Click to expand Image Priest on his way to church in Axum, Tigray region, Ethiopia on January 25, 2011.  © 2011 Matjaz Krivic via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – Eritrean armed forces massacred scores of civilians, including children as young as 13, in the historic town of Axum in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations should urgently establish an independent inquiry into war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in the region to pave the way for accountability, and Ethiopian authorities should grant it full and immediate access.

On November 19, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces indiscriminately shelled Axum, killing and wounding civilians. For a week after taking control of the town, the forces shot civilians and pillaged and destroyed property, including healthcare facilities. After Tigray militia and Axum residents attacked Eritrean forces on November 28, Eritrean forces, in apparent retaliation, fatally shot and summarily executed several hundred residents, mostly men and boys, over a 24-hour period.

“Eritrean troops committed heinous killings in Axum with wanton disregard for civilian lives,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Ethiopian and Eritrean officials can no longer hide behind a curtain of denial, but should allow space for justice and redress, not add to the layers of trauma that survivors already face.”

The attacks in Axum followed weeks of fighting between the Ethiopian military and allied forces from the Amhara region and Eritrean troops against forces affiliated with the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Between December 2020 and February 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone 28 witnesses and victims of abuses and their relatives in Axum and examined videos of attacks and their aftermath.

Survivors consistently identified Eritrean troops by the vehicles bearing Eritrean license plates, their distinctive uniforms, the spoken dialect of Tigrinya, and their plastic “congo” shoes, worn by Eritrean forces since the liberation struggle.

On November 19, after Tigrayan forces and militia withdrew from Axum, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces began shelling the town around 4 p.m., continuing into the evening. The next day, witnesses saw Ethiopian and Eritrean forces indiscriminately shoot at civilians, including in the town’s Saint Mary’s hospital.

For about a week, the military forces pillaged. While several residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch saw Ethiopian forces participate, most said the soldiers just stood by and watched. “It was painful,” said one man. “I thought the Ethiopian military stood for Ethiopia and its people… but they did nothing as Eritrean forces looted and killed. They just kept silent.”

The abuses generated considerable anger in the town. On November 28, after 7 a.m., a group of Tigrayan militia and town residents attacked Eritrean forces, triggering fighting. That afternoon, Eritrean reinforcements entered Axum and went on a 24-hour killing spree.

Survivors described the horror of Eritrean soldiers moving through the town, going house to house, searching for young men and boys, and executing them. A student described watching helplessly as Eritrean soldiers led six neighbors, including a 17-year-old the witness knew as “Jambo” and another young man, outside. He said: “They made them take off their belts, then their shoes. They lined them up and walked behind them. The Eritrean soldiers fired their guns. The first three then fell. They fired other shots, and the other three fell.”

Eritrean troops shot other civilians on the street. “A group of soldiers killed a man and then forced a pregnant woman and two children that were with him to kneel on the asphalt street beside his body,” said one witness.

Those retrieving bodies for burial did not escape harm. Several residents said Eritrean forces shot at them while they tried to collect the dead on November 28 and 29.

The massacre left the town’s inhabitants reeling. One man visited a relative who lost her children in the house-to-house killings: “They killed her children and locked the compound door behind them, so no one could get in at first. She was left alone with the bodies of her two dead children for a day and a half. She was numb, unresponsive by the time we saw her.”

Human Rights Watch was unable to determine the number of civilian deaths resulting from the joint Ethiopian-Eritrean offensive on Axum and the ensuing massacre. However, based on interviews with elders, community members collecting identification cards of those killed, and those assisting the retrieval of the dead, Human Rights Watch estimates that over 200 civilians were most likely killed on November 28-29 alone. Human Rights Watch also received a list of 166 names of victims allegedly killed in Axum in November, 21 of which correspond to the names of those killed on November 28 and 29 given by witnesses interviewed.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applicable to the armed conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians and attacks that are indiscriminate or cause disproportionate civilian harm. Indiscriminate attacks strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction, including those not directed at a specific military target. The laws of war also prohibit all violence against captured combatants and civilians, including murder and torture. Pillage and looting are also prohibited. Individuals who commit serious laws-of-war violations with criminal intent, including as a matter of command responsibility, are liable for war crimes.

Crimes against humanity include murder and other unlawful acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population.

The late November attacks were documented by media organizations, as well as by Amnesty International. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has also begun investigations. Human Rights Watch provided its findings to Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials on February 18 but received no response. On February 26, the Ethiopian government announced it would thoroughly investigate events in Axum and expressed “readiness to collaborate with international human rights experts.”

While the lack of access to conflict areas has hindered reporting on the conflict, Human Rights Watch and others have reported on other massacres, the indiscriminate shelling of towns, widespread pillaging, including destruction of crops, and the apparent extrajudicial executions by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, as well as forces from the neighboring Amhara region.

Given the presence of multiple armed forces and groups and the poor track record of the warring parties in investigating grave abuses, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should conduct an urgent, independent inquiry focused on establishing the facts, collecting forensic and other criminal evidence, and investigating war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Axum and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch said.

“Condemnations are not enough to bring justice to the victims of grave abuses committed by both Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Tigray,” Bader said. “Attention and action by UN member states is needed now to ensure those responsible for these grave abuses are held accountable. So far, reports of these chilling abuses have been met by shameful silence.”

For background information and further accounts of the Tigray conflict, please see below. 

Attack on Axum, November 19-20

Click to expand Image Key locations based on Human Rights Watch’s research into events in Axum, Tigray region, Ethiopia in November 2020.  Satellite image ©2021 CNES. Source Google Earth. Analysis and Graphic: ©2021 Human Rights Watch

Axum is in northern Tigray, home to an ancient civilization, and declared a World Heritage Site in 1980 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Following the outbreak of armed conflict in Tigray in early November, many residents fled the fighting in western Tigray by crossing into Sudan or by going east, including to Axum, where they hoped to find a safe haven given the town’s historical and religious significance.

Axum residents were already feeling shortages because of the conflict. Ethiopia’s federal government cut off access to Tigray at the war’s start and food was in short supply. “Electricity was shut,” one resident said. “We couldn’t grind the grains. People subsisted on crackers. After a week, there was nothing. This affected everyone.”

In mid-November, airstrikes hit an area near Axum’s airport.

On November 19, residents heard the distant sounds of artillery getting closer from the direction of Shire, a town 40 kilometers west that Ethiopian federal forces had captured two days before. Several residents then saw Tigray special forces and militia withdraw from the town. “People were scared because of the terror in Shire,” said a man who fled to Axum. “No one opened their shops or the market.”

At about 4 p.m., Ethiopian and Eritrean forces fired artillery into Axum that struck buildings, hit the town’s cobblestoned streets, and killed and injured civilians. Panicked residents sought cover from the shelling, some hiding in their homes, others fleeing to rural areas, following a pattern of attacks already documented by Human Rights Watch during the conflict.

Artillery hit the wall of a house in Kebele 02, killing four civilians inside. One young man said: “We were scared, this was our first experience with war. We didn’t know what they were targeting. A heavy weapon hit a home. The blast scattered the bodies of Kassa Enquay, Almaz Zeraya, Ammanuel Berhe, and a young woman who worked as a housekeeper.”

The shelling continued until evening. Residents then heard gunfire.

A video showing damage to the Brana Hotel in Axum, which, according to the metadata of the video, was taken on November 25, 2020. ©2020 Private

Around 8 a.m., the next morning, residents saw Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces move unopposed into Axum from two directions. One said: “At first, I saw and heard nothing, it was like a horror movie, eerily quiet ... But then I started hearing unusual sounds. I went out and saw the sound was from the tank treads on the asphalt road. The soldiers started shooting, causing everyone to run.”

A man saw his barber, Mebratu Muruts, shot by a mixed group of Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers: “He tried to run. They shot at him four times before he finally fell.”

Eritrean forces shot patients in the town’s Saint Mary’s hospital, killing both civilians and wounded Tigrayan fighters. A man from a nearby village brought his sister for treatment at the hospital but Eritrean forces fatally shot her as well: “My sister was in the bed. I was in the chair beside her. Suddenly, the [Eritrean forces] came in and started shooting. She got hit by a bullet and I started to run. After killing people, they took medicine, beds, and other equipment.”

Widespread Pillaging, November 20 to 27

For a week, Eritrean forces raided neighborhoods and pillaged homes, banks, pharmacies, and jewelry, electronic, and souvenir shops – hauling away the stolen goods on trucks.

A man displaced from the town of May Gaba saw Eritrean soldiers break into a neighboring compound. “There was a big water tank, they emptied all the water, then stole the tank and pump,” he said. “They even took children’s toys, small bicycles. They took everything, all they could, on the truck.”

The widespread pillaging of medicine, beds, and equipment from Axum’s medical centers prevented injured and sick people from getting treatment. A day laborer said: “Eritrean soldiers took all the medicine from the pharmacy, especially from Axum’s referral and Saint Mary’s hospital. They loaded it onto Tata trucks with Eritrean license plates and left toward Adwa [a town east of Axum in Tigray]. So for those that needed or could afford to buy it, there was nothing available.”

A resident said that on November 30, he tried to get urgent medical care for a woman injured by the shelling:

I found her in pain and unable to talk. Her lower jaw was hanging down. I tried to clean her wound and made her lie down in Saint Mary’s church. She had fled Humera, but the war caught up to her here.

I recognized two nurses trying to flee town. I convinced them to help me take her to Saint Mary’s hospital. When we arrived, we found the pharmacy looted. Everything was gone.

Click to expand Image A woman, injured by shelling during the Ethiopian and Eritrean military in Axum, sits on the floor as she receives medical care. The image was taken on November 30, 2020 according to the photograph’s metadata. © 2020 Private

A video sent to and analyzed by Human Rights Watch seems to show the pharmacy of Saint Mary’s hospital on November 30. The video shows a room with drawers open, shelves with empty medicine boxes, and packages dumped on the floor. The date given through interviews with the videographer corresponds with the date in the video’s metadata.

Several residents saw Ethiopian soldiers participate in the looting. One witness said: “The Ethiopian troops searched houses, they broke the window and gate of the Branna hotel, destroyed government offices and Dedebit bank, and robbed the money.”

Most, however, said that the Ethiopian soldiers stood by and watched the violence. “I asked one soldier, why are you not doing anything, you are Ethiopian, and we are in Ethiopia; you are allowing the Eritreans to do this,” said one resident when he complained to Ethiopian forces about the looting. “He told me: ‘We need an order from above.’”

Ambush and Fighting on November 28

Four residents said that on November 26 they watched a group of Ethiopian federal forces leave Axum with heavy weapons, heading toward Shire. Before they left, one resident approached an Ethiopian soldier who told him: “We have to leave Axum, you guys watch your city. Good luck.”

On November 27, about 50 more Eritrean soldiers arrived and set up a base near a technical college on May Quho hill. Others were stationed near the old airport area.

The shelling and widespread pillaging had created anger and tension in the town. “Eritrean soldiers had beaten and killed people; they looted so much property,” said one young resident. “So we were emotional and upset about what they were doing to Axum people.”

On November 28, at about 6 a.m., 10 to 30 Tigrayan militia members lined up behind the historic Saint Mary’s church and headed toward May Quho.

Residents, mainly young men and boys, joined on impulse. Two participants said that local youth managed to take weapons, including Kalashnikov pattern rifles, from an abandoned Tigrayan forces camp, while others carried sticks, knives, and stones.

One participant in a group of 16 youth said:

Some young people got weapons, such as Kalashnikovs, from a weapons store at a camp. I was there when they got the weapons. We didn’t discuss this beforehand, none of us were trained, but all of us were angry, sad, and emotional about the looting, killings, and beatings of people. A few people joined, and then others followed.

Witnesses saw youth attack and kill about 10 Eritrean soldiers getting water near May Quho. Gunfire then erupted and Eritrean forces fired towards the town and onto the hill, residents said.

Peaceful churchgoers leaving morning prayers at Saint Mary’s church were not spared. Four congregants said the gunfire sent hundreds running. One worshiper said: “We were leaving church when we heard gunshots. I saw a woman aged around 50 and another person fall on the ground as I ran. I dodged the firing by running house to house until I reached my home.”

One youth who tried to deliver food to the militia members saw several young men die in the clashes, including a resident, Tegazu.

A man watched residents heading to the hill from his hotel: “I saw someone carrying two guns in his hands. He asked, ‘How do I shoot these guns?’ A little boy was joining the battle.” Later, he saw Eritrean snipers shoot at youth in the town and at those trying to get up the mountain. “The young boy who passed by the hotel earlier fell from the mountain,” the man said. “He wasn’t older than 12.”

Clashes lasted until 4:30 p.m. when Eritrean forces called for reinforcements. They arrived firing heavy weapons from the direction of Adwa, forcing the militias and youth to stop fighting and retreat back into town.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a video of the gunfire exchange on May Quho, which confirms witness accounts. The 6:22 minute video contains four scenes edited together. The first scene shows at least 10 people running up May Quho amid constant gunfire. The second scene shows a group of at least 16 young men in civilian clothing, unarmed, with no visible or makeshift weapons gathered at the bottom of the hill. One man is carrying a child on his hip. By matching key landmarks visible in the video with satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch was able to establish that the group was standing at the bottom of May Quho, approximately 70 meters northeast of the Queen Sheba’s bath and 580 meters from Saint Mary’s church.

Massacre on November 28 and 29

Witnesses said that from 4 p.m. on November 28, until the following morning, Eritrean soldiers attacked Axum residents, shooting indiscriminately or summarily executing those they found on the streets or in house-to-house searches. Young men and boys were the evident targets.

A witness saw four Eritrean soldiers kill two people he knew, including a child:

Haftom Kalem was young, maybe 16 or 17. He was near Saint Mary’s church. I saw him running when Eritrean forces yelled at him to stop. He kept running, and they finally shot him. A teacher, Alemshewit Gebrewahid was next. He was at home and opened the door to see what was going on. The four soldiers noticed him. He was screaming: “What did I do? I don’t know anything. I am a civilian.” One soldier shot him twice.

They seemed to be cleansing the area.

A driver saw six Eritrean soldiers lead six people, including two of his friends, out of a motel near May Quho where they had been hiding, and shot them dead. He said:

I was hiding in a room on the third floor watching from the window when the soldiers came and led Mulu, John, [two other men], and two women outside. They made the four men line up in front of the wall. The two women pleaded with them [the soldiers]. They pointed their guns at the women and told them to keep quiet. My two friends were killed. Mulu was shot in the chest. John, in the neck.

Soldiers also shot and killed civilians on the street. One man saw Eritrean forces shoot his friend Tesfaye on November 28. “The Eritrean soldiers came in front of him,” he said. “He had a bottle of water and biscuits in his hand that we bought together earlier and that he planned to have for dinner. He [Tesfaye] raised his hands as they shot him.”

A student found the main and side streets filled with dead bodies. He recognized the bodies of four friends in front of Abnet Hotel: Ashenafi Berhane, about 13; “Jambo”, 17; Yonas, 20; and Negash Saleh, 19. He said:

They all had bullet wounds. Most shot in the abdomen. Yonas in his back.

I went to Jambo’s mother. When I entered the house, everyone was crying. His mother rushed up to me and grabbed my hand, she kept asking: “Where is Jambo? Where is Jambo? Where did you leave him? Why did you leave him?” I was crying, she was crying, I could say nothing to her, I didn’t know what to say. Then someone said [about me], “He knows he’s dead.”

As the sounds of gunfire seemed to decrease, residents attempting to pick up the bodies were shot at. One said:

We saw dead bodies near the NIB bank. A woman was among the dead – she was wearing a netela [traditional white cloth] and was in her 30s. The rest were young. As we were trying to collect the bodies, weapons were fired toward us, so we left the bodies and ran home.

Some residents, however, managed to pick up bodies from the streets on November 29. Human Rights Watch reviewed a video showing a body being carried on a stretcher. An identity card from the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia displaying the name and picture of Gebrehiwot Gebrekidan is shown to the camera. A woman uncovers the face of the deceased revealing his face. The facial hair and age are consistent with the photograph on the identity card. Gebrehiwot Gebrekidan was among the list of men killed. According to the metadata attached to this video, it was recorded on November 29.

By evening on November 29, Eritrean forces had detained hundreds of men and boys and held them in at least three sites. Witnesses saw soldiers execute some of the detained men. Three Eritrean soldiers entered Saint Mary’s church and detained men sheltering there. One witness said:

They took men near the entrance. A laborer from Humera who had been living in the church was selected. He was too weak to stand and refused. So they killed him. They took around 50 people from inside the church. I saw a young monk, Aba Berihun, picked. They led them out barefoot. I was deep in the church hiding among the elders. I was lucky not to be taken.

Two residents held at makeshift sites, in open pits, near the airport said they were guarded by female Eritrean soldiers, threatened, and told to hand over weapons. One man said:

They called one man over, and maybe he wasn’t fast enough, or did not obey them enough, but they called him and his two friends and shot them in front of us. This was to intimidate those detained, for us to disclose information. After seeing them killed, we just waited for our turn.

Three men held said Eritrean soldiers mocked and threatened them. By evening one Eritrean soldier ordered the detainees’ release but threatened they would meet the same fate as those killed if they resisted further, two witnesses said. “They pressured us to help them locate the Tigray forces, and vowed to destroy the city if we fought or didn’t obey them,” said one man. “I was in disbelief when we were released,” another said. “I just ran away; I have never run in my whole life like I did in that moment.”

Burials and Psychological Trauma

The religious festival of Saint Mary, held annually on November 30, typically draws thousands of pilgrims and tourists to Axum. The community, however, commemorated the day by collecting bodies onto carts or tragically learning of the loss of loved ones. “Our festival became a funeral,” said a mourner.

Another man said it was “a dark and bloody day for everyone.… A person was missing from every house. They had either been killed, ran away to rural areas, or no one knew their whereabouts.”

A day laborer who collected about 20 bodies on November 30 said: “We started at 8 a.m. I picked up bodies near the church, the bus station, and the Abnet Hotel on the main asphalt road. They had been left out for two days and started to smell.”

Several residents said that journalists from Ethiopian state media started recording to show the town was peaceful. One man was at church burying someone he knew: “Instead of allowing people to mourn, they recorded us and pretended people were gathered for our [religious festival].”

Community members collected bodies from locations throughout Axum, in the streets, outside homes, and on May Quho. “Hyenas had eaten the corpses on May Quho, so we didn’t collect many dead bodies from there,” said one man carrying the dead. “I counted around 25 remains that could not be identified.” Another said: “The hill was like a graveyard, a ghost hill.”           

Residents found Ashenafi, about 15, shot dead outside the three steps of a restaurant, his hands still clinging to the outdoor fence. A man who helped collect bodies and wrap them in plastic sheeting said: “I saw one woman come up to a cart. She was trying to see the bodies. She removed one plastic sheet, saw the man was her son, and collapsed.”

Victims were buried in existing cement chambers in Arbatu Ensessa church, or in mass graves, a practice out of step with Orthodox Christian funeral rites in grave sites around Saint Mikael, Abune Aregawi, Enda Yesus, and Abba Pantelewon churches. Several residents said that over a dozen Muslims were also buried in Mekabr Eslam, a burial site a few kilometers north of Saint Mary’s church. One man participating in burials explained how the names of those killed were identified and registered:

Family members recognized the dead. Or we found out through identification cards kept at the churches. If not, a sample of the clothing or shoes they wore was left at the church so that people could go identify their loved ones. A few were unidentified, whether Christian or Muslim, whether migrants from western Tigray. So we buried them along the China road.

The attacks and killings are likely to inflict long-term trauma and harm to survivors and the community. One resident said: “After burying, I couldn’t sleep. I have never seen so many dead bodies like that in my life.”


Though Eritrean forces left Axum and moved toward neighboring villages, residents still saw some troops in and out of the town afterward. These soldiers, along with thieves, continued to loot. “I saw three Eritrean soldiers break the door to my wife’s shop, but there was nothing I could do,” said one man. “When I came back, nothing was left in the store.”

In December, a woman visiting her family described Axum as “a dark city where everyone lived in fear of soldiers. Everything was looted, shops weren’t open, and there was no food, light, or water. I drank water dug from a hole.”

The pillaging of medical equipment and medicines from hospitals meant that many with medical needs were left unassisted. “My wife was pregnant and near delivery,” one man said in February. “But there was no electricity, no network to call for help. The health workers fled to the villages. My child is still not vaccinated.” Aid agencies that arrived in January and February found healthcare centers nonfunctional, and a population living without electricity, with shortages of water and food, and in need of critical assistance.

Survivors who fled or remained in Axum spoke consistently of the collective pain and trauma the community experienced, but also their shock and anger at the government. “The Eritrean [soldiers] did this without fear,” said one resident in February. “The Ethiopian government should have protected us. Up to now, no one came to check on us to see what was going on.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 5, 2021, 9:39 pm
Click to expand Image Front side of the National Assembly of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, May 7, 2019. © Daniel Kalker/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should withdraw a draconian draft law that would allow for 20-year prison sentences and other disproportionate penalties for violations of Covid-19 related measures, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill contains overly broad and vague provisions that the authorities could easily abuse, and fails to provide any independent oversight or procedural safeguards.

The draft Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases aims to impose criminal punishments, including fines and prison sentences, on people who violate health, administrative, or other measures related to preventing the spread of Covid-19. The government has asked the National Assembly to treat the bill as “urgent,” minimizing expert review and public input.

“The Cambodian government has already passed an abusive state of emergency law and now proposes a vague and overly broad Covid-19 law that would further erode the rights of activists and dissidents,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Imposing ridiculously harsh penalties for Covid-19 infractions goes against both public health and human rights principles.”

Making exposure and transmission of Covid-19 a criminal offense may also have serious public health consequences, as the increased stigma caused by criminalization could deter testing, Human Rights Watch said.

The draft law, a copy of which Human Rights Watch obtained, includes administrative measures such as travel prohibitions, bans on gatherings, lockdown of areas with high Covid-19 case counts, and unspecified “administrative and other measures that are necessary to respond and prevent the spread of Covid-19.” Such vague provisions allow for potential overreach and abuses by the authorities by arbitrarily targeting people and groups in society, such as those protesting government policies or oppressive measures.

The bill sets out the penalties that can be imposed on people found to have violated any health, administrative, or other measures imposed by the government to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Punishments range from suspending or removing business licenses and closing businesses to fines and imprisonment. For example, leaving self-quarantine prematurely is punishable by up to 3 years in prison; leaving medical treatment facilities while positive for the coronavirus is punishable by up 10 years; intentional spreading of Covid-19 is punishable by up to 10 years, or 20 if the offense is committed by an organized group; noncompliance with Covid-19 administrative measures is punishable by up to 5 years when it results in a serious public health threat; and obstruction of Covid-19 measures is punishable by up to 5 years in prison. Steep fines accompany all penalties.

The legislation does not make the measures temporary or subject them to regular review.

In April 2020, Prime Minister Hun Sen used the Covid-19 pandemic to enact a state of emergency law that severely restricts fundamental liberties. The law grants extensive powers to the prime minister, allowing bans on the distribution of information, intrusive surveillance of telecommunications “by all means,” and total control of the media. It also empowers the government to restrict movement and demonstrations and opens the way for unfettered government powers. The penalties and fines are unlawfully disproportionate.

On February 18, 2021, Hun Sen signed a sub-decree that imposes hefty fines on people who violate Covid-19 quarantine rules. Anyone who “intentionally initiates, leads, advises, incites, persuades or helps” an escape from quarantine facilities may be fined US$12,500. Since the end of 2020, everyone entering Cambodia must undergo a 14-day quarantine period at a government designated location.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a state party, allows countries to adopt exceptional and temporary restrictions on certain rights that would not otherwise be permitted but the measures must be those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” Such measures restricting human rights should be provided for by law, not discriminate, and be necessary and proportionate to meet the public health crisis.

“Cambodia’s leaders should be seeking cooperation from Cambodians in the fight against Covid-19, not threatening them with years behind bars for violating health measures,” Robertson said. “United Nations agencies, foreign governments, and donors assisting Cambodia with its Covid-19 response should publicly call for heavy-handed and disproportionate measures to be withdrawn.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 5, 2021, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image The new Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Zhaparov, who won the January 10 snap election, at his inauguration ceremony in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin

(Berlin) – The draft constitution submitted to the Kyrgyz Parliament on February 9, 2021 undermines human rights norms and weakens checks and balances necessary to prevent abuses of power, Human Rights Watch said today.

The timetable announced by President Sadyr Japarov envisages limited consultation and parliamentary debate on the draft before it is put to a national referendum on April 11.

Kyrgyzstan’s caretaker parliament should postpone consideration of the draft until after a new parliament has been elected to allow for a full deliberative and consultative constitutional reform process.

“The current draft constitution does not reflect the high human rights standards Kyrgyzstan says it aspires to,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kyrgyzstan should take the time it needs to prepare a constitution that protects the rights of everyone in a way that complies with international human rights standards.”

Provisions in the draft constitution regarding the role of the executive and of the legislature erode the constitution’s current system of checks and balances. Article 70 provides the president with powers previously exclusive to the parliament, such as initiating new laws and referendums, in addition to the existing power of veto.

Articles 76 to 79 make it possible for the president to indirectly recall the mandates of members of parliament, although a separate law would be needed to clarify this. If the president obtains the support of a majority of parliament members, the president can strip a member’s immunity from criminal prosecution, creating the conditions for political pressure on members who are critical of the ruling party or the president.

The draft constitution would also transfer power from the parliament to the president to appoint members of the cabinet, and appoint and dismiss judges, the prosecutor general, the chairman of the National Bank and of the Accounting Chamber, as well as nominate and dismiss half of the Central Election Committee, undermining their independence from the executive.

The constitution also grants the national kurultai – a traditional people’s council with delegates from all regions of the country – significant authority, much of which duplicates parliament’s functions. This body could also suggest removing Cabinet members and leaders of other government institutions from office. The kurultai could nominate its own representatives to the Council for Justice Affairs, which appoints judges. The kurultai would also have new authority to propose laws to the parliament. The draft does not specify how members of the kurultai are chosen.

How the country organizes its political system is a political choice to be made by the citizens. However, it is vital for decision-making by relevant institutions to be transparent and legitimate, and for the introduction of new structures, such as a people’s council, not to offer opportunities for abuse of power, Human Rights Watch said.

Several individual provisions in the draft constitution directly violate international human rights standards and should be revised, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 10 would prohibit activities, public events, and dissemination of information contrary to “moral values and the public consciousness of the people of Kyrgyzstan,” ostensibly with the aim of protecting children. However, such a provision is incompatible with fundamental human rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The term “public consciousness of the people” is worryingly broad and ill-defined, and open to abuse.

The draft fails to protect the right to peaceful assembly in line with international human rights norms and includes a requirement to obtain advance permission from the authorities to hold peaceful assemblies. The draft has also excluded article 38, guaranteeing freedom of identification of ethnic identity, creating a dangerous potential for ethnic profiling and discrimination against ethnic minorities.

The draft constitution includes a provision imposing unnecessary, burdensome financial reporting requirements on nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, and political parties that is incompatible with rights to freedom of association and expression.

The manner and timing of the recent constitutional reform process raises serious concerns about Kyrgyzstan’s leadership’s commitment to protecting human rights and the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said. Under the current constitution, only parliament has the right to establish a working group on modifying the constitution. Contrary to this norm, in November 2020 acting President Talant Mamytov issued a decree establishing an 89-member Constitutional Council tasked with drawing up the draft. There was no prior public discussion of candidates for the Council, who conducted all their work behind closed doors.

The draft constitution was to be made public one month prior to submission to the parliament on February 9, which did not happen, and the draft went straight to the parliament. Although the draft is now open to public comments and suggestions by phone, mail, or email until March 9, this is by no means a full public consultation that would involve consideration of opinions of numerous stakeholders from rural and urban areas.

Human Rights Watch is not aware of any arrangements for the results of the comment period to be made public or for provisions for parliament to change the draft while it goes through the necessary three parliamentary readings. After the readings, votes of at least 80 members of parliament, a two-thirds majority, are required to adopt the draft before it is put to vote by referendum.

The Kyrgyz authorities should ensure that citizens and experts alike are consulted fully in a deliberative process. The government should also refer the draft constitution to the European Commission for Democracy through Law, also known as the Venice Commission, Human Rights Watch said.

A November 2020 Urgent Amicus Curiae brief from the Venice Commission says that Kyrgyzstan’s current caretaker parliament does not have the legitimacy to initiate far-reaching constitutional amendments, especially in a way contrary to the process provided for in the current constitution. The current parliament’s role is to discharge essential governance functions in line with the rule of law until the will of the people can be expressed in a free and fair election, which has not yet been scheduled. President Japarov has said in an interview that the parliamentary election will be held in the fall.

Multiple rights groups and others have expressed concern and criticism of the draft constitution, including Legal Clinic Adilet, Community of Lawyers, Media Policy Institute, and Bir Duino. They all have recommended postponing the constitutional referendum to allow adequate time for revisions to the draft to ensure it complies with human rights standards.

Kyrgyzstan’s international partners, in particular the European Union, its member states, the US, and the UK, should publicly urge the Kyrgyz government to seek international expert advice on the draft constitution from the Venice Commission, to comply with procedures regarding the adoption of the new constitution in line with national and international norms.

“President Japarov has pledged to uphold and respect human rights,” Sultanalieva said. “A new constitution lays the foundation for these actions, so it is vitally important for this document, and the process of preparing it, to uphold beyond all doubt the highest standards of human rights and the rule of law. It is in his government’s interest for this to take place.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 5, 2021, 12:21 pm


Click to expand Image Sahrawi activist Sultana Khaya in 2019. © 2019 Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

 (Washington) – Moroccan security forces have maintained a near-constant heavy presence outside the house of an activist for Western Sahara independence for more than three months, Human Rights Watch said today. They have provided no justification and have prevented several people, including family members, from visiting. 

The surveillance and violations of the right of the activist, Sultana Khaya, to associate freely with others, at her home in Boujdour, Western Sahara, are emblematic of Morocco’s intolerance of calls for Sahrawi self-determination in defiance of Morocco’s claim to the territory. Khaya is locally known for her displays of vehement opposition to Morocco’s control of Western Sahara. She often protests in the street, solo or with others, waving Sahrawi flags and chanting independence slogans in front of Moroccan security force members.

“Moroccan authorities might well dislike Sultana Khaya’s pro-independence views and in-your-face style,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet speaking out peacefully remains her right, and nothing justifies blockading her home without any legal basis.”

Khaya returned to her family on November 19, 2020, after a visit to Spain. While she was out that day, Moroccan security force members raided the house. During their operation, they hit her 84-year-old mother on the head, Khaya told Human Rights Watch. Security officers have remained outside the house ever since. 

Human Rights Watch has viewed several videos, shot on various dates between November 19 and the present, showing groups of security force members in uniforms mixed with men in civilian clothes, some stationed near police vehicles, outside of Khaya’s home as she shouts pro-independence slogans from a window or a few meters outside the front door. Some show the men blocking the path to visitors or shoving them away.

Since November 19, Khaya has left the house less than a dozen times, walking a few meters as she films the security force members with her phone, then returning to the house. She said she often stands at a window waving the Sahrawi flag and chanting independence slogans.

Khaya has ventured farther from her home only once since November 19, she told Human Rights Watch. In late December, she said, she walked about 150 meters from her doorstep, until a group of security force members gathered near her. “They didn’t stop me or touch me, but I felt threatened and feared for my life, so I walked back home,” she said.

Moroccan authorities have long kept a strong lid on any public protests against Moroccan rule in Western Sahara and in favor of self-determination for the territory. They have beaten activists in their custody and on the streets, imprisoned and sentenced them in trials marred by due process violations, including torture, impeded their freedom of movement, and followed them openly. Moroccan authorities also refused entry to Western Sahara to scores of foreign visitors over the last few years, including journalists and human rights activists.

On January 18, 2021, police agents prevented a cousin of Khaya’s from entering the house. They also brutally pushed Khaya, who was standing outside, back through her front door, she told Human Rights Watch.

On February 13, while she was filming the police from an open window, Khaya was hit in the face by a rock that she said a security force member threw from the street. The National Council for Human Rights, a Moroccan state body, on February 16, called on the Boujdour prosecutor to investigate the incident.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Hassanna Duihi, a Sahrawi pro-independence activist who lives in Boujdour. Duihi said he had attempted to visit Khaya four times since December. The first two times, uniformed security force members shoved him away, providing no reason other than that they had “orders,” Duihi said. Human Rights Watch reviewed a video of one of the incidents, provided by Duihi. Filmed from inside the house, the one-minute video matches Duihi’s description of the incident. Duihi was able to visit Khaya on February 19 and 21 in the early morning, he said.

On February 21, around midday, a man in civilian clothes snatched Khaya’s mobile phone out of her hand while she was in the street outside her front door, filming security force members as they were blocking a visitor. Duihi and Babouzid Buihi, another independence activist whom Human Rights Watch interviewed, witnessed the incident from inside Khaya’s house, which Buihi had also reached earlier that day. Both men said she staged a sit-in protest outside her front door until 11 p.m. The phone was slipped under her door half an hour later, but Khaya said she refuses to use it, fearing that spyware had been installed on it.

On February 23, Khaya said, a police agent tried to hand her a summons to appear before a prosecutor. She refused to take the document, saying she didn’t recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, and thus their jurisdiction over her. Human Rights Watch does not know the basis for the summons.

In response to an inquiry from Human Rights Watch, Morocco’s Inter-Ministerial Delegation for Human Rights stated, “Neither (Khaya) nor her family are subjected to any form of harassment or surveillance.” They added that on November 19, Khaya, back from travels, was “greeted by a group of persons in the street outside her house,” and that the authorities urged the group to “respect safety measures” in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. That request, they said, resulted in Khaya’s mother “losing consciousness” for reasons they didn’t specify. 

Khaya said no local official ever mentioned Covid-19 as a justification for the continued presence of police forces around her house since November or blocking some visitors. Duihi said that Moroccan authorities had imposed no Covid-19 safety measures on Boujdour beyond the nighttime curfew they had imposed throughout Morocco and Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. He said that, to his knowledge, police have not maintained such heavy surveillance in front of any other private residence in the city and that the pandemic had not prevented various crowded events in the city, including pro-Morocco political gatherings.

Most of Western Sahara has been under Moroccan control since Spain, the territory’s former colonial administrator, withdrew in 1975. In 1991, both Morocco and the Polisario, the liberation movement for Western Sahara, agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire to prepare for a referendum on self-determination. That referendum never took place. Morocco considers Western Sahara to be an integral part of the kingdom and rejects demands for a vote on self-determination that would include independence as an option.

“The police heavy-handed stakeout around Sultana Khaya’s home illustrates Morocco’s determination to keep pressure, including psychological, on those who reject its claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara,” Goldstein said.


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 5, 2021, 7:00 am

(Washington, DC) – Asylum seekers sent to Mexico by the administration of former US president Donald Trump have suffered violence and extortion by Mexican police, immigration agents, and criminal groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since January 2019, the United States has effectively closed its southern border to asylum seekers, leaving many to face abuses in Mexico. The Trump administration, under its Remain in Mexico program, sent more than 71,000 asylum seekers to Mexico to await asylum hearings. Additionally, since March 2020, the US has expelled more than 400,000 migrants, many to Mexico, including asylum seekers who were denied the chance to make their claims, under travel restrictions purportedly to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Those interviewed have said they were afraid to report crimes and abuse to Mexican authorities and were frequently unable to get the documents they needed to work, get health care, or send their children to school. Nearly half of asylum seekers under the Remain in Mexico program lost their cases after missing court dates. Human Rights Watch has spoken to families who missed court dates because they were kidnapped in Mexico. Others were bused south by the Mexican government, leaving them thousands of miles from their hearing locations.

“Tens of thousands of migrant families, including Venezuelans seeking protection from torture, persecution, and arbitrary imprisonment, have been abandoned by the US and Mexican governments to suffer extortion and violence in Mexico,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “With President Biden taking positive steps to reverse some of the Trump administration’s most abusive immigration policies, President López Obrador is running out of excuses to look the other way while Mexican officials continue to participate in abuses against migrants.”

President Joe Biden should ensure that plans to phase out Remain in Mexico include asylum seekers whose cases were unfairly terminated while they were in Mexico and end the policy under which the US expels migrants to Mexico without due process. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador should ensure that asylum seekers still waiting in Mexico are able to work and get health care and education, and that those responsible for crimes against migrants, including Mexican police and immigration agents, are brought to justice.

As part of its ongoing research on the crisis in Venezuela, which has driven more than 5.5 million people from the country, Human Rights Watch interviewed, between September and December 2020, 71 Venezuelans who had traveled through Mexico to seek asylum in the US and were sent to wait in Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program. Most were traveling with partners, children, or other family members. Human Rights Watch also spoke to government officials, humanitarian and migrants’ rights groups, and two lawyers representing asylum seekers and, in many cases, reviewed corroborating evidence, including police reports, photographs, and immigration documents.

The findings are consistent with previous Human Rights Watch research, including interviewing asylum seekers of many nationalities in Mexico, visiting migrant shelters and camps along the US-Mexican border, reviewing legal documents, observing court hearings, and speaking with lawyers and humanitarian workers. Human Rights Watch has consistently found that migrants in Mexico are exposed to rape, kidnapping, extortion, assault, and psychological trauma.

The nearly 1,600 Venezuelans who still have active asylum cases under Remain in Mexico represent just a small portion of the hundreds of thousands who have been sent by the United States to Mexico in the past two years.

Since taking office, President Biden has suspended new enrollments in Remain in Mexico – formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (or MPP) – and is allowing the 25,000 asylum seekers who have managed to stay current on court dates to begin signing up to receive a date to enter the United States. This is a positive step that will bring the US closer to respecting human rights norms, Human Rights Watch said. However, the Biden administration continues to expel asylum seekers arriving at the border on misleading public health grounds, and has made no provision for the 30,000 whose asylum cases were unfairly terminated after they were sent to Mexico.

Nearly every Venezuelan interviewed reported fleeing political persecution, torture, or harassment. Their accounts were consistent with previous Human Rights Watch research documenting the Nicolás Maduro government’s brutal crackdown on dissent, as well as reporting by the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s office and a United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, both of which concluded based on the information available to them at this stage of their inquiries that crimes against humanity may have been committed in Venezuela.

Nearly half of those interviewed said Mexican police, immigration agents, or criminal groups targeted them for extortion. In 16 cases, asylum seekers said Mexican immigration agents or police officers had pulled them off buses or out of line at the airport and threatened to deport them if they did not pay a bribe. Some said agents detained them and threatened to kill them or hand them over to cartels if they did not pay.

In 27 cases, asylum seekers said criminal groups had intercepted them at border crossings, bus stations, hotels, or elsewhere in border cities. The criminals had kidnapped or threatened to kidnap the asylum seekers and demanded ransom or protection payments ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Most victims said they were targeted because they were migrants. The abusers often identified their victims by inspecting their identity and court documents. In some cases, the abuser already had their photo or identified them out of a crowd. Many victims said they noticed strangers watching them or taking photos of them before or after the crime.

These reports are consistent with previous Human Rights Watch research documenting a common process by which criminal gangs kidnap migrants of many nationalities and register them: taking photos, inspecting identity and court documents, and logging identifying information for future reference. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, international groups, and the media have reported that Mexican officials and criminal groups regularly target asylum seekers traveling through Mexico to kidnap and extort them.

Reflecting that migrants are preyed upon by officials and criminals alike, one man said, “I don’t understand who is a criminal and who is the law.”

Many said they fear going outside or interacting with Mexican officials, even to find work or medical care, and avoid speaking in front of strangers for fear their accents will make them targets. They fear their children will be kidnapped if enrolled in school.

“I’m terrified of going outside,” one woman said. “I don’t know what is worse – being here or in Venezuela.”

Under the agreement that established Remain in Mexico, the Mexican government should guarantee that asylum seekers have access to work, health care, and education. But unlike other migrants granted legal status in Mexico, they are not given photo ID cards confirming that status. As a result, many are turned away by employers or public officials who say they have never heard of Remain in Mexico or do not understand the legal status it confers.  

Some said they were unable to open bank accounts or receive international money transfers. One said her family has gone hungry because they can neither work nor receive transfers. Several could not receive treatment for serious medical conditions. Children had missed months of school, even before the pandemic closed classrooms.

They had received little to no support or information from the Mexican government. Many did not know they had the right to use public services or did not understand how to get them, from the documents they had received.

“The dangerous conditions facing asylum seekers under Remain in Mexico are inexcusable,” Vivanco said. “Until the Biden administration ends this abusive program, the Mexican government needs to act to ensure that asylum seekers can stay safely in Mexico and access essential services.”

For additional information on the findings, recommendations, and a selection of cases, please see below. Unless noted otherwise, the cases are based on the direct testimony of interviewees.

Why They Fled Venezuela

Nearly all the Venezuelans interviewed in Mexico were fleeing some form of political persecution, torture, or harassment in Venezuela.

Among the reasons interviewees cited for seeking asylum in the US were abuses by Venezuelan security forces including the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN), the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), and state police agencies, as well as armed pro-government groups, called colectivos in Venezuela. Some had been opposition party members or political activists. Some had simply participated in protests, in some cases for access to essential services such as water and electricity. Others were public-sector employees who had refused to participate in pro-government rallies or had shared an anti-government image on social media.

Jonathan, who like others interviewed is identified by a pseudonym for his protection, said he was detained in April 2019 while participating in a protest supporting the opposition leader Leopoldo López. He was held for three days, beaten, and forced to sleep standing up, and was eventually charged with crimes including terrorism, conspiracy, and use of explosive devices. His family had to sell belongings to pay a US$3,500 bribe to get him out. For months, as his trial was repeatedly postponed, he said, agents stalked his house, taking photos. His lawyer eventually warned him that the government intended to revoke his conditional liberty, and he fled Venezuela with his wife and two children, ages 3 and 13. In March 2020, they were sent to wait in Mexico after applying for asylum in the US. As of January 2021, they were waiting in a border city.

Mayra, a human rights lawyer and opposition party activist, said that in 2019 she helped organize marches demanding that the government allow humanitarian aid to enter Venezuela. Afterwards officials and strangers began sending threatening messages, she said. Agents eventually forced their way into her home, violently detained her, blindfolded her, and dragged her to a truck, where she lost consciousness three times, as they beat her and administered electric shocks for six hours. They brought her to a guerilla camp near the border, where a man threatened to kill her unless she left the country and stopped participating in political rallies, before returning her to the city and leaving her at a National Guard station. While she was recovering at home, a friend filed a police report. But when she went to certify it, two people kidnapped her, saying the police had destroyed the report. She fled the country shortly before a warrant was issued for her arrest. She has been waiting under Remain in Mexico since September 2019.

Targeted for Kidnapping, Extortion in Mexico

Extortion by Mexican Police and Immigration Agents

Sixteen people interviewed said that Mexican immigration agents or police officers detained them and demanded bribes – sometimes thousands of dollars. They said officials threatened to deport them, make them disappear, or turn them over to cartels if they did not pay. Some said they were extorted as they entered the country. Others were stopped at an airport, and immigration agents took them to holding areas to demand payment.

Ángel and his family flew from Panama City to Monterrey, in northern Mexico, in October 2019, on their way to apply for asylum at the US border. He said a Mexican immigration agent, holding photos of them that appeared to have been taken earlier that day at the Panama airport, pulled them out of the arrivals line and placed them in a holding cell overnight. The next morning, another agent demanded a bribe of $100 per person, saying he could deport them if they did not pay.

He paid, and he and his family continued onto a flight to the border city of Ciudad Juárez. Officers in federal and municipal police uniforms there pulled all Venezuelans and Cubans out of line, again demanding bribes of $100 per person, with one telling them, “We know you are trying to get to the border.” When Ángel refused to pay, the same officers held him and his family until after dark, drove them in a van to an abandoned alleyway, and said that if they did not pay $6,000, they would be handed over to a cartel.

When Ángel said he did not have that much, they beat his father and broke open the family’s suitcases, spreading the contents on the ground. Ángel’s sister handed over her purse, which contained $3,000 – all the money they had for the trip. The officers drove away, and in the middle of the night, the family walked to the border, where they began the asylum process.

Mauricio said that when he landed at the Cancun airport in October 2019, an immigration agent took him into a holding area and demanded a $300 bribe to enter the country. He paid, but the agent disappeared, and he was deported. In December 2019, he tried again, this time flying to Mexico City, where an immigration agent demanded a $500 bribe. He paid, and the agent gave him a visa.

He walked into the main terminal, where a group of police officers stopped him and made him pay a third bribe of $400. One officer also took a photo of his passport and boarding pass and sent it to someone. The next day, at the gate for his flight to the border, three police officers approached him and made him pay $300 to avoid deportation. In Ciudad Juárez, police stopped him a fifth time, demanding his remaining $300. “We are just a business for them,” Mauricio said.

Human Rights Watch requested information from Mexico’s National Migration Institute about any known allegations that immigration agents had extorted migrants but has received no reply.

Kidnapping and Extortion by Criminal Groups

Yaneth and her husband, Rafael, said they arrived in Reynosa by bus in August 2019, and asked a taxi driver to take them to a well-known migrant shelter. Instead, the driver took them to an abandoned house, where kidnapped families from Honduras, Cuba, and El Salvador were being held. When the kidnappers learned that the couple had come to seek asylum in the US, they demanded $1,500, as a “fee” to cross the border, threatening to kill them if they did not pay. They paid and were taken to a border bridge. “We never reported the kidnapping to the police,” Yaneth said. “We were too scared.”

When Josue and his family arrived in Reynosa, he said, they put their names on the “metering” list, a system that limits the number of people who can apply for asylum each day at US ports of entry. Two days later, as they waited for their turn to present themselves at the border to apply for asylum, a man approached them in the hotel lobby saying he worked for the bridge “owner” and that they would have to pay a “fee” of $300 for each family member to cross. The director of a nearby migrant shelter told them they would be in more danger if they did not pay or if they told the police.

Josue paid. But days later, the man returned and demanded $3,000. Josue’s family did not have that much money and were afraid to continue waiting so they swam across the river to the US. Authorities there detained them, received their asylum application, and sent them to Matamoros under Remain in Mexico. Josue never reported the crime because “everyone knows the criminals are in charge on the border.”

Nowhere to Turn

Most asylum seekers interviewed said they had been victims of crime but did not report it to the police because they believed the authorities were complicit or they feared reporting would expose them to further crimes or abuses by officials. Some who attempted to report crimes said they were turned away either for being foreigners or because authorities said crimes against migrants were “normal,” and there was nothing they could do.

When Maykel arrived in Reynosa in August 2019, he said, a criminal group kidnapped him and extorted a $2,000 “fee” to cross the border. When he was sent to Mexico under Remain in Mexico, he reported the crime, giving his address and phone number so that authorities could follow up. Instead, police officers began coming to his rented apartment to extort him, he said. They threatened to hand him over to the cartels unless he paid for protection. Maykel had to move twice and change his phone number to avoid police harassment.

Ángeles said three men she suspected were members of a criminal organization attacked and beat her. When she went to the police to file a report, they left her waiting for hours, she said. Finally, an officer told her unofficially: “You are wasting your time here. No one will help you. The police don’t want to get involved with those people,” she said. Ángeles understood “those people” to mean organized crime groups, so she left.

Human Rights Watch requested information on how state police and prosecutors in six border states respond to reports of crimes against migrants. State authorities in Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas provided statistics on reports of crimes against migrants but said they had no records of cases in which migrants were unable to file police reports and that state officials had been instructed to respect the human rights of all victims regardless of nationality or migratory status. Nuevo León officials did not respond.

Barriers to Essential Services in Mexico

Asylum seekers under the Remain in Mexico program have a right to access essential services, such as public education and basic health care, and to work in Mexico. In December 2018, Mexico committed to guaranteeing that people in the program would “fully enjoy the rights and liberties recognized in the Constitution, international treaties to which Mexico is a party, and the Migration Law.” In June 2019, when the US and Mexico agreed to expand the program, Mexico reiterated its commitment, saying it would offer “work opportunities,” access to “healthcare and education,” and “human rights protection.”

Nearly all the asylum seekers interviewed described barriers to exercising those rights.

Navigating a Web of Documents, Agencies

Everyone in Remain in Mexico is entitled to a Mexican national ID number known as a CURP (Clave Única de Registro de Población). Immigration officials are required to provide a national ID number to each person entering the country under the program, but some interviewees said they never received one.

A national ID number provides access to public education and certain basic health services. People can also use it to apply for a tax ID, known as an RFC number (Registro Federal de Contribuyentes), which is needed to work legally, and a social security number, which is needed to use Mexico’s national healthcare system, IMSS (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social).

Lack of Information, Misinformation by Authorities

Most people interviewed did not know they had the right to use public services or work legally – or how to obtain the necessary documents. As a result, some had not attempted to obtain formal work, enroll children in school, or get public health care. Even though every member of one woman’s family received ID and social security numbers, she said, officials wrongly told them they could not access hospitals, so they have not attempted to use public health care. Some said they could not obtain the correct documents, so employers or public officials refused to offer them jobs or services.

When Andrea’s 11-year-old daughter injured her head, Andrea took her to a public hospital, she said. But hospital workers refused treatment because Andrea did not have a national ID or social security number. She encountered the same problem when she tried to enroll her daughter in public school. Andrea went to an immigration office to ask how to obtain needed documents, but agents said they couldn’t help her.

When Ana Laura and her children, 19 and 12, were placed in Remain in Mexico in October 2019, they were not given national ID numbers. Later, she said, when they tried to report that they had been victims of extortion, police turned them away, saying they could not file a report without a national ID number. When she and her husband tried to apply for national ID numbers, immigration agents refused to help, saying they did not know what documentation to give people in the Remain in Mexico program.

Employers or public officials have even turned away even people who hold all the legal documents required to work or access services. The confusion often stems from the type of ID people in Remain in Mexico receive. Instead of the photo ID cards given to most temporary residents, they get the same stamped paper form as tourists, valid for only a few months, usually until the date of the asylum seeker’s next hearing in the US. They must repeatedly exchange the paper form for a new one. Most people in the program have been doing this for at least a year.

Israel received a national ID number when he and his family were placed in Remain in Mexico in July 2019, and he applied for a tax ID and social security number. Even so, he said, his family was repeatedly denied care at public hospitals. The same thing happened when he applied for jobs. “They asked to see my residence permit. I showed them the piece of paper they give us at the border, but they said I needed an ID card,” he said.

When Marcela, an engineer, arrived under Remain in Mexico in December 2019, she began looking for work in her field, attending a job fair and sending her resume to many companies. But no one would employ her, she said, because her visa was never valid for more than a few months – until her next court date. If she wanted a job, an employer told her, she would need to abandon her asylum claim in the US and apply for asylum in Mexico instead.

Lack of Access to Financial Services

Nine people said they could not work because employers required them to open a bank account to receive their salary, but they could not do so without the kind of visa that comes with a photo ID card issued by the Mexican government. Others said employees at banks or international money transfer services refused to accept Venezuelan passports as valid IDs.

After repeated rejections by employers who indicated they were unwilling to hire anyone in the Remain in Mexico program, Diego said he found a willing company. But when a bank rejected his paper visa form as proof of residency and refused him an account to receive his salary, the company rescinded the job offer.

Patricia, who has been in the program since June 2019, does not work because she is afraid to leave her 3-year-old daughter alone. She relies instead on money transfers from her husband. She tried to open a bank account to receive the transfers, she said, but bank employees required a residence visa with a photo ID card, which she did not have. Patricia has had to ask people she met in Mexico to receive the transfers for her.


Nathaly and her three children – 10, 4, and 3 – have been waiting in Mexico since August 2019. “We’ve spent the whole time locked inside,” she said. Even before the pandemic, she had not enrolled the children in school because it would “put them at risk” of kidnapping or trafficking. She has not looked for work because she is afraid to leave her children alone. “Even if we got sick, I would think twice before going out,” she said.

Sofia, who has been waiting in Mexico since February 2020, has not sought medical treatment for a lump in her breast because she and her husband, Hernán, are afraid to leave their apartment. Fear of being recognized as foreigners and targeted by those who suspect that they have money – or that they have relatives abroad with money – has also kept them from seeking jobs.

Human Rights Watch requested information from the Mexican secretaries of health, education, labor, and foreign relations. The Health Secretary responded, saying that authorities in Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila have made efforts to provide information about access to health care to those in Remain in Mexico and that non-Mexicans in those states received medical attention at least 157,000 times in 2019 and 2020. The other officials did not respond.


To the US government:

End disproportionate and harmful expulsions of asylum seekers on public health grounds. Allow asylum seekers whose cases were terminated under Remain in Mexico to re-apply for US asylum. Instruct Customs and Border Patrol to give fair consideration of requests at ports of entry for humanitarian parole, which allows people to enter the United States temporarily on humanitarian grounds.

To the Mexican government:

Refuse to accept further expulsions from the US of asylum seekers. Take steps to ensure that crimes against migrants are investigated and brought to justice, including: Instructing police and prosecutors to allow anyone to report a crime regardless of migratory status, as is required by Mexican and international law. Ordering independent and transparent investigations into allegations that police officers and immigration agents have been involved in or responsible for crimes against migrants. Ensure that migrants who are victims of crimes are informed of their rights, including the right to request a humanitarian visa under Mexican law.

Until those in the Remain in Mexico program are allowed to enter the US, the Mexican government should:

Issue them humanitarian visas or other temporary residency visas with photo ID cards. Ensure that they receive a national ID number (CURP), a social security number, and a tax ID (RFC) valid for the entire duration of their stay in Mexico. Ensure that they receive information on their rights, including how to work legally and access public health care and education. This should include an explanation of: Which documents are required to work and how to obtain them; Which types of public health services, including sexual and reproductive health services, are available to people in the program and how to use them; How to enroll children in public schools; and What to do if someone is denied access to public services. Ensure that public officials, including police, health workers, and administrators in public schools, understand that asylum seekers in the program are in Mexico legally and have a right to access public services.
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 5, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image Activists take part in a demonstration against sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence in the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 7, 2019. © ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Lebanon’s new sexual harassment law falls short of international standards by addressing sexual harassment solely as a crime and neglecting prevention, labor law reforms, monitoring, and civil remedies, Human Rights Watch said today in advance of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021. The Lebanese government should adopt a comprehensive approach, including by ratifying and implementing the International Labour Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention.

On December 21, 2020, Lebanon passed the “Law to Criminalize Sexual Harassment and [for] Rehabilitation of Its Victims.” The law is an advance by making sexual harassment a crime and outlining whistleblower protections. However, it falls short of the Violence and Harassment Convention, which says that governments should address violence and harassment at work through an “inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach,” including through labor laws, occupational safety and health laws, and equality and nondiscrimination laws, in addition to criminal law.

“Making sexual harassment a crime is an important step to condemn abusive behavior that has long been tolerated and normalized in Lebanon, but it’s not enough,” said Nisha Varia, women’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Public information campaigns, mandatory requirements for employers to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, monitoring, and enforcement are all essential for tackling this serious issue that affects women’s personal and professional lives.”

Sexual harassment is a widespread problem in Lebanon. A 2016 report by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey in Lebanon and UN Women found that two-thirds of women respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces, with many experiencing it in the three months preceding the survey.

The law defines sexual harassment as “any bad and repetitive behavior that is extraordinary, unwelcome by the victim, and with sexual connotation that constitutes a violation of the body, privacy, or emotions.” The law notes that sexual harassment can occur through speech, actions, and electronic means. The law also considers single or repeated acts that use, “psychological, moral, financial, or racist pressure to obtain benefits of sexual nature” as sexual harassment.

The law punishes sexual harassment with up to 1 year in prison and fines of up to 10 times the minimum wage. In certain contexts, including in the context of subordination or a work relationship, it is considered a serious crime, and prison time and fines can be increased to up to 4 years and 50 times the minimum wage.

A positive aspect of the law is protection of victims from retaliation, including in pay, promotion, transfer, contract renewal, or disciplinary measures. The law contains whistleblower protections and prohibits discrimination, abuse, or disciplinary measures against people who report harassment or testify about the abuse. Such retaliation can be punished by up to 6 months in prison and a fine of 20 times the minimum wage.

However, several women’s rights groups, many of which worked for a decade on another, more comprehensive version of the bill that was submitted by the National Commission on Lebanese Women, expressed disappointment in the limited scope of the approved law, as well as civil society groups’ exclusion from the final discussions and review of the law before it was finalized. Inaya Ezzeddine, chair of the women and children committee in the parliament, submitted the version of the law that was ultimately adopted.

Karim Nammour, a lawyer from the rights watchdog Legal Agenda, raised several concerns that he said could diminish the law’s effectiveness for protecting harassment victims, especially in the workplace. “It will also be important to outline realistic protections for complainants,” he told Human Rights Watch. “How will you keep going to your work if you filed a criminal complaint against your employer? Courts take three to four years. You may get compensation after, but you will probably have lost your job.”

Survivors of sexual harassment and violence often risk re-traumatization and stigmatization when seeking remedies through the criminal law system due to discriminatory attitudes at police stations, and from prosecutors and judges; the high burden of proof on the survivors, and the public nature of criminal hearings. The International Commission of Jurists found that many obstacles in the administration of the Lebanese criminal system impede women’s access to justice for sexual and gender-based violence. They include a lack of effective gender-sensitive investigations, the lack of competence by people carrying them out, and of resources, and discriminatory policies, practices, and gender stereotypes by judicial officials.

Although article 3 of the new law notes that steps should be taken to protect the victim and witnesses during investigation and prosecution, the article remains vague. Gender-responsive training for security agencies, prosecutors, and judges is essential for treating victims sensitively and for providing a safe environment for reporting and pursuing complaints.

In an important step, Lebanon’s law establishes that criminal prosecution does not prevent the pursuit of civil remedies including for unlawful termination of employment and that victims have the right to compensation for psychological, moral, or financial damage. However, the law does not set out the legal framework through which survivors can seek a remedy through the civil courts.

Lebanon should provide a clear path for civil remedies for women who may not want to access the criminal justice system or wish to do so alongside criminal complaints, Human Rights Watch said.

The ILO Violence and Harassment Convention sets out minimum obligations for governments on preventing and responding to violence and harassment at work. It emphasizes prevention measures, including through mandatory workplace policies and training programs. A 2018 study by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality found that only 15 percent of employers surveyed in Lebanon have policies that protect against sexual harassment in the workplace, and the new law will not remedy that.

The ILO Convention also addresses prevention by requiring governments to identify high-risk sectors and marginalized populations particularly vulnerable to abuse. For example, in Lebanon, this could include migrant domestic workers, isolated in private homes and tied to their employers through the kafala (sponsorship) system, Syrian and Palestinian refugee women, who either lack legal residency or who do not have the required work permits, and transgender women whose access to employment is already limited. Deep power imbalances contribute to harassment, discriminatory attitudes, and isolation and precarious legal status place additional barriers to reporting abuse.

Lebanon should also conduct public awareness campaigns. The ILO treaty’s standards and the demands of the global #MeToo movement have emphasized the importance of such campaigns to shift social norms, raise information about these rights, and encourage survivors to come forward.  

Article 6 of the law requires the Social Affairs Ministry to establish a fund to support sexual harassment survivors, prevent harassment and rehabilitate abusers, through annual budgetary allocations, donations, and 10 percent of the fines assessed against those convicted under the law. However, Nammour noted that previous funds established along these lines, including ones to protect victims of family violence or human trafficking, have not been activated or took years to put into operation due to delays in passing the necessary legislative or regulatory decrees.

“Women in Lebanon deserve to work in safety and dignity, free of sexual harassment and violence,” Varia said. “The government should issue decrees to elaborate civil remedies, and set out a national strategy, with input from civil society, on public campaigns to break taboos and workplace policies to address the full range of sexual harassment that takes place, not just the worst cases.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 5, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students celebrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, June 18, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

(Washington, DC) – Congress should make significant changes to a version of the Dream Act introduced on March 3, 2021 in the United States House of Representatives, Human Rights Watch said today.

The bill, the American Dream and Promise Act, or H.R. 6, was introduced by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard and other lawmakers. But it contains provisions that would disqualify some people from a path to citizenship based on a record of offenses committed as children, disproportionately affecting people of color. The US Citizenship Act, proposed by the administration of President Joe Biden, and Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin’s version of the Dream Act do not contain such harsh provisions. 

“Congress should be focused on ensuring that all immigrant youth who call the US home no longer have to live in fear of an uncertain future,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “But the bill contains harsh and unnecessary provisions based on youth offenses that would amplify the racial injustices in the criminal legal system and make the bill less inclusive than what the Biden administration and Senator Lindsay Graham have proposed.”

The proposed bill’s overarching goal of providing a path to US citizenship for immigrant youth who came to the US as children, and who meet other eligibility requirements, is a significant step to protect human rights, Human Rights Watch said. The bill would ensure that hundreds of thousands of people who consider the United States their country, a category afforded protection under international human rights law, have a path to US citizenship.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has shielded more than 800,000 immigrants in the United States from being deported since its inception in 2012. These are largely the same people who would benefit under the proposed legislation.

The provisions that Congress should strike from the bill give the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) discretion to prevent immigrant youth from accessing the bill’s path to US citizenship based on dispositions in juvenile court matters, and alleged or actual gang affiliation, Human Rights Watch said.

Based on these factors, DHS would have discretion to classify immigrant youth as threats to public safety. These provisions impose a lifelong consequence for actions committed by children, even though US and human rights law recognize that children should be treated differently because they are less culpable and uniquely capable of rehabilitation.

These provisions would compound the harm caused to youth by overly harsh laws and often abusive practices in the criminal and juvenile legal systems in the United States. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented human rights abuses and unfair treatment suffered by people in the US who are targeted for alleged gang associations or offenses committed as children.

The unnecessary discretionary measures in the proposed bill would affect a population of children who are disproportionately people of color. Despite a 50-year low in youth crime, Black, brown, and Latinx youth are criminalized at a higher rate than their white counterparts. According to Justice department data, Latinx youth are 1.4 times more likely to be detained or committed to a youth facility and Black youth are nearly five times more likely than their white peers.

“Congress should stand firm against the racial injustice that has permeated the US juvenile justice and immigration systems by excising these provisions from an otherwise landmark bill,” Austin-Hillery said. “Congress should pass legislation that helps this country overcome racism, instead of including measures that increase the harm of unjust criminalization.”

On March 1, Human Rights Watch, together with several other groups, sent a letter to Chairperson Jerry Nadler and other members of the House Judiciary Committee urging them to make changes before introducing the House bill. The letter explains that the types of offenses that would bar otherwise eligible youth under the proposed bill are disproportionately imposed against youth of color and are often kept under seal. Provisions in the bill would allow judicial review over the DHS decisions, but that would come far too late in the process and be insufficient to correct the resulting harm, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch along with other juvenile justice and youth groups previously raised similar concerns with the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 due to these discretionary bars. These provisions were a serious step back to 1990s-era crime and terrorism laws, which disproportionately profiled and criminalized immigrant youth of color, reproducing racial inequality while also perpetuating widespread immigration detention and deportation.

Police participation in the enforcement of immigration laws has also served to criminalize segments of Black and Latinx populations. The police cooperation can range from traffic stops that target Latinx people for potential immigration violations to turning noncitizens, including DACA recipients and other legal residents, over to immigration authorities following arrests. The US government should end any police involvement in enforcing immigration laws, Human Rights Watch said.

In September 2017, the administration of former President Donald Trump took steps to rescind the DACA program, placing recipients in legal jeopardy. However, in June 2020, the United States Supreme Court reversed the decision to end DACA and the Biden administration has pledged to fortify and preserve DACA. It is now up to Congress to enact legislation that would broadly and permanently protect DACA recipients.

“Barriers based on youth offenses and mere allegations run counter to the inclusive approach to that the Biden administration and Senator Lindsay Graham have proposed,” Austin-Hillery said. “If Congress does the right thing and removes the harmful juvenile-justice-related provisions from HR 6, it can pass legislation that would recognize the ties of young immigrants to their families and communities as well as take an important step toward racial justice.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 4, 2021, 6:25 pm

(New York) – A group of contemporary artists whose works grapple with the challenges of our time announced an auction today to benefit Human Rights Watch.

The auction, 20 21 Artists in Support of Human Rights Watch was curated by WILLAS contemporary and will be hosted by the online platform Artsy. It features 41 works of photography, textile, sculpture, and other mediums that tell the story of the past through the eyes of 41 established and emerging artists. It will run online from March 4-18, 2021.

20 21 Artists in Support of Human Rights Watch: Benefit Auction

Hosted by Artsy, with curation led by Willas contemporary, this auction brings together a global, diverse group of artists to reflect on a year like no other. Bidding will take place from March 4th – 18th and funds raised will go towards Human Rights Watch’s work defending fundamental rights and freedoms around the world.


Art has the power to illuminate the world in novel and insightful ways,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “These artists connect us to the world in compelling new ways by spotlighting inspiring human stories of survival, resilience and kindness.”

Among the 41 artists donating works to the auction are James Nachtwey, Nick Brandt, Jeff Cowen, Helene Schmitz, Cooper & Gorfer, and Romina Ressia. Starting bids will range from USD$300 to $110,000. Artists will receive their full commission, which they can choose to donate back to Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch said that while the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the surface deep inequalities in our societies, it has also shone a light on our global connectedness and shared responsibility for one another. The auction is intended to mark this moment by inviting renowned and established artists to nominate new and emerging artists to participate.

The Artsy auction is the second of what Human Rights Watch hopes will be many collaborations with artists around the world. The organization’s growing Art & Activism initiative in 2020 featured a collaboration with world-renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who created face masks imprinted with his works of art. It was one of eBay’s most successful art auctions in its history, eBay said.

“We expect this auction to be only the beginning of Human Rights Watch’s effort to enlist art to give us a language to understand, and address, some of the world’s greatest current challenges,” Roth said.

For more information on the auction, please visit:

To learn more about Human Rights Watch’s Art + Activism project, please visit:

This auction was made possible through special contributions by:

Alina Acari, Göteborg, Sweden
Siri Stolt-Nielsen, Norway

Benjamin Jaeger Art Advisory, Berlin, Germany
Ceval Omar, Oslo, Norway
CP Art Advisory ltd, London, UK
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, USA
Joan Blackman, Miami, USA
Flowers Gallery, London, UK
Pauline Benthede and Johan Vikner, Fotografiska, Stockholm 
WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town, South Africa
Formuesforvaltning, Oslo, Norway
Michelle Loukidis, The Lens Collective, Johannesburg, SA
Ravenstijn Gallery, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Larsen Warner Gallery, Stockholm, Sweden
Nabiha Khan-Giordano, Weinberg/Newton Gallery, Chicago, USA Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, Norway
Kirsti Svenning, Oslo Norway 
Henrik Holm, Oslo Norway


Alexandria Eregbu
Anahid Ghorbani
Anja Niemi
Annie Johansson
Anton Corbijn
Arno Rafael Minkkinen
Axel Ahlsén
Bongiwe Phakathi
Carlos Betancourt
Christian Houge
Cooper & Gorfer
Helene Schmitz
Jacob Felländer
Jacqueline Landvik
James Nachtwey
Jan C Schlegel
Jeff Cowen
Jeffrey James
Jon Henry
Jorge Mañes Rubio
Julia Fullerton-Batten
Kim Schwanhäußer
Kjell Torriset
Lene Marie Fossen
Mandy Barker
Margo Trushina
Matthias Olmeta
Mohau Modisakeng
Nadav Kander
Nick Brandt
Olaf Heine
Richard Mosse
Romina Ressia
Scarlett Hooft Graafland
Shwan Dler Qaradaki
Steinar Christensen
Steve Schapiro
Theophilus Donoghue
Tiina Itkonen
Vee Speers

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 4, 2021, 5:00 pm
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 4, 2021, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire at the village of Chaveira, near Macao, in central Portugal on Monday, July 22, 2019. © AP Photo/Sergio Azenha

Increased heat, more frequent forest fires, and other extreme weather events fueled by climate change are already harming children in Europe today and governments are not doing enough to cut emissions and prevent catastrophic impacts on children’s rights in the future.

That’s the message four Portuguese children and two young adults have brought in a case against 33 governments before the European Court of Human Rights.

The lawsuit is in its early stages, and no decision on its admissibility or substance has been taken yet. But the Court has decided to fast-track it recognizing the “importance and urgency of the issues raised,” and in February, rejected a request by the 33 governments to reconsider that assessment.

Heatwaves, drought, and wildfires have increased in Europe in recent years and are projected to become far worse, particularly in southern Europe, according to a European Commission study. Human Rights Watch has documented how insufficient government action on deforestation and climate change has already harmed children’s rights. In Brazil, forest fires resulting from unchecked deforestation contribute to climate change and have poisoned the air, resulting in hundreds of infants being hospitalized with respiratory illness. In Canada, the government has done little to address food poverty and health issues among Indigenous children, as traditional food sources dry up in part due to climate change. And in the U.S., increasing heat has been linked to increases in premature birth.              

The Portuguese applicants, aged between 8 and 21, argue that heat waves and forest fires interfere with their right to life and harm their physical and mental wellbeing and governments’ failure to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the cause. They also argue they are victims of discrimination as they have more years ahead of them and will therefore experience the worst effects of climate change. The applicants join a broader movement of youth activists using street protests, online activism, and lawsuits to call out government inaction on climate change.

Now, the defendant governments—all EU states as well as Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom—have until May 27 to submit their response. The case promises to put government commitments to rapidly reduce emissions under intense scrutiny and challenge them to demonstrate how they are protecting children’s rights from the worst climate impacts.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 4, 2021, 10:30 am
Click to expand Image Relatives touch each other's hand through a plastic film screen and a glass to avoid contracting Covid-19 at the San Raffaele center in Rome, Italy, December 22, 2020. © 2020 Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP Government policies and actions in the year since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic have precipitated human rights crises around the globe. The pandemic and abusive government approaches have especially harmed the world’s most marginalized people. Governments should have the moral courage and political will to put protection of everyone’s human rights at the heart of a post-pandemic recovery, end abusive policies, and cooperate on vaccine access for all.

(Geneva) – The first year of the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated human rights crises around the world, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. As the one-year mark of the World Health Organization declaring the spread of Covid-19 a pandemic approaches, many countries should urgently change course to ensure a rights-respecting exit from this public health crisis. Governments should work together to scale up vaccine manufacturing and distribution to achieve universal and equitable vaccine access.

March 4, 2021 Future Choices

The 54-page report, “Future Choices: Charting an Equitable Exit from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” documents how the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare systemic frailties in the protection of basic rights and spurred a cascade of human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch recommends changes in approach to address and prevent repetition of human rights abuses based on its research throughout 2020 and early 2021. The report is accompanied by a series of essays on China and vaccine diplomacy, the impact of the pandemic on women’s rights, poverty and inequality, healthcare workers’ rights, older people’s rights, equitable vaccine access, and the rights problems created by using technology to combat the pandemic.

“Governments and corporations have the tools, including vaccines, to manage and end the pandemic, so it’s a matter of whether they have the moral courage and political will to make it happen,” said Tirana Hassan, deputy executive director and chief programs officer at Human Rights Watch. “To chart an equitable exit from the Covid-19 pandemic, governments should ensure universal vaccine access, or they risk further entrenching inequality and eroding human rights for years to come.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken the lives of 2.5 million people and infected at least another 110 million, leaving many severely ill. As documented by Human Rights Watch and numerous civil society organizations, human rights monitors, journalists, and other observers, the pandemic’s social and economic consequences have been widespread and devastating. 

While the scale and severity of the pandemic’s public health threat justified some restrictions on rights, many governments ignored public health guidance and even used the pandemic as a pretext to grab power and roll back rights, Human Rights Watch found.

Some governments introduced restrictions on movement that were disproportionate to, or inappropriate for, the health threat. Governments instituted discriminatory policies, and authorities enforced measures in a discriminatory way and with excessive – and sometimes fatal – violence.

The pandemic underscored structural weaknesses in public healthcare systems, contributing to massive inequity in access to lifesaving care. Governments cut back especially on sexual and reproductive health care. Healthcare workers faced serious risks to their health and safety. And Covid-19 has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on older people and people with disabilities, particularly in nursing homes or other communal settings where the virus can spread rapidly.

People in detention are frequently held in overcrowded conditions without adequate sanitation and hygiene or access to adequate medical care, putting millions of imprisoned people at severely increased risk of contracting Covid-19. While many governments released some people to stop the spread of the virus, these releases were too few and often excluded activists and critics, including those arrested for criticizing governments’ response to the pandemic.

Reported gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence against women and girls, increased worldwide amid the pandemic. In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, governments around the world closed schools in April, shutting out an estimated 1.4 billion students in preprimary, primary, and secondary schools in 192 countries. There are grave concerns that children who lost access to education during the pandemic are at risk of falling behind their peers, or of being pressed into child marriage or entering the labor market, making it less likely that they will return to school.

Many governments mandated social distancing, quarantines, and business closures, with an enormous economic impact. Low-income workers, many in fields like retail, restaurants, and the informal sector who are unable to work remotely, were disproportionately affected.

The pandemic further underscored the importance of protecting workers’ rights, particularly the need to guarantee paid sick and family leave. Economic support during the pandemic has gone a long way toward stemming the rise of poverty but it has left out many who urgently need support. Government reliance on poorly designed algorithms and technologies to distribute benefits has also delayed and denied access to critical support while causing privacy problems.

In the coming months, relief measures are set to expire in many countries, putting low-income groups at increased risk. Without greater measures to protect social and economic rights, and more economic support and equitable means of distribution, poverty and inequality are set to rise further.

Many governments also initiated and expanded digital surveillance to contain the virus, ranging from contact tracing apps to facial recognition cameras that enforce quarantine measures, to algorithmic risk assessments. Virtually all of these technologies pose serious risks to privacy and human rights.

Governments have also used the pandemic to crack down on free speech and peaceful assembly. Military or police forces physically assaulted journalists, bloggers, and protesters, including some who criticized government responses to Covid-19. In some countries, restrictions on free speech and assembly are still in place.

By early 2021, several vaccines had proven to be safe and effective and governments around the world began vaccinating certain groups. However, vaccine development has largely mirrored the inequities that marked the rest of the pandemic: rich governments made opaque deals and prebooked the vast majority of vaccine supplies rather than cooperating to ensure poorer countries’ affordable access to vaccines. These failures ensure that the pandemic – as well as the inequality and rights abuses that have flourished at this time – will continue in many countries for years to come.

International human rights law guarantees everyone the rights to life, health, and a decent standard of living, and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to make medical care affordable and accessible. In the context of serious public health threats and public emergencies, restrictions on some rights can be justified, but they must have a legal basis, be strictly necessary and proportionate to the goal they seek to achieve, and be neither arbitrary nor discriminatory.

“During the pandemic, governments have used the public health emergency to grab power, abuse rights, and systematically neglect some minority populations,” Hassan said. “Governments need to reverse their abusive policies and provide equitable vaccine access both to end the pandemic and to improve everyone’s ability to enjoy their human rights.”

Related Reading An Unequal Crisis China’s Dangerous Game Around Covid-19 Vaccines Covid-19 Exposed Need to Protect Older People’s Rights Reinforcing Rights Can Help Avert Failure on Covid-19 Vaccines Technology is Enabling Surveillance, Inequality During the Pandemic Hit Hard by Covid, Women Demand Fairer Post-Pandemic World Health Workers: Heroes, Yes, But They Need Our Support


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 4, 2021, 5:01 am
Click to expand Image Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was among MPs jailed on November 4, 2016. His vacant seat in the general assembly of Turkey’s parliament is shown here marked with his photo. © 2016 HDP

(Istanbul) – The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers should direct Turkey to release the Kurdish opposition politician Selahattin Demirtaş in compliance with a European Court of Human Rights judgment, five human rights groups said today. The five are ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project.

The groups have made a detailed joint submission to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which oversees enforcement of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments, asking it to issue the decision at its meeting on 9-11 March, 2021. The groups said that Turkey continues to violate Demirtaş’s rights by flouting a landmark judgment issued by the court on December 22, 2020, requiring his immediate release.

Submission_Rule 9.2 Demirtas v Turkey Submission_Rule 9.2 Demirtas v Turkey

“President Erdogan and senior Turkish officials have responded to the European Court’s judgment ordering Demirtaş’s release with false arguments that it does not apply to his current detention and that the court’s rulings are not binding on Turkey,” said Aisling Reidy, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “The Committee of Ministers should call on Turkey to release Demirtaş immediately and leave no doubt that disregarding or attempting to bypass judgments of the Strasbourg court is unacceptable.”

Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish rights opposition party to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been held in Edirne F-Type prison in western Turkey since November 4, 2016.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that in initially detaining Demirtaş and then prolonging his detention for over four years, the Turkish government pursued an ulterior purpose of preventing him from carrying out his political activities, depriving voters of their elected representative, and “stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate: the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”

Ordering Demirtaş’s immediate release, the court found that Turkey had violated rights protected by Articles 5.1 and 5.3 (right to liberty) of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 10 (right to freedom of expression), Article 3 Protocol 1 (the right to free and fair elections), and Article 18 (misuse of limitations on rights in the Convention), by pursuing Demirtaş’s detention for political ends.

In finding the government acted in bad faith (Article 18 violation), the court notably refers to Demirtaş’s current detention, from September 20, 2019 which relates to an investigation into deadly protests in southeast Turkey on October 6-8, 2014. The Strasbourg court said what Turkey was attempting to do was “a new legal classification” of the same facts, because the same “acts and incidents” had formed the basis on which Demirtaş had been detained up until September 2, 2019, and for which he is already on trial.

Finding a continuity between Demirtaş’s pretrial detention from November 4, 2016, to September 2, 2019, and again from September 20, 2019, to the present, the court termed the September 20 order a “return to pre-trial detention.” The Turkish government has rejected this finding and contends that Demirtaş is currently detained in the context of a case not covered by the European Court judgment.

“As the European Court of Human Rights made clear, Demirtaş’s detention on September 20, 2019, was in fact not a separate detention but a ‘return to pre-trial detention’ and a continuing violation of his Convention rights,” said Róisín Pillay, Europe and Central Asia Director of the International Commission of Jurists. “The Committee of Ministers should press Turkey to immediately end this abuse of judicial proceedings aimed at harassing an opposition politician.”

The groups’ submission provides a full analysis of political and legal developments since the issuing of the ECtHR Grand Chamber judgment – including a new indictment against Demirtaş – and repeated statements from Turkey’s president and senior officials that the Demirtaş judgment and European Court judgments in general are not binding on Turkey.

“Charging such a prominent political figure with 30 serious ‘new’ offences based on political speeches mostly 6 years ago, which the Court already found to be protected, is pure repackaging – a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent compliance with the Court’s judgment requiring immediate release,” said Helen Duffy of the TLSP. “The Grand Chamber already rejected earlier ‘reclassification’ attempts, and it is time for a robust response by the Committee of Ministers to break the cycle of evasion.”

The groups urged the Committee of Ministers to place Demirtaş’s case under their enhanced procedures, treating it as a lead case, and to indicate that continued refusal to carry out the judgment may lead them to refer Turkey to the European Court for non-compliance. The groups urged the Committee of Ministers to call on the Turkish government to:


Immediately release Demirtaş as required by the ECtHR judgment, and make clear that the judgment applies to his ongoing detention and to any future charges or detentions in which the factual or legal basis is substantially similar to that which the ECtHR has already addressed in its judgment; Halt all criminal proceedings initiated against Demirtaş following the constitutional amendment lifting his immunity, which was deemed unlawful by the ECtHR’s Grand Chamber; End the abuse of judicial proceedings to harass Demirtaş, stifle pluralism, and limit freedom of political debate, emphasizing that this cessation is essential to the restoration of Demirtaş’s rights; End interference in Demirtaş’s cases, especially by attempting to pressure or unduly influence judicial authorities; and Publicly correct false claims promoted by senior Turkish government officials that the Grand Chamber judgment in the Demirtaş case and European Court judgments more generally, are not binding.
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 4, 2021, 5:00 am

(Beirut) – The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has made important women’s rights reforms in recent years, such as passing new domestic violence protections, but significant discrimination against women and girls remains, Human Rights Watch said today. Laws still provide male guardian authority over women and loopholes allow reduced sentences for men for killing a female relative. 

Click to expand Image A foreign domestic worker with a child under a billboard in the United Arab Emirates. © 2006 Abbas/Magnum Photos

On February 26, 2021, Human Rights Watch submitted a report to the United Nations committee reviewing the UAE’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The committee has scheduled a session sometime during the first week in March to identify a list of issues and inquiries it will make to UAE authorities ahead of its review of the UAE’s record.

“The UAE’s recent women’s rights reforms are a step in the right direction, but in truth they do not go far enough to dismantle the deep discrimination against women in law and practice,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on the UAE Human Rights Watch Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on the UAE

Women’s rights in the UAE have recently come under heightened scrutiny following the emergence of new videos of Sheikha Latifa, daughter of the Dubai ruler, in which she describes the conditions of her forced confinement following her abduction and forcible return to the UAE in 2018. She also pleaded for an investigation into her sister Sheikha Shamsa’s abduction and forcible return to the UAE from the UK in 2000.

The CEDAW Committee made several recommendations to the UAE on steps needed to guarantee women’s equality during its 2015 review. They included calls “to repeal as a matter of priority all legal provisions which continue to discriminate against women, including those contained in the Penal Code and the Personal Status Law.”

The UAE has carried out some reforms, such as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex and gender in the country’s anti-discrimination law and revoking legal provisions that had obliged women to “obey” their husbands, explicitly affirmed a man’s legal right to discipline his wife and children, and punished consensual extramarital sex.

In March 2020, a new domestic violence law came into effect that included provisions enabling women to obtain restraining orders against abusers. However, the law’s definition of domestic violence reinforces male guardians’ ability to discipline their wives, female relatives, and children to an extent that authorities find acceptable. The law also does not criminalize marital rape.

In 2019 and 2020, UAE authorities introduced minor amendments to the personal status law, but a woman in the UAE can still lose her right to financial maintenance from her husband if she refuses to have sexual relations with him without a “lawful excuse.”

A judge can also deem a woman in breach of her spousal obligations if she leaves the house or takes a job deemed outside “the law, custom, or necessity,” or if the judge considers it against the family’s interests. This change was made gender neutral but prevailing social norms mean judges are more likely to consider it unnecessary for a woman to work than a man, resulting in discrimination against women.

“The UAE should uproot all forms of discrimination, especially misogynistic laws subjecting women to male guardian authority,” Begum said.

In November 2020, the UAE also repealed an article in the penal code that allowed men to receive lighter sentences for killing a female relative if they found them in the act of extramarital sex. However, families of the murder victim can waive their right to see the person punished in return for compensation (blood money) or choose to freely pardon them.

In such cases, the accused can be subject to a minimum sentence of seven years in prison instead of life. When family members kill a woman, including in so-called “honor” killings, the victim’s family is also the family of the murderer and is likely to allow men to receive lighter sentences.

Also in November 2020, the UAE amended the penal code to remove language that has been used to punish consensual sexual relations outside marriage. This provision disproportionately affected women as pregnancy could be used as evidence of extramarital sex.

Despite the change in the law, it is unclear if health policies that required a marriage certificate to obtain prenatal and postnatal care are still being implemented. Marriage certificates still appear to be required to obtain birth certificates. These policies disproportionately affect migrant women and can leave their babies undocumented, unable to obtain identification documents or travel.

The UAE’s labor law continues to exclude domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women. A 2017 domestic worker law extended protections like a weekly day of rest and paid vacation, but has fewer and weaker protections than the main labor law and falls short of international standards.

Many low-paid migrant domestic workers are at acute risk of labor abuses, forced labor, and human trafficking because of the kafala (visa sponsorship) system in the UAE, which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers. Foreign nationals account for about 90 percent of the UAE population, according to the World Bank.

Despite the UAE’s February announcement that it will extend citizenship opportunities to select foreign nationals, the country’s citizenship law still leaves out other groups, including children born to Emirati women and foreign fathers, and stateless people.

“The UAE has spent considerable time and money portraying itself as a champion of women’s rights and empowerment,” Begum said. “Now it needs to turn rhetoric into reality.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 4, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes part in a European People Party (EPP) summit in St Julian's, Malta, March 30, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

The decision yesterday by Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz to quit the main conservative group in the EU parliament may seem like a decisive step in the power struggle within the European People’s Party (EPP).

Yet the truth is it leaves the question of Fidesz’s future in the pan-European EPP unresolved, and underscores the failure by leading conservative parties in Europe to confront the chasm between their stated values and the near decade-long assault on democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Hungary by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz.

Fidesz has neither left nor been excluded from the EPP as a party. It is just no longer part of the EPP faction at the European Parliament, a move Fidesz made after the EPP group in the European Parliament changed its own rules making it easier for EPP lawmakers to expel a national party from its ranks.

In fact, the EPP, as a pan-European party, has done little to hold its Hungarian member to account. In March 2019, the EPP suspended Fidesz after Hungary passed a law that forced the Central European University out and because of a smear campaign against Commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Since, the EPP leadership has failed to follow through, making stated commitment to democratic values ring hollow. In the meantime, Fidesz members of the European Parliament continued to sit as EPP members.

Two years on, Orban’s government has intensified attacks against media freedom and pluralism, refused to implement EU Court’s ruling on asylum and laws curbing freedom of association, and launched new assaults against LGBT and women’s rights. This goes against the values enshrined by the EPP’s own charter. But the EPP again failed to take further action.

Many in the EPP seem unconcerned by the risk Fidesz’s authoritarianism poses to the EPP and the EU. That includes Angela Merkel’s own CDU, Germany’s largest EPP member, which maintained an approach that, too often, helped shield Fidesz from criticisms and effectively enabled Orban’s rights-abusing government to continue trampling core EU values.

With Fidesz quitting the EPP’s group at the European Parliament, it’s time for the EPP to finally get to grips with the truth – and to permanently expel it as a member because it does not uphold fundamental values the EPP is founded on.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 4, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Protesters run in the middle of tear gas smoke during a demonstration against the military coup, Yangon, Myanmar, March 3, 2021. © 2021 Sipa via AP Images

(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s military junta should order its security forces to end the use of excessive and lethal force against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 3, 2021, security forces fired live rounds at protesters, killing at least 38 and wounding more than 100 at demonstrations across the country, the United Nations reported.

One of the deadliest incidents took place in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, where security forces opened fire on largely peaceful protesters. Security forces fired on some protesters as they attempted to rescue an injured man. Earlier in the day, police detained and brutally beat medical workers. Human Rights Watch reviewed an incident in which a man in custody appears to be shot in the back.

“Myanmar’s security forces now seem intent on breaking the back of the anti-coup movement through wanton violence and sheer brutality,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The use of lethal force against protesters rescuing others demonstrates how little the security forces fear being held to account for their actions.”

At a March 3 briefing, the United Nations special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, reported that 38 people had been killed during the day’s violence, bringing the tally of those killed since the protests began a month ago to more than 50. At least four of those killed were children, according to Save the Children.

Through the analysis of 12 videos and 15 photographs, Human Rights Watch documented three incidents in which security forces apparently used live fire against protesters along the Thudhamma Road in Yangon on March 3.

In a Facebook live video posted on March 3, Human Rights Watch identified a line of at least five military vehicles positioned on the overpass road that merges into the Airport Road near Okkala Thiri Park on Thudhamma Road. The video shows hundreds of protesters shielding and taking shelter from ongoing gunfire coming from the direction of the overpass.

Click to expand Image The location of the overpass where military vehicles were observed. Imagery taken on April 2, 2020 © 2021 Maxar Technologies. Source: Google Earth. Graphic © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Gunshots, consistent with semi-automatic and automatic weapons fire, can be heard frequently for the first five minutes of the video. At 1:35 minutes into the video, several protesters shield themselves while running toward a makeshift barrier to move an injured or deceased protester, while shots are fired at them. The video later shows an orange trash can with multiple apparent exit holes near where one of the protesters was killed. These exit holes and the direction in which people are shielding indicates that the shooting originated from the direction of stationed military vehicles.

In the videos and photographs reviewed by Human Rights Watch, no security forces were visible. In the videos, there is no indication that the protesters being fired upon are engaged in violent acts. The video does show one man at 2:05 launch a slingshot with an unknown projectile towards the center of the road.

Human Rights Watch also analyzed videos taken approximately two kilometers south of the incident described above on the Thudhamma Road of a makeshift barrier that had been set on fire. Protesters can be seen trying to extinguish the fire with water. In a Facebook live post, three people can be seen carrying a motionless man away from the direction of the blockade. Gunfire can be clearly heard in the previous minutes.

In another incident, Human Rights Watch confirmed the location of the shooting of a man in the custody of security forces on the Thudhamma Road. Filming from an apartment window, the video shows a group of at least 15 security force personnel gather on the Thudhamma Road as at least 10 other security force personnel lead a man in a white shirt toward them.

They move the man ahead of the larger group and at close range, no more than a few feet, one of the officers can be seen lowering his weapon in line with the man’s back. A shot can be heard in the video and the man instantly falls to the ground. Two security force members kick him, and getting no response, they drag him into the center of the road.

Click to expand Image Location of the shooting of a man in the custody of security forces in Yangon, Myanmar. Imagery taken on March 26, 2020 2021 Maxar Technologies. Source: Google Earth. Graphic © 2021 Human Rights Watch

In CCTV footage released online, police officers can be seen removing three workers from an ambulance of Mon Myat Seik Htar Charity group (MMSH), then beating the workers with their guns and batons and kicking them. At least six police were involved in the attack. One of the MMSH volunteers died from their injuries, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) reported.

The nongovernmental group confirmed that its members had been providing medical assistance to injured protesters in North Okkalapa. Photographs and a video of the ambulance with bullet holes and broken windows were later shared on social media. These photographs and videos match the location of the CCTV footage.

In addition to the Yangon attacks, security force killings took place over the course of the day in Monywa, Sagaing Region; Myingyan and Mandalay, Mandalay Region; Salin, Magway Region; and Mawlamyine, Mon State, based on media reports and local analysts.

The killings on March 3 followed extreme violence on February 28, in which the UN said that 18 people were killed by security forces. Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch a pattern of violence used by security forces in Yangon on March 1 and 2, including charging protesters and makeshift barricades without warning, the use of sound and stun grenades, teargas, and arbitrary detention.

Since the February 1 coup, millions of people have taken to the streets across Myanmar in largely peaceful protests to call for the military to relinquish power. In response, security forces have beaten protesters and deployed teargas, water cannons, kinetic impact projectiles, such as rubber balls, and live ammunition to disperse protesters. The use of force has been accompanied by widespread arbitrary arrests and detentions.

The authorities have detained over 1,100 government officials, activists, journalists, civil servants, and others since February 1, according to AAPP. The group reported that as many as 800 people were detained nationwide on March 3, including about 400 protesters held in Kyaikkasan Race Ground in Yangon.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials should “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.” The UN Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 37 stated that “[f]irearms are not an appropriate tool for the policing of assemblies, and must never be used simply to disperse an assembly.… [A]ny use of firearms by law enforcement officials in the context of assemblies must be limited to targeted individuals in circumstances in which it is strictly necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury.”

The UN Security Council is scheduled to hold a closed-door consultation on Myanmar on March 5.

“The UN Security Council should take the dramatically deteriorating situation in Myanmar as a clarion call for coordinated action to end to this cascading human rights disaster,” Weir said. “Concern and outrage aren’t enough. What is needed is action to hold the junta accountable, including through the use of targeted sanctions and a global arms embargo.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 4, 2021, 2:37 am
Click to expand Image Sam Rainsy talks with media at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, November 9, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should immediately end politically motivated trials of opposition politicians and quash recent convictions, Human Rights Watch said today. The harassment and prosecutions by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen are part of a continuing effort to prevent the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from participating in future elections and the country’s political life.

On March 1, 2021, the Phnom Penh municipal court convicted in absentia nine exiled leaders of the dissolved CNRP on charges of “attempt to commit felony” and “attack” under articles 27 and 451 of Cambodia’s penal code. The case concerns unfounded allegations that all nine attempted to stage a coup by announcing their plans to return to Cambodia on November 9, 2019.

“The politically motivated trial and sentencing of Sam Rainsy and other exiled opposition leaders to decades in prison so they can never return to Cambodia is a page torn from the dictator’s playbook,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments in Japan, Europe, and the United States should recognize the depths of Cambodia’s human rights crisis and impose targeted sanctions against the government officials responsible.”

The court sentenced Sam Rainsy, the acting CNRP leader, to 25 years in prison, and deputy leaders Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang to 22 years each. CNRP leaders Tioulong Saumura, Men Sothavrin, Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, Long Ry, and Nuth Romduol received sentences of 20 years each. The court imposed total combined fines of 1.8 billion riel (US$440,000) and stripped all nine of their rights to vote, run for office, and serve as a public official.

Click to expand Image Mu Sochua speaks during an interview in London, November 16, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo

The court provided local nongovernmental organizations monitoring the trial with inaccurate information about the date of the verdict hearing. They were never informed of the actual date and, consequently, no trial monitors were in the courtroom on March 1.

In contrast to the hasty trial of the nine political opposition leaders in violation of their due process rights, the authorities have continued to delay the trial of the CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who has faced unsubstantiated, politically motivated treason charges since September 2017. The Phnom Penh court informed Sokha, who is banned from resuming his role in the CNRP, that his case was not considered a priority and his trial was unlikely to resume in 2021. Presiding Judge Kouy Sao stated in a letter to Sokha’s lawyers on February 2 that the court “has been busy with the criminal cases of the charged and accused who are detained in overcrowded prisons.”

As all nine newly convicted opposition leaders are abroad, the postponement of Sokha’s case contradicts the court’s claim that it was prioritizing hearings of suspects in pretrial detention, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Union condemned the verdict against the nine opposition leaders, noting that the “accused were not allowed to return to the country to defend their cases in court, in what appears to be a violation of due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law.”

In recent years, Cambodian authorities have banned the CNRP and staged political trials of dozens of party leaders. In 2021, the government has started a series of mass trials against opposition figures based on their political affiliation and against activists engaged in peaceful activism and expression. Human Rights Watch has documented the cases of over 75 political prisoners, including opposition members, youth and environmental activists, trade union leaders, and journalists. Many activists have fled the country because they feared arrest and sought refugee protection abroad.

Ahead of the exiled opposition leadership’s announcement of their intention to return to Cambodia on November 9, 2019, the authorities arrested at least 125 former CNRP members and activists who expressed support for their return. While the authorities released at least 74 on bail in December 2019, the baseless charges were never dropped. An increasing number have since been rearrested and are in pretrial detention.

“The prosecutions of senior opposition figures are the cutting edge of Hun Sen’s latest crackdown on dissent, with many more trials scheduled in which guilty verdicts and long prison sentences are a foregone conclusion,” Robertson said. “Legislators around the world should denounce the unjust case against Sam Rainsy and his colleagues, and speak out in support of democracy and human rights in Cambodia.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 10:41 pm
Click to expand Image Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto, left, speaks to media after a video conference with the IOC executive board in Tokyo, Japan, February 24, 2021.  © 2021 Takashi Aoyama/Pool Photo via AP

(Tokyo) – The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) should support LGBT nondiscrimination legislation to protect everyone in Japan from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, seven members of TOCOG’s Human Rights, Labor, and Participation Committee said.

In a February 26, 2021 letter to TOCOG’s new president, Seiko Hashimoto, the committee members urged TOCOG, as well as the Japanese Olympic Committee and Japanese Paralympic Committee, to promote passage of an anti-discrimination law during the current National Diet session ahead of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games scheduled for this summer. 

February 26, 2021 Letter to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the Japanese Paralympic Committee from the TOCOG Human Rights, Labour, and Participation Committee members February 26, 2021 Letter to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the Japanese Paralympic Committee from the TOCOG Human Rights, Labour, and Participation Committee members


“Japan’s national government should enact an anti-discrimination law in keeping with the Olympic Charter’s ban on ‘discrimination of any kind,’ including sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch and a member of the TOCOG Human Rights, Labor, and Participation Committee. “TOCOG’s sustainability and human rights experts urge TOCOG’s new president to support passage of an LGBT Equality Law before the Tokyo Games to bring Japanese law in line with international standards.”

Tokyo was slated to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government postponed the games for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Games are advertised as celebrating “unity in diversity” and “passing on a legacy for the future.” Japan should enact a national anti-discrimination law to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in accordance with international human rights standards. Human Rights Watch, along with 115 human rights and LGBT organizations, also sent a letter to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on January 25 in support of such legislation.

Hashimoto was elected TOCOG’s president on February 18, after the previous president, former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, resigned over his discriminatory comments against women earlier in the month. On February 24, Hashimoto announced a new gender equality team at the TOCOG, and stated that “Gender equality and women’s empowerment is going to be something that will be promoted.”

A 2020 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks Japan next to last for laws on LGBT Inclusiveness for developed countries. It says that: “LGBTI-inclusive laws are particularly critical for creating a culture of equal treatment of LGBTI individuals. One cannot expect to improve the situation of sexual and gender minorities if, to begin with, the law does not protect them against abuses or excludes them from social institutions.”

Although the Tokyo Metropolitan Government adopted an ordinance that protects LGBT people from discrimination in line with the Olympic Charter in October 2018, many Tokyo Olympic competitions, including the marathon, race walk, golf, fencing, and surfing, will take place outside of Tokyo, in Hokkaido, Saitama, Chiba, Shizuoka, Kanagawa, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Ibaraki prefectures. Foreign and Japanese LGBT athletes, officials, workers, and fans will expect to be protected from discrimination.

In his October 2020 message for the opening of Pride House, a facility to build awareness and support for LGBT rights, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said that he hoped the facility “will be successful and become a legacy of the Tokyo Games.”

“The Tokyo Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games represent an unrivaled opportunity for Japan to bring its laws into compliance with international nondiscrimination standards,” Doi said. “The TOCOG, Japanese Olympic Committee, and Japanese Paralympic Committee should act together to support Japan’s government to meet the expectations of the International Olympic Committee and thousands of visiting athletes and fans by passing an LGBT equality law.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 7:00 pm
Click to expand Image Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the first meeting of the defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counter-terrorism alliance in the capital Riyadh on November 26, 2017. © 2017 Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

A United States intelligence report released last week adds further evidence to what many have long suspected: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, had approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet despite the report’s findings, the Biden administration has failed to live up to its campaign promise to hold MBS accountable.

Human Rights Watch and 41 other organizations are calling on President Joe Biden to impose sanctions available under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on officials at the highest levels of Saudi leadership, including MBS.

The Magnitsky Act and related powers allow US authorities to sanction foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses or been involved in significant corruption. In November 2018, US authorities used it to sanction 17 Saudi officials in connection with their alleged role in the Khashoggi murder. Last week, the US also announced visa restrictions on an additional 76 Saudis because they “threaten[ed] dissidents overseas, including [about] but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”

Saudi authorities have continued to systematically target dissidents and subject them to trials marred by lack of due process and credible torture allegations. Some laws-of-war violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen amount to war crimes. As crown prince and defense minister, MBS acts as the day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia with near-total control over its security and military apparatus and economic and political affairs.

Last week’s intelligence report provides President Biden the opportunity to demonstrate his leadership by following through on his human rights pledges. In addition to powers granted under the Magnitsky Act, the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act would require US authorities to issue an entry ban on MBS given his direct involvement in “significant corruption” and “gross violation[s] of human rights.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and others have urged President Biden to remain “consistent” with US human rights policy and take bolder action against MBS. Several members of Congress have drafted bills that would impose sanctions on MBS and others.

President Biden should demonstrate that respect for human rights is central to his foreign policy. Imposing sanctions and travel bans on MBS and other Saudi officials should be the minimum response. The recent temporary freeze on US arms sales to Saudi Arabia should also be extended until authorities stop committing abuses in Yemen and hold officials who have committed or overseen war crimes to account.

Arwa Youssef is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a Human Rights Watch staff member.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image “I don’t have gloves; when we pick up the fruit bunches it hurts us,” said a palm fruit harvester that has worked for the Congolese palm oil company PHC for over a decade. “Sometimes the fruit bunches fall on people or animals’ excrement.” Boteka, Democratic Republic of Congo, November 17, 2018. © 2018 Luciana Téllez/Human Rights Watch. © 2018 Luciana Téllez/Human Rights Watch.

A bill to prevent agricultural goods grown on illegally deforested land from entering the US market will be introduced in the US Congress, Senator Brian Schatz announced today. Beef, palm oil, soy, cocoa, and their derivatives are found in products that US consumers buy every day. They are all commodities associated with rights abuses and the destruction of forests – ecosystems that absorb and store carbon and that are vital to mitigating climate change.

The law would require US businesses to take steps to verify that the commodities they import did not originate from illegally deforested land, including forested land cleared in violation of legal protections for the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Senator Schatz’s announcement that he will introduce the bill comes as Human Rights Watch and 28 other civil society organizations released an open letter calling on the administration of President Joe Biden and Congress to tackle the US footprint on the world’s forests and emphasizing the importance of regulating commodities supply chains. “Voluntary initiatives and corporate commitments haven’t done enough to curb deforestation over the past decade,” the letter said. “Government leadership and regulatory frameworks are needed to drive systemic change.”

Human Rights Watch research has shown how several of the commodities that drive deforestation are linked to egregious rights violations.

In Indonesia, the establishment and expansion of oil palm plantations has adversely affected Indigenous people’s rights to their lands, livelihoods, and culture. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, oil palm plantations are rife with labor rights abuses. In Brazil, violent criminal networks drive illegal deforestation in the Amazon, and threaten and kill defenders who stand in their way. Fires are often set in the rainforest to clear land for cattle-grazing and agriculture, poisoning the air millions of people breathe. Altogether, these countries hold about half of the world’s rainforests.

The bill would be a major step in the right direction for climate action by requiring businesses to ensure their operations do not fuel the destruction of crucial ecosystems. It is also a major step in protecting US consumers from unwittingly contributing to human rights abuses and environmental degradation through their shopping bags. The Biden administration should build support for it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 1:48 pm
Click to expand Image Migrants on a boat that they tried to take to Italy, after being detained at a Libyan Navy base in Tripoli on September 20, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

As the pandemic consumes Europe’s attention, a struggle for survival is taking place in the central Mediterranean.

Since the start of 2021, at least 185 people have died in the stretch of waters between north Africa and Italy. Italian and European Union (EU) policies are costing lives at sea and condemning many others to suffering in Libya.  

The central Mediterranean has long been the deadliest migration route in the world, with over 17,400 lives lost between 2014-2020. Last month, the UN Human Rights Committee found that Italy had failed to respond to a boat in distress in 2013, causing the death of at least 200 people, including 60 children. While Italy had direct primary responsibility in that case, the EU as a whole, bears responsibility for the tremendous death toll at sea.

EU institutions and states have progressively abdicated responsibility for search and rescue in these treacherous waters. The EU naval mission deliberately patrols away from areas where it might encounter boats in distress. Non-governmental rescue organizations that try to fill the gap face smear campaigns, administrative obstacles, and even prosecution. Italy, Malta, and the EU border agency, Frontex, seem more interested in helping Libyan forces intercept boats than ensuring timely rescues and disembarkation in a safe port.

In the past two months, the Libyan coast guard intercepted at least 3,700 people and returned them to Libya, where they face indefinite, arbitrary detention and the real risk of sexual violence, torture, forced labor, and extortion. The number is significantly more than those taken back during the same period in 2020.

Everyone agrees that Libya is not a safe place, but that hasn’t stopped the EU from funneling money and technical support to the abusive coast guard units nominally under authorities in western Libya. In the past five years, that support has allowed Libyan forces to intercept and send back to Libya over 66,000 people.

This cycle of suffering and death can be averted. The European Commission and EU countries should ensure robust EU governmental search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean and support, not obstruct, other rescue efforts. They should also enact international cooperation agreements to minimize the number of people disembarked in Libya and evacuate more people directly from Libya to save them from the deadly journey. Ultimately, the best way to saves lives is to expand safe and legal channels for refugees and other migrants.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: March 3, 2021, 5:00 am