(Berlin) – Poland’s government should immediately drop charges against a member of parliament who participated in a pro-choice protest and stop targeting reproductive rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today.
On November 29, 2022, the Toruń prosecutor’s office charged Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, a member of the Left (Lewica) party, with “offending religious feelings” and “malicious interference with religious worship.” Each offense carries a penalty of up to two years in prison. She pleaded not guilty.
“Bringing charges against a lawmaker for a peaceful protest is an undeniably alarming escalation in the Polish government’s efforts to criminalize not just abortion but anyone who openly supports reproductive rights,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Such brash attempts to silence women’s rights activists and ride roughshod over free speech protections shows how fragile all rights are in Poland today.”
On October 25, 2020, alongside her husband, Piotr Wielgus, Scheuring-Wielgus carried a banner in a Toruń church reading, “Woman, you can decide for yourself” to protest a Constitutional Tribunal ruling that essentially eliminated access to legal abortion in Poland. In December 2020, Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro initiated a motion to strip Scheuring-Wielgus of her parliamentary legal immunity for the protest.
On November 4, 2022, parliament voted in favor of the motion and the prosecutor pursued charges against Scheuring-Wielgus even though Toruń district court in October 2021 upheld her husband’s acquittal for “offending religious belief” in relation to the same incident.
In October 2020, Poland’s politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion on grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” is unconstitutional, virtually eliminating access to legal abortion in the country. Previously, over 90 percent of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions performed annually in Poland were on this ground.
Abortion is now only permitted to safeguard a woman’s life or health or if the pregnancy results from a crime, such as rape or incest. In practice, multiple barriers make it almost impossible for those eligible for a legal abortion to obtain one. Evidence consistently demonstrates that laws restricting or criminalizing abortion do not eliminate it, but rather drive people to seek abortion through means that may put their mental and physical health at risk and diminish their autonomy and dignity.
Since the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) came to power in 2015, Poland’s government has carried out a sustained attack on sexual and reproductive rights, particularly access to abortion, and on abortion rights activists. Abortion activists say the government is increasingly using the law to target them. Justyna Wydrzyńska, of Abortion Dream Team, was charged with assisting someone to have an abortion and illegally “marketing” medication without authorization after allegedly helping a woman get pills for a medication abortion in 2020. Wydrzyńska faces up to three years in prison.
Government data has shown an increase in charges of “offending religious feelings” under Law and Justice. In 2020, the government used this provision to prosecute three activists for posting images of a religious icon with a rainbow halo, often associated with activism for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. In January, an appellate court upheld their acquittal.
Under the leadership of Ziobro, who also serves as justice minister, the far-right Solidarna Polska party – part of Poland’s conservative ruling coalition – submitted legislation in October that would amend the criminal code to include publicly insulting or ridiculing the church as an offense punishable by up to two years in prison
The Polish government should drop spurious charges against Scheuring-Wielgus and other women’s and LGBT rights activists, and reverse course to ensure access to safe, legal abortion and other essential reproductive health care, Human Rights Watch said.
Scheuring-Wielgus has been targeted before. Parliament voted in April to remove her legal immunity from prosecution for hanging a poster on the door to Toruń cathedral saying “Baby shoes remember. Stop pedophilia.” It referred to revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic clerics in Poland. In November, the national police chief requested removal of another Left party parliamentarian’s immunity for hanging posters supporting the Women’s Strike on office doors of Law and Justice politicians in Iława in November 2020.
Under Law and Justice, attacks on women’s and LGBT rights by high-ranking government officials, ultra-conservative groups, and the media have fostered an increasingly hostile environment for activists and rights defenders. Groups including Abortion Dream Team have been the targets of bomb and death threats.
The European Commission in December 2017 initiated action against Poland under European Union (EU) Treaty article 7 – the provision under which action can be taken against states that put EU values at risk – in response to threats to judicial independence. The Commission should update and broaden its reasoned opinion under article 7 to reflect threats to free speech and the growing impact of the erosion of judicial independence on women’s and LGBT rights, Human Rights Watch said. EU member states should adopt rule-of-law recommendations and vote under article 7 to determine there is a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values in Poland.
“European Union leaders should not simply stand by and tolerate a member state targeting elected representatives for exercising free speech and peacefully supporting women’s fundamental human rights,” Margolis said. “The Polish government is only growing bolder in its efforts to undercut women’s rights and rights defenders, and decisive action to stop it can’t wait.”
This December 3, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, governments should commit to putting rights-based mental health support at the center of their policies, especially those related to crisis responses.
Climate crisis, Covid-19, armed conflicts, and other challenges continue to have disproportionate impact on the mental health of older people and people with disabilities. More than two years after the start of the pandemic, governments around the world are still failing to protect the rights of older people, putting a strain on their mental wellbeing. And even today, the practice of chaining or shackling persists across over 60 countries, simply because people have a mental health condition.
Climate-related disasters increasingly affect everyone, but people with disabilities and older people are among the most impacted. Feelings of exclusion, poverty, a lack of accessible warnings and assistance, and anxiety over how to survive future extreme weather all contribute to higher levels of distress among people with disabilities and older people.
More than 100 million people remain forcibly displaced around the world due to armed conflicts. In addition to the psychological harm from being forced to flee their homes, displaced people often feel additional distress. Sometimes that comes from adjusting to an unfamiliar place or encounters with xenophobia, especially if they experience or are at risk of immigration detention or deportation. According to Human Rights Watch’s research in several conflict-affected countries, people with disabilities often face barriers in accessing mental health services.
Luckily, there are reasons to be hopeful, thanks to a growing understanding that mental health support should be human rights-based. At the global level, there are good practices by the World Health Organization (WHO) and its Quality Rights Initiative. And for almost two years, Human Rights Watch has documented how a Canadian program leading the way in addressing mental health crises, the Gerstein Crisis Centre in Canada, can give guidance to service providers, policymakers, and people with lived experience.
If governments want to protect their populations from ongoing and future abuses and crises, human rights-based mental health support needs to be at the top of their agendas. Governments should not only respect the rights of people with mental health conditions by prohibiting harmful practices like shackling, but also protect them from the negative impacts of climate-related disasters, war, and other global crises. Governments should actively invite and enable the participation of people with lived experience in determining the most adequate, effective support.
Several NGOs call on French president Emmanuel Macron to act immediately against the expulsion of French-Palestinian lawyer Salah Hamouri. The Israeli authorities decided to expel Mr. Hamouri from his native city, Jerusalem, in violation of international law. Salah Hamouri lives in occupied East Jerusalem and is therefore entitled to protection under international humanitarian law, including the fundamental prohibition of expulsion from the occupied territory.
On November 29, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected the appeal of French-Palestinian lawyer Salah Hamouri against the revocation of his right of residence in Jerusalem. The same day, the Israeli authorities informed Mr. Hamouri that he would be expelled to France on Sunday, December 4.
Mr. Hamouri, who has been held for months in administrative detention without trial or charge, was born in Jerusalem and has always lived there. ACAT-France, Amnesty International France, the Platform of French NGOs for Palestine, Human Rights Watch, and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) are appealing to Emmanuel Macron to immediately call on the Israeli authorities to release Salah Hamouri from administrative detention and affirm his right to reside in Jerusalem.
On October 5, 2022, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated again that it should be possible for Salah Hamouri to be released and allowed to live freely in Jerusalem with his family. But at this stage, only firm action by Emmanuel Macron could change the situation and allow Mr. Hamouri, his wife, his two children and their family to exercise their right to reside in his native city of Jerusalem.
The Israeli ministry of interior notified Salah Hamouri on September 3, 2020 of its intention to revoke his permanent residency status because of a “failure of allegiance” toward the State of Israel, confirmed on June 29, 2021 by the adoption of recommendations to revoke his permanent residency. The hearing to challenge this revocation was scheduled for February 6, 2023.
The revocation of Salah Hamouri's residency rights for "failure of allegiance" sets a dangerous precedent for Palestinian human rights defenders in Jerusalem, who could be systematically targeted on this basis. Under international humanitarian law, occupied populations have no duty of allegiance to the occupying power.
Under Israeli law, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are neither residents of the West Bank nor citizens of Israel, although they can apply for citizenship. However, they do have permanent resident status, which allows them to reside in the city, work there and receive social benefits. In reality, this status is not permanent and can be revoked by the Israeli authorities. Israel has enacted legislation and several measures that allow the Israeli authorities to strip Palestinians of their right and ability to live in the city if they do not swear allegiance to the State of Israel. It is on this basis that the Israeli authorities are trying to expel Salah Hamouri.
The fact that the Israeli authorities are forcibly displacing a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, outside the occupied territory, amounts to deportation. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are protected, by virtue of Israel’s occupation, under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The convention generally prohibits such deportations of protected persons. Deportations of protected persons from an occupied territory can amount to war crimes.
Mr. Hamouri has been held in administrative detention by the Israeli authorities since March 7, 2022, without charge or trial. On several occasions, military courts have upheld the renewal of his detention, without providing any substantive explanation. His right to personal liberty and security, guaranteed by Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has been violated. His lawyers have never had access to his case file, which remains secret.
Amnesty International France
Plateforme des ONG françaises pour la Palestine
Human Rights Watch
Observatoire pour la protection des défenseurs des droits humains (FIDH-OMCT)
Yesterday, in a historic first, a woman referee took charge at the Men’s Football World Cup.
FIFA is keen to celebrate how French referee Stéphanie Frappart and her assistants, Brazil’s Neuza Back and Mexico’s Karen Díaz, adjudicated the match between Germany and Costa Rica, as proof that it is advancing gender equality. Significantly, this historic moment took place in Qatar where authorities treat women as legal minors in their own country.
In a 2021 report, I documented how Qatar’s laws, policies, and practices require women to obtain male guardian permission to marry, study on government scholarships, work in many government jobs, travel abroad unless they marry or turn 25, and obtain certain forms of reproductive healthcare. Men, on the other hand, need no such permission once they turn 18. Many of these rules don’t have any legal basis and are contrary to Qatar’s own constitution which guarantees women’s equality before the law.
Qatar is keen to show it has three female ministers, many high achieving women, and more female graduates than men and claims that in 2010 it was the only country to have a female lead in the World Cup bid. Many women who have broken barriers said they were either lucky enough to do so with the support of their families, or had to fight for approval over their decisions.
Most women told me of the heavy toll such rules have taken on their ability to lead independent lives, including when male guardians denied them permission to drive, travel abroad, study, work, or marry a person of their own choosing. Qatar’s severe discriminatory rules leaves them an outlier even among their own neighbors.
Highly educated women who described themselves as being ‘privileged’ in many ways, found these rules demeaning and a threat hanging over them. Such rules embolden men’s authority over women, which they can use to deny women their rights and even extort them.
“Fatima” said when she needed to get permission from her younger brother so she could travel with their mother, he only provided a one-time exit permit and would not extend it, telling her he wants to “use it [the power] when I want something from mom.”
Qatari women have voiced hope that the World Cup could be a force for good for women, as Qatar has nowhere to hide from the scrutiny. With this historic moment, it’s time Qatar starts treating women as equals and allows all women to make decisions about their own lives.
This week, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that he is empowering police and emergency service providers to forcibly hospitalize unhoused community members they perceive to have a mental health condition, including if they pose no discernible risk to others. This approach is based on false stereotypes and the subjective interpretation of officers untrained in mental health, risking abuse and violent police encounters.
Adams’ push to disrupt unhoused communities follows his unsupported claim that people with mental health conditions have been the primary drivers of crime in New York’s subway system. But people with mental health conditions are not more violent and do not engage in criminal behavior more than the population at large.
The push for involuntary treatment is not evidence-based. Studies of coercive mental health treatment have not proven positive outcomes. Instead, involuntary treatment risks further traumatizing people with mental health conditions, is discriminatory, and can lead to multiple human rights violations, including the practices of seclusion and restraint.
This new policy also risks increased violent police encounters. People with mental health conditions are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter. This risk is particularly exacerbated when the person living with a mental health condition is Black.
Targeting unhoused populations will disproportionately impact Black and Latinx New Yorkers, who due to discrimination in housing, employment, and healthcare, experience disproportionately high rates of houselessness and are persistently over and misdiagnosed with mental health conditions.
Under international human rights standards, mental health treatment should always be based on the will and preferences of the person concerned. Housing or disability status does not strip a person of their legal capacity or personal autonomy. Adams’ push for a system of forced hospitalizations flouts these criteria and borrows from the well-worn playbook of criminalizing poverty in New York.
In order to truly serve unhoused people living with mental health conditions, New York must invest more resources in voluntary, community-based alternatives such as permanent supportive housing and peer-led, trauma-informed programs. New York has a duty to treat all its residents with dignity and without discrimination.
(New York, December 1, 2022) – A new law entered into force in Russia that drastically expands the country’s oppressive and vast “foreign agents” legislation, Human Rights Watch said today. The law is yet another attack on free expression and legitimate civic activism in Russia, and should be repealed.
Adopted in July 2022, the law’s entry into force was delayed until December 1. The law expands the definition of foreign agent to a point at which almost any person or entity, regardless of nationality or location, who engages in civic activism or even expresses opinions about Russian policies or officials' conduct could be designated a foreign agent, so long as the authorities claim they are under "foreign influence." It also excludes "foreign agents" from key aspects of civic life.
“For more than a decade, Russian authorities have used ‘foreign agents’ laws to smear and punish independent voices,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This new tool in the government’s already crowded toolbox makes it even easier to threaten critics, impose harsh restrictions on their legitimate activities and even ban them. It makes thoughtful public discussion about Russia’s past, present, and future simply impossible.”
In Russia, the term “foreign agent” is tantamount “spy” or “traitor.”
The foreign agent designation remains extra-judicial, with no possibility to contest it in court before the designation is made. Those designated must comply with all requirements the day after the authorities add them to the registry, even if they challenge the designation in court.
When the first foreign agent law was adopted in 2012, only registered organizations could be designated “foreign agents.” Successive amendments gradually expanded the application from registered organizations, to media, to other categories of individuals, and to associations without legal entities.
The July law, On Control Over Activities of Entities/Persons Under Foreign Influence, replaces these with a consolidated, simplified, but endlessly broad definition to cover any person – Russian, foreign or stateless; any legal entity, domestic or international; or any group without official registration, if they are considered to have received foreign support and/or are considered to be “under foreign influence” and engaged in activities that Russian authorities would deem to be “political.” It also covers anyone who gathers information about Russia’s military activities or military capabilities, or creates or publicly disseminates information or funds such activities.
The law defines “foreign influence” as “support” from foreign sources that includes funding, technical assistance, or other undefined kinds of assistance and/or open-ended “impact” that constitutes coercion, persuasion, and/or “other means.”
Under this definition, any interaction with a foreign element can potentially be construed as “foreign influence,” Human Rights Watch said. There is also no requirement for any causal link between “foreign influence” and the “political” or other activities for the designation to be applicable.
Foreign sources include not only foreign states or foreign entities, but also international organizations, presumably including such multilateral organizations as the United Nations. The law considers Russian nationals or organizations “foreign sources” if they are respectively considered by the Russian authorities to be under “foreign influence” or to be beneficiaries of “foreign funding.”
To avoid the “foreign agent” label, an organization needs to ensure that no source of any donation was at any stage “tainted” by “foreign influence,” including indirectly.
In defining what constitutes “political” activities of a foreign agent, the law consolidates provisions of earlier iterations of “foreign agent” amendments to include “opinions about public authorities’ decisions or policies.” For example, a journalist who publishes a commentary about urban development plans could fall under the definition of foreign agent activity.
The new law also excludes “foreign agents” from key aspects of public life. These include bans on joining the civil service, participating in electoral commissions, acting in an advisory or expert capacity in official or public environmental impact assessments, in independent anti-corruption expertise of draft laws and by-laws, or electoral campaigns or even donating to such campaigns or to political parties.
Foreign agents are also banned from teaching or engaging in other education activities for minors or producing informational materials for them. They cannot participate in organizing public assemblies or support them through donations and are barred from a number of other activities.
The law expands the notion of a person or entity affiliated with a “foreign agent,” which was first introduced in 2021 in relation to electoral candidates. A person remains “affiliated” up to two years after they sever ties with the foreign agent, even if the “affiliation” started before the law entered into force, and even if the “affiliation” started before the entity was designated a foreign agent.
Since the adoption of the first “foreign agents” law, hundreds of civic groups and activists, including those that work on human rights, the environment, election monitoring, and anti-corruption, have been designated “foreign agents.” A large number of organizations had to close down because they either sought to avoid the toxic label or were unable to bear the hefty fines imposed for not complying with the law’s burdensome, arbitrary labelling and reporting requirements. The authorities used the “foreign agents” law as a legal pretext to close down other groups, such as the human rights group Memorial, one of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
“This new ‘foreign agents’ law is an unrestrained attack on Russian civil society aimed at gagging any public criticism of state policies,” Denber said. “It should be scrapped.”
The European Commission’s action plan on the Central Mediterranean, proposed on November 21, 2022 and endorsed by home affairs ministers a few days later, is another missed opportunity for the European Union to reset its myopic and harmful policies on this crucial migration route. The plan recycles the same repressive and ineffective focus on stopping people from entering Europe by increasing funding and support to often abusive governments in North Africa.
The plan doubles down on strengthening Libya’s capacity to police its borders. Support for the Libyan Coast Guard already facilitates interceptions of migrants at sea and their return to Libya where they face arbitrary detention and horrific abuses. The EU cynically justifies this support as part of the fight against smugglers and traffickers, despite knowing that the United Nations has pointed to evidence of collusion between the Libyan Coast Guard and traffickers and smugglers “attempting to profit from this system.”
The new plan ignores recommendations to re-introduce state-led, proactive search and rescue operations under the auspices of the EU and to establish a clear mechanism for predictable disembarkation in a place of safety of people rescued in the Central Mediterranean. The plan also fails to incorporate a process for relocation of people to other EU countries, to share responsibility and alleviate the pressure on the country of disembarkation.
Instead of dealing with EU member states’ refusals to undertake and coordinate the rescue of migrant boats in distress and to allocate safe places of safety to ships operated by nongovernmental rescue groups, the European Commission continues to constrain these organizations’ life-saving work at sea, referring to an alleged “need for a specific framework and guidelines for vessels.”
As rescue groups state repeatedly, international maritime law already establishes a legal framework for rescue at sea, which civilian rescue ships already respect. It is high time EU governments do the same.
Instead of recycling old approaches that failed to protect people and instead perpetuated suffering, the European Commission should scrap policies enabling human rights abuses and focus on strengthening the EU asylum and reception system, expanding the solidarity mechanism for allocating state responsibility, and establishing meaningful safe and legal pathways for migration.
A Committee of the European Parliament voted today to ban plastic waste exports outside of the European Union: good news for communities around the world impacted by exports of European refuse.
Instead of processing and reducing their own waste, EU member states ship more than 1,000 metric tons of plastic waste each year to other countries for recycling. Nearly half of that plastic waste is sent to Turkey, where Human Rights Watch research found that plastic recycling facilities threaten the health of workers and nearby communities.
To be recycled, plastic waste is shredded, washed, melted at high temperatures, and then turned into pellets. This process emits air pollutants and toxins. Workers and local residents in Turkey told us they experience acute respiratory problems, difficulties accessing medical care, and fear retaliation from facility owners if they complain to authorities. The Turkish government fails to enforce laws and regulations that require strict licensing and regular, thorough inspections of recycling facilities and occupational health.
“When I inhaled … it would feel like my lungs were squeezed and under pressure … I stopped working there two months ago, but I still have a problem with breathing,” a 20-year-old waste picker in Adana, Turkey, who had worked at a plastic recycling center as a child said. While it is difficult to know if the facility was processing European waste, Greenpeace found illegally dumped and burned German plastic waste in a nearby area in Adana in 2021.
By voting for a ban on plastic waste exports outside the EU – part of its proposal to revise the EU Waste Shipment Regulation – the Environment Committee of the European Parliament sends a clear message: EU countries should take responsibility for their own waste instead of sending it to countries with weak environmental regulations and little government oversight for environmental, health, and labor rights violations.
But for the proposed ban to become a reality, it is essential the European Parliament and EU member states, through the European Council, follow through and embrace the amendments adopted by the Committee. Ultimately, this will mean a commitment to reducing the production and consumption of plastic in the EU: a step that’s long overdue to protect people’s health and the environment.
(Brussels) – The Hungarian government’s misuse of personal data during the 2022 national elections campaign undermined privacy and further tilted an already uneven playing field in favor of the ruling party, Fidesz, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 85-page report, “Trapped in a Web: The Exploitation of Personal Data in Hungary’s 2022 Elections,” examines data-driven campaigning in Hungary’s April 3, 2022 elections, which resulted in a fourth consecutive term for Fidesz and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Human Rights Watch found that the government repurposed data it collected from people applying for services to spread Fidesz’s campaign messages. The blurred lines between government and ruling party resources, including data, and the capture of key institutions by the government led to selective enforcement of laws that further benefited Fidesz.
“Using people’s personal data collected so they could access public services to bombard them with political campaign messages is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power,” said Deborah Brown, senior technology researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Hungarian government should stop exploiting personal data for political campaigns and guarantee a level playing field for elections.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed experts on privacy and data protection, election integrity, and political campaigns; representatives of political parties; companies involved in data-driven campaigning; and people whose data was misused by political campaigns. Human Rights Watch also undertook technical analysis of political party and campaign websites to understand how they handled users’ data.
Human Rights Watch found that the government repurposed data it had collected from people who signed up for the Covid-19 vaccine, applied for tax benefits, or registered for mandatory membership in a professional association to spread Fidesz’s campaign messages. For example, people who submitted their personal data to a government-run website to register for the Covid-19 vaccine received political messages intended to influence the elections in support of the ruling party.
The 2022 elections took place after 12 successive years of Orbán governments, which have undermined the independence of the judiciary, dominated public institutions, controlled the media landscape, criminalized activities by civil society organizations, and demonized vulnerable groups and minorities.
Hungary has a responsibility under regional and international law to protect privacy and to guarantee the right to participate in democratic elections. An even political playing field is a necessary condition for the right to participate in democratic elections, as outlined in regional and international standards.
Several people interviewed said they did not believe they were consenting to receive other government communications when they registered on the vaccine website, and were angered by the use of the registration data for political and electoral campaigning. They said they felt the government had taken advantage of them at a particularly vulnerable time during the pandemic.
A 36-year-old woman from the Budapest metropolitan area said that in the context of the fear and uncertainty caused by Covid-19, when she saw the question about further contact with the government, she had “this feeling that you cannot do otherwise, I have to be vaccinated.… This was not a free choice and that’s why I was so angry.”
Parties across the political spectrum in Hungary, as in other countries, have invested in data-driven campaigning, including building detailed voter databases, running online petitions and consultations to collect data, purchasing online political ads, deploying chatbots on social media, and conducting direct outreach to voters and supporters through robocalls, bulk SMS messaging, and emails. Such tactics have significant implications for human rights, including the right to privacy.
Human Rights Watch found that the opposition parties’ processing of personal data lacked transparency and risked undermining privacy but, unlike with the ruling party, found no evidence that their handling of data created unfairness in the election process.
People interviewed reported receiving unsolicited phone calls and text messages and being bombarded by political ads on social media from a wide range of political parties. Human Rights Watch detected that some of the data collected about visitors to the major party-affiliated websites were shared, through the use of third-party trackers, with known advertising technology companies like Facebook and Google. This practice suggests a culture of disregard for people’s privacy.
Hungary should rectify shortcomings concerning the use of people’s data for political campaigns in laws, policies, and practices, Human Rights Watch said. Specifically, it should ensure that legal and institutional frameworks unambiguously prohibit the misuse of administrative resources, including personal data collected from citizens. State institutions such as the judiciary, election administration bodies, and the data protection authority should be genuinely independent, impartial, and insulated from abuse by the ruling party.
At time of publication, government officials had not responded to Human Rights Watch’s November 14 letter asking for comment on the report’s main findings.
Political parties in Hungary should be more transparent about how they collect and process voters’ data, and demonstrate that they are taking their responsibility to respect people’s privacy seriously.
Facebook and other platforms provided a degree of transparency into campaign spending by offering limited insight into spending on political ads with their ad libraries. However, the opacity of certain ad targeting and delivery techniques provided by Facebook, which Hungarian political parties used, risks targeting people directly or indirectly based on their political opinions, further violating their right to privacy and undermining the democratic process.
Both the European Data Protection Supervisor and the European Data Protection Board have highlighted the risk of using personal data beyond their initial purpose, including to unduly influence people when it comes to political discourse and democratic electoral processes.
Social media platforms have a responsibility to respect human rights. They should provide meaningful transparency so that people can sufficiently understand the ad targeting and delivery techniques used, both in ad libraries and in real time. They should also ensure that ad targeting and delivery are not, directly or indirectly, based on observed or inferred special categories of data, including political opinions.
The European Union should urgently assess whether the exploitation of personal data collected by the Hungarian government for political campaigning is consistent with EU laws, specifically the EU General Data Protection Regulation, Human Rights Watch said. The European Commission should bring infringement proceedings against the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information for failing to meet the qualifications of an independent supervisory authority.
“In Hungary and elsewhere, electoral campaigns today rely heavily on data, often collected in non-transparent ways,” Brown said. “Governments, privacy and election experts, the tech industry and others should ensure that data-driven campaigning does not undermine people’s privacy or their right to participate in a democratic election.”
(Abuja) – Ghana’s government has taken inadequate steps to end the chaining and inhumane treatment of people with real or perceived mental health conditions – psychosocial disabilities – in faith-based and traditional healing centers despite a 2017 ban on such treatment, Human Rights Watch said today.
A decade after the adoption of the 2012 Mental Health Act, which establishes a structure to provide and monitor health care in Ghana, the government has only recently established regional Visiting Committees and a Mental Health Tribunal, mandated to monitor implementation of the law and investigate complaints.
“Chaining people with psychosocial disabilities in prayer camps and healing centers is a form of torture,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Ghana’s newly formed Visiting Committees and Mental Health Tribunal need to ensure that the chains come off and that people have access to local services that respect the rights of people with mental health conditions.”
From November 28 to 30, 2022, Human Rights Watch visited five prayer camps and traditional healing centers in Eastern and Central region and interviewed more than 50 people. These included people with psychosocial disabilities, mental health professionals, staff at prayer camps and traditional healing centers, mental health advocates, religious leaders, and two senior government officials.
In all five camps and healing centers visited, Human Rights Watch found that people were chained or confined in small cages, in some cases for more than seven months. During the visits, Human Rights Watch identified more than 60 people were chained or caged, including some children.
At Edwuma Wo Wo Ho Herbal Center in Senya Beraku, Human Rights Watch found 22 men closely detained in a dark, stifling room, all of them with chains, no longer than half a meter, around their ankles. They are forced to urinate and defecate in a small bucket passed around the room. Despite the sweltering conditions, they are only allowed to bathe every two weeks.
Many of them called out to the Human Rights Watch researchers, begging to be released. “Please help us,” one man said, “we have a human right to freedom.”Click to expand Image Two men with a real or perceived mental health condition held by a chain around their ankle at Mount Horeb Prayer Centre in the Eastern Region in Ghana. © 2022 Shantha Rau Barriga/Human Rights Watch
As many as 30 more men are detained in another section, which the traditional healer prohibited Human Rights Watch researchers from visiting. The herbalist said that they were undergoing special spiritual treatment.
In all five camps, people were held against their will in what amounts to indefinite detention. A 40-year-old man held for more than two months at Mt. Horeb Prayer Centre said, “We spend 24/7 locked up in this room. Can you imagine that?” Another man said, “This Christmas we won’t be going home. We want to go home and be with our family. Help us. Please help us.”
On hearing that the practice of chaining continues, Ghana’s deputy health minister, Tina Mensah, said, “With all this education, they’re still chaining?”
Caroline Amissah, acting chief executive of the Mental Health Authority, said, “People with mental health conditions are human beings just like you and me. They are entitled to their rights. A mental health diagnosis is not a death sentence. We should invest in services in the community.”
In all five camps visited, Human Rights Watch witnessed serious human rights abuses, including: lack of adequate food, unsanitary conditions, lack of hygiene, lack of freedom of movement, and one case of repeated sexual violence. A 41-year-old woman in one camp said, “A man [living here] came to rape me here five months ago, in this room. He raped me three times. It is improper for such a thing to happen in the House of God.” The woman said she did not receive any post-rape care.
Human Rights Watch also documented chaining of several people with psychosocial disabilities in Jesus Divine Temple Prayer Camp in Nyankumasi, a reversal of practice that had been stopped since 2017 when the Ghana Mental Health Authority released 16 residents there from chains.
At Heavenly Ministry Prayer Camp in Edumfa, eight men, five women and two girls with real or perceived mental health conditions were confined in cages. The men are forced to urinate and defecate in small buckets placed outside their cells. The cages where the men are detained are so narrow that the people inside cannot even stretch out their arms.
Ghana’s 2012 Mental Health Act provides that people with psychosocial disabilities “shall not be subjected to torture, cruelty, forced labour and any other inhuman treatment,” including shackling. The act establishes Visiting Committees and a Mental Health Tribunal to monitor prayer camps and traditional healing centers on compliance with the law. The government claims that it took 10 years to comply with the act because of a lack of resources. The Mental Health Tribunal should uphold international human rights standards, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Ghana ratified in 2012.
Based on its research since 2011, Human Rights Watch found that families often take people with real or perceived mental health conditions to faith-based or traditional healers because of widely held beliefs that such disabilities are caused by a curse or evil spirits, and because their communities have limited, if any, mental health services. In some cases, the family member may have been using drugs such as marijuana; in others, they were outcasts because of so-called deviant behavior.
Local nongovernmental organizations, especially those led by people with psychosocial disabilities, have been active in pushing for improvements in mental health services and monitoring of existing facilities in Ghana. The Mental Health Society of Ghana is supporting training for the Visiting Committees and Mental Health Tribunal and advocating for increased investments in community mental health. MindFreedom Ghana is establishing community support networks in 6 out of the 16 regions of Ghana. Another organization, Basic Needs Ghana, has been facilitating peer support groups.
The government of Ghana should take immediate steps to end shackling by ensuring that the Visiting Committees and Mental Health Tribunal have adequate resources to carry out their responsibilities and by investing in community mental health services that respect human rights, Human Rights Watch said.
The government should also ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities get adequate support for housing, independent living, and job training. The government should follow through on commitments to sensitize traditional and faith-based healers as well as the general public to combat the stigma associated with mental health conditions. Finally, the government should set up the levy envisaged under the 2012 Mental Health Act to fund mental health services as a matter of priority.
“Despite Ghana’s ban on chaining, the government has failed to ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities no longer live under such inhumane conditions,” Barriga said. “The Visiting Committees and Tribunal have an important role to play in ensuring an end to these longstanding abuses.”
This week, the trial began of 22 people accused of various crimes related to street protests in July in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region of Uzbekistan, that left 21 people dead and hundreds injured.
We now know the names of the defendants and charges against them, but little else about their alleged crimes or the evidence. Media has reported that some defendants, including activist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov and journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova, have confessed in part or in full.
Authorities have been very secretive about their investigations into the July events. There was no public notice about when the trial would start, or that it would be held in Bukhara, a city outside the vast region of Karakalpakstan, far away from defendants’ relatives and the location where the crimes are alleged to have occurred.
Since early July, when Uzbekistan’s prosecutor general’s office announced that 516 people had been detained and 14 people were under investigation for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, no Uzbek official has provided updates on the investigation.
It is not clear whether any other Karakalpakstan-related investigations are ongoing. Authorities have not said whether others will stand trial, including whether any security force personnel will be tried for excessive and unjustified use of force that, according to Human Rights Watch’s findings, contributed to some of the deaths and injuries sustained by protesters on July 1 and 2. Of the 22 people on trial, only one is a police officer – the head of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Karakalpakstan Ministry of Internal Affairs.
A commission formed on July 15 and tasked with investigating human rights violations has shared information about its work, but has not issued findings, nor indicated when it plans to do so.
The authorities seem to think that because the trial is “open,” it will be fair. Not so.
Observers sitting in the court room doesn’t mean the trial is fair – far more is needed. Credible questions have already been raised about the judge’s impartiality.
Uzbek authorities should ensure an effective investigation into the events, one that examines all evidence, including possible wrongdoing by security forces, and which makes its findings public, with a view to holding the perpetrators accountable in fair trials before an impartial and independent tribunal.
After an investigation shrouded in secrecy, this “open” trial is not justice.
Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, admitted in a TV interview this week that there have been “between 400 and 500” migrant worker deaths in response to a question about deaths “in the last 12 years from any construction related … to the World Cup.” It was a striking admission from a Qatari official.
Authorities have long contended there were only “three work-related deaths and 37 non-work-related deaths” on stadiums, which al-Thawadi reiterated earlier in the same interview. This acknowledgment inadvertently admits the obvious, that workers involved in the preparation of the World Cup infrastructure include not just those who built stadiums and form less than two percent of the migrant workforce in Qatar but also workers who built hotels, metro, airport, and other infrastructure related to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
There is clear evidence of thousands of migrant worker deaths in the lead-up to the World Cup. Authorities failed to conduct meaningful investigations into a large percentage of them, classifying many as unexplained or due to “natural causes.” Indeed, al-Thawadi’s comment that a precise death figure is “something that is being discussed” unintentionally admits what critics have claimed: that Qatari authorities actually maintain large amount of data on worker deaths and other abuses but don’t want to publicly reveal these figures due to the outrage they would likely create. Qatar’s own statistics show that 15,021 non-nationals died between 2010 and 2019, but without a breakdown of ages, occupations, and causes.
Al-Thawadi’s statement that “one death is too many” also rings hollow. Qatari authorities have rejected a widely supported compensation fund for families of deceased workers whose deaths are classified as “natural causes” without proper investigation. Many families are currently ineligible to request compensation from employers which they can only do if it is classified as work-related deaths. Research has shown that FIFA and Qatar have failed to sufficiently protect workers from extreme heat, and this failure has greatly increased risks to migrant worker’s safety.
One death is indeed too many, but there are thousands of migrant worker deaths that remain unexplained, uninvestigated, and uncompensated. Some families aren’t even officially notified when their loved ones have died or offered condolences. The only way FIFA and Qatar can partially address this legacy of death and shame is to compensate families of deceased workers and workers who faced serious abuses.
(Beirut) – United Nations member countries should establish an international, independent entity to track and identify those missing and disappeared since the start of the Syria crisis in 2011, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today.
The Syrian conflict has been marked by prolonged arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, and forced disappearance at the hands of all parties to the conflict. UN Secretary-General António Guterres proposed the mechanism in a landmark report published in August 2022 on how to bolster efforts to address the thousands of detained and disappeared and provide support to their families.
“The practice of “disappearing” people in Syria has left a devastating legacy for hundreds of thousands of people and their loves ones,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “A new international entity to address this devastating unfinished business that can never be overlooked from the Syrian conflict offers a glimmer of hope for families.”
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been responsible for the vast majority of those disappearances, which frequently result in deaths in custody and extrajudicial executions. Even before the crisis began in 2011, Syrian authorities forcibly disappeared people for peaceful political opposition, critical reporting, and human rights activism. Non-state armed groups have also abducted people, with some like ISIS taking hostages and summarily killing them.
As of August, the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that around 111,000 people remain unaccounted for, most believed to have been in the hands of the Syrian government. The exact number cannot be determined because the overwhelming majority of detention facilities, especially those run by the intelligence forces, are off-limits to outsiders. Those detained by government security services or many of the non-state armed groups in Syria are routinely subjected to enforced disappearance or held incommunicado, with families unable to get information about the whereabouts of their loved ones or what happened to them.
Groups representing families of people formerly detained, as well as Syrian civil society and international human rights organizations, have tirelessly advocated on behalf of torture victims and the thousands who have been disappeared, arbitrarily detained, and kidnapped, calling for a robust independent body to investigate thousands of disappearances. Most recently, 10 Syrian victims’ associations laid out their views on what such a body should look like.
Consistent with the views of the Syrian victims’ associations, the secretary-general’s August report acknowledged the systemic challenges families across Syria face when seeking information about their missing loved ones and highlighted the gaps in current efforts. The secretary general also set out the proposed mandate and priorities of a new body for this purpose, including providing adequate support to victims, survivors, and their families. Such a body would offer a single avenue to register new cases, as well as coordinate with other existing mechanisms, to build upon the wealth of available information and streamline efforts to tackle this issue.
“Eleven years into the conflict and the Syrian government and armed opposition groups continue to disappear or abduct anyone who opposes them, while their allies, Russia and Turkey, do nothing to stop these violations,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s acting deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. “As tens of thousands languish in detention facilities or elsewhere, there are no reliable avenues for families to learn the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. The lack of political will to address this issue has only prolonged the suffering of families. The UN SG’s proposal provides a way to fulfill the families’ right to truth and member states should rally behind it.”
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has thrown its weight behind the secretary-general’s proposal, with the commissioners announcing in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera English that the considerable wealth of information the Commission had collected over 11 years will be made available to the new mechanism. The commissioners also warned that the longer it takes to establish such a mechanism, the more difficult it will be to clarify the whereabouts and fate of the missing and those forcibly disappeared. “Families have waited far too long for action at the international level,” the commissioners said. “The time to act is now.”
Member states should do everything in their power to ensure that a new international body in line with the secretary-general’s recommendations is established quickly through General Assembly action. Countries with influence in Syria should also put pressure on parties to the conflict to act swiftly to resolve what has come to be seen as one of the major tragedies of the Syrian conflict, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.
Russia and Iran, the most prominent backers of the Syrian government, should press the government to immediately publish the names of everyone who died in Syrian detention facilities, inform families of the deceased, and return the bodies to their relatives. They should also press the government to provide information on the whereabouts of and what happened to all those forcibly disappeared, end the practice of enforced disappearance, and allow independent humanitarian agencies access to detention facilities.
Backers of non-state armed groups, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, should compel groups they support to reveal what happened to the detainees in their custody and allow humanitarian agencies access to their detention facilities.
The government in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture has awarded a transgender woman workplace compensation after recognizing her depression was the result of harassment she faced from her supervisor. Despite her requests, the woman’s supervisor repeatedly refused to refer to her with female pronouns, which resulted in her taking leave from work and seeking mental health services.
Japan has not ratified the International Labor Organization’s convention dealing with workplace discrimination, but its national labor laws prohibit harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This case is a significant victory for reinforcing transgender peoples’ limited legal protections in Japan, but it also highlights the legal system’s barriers for trans people. Though the trans woman in this case explained to her boss that she identified as a woman, because of the extreme hurdles created by Japanese laws, she was still legally recognized as male, which her boss used to insist he could still address her as a man.
In Japan, trans people who want to legally change their gender must appeal to a family court. Under the Gender Identity Disorder (GID) Special Cases Act, applicants must undergo a psychiatric evaluation and be surgically sterilized. They also must be single and without children younger than 20.
In 2017, during its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Japan pledged to revise the law. But despite mounting domestic and international pressure, the government has failed to do so. In 2019, Japan’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the law did not violate Japan’s constitution.
Even the name of Japan’s law reflects the need to reform it: referring to “gender identity disorders” is out of sync with international medical standards. The World Health Organization removed “gender identity disorders” from its International Classification of Diseases in 2019. UN experts and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health have both urged Japan to eliminate the law’s discriminatory elements and treat trans people, as well as their families, the same as other citizens.
Trans people recently gathered at the Diet, Japan’s national legislature, to hold the first-ever roundtable discussion on gender identity issues. Members of parliament from all political parties at the table recognized the need to revise the GID Special Cases Act.
As the Kanagawa case illustrates, this reform cannot come quickly enough.
As a Jordanian, I wanted to be proud that an Arab and Muslim-majority country is hosting the 2022 World Cup. The historic event holds significance for fans from all over the global south. And yet, the tournament has drawn unprecedented global scrutiny primarily for its treatment of migrant workers, LGBT people, and women.
In response, Qatar has accused its critics of racist motivations while FIFA President Gianni Infantino delivered a diatribe of attacks to deflect the global scrutiny. No doubt there have been racist portrayals of Qatar, Arabs, and Muslims in the media that ought to be critiqued. It is, however, crucially important to recognize that the legacy of the first World Cup in our region is built on a racialized labor governance system that makes way for widespread abuses of migrant workers who helped build and deliver the mega event and whose exploitation went unpunished and uncompensated.
Over the past several years, I have researched and advocated on human rights violations in Qatar and the wider Gulf region. Seeing my community disregard the serious abuses that migrant workers, including from the Middle East, have endured to make the World Cup possible, I can’t help but remember the voices and faces of the many workers who told me about their crushed dreams and exploited labor – and feel a sense of shame rather than pride.
Instead of disregarding the worldwide criticism of Qatar’s human rights record as merely racially motivated attacks, we should instead reflect on how migrant workers are treated across our entire region. The World Cup has shone a spotlight on the abusive kafala system that gives employers excessive control over migrant workers, allowing them to exploit and abuse them with impunity. Qatar has made important reforms to the kafala system in recent years, but they have simply not gone far enough to address the widespread abuses.
Until the men and women who left their homes to work in Qatar and bring this globally-loved tournament to our region are justly compensated for the abuses they suffered, and until the kafala system that drives abuse and exploitation is dismantled, we should not let Qatar off the hook just because it’s the first Arab and Muslim-majority country to host the World Cup.
On November 17, the government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, banned “Joyland,” the story of a young man in Pakistan who falls in love with a transgender woman. The film, which has received both critical acclaim and popular praise abroad, is Pakistan’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards. Pakistan’s federal government had earlier banned the film for containing “highly objectionable material” and for going against “morality and decency.” However, the federal government rescinded its ban and the film was scheduled for nationwide release on November 18. Less than 24 hours after this decision, the Punjab government blocked the film’s release in the province.
Since September 2021, 18 transgender people have been reported killed in Pakistan, according to Amnesty International. Discrimination and violence against transgender people is common despite provisions in Pakistani law protecting transgender people. In 2009, Pakistan’s Supreme Court called on all provincial governments to recognize the rights of transgender people, and in 2018, parliament passed a law that broadly protects trans people’s rights. The Punjab authorities’ Joyland ban comes as anti-transgender rhetoric and incitement to violence have increased in tandem with recent efforts by some politicians to amend the 2018 legislation. In September, Mushtaq Khan, a member of parliament from the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami party, said that the 2018 law, allowing self-perceived gender choice, represented a “danger to the family and inheritance system.”
Censorship and a clampdown on artistic expression undermines the basic principles of a democratic society and violates Pakistan’s international obligations. Pakistan is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 provides that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds,” including in the form of art, or through any other media.” Free speech is also protected in Pakistan’s constitution.
The authorities in Punjab should recognize Pakistan’s diversity as a strength, not a weakness. They should take action against discrimination and violence against transgender people, not films.
(New York) – Human Rights Watch (HRW) is seeking a new Executive Director to lead the organization’s global human rights work and advance its endeavor to secure justice, dignity, and freedom for all. The Executive Director will help to shape the world agenda on upholding human rights, and will deploy exceptional influence across governments, businesses, institutions of justice, and civil society to create lasting and impactful change. The Board of Directors has selected the global leadership advisory firm, Spencer Stuart, to assist the Board in this succession.Click to expand Image
The search for HRW’s new leader comes at a time of unprecedented challenge and opportunity for the human rights movement. The successful candidate will be a seasoned human rights expert and experienced organizational strategist, with a proven track record of building global partnerships and coalitions. This highly visible role will require a leader with courage, conviction, and empathy, and an ability to inspire and lead by example.
With a strong senior leadership team already in place and a long-held reputation for rigor and independence in its human rights work, HRW seeks an innovative leader who can build on the organization’s legacy and strengths and drive its programmatic and wider strategic direction to ensure that HRW is well-positioned to meet the challenges of tomorrow. This new leader will have the vision to seek out opportunity in the face of these challenges, and actively shape the future not just of HRW but of the wider human rights movement as well.
The Executive Director will also steward Human Rights Watch through an ongoing internal transformation process that the organization has been undertaking to ensure that its structures, processes, and culture are fully aligned with HRW’s global strategy. As the head of an organization staffed by highly-skilled and passionate activists, the Executive Director will scrupulously uphold and model HRW’s core values and behaviors, and actively nurture a working culture of inclusion, collaboration, and excellence – one where HRW’s global, diverse, and talented staff can thrive.
The position of Executive Director has become vacant after Human Rights Watch’s leader of 29 years, Kenneth Roth, stepped down earlier this year. During his almost three decades at the helm, Roth transformed HRW from a small group of regional “watch committees” to a major international human rights organization with global influence.
Human Rights Watch is an independent, international organization with a staff of roughly 590 people of 79 nationalities, including world-leading country experts, lawyers, journalists, data analysts, and others. They fight to protect the human rights of people most at-risk, from vulnerable minorities and civilians in wartime, to refugees, children, and older people. HRW has an annual budget of US$100 million, and at the heart of its human rights investigations is an unwavering commitment to justice, dignity, and compassion.
The opening of the Executive Director position at HRW is a rare and exciting opportunity to lead this global organization at a pivotal moment for the human rights movement. Human Rights Watch looks forward to welcoming a visionary and compassionate new leader to help us build a better future and a world where justice, dignity, and freedom for all prevail.
To learn more about this position, please visit:
Job Application for Executive Director at Human Rights Watch (greenhouse.io)
For more information about Human Rights Watch, please visit:
Human Rights Watch | Defending Human Rights Worldwide (hrw.org)
To submit nominations, please use the confidential email inbox which will be monitored by Spencer Stuart: HRWED@SpencerStuart.com
(Beirut) – The Iraqi government under former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi failed to deliver on promises of legal accountability for state security personnel and state-backed armed groups responsible for killing, maiming, and disappearing hundreds of demonstrators and activists since 2019, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 40-page report, “To Sleep the Law: Violence Against Protesters and Unaccountable Perpetrators in Iraq,” details specific cases of killing, injury, and disappearance of protesters during and after the 2019-2020 popular uprising in central and southern Iraq. Al-Kadhimi took power in May 2020 promising justice for the murders and disappearances, but when he left office in October 2022, his government had made no concrete progress on holding those responsible to account.
“After two and a half years with al-Khadimi in power, his promises of justice for vicious violence against peaceful protesters turned out to be empty, and killers are walking free,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Protesters sacrificed so much to improve conditions in the country, even giving their lives, but their government couldn’t even provide them the bare minimum of justice in return.”
Nearly 500 demonstrators were killed in just the first few weeks of the uprising by Iraqi security forces and state-backed armed groups, according to the United Nations. Violence against protesters persisted even after protests ended, through a targeted assassination campaign against prominent activists, most of whom were perceived as influential voices in the protest movement.
Six months after taking office, former Prime Minister al-Kadhimi established a Fact-Finding Committee to investigate the violence carried out by state security personnel and armed groups against protesters and activists. But the committee has yet to release any substantial information about its findings, not even disclosing the cases it examined, much less the results of investigations it carried out.
Human Rights Watch examined the cases of 11 Iraqis subjected to violence because of political protest and activism. Five of them were killed, including two women. Another five were injured, and one was kidnapped and disappeared.
The victims and the families of those killed or disappeared filed legal cases with police and judicial authorities, but after initial interest from the authorities, such as police collecting details of these cases, the legal complaints went nowhere. There was virtually no follow up from the authorities about the status of their investigations or attempts to identify and hold those responsible to account.
As some interviewees insisted, their cases were simply “put to sleep.”
Emjad al-Dehemat, 56, was a prominent activist in Amara, the capital of Maysan province in southeast Iraq. On November 6, 2019, weeks into the protests, al-Dehemat was assassinated after leaving a meeting with a senior police commander in Amara’s main police station, said other activists who also attended the meeting. The killing occurred only a few hundred meters from police headquarters.
His brother Ali al-Dehemat, 52, filed a legal case with the authorities with little result. No arrests have been made in the case. Fighting for justice for his brother, Ali received death threats and was forced to flee Amara, moving from city to city for fear that he, too, would be killed.
Despite the lack of progress in investigations and legal accountability, the Iraqi government has financially compensated most of the families of those killed. According to the UN, most of the families of protesters killed have received financial compensation from Iraq’s Martyrs Foundation, a state entity.
The government also promised to compensate the thousands of protesters maimed or injured during the protests. But only a small number of victims have received compensation for their injuries, and they have only done so after long waits – in some cases up to two-and-a-half years – and at great financial cost. Many have hired lawyers to help with their claims, and some said they had to pay bribes to officials to resolve their claims.
The new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani should release information about the Fact-Finding Committee’s investigations into the killings, injuries, and disappearances of demonstrators during and after the uprising. The government should also urge judicial authorities to release information about the status of ongoing investigations and cases.
Al-Sudani’s government should also redouble efforts to compensate victims of the violence, including by establishing a clear and concise compensation policy for those injured, and laying out straightforward steps that minimize bureaucratic hurdles to receiving compensation.
“The 2019-2020 uprising brought down a government and instigated early elections, and the protesters demanded accountability for perpetrators of the violence they suffered,” Coogle said. “The new prime minister can and should work to deliver the justice his predecessor did not.”
(New York) – Nepali authorities should urgently bolster public health systems that struggled during a dengue fever outbreak in recent months, Human Rights Watch said today. Dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases are projected to become more widespread and severe in Nepal as a result of warming temperatures linked to climate change.
As of November 20, 2022, there had been over 52,557 reported dengue cases in Nepal since the beginning of the year, and 60 deaths attributed to the disease, according to government statistics. There have also been large outbreaks in neighboring regions of India. Dengue is a mosquito-borne virus that can cause a range of symptoms. In critical cases, people with dengue can require hospitalization and urgent platelet transfusion. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate science, “at high elevations in Nepal, there is high confidence that climate change has driven the expansion of vector-borne diseases that infect humans.”
“As temperatures are rising, the federal government and local governments need to work together to protect people from the growing threat posed by outbreaks of disease,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The governments of countries that have been most responsible for the emissions that are driving climate change should support Nepali efforts, including with access to vaccines.”
Wealthy countries, whose greenhouse gas emissions are mainly responsible for climate change, should live up to their climate finance commitments and do more to support Nepal in responding to climate-based disasters, Human Rights Watch said.
According to the climate change panel, temperatures in the Himalayan region have increased faster than average global rates, and are projected to continue to rise faster than the global average. The panel also warned that “viruses like dengue, chikungunya, and Japanese encephalitis are emerging in Nepal in hilly and mountainous areas.”
When people who have been infected with dengue are infected a second time with a different variant, severe symptoms can develop, leading specialists to believe that Nepal is vulnerable to even more serious outbreaks in the near future. Doctors also fear that the Zika virus, which can cause infants to be born with microcephaly, could be spread in Nepal in the future by the same mosquitos.
Like dengue, Zika is transmitted predominantly through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. The virus can also be transmitted during pregnancy from a woman to her fetus and through unprotected sexual activity. Infected people are often asymptomatic or experience mild symptoms, such as fever, muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis, and rash.
Zika is associated with serious neurological complications, particularly when a pregnant person becomes infected and the fetus is exposed in utero. In February 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global public health emergency in response to Zika. The virus had been detected in 89 countries and territories around the world.
Nepal has had annual dengue outbreaks since 2006. The previous largest outbreak was in 2019, with almost 18,000 recorded cases. The 2022 outbreak, almost three times as large, also recorded cases over a longer season. Whereas in previous years dengue cases were found at lower altitudes, in 2022 dengue has spread to at least 76 of Nepal’s 77 districts, including high altitude regions.
“This is related to climate change, because the rate of warming is much greater at higher altitudes,” said Dr. Megnath Dhimal, a government public health expert and contributor to the IPCC report. “We need to enhance our infrastructure and capacity for future outbreaks. The most [climate]-vulnerable countries are developing countries like Nepal.”
Doctors Human Rights Watch interviewed said that the true number of infections is likely to be several times higher than the official statistics. Urban environments are particularly susceptible to dengue outbreaks, according to the WHO, because the mosquitoes carrying it breed “mostly in man-made containers including buckets, mud pots, discarded containers and used tyres, [and] storm water drains.” The mosquitos fly only around 500 meters in their lifetime, so are more dangerous in densely populated areas.
While available treatments are limited, the main method of controlling the disease is to eradicate the mosquitos that spread it, especially by targeting larvae in stagnant water. Although there have been public information campaigns and attempts to clean up potential breeding sites, there is criticism that the government’s response has been inadequate. “Basic things are taken very lightly,” said a senior government health official. “It can be done much better than this.”
The Nepal government developed a “National Adaptation Plan 2021-2050,” to respond to climate change, which envisages spending $500 million to strengthen preparedness and response to climate sensitive diseases by 2030. However, experts who spoke to Human Rights Watch said there was a lack of coordination and implementation between central government and local government units, and that international health agencies had not delivered effective support. “Ad hoc activities [to combat dengue] are implemented, but very few effective interventions are implemented,” said Dr. Keshab Deuba, an infectious disease epidemiologist. “Very few activities are happening at the community level that would control these cases.”
Meanwhile, doctors say that Nepal’s weak health infrastructure means there have been preventable deaths due to lack of timely access to healthcare. “The quality of the available health service is very poor, and in remote areas it is almost non-existent,” said Dr. Deuba. “We are not able to manage cases and prevent deaths.” In 2021, a major outbreak of Covid-19 stretched Nepal’s health service beyond breaking point.
In the capital, Kathmandu, where most dengue cases this year are concentrated, Nepal’s sole hospital specializing in tropical diseases has struggled with very high patient numbers.
Nepal’s Constitution guarantees the “right to seek basic health care services from the state” and that no one should “be deprived of emergency health care.” The government has an international legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health. In 2021, in cases related to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court issued several judgments requiring the government to uphold these rights, although the rulings appear to have had little impact.
Nepal held federal and provincial elections on November 20. The new federal, provincial, and local governments should work together to strengthen and coordinate systems to control and treat outbreaks.
“Without effective measures to remove breeding grounds, reduce transmission, and improve treatment, Nepal is likely to suffer much worse outbreaks of dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases as temperatures rise in the coming years,” Ganguly said. “If the government fails to act to protect people’s right to health, the health of millions of Nepalis may be placed in jeopardy.”
(New York) – The Chinese government should respect the fundamental rights of people across China to peacefully protest the government’s draconian “zero Covid” restrictions and to call for freedom and human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release all protesters wrongfully detained and cease online censorship of protest-related information.
On November 26, 2022, thousands of people in Shanghai, China’s biggest city and financial center, began publicly protesting the government’s strict Covid-19 measures and denouncing the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule. Demonstrators held blank banners – to evade arrest and minimize risk – and chanted slogans such as “Down with Communist Party!” and “Down with Xi Jinping!”, the country’s leader. On November 27, university students across the country gathered on their campuses to demonstrate, and that night, hundreds of people in Wuhan, where Covid-19 originated, Chengdu, Beijing, and other large cities, took to the streets.
“People across China are taking extraordinary risks to demand their human rights,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese authorities should not suppress the protests but instead allow everyone to peacefully express their views.”
The protest in Shanghai was in response to a November 24 fire at an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of China’s northwest Xinjiang region, in which at least 10 people were killed. Many people suspected, though Human Rights Watch could not confirm, that residents were prevented from escaping the blaze due to pandemic control barriers, and emergency responders were hampered by Covid-related restrictions.
The following day, Urumqi residents gathered in front of a government administration building to mourn the deaths and protest Covid restrictions, which have kept the city under lockdown for over three months. Numerous reports of deaths, illnesses, and hunger due to lack of access to food and medical care in Xinjiang surfaced online.
In Beijing, people gathered under Sitong Bridge, where on the eve of the 20th Communist Party Congress in October a lone protester unfurled banners stating: “Remove that authoritarian traitor Xi Jinping.” Numerous protest banners, posters, and graffiti of unknown origin appeared in public places across the country.
Videos circulated online show dozens of police officers arriving at protest sites in Shanghai and elsewhere, trying to disperse the crowds, and dragging protesters into police vehicles. Shanghai police handcuffed a BBC journalist covering the protest and took him to a police station, where they kicked and beat him. One video shows an unidentified man in plain clothes snatching a lone woman holding a blank piece of paper standing on the steps of the Communication University of China in Nanjing.
Online censors removed social media posts and accounts providing news about the protests. Search functions on social media platforms also made protest-related information hard to find.
While small-scale protests over specific government abuses happen occasionally in China, it is extremely rare for people to publicly call for President Xi Jinping to step down or for the end of Communist Party rule. The authorities punish any perceived challenge to the Party’s hold on power with long prison sentences under highly abusive conditions.
The Chinese government has a history of violently suppressing protests, with the most notable incident being the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, when military forces killed an untold number of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing. Since then, authorities have cracked down on numerous peaceful protests across the country. In the aftermath of the 2009 protests in Xinjiang, security forces detained hundreds of people on suspicion of participation in the unrest. Dozens of these detainees, and possibly many more, were forcibly disappeared.
In 2011, an online appeal calling for people in China to emulate the Arab Spring uprisings resulted in small gatherings of onlookers in Beijing and several other cities. The authorities reacted by rounding up over 100 of the country’s most outspoken critics, forcibly disappearing them for weeks outside of any legal procedure. For the 2008 and 2022 Beijing Olympics, the authorities agreed to establish designated protest zones. In 2008 one of the few people to try to obtain permission was immediately detained. In 2022 few if any permits were sought.
In recent years, the authorities have tightened online censorship, expanded their use of surveillance technologies, dismantled civil society groups, and imprisoned many independent activists, making large-scale protests extremely difficult to carry out. In recent months there have been sporadic protests over Covid-19 abuses, economic hardship, censorship, and Xi’s expanded powers within China and by Chinese nationals outside the country.
The Chinese government has domestic and international obligations to permit protests and protect the rights of demonstrators. China’s constitution, in article 35, provides that citizens enjoy freedom of “assembly, association, procession and demonstration.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is considered reflective of customary international law, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not ratified, protect the rights to peaceful assembly, as well as freedom of expression and association.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment No. 37 on the right of peaceful assembly, states that governments must allow peaceful assemblies “to take place without unwarranted interference and to facilitate the exercise of the right and to protect the participants.” Failure to protect this right “is typically a marker of repression.”
Any law enforcement response to the protests must meet international standards. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states that security forces in carrying out their duty should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Where it is required for a legitimate law enforcement purpose during an assembly, only the minimum force necessary may be used. The authorities must also respect the rights of journalists and human rights defenders to monitor and report on assemblies.
Governments and international organizations that speak about human rights in China should express support for people’s rights to free speech and assembly, and urge the Chinese authorities not to suppress the protests, Human Rights Watch said.
“Chinese authorities have badly underestimated the willingness of people across China to risk all to have their rights and liberties respected,” Wang said. “People in China with incredible courage are showing the Chinese Communist Party and the world that they, like everyone else, are entitled to have a say in how they are governed.”