1907 to ensure public order and safety for the occupied population, increases in a prolonged occupation. Under these circumstances, the needs of the occupied population are greater, and the occupier has more time and opportunity to assume responsibility to protect rights.

The longer an occupation, the more military rule should resemble an ordinary governing system that respects the standards of international human rights law that apply at all times. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991 and the State of Palestine acceded to in 2014, requires states to take steps necessary for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” The United Nations body responsible for monitoring this treaty has confirmed that Israel is obliged to respect this treaty in the occupied territory, and to protect the right to health and other rights of the population there.

After more than 53 years of occupation, Israeli authorities have the obligation to fully respect the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied territory, including their right to health, using as a benchmark the rights they grant to Israeli citizens, as Human Rights Watch has set out. The fact that Israeli citizens, including settlers in the West Bank, are receiving vaccines at one of the most rapid rates in the world indicates that Israel has the ability to provide the vaccines to at least some Palestinians in the occupied territory, but has chosen to leave them unprotected.

The Israeli Supreme Court in a 1991 case ruled that the authorities, in their drive to supply gas masks to all Israelis amid the prospect of a chemical attack in the lead-up to the Gulf War, should “exercise equality” and not “discriminate” between residents of the West Bank. The court wrote, “[w]hen the Military Commander has reached the conclusion that protective kits must be distributed to Jewish residents in the area, protective kits must also be distributed to the area's Arab residents.”

The Oslo Accords do not erase Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, as it remains the occupying power. Palestinian authorities also have responsibilities toward residents in the parts of the occupied territory where Palestinian authorities manage affairs. However, given their limited authority and economic means, their activities do not absolve the Israeli government of its responsibilities. While the Israeli government maintains primary control, sidelining Palestinian authorities, it should not be able to suddenly assign sole responsibility to those authorities when it wants to offload its responsibilities for the health of people under occupation. Israeli and Palestinian authorities in the occupied territory should cooperate to ensure that everyone receives vaccines, without discrimination.

Moreover, the Israeli government also maintains exclusive control over Area C of the West Bank, encompassing more than 60 percent of its territory, leaving it no excuse not to vaccinate Palestinians living there.

The Palestinian Authority reported 5,817 active Covid-19 cases in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, as of January 14, and over 100,000 cases and 1,000 deaths in these areas since the beginning of the pandemic. Hamas authorities reported 7,000 active Covid-19 cases in Gaza, as of January 14, and a total of more than 45,000 cases and 400 deaths.

The Palestinian Authority health minister, Mai Alkaila, said on January 9 that the Palestinian Authority has reached agreements with several companies and the World Health Organization (WHO) to procure a sufficient supply of vaccines to eventually cover the majority of Palestinians in the occupied territory, but that “there is no specific date” for the arrival of even the first doses.

The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry has called on the international community to pressure Israel to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the occupied territory, saying that the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to procure vaccines do not exempt Israel from its responsibilities under the law of occupation. Israeli authorities said in a January 12 submission to the Israeli High Court of Justice that they provided 100 vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority in response to a Palestinian request and planned to send another shipment, but the Palestinian Authority has denied reports of having received any quantity of vaccines from Israel. In any event, 100 vaccine doses pales in comparison to the more than 2 million doses that Israel has already provided to Israeli citizens.

The submission came in response to a lawsuit by the family of an Israeli soldier whose body apparently is being held by Hamas authorities in Gaza. The suit seeks to require the Israeli authorities to withhold vaccines from Gaza until the body is returned. Israeli authorities have, based on unconfirmed reports in Israeli media, linked provision of the vaccine to Gaza to the release of the soldier’s body, as well as of two Israeli civilians and the body of another soldier apparently held by Hamas authorities there. Hamas authorities should immediately release the civilians and return the soldiers’ bodies, but Israeli authorities should not use vaccines as bargaining chips, Human Rights Watch said. The lives of Palestinian residents of Gaza should not be sacrificed because of the conduct of Hamas authorities over which they have limited, if any, control.

The Independent newspaper said in a January 8 report that Israeli authorities had denied informal requests from the WHO and the Palestinian Authority to provide vaccinations to Palestinian health workers, although Israel has denied receiving such a request.

 “The virus does not discriminate in who it infects, but the government of Israel discriminates in who it chooses to inoculate against it,” Shakir said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 17, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image People work amidst massive piles of cotton in China's Xinjiang province. 

The United Kingdom and Canada made coordinated announcements this week to help prevent British and Canadian businesses from being complicit in, or profiting from, human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang region.

The move follows growing calls across the political spectrum for the UK government to respond to the Chinese government’s escalating abuses, including credible complaints of forced labor, against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which supplies nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton. The UK measures announced include guidance to British businesses on the risks they face, advice for public bodies on excluding suppliers where there is evidence of human rights abuses in supply chains, a review of export controls to Xinjiang, and fines for organizations that fail to meet their obligations.

The measures in the UK fall well short of those introduced by Canada and recently strengthened in the United States, namely the prohibition of goods produced wholly or in part by forced labor. Disappointingly, two of the “new” UK measures had already been announced by the government last year.

This is a significant missed opportunity for the UK to go beyond the mere reporting requirements of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 and to bring in mandatory human rights due diligence legislation. Businesses themselves have called for firmer laws and a number of them, including Marks and Spencer, have signed a “call to action” in which they agree to extricate their supply chains from Xinjiang and provide an appropriate remedy for forced labor, including compensation for affected workers.

The UK’s announcement aimed to send a signal to China that the egregious human rights violations it is committing in Xinjiang will not be tolerated. That’s all well and good, but if the UK government is serious about this then it should introduce import bans and legal sanctions for businesses that fail to prevent and remedy human rights abuses, including forced labor, in their global supply chains.

It should also heed recommendations from this week’s Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission report and impose targeted sanctions on China’s officials and companies responsible for human rights abuses, and push at the United Nations for an international mechanism to monitor rights violations in the country.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 16, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. © 2009 Reuters

On January 14, the European Court of Human Rights issued a significant decision accepting Ukraine’s complaint alleging that Russia is responsible for multiple human rights violations in Crimea.

This decision is very important. While the Court did not consider the legality of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, in finding Ukraine’s complaint partially admissible, the Court recognized that Russia has “exercised effective control” over the peninsula since February 2014.

Such recognition of Russia’s occupation is a crucial step towards justice and accountability for human rights abuses by authorities in Crimea.

In March 2014, as Russia moved to consolidate control in Crimea, Human Rights Watch was on the ground, documenting abuses by the so-called “self-defense units”, paramilitary groups without insignia or a clear command structure, which ran amok and acted with complete impunity. These groups were implicated in attacks on reporters and activists, enforced disappearances, and abductions and torture of pro-Ukraine activists, while the authorities made no attempts to reign them in.

Having extending Russian legislation and policy to Crimea in violation of international law, the authorities have continued to flout binding norms of humanitarian law: from relentlessly persecuting Crimean Tatars, who dared to openly, peacefully voice criticism of Russia’s actions in Crimea to effectively forcing civilians under its control to choose between taking Russian citizenship or facing discrimination — and worse.  We’ve documented how Russian authorities are conscripting males in occupied Crimea, imposing criminal penalties on those who refuse to comply with the draft — another blatant violation of international humanitarian law, which forbids Russia from compelling Crimean residents to serve in its armed forces.

To date, Ukraine has lodged several other inter-State cases against Russia, and it will likely take a while before the European Court rules on the substance of Ukraine’s allegations. But there is no doubt that this week’s decision advances accountability for multiple human rights violations perpetrated in Crimea under Russia’s control.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 15, 2021, 7:51 pm
Click to expand Image Demonstrators stopped by gendarmes and police in Bafang, West Cameroon, on September 22, 2020. © 2020 Private

On January 12, an appeals court in Cameroon rejected legal efforts to secure the release of Olivier Bibou Nissack and Alain Fogue Tedom, two prominent members of the country’s main opposition party, Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC), as well as twenty other MRC members. They were arrested in September 2020 while exercising their right to freedom of assembly and have been in custody since.

The court’s decision came after a lower court rejected a habeas corpus request filed by the defendants on November 5, 2020.

Nissack and Fogue face politically motivated charges including attempted revolution, rebellion, and unlawful assembly. They were first held in police custody for over a month at the Secrétariat d'Etat à la Défense (SED), in Yaoundé, before being transferred to Yaoundé central prison on November 3 for a six-month pretrial detention period. At SED, they were kept in total isolation, deprived of any reading materials, and frequently denied access to their lawyers.

Nissack and Fogue were arrested as part of a massive government crackdown on peaceful demonstrations organized by the MRC on September 22 across Cameroon, which included the arrest of over 500 people, mainly MRC members and supporters.

Many peaceful protesters were beaten while being arrested and in detention. “The police beat me with truncheons,” a 39-year-old MRC member arrested in Douala told Human Rights Watch. “I spent nine days at the judicial police jail, sleeping on the floor and without access to my lawyers.”

Of the over 500 arrested, at least 136 remain in detention, 20 of whom have been convicted and sentenced to prison by civilian courts, according to the MRC’s lawyers.

"In Cameroon’s criminal justice system, habeas corpus requests appear to have lost their value as individuals who are presumed innocent are systematically deprived of their liberty,” Menkem Sother, a lawyer for Nissack said.

MRC leader Maurice Kamto continues to dispute the 2018 presidential election results which confirmed the victory of President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 38 years.

Cameroonian authorities should respect people’s right to demonstrate peacefully, immediately release those wrongfully held, and investigate law enforcement’s conduct in the 2020 crackdown and treatment of detainees. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 15, 2021, 1:11 pm
Click to expand Image People hold signs to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order to detain children crossing the southern U.S. border and separating families outside of City Hall in Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 7, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

In a damning send-off for the administration of President Donald Trump, the US Justice Department’s inspector general has concluded an investigation into the forced separation of migrant families at the border.

In 88 pages, the report meticulously catalogues the bad policy choices, inadequate planning, and sheer heartlessness that had US authorities tear children from their families.

The separations resulted from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy, an April 2018 directive requiring prosecution of every adult who entered the United States irregularly, including parents travelling with their children. Once parents were taken to court, they weren’t in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody, meaning DHS rules treated their children as unaccompanied. US officials sent more than 2,600 children to shelters overseen by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The report makes clear that family separation wasn’t inadvertent or incidental. Sessions and other senior officials knew what the “zero tolerance” policy would mean. Sessions thought it “was the right thing to do,” officials told investigators, because it would deter other families from attempting the journey. “We need to take away children,” Sessions said at one meeting, according to prosecutors’ notes. (Sessions refused to cooperate with the investigation.)

The Justice Department had piloted “zero tolerance” in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, covering New Mexico and western Texas, in March 2017 and knew of its consequences. Then-acting US Attorney Richard Durbin warned of “obvious problems” and stated, “History would not judge [the policy] kindly.” As the pilot continued, other prosecutors expressed shock at what they saw. One wrote, “We have now heard of us taking breast feeding defendant moms away from their infants, I did not believe this until I looked at the duty log.”

When the department rolled out “zero tolerance” along the border, it didn’t coordinate with HHS or other government agencies. HHS’s own investigation found “no evidence that HHS was notified in advance by either DOJ or DHS that the zero-tolerance policy would be implemented.”

It also didn’t address the “technology-related challenges” the El Paso pilot revealed – most critically, that DHS had no reliable way of tracking separated families, as that agency acknowledged in a May 2020 report.

It is obvious that forced separation traumatizes children and deeply damages family relationships. These harms weren’t a concern for Sessions and other senior officials, the report shows.

Releasing these findings now leaves any meaningful steps toward accountability to the incoming administration of Joe Biden. Reckoning with these appalling abuses means continuing to reunite children with their families and helping them recover.

It also requires meaningful steps to make sure something like this never happens again.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 15, 2021, 12:11 pm
Click to expand Image The Intersex flag. 

The child rights agency for India’s capital city this week recommended a ban on medically unnecessary “normalizing” surgeries on children born with intersex variations. This follows the southern state of Tamil Nadu banning such operations in 2019 after a court  upheld the informed consent rights for intersex children.

“Intersex,” sometimes called “differences of sex development,” refers to the estimated 1.7 percent of people born with sex characteristics, such as chromosomes, gonads, or genitals, that differ from social expectations of female or male. Except in very rare cases when the child cannot urinate or internal organs are exposed, these are medically benign natural variations of human anatomy, and do not require surgery.

In the 1960s, doctors in the United States popularized “normalizing” cosmetic operations on intersex children, such as procedures to reduce the size of the clitoris, which can result in scarring, sterilization, and psychological trauma. These surgeries became common globally, but consensus is shifting. United Nations human rights treaty bodies have condemned the operations more than 50 times since 2011.

For decades, intersex advocates around the world have asked governments and the medical community to develop standards to defer surgical procedures on intersex children until they are old enough to consent. In most countries, doctors only need parental consent to perform these surgeries. But while some medical organizations and individual physicians have supported the rights of intersex people to decide for themselves, others have largely been unwilling to engage on the issue.

During the Delhi Child Rights Commission’s consultation process late last year, the Delhi Medical Council supported the rights of intersex children. The council wrote that it “agrees with the complainants that Differences of Sex Developments/Intersex (DSD) issues are [a] human rights issue as it pertains to bodily integrity and autonomy,” and “[s]urgical interventions and gender-related medical interventions for DSD that are not deemed medically necessary should be delayed until the patient can provide meaningful informed consent.”

The mandate is now on the Delhi municipal government to formulate a policy regulating these surgeries. As the commission affirmed, everyone has the right to informed consent – even those born with bodies that are slightly different.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 14, 2021, 7:00 pm

The 18th annual Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival, in its second year of partnership with Hot Docs, will present five powerful and compelling films that will be completely digital for the first time since the Toronto HRWFF’s inception. This exciting virtual opportunity allows the festival to provide unprecedented access to free film screenings and programming across Canada. Nationwide audiences will be able to view films safely from home and learn about human rights issues and the demand for justice, dignity, compassion, and equality for all.

Toronto HRWFF is pleased to welcome Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier as new chairs of the festival. 

“We are thrilled to be part of HRWFF, and delighted to bring these outstanding films to Canada,” said Jennifer and Nick. “The past year has put gross global inequities into sharp focus, and these stories demonstrate the resilience, intelligence and passion of ordinary people striving to change their worlds. They, and the filmmakers who document them, demonstrate immense courage and dignity in the face of fear, greed, oppression and hatred. We urge all Canadians to spend some time with Human Rights Watch and these films at our festival. Prepare to be inspired!”

This year's films present stories at the heart of human rights battles in Kenya, Venezuela, Iran/Turkey, and Peru. These specially selected films touch upon issues that dominate today’s headlines: environmental activism, protest marches, LGBTQ rights, and the plight of refugees. All five films will be free and available to stream for all of Canada, from February 18 through 22, 2021. Tickets can be reserved beginning of February. 

The festival will kick off with Maxx Caicedo and Nelson G. Navarrete’s stunning A La Calle in which ordinary Venezuelans fight to reclaim their democracy from the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro. Following this screening will be a LIVE ZOOM with special guests. 

In I Am Samuel, from Peter Murimi, a queer Kenyan man balances pressures of family loyalty, love, safety and identity. In Wake Up on Mars, directed by Dea Gjinovci, a family is challenged by their daughters’ years-long comas brought on by “resignation syndrome,” a mysterious condition that can affect asylum-seeking children. In Love Child from Eva Mulvad, an illegal love story forces a young Iranian family to seek asylum in Turkey. And in Maxima, directed by Claudia Sparrow, the 2016 environmental Goldman Prize winner Máxima Acuña faces one of the world’s largest gold-mining corporations in her home on the Peruvian Highlands. All screenings will be followed by in-depth discussions with filmmakers, film subjects, Human Rights Watch researchers, or special guests.

Maxx Caicedo and Nelson G. Navarrete, 2020, Documentary, 110 min.
Spanish, Fully subtitled in English.
Official Selection DOC NYC.
A La Calle is a first-hand account of the extraordinary efforts of ordinary Venezuelans to reclaim their democracy from the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, whose policies have plunged the country into economic ruin. Working with a network of clandestine camera crews, the filmmakers spent three years recording exclusive interviews with key opposition figures, including Leopoldo López — whose arrest and imprisonment inspired a national movement — and the grassroots activist Nixon Leal, as well as a host of other Venezuelans. As acting interim president, Juan Guaidó works to rally international opposition to the Maduro government, which tightens its hold over a nation already crippled by hyperinflation, blocking life-saving humanitarian aid and repressing dissent. A La Calle captures the remarkable courage of the Venezuelan people as they unite to restore liberty to their country.
Live Zoom Discussion to follow screening.
I Am Samuel
Peter Murimi, 2020, Documentary, 68 min.
English, Swahili, Luhya, Fully subtitled in English
Official Selection London Film Festival, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
Samuel grew up on a farm in the Kenyan countryside, where tradition is valued above all else. He moves to Nairobi in search of a new life, where he finds belonging in a community of fellow queer men and falls in love with Alex. Their love thrives even though Kenyan laws criminalize anyone who identifies as LGBTQ, and together they face threats of violence and rejection. Samuel’s father, a preacher at the local church, doesn’t understand why his son is not yet married and Samuel must navigate the very real risk that being truthful to who he is may cost him his family’s acceptance. Filmed over five years, I Am Samuel is an intimate portrait of a Kenyan man balancing pressures of family loyalty, love, and safety and questioning the concept of conflicting identities.
Q+A will follow screening.
Wake Up on Mars
Dea Gjinovci, 2020, Documentary, 75 min.
Albanian, Swedish, Fully subtitled in English.
Official Selection Tribeca Film Festival
Two teenage sisters, Ibadeta and Djeneta, lie in a vegetative state in the small Swedish home of their Kosovar family. Their mysterious illness is known as “resignation syndrome,” a condition that can affect asylum-seeking children, often following a threat of deportation. The tight-knit family is trying to rebuild a normal life far from their native Kosovo, where they were victims of persecution. As their devoted parents work to keep their daughters alive and await updates on their immigration status, their youngest brother, Furkhan, imagines a life beyond the snowy expanse of his temporary backyard—and into the far reaches of space. While their entire future hangs in the balance of a pending asylum request, the little boy dreams of building a spaceship to leave it all behind. Furkhan’s desire to build his dream ship to the stars, escaping the unimaginable reality of his sisters’ illness, serves as a powerful, visually arresting metaphor for the contemporary refugee experience.
Q+A will follow screening.
Love Child
Eva Mulvad, 2019, Documentary, 112 min.
Azerbaijani, English, Farsi, Turkish, Fully subtitled in English.
Official Selection Toronto International Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival.
An intimately filmed, epic love story introduces Leila and Sahand at the start of a turbulent five-year period beginning with their escape from Iran where, while married to other people, they fell in love. Since adultery is punishable by death, and divorce forbidden, they run for their lives and start over again as a family in Turkey with their young son, Mani, who doesn’t yet know that Sahand is his biological father. Suddenly living together in a strange new land, battling tightening asylum laws to find security after years in limbo, they are learning more about each other in the toughest of circumstances and facing hurdles that test the strength of their relationship.
Q+A will follow screening.
Claudia Sparrow, 2019, Documentary, 88 min.
English, Spanish, Fully subtitled in English.
Official Selection Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival, Slamdance Film Festival.
Maxima tells the incredible story of 2016 environmental Goldman Prize winner Máxima Acuña and her family, who own a small, remote plot in the Peruvian Highlands. The Acuñas rely solely on the environment for their livelihood, but their land sits directly in the path of a multi-billion-dollar project run by one of the world’s largest gold-mining corporations. Faced with intimidation, violence, and criminal prosecution,  Máxima fights tirelessly for justice, which  takes  her from the Peruvian Supreme Court to the doors of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Standing ever mighty, Máxima sings of her love of the land in the face of widespread oppression of indigenous people, and relentless attempts by corporations to exploit resources despite both the eradication of traditional lifestyles and widespread environmental destruction.
Q+A will follow screening.
Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. HRW works tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and fights to bring greater justice and security to people around the world. In 2002, Human Rights Watch Canada was established to advance education on human rights issues both in Canada and around the world, and to increase support for the work of Human Rights Watch worldwide.

The Canadian office organizes several larger public and smaller private events throughout the year. This includes the annual Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which demonstrates the power of film in raising awareness of human rights issues across the globe. The film festival brings to life human rights abuses through storytelling in a way that challenges all to empathize and demand justice for all people. To learn more about their work or make a donation, visit www.hrw.org/canada.

Hot Docs is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing and celebrating the art of documentary and creating production opportunities for documentary filmmakers. Year-round, Hot Docs supports the Canadian and international industry with professional development programs and a multi-million-dollar production fund portfolio, and fosters education through documentaries with its popular free program Docs For Schools. Hot Docs owns and programs the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, a century-old landmark located in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood and the world’s first and largest documentary cinema.
Owned and operated by Hot Docs, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema is the world’s largest documentary cinema. The cinema is a year-round home for non-fiction film and storytelling, presenting first-run international and Canadian documentaries, curated film and speaker series, signature events including Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Hot Docs Podcast Festival, and Curious Minds Weekend, as well as hosting some of the city’s premier festivals and events. Since assuming management in 2012, Hot Docs has screened over 1,425 films to audiences of more than 1.3 million. In 2016, a generous C$5 million donation from Rogers Foundation enabled Hot Docs to purchase this venue.
Tickets are free and will be available through Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema website.
For festival updates, please check the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema website and follow the festival on Twitter and Instagram: @hrwfilmfestival  @hrwcanada  #HRWFFTO

For screener link requests for review, or to set up interviews, get GAT:
Ingrid Hamilton: 416-731-3034; or ingrid@gat.ca
Macy Armstrong: 289-772-5513; or macy@gat.ca 
Media Stills can be found here

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 14, 2021, 5:44 pm
Click to expand Image European Union flags are waving in front of the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels. August 5, 2020. © 2020 Laurie Dieffembacq (Sipa via AP Images)

The last decade has seen an alarming proliferation of artificial intelligence (“AI”) to monitor protests, predict crime, and profile minorities, in ways that gravely threaten our human rights. The European Commission has pledged to develop groundbreaking regulation of these technologies that will “safeguard fundamental EU values and rights.” In a letter published this week, Human Rights Watch joined more than sixty civil society and rights groups to hold the commission to its word, urging decisive action to prevent abusive applications of AI.

The letter highlights how the growing use of facial recognition can trigger widespread privacy abuses. This technology relies on machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to infer people’s identities from still images or video that capture their faces. When deployed in train stations, stadiums, and other public spaces, they are capable of tracking the identities and movements of entire crowds. This unprecedented form of mass surveillance could have a significant chilling effect on our rights to freedom of assembly and association.

Biases embedded in facial recognition algorithms also raise concern that they fuel discriminatory policing practices. Research shows that these algorithms are less likely to correctly identify the faces of people of color and women than those of white people and men, exposing the former to higher rates of misidentification and false accusations.

The letter also calls for measures to ensure that the automation of social security programs and other essential public services protects privacy and social security rights. In their bid to modernize aging welfare systems, a growing number of governments in and outside of Europe are building or procuring algorithms to help them verify people’s eligibility for benefits, perform means testing, and detect fraud.

Ill-conceived algorithms have deprived people of their benefits and led to wrongful accusations of fraud. Last year, a Netherlands court ordered the government to suspend an automated risk assessment tool it was using to predict how likely people were to commit tax or benefits fraud, citing its lack of transparency and privacy concerns. 

The European Commission has said that “the way we approach AI will define the world we live in,” and it plans to publish its proposal for regulation in the first quarter of 2021. A clear rejection of disproportionate surveillance and similarly excessive methods of social control will help protect rights and avert a dystopian future.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 14, 2021, 3:38 pm
Click to expand Image Members of civil society groups take part in a rally to condemn a recent gang rape of a woman on a highway, Karachi, Pakistan, September 12, 2020. © 2020 Fareed Khan/AP Photo

(New York) – Pakistan’s government intensified its crackdown on the media, political opponents, and civil society in 2020, while failing to stem violence against women and minorities, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

Pakistani authorities harassed, and at times, prosecuted human rights defenders and journalists for criticizing government policies. They deployed the National Accountability Bureau, Pakistan’s anti-corruption watchdog, to detain political opponents and critics of the government, including the Jang group editor Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, who was held without bail for six months.

“Pakistan’s continuing assault on political opponents and free expression put the country on an increasingly dangerous course,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Threatening opposition leaders, activists, and journalists who criticize the government is a hallmark of authoritarian rule, not a democracy.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

Violence against Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya religious community worsened in 2020, with at least four Ahmadis killed for alleged incidents of blasphemy. Among them was Tahir Naseem Ahmad, who was charged with blasphemy, imprisoned in 2018, and fatally shot in July by an assailant who had smuggled a gun inside a high-security courtroom in Peshawar. The Pakistani government also failed to amend or repeal blasphemy law provisions that have led to arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, and provide a pretext for violence against religious minorities.

In August, leading women journalists issued a statement condemning the “well-defined and coordinated campaign” of social media attacks, including death and rape threats, against women journalists and commentators whose views and reporting have been critical of the government.

In September, nationwide protests took place to demand police reform after the Lahore police chief made a public statement suggesting that a woman who had been gang-raped on a highway in Punjab was herself at fault because she should not have been traveling “without her husband’s permission” on a motorway late at night.

Pakistan had over 350,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with at least 7,000 deaths in 2020. With little testing available, the actual numbers were most likely much higher. Partial or complete lockdowns to prevent contagion had a disproportionate effect on women workers, especially home-based and domestic workers. The Sindh provincial government took some measures to protect workers from layoffs and ensure pay. 

Data from domestic violence help lines across Pakistan indicated that cases of domestic violence increased 200 percent from January-March 2020, and further worsened during the Covid-19 lockdowns after March.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 10:44 pm
Click to expand Image Security personnel patrol an accommodation block where Bangladeshi migrant workers are being quarantined after Covid-19 cases were found in the area, Malé, Maldives, May 9, 2020. © 2020 Ahmed Shurau/AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – The Maldives authorities responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by cracking down on peaceful protests and compounding threats to migrant workers and other vulnerable groups, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih promised after taking office in 2018 to restore rights eroded by longstanding authoritarian rule, but his administration has not confronted growing threats to civil society groups or the influence of extremist Islamist groups on the police and courts.

“The Maldives government’s poor response to the Covid-19 crisis magnified existing abuses, especially for migrant workers, and exposed the government’s failure to address online intimidation and other threats by extremist groups against rights activists,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In 2021, the government should prioritize efforts to protect everyone’s rights to peaceful expression and assembly.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

Throughout 2020, the authorities cracked down on foreign workers protesting wage abuses that escalated during Covid-19 lockdowns. In July alone, the police arbitrarily detained more than 80 migrants during protests, a number of whom were ultimately deported without their owed wages. However, as part of their healthcare response, the authorities established dedicated Covid-19 clinics for migrant workers that did not require them to show work permits or other documentation.

The pandemic spotlighted entrenched abuses against migrant workers – roughly one-third of the resident population – including wage theft, passport confiscation, and unsafe living and working conditions. The government did take action to address some labor concerns, including regularizing undocumented migrants and establishing a national task force on the issue.

The Solih administration failed to adequately investigate extremist Islamist groups for targeting social justice activists, instead often capitulating to the groups’ demands. Online intimidation of human rights groups had a chilling effect on civil society. In June, extremist groups initiated a social media campaign demanding that the government ban the women’s rights organization Uthema for being “anti-Islam,” after the group published a report on the government’s performance under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Although the Maldives is one of the country’s most vulnerable to harm from climate change, the government has not adequately consulted local communities, or put in place sufficient measures to mitigate or adapt to the growing risk of floods and erosion. The results of climate change will have long-term effects on communities from loss of livelihoods.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 10:36 pm
Click to expand Image Inmates protest on the roof a prison building calling for speedier judicial processes and increased protection amid rising cases of Covid-19, Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 18, 2020. © 2020 Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

(New York) – Sri Lanka’s human rights situation has seriously deteriorated under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

Government security forces have increased intimidation and surveillance of human rights activists, victims of past abuses, lawyers, and journalists. Minority Muslim and Tamil communities have faced discrimination and threats. The government pushed through passage of a constitutional amendment that undermines judicial independence and weakens oversight institutions, such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. In February, Sri Lanka withdrew its commitments to the 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council for truth seeking, accountability, and reconciliation following the country’s long civil war.

“The Rajapaksa administration has quickly reversed human rights gains of the previous government, making minorities more insecure, victims of past abuses fearful, and critics wary of speaking out,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Even the limited progress on postwar reconciliation is being undone by a greater military role in governance and the government’s dismissal of its international commitments to truth and accountability.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

President Rajapaksa has appointed people to senior positions, who, like himself, were implicated in war crimes during the civil war that ended in 2009, including the defense secretary, Kamal Gunaratne, and the chief of defense staff, Gen. Shavendra Silva. In February, the United States State Department announced that General Silva was ineligible to enter the US due to his alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings.

The Rajapaksa administration escalated surveillance and intimidation, targeting victims’ families and human rights defenders, as well as lawyers and journalists deemed critical of the government. These included victims and activists who engaged with the Human Rights Council.

After the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government did little to address false accusations on social media that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus and calls to boycott Muslim businesses. In March, the government began requiring cremation of all Covid-19 victims, disregarding Islamic tradition, though cremation was not required for public health. Four UN human rights experts criticized these requirements as violating religious freedom. 

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, accused the government of using Covid-19 to stifle freedom of expression after the authorities threatened to arrest anyone who “criticized” its handling of the pandemic. She condemned the pardon of one of the few soldiers ever convicted of serious abuses, and raised concerns about “appointments to key civilian roles of senior military officials allegedly involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The UN Human Rights Council will consider possible measures regarding Sri Lanka at its February-March 2021 session, including calls for an international accountability mechanism to pursue justice for past abuses.

“Concerned governments should do all they can to prevent Sri Lanka from returning to the ‘bad old days’ of rampant human rights violations,” Ganguly said. “Governments need to speak out against abuses and press for a UN Human Rights Council resolution that addresses accountability and the collection and preservation of evidence.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 10:20 pm
Click to expand Image Undocumented migrants are detained during a crackdown by Malaysia’s Immigration Department in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 20, 2020. © 2020 Mohd Firdaus/NurPhoto via AP

(Bangkok) – The Malaysian coalition that took power in March 2020 halted the Pakatan Harapan government’s faltering human rights reform movement, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.  
The first nine months of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government featured an aggressive crackdown on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, attacks on the media, and discrimination against migrants and refugees. There was also a wholesale retreat from genuine police accountability for abuses.  
“Malaysia has undergone an incredible reversal of human rights in 2020 – all for the worst,” said Phil Robertson deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hopes for human rights reforms have never risen so fast in Malaysia nor collapsed so quickly.”  
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 
The decline in media freedom has been particularly striking, Human Rights Watch said. In July, after Al Jazeera aired a documentary about Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, the police announced that they were investigating Al Jazeera for sedition, defamation, and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act.  
Police questioned six Al Jazeera staff members and raided the organization’s offices in Kuala Lumpur. In August, Malaysia refused to renew the visas of two Al Jazeera journalists based in the country. The government has also been seeking to hold online news portals responsible for comments posted by readers. 
Malaysia’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 had a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. Migrants and refugees who lost their jobs due to the pandemic were excluded from government aid programs, and many were left unable to feed their families. The authorities used the pandemic to justify pushing boatloads of desperate Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar back out to sea. The authorities also rounded up thousands of undocumented migrants and detained them in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention centers to await deportation. 
Abuse by the police remains a serious problem in Malaysia, as does a lack of accountability for such abuses. In August, the government withdrew a bill submitted by the prior administration to create an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission “because the police objected to it.” The government instead introduced a bill that would gut the principle of accountability for the police by creating an Independent Police Conduct Commission that lacks both key investigative powers and the authority to punish wrongdoing.  
“Prime Minister Muhyiddin seems intent on dragging Malaysia back to the bad old days of the Najib government, when simply speaking out publicly about sensitive topics would have the police soon knocking at your door,” Robertson said. “The government should stop backsliding and fully respect the rights of all within its borders.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 10:04 pm
Click to expand Image Indian migrant workers sit atop a bus as others walk along an expressway to return to their home villages during a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, New Delhi, India, March 28, 2020. © 2020 Altaf Qadri/AP Photo

(New York) – The Indian government increasingly harassed, detained, and prosecuted activists, journalists, and others critical of the government or its policies, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government brought politically motivated cases, including under broadly worded sedition and counterterrorism laws, against human rights defenders, student activists, academics, opposition members, and other critics. It blamed them for the communal violence in February in Delhi, as well as caste-based violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state in January 2018. In both cases, BJP supporters implicated in the violence were not prosecuted. Police investigations were biased and aimed at silencing dissent and deterring future protests. The authorities also used foreign funding regulations to target outspoken groups for their human rights work.

“The Indian government seems determined to punish peaceful criticism using draconian laws, while sending a broader message that chills dissent,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of addressing growing attacks on Muslims, minorities, and women, Indian authorities increased their crackdown on critical voices in 2020.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

The February communal violence in Delhi killed at least 53 people, with over 200 injured, properties destroyed, and communities displaced in targeted attacks by Hindu mobs. While a policeman and several Hindus were also killed, the vast majority of victims were Muslim. The attacks came after weeks of peaceful protests against the Indian government’s discriminatory citizenship policies.

Violence broke out after BJP leaders openly advocated violence against the protesters, while witness accounts and video evidence showed police complicity. The Delhi Minorities Commission reported that the violence was “planned and targeted,” and found that the police were filing cases against Muslim victims, but not taking action against the BJP leaders who incited it.

The government continued to impose harsh and discriminatory restrictions on Muslim-majority areas in Jammu and Kashmir, after revoking the state’s constitutional status in August 2019 and splitting it into two federally governed territories. Scores of people remained detained without charge under the draconian Public Safety Act, which permits detention without trial for up to two years. The government also clamped down on critics and journalists.

The Covid-19 pandemic made access to the internet crucial. However, even after the Supreme Court said in January that access to the internet was a fundamental right, the authorities permitted only slow-speed 2G mobile internet services, leading doctors to complain that it hurt the Covid-19 response.

Crimes against Dalits increased, in part as backlash by members of dominant castes against what they might perceive as a challenge to caste hierarchy. Crimes against women increased too. In September, a 19-year old Dalit woman died after being gang-raped and tortured, allegedly by four men of dominant caste in Uttar Pradesh. The authorities’ response highlighted how women from marginalized communities faced even greater institutional barriers to justice.

The intensifying repression in India resulted in international criticism, including by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who raised concerns over human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, arrests of activists, and restrictions on civil society.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 9:57 pm
Click to expand Image Vietnamese Political Detainees: Pham Doan Trang; Can Thi Theu and her sons Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu; Dinh Thi Thu Thuy; Pham Chi Dung; Nguyen Tuong Thuy; Le Huu Minh Tuan; Tran Duc Thach © 2020 Private

(New York, January 13, 2021) – Vietnamese authorities increased restrictions on basic political and civil rights in 2020, especially freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

The tightening of restrictions on free expression appears to be linked to the National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, scheduled for January 25 to February 2, 2021. In 2020, the Vietnamese government frequently punished people for criticizing the government or for joining groups to promote democracy or human rights. The authorities arbitrarily arrested or prosecuted at least 28 people for violations of overbroad and vague national security crimes, such as “conducting propaganda” against the state or “abusing rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state.”

“It was another abysmal year for human rights in Vietnam,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Through 2020, the police arrested several vocal dissidents and detained numerous others for speaking their minds and exercising their basic free expression rights.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

The Vietnamese authorities also blocked access to politically independent websites and pressured social media companies to take down accounts, posts, or video clips critical of the government.

In April, the government throttled access to Facebook’s local cache servers, demanding that the company remove pages controlled by dissidents. Facebook, bowing to pressure, agreed to restrict access to the pages within Vietnam, setting a worrying precedent. In early September, the Ministry of Information and Communications praised Facebook and YouTube for their “positive change in collaborating with MIC to block information that violates Vietnam’s law.”

Also in April, the police arrested a former political prisoner, Tran Duc Thach, for being affiliated with a pro-democracy group called Brotherhood for Democracy. He was charged for subversion under article 109 of the penal code. In December, a court convicted and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

In May and June, the police arrested two members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan. In January 2021, a court in Ho Chi Minh City convicted and sentenced them each to 11 years in prison. In the same trial, the founder of the association, blogger Pham Chi Dung, received a 15-year prison sentence.

In June, the police arrested three contributors of the Liberal Publishing House, Can Thi Theu, also a former political prisoner, and her sons Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu. In October, police arrested the co-founder of the Liberal Publishing House, prominent independent blogger Pham Doan Trang. All of them were charged with conducting propaganda against the state under article 117 of the penal code.

“The Vietnamese government fears democracy, an independent media, and freedom,” Sifton said. “Donors and trade partners need to publicly raise concerns about the government’s abysmal rights record and to press Vietnam to meet its international human rights obligations.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 7:18 pm
Click to expand Image A high school student holds up the three-finger salute and gives a speech at a youth-led rally in Chiang Mai, Thailand on August 25, 2020.  © 2020 Supitcha Chailom

(New York, January 13, 2021) – Thailand’s government in 2020 escalated its repression of basic rights in the face of a growing, youth-led democracy movement demanding political and constitutional reforms, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

Protests that started on July 18 soon spread across the country, calling for the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, an end to harassment by the authorities, and the drafting of a new constitution. Some protests included demands to curb the king’s powers. The government responded by cracking down on protest leaders, charging more than 100 of them with illegal assembly, violating Covid-19 related restrictions, and sedition.

“The Thai government has responded to peaceful demands from youth for sweeping political reforms by making Thailand’s human rights crisis go from bad to worse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai authorities have prosecuted dissenters, violently dispersed peaceful protests, censored news and social media, and punished critical political speech.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

On October 15, riot police forcibly cleared protesters who had camped outside the Government House in Bangkok. In the ensuing days, police assaulted peaceful protesters using water cannons, mixed with dye and teargas chemicals, as well as teargas grenades. On November 17, at least 55 people were injured, most from inhaling teargas, and six pro-democracy protesters were wounded by gunfire during a clash with ultra-royalist groups after police withdrew. On November 18, the spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concerns about the Thai government’s use of force against peaceful protesters. 

The government intimidated and punished children and youths who participated in the pro-democracy campaigns. The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported in August a total of 103 harassment incidents against students across the country. At least four high school students were charged with illegal assembly.

The government routinely enforced censorship, including on social media platforms, blocking and punishing opinions the authorities deemed critical of the monarchy. In November, Prime Minister Prayuth brought back lèse-majesté prosecutions after a three-year hiatus. As of December, at least 35 people, including a 16-year-old boy, were charged under article 112 of the penal code (insulting the monarchy) for demanding reform of the monarchy, or saying or writing or doing anything the authorities considered offensive to the monarchy. Critics of the monarchy were also prosecuted under sedition, cybercrime, and other legal provisions.

Thai dissidents who have fled Thailand to escape political persecution face grave threats to their lives. On June 4, an exiled democracy activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, was abducted in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and remains missing. Since 2016, at least nine Thai political activists have been forcibly disappeared in neighboring countries. Two of them were found killed.

“Thailand’s foreign friends should stop ignoring the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the country,” Adams said. “It’s not possible to return to business as usual without securing Thai government commitments to respect democratic principles and rights for all.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 13, 2021, 5:45 pm