(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 No country has ever withdrawn from the council after running for election to secure a seat.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

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, February 10, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

For years, hospitals in Syria have been getting bombed. These attacks continue even though the UN collected the locations of these protected sites and shared them with the warring parties in hope of shielding them from the crossfire. Many now suspect the coordinates provided by the UN were actually being used unscrupulously by Russian-Syrian forces as a target list.

If true, this would be a huge abuse of the UN system, not least of all, as directing attacks to these sites is a serious violation of the laws of war. By launching an inquiry into these attacks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has taken a step towards unearthing the truth. But to be effective, he should also task investigators to determine and then publicly identify the forces responsible for these unlawful attacks.

At UN headquarters, some argue against identifying those responsible, saying everyone already knows who is behind this string of bombings in Syria. These voices want the UN to avoid potentially antagonizing Moscow, which is already displeased by the inquiry. No need to poke the proverbial bear, they counsel.

Unfortunately, these short-sighted arguments may carry the day. The UN chief has a tendency to go silent on human rights. We worry he may be tempted to tell his investigators to stop shy of connecting the dots to who’s responsible. When asked about his decision to initiate an investigation, the Secretary-General was quick to assure the world that the UN wasn’t seeking to “prove” anything.

But Guterres shouldn’t break with the precedent set under previous Secretaries General, who have set up inquiries into attacks on the UN that readily attributed responsibility for certain acts. A recent study by the International Peace Institute actually found that every single similar UN inquiry “has indeed identified” those responsible for carrying out certain acts, albeit without any conclusions on their legal culpability. From South Sudan to Gaza, previous such inquiries have pointed fingers where there was a basis to do so. Why should this latest look at Syria be different?

The UN Secretary-General as head of the organization, is charged with defending the UN when its institutions are attacked and its trust violated, regardless of how powerful those responsible may be.

As he decides on the terms of this inquiry on Syria, he has an opportunity to do just that.

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

Jose L. Cuisia Jr., chairperson of Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, presents the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay awardee Angkhana Neelapaijit from Thailand during an event in Manila, Philippines on Friday, August 2, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Aaron Favila
The resignation of two prominent human rights advocates from the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) is an alarm bell signaling the need for a total revamp of the flawed and scandal-ridden agency.

Commissioners Angkhana Neelapaijit and Tuenjai Deetes announced their resignations on Tuesday, stating they could no longer perform their duties independently and effectively due to restrictive regulations and a hostile and unsupportive office environment. Two other commissioners had resigned earlier. The seven-member commission now cannot function, unable to muster a quorum.

Once a model for human rights commissions throughout Southeast Asia, the Thai commission’s international ranking was downgraded in 2015 by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions and the United Nations Human Rights Council because of the government’s manipulation of the selection process for commissioners to ensure a pro-government political bias. The situation went from bad to worse as a result of the 2017 NHRCT Act, which further stripped away the agency’s independence and transformed it into a de facto government mouthpiece, contrary to the United Nations Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions (the Paris Principles).

Angkhana and Tuanjai tried to defy such restrictive regulations but faced administrative reprisals. In May 2019, the commission’s chairperson targeted Angkhana with a disciplinary inquiry and threatened to impeach her for observing legal proceedings and documenting human rights violations against opposition politicians and critics of the government. On Friday, Angkhana was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, known as “Asia’s Nobel Prize,” for “championing justice, case after painful case.”

Thailand needs a credible national human rights body. The government and every political party in parliament should work together to amend the problematic NHRCT Act and make it fully compatible with international standards. The selection of commissioners should be more inclusive and transparent than the current process, which has resulted in the appointment of inexperienced and unqualified candidates from a pool of government officials instead of human rights advocates.

Only with significant reforms will the human rights commission be able to fulfill its duty to serve as an independent bulwark against human rights violations in Thailand.

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

To Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Geneva, Switzerland

Excellencies,

Ahead of the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council (“HRC” or “the Coun­cil”), we, the undersigned national, regional, and international civil society organisations, write to call on your delegation to support a resolution extending the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi for a further year, until September 2020.

The work conducted by the CoI provides critical oversight of the human rights situation in Bu­run­di. The situation in the country deteriorated markedly following the announcement by President Pierre Nkurunziza, in April 2015, that he would run for a controversial third term in office. Over the last four years and three months, the Government and its affiliated agencies and forces, inclu­ding the police, the National Intel­li­gence Service (Service national de renseignement, or SNR), and the ruling CNDD-FDD par­ty’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, have been res­ponsible for gross, widespread, and syste­ma­tic human rights violations.

The CoI has documented violations of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Inde­pen­dent and critical voices, including civil society members, human rights de­fenders (HRDs), and jour­nalists, have been particularly targeted. Over the last year, the Burundian Government forced the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to leave the country, suspended one of the last remaining independent civil society organisations, Words and Actions for the Awa­kening of Consciences and the Evolution of Mentalities (PARCEM), suspended the operating license of the Voice of America and revoked the license of the British Broadcasting Cooperation, and forced at least 30 international non-governmental organisations to cease their activities. On 17 July 2019, the Ntahangwa Court of Appeal upheld the 32-year prison sentence against HRD Germain Rukuki. With 2020 elections approa­ching, we believe the scrutiny provided by the CoI remains vitally important.

The pre-electoral context is likely to escalate political tensions and we are concerned that there may be a subsequent rise in human rights violations. Burundian and international human rights organi­sa­tions have continued to document serious and widespread violations throughout 2018 and to date in 2019, which appear to take place in a context of complete impunity. Although the registration of the National Congress for Freedom (Congrès national pour la liberté) indicated a possible opening of po­li­tical space ahead of the 2020 polls, rights groups have documented rampant abuses against its mem­bers, including killings, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and intimidation. The decision to fund the elections by collecting so-called “voluntary contributions” from the population has also led to wide­spread ex­tor­tion. Members of the Imbonerakure and the ruling party and local administrators, who have been charged with collecting the contributions, have arbitrarily restricted peoples’ movement and access to markets, health care, education and administrative services.

The CoI presented its findings to the Council in 2017 and 2018, indicating that it has “rea­so­nable grounds to believe that serious human rights violations and abuses have been committed in Bu­run­di since 2015” and that some of the violations may constitute “crimes against humanity.” By ex­ten­ding the CoI’s mandate, the Council would:

§ Ensure continued scrutiny of the situation, as the CoI remains the only mechanism to monitor and publicly report on the situation in Burundi;[1]

§ Provide the CoI and its secretariat with the time they need to complete their work docu­men­ting violations and building case files for future prosecutions;

§ Ensure consistency of action and follow-up on its previous resolutions, including HRC resolu­tions 30/27 (2015), S-24/1 (adopted in a special session held on 17 December 2015), 33/24 (2016), 36/19 (2017), and 39/14 (2018), thereby contributing to fulfilling its implementation mandate;

§ Make clear that obstructionism and attacks against the integrity of the Council and the OHCHR are not rewarded, as the Burun­dian Gov­ern­ment continues to deny expert findings on the country’s human rights situation, insult and threa­t­en members of the CoI, refuse to cooperate with the UN human rights system, refuse to act on key recommendations formulated by the CoI, OHCHR, and the Council, and engage in sub-standard co­operation with regional mechanisms;[2] and

§ Avoid a monitoring gap ahead of the 2020 election, as the limited civic and democratic space in the country and the intimidation exercised by government forces, the ruling party, and members of the Imbo­ne­ra­kure hamper the pros­pects for a free and fair election.

At minimum, Council Members and Observers should support the extension of the mandate of the CoI on Bu­rundi for a further year, until September 2020, in accordance with the Council’s res­pon­sibility to address situations of human rights violations, in­cluding gross and systematic violations, to advance accountability, to prevent further human rights violations and abuses, and to follow up on its actions and recom­mendations.

The Council should also request the CoI to prepare a report with a specific focus on elections and risk factors of human rights violations and abuses and to present it during an enhanced interactive dia­lo­gue at the Council’s 43rd session.

We thank you for your attention to these pressing issues and stand ready to provide your delegation with further information as required.

Sincerely,

  1. Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture – Burundi (ACAT-Burundi)
  2. African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS)
  3. AfricanDefenders (Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network)
  4. Amnesty International
  5. ARTICLE 19
  6. Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues (APRODH)
  7. Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
  8. Centre for Civil and Political Rights (CCPR-Centre)
  9. CIVICUS
  10. Civil Rights Defenders
  11. Civil Society Coalition for Monitoring the Elections (COSOME)
  12. Coalition Burundaise pour la Cour Pénale Internationale (CB-CPI)
  13. Collectif des Avocats pour la Défense des Victimes de Crimes de Droit International Commis au Burundi (CAVIB)
  14. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  15. DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  16. Eritrean Law Society (ELS)
  17. Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR)
  18. Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (FOCODE)
  19. Forum pour le Renforcement de la Société Civile au Burundi (FORSC)
  20. Front Line Defenders
  21. Geneva for Human Rights / Genève pour les Droits de l’Homme
  22. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P)
  23. Human Rights Watch
  24. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
  25. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  26. International Federation of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (FIACAT)
  27. International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI)
  28. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  29. Ligue Iteka
  30. Mouvement Citoyen pour l’Avenir du Burundi (MCA)
  31. Mouvement des Femmes et des Filles pour la Paix et la Sécurité (MFFPS)
  32. National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Burundi (CBDDH) 
  33. Central African Network of Human Rights Defenders (REDHAC)
  34. Observatoire de la Lutte contre la Corruption et les Malversations Économiques (OLUCOME)
  35. Organisation pour la Transparence et la Gouvernance (OTRAG)
  36. Réseau des Citoyens Probes (RCP)
  37. SOS-Torture/Burundi
  38. TRIAL International
  39. Union Burundaise des Journalistes (UBJ)
  40. West African Human Rights Defenders Network (ROADDH/WAHRDN)
  41. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
 

[1] Interactive dialogues at the Coun­cil provide the only regular space for public reporting and debates on human rights deve­lop­ments in the country.

[2] While the African Union’s (AU) observers continue to monitor the human rights situation in Burundi despite a number of limitations imposed by the authorities, their findings are not publicly reported.  

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Families of victims of the "war on drugs" in the Philippines remove portraits of their slain relatives after the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution to investigate the killings. 

© 2019 Bullit Marquez/AP Photo

What we witnessed at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council earlier this month was inspiring and critically important. We saw Iceland’s principled leadership in action, bringing about  the adoption of a resolution putting the human rights situation in the Philippines on the UN agenda. Thousands of people have been summarily executed in the Philippines in the context of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” and  human rights defenders and government critics there face threats and intimidation.

To us, as advocates working at the Council, and especially to the Filipino human rights defenders in the room, this meant a world of a difference. It was a decisive shift from near-total impunity for the heinous crimes committed against thousands of people by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte to the beginning of accountability. Many broke into tears at this glimpse of hope and justice.

The resolution, adopted with cross-regional support, is modest in scope, simply requesting a report by the UN human rights office on the situation in the Philippines. UN experts and our organizations had called for a full-fledged investigation, but we see the resolution as a crucial step toward tackling the human rights crisis that has claimed the lives of so many people in the Philippines.

The widespread killings in the Philippines do not happen by accident, but in pursuit of a state policy articulated at the highest levels. President Duterte himself has repeatedly urged  killing people associated with drugs, saying: “My order is to shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me,” and vowed to protect the police and others who kill from facing justice.

Credible estimates by  independent organizations and the Philippines national Commission on Human Rights place the death toll from the “drug war” at more than 27,000. Even the police admit to more than 6,600 killings with their direct involvement, attempting to justify the killings on the grounds that all these suspects “fought back.” But reporting from human rights groups and the media belies these claims, finding instead that  police routinely plant evidence such as guns and drugs on victims’ bodies to justify the killings and that the police are also often complicit in killings by unidentified armed people.

The resolution responding to these violations didn’t come out of the blue. Iceland had already led three joint statements on the Philippines supported by nearly 40 States in 2017 and 2018, the last of which indicated that formal Council action could be forthcoming if the Philippines didn’t reverse course. Both the former and current top UN human rights officials had also sounded the alarm, and the International Criminal Court announced a preliminary investigation in February 2018. The Philippines had ample time to stop the killings and investigate the violations. But it did not.

Instead, bodies continued to pile up in urban areas of Manila and elsewhere in the country. Children from the poorest communities continued to be orphaned as their breadwinners were killed. Critics of the government’s policies continued to be vilified and harassed. And there were no prosecutions except a single high-profile case captured on video, of the police killing a helpless teenager. The killings continue on a daily basis, and President Duterte has promised that his drug war will only get harsher. Even while the Human Rights Council was in session and the Iceland-led resolution on the table, the police shot and killed Myka – a 3-year-old girl – during a drug raid at her family’s home near Manila.

Meanwhile, the Philippines pulled out all the stops in a massive misinformation campaign and targeted outreach to states the world over to try to block the resolution. The magnitude and hostility of the Philippines’ efforts were shocking – even to those of us who have followed the processes to secure Council action on human rights violations committed by more powerful States – but there was nothing new about it. While the Philippines has tried to portray itself as a cooperative member of the Human Rights Council, it has smeared the UN experts who called for an investigation as “intellectually challenged” and as representing “enemies of the state.” The Philippine government placed the UN expert on indigenous peoples on a terrorist watch list after she criticized the government, and President Duterte himself threatened to slap the UN expert on extra-judicial executions if she probed the drug war.

It’s also not surprising that supporters of the Philippine government have criticized Iceland for “interference in its sovereignty” – it’s a common tune from states responsible for  human rights violations that attempt to shield themselves and each other from scrutiny. But while Iceland’s leadership was bold and effective in bringing attention to the plight of victims, even in the face of the Philippines’ aggressive counter-campaign, there was nothing irregular about their choice to address the human rights situation in the country. This is what’s expected of members of the world’s top human rights body, many of whom lead on  resolutions concerning rights violations in other countries.

The sheer volume of killings in the Philippines, their incitement by the president, the absence of accountability, and hostility against the UN human rights mechanisms, made the situation in the Philippines cry out  for attention, and the resolution was long overdue. Iceland courageously took it on.

Around the world, there are many abusive governments committing rights violations, but only a handful of champions willing to hold them to account. Iceland appears to be taking its responsibility as a member of the Human Rights Council – and the human rights situation in the Philippines – seriously. Other countries would do well do follow suit.

 

 

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

People are seen near a bus destroyed by an airstrike that killed dozens of children, in a photograph taken on August 12, 2018 in Saada, Yemen.

© 2018 Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images
 
(New York) – The United Nations secretary-general omitted countries responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict in his new “list of shame,” Human Rights Watch said today. The list also gave certain countries an undeserved more favorable designation despite their failed promises to improve their record.
 
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres released his annual report on children and armed conflict on July 30, 2019, in advance of a UN Security Council open debate on the subject on August 2. The Security Council has requested an annual list of those responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict since 2001.
 
“The UN secretary-general simply refuses to hold to account all warring parties that have inflicted tremendous suffering on children,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “By listing selected violators but not others, Secretary-General Guterres is ignoring the UN’s own evidence and undermining efforts to protect children in conflict.”
 
Guterres failed to list the Israel Defense Forces, the Afghan National Army, and US-led international forces in Afghanistan in the new report as responsible for grave violations against children, including killing and maiming, despite considerable evidence of violations by these parties.
 
Although he listed the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen, he once again included the coalition in a category of parties taking steps to improve, despite overwhelming evidence that coalition forces killed and harmed children on a large scale in 2018.
 
According to the report, the number of Palestinian children killed or injured reached its highest level since 2014. Fifty-nine Palestinian children were killed in 2018, fifty-six of them by the Israel Defense Forces, nearly a four-fold increase over 2017. In the West Bank, Israeli forces injured 1,398 children in 2018, while in Gaza they injured 1,335 children. A Palestinian rocket injured 6 Israeli children in 2018. Previous reports have also found the Israel Defense Forces responsible for killing and maiming Palestinian children, but the secretary-general has yet to include the Israeli forces in his list of abusers.
 
In Afghanistan, child deaths reached the highest level since figures were first recorded in 2009. The secretary-general found that the US-led international forces were responsible for 286 child deaths and injuries in 2018, nearly triple the number reported in 2017, but did not include the forces in his list. He also did not include the Afghan National Army, responsible for 467 child deaths and injuries.
 
The Security Council requires parties on the secretary-general’s list to sign and carry out an action plan with the UN to end their violations against children. Twenty-eight parties to armed conflict have signed such plans. Once parties carry out their plans and end violations, they may be removed from the list. Parties that refuse to sign or carry out an action plan may be subject to sanctions, including arms embargoes, travel bans, and asset freezes.
 
For the third consecutive year, the secretary-general has divided his “list of shame” into two separate lists, one for parties that have not put in place measures to protect children, and another, “List B,” for parties that have put in place measures “aimed at improving the protection of children.”
 
The 2018 “List B” includes both the Saudi-led coalition and the Somali National Army, despite spikes in violations by both parties in 2018. According to the secretary-general’s report, the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 729 child casualties – killed and injured – in Yemen in 2018, compared with 670 in 2017. In 2018, the Somali National Army was responsible for 113 child casualties, compared with 88 in 2017, and 155 cases of child recruitment, compared with 119 in 2017. Despite these increases, they retained their “List B” status.
 
“It’s baffling that the secretary-general’s ‘not-so-bad’ list gives credit to parties that are increasing, not reducing, their violations against children,” Becker said. “Guterres should return to a single list based solely on evidence of violations on the ground.”
 
Guterres appropriately included the armed forces of Syria, Myanmar, and South Sudan on the list of shame.
 
In at least two cases, Guterres included parties to conflicts on his list for some violations, but not others. For example, last year he de-listed the Saudi-led coalition for attacks on schools and hospitals in Yemen, despite 19 UN-verified attacks on schools during 2017. In his new report, he attributes 12 attacks on schools and 3 attacks on hospitals to the coalition, yet again does not include coalition forces in his list for attacks on schools and hospitals. They are listed only for killing and maiming children.
 
Similarly, the secretary-general reported that the Somali National Army was responsible for 50 cases of sexual violence in 2018, yet only listed the forces for killing and maiming and recruiting child soldiers.
 
The report completely fails to mention reported abuses by the government or militants in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions or Ukraine. In his November 2018 report on Central Africa, the secretary-general highlighted civilian casualties, including children, in English-speaking regions of Cameroon, and in June 2018, UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, reported that 58 schools had been damaged since the beginning of the crisis in the country’s North-West and South-West regions. Human Rights Watch has documented the kidnapping of hundreds of students by armed separatists, as well as their occupation of school buildings.
 
In Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported that at least 28 children died in hostilities in 2018 and the Education Cluster reported at least 82 security incidents involving educational facilities in 2018, including shelling of schools.
 
“The ‘list of shame’ is a powerful tool for accountability and ending violations against children,” Becker said. “During the upcoming Security Council debate, member states should demand a list based on facts. Pampering major violators to avoid an unpleasant backlash risks making a mockery of the whole exercise.”
 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, at the United Nations headquarters. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
(Geneva) – Bangladesh should implement the recommendations made by the United Nations Committee against Torture to end the widespread practice of torture in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The committee’s first review of Bangladesh under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment will be from July 29 to August 8, 2019, in Geneva.

Bangladeshi security forces are seldom held accountable for serious allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of people in custody. Instead, authorities have cracked down on rights groups, activists, and journalists for exposing these violations. Bangladesh, for the first time, agreed to come under review by the committee since ratifying the Convention against Torture over 20 years ago, by submitting its long-overdue state report on measures it has taken to uphold its commitments under the treaty. The government claimed that it “has already undertaken several measures to improve the responses from the authorities and bodies responsible for promotion and protection of human rights and also the quality of access to justice for the victims of torture.”

“Bangladesh’s appearance before the UN Committee Against Torture is an important opportunity to acknowledge the endemic use of torture by the country’s security forces,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should adopt the committee’s recommendations, enforce existing laws against torture, and send a clear message to security forces that it’s serious about eradicating torture.”

Human Rights Watch has documented widespread torture by Bangladesh security forces including beating detainees with iron rods, belts, and sticks; subjecting detainees to electric shocks, waterboarding, hanging detainees from ceilings and beating them; and deliberately shooting detainees, typically in the lower leg, described as “kneecapping.” Authorities routinely claim that these victims were shot in self-defense, in “crossfire,” or during violent protests.

In 2013, the government passed the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act, signaling a commitment to eliminating torture. However, there have been very few cases filed under the Torture Act and not a single case has been completed. Meanwhile, investigations by human rights organizations suggest that authorities still routinely torture people in custody. Since the passage of the law, there have been 160 documented cases of torture. The actual number is likely much higher.

Instead of enforcing the law, Bangladeshi police have repeatedly called for the government to amend it to be less prohibitive, calling into question whether Bangladesh’s security forces are serious about ending their torture practices. In 2015, the police submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Home Affairs to repeal section 12 of the Torture Act, which states that circumstances such as war, political instability, or emergency are not considered an acceptable excuse for the commission of torture. They also proposed that certain law enforcement units – including those with the most notorious reputations for committing torture, such as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the Criminal Investigations Department, the Special Branch, and the Detective Branch – be excluded from prosecution under the act.

Last year, during Bangladesh Police Week 2018, the police again implored Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to amend the act, and Hasina said she would consider it, according to the Dhaka Tribune. Instead of succumbing to police pressure, the government should stand firm behind its international commitments to eradicate torture, Human Rights Watch said.

In its report submitted to the Committee against Torture, Bangladesh outlined its commitments under domestic and international law to protect against forced confessions, including that a magistrate must explain to the accused that they are “not bound to make a confession, and that if he does so it may be used as evidence against him. Moreover, a Magistrate should not record any such confession unless he has reason to believe that it is being made voluntarily.” However, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous reports of RAB, the Director General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), and the police using torture to extract confessions, often making suspects sign blank sheets of paper.

Sections 54 and 167 of the Criminal Procedure Code empower the police to detain people for 15 days without a lawyer, known as remand, which has long been criticized as a loophole for torture. Human rights organizations have repeatedly documented that instances of torture most frequently occur during remand.

In 2003, the High Court Division of Bangladesh concluded that, deployed broadly, sections 54 and 167 were inconsistent with rights guaranteed in the constitution. The Supreme Court issued 15 directives to safeguard against abuse of the powers of arrest and interrogation in custodial detention, including that authorities must take permission from a magistrate to conduct interrogation in remand and that it must take place in a room with glass walls inside the prison, with lawyers and relatives allowed to monitor nearby. Moreover, authorities must inform the person of the reason for arrest within three hours and ensure that a relative or friend of the detained person is informed within 12 hours of the arrest about the time, place of arrest, and place of detention.

But these directives are inconsistently followed, if at all, Human Rights Watch said. Since 2013 – the same year the Torture Act passed – arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances by law enforcement authorities have increased. In most cases, those arrested remain in custody for weeks or months before being formally charged or released. Others are killed in so-called armed exchanges, and many remain disappeared. There were 90 reported cases of disappearances in 2018 alone. While many of those disappeared are never located or released, those who are, often are afraid to speak out. However, those who do describe their experiences consistently allege severe torture.

For example, Idris Ali, 56, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, was on his motorbike returning to his house from the market on August 4, 2016, when, according to witnesses, plainclothes people from a police post stopped him and forcibly dragged him away. Family members went to their local police station but the officer-in-charge told them that the location where Ali was allegedly taken was not within the station’s jurisdiction, and that they should go to the Shailkupa police station to file a report. Officers there, however, declined to allow them to do so. On the morning of August 12, police informed the family that the body of a missing madrasa teacher was found on the Harinakundu-Jhenaidah road. A family member said they went to the morgue:

We went there and found his mutilated body. After conducting autopsy and postmortem examinations, police claimed that it was a case of a road mishap, and Idris’s motorcycle was found at the roadside. We, however, identified marks of severe torture on different parts of the body. There were marks of hammering behind the head. Tendons were slashed. All the parts of the body bore torture marks.

In other cases, families still wait for answers with authorities denying the arrests, although in several cases, there are credible witnesses that say that their relatives were taken into custody by security forces.

“Bangladesh should be commended for committing to work with the UN to fulfill its mandate to prevent torture,” Adams said. “But the government needs to recognize and take responsibility for the torture committed by its security forces today.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Yousef bin Ahmed al-Othaimeen (C), and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf (R) talk before a photo during a meeting of Islamic and Arab foreign ministers in Jeddah on May 30, 2019.

© 2019 BANDAR ALDANDANI/AFP/Getty Images

(New York) – More than a dozen member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) signed a statement supporting China’s policies in Xinjiang that ignored widespread repression of the region’s Muslims, Human Rights Watch said today. The Chinese government-promoted letter was in response to a joint statement by 22 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council last week expressing concern at massive rights violations in Xinjiang and urging unfettered access by international monitors.

The Chinese government has subjected 13 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang to mass arbitrary detention, forced political indoctrination, restrictions on movement, and religious oppression. Credible estimates indicate that over one million people are being held in “political education” camps. Chinese authorities have also placed Muslims in Xinjiang under pervasive surveillance and mobilized over a million officials to monitor Muslims, including through various intrusive programs.

“The Chinese government garnered the support of a dozen Muslim-majority countries to help whitewash its abysmal human rights record in Xinjiang,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Instead of joining with the many governments denouncing abuses against Xinjiang’s Muslims, these countries have joined Beijing’s repugnant counter narrative.”

Despite the systematic abuses against Muslims in Xinjiang, the countries that joined China’s statement applauded China’s “counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures in Xinjiang” that have led to a “stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment, and security.” The Muslim-majority countries that signed the letter include: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates.

China’s campaign of repression in Xinjiang has been a key test of whether OIC members will press an increasingly powerful China to end its systemic abuses against Muslims. The 57-country body has largely remained silent and at times applauded China’s efforts in recent months. When the OIC foreign ministers met in Abu Dhabi in March, they ignored the plight of Xinjiang’s Muslims, and instead praised China’s efforts “in providing care to its Muslim citizens” and “look[ed] forward to further cooperation” with China.

OIC delegates also took part in one of the Chinese government’s highly controlled, state-managed diplomatic visits to Xinjiang without any criticism of the government’s rights violations. By contrast and in line with its mandate to “safeguard the rights, dignity, and religious and cultural identity” of Muslim minorities, the OIC has been vocal in condemning abuses against and demanding accountability for Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Several OIC members including Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey did not sign the China-backed letter. However, no Muslim-majority country has joined the unprecedented global call at the UN Human Rights Council to investigate abuses. OIC countries should urgently sign this joint statement before the July 26 deadline.

“China’s repressive Xinjiang campaign has put the OIC’s credibility on the line,” Richardson said. “If the OIC wants to be the global voice for the rights of oppressed Muslims everywhere, its members need to stop looking the other way and denounce China’s abusive policies in Xinjiang.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Volunteers tend to a man in a wheelchair and his partner, after they were rescued during flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey in Orange, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017.

© 2019 AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The United Nations Human Rights Council made history on Friday when it adopted a resolution on climate change and the rights of people with disabilities. The resolution calls on governments to adopt a disability-inclusive approach when taking action to address climate change.

The impacts of climate change disproportionately affect people with disabilities. They are frequently in situations of social, economic, and political disadvantage and may not have access to adequate resources, information, and services necessary to adapt to the effects of climate change. For example, people with disabilities may feel the health impacts of climate change more severely, as some are more susceptible to invasive disease due to pre-existing health conditions. Additionally, many are at particular risk of neglect, abandonment, and even death during instances of migration or natural disasters, which are increasing in frequency and ferocity, due to physical, communication, and other barriers, as well as disrupted support networks.

This is the first time the Council has addressed the rights of people with disabilities as they relate to climate change. While women, indigenous peoples, and youth have successfully become part of discussions around climate action, persons with disabilities have largely been absent.

This resolution could be an important first step to remedy that gap, presenting an opportunity for persons with disabilities to engage in the conversation about climate resilience and for governments to ensure that happens. The resolution includes a mandate for the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to conduct a comprehensive study–engaging governments, United Nations bodies, intergovernmental organizations, and disability rights groups–focused on ways to better protect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of climate change.

As is central to the disability rights movement, governments, UN agencies, and environmental groups should echo the principle “nothing about us, without us” in acting on this resolution. Governments need to reach out and listen to people with disabilities, who are among those who feel, or will feel, more acutely the adverse effects of environmental change, and will be important leaders in fighting it.

Author: Human Rights Watch, 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

Yesterday, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea. But the renewing the mandate shouldn’t have been up for discussion in the first place, given the unanimous support for it in 2018 and, more importantly, Eritrea’s dire and unchanged rights situation.

Yet despite all that, the traditional drafters of the Eritrea resolution, Somalia and Djibouti, declined to even present a resolution because of their improved political relations with Eritrea. Likewise, several member states blocked the European Union from presenting a text. Eventually a group of countries – Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands – stepped in to ensure this important international oversight mechanism wasn’t lost.

In recent months, the Eritrean government lobbied hard, misrepresenting its election to the HRC as international endorsement of its abusive rights record.

In the end, the message was loud and clear: neither a state’s membership on the HRC, nor improved geopolitical relations, will bring an end to much-needed international scrutiny, without concrete improvements on human rights.

Eritrea has an opportunity to turn the page – if it wishes to do so. The renewed mandate, under an agenda item which is not seen as condemnatory, and a benchmarks report produced by the Special Rapporteur which identifies clear reform priorities, offer Eritrea the chance to engage with UN special procedures in a positive manner and show the Council it is willing to meet its membership obligations.

The Eritrean government should start by proactively and constructively engaging with the Special Rapporteur and providing her and other mandate holders from the UN and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights with access to Eritrea. Over the next year, it should move ahead with key reform priorities – starting with releasing political detainees, improving due process rights, and conducting a substantive reform of the country’s notorious indefinite national service system.

Only once Eritrea shows a true commitment to upholding its Council membership obligations and moves ahead with pressing reforms should it be rewarded with a shift in approach at the Council.

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

The High Commissioner for Human Rights has requested unfettered access to conduct an independent assessment of the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang region.

While China has professed openness to this request, any such access would need to be genuinely unfettered and unrestricted - features noticeably absent from previous stage-managed diplomatic visits to Xinjiang. At a minimum this should entail that the High Commissioner and her representatives be able to visits sites of their choosing and speak with individuals confined to “political education” camps privately, confidentially, and without fear of reprisals.

In this regard we welcome the joint letter submitted this week by 22 delegations to the President of the Human Rights Council and to the High Commissioner, urging China to allow meaningful access to Xinjiang for the High Commissioner and other independent international observers. The joint statement appropriately requests the High Commissioner to keep the Council regularly informed on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. This will enable the Council to decide what action is needed to ensure China upholds the “highest standards of human rights,” in accordance with its obligations as a member of this Council – and the consequences if it does not.

Most importantly, the joint letter sends a strong message that we are moving beyond the era of selectivity, and that no country, large or small, is exempt from the scrutiny of this Council. We understand that the joint letter remains open for additional signatures, and we encourage those delegations that have not yet signed to do so. We are particularly disappointed that OIC member states have not yet engaged meaningfully with the human rights situation affecting Muslims in Xinjiang, while they have spoken out on other situations. This risks fueling perceptions of double standards and politicization; supporting the constructive joint statement would be a useful step towards addressing such perceptions.

We welcome China’s acceptance of a UPR recommendation to respond positively to a country visit request by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, which should be facilitated as a matter of priority and without restriction.

We would suggest that China could benefit from technical assistance by also drawing on the expertise of other UN Special Rapporteurs, such as the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of human rights while countering terrorism. Given that China has advanced the need to counter terrorism as its rationale for mass programs directed at Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang, the Special Rapporteur could offer useful guidance on more rights-respecting ways to counter terrorism than mass surveillance, detaining over a million Muslims, and stripping an entire population of its rights to freedom of religion, privacy, culture and expression.

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Families of victims of the "war on drugs" in the Philippines remove portraits of their slain relatives after the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution to investigate the killings. 

© 2019 Bullit Marquez/AP Photo
(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council’s adoption of a resolution on the Philippines is crucial for holding the government accountable for thousands of “drug war” killings and other abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The council’s 41st regular session runs from June 24 through July 12, 2019.

On July 11, the council approved the resolution initiated by Iceland by a vote of 18 to 14, that requests the UN human rights office to present a comprehensive report on human rights in the Philippines to the council next June. The resolution also expresses concern about the range of rights violations in the country and calls on the government to cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms and experts. The Philippine government earlier denounced the resolution as a “divisive motion” and sought to block it.

“The Human Rights Council resolution on the Philippines is a modest but vital measure,” said Laila Matar, deputy Geneva director. “It signals the start of accountability for thousands of ‘drug war’-related killings and other abuses, and will provide hope to countless survivors and families of victims.”

Iceland and other countries presented the resolution to address flagrant violations of human rights in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. The requested June 2020 report by the high commissioner for human rights and discussion by member states could form the basis for further action if the situation in the Philippines does not improve or those responsible for abuses go unpunished. Meanwhile, the council should monitor the Philippines closely and take urgent action as necessary.

Since Duterte took office in June 2016, Philippine police have said that they have killed more than 6,600 people during anti-drug operations. Other estimates by local nongovernmental organizations and the national Commission on Human Rights place the death toll of the “drug war” at more than 27,000.

The police have sought to justify the killings on the grounds that suspects “fought back.” Such claims are belied by reporting from human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, and domestic and international media that found police routinely plant evidence such as guns and drugs on victims’ bodies to justify killings.

The unlawful killing of drug suspects has affected the families of the mostly impoverished victims, particularly children. Many of these children have stopped going to school; are forced to work or live in the streets after the killing of the family breadwinner; and suffer deep, psychological trauma.

In Geneva, the Philippine government tried to deflect the issues raised in the resolution by waging an aggressive disinformation campaign against Iceland and those that supported the measure, including human rights groups and critics of the “drug war.” Previously, the Philippines, a member of the council, and Duterte himself sought to discredit the UN and the experts it appoints to investigate human rights issues. In early June, 11 of these experts launched a call on the Human Rights Council to establish an independent investigation into human rights violations in the Philippines. The government also launched a campaign in the Philippines to vilify and harass human rights defenders, journalists, and clergy who criticized the “drug war” killings.

“Countries determined to address the human rights crisis in the Philippines prevailed in the face of Manila’s ultimately counterproductive efforts to shield itself from scrutiny,” Matar said. “The challenge now is to ensure that the process moves quickly to compel the Philippine government to stop the killings and prosecute those responsible.”

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Relatives of disappeared persons participate in a silent protest, demanding an investigation into the disappearances of people in Kashmir. 

© 2019 AP Photo/ Dar Yasin
(New York) – India and Pakistan should act on the recommendations of the United Nations human rights office to protect basic rights in the contested region of Kashmir, Human Rights Watch said today.

The 43-page report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), released on July 8, 2019, raises serious concerns about abuses by state security forces and armed groups in both Indian and Pakistan-held parts of Kashmir. The Indian government dismissed the report as a “false and motivated narrative” that ignored “the core issue of cross-border terrorism.” Pakistan welcomed the report but requested that sections be removed or amended in which the information was “not specific to Pakistan-Administered Kashmir but were general human rights concerns affecting all of Pakistan.”

“India and Pakistan blame each other for human rights violations in Kashmir while ignoring their own responsibility for abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Authorities in both countries should use the opportunity created by the UN report to change course and hold accountable those who’ve committed serious abuses.”

India and Pakistan blame each other for human rights violations in Kashmir while ignoring their own responsibility for abuses.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

The OHCHR said both India and Pakistan had failed to take any clear steps to address and implement the recommendations made in its June 2018 report, the office’s first-ever on human rights in Kashmir. The latest report comes after a deadly attack in February by a Pakistan-based armed group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, that targeted a security forces convoy in Kashmir, killing 40 Indian soldiers. Military escalation between India and Pakistan ensued, including cross-border shelling at the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto international border in disputed Kashmir.

The Srinagar-based Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society reported that conflict-related casualties were the highest in 2018 since 2008, with 586 people killed, including 267 members of armed groups, 159 security forces personnel, and 160 civilians. The Indian government asserted that 238 militants, 86 security forces personnel, and 37 civilians were killed.

The OHCHR found that Indian security forces often used excessive force to respond to violent protests that began in July 2016, including continued use of pellet-firing shotguns as a crowd-control weapon even though they have caused a large number of civilian deaths and injuries. The Indian government should review its crowd control techniques and rules of engagement, and publicly order the security forces to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

The report also decried the lack of justice for past abuses such as killing and forced displacement of Hindu Kashmiri Pandits, enforced or involuntary disappearances, and alleged sexual violence by Indian security forces personnel. It expressed concern over excessive use of force during cordon and search operations, resulting in civilian deaths as well as new allegations of torture and deaths in custody.

The OHCHR noted that India’s Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA) “remains a key obstacle to accountability,” because it provides effective immunity for serious human rights violations. Since the law came into force in Kashmir in 1990, the Indian government has not granted permission to prosecute any security force personnel in civilian courts.

The UN human rights office also said that India should amend its Public Safety Act, an administrative detention law that allows detention without charge or trial for up to two years. The law has often been used to detain protesters, political dissidents, and other activists on vague grounds for long periods, ignoring regular criminal justice safeguards.

In July 2018, the Indian state government of Jammu and Kashmir amended section 10 of the Public Safety Act, removing the prohibition on detaining permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir outside the state. At least 40 people, mainly separatist political leaders, were transferred to prisons outside the state in 2018, the OHCHR said. It said that transferring detainees outside the state makes it harder for family members to visit and for legal counsel to meet with them. It also noted that prisons outside the state were considered hostile for Kashmiri Muslim detainees, especially separatist leaders.

The UN human rights office said that armed groups were responsible for human rights abuses including kidnappings, killings of civilians, sexual violence, recruitment of children for armed combat, and attacks on people affiliated or associated with political organizations in Jammu and Kashmir. It cited the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental organization that monitors money laundering and terrorist financing, which has called on Pakistan to address its “strategic deficiencies.” India has long accused Pakistan of providing material support, arms, and training to the militant groups. Attacks in Kashmir have resulted in more than 50,000 deaths since 1989.

The OHCHR also found that human rights violations in Pakistan-held Kashmir included restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and association, institutional discrimination against minority groups, and misuse of anti-terrorism laws to target political opponents and activists. It noted threats against journalists for doing their work. The UN human rights office also expressed concern over enforced disappearances of people from Pakistan-held Kashmir, noting that victim groups alleged that Pakistani intelligence agencies were responsible for the disappearances.

“The Indian government’s rejection of the latest UN report on human rights in Kashmir shows that it’s unwilling to confront its own human rights failures,” Ganguly said. “Both India and Pakistan should accept the findings of the report and invite an independent investigation to help end serious abuses in Kashmir.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am