(Geneva) – The United States government’s decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council will sideline the country from key global initiatives to protect human rights.

“The US has been threatening to walk away from the Human Rights Council ever since President Trump came into office, so this decision comes as no surprise,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Trump has decided that ‘America First’ means ignoring the suffering of civilians in Syria and ethnic minorities in Myanmar at the United Nations.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks in the U.N. Security Council at U.N. headquarters in New York City, U.S., February 28, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

The Human Rights Council was created by the UN General Assembly in 2006 as the UN’s top human rights body. While it has its shortcomings – including the participation of persistent rights violators such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela – the council plays a vital role in addressing serious rights abuses around the world. It has initiated investigations into rights violations in Syria, Yemen, Burundi, Myanmar, and South Sudan, and addresses key topics such as migration, counterterrorism and protecting women, LGBT people, people with disabilities, and others from violence and discrimination.

The US has long criticized the Human Rights Council for its standing agenda item 7 on rights violations by all parties in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This item was included when the council’s agenda was drawn up at the conclusion of its initial year, in 2007, at a time when the US had decided not to participate in the council. The US has actively campaigned for removing agenda item 7, and has opposed resolutions dealing with the Occupied Palestinian Territories, even when not presented under this agenda item, such as a recent Special Session resolution creating an inquiry into violence in Gaza.

Negotiations about potential reform or consolidation of the council’s agenda and work program are ongoing in Geneva. The United Kingdom, which largely agrees with the US position on item 7, has announced that it will vote against all resolutions brought under that agenda item unless reforms are carried out, but it has not threatened to leave the council.

By forfeiting its membership in the council with almost 18 months remaining on its term, the US will be removing itself from key issues that could affect allied governments. No country has ever withdrawn from the council after running for election to secure a seat. It is unclear which country would take the open seat left by the US. The UN resolution creating the council provides that any successor would be another country from the group that includes Western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel.

While the US government’s engagement with the council has been uneven, the US has helped shape some of the body’s decisions with the greatest impact, including to establish a commission of inquiry into grave human rights violations in North Korea. The US withdrawal risks emboldening countries like China, and other actors that regularly seek to undermine UN human rights mechanisms.

Since rejoining the Human Rights Council in 2010, the US has played a leading role on initiatives related to Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. Following its decision to withdraw, the US may continue to advance these priorities as a non-member, or may choose to disengage entirely. But quitting the council will not allow the US to shield itself from the scrutiny of the international community, Human Rights Watch said. The UN will continue to consider a broad range of rights issues and initiatives, and conduct its Universal Periodic Review, which applies to all UN member countries.

“The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy in which the US defends Israeli abuses from criticism above all else,” Roth said. “By walking away, the US is turning its back not just on the UN, but on victims of human rights abuses around the world, including in Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Myanmar. Now other governments will have to redouble their efforts to ensure that the council addresses the world’s most serious human rights problems.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Asylum seekers behind a metal fence in the ‘Hangar 1’ detention center, in Röszke, Hungary. September 9, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The massive refugee crisis demands an unprecedented global response. At two summits on September 19 and 20, 2016, at the United Nations, world leaders should take bold steps to share responsibility for millions of people displaced by violence, repression, and persecution.

Leaders will gather in New York to discuss providing greater support to countries where refugees first land, just as many of those countries are at breaking point. There is a grave risk to the bedrock foundation of refugee protection, the principle of nonrefoulement – not forcibly returning refugees to places where they would face persecution and other serious threats. People are fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Honduras, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, among others.

“Millions of lives hang in the balance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This is not just about more money or greater resettlement numbers, but also about shoring up the legal principles for protecting refugees, which are under threat as never before.”

This year, Human Rights Watch has documented Turkish border guards shooting and pushing back civilians who appear to be seeking asylum; Jordan refusing entry or assistance to Syrian asylum seekers at its border; Kenya declaring that it will close the world’s largest refugee camp in November and pushing Somalis to return home despite potential danger; and Pakistan and Iran harassing and deregistering Afghan refugees and coercing them to return to a country in conflict.

The UN General Assembly has convened the September 19 summit “with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach” to refugees. The final statement, already drafted, is a missed opportunity to widen the scope of protection and limits expectations for concrete, new commitments. However, it affirms refugee rights and calls for more equitable responsibility sharing. Given the scale of the refugee crisis and populist backlash in many parts of the world, this affirmation should be the basis for collective action, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 20, US President Barack Obama will host a “Leader’s Summit” to increase commitments for aid, refugee admissions, and opportunities for work and education for refugees. Governments are expected to make concrete pledges toward goals of doubling the number of resettlement places and other admissions, increasing aid by 30 percent, getting 1 million more refugee children in school, and granting 1 million more adult refugees the right to work. Though the participants have not been announced, 30 to 35 countries are expected to attend. Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Sweden, and Jordan will join the United States as co-facilitators.

Boost Humanitarian Aid to Countries of First Arrival
The vast majority of the world’s 21.3 million refugees are in the global south, where they often face further harm, discrimination, and neglect. Human Rights Watch called on countries of first arrival like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Thailand, Kenya, Iran, and Pakistan, to commit to proposals to provide refugees with better access to work and education.

The world’s richest nations have largely failed to help countries on the front lines of the displacement crisis. As of September 9, UN aid appeals were 39 percent funded, with some of the worst-funded in Africa; the appeal for refugees from South Sudan stands at 19 percent. The regional refugee response plans for Yemen and Syria are funded at 22 and 49 percent.

Increase Numbers Resettled in Other Countries
Resettlement from countries of first arrival is a key way to help refugees rebuild their lives and to relieve host countries, but international solidarity is glaringly absent. In 2015, the UN refugee agency facilitated resettlement of 81,000 of a projected 960,000 refugees globally in need of resettlement. The agency estimated that over 1.1 million refugees would need resettlement in 2016, but projected that countries would only offer 170,000 places. Representatives of 92 countries pledged only a slight increase in resettlement places for Syrian refugees at a high-level UN meeting in March.

In the European Union, the arrival by boat in 2015 of more than 1 million asylum seekers and migrants – and more than 3,700 deaths at sea – laid bare the need for safe and legal channels for refugees to move, such as resettlement.  However, many EU countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary, are focused primarily on preventing spontaneous arrivals, outsourcing responsibility, and rolling back refugee rights.

A July 2015 European plan to resettle 22,500 refugees from other regions over two years has resettled only 8,268 refugees, according to figures from July 2016. Most EU countries underperformed, and 10 failed to resettle a single person under the plan.

End Abusive Systems, Flawed Deals
The EU struck a deal with Turkey in March to allow the return to Turkey of almost all asylum seekers on the deeply flawed grounds that Turkey is a safe country for asylum; it is on the verge of falling apart. Australia forcibly transfers all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to offshore processing centers, where they face abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect.

The EU and Australia should renounce these abusive policies. EU countries should swiftly adopt a proposed permanent resettlement framework with more ambitious goals and a clear commitment to meet them, Human Rights Watch said. They should share fairly the responsibility for asylum seekers arriving spontaneously, and help alleviate the pressure on Greece and Italy.

Governments also undermine asylum with closed camps, as in Kenya and Thailand, and by detaining asylum seekers, as do Australia, Greece, Italy, Mexico, and the United States.

While by many measures the US leads in refugee resettlement and response to UN humanitarian aid appeals, it has been particularly slow and ungenerous in admitting Syrian refugees. And it has had notable blind spots, as with its border policies for Central American children and others fleeing gang violence and its use of Mexico as a buffer to keep them from reaching the US border.

The Obama Administration met its goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year in the face of opposition from more than half of US governors and a lack of resettlement funds from Congress, but the US has the capacity to resettle many times that number. It should commit to meeting the Leaders’ Summit goals, which would mean doubling this year’s 85,000 total refugee admissions to 170,000.

Several other countries with capacity to admit far more refugees, including Brazil, Japan, and South Korea, have fallen woefully short. Japan admitted 19 refugees in 2015, South Korea only 42 aside from North Koreans, and Brazil only 6.

Russia resettles no refugees. The Gulf States do not respond to UN resettlement appeals, though Saudi Arabia says it has suspended deportations of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who overstay visitor visas. Most Gulf states, except Kuwait, have also fallen short in their response to Syrian-refugee-related UN appeals to fund refugee needs, according to an Oxfam analysis.

“Every country has a moral responsibility to ensure the rights and dignity of people forced to flee their homes,” Roth said. “When more than 20 million people are counting on a real international effort to address their plight, lofty pronouncements are not enough.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, has specialized expertise on the United Nations, particularly UN peacekeeping, and the Balkans. Hicks is responsible for coordinating Human Rights Watch's advocacy team and providing direction to advocacy worldwide. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 2005, Hicks served as director of the Office for Returns and Communities in the UN mission in Kosovo. She has also worked for the International Human Rights Law Group (now Global Rights), the Deputy High Representative for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the former Yugoslavia, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and as clinical professor of human rights and refugee law at the University of Minnesota Law School. Hicks is a graduate of Columbia Law School and the University of Michigan.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Kim Jong-Un watches a performance in Pyongyang, North Korea, on February 23, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/KCNA

The United Nations Security Council has an opportunity this month to refocus attention on North Korea’s abysmal human rights record after giving it a pass last year.

If all goes according to plan, on December 10 – Human Rights Day – at least 9 of the council’s 15 members will vote to hold a debate to discuss the regime’s abuses.

Last year, when a similar debate was under consideration, the council dropped the ball. This may have been due, in part, to summits in 2017 and 2018 between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the presidents of the United States and South Korea, which focused on weapons proliferation issues, not human rights. The council’s inaction sent a message to North Korea’s leadership that rights had reverted to a second-tier issue, which was probably music to Kim Jong Un’s ears.

It’s time to correct that mistake. In the years since a historic UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report in 2014, which documented a litany of North Korea’s crimes against humanity and other serious rights violations, the UN system has been intensifying its attention to the regime’s record. The UN Human Rights Council has mandated a UN office to collect evidence of abuses for possible use in future prosecutions. And in Security Council debates in December 2014, 2015, and 2016, the council considered proposals by member states –unfortunately blocked by China – to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.  

This December 10, it is crucial that the council sends Kim Jong Un the message that most of the world is appalled by his government’s abuses and will continue to seek justice.

Inaction and silence would be reckless. The totalitarianism of North Korea and its human rights abuses are inextricably linked to the government’s weapons proliferation. Furthermore, most council members agree that North Korea represents an ongoing threat of instability that undermines international peace and security. As the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, recently told the UN General Assembly: “This is not an agenda that can be deferred.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The 36th Session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Geneva) – United Nations member countries offered strong criticism and scores of recommendations addressing Egypt’s human rights crisis at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on November 13, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

During the review, countries across all regions called on Egypt to end torture and ill-treatment, investigate crimes committed by security forces, allow nongovernmental organizations and activists to work independently, and protect human rights while countering terrorism. Many countries also said that Egypt should halt executions and review its laws to minimize or end the use of the death penalty. Several countries said that Egypt should take more serious measures to halt violence against women, including by criminalizing domestic violence and by prosecuting those responsible for female genital mutilation, which is still widely practiced.

“The strong criticism of Egypt from countries across the world shows the international community is waking up to the human rights crisis in Egypt,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s important for these countries to follow-up with Egypt directly to take concrete measures to adopt their recommendations.”

Established in 2006, the Universal Periodic Review involves a comprehensive review of the human rights records of all UN member states by other countries in a rotation every four and a half years. Local and international organizations, as well as the country under review, have the opportunity to contribute reports to inform the review process.

Following each review, a group of three member states collaborate with the state under review, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will produce an “outcome report” that includes the recommendations presented and the responses of the state under review.

Egypt has several months to accept or reject the recommendations. The Human Right Council will adopt the UPR report, including the recommendations, at its session in March 2020. More than 130 countries offered 372 recommendations. Unlike previous UPR cycles, Egypt did not immediately accept any recommendations, and said it will use the time available to consider them. Egypt should accept all substantive recommendations to improve its human rights record, and UN experts, member states, and agencies should continue pressing Egypt to halt its violations, Human Rights Watch said.

Although Egypt accepted recommendations to improve its human rights record during previous UPR cycles, and promised several times to amend its laws to strictly prohibit and punish torture, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has moved in the opposite direction. Since assuming office, the al-Sisi government has issued more laws that grant impunity for army and police officers and has generally failed to transparently investigate and prosecute serious human rights violations, including apparent crimes against humanity.

The head of the Egyptian government delegation, Omar Marwan, claimed during the November 13 review that “Egypt had exerted its utmost efforts for the past five years to implement the [earlier] recommendations.” In its previous review in 2014, Egypt accepted 224 out of 300 recommendations. However, the government carried out few of these recommendations and human rights violations have since dramatically escalated.

Countries at the Human Rights Council should continue to exert pressure on Egypt to reform its human rights record, including by expressing concerns through collective statements during upcoming sessions of the council in 2020.

Human Rights Watch made two submissions to the current review. A general submission examined the severe deterioration of human rights since Egypt’s last review in 2014 and a joint submission with the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, an independent Czech-based group, detailed war crimes and serious rights abuses by government forces and armed groups in North Sinai.

A few weeks before this review session, following nationwide anti-government protests that erupted on September 20, the Egyptian authorities rounded up over 4,300 people in one of the largest sweeps in the country since late 2013. The mass arrests included well-known figures and activists, and sometimes included their relatives.

Leading human rights activists in Egypt were not able to participate in the review session since the authorities have banned most of them from leaving the country for the past four years, and have relentlessly prosecuted them under criminal charges in violation of their basic rights and liberties.

In October, Gamal Eid, a leading rights activist and lawyer, was physically assaulted in Cairo by armed men under circumstances that indicate the involvement of state security agencies. That month, authorities also detained prominent human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer. Egypt’s authorities have kept Ibrahim Ezz el-Din, a researcher with the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, in incommunicado detention since they arrested him in June.

“Egyptian authorities’ flagrant abuses only days before the UN review session shows the utter disregard this government has for human rights,” Stork said. “It will only act to uphold rights when other governments step up the pressure.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

China’s struggle to explain away the detention of at least one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang has become much more difficult in recent days. The latest development is the New York Times’ publication of two dozen internal government documents that show that the brutal crackdown is systematic and driven by China’s top leadership, including President Xi Jinping. 

For over a year, the Chinese government has rejected compelling evidence from journalists and organizations like Human Rights Watch detailing mass arbitrary detention, torture and other mistreatment of Turkic Muslims, as well as hyper-intrusive surveillance and increasingly pervasive controls on daily life. 

Lately, Beijing has moved away from denials and started painting its persecution of Xinjiang’s Muslims as a tremendous success. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters that because of “preventive counterterrorism and de-extremism measures,” Xinjiang had not had a violent terrorist incident for three years.

That shift in its story may be because the government is increasingly on the defensive. Last month, Britain’s United Nations Ambassador Karen Pierce delivered a stinging public rebuke of China’s Xinjiang policies to a UN General Assembly committee on behalf of two dozen countries, including France, Germany, the United States and predominantly Muslim Albania. They called on Beijing to end the human rights violations and grant the UN’s human rights chief “immediate unfettered, meaningful access to Xinjiang.” The statement echoed one that 25 countries sent to the UN Human Rights Council in July.

That’s not all. Earlier this month, a dozen UN rights experts issued an unprecedented and devastating assessment of the Chinese government’s use of its counterterrorism law to justify persecution in Xinjiang, warning that the “disproportionate emphasis placed by the authorities on the repression of rights of minorities risks worsening any security risk.”

Unsurprisingly, Beijing managed to round up a cluster of countries to sing its praises. At October’s UN committee meeting, Belarus responded to Ambassador Pierce by saying that 54 countries joined together to “commend China's remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.”

On the surface, it would appear that China is surrounded by friends. A closer look reveals a different story. Egregious human rights abusers like Russia, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar doubtlessly support China’s brutal suppression of a large ethnic minority under the pretext of “counter-terrorism.”

But there are others on China’s list that don’t fit that category, such as Serbia, Palestine, Oman, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Several well-placed UN diplomats told Human Rights Watch that China used strong-arm tactics to pressure countries to back the Belarus statement, including threats of economic retaliation. It added “backers” of the Belarus statement without consulting governments to make refusal more difficult. At least one country formally requested that it be removed from the official list of supporters.

There is no denying that China is a foreign policy behemoth. But that is precisely why determined governments and the UN should capitalize on China’s struggle to cobble together a coherent narrative on Xinjiang. They should use every opportunity to publicly raise the horrors being inflicted on Xinjiang and demand closure of the detention camps. Simply raising concerns privately with China’s leadership is futile.

Unfortunately, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hasn’t recognized the importance of a concerted international response. When questioned this week about the New York Times’ reporting, his spokesman declined to comment on the leak, and mimicked the Chinese government’s line about China’s “unity and territorial integrity”  and “condemnation of terrorist attacks.” He talked about human rights only in the context of “the fight against terrorism” — as if to confirm Beijing’s position that it’s all about counter-terrorism, not widespread government repression.

Top UN and government officials around the world who have so far kept silent about China’s abuses in Xinjiang should speak out. Muslim-majority countries – independently and through the 57-member state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – should follow Albania’s example and raise publicly the deep concerns they often express in private.

To back up their words, countries should impose sanctions on individuals orchestrating the repression and other measures to press China to end its campaign. Finally, international companies should think twice about the ethics of doing business in Xinjiang to avoid being complicit in China’s abusive policies, which have sparked one of the biggest human rights crises of our time. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

An internally displaced camp for Peuhl in Sibut, Kemo province, Central African Republic, where survivors of the Amo attack were living in October 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

(Nairobi) – The peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic, whose mandate the United Nations Security Council renewed on November 14, 2019, should strengthen civilian protection and maximize its role in securing justice. The peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSCA, should work with the country’s special court for grave crimes committed by armed groups to identify how it can best fulfil its mandate to support the court.

Human Rights Watch continues to receive reports on attacks against civilians since the signing of a February peace deal, including in Ouham-Pendé, Kemo, Ouaka, and Vakaga provinces. The peace deal, with 14 armed groups that control vast swathes of the country, led to the integration of some groups’ fighters into the new army and the appointment of their leaders to government positions. Nonetheless, violence continued outside of Bangui, the capital. While some armed group leaders have since left their government positions, the deal continues to receive international support.

“As MINUSCA commits to another year in the country, preventing the killing of civilians and supporting accountability measures should remain top priorities for the mission,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Security Council and MINUSCA should make it clear to armed groups that the mission will do everything in its power to ensure that those responsible for serious crimes are held to account.”

A 30-year-old survivor of the attack to the Peuhl camp near Amo, Central African Republic, shows the scars left by bullets after he was attacked on April 19, 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

MINUSCA is mandated to protect civilians and to use force as necessary under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Its presence has enabled a crucial stability, Human Rights Watch said. The peace deal signed in February has, however, not led to greater security, and MINUSCA should use its renewed mandate to protect civilians in the country’s fragile security environment.

While peacekeepers have provided essential support to civilians in many cases, there have been incidents in recent months in which MINUSCA had troops stationed near civilians and did not provide timely protection. In one instance, in April, in Amo, a village in Kemo province, fighters from a local militia killed seven Peuhl civilians, including two children, 35 kilometers from Sibut, the provincial capital. In another, in May, in Ouham-Pendé province, the armed group Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation, or 3R, killed at least 46 civilians in three coordinated attacks.

In late September, clashes erupted between anti-balaka groups and fighters from the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique, UPC), in Bangao and Lihoto villages in Ouaka province. The fighting destroyed almost 60 homes and displaced up to 9,000 people. MINUSCA has a presence in Ouaka province, including in Grimali and Kouango.

MINUSCA should identify the reasons why its forces did not ensure civilian protection in such incidents and address any operational issues that prevented a swifter response. MINUSCA should ensure that it dedicates the necessary resources to protecting civilians.

The attacks since the signing of the February peace deal underscore the importance of progress by the new Special Criminal Court (SCC). The court – established by law in June 2015 – has a combination of international and domestic judges, prosecutors, and other staff, and operates with significant UN logistical and other support.

After a slow start-up, the court held its first official session in October, and investigations are now pending in the prosecutor’s office and before the court’s investigative judges. But the court will need to intensify investigations and urgently recruit additional staff to ensure efficient progress to deliver justice for war crimes and other serious offenses, Human Rights Watch said in a July report.

MINUSCA, which provides essential support to the court, has the mandate to provide security and technical assistance with research, analysis, and investigations. As cases advance, peacekeepers will also need to play a central role in making arrests, in close collaboration with court staff.

“Civilians continue to be exposed to deadly attacks in the Central African Republic, and MINUSCA plays a key role in ensuring that civilians are safe and justice for the worst crimes is delivered,” Mudge said. “With its renewed mandate, the Security Council has sent a signal that the mission has its full backing to take robust measures to protect civilians, who have suffered years of violence and endless danger.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev takes the oath during his inauguration ceremony in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

© 2019 Vladislav Vodnev / Sputnik via AP

(Geneva) – Governments should use an upcoming review of Kazakhstan’s rights record at the United Nations (UN) to hold the country’s new president to his pledges to respect human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 7, 2019, Kazakhstan will undergo its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, elected Kazakhstan’s president in June, is no stranger to the UN. He headed the UN’s office in Geneva before becoming the hand-picked successor of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who ruled the country for 30 years before his resignation in March.

“President Tokaev knows the UN like few others do, and yet since becoming president, he has failed to bring Kazakhstan closer to UN human rights norms,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries at the UN review should press Tokaev to deliver on much-needed reforms and to respect dissent and public debate.”

Just over eight months after Tokaev was named interim president in March, the transition he promised on several occasions has yet to materialize. In the days surrounding the presidential elections in June, in which Tokaev sailed to victory in a vote observers said was flawed by ballot-stuffing, approximately 4,000 people were detained for protesting the vote.

Once in office, Tokaev promised change. He said his government would reform Kazakhstan’s restrictive protest law by the end of the year, and encouraged local authorities in the meantime to allow protests to take place. In his annual address to the nation in September, he pledged to strengthen the defense of human rights and to carry out “deep reforms of judicial and law enforcement systems.”

However, protesters in Kazakhstan are still often met by large deployments of riot police and mass arrests. While the authorities have allowed some rallies to take place without intervention, in September dozens were arrested for protesting growing Chinese investment in Kazakhstan, and more than 100 people were detained at a rally held by a banned opposition movement.

Several prominent activists remain unjustly behind bars, including Max Bokaev, sentenced to five years in prison for calls for peaceful protests against proposed land code amendments in 2016, and Erlan Baltabay, a trade union activist condemned on charges that appeared politically motivated of misappropriating union funds. Others, like Serikzhan Bilash, whose activism drew attention to the crackdown in China’s Xinjiang region and who pleaded guilty in August to spurious criminal charges of incitement, have since been released, but only on condition that they restrict their public activity.

Organizations that work on controversial issues or are critical of the government are denied official registration, and risk serious penalties by operating without it. And the government continues to restrict independent trade union activity and to persecute trade union activists.

UN members participating in Kazakhstan’s UPR debate should urge Tokaev’s administration to:

  • Respect freedom of assembly by allowing protests to take place without unjustified detentions or arrests, and reform the restrictive protest law;
  • Free those who have been wrongfully imprisoned for activism, particularly Bokaev and Baltabay;
  • Amend criminal code art. 174 on “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord” and art. 274, which broadly prohibits “disseminating knowingly false information,” so as to prevent arbitrary prosecutions that violate human rights norms;
  • End restrictions on independent labor union activity and the persecution of trade union activists.

“Kazakhstan continues to be a place where the government harasses, detains, and imprisons those who voice dissenting opinions,” Williamson said. “The UN’s top human rights body should put President Tokaev to the test and press him to translate long-overdue promises into tangible reform.”

For more details about certain cases and issues mentioned above, please see below.

Max Bokaev

Max Bokaev was sentenced to five years in prison in November 2016 after participating in peaceful protests against proposed land code amendments. He was sentenced together with another activist, Talgat Ayan, though Ayan was released on parole in April 2018. Bokaev remains unjustly imprisoned, even after the government signed a five-year moratorium on the unpopular land reform.

Labor Rights

After widespread strikes in 2011 and 2012, Kazakhstan adopted a new Trade Union Law in 2014 that virtually eliminated the possibility of independent union organizing. The law creates a burdensome registration requirement that resulted in some unions being denied registration. The law also mandates that unions affiliate with higher-tier unions. In June, the International Labour Organization (ILO) sanctioned Kazakhstan for failing to amend the law and other restrictions on trade union activity. The government said amendments to trade union legislation were submitted to parliament in July. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK), the country’s largest independent union, was ordered to close in 2017.

Erlan Baltabay and Other Trade Union Activists

Several trade union activists have been imprisoned and upon release, banned from union activities. In September 2018, authorities in Shmykent opened a spurious criminal case against Erlan Baltabay, a trade union activist who spoke critically about harassment at the International Labor Conference in June 2018. In July 2019, a court sentenced him to prison for seven years on charges of misappropriating union funds. While Baltabay was released from prison due to a presidential pardon in August on the condition that he pay an undisclosed fine, in October he was sentenced to prison for another five months as a penalty for not paying that fine. Three activists, Nurbek Kushakbaev, Amin Eleusinov, and Larisa Kharkova, remained banned from leading trade unions.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Village officials swear allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party in Kashgar, Xinjiang. 

© State WeChat account (新疆访惠聚)
Nearly two dozen countries confronted China at the United Nations this week, voicing outrage over its persecution of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and demanding the government comply with international obligations on the freedom of religion.
For years there has been growing international concern about China’s brutal treatment of 13 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as part of its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism.” There are credible estimates of at least one million Turkic Muslims being indefinitely detained in “political education” camps. China’s harsh repression also involves widespread surveillance and the destruction of Turkic Muslim cultural and religious heritage across Xinjiang.

British UN Ambassador Karen Pierce delivered the joint statement on Xinjiang at the General Assembly’s Third Committee on Tuesday on behalf of 23 countries.

The countries said they shared concerns raised by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination regarding “credible reports of mass detention; efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices; mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs; and other human rights violations and abuses.” They called on China to comply with its national and international obligations to respect human rights, including freedom of religion, and allow UN human rights monitors access to detention centers.  

The statement was backed by Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, and United States.

Predictably, a group of more than 50 countries supporting China sought to “commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” The rebuttal, delivered by Belarus, was joined by notablerights abusers that included Russia and Egypt.

The statement Pierce delivered builds on a similar one presented to the president of the UN Human Rights Council in July and reflects increasing concern about the situation in Xinjiang and an unwillingness to be intimidated by China’s threats of reprisal.

Governments should maintain the momentum by repeatedly raising Xinjiang at various UN venues.  They could organize an informal UN Security Council meeting as well as events like the US and others held last month on the sidelines of the General Assembly. 

Tuesday’s bold statement contrasts sharply with the reluctance of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to publicly criticize Beijing over rights abuses. All top UN officials and national delegations should join the growing chorus demanding an end to the persecution of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

It would be easy to give up on the United Nations Human Rights Council, as the Trump administration has done. Based in Geneva, the council is supposed to be a beacon for the world, a place where victims of human rights violations can look for abusive governments to be held to account. And yet, periodically, news breaks that a country with a particularly atrocious human rights record gained a seat on the UN body.

That happened earlier in October when Venezuela narrowly defeated Costa Rica for a seat on the council. This result would rightly horrify any casual observer. Venezuela is arguably facing the most dramatic human rights and humanitarian crisis in the Americas. Nicolás Maduro’s government is responsible for a vicious crackdown on dissent, with torture and murder being used to silence opponents and critics. A largely self-inflicted humanitarian emergency has sent more than 4.5 million Venezuelans fleeing over the borders.

In a just world, Costa Rica, a country with a solid track record on human rights compliance, would have easily defeated Venezuela. But in the hallways of the UN General Assembly, where 193 governments, most of whom are not rights-respecting democracies, are used to playing politics and securing votes through backroom deals, Venezuela, which presides over the Non-Aligned Movement, still holds some sway.

Despite Costa Rica’s 14-day lightning campaign for a council seat, Venezuela obtained 105 votes, the least of any of the new council members but just barely enough to secure a seat for three years. When the results were announced, timid applause broke out in a corner of the General Assembly — an obscene display of enthusiasm for anyone who believes in human rights and a slap in the face for the Maduro government’s victims.

It was not supposed to be like this. The UN Human Rights Council was created 13 years ago to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission. Standards were required of new members. The improved Human Rights Council has done pretty well, deploying commissions of inquiry to Syria, Myanmar, North Korea, South Sudan and Yemen, and forcing the world to open its eyes to some of the worst human rights crises.

Just last month, the council voted to open an investigation into killings and disappearances in Venezuela. Venezuela’s election will not change that.

In part because of the body’s effectiveness, countries with dubious rights records have sought seats on the council, often benefitting from an unwillingness of regional blocs to encourage/permit competition for available seats. Among its current members are China, which has detained over a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in reeducation camps; Saudi Arabia, which carries out arbitrary detentions at home and commits war crimes in Yemen; Cuba, which represses and punishes dissent and criticism; and the Philippines, whose president has led a murderous “war on drugs.”

The presence of serial rights abusers on the council was cited by the Trump administration to justify its decision to withdraw its membership last year. In truth, the U.S. had done little to prevent problematic allies, such as Saudi Arabia, from being elected to the council.

But regardless of political agendas, critics are right to point out that the election of serious rights abusers undermines the council’s credibility. Countries such as Venezuela, China or Saudi Arabia want a seat at the table mostly to prevent criticism of their own records, or that of their allies.

Does it mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater? Has the Human Rights Council undermined its ability to promote human rights around the world? Far from it. In a world beset by human rights violations, with authoritarian populist movements on the rise and armed conflicts raging around the world, the Human Rights Council is one of the few remaining places where independent investigations can be mandated and where victims of rights abuses can be heard. And unlike the UN Security Council in New York, where Russia or the U.S. can block resolutions on Syria or Israel, no one has a veto.

It would be naïve, and even counterproductive, to insist that all Human Rights Council members should have glittering human rights records. A club of well-meaning democracies speaking only to one another would have little impact on the rest of the world. Countries that face serious human rights challenges but are willing to cooperate with UN treaty bodies and rights experts belong in Geneva.

Unlike most UN bodies, the Human Rights Council has recommended membership criteria, including to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” Those responsible for widespread or systematic abuses and those that repeatedly refuse to cooperate with UN mechanisms and seek access only to block scrutiny and criticism should not have council membership. UN General Assembly members committed to human rights need to cooperate to block the worst offenders, to ensure one of the few institutions able to advance global rights can maintain, and even extend, its credibility. The world cannot afford otherwise.

Philippe Bolopion is deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Video: UN Should Compensate Kosovo Lead Poisoning Victims

The United Nations’ failure to compensate victims of widespread lead poisoning at UN-run camps in Kosovo has left affected families struggling to care for sick relatives who were exposed to the contamination.

Yesterday was supposed to be a celebration at the United Nations.

October 24 is United Nations Day, marking the day the UN Charter officially came into effect in 1945. The Charter includes the commitment to protect human rights.

But on the UN’s birthday, the world body received sharp criticism regarding its own human rights record.

The UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste, Baskut Tuncak, reprimanded the UN for failing victims of widespread lead poisoning in Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war. Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian minorities were forced to live in UN-run camps contaminated by lead from a nearby industrial mine for more than a decade. Hundreds got sick. Many still suffer health consequences today.

In his presentation to the General Assembly, Tuncak warned: “[t]he integrity of the U.N. system is undermined by its failure to provide relief and remedy to these Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families.”

In a new report on the human rights obligation to prevent exposure to toxic substances, Tuncak noted a 2016 independent UN investigation into human rights claims against the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) that found violations against the displaced communities and recommended the UN pay individual compensation.

Lead can impair the body’s neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible, and high levels of lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities. The victims have been waiting for justice and support for more than a decade.

This is not the first time the UN has been criticized for its failure to provide a remedy. In June, Tuncak wrote to six UN bodies, urging them to prioritize the victims in Kosovo and advocate for greater visibility of the issue. Only the World Health Organization responded, saying it considers the voluntary trust fund that UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres created more than two years ago the best way to help the affected communities. To date, only one country has contributed to the trust fund and it falls short of offering individual compensation.

After marking the UN’s anniversary, UN member states, the UN secretary-general, and heads of other UN bodies should heed the call of their own experts to ensure that victims of lead poisoning in Kosovo finally get justice.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

24 October 2019

UNGA: Protect Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism


Our organisations urge your delegation to categorically reject the approach expected to be adopted in a draft resolution at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Third Committee on “terrorism and human rights”, led by Egypt and Mexico. This is essential to prevent the further erosion of international human rights law relating to counter-terrorism and to the rights of victims of terrorism, and to safeguard the integrity of the UN system and UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy (GCTS). We urge you to instead support the restoration of the approach and text of the Mexico-led UNGA resolution 72/180 (2017) on “protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism”, which was the culmination of 16 years of considered and consensus-based normative progress.

UNGA resolution 73/174 (2018) on “terrorism and human rights” merged two previously separate initiatives, and followed a similar merger at the Human Rights Council (HRC) in resolution 37/27 (2018). Both mergers resulted in the loss of crucial language on States’ human rights obligations in the context of countering terrorism. Consensus-based commitments from the previous Mexican-led UNGA resolution were removed, including on, inter alia, derogation in emergencies, non-refoulement, the right to privacy, deprivation of liberty, the rights of minorities and the rights of children, as well as reference to important international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture.[1] Extensive language on the “negative effects of terrorism”, taken from recent Egypt-led resolutions, was added. The promotion of this overbroad and misleading concept shifts focus away from human rights to the macro- economic impacts of terrorism as harm to the State, providing justification for excessive counter-terrorism measures.

We note that many delegations presented the 2018 mergers at the HRC and UNGA as necessary to maintaining consensus on an issue of global importance, and to containing the advancement of the damaging “effects of terrorism” agenda, of which Egypt was the architect. Developments over the last twelve months demonstrate that this strategy of containment is failing, instead empowering Egypt to reverse normative human rights progress and prevent institutional strengthening through continually escalating demands.

Throughout 2019 at the HRC, Egypt undermined assurances underpinning the 2018 mergers. In particular, Egypt has sought to dilute and distort the scope of the mandate of UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, and distract its work, under the constant threat of creating a competing mandate on “effects of terrorism”. While Egypt’s attempts to take shared control of the mandate renewal at the 40th HRC Session in March were ultimately unsuccessful, Mexico and other States then partially acquiesced as a result of Egyptian threats at the 42nd HRC Session in September, resulting in another deeply problematic merged HRC resolution 42/18 on “terrorism and human rights.” Concessions in the resolution gave further prominence to the Egyptian approach, “inviting” the Special Rapporteur to report on the “negative effects” of terrorism.

These concessions were made notwithstanding the present mandate-holder outlining her concerns that the “effects of terrorism” initiative has a history of “instrumentalising the victims of terrorism in order to bolster the need for greater counter-terrorism measures and thus weaken the international system as a whole.” Even with a stronger focus on the rights’ of victims of terrorism in the mandate renewal resolution, Egypt expressed dissatisfaction, making clear that their focus is not on victims or on human rights, but on broader economic issues outside of the human rights mandates of either the HRC or Third Committee.

Egypt’s international campaign must be understood in the context of President Sisi’s egregious and continuing abuse of counter-terrorism measures at home to suppress civil society and dissenting voices. In a statement on 18 October, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raised concerns at the detention and mistreatment of human rights defenders Esraa Abdelfattah, Mohammed El-Baqer, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, accused of “terrorism” solely for the exercise of their rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. Their cases are emblematic of Egypt’s frequent abuse of counter-terrorism charges and measures against human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, peaceful protesters and political opponents, free media, including online, civil society, and others, including prolonged arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment including by rape, and extrajudicial or arbitrary executions, including mass killings of peaceful protesters. Egypt has legislated to facilitate impunity to military officers for these crimes, some of which may even constitute crimes against humanity. The UN Secretary General’s 2019 report on cooperation with the UN system contain numerous allegations that the Egyptian government engaged in reprisals, including through the abuse of counter- terrorism laws. Moreover, reprisals relating to a 2018 UN expert country visit prompted special procedures to publicly proclaim that Egypt is not ready to receive further visits.

Egypt has a clear vested interest in undermining international human rights law and accountability mechanisms relating to violations committed in the context of counter-terrorism measures. For States to treat Egypt as a reliable partner in leading this resolution only helps to provide cover for and perpetuate this egregious pattern, with serious consequences on the lives and dignity of Egyptians seeking to exercise their fundamental rights.

States must also consider the unique position the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism occupies, and therefore the significance of Egypt’s efforts to dilute or otherwise undermine its work. Within the rapidly expanding United Nations Counter-Terrorism architecture, the mandate is the sole entity dedicated exclusively to ensuring counter- terrorism measures and the treatment of victims of terrorism are consistent with the protection and promotion of human rights. We recall that the United Nations has long recognised that the protection of human rights is essential to effective counter-terrorism strategies, making this the fourth pillar of the GCTS. Both the GCTS and the Secretary General have recognised that human rights violations perpetrated in the name of countering-terrorism can drive individuals to violence. Undermining the mandate therefore has potentially global consequences.

This discussion comes at a crucial time. The GCTS will be reviewed in July 2020, which is an important opportunity for States and other stakeholders to address both the rights of victims of terrorism and those whose rights are violated by counter-terrorism measures. States should be mindful of the consequences of adopting a resolution weaker than resolution A/72/180 during this UNGA, given that resolutions reviewing the GCTS contain limited focus on its fourth pillar, and attention to human rights is mostly through reference to the work of the Third Committee. The Special Rapporteur specifically urged in her March report that the Assembly must address the deficits of this merger, and restore key human rights aspects from the 2017 resolution. Whatever the risks of Egypt reinstating its separate resolution, States should consider the longer-term costs of accommodating Egypt’s escalating demands to be much greater, both to the global protection of human rights and to the GCTS itself.

We strongly urge your delegation to insist on restoring the approach of the 2017 resolution on “the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism” at the Third Committee of the 74th UNGA, in place of any merged initiative. Through this, we request that you make your full support to the independence and integrity of the existing Special Rapporteur mandate clear, and set the groundwork for placing human rights at the center of the GCTS 2020 review.

Yours Sincerely,

Access Now!
Amnesty International
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Fair Trials
Human Rights in China (HRIC)
Human Rights Watch
Igarapé Institute
International Commission of Jurists
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism
International Service for Human Rights
MENA Rights Group
Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF)
UnidOSC, México
*Due to security concerns, one organisation has endorsed the letter but withheld its name


[1] Paragraphs of resolution 72/180 omitted in Resolution 73/174 include, inter alia: OP4 on derogations; OP5(b) on minorities; OP5(c) and (d) on arbitrary detentions; OP5(f) on fair trials; OP5(j) on surveillance and the right to privacy; OP5(k) on economic, social and cultural rights; OP5(l) on border control operations; OP5(m) on non-refoulement; OP5(n) on return to torture in States of origin; OP5(o) on interrogation methods; OP5(s) and OP9 - 10 on relevant international human rights and humanitarian law instruments; OP5(u) on drones; OP5(v) on implementation of UN resolutions and recommendations; OP5(w) on investigations into violations; and OP7 on protections for humanitarian organisations.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

At the recent June session of the Human Rights Council, 25 states sent a joint letter to the President of the Human Rights Council and to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressing deep concern at widespread rights violations against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. An alternative letter was also submitted in which China’s approach in Xinjiang was endorsed by states that included North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Myanmar – themselves long responsible for gross rights violations.

An alternative letter was also submitted in which China’s approach in Xinjiang was endorsed by gross violators including North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Myanmar. China’s narrative hinges upon a gross stereotyping of Uyghurs and other Muslims as “terrorists needing re-education”. We are encouraged that half of the OIC states declined to endorse this offensive narrative.

Council action is all the more urgent in view of emerging reports of China’s forced separation of Muslim children from their parents, placed in ostensible education institutions equipped with barbed wire and surveillance cameras more akin to detention centers than schools, and required to sing and dance to Chinese propagandistic songs.

One Uyghur man has been unable to contact his son, now 4, and daughter, 3, since authorities detained his wife in August 2016. In January, he spotted his son in a video posted online that showed him in a school answering questions in Chinese. “I miss my children, my wife,” he told Human Rights Watch. “I want them back very much. I fear if I ever meet my children again in my lifetime, they wouldn’t know who I am, and they would’ve been assimilated as Chinese and think that I’m their enemy.”

We urge delegations, particularly from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, to speak out against mass violations directed at Muslims in Xinjiang, and to support the High Commissioner’s call for unfettered access to conduct an independent assessment so that the Human Rights Council can be kept informed of the situation.

The joint statement on systemic rights violations in Saudi Arabia delivered by 36 states at the Council’s March session was followed in June by the report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions on the brutal and brazen murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We share the Special Rapporteur’s analysis that “the operation against Mr. Khashoggi has to be understood in relation to [an] organized and coordinated crack-down [against activists and journalists], one that included repeated unlawful acts of torture and physical harm”.

This is the session to follow up on the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations. Saudi women still face myriad human rights violations. The Saudi government is continuing the trials of Saudi women activists facing charges tied to their peaceful human rights advocacy, and has not taken steps to provide meaningful accountability for the Khashoggi murder.

The charade should no longer go on that the Saudi authorities can announce reforms on the one hand and on the other imprison those who fought for them. We urge states at this session of the Council to maintain scrutiny of Saudi Arabia through a joint statement or resolution with a view to putting in place a monitoring mechanism into the rights situation in the country.

Mr. President, meaningful attention by the Council to the rights crackdown in Egypt is long overdue. Draconian restrictions on civil society, misuse of counterterrorism laws, and use of torture continue unabated. At this session alone, the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances noted the “very high number” of allegations of disappearances concerning Egypt, the Working Group on arbitrary detention similarly documented numerous arbitrary detentions, and Egypt features prominently in both the communications report of Special Procedures and the Secretary General’s report on reprisals.

What these countries - China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt - have in common is that they are all HRC members whose grave and continuing violations demand increased attention by this Council.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Demonstrators march outside the US Capitol during the Poor People's Campaign rally in Washington, DC, June 23, 2018. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

(New York) – Governments should heed the call of the United Nations’ leading expert on poverty to fully integrate human rights protections into their efforts to digitize and automate welfare benefits and services, seven human rights groups said today.

In a report released this week, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warns that the rapid digitization and automation of welfare systems is hurting the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. Although governments have pledged to use these technologies to create more equitable and inclusive welfare programs, Alston found that the technologies have been used in ways that “surveil, target, harass, and punish beneficiaries.”  

“The UN expert’s findings show that automating welfare services poses unique and unprecedented threats to welfare rights and privacy,” said Amos Toh, senior artificial intelligence and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Using technology to administer welfare has risks and is not a panacea for rights-based reforms that safeguard the dignity and autonomy of society’s most vulnerable people.”

The human rights groups are Access Now, AlgorithmWatch, Amnesty International, Child Poverty Action Group, Human Rights Watch, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, and Privacy International.

In the first global UN survey of digital welfare systems, Alston found that governments increasingly rely on automated decision-making and other data-driven technologies to verify the identity of welfare beneficiaries, assess their eligibility for various services, calculate benefit amounts, and detect welfare fraud. But the use of these technologies can create serious harm to human rights, the groups said.

The automation of key welfare functions without sufficient transparency, due process, and accountability raises the specter of mass violations of welfare rights. In the United Kingdom, errors in the Real Time Information System, which calculates benefits payments based on earnings information reported to the tax authority, have caused potentially catastrophic delays and reductions in benefit payments for impoverished families. Design flaws in automated fraud detection systems in Australia and the United States have also triggered debt notices to scores of beneficiaries, wrongfully accusing them of welfare fraud.

“Automated decision-making should be made more transparent, as highlighted by the rapporteur, in three important ways,” said Matthias Spielkamp, executive director of AlgorithmWatch. “Citizens need to be able to understand what policies are implemented using algorithms and automation. The administration has to keep a register of all complex automation processes it uses that directly affect citizens. Also, there needs to be transparency of responsibility, so that people know who to contact to challenge a decision.”

The development of digital identity systems to screen welfare beneficiaries also increases the risk of unnecessary and disproportionate surveillance, and attendant risks to people’s security. In India, Human Rights Watch has found that the government’s mandatory biometric identification project, Aadhaar, imposes invasive data collection requirements as a condition for getting allotments of subsidized food grains and other essential public services.

In Kenya, Amnesty International has raised concern about the lack of adequate privacy protections and independent oversight in the national biometric identification system, Huduma Namba. Registration with the system is a condition of accessing welfare benefits and other government services.

“Before forcing entire populations into using digital identity programs, governments must first ask themselves, ‘Why ID?’, and prove these systems are necessary and will actually provide the intended benefits,” said Peter Micek, general counsel at Access Now. “With ill-conceived digital identity programs, authorities force communities to give up fundamental rights such as privacy in exchange for their rights to food, shelter, and well-being.”

Alston found that government agencies around the world undertake a wide range of “crucial decisions to go digital” without meaningful transparency or even a legal basis for doing so, denying “opportunities for legislative debate and for public inputs into shaping the relevant systems.”

“Independent oversight findings of illegality are being completely ignored,” said Elizabeth Farries, information rights program manager of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. “In Ireland, the government refuses to halt its compulsory rollout of the biometric Public Services Card for a wide range of services, despite being ordered to stop by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.” 

The groups also endorsed the UN expert’s recommendation that governments should establish laws ensuring that the private sector incorporates transparency, accountability, and other human rights safeguards in the development and sale of technologies to facilitate the delivery of welfare services and benefits.

"Whilst governments have been the ones increasingly pushing for digital welfare policies, we must also consider the other stakeholders driving this agenda,” said Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion, director of strategy at Privacy International. “As pointed out by the special rapporteur, the private sector plays a role, but we maintain that we must also address the role of investment structures, such as the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, and leading funders. All those in the ecosystem must be held to account to protect people and to ensure they can live with dignity and autonomy, free from undue surveillance and exploitation. ”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A view of the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters, October 1, 2018. 

© AP Photo/Richard Drew
(New York) – Several candidates vying for seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council have problematic rights records, and UN member states should not vote for Venezuela. Venezuela’s abusive government clearly falls short of minimum standards for membership.

On October 17, 2019, the UN General Assembly will elect 14 new members to the 47-nation council for a three-year term beginning in January 2020. The Latin American and Caribbean regional group at the UN had initially put forward only two candidates for two council seats – Venezuela and Brazil, virtually assuring both of victory. But on October 3, Costa Rica, which has a solid human rights record, announced it would compete for a seat. That means the 193 assembly members can deny a seat to Venezuela’s abusive government.

“Now that UN member states have a choice, there is no possible excuse to vote for Venezuela,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “A vote for Venezuela is a vote for the torture, murder, and impunity that have become trademarks of President Nicolás Maduro’s government. It’s a slap in the face to the millions who have fled the country, many facing dire humanitarian conditions, and the countless victims who never made it out.”

Fifty-four international and Venezuelan organizations, including Human Rights Watch, declared Venezuela unfit for council membership on October 10. In September, the council passed a resolution establishing an independent fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and other cruel or degrading treatment committed in Venezuela since 2014. Venezuela rejected that resolution.

UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which created the Human Rights Council, urges states voting for members to “take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights.” This applies to their efforts to promote and protect human rights at home and abroad. Council members are required to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate with the Council.”

Venezuela does not meet those minimum standards, Human Rights Watch said. More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country to escape the humanitarian emergency, and the political, economic, and human rights crisis.

Two of the five UN geographical regions have no competition for council seats, meaning that their candidates’ victory is largely a foregone conclusion in the secret ballot. Four African countries are running for four seats: Benin, Libya, Mauritania, and Sudan. The Netherlands and Germany are seeking the two available Western group seats.

The Eastern Europe and Asia groups allowed for competition, with Armenia, Moldova, and Poland vying for two seats, and Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Marshall Islands, and South Korea competing for four spots.

All regions should ensure that they offer competitive slates, enabling UN members to deny seats to the most abusive governments. In 2016, Russia lost its Human Rights Council re-election bid by two votes following outrage over the bombardment of civilians in Aleppo, Syria. A lack of competition undermines membership standards.

The third Latin American/Caribbean candidate is Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, has embraced rhetoric hostile to human rights norms. His government has effectively given a green light to criminal networks destroying the Amazon rainforest and attacking forest defenders. Chronic human rights problems plague Brazil, including police violence. But while Venezuela has routinely sought to frustrate the council’s ability to address abuses, Brazil has supported numerous council resolutions tackling a range of violations around the world.

Poland has systematically eroded the independence and effective functioning of its judiciary. In recent years, judges and prosecutors have been subject to arbitrary disciplinary proceedings for speaking out on judicial reforms, an interference with judicial independence.

In Indonesia, there has been a rise in religious intolerance that has led to discrimination against religious minorities, women, and LGBT people. The Indonesian government tolerated the use of hundreds of discriminatory regulations, including the blasphemy law, to prosecute minorities. In Iraq, the government has yet to ensure that all forces, including Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects, that may have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide, are held to account for specific crimes. Iraqi security forces continue to commit abuses, killing over 100 protesters in early October after resorting to excessive and lethal force at demonstrations.

Sudan has a long history of human rights abuses and impunity for grave crimes. If it joins the Human Rights Council, the new transitional government should set an example on human rights promotion by taking concrete steps toward accountability and reforms. This should include carrying out credible investigations into attacks on protesters since December 18 and surrendering ousted President Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court.

In Mauritania, authorities have used laws on criminal defamation, spreading “false information,” and blasphemy to prosecute and jail human rights activists, bloggers, and political dissidents.

The council was created in 2006 to replace the Commission on Human Rights, whose credibility had been shattered because it included countries with records of serious human rights violations.

“UN member states shouldn’t reward abusive governments with seats on important bodies like the Human Rights Council,” said Charbonneau. “No government is perfect, but Venezuela would clearly join the council with a view to protecting itself and its allies from legitimate criticism. When member states mark their ballots, they should make defeating Venezuela a priority.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am