Click to expand Image Tigrayan men sit atop a hill overlooking part of the Umm Rakouba refugee camp, in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, on December 14, 2020.  © 2020 Nariman El-Mofty/AP Images

Today, United States President Joe Biden signed an executive order that allows the US government to impose sanctions against those responsible for a range of serious human rights abuses in northern Ethiopia.

The order establishes a sanctions regime that allows the US government to deny visas to and freeze the assets of individuals and entities responsible for or complicit in serious abuses and obstructing access to humanitarian aid. In doing so, the US sends an important message to those committing or taking part in abuses from all warring parties, especially those in command positions, that they will face consequences for their actions.  

Since the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region began last November, Human Rights Watch and others have documented massacres, widespread sexual violence, forced displacement, and deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructure by Ethiopian federal government forces and their allies, including Eritrean government forces. Tigrayan militia forces have also killed and raped Eritrean refugees.

Many of these abuses constitute war crimes, but may also amount to crimes against humanity.

Ethiopia’s federal government has continued its de facto blockade of the region, preventing aid agencies from delivering critical food, fuel, and medicine to millions. The US executive order opens the door for individuals to be sanctioned for their role in this blockade.

Although the federal government withdrew forces from most of Tigray in late June, atrocities continue. Fifty bodies were recently found in the river bordering western Tigray and Sudan. Since July, the conflict has spread to Ethiopia’s Afar and Amhara regions where more civilians have reportedly suffered abuses, thousands have been displaced, and humanitarian needs have grown.

Outside of Tigray, notably in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, authorities have discriminated against, arbitrarily arrested, and forcibly disappeared scores of Tigrayans. Hateful anti-Tigrayan statements by officials and government advisors have further heightened tensions.

The US executive order allows for targeted sanctions that emphasize individual responsibility, and, importantly, will not affect the general population. To be most effective, the United Nations Security Council, the African Union, the European Union, and other concerned governments should adopt similar measures. An independent, international monitoring mechanism can point them in the right direction.

As the last 10 months have shown, criticism alone of the warring parties’ conduct has done little to prevent or deter serious abuses. One hopes the threat of sanctions will have greater impact.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 17, 2021, 8:36 pm
Click to expand Image Policemen at the entrance of Press Enclave, which houses several newspaper offices, in Srinagar, India, September 8, 2021.  © 2021 Mukhtar Khan/AP Photo

(New York) – Indian authorities are using politically motivated allegations of tax evasion and financial irregularities to silence human rights activists, journalists, and other critics of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. In September 2021, government financial officials have carried out raids in Srinagar, Delhi, and Mumbai on journalists’ homes, news offices, an actor’s premises, and the home and office of a human rights activist.

The raids are part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led national government’s escalating crackdown on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly since coming to power in 2014. The authorities have brought politically motivated criminal cases, including under broadly worded terrorism and sedition laws, against activists, journalists, academics, students, and others. They have also used foreign funding regulations and allegations of financial misconduct to target outspoken groups.

“The Indian government’s raids appear intended to harass and intimidate critics, and reflect a broader pattern of trying to silence all criticism,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These abuses weaken India’s core democratic institutions and break down fundamental freedoms.”

Journalism organizations, such as the Editors Guild and Press Club of India, have repeatedly called for an end to harassment of independent media, saying that it is a blatant attack on press freedom.

In the most recent incident, on September 16, officials from the Enforcement Directorate, which investigates financial crimes, raided the home and office of Harsh Mander, an activist, in Delhi, alleging financial and administrative irregularities. Mander was in Germany on a fellowship at the time of the raid. A joint statement by activists, academics, and former civil servants condemned the raid as part of “a continuing chain of abuse of state institutions” to curtail rights.

The authorities have repeatedly targeted Mander, who has been a vocal critic of the BJP government’s discriminatory policies against religious minorities and works with victims of communal violence. Delhi police, instead of taking action against BJP leaders who incited communal violence in Delhi in February 2020, filed a fabricated case of hate speech and inciting communal violence against Mander.

On September 8 the police in Jammu and Kashmir raided the homes of four Kashmiri journalists – Hilal Mir, Shah Abbas, Showkat Motta, and Azhar Qadri – and confiscated their phones and laptops. Mir reported that they also took his and his wife’s passports. The authorities summoned all four to a Srinagar police station for questioning and told them to return the next day. Journalists in Kashmir face increased harassment by the authorities, including arrest under terrorism charges, since the BJP government revoked the state’s autonomous constitutional status in August 2019.

In June, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention wrote to the Indian government expressing concerns over “alleged arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.” The letter cited the cases of Fahad Shah, Auqib Javeed, Sajar Gul, and Qazi Shibli, and also raised concerns over the closure of the outspoken newspaper Kashmir Times in October 2020. It noted that these violations “may be part of a broader pattern of silencing of independent reporting in Jammu and Kashmir, which in turn may ultimately deter other journalists and civil society more broadly from reporting on issues of public interest and human rights in the region.”

On September 10, authorities from the Income Tax Department raided the offices of the news websites Newslaundry and Newsclick, in Delhi, as part of an investigation into alleged tax evasion. Both are known for criticizing the government. During the raids, officials downloaded data from office computers and the personal cell phone and laptop of the Newslaundry editor-in-chief, Abhinandan Sekhri, and took various financial documents as well as email archives from the Newsclick editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, and another editor. Financial authorities had previously targeted both media outlets in June. In February, Enforcement Directorate officials raided Purkayastha’s office and home.  

In July tax authorities raided about 30 offices of one of India’s most widely read newspapers, Dainik Bhaskar, in Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra states, after months of critical coverage of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2017, the authorities raided the television news channel NDTV, also critical of the government’s policies, over allegations of financial impropriety.

On September 7, police in Uttar Pradesh state filed a criminal case against the journalist Rana Ayyub, an outspoken critic of the BJP government, for alleged money laundering, cheating, dishonest misappropriation of property, and criminal breach of trust. The complaint, brought by a group called the “Hindu IT cell,” accused her of committing these crimes during fundraising campaigns for flood victims and people affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Uttar Pradesh police accused Ayyub of promoting enmity between religious groups and insulting religious beliefs in another criminal case in June, for sharing a video on social media. In the video, a Muslim man accuses Hindu men of beating him up and forcing him to chant Jai Shri Ram, a phrase used by Hindus to pray or as a greeting, but has also become a rallying cry used by Hindu nationalists. Government supporters and Hindu nationalist trolls on social media have repeatedly abused and threatened Ayyub. In 2018, after she received death threats, UN human rights experts called on the Indian authorities to protect her.

On September 15, tax authorities searched the premises of Sonu Sood, an actor, in Mumbai, alleging tax evasion on a real estate deal. The raids appeared to be politically motivated because the actor had received widespread praise from the general public, media, and opposition politicians across the country for his philanthropic work during the pandemic, especially to address the gaps created due to government’s lockdown policies and healthcare shortages.

The UN high commissioner for human rights and various UN human rights experts have repeatedly raised concerns in the last few years over shrinking space for civil society groups, and increased harassment and prosecution of human rights defenders and other critics. They have called on the government to ensure that no one is detained for exercising their basic human rights, and to protect the country’s civil society groups.

“By stifling fundamental freedoms at home, India is undercutting its influence as a world leader promoting human rights,” Ganguly said. “The government needs to change course and uphold the basic rights of its people.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 17, 2021, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image In The Hague, Netherlands, on August 7, a demonstrator holds a placard showing the names of some of those arbitrarily detained in Belarus for protesting against President Alexander Lukashenko, and calling for their release. © 2021 Charles M Vella / SOPA Images/Sipa via AP Images

(Berlin) – Belarusian authorities should immediately free human rights defenders who are behind bars on bogus, politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Twenty-three human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have joined forces in a campaign to demand the release of seven members of Viasna, one of Belarus’s leading human rights groups, and hundreds of other victims of politically motivated prosecutions.

#FreeViasna

International human rights groups demand release of Viasna members

Click here to read the joint statement

The groups initiated the #FreeViasna campaign on September 17, 2021, the first anniversary of the authorities’ reprisals against Viasna, which has methodically documented human rights violations in Belarus for nearly 25 years. The attacks on Viasna are a part of a broader crackdown on civil society. The Belarus government has prosecuted and jailed critics and peaceful protesters, forcing many to flee the country, shut down dozens of independent organizations and media outlets, and pressured and disbarred lawyers who dare take up politically motivated cases.

“Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government is wielding a war on civil society and ruthlessly suppressing all forms of dissent,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Key international actors should join forces to demand the immediate and unconditional release of Viasna’s members and other jailed activists, and do their utmost to help and protect Belarusian civil society.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 17, 2021, 8:00 am
Click to expand Image Burundian President Évariste Ndayishimiye at his swearing-in ceremony in Gitega, Burundi, on June 18, 2020. © 2020 Evrard Ngendakumana/Xinhua via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – Grave human rights violations have persisted in a context of insecurity in the 15 months since Évariste Ndayishimiye became president of Burundi, Human Rights Watch said. Until Burundian authorities address the root causes of the 2015 crisis and continuing impunity, the United Nations Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva, should ensure that investigations into the human rights situation in Burundi continue.

New Human Rights Watch research in Cibitoke found that Burundian intelligence services, security forces, and members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, have allegedly killed, disappeared, and tortured real or perceived political opponents and people suspected of having ties with Burundian rebels in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. People crossing the Rusizi river to travel between Congo and Burundi’s Cibitoke province for personal business have been reported missing, and their fate remains unknown.

“Residents of Cibitoke described the banks of the Rusizi river as a graveyard where they saw new bodies appear every week or month,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The combination of rampant corruption, impunity for past abuses, and a crippled judiciary has created the perfect storm for police, national intelligence, and Imbonerakure members to apparently kill, torture, disappear, and steal without consequences.”

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, established in September 2016 to document grave human rights violations in the country, concluded on September 16, 2021, that “no structural reform has been undertaken to durably improve the situation. Serious human rights violations have continued to be committed by State officials and members of the Imbonerakure with the acquiescence of authorities or even at their instigation. The rule of law continues to be progressively eroded…”

Between June 2020 and September 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 33 Burundian victims, witnesses, former and current security or administrative officials, journalists, and civil society activists about killings, disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention. Most of the interviews were conducted by phone with sources in Cibitoke province or Bujumbura, the country’s largest city. All spoke on condition of anonymity.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed the reports of local and international human rights organizations, media reports, public speeches of government officials, recordings of private meetings between administrative, judicial, and government officials, and social media posts. On September 7, Human Rights Watch wrote to Burundi’s foreign affairs minister, justice minister, with the national human rights commission in copy, to share information and ask questions about the cases Human Rights Watch documented, but the officials have not responded.

Despite some initial, positive steps taken to address the crackdown on human rights defenders and journalists, those who are perceived to be critical of the government have faced continued repression. A former member of parliament and a lawyer and former human rights defender, both convicted of abusive charges, remain in detention. Although Ndayishimiye has pledged to end impunity and corruption, and made some attempts to rein in the Imbonerakure, reports of killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, often of real or perceived political opponents, continue across the country.

In one case Human Rights Watch documented and reported in the media, Elie Ngomirakiza, a representative of the National Congress for Freedom (Congrès national pour la liberté, CNL), an opposition party, was detained in Ntahangwa commune, in Bujumbura Mairie province, on July 9. Ngomirakiza’s whereabouts have not been revealed, although family members have made multiple requests for information and attempts to locate him. In another case, armed men dressed in military clothes took Amauri Kwizera – a driver also known as Babu – from outside his house in Bujumbura on July 16, 2021, and drove him away in a white pickup truck with tinted windows and no number plate, according to two sources present at the time. He has not been located since.

Cibitoke province has continued to see high rates of human rights violations, according to local monitoring groups. The security situation worsened after attacks by armed groups were reported in Cibitoke and other provinces bordering Congo.

Since December 2020, Human Rights Watch has documented four cases of apparent torture at an unofficial national intelligence service (Service national de renseignement, SNR) detention facility in Cibitoke town. Former detainees – mainly local farmers – said they were held in small, filthy rooms, were regularly and violently beaten, and questioned about their ties to Congo-based rebels. Some said they heard other detainees being driven off in the middle of the night. One source said he witnessed another detainee’s death.

While the Rusizi river, which forms the border between Burundi and Congo, has historically been a dumping ground for bodies, this past year saw an increase in bodies being found along its banks, local residents said. Several residents of villages along the Rusizi described hearing pickup trucks driving to the river in the middle of the night and seeing blood on its banks the next morning. A former local administrative official said bodies were brought to the river by intelligence agents and thrown in the river.

In one case Human Rights Watch documented, four sources said that four men in military attire had stopped Emmanuel Baransegeta, 53, from Ruhagarika village, Cibitoke province, as he returned from fishing on the river in the evening on July 8, 2021. A witness saw the men beating him. Two days later, the sources said, a body bearing the same scars as Baransegeta was found nearby along the shores of the Rusizi. They said it was buried without further investigation.

Since August 2020, many sources, including farmers working along the banks of the Rusizi in Buganda commune also described seeing or receiving photos from local residents of dozens of dead bodies found by the river, sometimes with bullet or knife wounds, bruises, or with their hands tied behind their backs with ropes. In many cases, sources who were there when bodies were discovered said local administrative officials, Imbonerakure members, or police officers buried the bodies without investigating. Alleged abusers have been arrested and prosecuted in only a few cases, in trials that often lacked transparency.

Since the land border with Congo was closed in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many cross-border traders or farmers have resorted to crossing the river illegally. Several sources, including a former administrative official, said Imbonerakure members managed these border crossings. Eight sources described cases of people who disappeared after trying to cross the river with money or goods, indicating they believed the Imbonerakure members had killed them. Several cases have also been reported by local media and monitoring groups.

In one case Human Rights watch documented, a 30-year-old farmer who worked in Congo called a friend to say he would be returning to Burundi via the river crossing manned by Imbonerakure members to see his family and that he would pay them to let him cross, because his identity papers had expired. He was never seen again.

The UN Human Rights Council should ensure that there is conti­nued do­cu­men­ta­tion, monitoring, and public reporting about the situation in Burundi, and hold public debates on the country’s human rights si­tua­tion, with a focus on justice and accountability. It should urge the Burundian authorities to make concrete commitments to carrying out human rights reforms within a clear timeframe, mea­su­red against specific benchmarks.

“The human rights situation in Burundi remains grave, and the absence of an international investigation would only allow the authorities to hide abuse from sight,” Mudge said. “If the Burundian government is serious about reform, it should give external investigators access to the country and work with them to ensure that abusers are held accountable.”

For more details about killings, disappearances, and torture in Cibitoke province, please see below.

Documenting human rights violations in Burundi remains difficult due to restricted access to the country for international human rights organizations, security risks for Burundian activists, and victims’ and witnesses’ fear of retaliation by the authorities. The cases Human Rights Watch documented are only a fraction of those reported by local media and exiled monitoring groups, which continue to regularly publish accounts of abuses across the country.

The ‘Graveyard Province’

Since August 2020, Human Rights Watch has received reports about dozens of bodies washing up on the shores of the Rusizi river in Buganda commune of Cibitoke province. Sources in the area, including farmers living and working next to the river, local journalists and human rights defenders, and current and former local administrative officials, said the dead bodies were most likely either people killed while crossing the river to or from Congo, or people taken at night to the river’s edge in pickup trucks believed by the sources to belong to the intelligence service and executed or thrown into the river.

Click to expand Image The Rusizi river, which forms the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Cibitoke province, Burundi. © Private

Alleged Torture at a National Intelligence Service Cell in Cibitoke

Human Rights Watch interviewed four former detainees who were held in an unofficial national intelligence service detention facility located in Cibitoke town, where they said they witnessed abuse and were tortured between September 2020 and August 2021.

Three of the men were farmers, including two who often traveled to Congo to look for work. They all said they had no political affiliations and had no contact with rebel groups in neighboring Congo. The fourth said he was targeted for his political activities. All said they heard detainees being driven away in the middle of the night. One man who was detained at the national intelligence facility in December 2020 said police officers drunkenly gloated about killing detainees and throwing their bodies into the Rusizi river.

One man who was detained there in August 2021 said he was tortured and told to confess to working with RED-Tabara (Résistance pour un état de droit au Burundi; Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi), a Burundian rebel group operating in Congo. He said he was taken to the house by members of the intelligence service and Imbonerakure in a pickup truck. During his week-long detention, he said men in civilian clothing brutally beat him and interrogated him about rebel group operations in the area:

They hit me everywhere with sticks, as if I were a snake. They beat me in the morning and in the evening, and around me I could hear others screaming. A man in a cell next to me was beaten to death. A man in a police uniform stood outside his cell while men in civilian clothing beat him and told him, “You’re a combatant, even if you deny it, you won’t get away.” I saw him die and they took him out to bury him around 3 a.m.

Former detainees said they were interrogated and beaten by a senior intelligence chief. One former detainee, who was held in December 2020, said:

I was badly beaten. They undressed me and hit me with police clubs. They said that no one would protect me. I was held for four days in a tiny, dirty room. At first, they put me in a room so small I could only stand. A man came on two occasions to beat me. I could hear others being beaten too; they [intelligence and police officials] took people away at night…. They were people from Kirundo, Muyinga, Cibitoke.… We were afraid when we heard a car come at 1 a.m. and drive off at 2 a.m. We suspected they were going to kill people, we heard they put them in bags and drowned them in the Rusizi.

Two other sources said they heard screams from the detention facility when they walked past at night.

One man was arrested in September 2020 and detained there for six weeks. He said police and other men arrested him at his house. He was accused of collaborating with rebels, and said he was taken to a house next to a bank in Cibitoke town:

My first night, I was interrogated by the provincial chief of police (commissaire provincial). Then they called three policemen to come hit me. They said I had gone to join the rebels in Congo. The commissaire beat me with a metal rod. The policemen hit me 38 times, they punched me and kicked me all over my body. I can’t see from one eye now.

The commissaire would come ask me questions. At first, they asked about my background in Congo, then they asked why I wouldn’t join their group [the ruling party]. They said if I didn’t join them, they would kill me. I was interrogated, sometimes up to three times a day. It was often at night, sometimes until 2 a.m., so that I would be tired and accept what they wanted me to confess. Each time they beat me.

He said his family had to pay to have him released, and that his wife had to sell one of his plots of land to pay the bribe.

Dead Bodies in the Rusizi River

In many cases, it is impossible to verify the identities of the dead and cause of death, but several local inhabitants sent photos to Human Rights Watch or described bodies showing signs of torture, knife wounds, or bullet wounds, with their arms tied behind their backs, suggesting they had been executed. In many cases, they said the bodies were buried by Imbonerakure members, police officers, or local administrative officials without further investigations.

In its latest report, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said: “Corpses have regularly been found in public areas, including near roads and waterways. The local authorities have continued to bury them without seeking to identify the deceased or to investigate the cause of death and possible perpetrators even though most of the bodies present signs of violent death.” It concluded that, although it was impossible to differentiate between violations of the right to life perpetrated by state agents and the Imbonerakure and criminal offenses, the authorities were failing in their obligation to protect the rights to life and to an effective remedy “by refusing to launch credible and impartial investigations into these cases.”

In a report published in August, Ndondeza, a Burundian exile group documenting enforced disappearances, shared details of seven apparent cases of enforced disappearances of people attempting to cross the Rusizi, five additional cases reported by family members of people who went missing, and two killings that reportedly took place near the river. When authorities deprive someone of their liberty and refuse to acknowledge the detention, or conceal the person’s whereabouts, they are committing an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law and prohibited under all circumstances. A local journalist told Human Rights Watch: “In Ndava zone of Buganda commune, it’s a slaughterhouse. The Imbonerakure are active in the killings, they bring people to the fields at night. The neighbors hear them.”

A member of the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD), and former local official said: “I saw people brought from other provinces. In Burundi, people are killed for not speaking the same language as the government…. Sometimes police brought people from Muyinga province. They brought them in the night and threw them in the river.”

Sources who live close to the river reported hearing pickup trucks driving to the river at night. Two sources said that they sometimes saw blood on the riverbanks the next day. In one case Human Rights Watch documented, four sources said that four men in military attire had stopped Emmanuel Baransegeta, 53, from Ruhagarika, Cibitoke province, as he returned from working on the river in the evening on July 8, 2021.

“The four military men were asking him: ‘Where did you come from? What do you have?’” one witness said. “He answered that he didn’t have anything, that he’d been fishing. They beat him on the head with the metal butt of their weapons. His voice eventually died down, and when we came out, we saw blood. His body was found nearby in the river.” Two days later, the sources said, a body bearing the same scars as Baransegeta was found nearby along the shores of the Rusizi. They said it was buried without further investigation.

A woman who lives near the Rusizi river in Buganda commune said in November 2020: “In August, I saw two bodies floating down the river. They had been pierced by branches, they were tied up and naked. One branch connected two bodies. We collected them and buried them. Also in August I saw another body floating down, it had a rope tied around its neck…. My father says that he often sees bodies floating down on the Burundian side of the river.”

A man from Ruhagarika, in Buganda commune, said in November 2020 that he saw many bodies floating down the river: “On November 1 or 2, there was a man whose genitals had been cut off. The local authorities just gave the order to bury him immediately… we could see from the marks on his body that he had been beaten.” Other sources from Ruhagarika also reported seeing bodies float down the river regularly.

Statements by Authorities

On July 12, a meeting was held in Rugombo commune with the Cibitoke governor, prosecutor general, army chief, president of the high court, and local commune-level administrative officials to discuss the security situation in the province between April and June 2021. During the meeting, several government officials expressed concern over the dead bodies appearing on the shores of the river. A recording of the meeting shared with Human Rights Watch included the prosecutor of Cibitoke province telling the police to allow investigations on bodies that are found to avoid having “people blame the police or other authorities.”

In the recording, the governor of Cibitoke also said that local administrators should report the bodies to the judiciary to avoid having detractors criticize Burundi. He said the bodies could be people killed in Congo, but that because photos were shared on WhatsApp groups, people assumed they had been killed in Cibitoke province. He said that officials should stop sharing rumors and inform the authorities when bodies were found. Provincial officials reported that bodies had been found along the river, and also said that some of the people had drowned while attempting to swim across the river.

On August 24, 2021, Ndayishimiye gave a speech to magistrates calling for an end to corruption in the judiciary in order to promote development and investment and to end violent score-settling: “No development is possible in a country without justice. There cannot be peace or development.” Yet, as a judge pointed out to Ndayishimiye during the meeting, another fundamental challenge the judiciary faces remains the influence of the executive and the implication of state actors in serious human rights violations.

Alleged Killings by Imbonerakure Members

Land border crossings between Burundi and Congo were closed in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and several inhabitants interviewed said that Imbonerakure members often manage illegal border crossings on the river at night. One land border crossing at Gatumba, next to Bujumbura, reopened in June 2021, but many people continue to illegally cross the river between the two countries to avoid paying fees for mandatory Covid-19 tests, to avoid traveling to Gatumba, or because their identity papers are out of date. Sources in the area said that, before the pandemic, people could cross the river by boat at official border posts.

One source said that his brother, a 30-year-old farmer who worked in Congo, had died while crossing the river in July 2021. The source said his brother had called him to say he would be returning via the river crossing manned by Imbonerakure members, who would charge him 200,000 Burundian Francs (approximately US$100), because his identity papers had expired. He said he would bring back all of his savings, but he was never seen again. The source said: “He had gone to [Congo] for work; he was a farmer and he sent money back home. He wanted to see his family, and since coronavirus he could no longer cross the border.”

Three other sources said Imbonerakure members robbed people attempting to cross the river and drowned them. The member of the CNDD-FDD party and former local official said: “I saw the evildoing of the Imbonerakure who went to Congo. They would help people cross the river, but they drown them and steal their things.” He said he was often informed by family members who had lost a loved one trying to cross the river.

In one case in which Imbonerakure members reportedly killed a young boy after they stole his goats, two of the attackers were tried and given life sentences. However, the authorities have not made sufficient efforts to transparently investigate the killings and ensure justice in the majority of cases, Human Rights Watch said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 17, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image A woman and child at a camp for internally displaced people in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 13, 2021. © 2021 Bernat Armangue/AP Images

(New York) – World leaders gathering at the United Nations General Assembly in New York should support actions to address the world’s major human rights crises, Human Rights Watch said today. They should warn abusive governments, including the most powerful, that they will be held accountable for grave violations.

The General Assembly’s annual General Debate begins on September 21, 2021. Dozens of national leaders and foreign ministers will be attending in person, in contrast to 2020, when most leaders participated by video because of Covid-19.

“World leaders taking the stage at the UN General Assembly should be speaking openly and directly about the human rights crises in the world, in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, China, and elsewhere, and global threats like Covid-19 and climate change,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “They should be clear that there can be no business as usual with serious rights abusers and support UN action that will impose real costs.”

Leaders should address the world’s inadequate response to the Covid-19 pandemic. High-income and upper-middle-income countries have now administered almost 100 Covid-19 vaccines for every 100 people. But due to supply shortages low-income countries have only been able to administer 1.5 doses for every 100 people, according to the World Health Organization. The European Union, backed by Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and a few other high-income countries, have stalled a proposal by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization to expand access to vaccines, exacerbating the global inequality fueling the pandemic.

Regarding Afghanistan, leaders should urge the UN Security Council to send a clear message that continued human rights monitoring is essential for the well-being of the Afghan people, particularly women and girls. The Security Council should keep in place the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), whose mandate is up for renewal. They should also voice support for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and declare a willingness to accept asylum seekers fleeing the Taliban. Leaders should express support for urgent action at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to establish a fact-finding mission to monitor human rights in Afghanistan.

World leaders should also urge the Security Council to end its neglect of human rights abuses in Ethiopia, where the federal government continues its de facto blockade of the Tigray region. Widespread abuses against civilians in Tigray continue while reports of harm to civilians in nearby regions are increasing as the conflict spreads. Delegations should press all parties to the conflict to abide by international law and support an international investigation to gather and preserve evidence of serious crimes since the conflict began in November. The Security Council should impose an arms embargo on Ethiopia and individual sanctions on those implicated in abuses.

With respect to China, leaders should call for a UN investigation into allegations of serious abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, violations that Human Rights Watch has determined amount to crimes against humanity. On September 13, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, told the UN Human Rights Council that years of talks with the Chinese government on access to Xinjiang have failed to make progress, and that she expects to report publicly the information she has gathered about the abuses.

Delegations should reiterate the UN General Assembly’s call for a global arms embargo on Myanmar in response to the junta’s crimes against humanity since the February coup and the military atrocities against the Rohingya and other ethnic groups. The delegations should urge the UN Security Council to stop neglecting the situation in Myanmar and impose a global arms embargo as well as sanctions on top military leaders and military-owned and related entities.

Click to expand Image Palestinian laborers line up to cross a checkpoint at the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, June 30, 2020.  © 2020 Oded Balilty/AP Images

The delegations should also make a commitment to end systemic discrimination in places like Israel and Palestine, where Human Rights Watch has found that Israeli authorities are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians. The crime of apartheid is also being committed in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said. The General Assembly should appoint a global envoy for the crimes of persecution and apartheid with a mandate to mobilize international action to end these crimes around the world.

Other country situations that need UN members’ urgent attention include Belarus, Cameroon, Egypt, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

Another global problem UN delegations should address is racism. Leaders should pledge to support the work and carry out the recommendations of a newly established UN commission mandated to investigate the root causes of systemic racism and police violence in the United States and globally.

Delegations should also recommit to tackle the global environmental crises, including by supporting the initiatives at the Human Rights Council to establish a special rapporteur on human rights and climate change and to recognize the right to a healthy environment. As the world urbanizes and industrializes, and as effects of climate change intensify, environmental degradation continues to devastate the lives, health, and livelihoods of people around the globe. This has been particularly evident this year with a marked increase in destructive wildfires, extreme heat, hurricanes, and flooding in many parts of the world.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ Call to Action on Human Rights, initiated in February 2020, is aimed at recommitting the UN and its 193 member states to combating rights abuses worldwide. Now that his second five-year term, beginning in January 2022, has been confirmed, Guterres should prioritize transforming the call to action from rhetoric to reality. For that to happen, he will need to stand up to countries that do not consider human rights a priority and gain the support of those that do.

“The UN and world leaders committed to human rights should use the General Assembly podium to shine a spotlight on the worst violations,” Charbonneau said. “Abusive leaders around the globe need to know that that the world is watching, and that they may one day be held to account for grave violations. Impunity only encourages more killing, torture, and other abuses.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 17, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image The Lebanese Association of Lawyers march at the First Anniversary of Port Blast, Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4, 2021. © 2021 Elisa Gestri/Sipa USA/AP Images

This week the European Parliament heeded calls from survivors of the August 2020 Beirut blast, families of the victims, and many human rights groups to establish an international, independent fact-finding mission within the United Nations framework into the disaster. It is the first parliament to publicly make this demand. The resolution also called on European Union member states to use targeted sanctions against corrupt Lebanese officials and those blocking critical economic and governance reforms in the country.

More than a year after the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port that killed at least 218 people and decimated half the capital, no one has been held accountable. Instead, Lebanon’s domestic investigation has repeatedly been stalled, undermined, and delayed by the country’s politicians, and it has suffered from serious due process and fair trial violations that render it incapable of credibly delivering justice. In the latest demonstration of the political establishment’s disregard for justice, former Prime Minister Hassan Diab left Lebanon days before his scheduled interrogation as a suspect in the case.

The European Parliament also expressed alarm over the dire economic and humanitarian situation in the country – among the worst globally since the mid-nineteenth century – which it said is a “man-made disaster caused by a handful of men across the ruling political class.” Earlier this month, the United Nations found that more than 80 percent of the population now suffers from multi-dimensional poverty, lacking access to basic rights including health, education, water, and food.  

Given the “extremely high level of mismanagement” over relief funds delivered to Lebanon in the past, the European Parliament called for humanitarian aid to bypass the government and instead be channeled through civil society directly to those in need until Lebanon delivers on long-awaited governance and anti-corruption reforms.  

The European Parliament today stood with the people of Lebanon and the victims of the Beirut blast and sent a powerful message to Lebanon’s leaders that their corruption, obstruction of justice, and human rights abuses will no longer be tolerated. EU member states should heed the European Parliament’s call and put forward a resolution at the Human Rights Council establishing a fact-finding mission into the disaster and adopting targeted sanctions against Lebanese officials responsible for ongoing rights abuses and efforts to impede justice.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 17, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a prominent ethnic Karen activist, was last seen in government custody at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province in April 2014. © 2014 Human Rights Watch / Private

(Bangkok) – The Thai government and parliament should promptly act to pass a law that fulfills previous pledges to make torture and enforced disappearance criminal offenses in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 16, 2021, the parliament unanimously approved the first reading of the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Bill.

“The Thai parliament took a major step toward outlawing torture and enforced disappearance, but they need to see this through to the finish line by ensuring that the law adopted meets international standards,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The victims of abuses and their families should have confidence that the government will do everything it can to ensure such practices are ended and those responsible are brought to justice.”

During the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2016, the Thai government pledged to take steps to ratify the convention on enforced disappearances, but did not do so. It is critical for the parliament to pass this legislation and for the government to fully enforce it, and not just to invoke a draft law for public relations purposes during Thailand's next appearance before the UPR in November, Human Rights Watch said.

Torture and enforced disappearance have long been problems in Thailand. Most of the reported cases have not been resolved, and hardly anyone has been punished. Thailand has international obligations to outlaw these heinous practices. It is a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Thailand has also signed, but not yet ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and should immediately act to ratify that convention.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases related to counterinsurgency operations in Thailand’s southern border provinces, in which police and military personnel tortured ethnic Malay Muslims in custody. There are also credible reports of torture being used as a form of punishment of military conscripts, which has resulted in some deaths. During the five years of military rule after the May 2014 coup, many people taken into incommunicado military custody have alleged being tortured or otherwise ill-treated while being detained and interrogated by soldiers.

In addition, police and military units have often carried out anti-drug operations without effective safeguards against torture and other abuses. Most recently in August, police officers tortured to death a suspected drug trafficker in Nakhon Sawan province.

Click to expand Image A sketch of Somchai Neelapaijit, a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer abducted in Bangkok on March 12, 2004.  © 2015 Prachatai

International law defines enforced disappearance as the detention of a person by state officials and a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Since 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand, including the prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit in March 2004. The actual number could be higher, as some families of victims and witnesses remain silent, fearing reprisals if they speak. In recent years, at least nine dissidents who fled persecution in Thailand have been forcibly disappeared in neighboring countries.

“The government and parliament should now urgently work together to make sure that this much-awaited law is drafted in line with international standards and adopted as soon as possible,” Adams said. “For families waiting for answers for years about their missing loved ones, and those permanently scarred by their experiences of torture, every day without a law is one day too many.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 17, 2021, 1:30 am
Click to expand Image Installation of the exhibition Fighting Fear #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar Place du Palais Royal in Paris, from September 18th to October 17th 2021 © 2021 Bart Was Not Here

The Myanmar military’s February 1 coup sparked the largest and most widespread protests in the country's recent history, showing people’s determination not to be dragged back into a dark past of military dictatorship.

The military responded with ruthless repression, killing more than 1,000 people, arbitrarily arresting and detaining thousands, banning independent media, and cutting off internet access. The junta’s widespread and systematic abuses, including murder, rape and other sexual violence, and torture amount to crimes against humanity. 

From the early months of the protests, many Burmese artists also took to the streets, using their art and creativity to peacefully call for a return to democratically elected civilian government and the end of the junta’s abuses.

These artists created amazing visual materials in response to the events. Combining social activism, creativity, and an increasing resolve not to give in to military intimidation, most of their artworks were not designed to be hung in galleries, but rather to serve as messages and images to be displayed at marches or posted on social media.

A unique selection of these artworks is being shown in Paris through Fighting Fear: #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar, a month-long exhibition of 14 works from seven young artists from Myanmar set up at the Place du Palais Royal, in the center of the French capital.

The exhibition opens on September 18, which coincides with an infamous day in Myanmar’s history when soldiers killed thousands of protesters during a 1988 mass uprising in Yangon, then Myanmar’s capital. Now again in 2021, the people of Myanmar are risking their lives to demand restoration of democratic rule and respect for human rights.  

These powerful artistic testimonies warn of the urgent need to break the global apathy that has arisen in the face of the junta's brutal crackdown. The Paris exhibition is a wake-up call to France and other governments to be bold and work together in response to the Myanmar junta's atrocities. Coordinated sanctions on oil and gas revenues, which are the junta’s main source of income, and a global arms embargo are urgently needed. This is the least governments around the world can do to support the courageous citizens and artists of Myanmar standing up and risking their lives to resist the junta’s ferocious crackdown. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 16, 2021, 2:40 pm
Click to expand Image Police officers take away a cardboard cutout of the image of Goddess of Democracy from the June 4th Museum as an evidence, in Hong Kong, September 9, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

(New York) – Hong Kong’s government should drop all charges against leaders of the civic group that had been holding annual mass vigils in Victoria Park commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre in China, 61 Hong Kong and international human rights groups said today.

On September 9, 2021, the Hong Kong justice secretary charged the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the group’s chair Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, and the vice-chairs Chow Hang-tung, 36, and Albert Ho, 69, with “inciting subversion.” Police had arrested Chow on September 8, while Lee and Ho have been jailed for their activism since April and May, respectively. Chow, and four other leading members of the group, Tang Ngok-kwan, 53, Simon Leung, 36, Chan To-wai, 57, and Tsui Hon-kwong, 72, are separately charged with “failing to comply with notice to provide information.” All five have been denied bail. The prosecutions violate Hong Kong’s obligations under international human rights law to respect the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

“By arresting vigil organizers, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities are telling the world they’re not only afraid of the most peaceful protests, but also of their own brutal past,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch. “They should end this political persecution and immediately drop the charges and release the vigil organizers.”

The charges of “inciting subversion” and “failing to comply with notice to provide information” are crimes under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law (arts. 23 and 43), which the Chinese government imposed on the city on June 30, 2020. The definitions of these offenses are overly broad and vague. “Subversion” criminalizes any act that seriously “interferes,” “disrupts,” or “undermines” the functioning of the Chinese or Hong Kong government, a definition that can readily include peaceful protests.

The charges are part of Beijing’s escalating campaign against the Hong Kong Alliance.

Until the Hong Kong police banned the vigils in 2020 and 2021, citing public health grounds, Hong Kong was the only place under Chinese sovereignty where the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre was publicly remembered every year.

The government stepped up its intimidation campaign in 2021. On June 2, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department declared that the alliance’s “June 4th Museum,” which focuses on the Tiananmen crackdown, had violated the law for not having a “public entertainment” permit, compelling the alliance to temporarily close the museum.

On June 4, the police arrested Chow for “inciting unauthorized assembly” after she urged people to mark the Tiananmen Massacre by lighting candles. The police also blocked off the park and stationed thousands of officers throughout the city to prevent any gatherings.

In July, the Hong Kong Alliance laid off its staff and downsized its operations in anticipation of the government’s crackdown on the group. On August 25, police demanded the group’s membership list and financial information in an investigation of its alleged “collusion with foreign powers.” After the group refused to provide the information, citing the police’s misuse of power and lack of reasonable cause, the police again arrested Chow, along with the alliance committee members.

On September 9, police raided the shuttered June 4th Museum and removed some of the exhibits, including photos of previous Victoria Park vigils and an oversized paper cutout of the Goddess of Democracy, a statue that had featured in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in China. On September 10, police froze HK$2.2 million (US$ 282,850) worth of assets of the alliance. On the same day, the Hong Kong secretary for security informed the alliance that the government is planning to revoke the alliance’s registration with the Company Registrar, which will effectively disband the group.

Human rights and fundamental freedoms are enshrined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law. These rights are also guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is incorporated into Hong Kong’s legal framework via the Basic Law and expressed in the Bill of Rights Ordinance. The ICCPR protects the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, among other basic liberties.

Concerned governments should impose coordinated, targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Police Commissioner Raymond Siu, Secretary for Security Tang Ping-keung, and other Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for the attacks on the Hong Kong Alliance, the groups said. Those governments should also issue coordinated public statements expressing concern about attacks on civic groups more generally. Over the long term, they should provide assistance to groups outside Hong Kong and China to archive and publish materials, including slogans, artworks, and political content, that are now banned or barred in Hong Kong, particularly those related to the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.

“Hong Kong and mainland authorities should not be able to ban commemorations, shutter museums, and jail peaceful critics without paying a price,” Jianli Yang, founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, said. “Governments appalled by the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Hong Kong should make their opposition felt.”
 

List of Group Signatories:

Action Free Hong Kong Montreal Alliance Canada Hong Kong Association of the New School for Democracy Bay Area Friends of Tibet Boston Tibet Network Cambridge Stands With Hong Kong (UK) Cadal - Argentina Canada-Hong Kong Link China Aid Association China Against the Death Penalty China Change China Political Prisoners Concern Group, HK Chinese Human Rights Defenders Citizen Power Initiatives for China Comité pour la Liberté à Hong Kong D4HK (UK) DC4HK Dialogue China ECO Tibet Ireland Freedom House Germany Stands with Hong Kong Global Alliance for Tibet & Persecuted Minorities (GATPM) Grupo de Apoio ao Tibete-Portugal Hong Kong Committee in Norway Hong Kong Democracy Council Hong Kong Forum, Los Angeles Hong Kong Social Action Movements in Boston Hong Kong Watch Human Rights in China Human Rights Watch Humanitarian China International Campaign for Tibet International Service for Human Rights International Society for Human Rights, Munich Chapter International Tibet Network Judicial Reform Foundation LUNGTA - Actief voor Tibet Netherlands for Hong Kong New Yorkers Supporting Hong Kong (NY4HK) Northern California Hong Kong Club Safeguard Defenders Santa Barbara Friends of Tibet SEArious for HKG Students for a Free Tibet Swedish Tibet Committee Swiss Tibetan Friendship Association Taiwan Association for Human Rights, TAHR Taiwan Hong Kong Association Taiwan Forever Association, TFA Taiwan Support China Human Rights Lawyers Network The Taiwan United Nations Alliance The Tibet Support Committee, Denmark Tibet Initiative Deutschland Tibet Justice Center Toronto Association for Democracy in China Torontonian HongKongers Action Group US-Tibet Committee Uyghur Human Rights Project Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation Vancouver Hong Kong Forum Society Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 16, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image A man walks with a child through Doña Ana Village in Fort Bliss, where Afghan refugees are being housed, in New Mexico on September 10, 2021. © 2021 David Goldman/AP Images

United States President Joe Biden inherited a refugee resettlement program on life support after the administration of former President Donald Trump decimated it. Biden promised to resuscitate the program and raised the refugee admissions ceiling to 62,500 for this fiscal year, which ends on September 30, up from the low cap of 15,000 set by Trump.

With only a month remaining in the fiscal year, however, US refugee admissions stood at a paltry 7,637 at the end of August, raising the prospect that more than 50,000 admissions places could go to waste. At this rate, the Biden administration looks unlikely even to meet the Trump administration’s dismal ceiling.

Excuses are many, and some plausible, but the Afghan refugee emergency requires decisive action in the next two weeks to use the available resettlement numbers.

So far, only 643 Afghan refugees have been admitted this fiscal year. Another 7,973 Afghans have arrived on Special Immigrant Visas, with essentially the same benefits as refugees. But most of the Afghans arriving are coming in under humanitarian parole.

Refugees arrive in country with legal status. They can petition to reunite with parents and children left behind, are eligible for special assistance to help them get on their feet, and are put on a path to permanent residence. But people paroled into the US currently receive none of these benefits, although the Biden administration has indicated it will seek congressional support to offer these benefits to paroled Afghans.

There is historical precedent for expedited refugee status determinations. The Kosovo evacuation of 1999, which quickly brought refugee status for thousands being flown into the US, offers many parallels to the current Afghan arrivals.  

As others have argued, there is sufficient flexibility in the Refugee Act of 1980 to allow US Citizenship and Immigration Services officials to make refugee status determinations for parolees on US soil. Otherwise, immigration officials should conduct quick determinations for tens of thousands of Afghans now sitting on US military bases around the globe, so they can enter as refugees and not simply as parolees. All necessary security and medical screenings should occur in due time, but the Biden administration should recognize refugee status for these people now and fly them to the US before September 30.   

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 16, 2021, 10:00 am
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen on a screen during a video conference to approve an investment pact between China and the European Union on December 30, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium.  ©2020 Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen on a screen during a video conference to approve an investment pact between China and the European Union on December 30, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium.  ©2020 Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In a landmark report on Thursday, the European Parliament urged the European Union to adopt a new China strategy and place human rights squarely at the heart of it.

The report’s focus on Chinese government human rights violations is further evidence that Beijing’s bullying attitude in Brussels has backfired. Baseless counter-sanctions adopted in March against EU bodies that “dare” criticize the Chinese government only led to freezing prospects for a bilateral trade deal, and galvanized cross-party support in the European Parliament for stronger EU action against Beijing.

Building on previous European Parliament resolutions, the report makes a number of detailed recommendations to the EU and its member states, including calls to adopt targeted sanctions against senior Chinese officials responsible for abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. It calls for better coordination to counter Beijing’s growing global influence and anti-rights agenda, and for a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. The European Parliament also urged the EU’s foreign policy branch to seek a more effective and benchmark-based human rights dialogue, and organize a shadow dialogue with civil society. The report reiterated the European Parliament’s call for the adoption of binding due diligence legislation for companies, a ban on forced labor goods, and a business advisory on the risk of employing Uyghur forced labor.

But both the European Parliament and the Chinese leadership know that in EU foreign policy, it takes all 27 member states to tango. In the report, lawmakers regret the “bilateral and uncoordinated engagement of some Member States with China,” including those that have signed bilateral deals, undermining EU unity. In May 2020, Hungary vetoed the adoption of foreign ministers’ conclusions on Hong Kong. The report urges the EU to coordinate member states’ bilateral policies with China, and even urges a review of European Commission policies that risk making it harder to ensure a coherent and consistent policy across all EU branches.

The EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has said he wants “a more robust China strategy.” The European Parliament has just given him one, and the EU would be wise to follow it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 16, 2021, 7:00 am

(Beirut) – People with disabilities in Iraq are facing significant obstacles to participating in upcoming parliamentary elections on October 10, 2021, due to discriminatory legislation and inaccessible polling places, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Without urgent changes, hundreds of thousands of people may not be able to vote.

The 36-page report, “‘No One Represents Us’: Lack of Access to Political Participation for People with Disabilities in Iraq,” documents that Iraqi authorities have failed to secure electoral rights for Iraqis with disabilities. People with disabilities are often effectively denied their right to vote due to discriminatory legislation and inaccessible polling places and significant legislative and political obstacles to running for office.

September 16, 2021 “No One Represents Us”

“The government should ensure that polling places are accessible to all voters,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While some steps will take time, like amending legislation, others are easy, and the Independent High Electoral Commission has no excuse to continue to fail to address accessibility.”

Between January and August, Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 people with disabilities as well as activists, authorities, and the staff of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC).

While the Iraqi government has not collected any reliable statistics on the number of people with disabilities, in 2019, the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said that Iraq, plagued by decades of violence and war, including the battles against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) from 2014-2017, has one of the world’s largest populations of people with disabilities.

#IraqElection: People with Disabilities Must be Included

On October 10, Iraqis will vote for a new parliament,  most polling places are inaccessible to many people with disabilities. Take action today in solidarity with people with disabilities and ask the Electoral Commission to ensure voting accessibility! 

TAKE ACTION

Iraq’s Parliament acceded to the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2013. Article 12 requires state parties to “recognize that persons with disabilities enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life” and article 29 calls on states to respect the political rights of people with disabilities. Iraq’s domestic law, however, falls short. The 1951 civil code does not recognize the right to legal capacity for people with disabilities, allowing the government to deprive people with intellectual, psychosocial (mental health), visual, and hearing disabilities of their legal capacity. People without legal capacity are not allowed to vote.

Article 29 of the covenant requires states to ensure that voting facilities and materials are “appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use.” However, Iraqi authorities offer little to no accessible information to people with intellectual, visual, and hearing disabilities. Electoral materials are not presented in accessible formats such as audio, Braille, large print, sign language, and easy-to-read. Videos on the website are not accessible for people with hearing and visual disabilities. Because of the complete ban on operating vehicles on election day for security reasons, people who use mobility assistive devices can face difficulties reaching polling places.

The election commission almost exclusively uses school buildings, many of which are inaccessible, for polling places. It locates many ballot boxes on the second floor in buildings without elevators. It has no mobile voting stations, electronic voting, or postal voting, perhaps because of Iraq’s weakened postal system.

“Every election day is the most depressing day for me,” said Suha Khailil, 44, who uses a wheelchair and who has never participated in an election. “Everyone goes to vote and I am stuck at home waiting for the day to end,” she said.

People with disabilities said they sometimes must rely on assistance to reach the polling place. When that assistance comes from political party members, they sometimes try to influence how the person votes. The need for some people to get assistance to fill in their ballot or reach a ballot box raises concerns about privacy.

Ahmed al-Ghizzi, director of Voice of Iraqi Disabled Association, a Baghdad-based organization, said that his group’s survey of 2018 parliamentary elections found that only 200 members out of the about 5,000 who replied said they had been able to vote.

Available evidence suggests that people with disabilities also face significant obstacles to running for public office. Despite extensive research, Human Rights Watch was only able to identify eight people who had run for public office since 2005, including six in parliamentary elections and two in governorate elections. All candidates were men, and all had physical disabilities. The obstacles stem from discriminatory legislation, including provisions that require candidates to be “fully competent” or “fully qualified,” a lack of financial resources, and the unwillingness of political parties to seek out and support people with disabilities as candidates.

“It really makes me sad when I see all the members of parliament and there is no one to represent us,” said Naghim Khadir Elias, 47, who uses a wheelchair.

The commission has defended its policies. “Our institution is an executive one that is only concerned with implementing the electoral law that organizes all details of the electoral process,” the commission told the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in December 2020, in response to critical findings from the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But the commission has the authority to select accessible voting sites and to offer transportation and disseminate accessible information.

For election day, the commission should ensure that transportation is available and that polling places are accessible. It should ensure that its election information materials are accessible and easy to understand for persons with intellectual, visual, and hearing disabilities. It should also ensure that assistance is available to those who need it and that it does not interfere with the right to cast a private and independent vote.

Iraq’s newly elected parliament should amend the relevant legislation to comply fully with the covenant. It should amend the civil code on legal capacity so the right to legal capacity is respected for anyone with a disability and that they have access to supported decision-making, if needed.

People with disabilities and their representative organizations should be consulted and included in all these efforts.

The United Nations and European Assistance Missions’ election monitoring bodies should include people with disabilities as expert monitors and include in their monitoring mandate documentation and reporting on discriminatory treatment and limitations that people with disabilities face.

“Countries financially supporting Iraq’s elections and monitoring missions, including those who have been part of the conflict, should ensure that they help make Iraq more accessible for people with disabilities, including its political system,” Wille said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 16, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Satellite image collected after the destruction of Hitsats refugee camp, in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region offers a snapshot of the extensive damage to humanitarian infrastructure. Satellite image from January 27, 2021. © Maxar Technologies. Source: Google Earth. Analysis and graphic © Human Rights Watch.

(Nairobi) – Eritrean government forces and Tigrayan militias have committed killings, rape, and other grave abuses against Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Human Rights Watch said today. All warring parties should cease attacks against refugees, stay out of refugee camps, and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Between November 2020 and January 2021, belligerent Eritrean and Tigrayan forces alternatively occupied the Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps that housed thousands of Eritrean refugees, and committed numerous abuses. Eritrean forces also targeted Tigrayans living in communities surrounding the camps. Fighting that broke out in mid-July in Mai Aini and Adi Harush, the two other functioning refugee camps, again left refugees in urgent need of protection and assistance.

“Eritrean refugees have been attacked both by the very forces they fled back home and by Tigrayan fighters,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The horrific killings, rapes, and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray are evident war crimes.”

Click to expand Image © 2021 John Emerson / Human Rights Watch

Since January, Human Rights Watch has interviewed 28 Eritrean refugees: 23 former residents of Hitsats camp and 5 former residents of Shimelba camp, and 2 residents of the town of Hitsats who had witnessed the abuses by Eritrean forces and local Tigrayan militia. Human Rights Watch also interviewed aid workers and analyzed satellite imagery.

Human Rights Watch sent letters summarizing the findings and requesting further information to Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), Eritrea’s permanent mission to the United Nations, and other international organizations in Geneva. Responses from ARRA and UNHCR are included below. Eritrea did not respond.

Click to expand Image Satellite image showing a snapshot of the substantial damage to most residential structures across the different settlement zones in Hitsats refugee camp, in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Satellite image from January 27, 2021. © Maxar Technologies. Source: Google Earth. Analysis and graphic © Human Rights Watch

On November 19, Eritrean forces arrived in the town of Hitsats and indiscriminately killed several residents. They occupied and pillaged the town and took over the refugee camp. Some refugees took part in the looting, contributing to community tensions.

On November 23, Tigrayan militia entered Hitsats camp and attacked refugees near the camp’s Orthodox church. Clashes between the militia fighters and Eritrean soldiers ensued in and around the camp, lasting several hours. Nine refugees were killed and 17 badly injured.

One refugee said that Tigrayan militia fighters killed her husband as their family tried to seek shelter inside the church: “My husband had our 4-year-old on his back and our 6-year-old in his arms. As he came back to help me enter the church, they shot him.”

Two dozen residents in Hitsats town were also reportedly killed during and after the clashes that day. The Tigrayan militia retreated from Hitsats after the fighting.

Eritrean forces later detained approximately two dozen refugees in the camp and took them away in military vehicles. Their whereabouts have not been revealed. Eritrean forces also removed the 17 injured refugees from the camp, taking at least one – and likely others – back to Eritrea, ostensibly for treatment.

The Eritrean forces withdrew from the camp in early December. Tigrayan forces returned on the evening of December 5, shooting into the camp, and sending hundreds of refugees fleeing. In the ensuing days, Tigrayan militia attacked, arbitrarily detained, and sexually assaulted some of the refugees who had fled, notably around Zelazle and Ziban Gedena, north of Hitsats. They then marched the refugees back to Hitsats.

“I am a double victim,” said a 27-year-old woman whom Tigrayan militia fighters raped along with her 17-year-old sister while they fled Hitsats. “Both in Eritrea, and now, here [in Ethiopia], I am not protected.”

In Hitsats, Tigrayan militias and special forces, and members of an unidentified armed Eritrean group, arbitrarily detained hundreds of refugees, apparently to identify refugees who collaborated with the Eritrean forces or who were responsible for looting in the town.

On January 4, following heavy clashes near the camp, Tigrayan forces withdrew from Hitsats. The Eritrean forces returned and ordered all remaining refugees to leave along the main road toward Eritrea. Between January 5 and 8, Eritrean forces destroyed and burned shelters and humanitarian infrastructure in the camp, leaving significant parts of the camp in ruins.

 

Before and after satellite imagery collected on January 5 and 6, 2021, shows the progressive expansion of the burn scars in Hitsats refugee camp, in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. As of January 6, active fires and smoke plumes are visible over the humanitarian infrastructure located on the northeastern part of the camp. Satellite imagery © Planet Labs Inc.

 

Most refugees then faced an arduous days-long trek to the Ethiopian town of Sheraro and the contested border town of Badme, then under Eritrean control. Refugees said that once there, many felt they had no choice but to return to Eritrea, despite the risks of being detained and facing indefinite forced conscription. Witnesses said hundreds boarded buses headed to Eritrea in January.

Other refugees managed to escape back into Ethiopia, some toward urban areas or the two still-functioning Eritrean refugee camps in southern Tigray, Mai Aini, and Aid Harush. UNHCR reported that 7,643 out of the 20,000 refugees known to have been in Hitsats and Shimelba camps in October 2020 are unaccounted for as of late August 2021. Many of the refugees that have been accounted for fled to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, but neither the Ethiopian government nor international partners have provided any assistance to date. Refugees who are not receiving assistance are more vulnerable to further abuse, including exploitation, Human Rights Watch said.

“For years, Tigray was a haven for Eritrean refugees fleeing abuse, but many now feel they are no longer safe,” Bader said. “After months of fear, abuse, and neglect, Ethiopia, with support from its international partners, should ensure that all Eritrean refugees have immediate access to protection and assistance.”

For more information and accounts from witnesses, an overview of Ethiopia’s international legal obligations, and recommendations, please see below.

Eritrean Refugees in the Tigray Region

As of October 2020, Ethiopia hosted approximately 149,000 registered Eritrean refugees. Many were in the northern Tigray region, bordering Eritrea, in four camps, with approximately 20,000 in Hitsats and Shimelba in northwestern Tigray and about 31,000 in Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in southern Tigray.

Ethiopia has a long history of providing group (“prima facie”) recognition to Eritreans fleeing persecution, forced conscription, and other rights abuses in their country. But in January 2020, Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) stopped registering some categories of new arrivals, including unaccompanied children.

In March 2020 the Ethiopian authorities announced that they would close Hitsats camp. In February 2021 following the fighting between Eritrean forces and Tigrayan armed groups, ARRA stated that Hitsats and Shimelba had been closed.

Hitsats was the newest of the four camps. It was established in 2013 because the others were congested. Hitsats was in a remote and harsh area next to the small town of Hitsats, with little delineation between it and the local community.

For almost five months after the start of the conflict in November 2020, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies were unable to access Hitsats and Shimelba camps due to insecurity and federal government restrictions. When UNHCR visited the camps in late March, they found them destroyed and empty of refugees.

Eritrean Military’s Killings, Looting in Hitsats Town (November 19 to 23)

On November 19, Eritrean forces arrived in Hitsats, clashed with local Tigrayan forces, and took control of the town and neighboring refugee camp.

Human Rights Watch received credible reports of the killings of at least 31 people in and around Hitsats town between November 19 and 23, but the actual number is most likely significantly higher. A local organization documented and shared the names of 26 people, predominantly from one family, who were all killed on November 23. “All houses were searched by Eritrean troops, and in every house, people were killed,” one resident said. “A friend of mine, Yenialeman Geday Mehari, and her three siblings were killed in their home near the police station.”

At least four of five Ethiopian staff members of humanitarian organizations working in Hitsats were also among those killed in Hitsats between November 19 and 23, humanitarian groups said.

Eritrean forces initially refused to let the community bury their dead. “We heard that the priests were begging to bury them,” a humanitarian worker said. “But [the Eritrean forces] told them to leave the bodies.”

Eritrean soldiers also looted Hitsats town for several days following their takeover, in some cases accompanied by refugees, witnesses said. “They [the Eritrean soldiers] were looting everything, including sugar, jewels, and water from the shops. They butchered the animals.” one refugee said. A local resident saw some refugees pointing out the houses of militia members and members of the town’s administration to the Eritrean forces during house-to-house searches.

Refugees Killed During Fighting in Hitsats Camp (November 23)

There was no fighting in Hitsats camp in the initial days of the Eritrean occupation. The Eritrean forces set up tents inside the camp and established bases at the UNHCR, ARRA, and other humanitarian offices, where they also looted humanitarian equipment. Refugees said soldiers pressured them to return to Eritrea, warning them that they would not be safe in the camp and that the host community was planning to kill them.

On November 23, at around 6 a.m., heavy fighting broke out in Hitsats town, witnesses said. Mid-morning, Tigrayan militia armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, recognized by some refugees as town residents, entered the refugee camp from at least two directions and started shooting at refugees around the camp’s Orthodox church.

A 28-year-old refugee said three Tigrayan militia fighters stopped him along with two friends and his relative as they headed to church for services:

They didn’t give us much time. They said: “Your ‘shabia’ [Eritrean forces] are killing us and you have the luxury of going to church.” My cousin was the first person injured, not a serious injury at first, but then he tried to escape, and they shot him again. This is when I fled toward the church. Once inside [with other refugees], we locked the door. Thankfully [the militia fighters] didn’t enter.

Several witnesses said that a small contingent of Eritrean forces in the camp fired back at the Tigrayan militiamen.

Nine refugee men were killed, and at least 17 refugees seriously injured, including one woman and a young man who suffered spinal cord damage.

As the clashes continued, Eritrean reinforcements arrived. Two refugees said that the Eritrean forces fired mortar rounds from outside the camp. Satellite imagery recorded on November 23 at 10:39 a.m. shows signs of burning inside the compound of the camp’s high school, and another fire is detected at 1:36 p.m. on a hill, east of the camp.

By early afternoon, the Tigrayan militia forces had fled the camp and town.

After the fighting ended, a refugee who worked at the health clinic on the outskirts of the camp went to the clinic where shots by militiamen had been fired and said he found the body of his colleague, Yonas Kinfe, another refugee, in the toilet: “He had been shot in the forehead.”

Camp residents set up a makeshift clinic in a playground. The cousin of the 27-year-old man who was the first person shot outside the church said his cousin had been shot three times but survived: “The third bullet was hardest to get out. There was no anesthetic; it was horrific. He screamed so much.”

After a few days, Eritrean forces took the injured refugees away, reportedly back to Eritrea. “They told us that they would be taken to Barentu [a town in northwest Eritrea],” a refugee nurse said. “No one was happy about being taken to Eritrea. In particular, the boy with the spinal cord injury, he really didn’t want to go. He complained a lot, but there was no other option.”

The cousin of the 27-year-old injured man still has no news about his relative. “One morning I went back to the tents, and he had disappeared. I was told he had been taken for treatment, but no one told me where. I asked my relatives back in Eritrea, but they had no news. I continue to pray.”

Enforced Disappearances of Refugees by Eritrean Forces (Late November)

On November 26 following the violence inside Hitsats camp, Eritrean forces called the refugees to a meeting and told them to leave the camp. “The meeting was short, no questions asked,” said a refugee who was in attendance. “It was just an order.” Most refugees reportedly ignored the order to leave.

After the meeting, Eritrean forces detained between 20 and 30 refugees, who were reportedly identified on a list of refugee committee members and perceived opposition supporters, two of them women. One refugee said the Eritrean forces had informants in the camp: “We were so scared. We didn’t trust each other anymore, and we didn’t dare to speak among ourselves.”

The detained refugees were held at the camp for two days then taken away in Eritrean military vehicles. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

Killings, Rape, Detention, and Looting by Tigrayan Militias (Early December)

The Eritrean forces pulled out of Hitsats camp in early December, after heavy fighting around Edaga Hibret, south of Hitsats, a local resident reported. On December 5 at about 6 p.m., Tigrayan forces entered the camp and began shooting indiscriminately, injuring a woman, and sending hundreds of refugees fleeing.

During the conflict’s first months, the Tigrayan fighters were made up predominantly of the region’s special police forces, as well as local militia forces, which traditionally include retired soldiers. The extent of the special forces’ command and control over the militias in the initial months of the conflict was unclear. Later in the fighting, the Tigrayan forces self-branded as the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF).

Human Rights Watch spoke to eight refugees who fled north in the following days and were abused by Tigrayan militias in and around Zelasle and Ziban Gedena towns. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm the number of refugees killed or injured in the incidents around Zelasle and Ziban Gedena, but interviews with witnesses suggest that at least two dozen people died between December 5 and 8.

Two refugees said that Tigrayan militia fighters and civilians armed with blunt weapons, including knives and machetes, encircled dozens of refugees at night, then threw a grenade at them. One survivor said: “They brought us toward an old riverbed with a hole where they would dig for gold. We were only held there for about 15 minutes before a grenade was thrown. We didn’t manage to flee far as we were encircled by people shooting.”

Several refugees said the militia fighters robbed them of the few possessions they carried. A 33-year-old man said 20 Tigrayan militiamen stopped him along with his cousin, his cousin’s pregnant wife, and their children: “they told us to go back to our camp. Then they stole everything we had with us. But we were alive, and so we were relieved.”

Two refugee women said that Tigrayan militia fighters raped them, along with four other women, when they escaped from the camp. A 27-year-old said that she and her 17-year-old sister were raped:

Two militia fighters caught us and told the boys with us to stop, but the boys fled. We were already so tired; we had no strength to run. They beat my sister and me. We fell to the ground; then they abused us. We lost consciousness after the rape. The men had disappeared when we came to [regained consciousness]. We found our clothes dispersed. We found a little hole in the ground, and we got into the hole, and it protected us a bit.

The militia fighters also detained scores of refugees in Zelasle town. A refugee who was detained for two days in what he thought was a school said a local administrator came:

He said, “We’ve helped a lot of Eritreans, and now we are suffering. Our villages are being burned by the Eritrean forces.” He said we would return to Hitsats, but anyone who collaborated with the Eritrean forces would face consequences. The problem was with the militiamen. Some wanted to kill us, while some wanted to follow his [the administrator’s] order.                                            

While detained, the refugees received limited food and water. Two said they had to drink their urine because of the lack of water.

From Zelasle, the militia fighters marched hundreds of refugees back to Hitsats camp. The refugees, already suffering from hunger and thirst, said that the walk back, although just a few hours long, was grueling. Four of the refugees said they witnessed militiamen killing fellow refugees who became tired along the way. “One person, who I helped myself, he was very tired,” a 25-year-old refugee said. “But the militia fighter told me, ‘Leave him.’ And then they shot him. Some others, who didn’t think they would make it, gave us their ID cards to inform their families.”

Arbitrary Detention, Movement Restrictions, and Looting in Hitsats (December)

Once the refugees were back in Hitsats, Tigrayan special forces, Tigrayan militias, and members of the unidentified Eritrean opposition armed group, working together, detained hundreds of refugees in a warehouse previously run by a Dutch nongovernmental organization, ZOA, in a room in which charcoal was stored. Most were held for between three days and a week, some reportedly longer. A 25-year-old refugee said:

When I arrived, there were already 30 people there [in the warehouse]. In our group, we were 500. Little by little, they released people. First the women, then the elders. Those they kept longer were the younger people. For three days, I didn’t eat anything. When I was released, I spoke about the hunger, and so after that, refugees started to bring food to the detainees.

Tigrayan special forces, Tigrayan militias, and the Eritrean armed group brought Hitsats residents to the warehouse to identify refugees who had allegedly committed crimes. They also met with refugee elders, saying the refugees should return all looted goods.

For the rest of December, these forces, who were based in the host community and controlled the surrounding area, ordered the refugees not to leave the camp, telling them that they would be unable to protect them from further attacks if they left, refugees reported.

The refugees in the camp had very little food. A nurse in the camp said: “We would go and drink in a well that wasn’t clean. Then people started to eat moringa leaves. It was terrible. We lost three people, a young woman, an elderly woman, and a young man. They were hungry and ill, and they died.”

Tigrayan militias repeatedly came into the camp during this period and looted food and basic goods from the refugee community. A refugee leader said:

[The militia fighters] started to steal from us. We had no choice; they carried the guns. Three came to my home. They told me to give them all our blankets and mats. When we talked to their boss, we told him that they took all our blankets. The boss said if any militiamen came to you, come, and tell us. For at least two or three weeks they were stealing. But then it reduced.

No humanitarian aid reached the camp throughout this period.

In response to allegations that Tigrayan forces abused refugees, Getachew Reda, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) spokesman, told Human Rights Watch that special forces had not been present in Hitsats or Shimelba during this period. He said the TPLF could not account for the behavior of all allied militia and irregular forces.


Eritrean Forces Return and Burn, Destroy Hitsats Camp (early January)

On January 3, Tigrayan forces started to leave the Hitsats area as heavy fighting broke out in the vicinity. Three refugees and a Hitsats resident said that Eritrean forces fired mortars as they approached Hitsats from the northeast, with some rounds exploding within meters of the camp. They then took control of the camp and town.

Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery recorded before, during, and after the attacks. Two burn scars on the ground are visible between January 2 and 4, over two hills, 100 and 600 meters north of Hitsats camp.

On January 4, Eritrean forces ordered the thousands of refugees remaining in the camp to leave and take the road toward Sheraro, a town near the Eritrean border. Desperate and terrified, refugees said they felt they had no choice.

One refugee who stayed in the vicinity of the camp until January 5 said he saw Eritrean forces spreading fuel in the camp and lighting it on fire: “The camp is no longer there, it’s burned down. It wasn’t just the camp; they also burned some homes of civilians [in the town].”

Satellite imagery and thermal anomaly data collected by an environmental sensor show that the destruction of the camp started on January 5 between 11:02 a.m. and 1:24 p.m. and continued for at least three days. On January 5 the fires seem to start around structures in the western part of the camp, within the camp’s residential zones. By January 6 at 11:03 a.m., humanitarian facilities in the eastern part of the camp, such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) offices, were severely burned. Active fires, smoke plumes, and burn scars appear throughout the camp by January 8, reducing large swathes of the camp to ashes.

A UNHCR spokesperson said that when UNHCR reached the camps in late March, they found that “most of the shelters in an area known as Zone A, as well as UNHCR's offices and staff guesthouse, were burned to the ground.”

Trek to Eritrean Border, Coerced Repatriations (January)

Refugees who were forced to leave the camp in January described a harrowing days-long trek, with no provisions, as they walked toward Sheraro, which was then under Eritrean control. One refugee said:

The journey was terrible. There were fields that were burning, houses burning. A lot of sadness. We found abandoned donkeys and put elderly people on these donkeys. Some people were too tired, so people had to drop their clothes, suitcases. The Eritrean soldiers did not even help women who gave birth along the way but forced them to keep walking.

The refugee said he saw one woman, who reportedly suffered from diabetes, die along the way.

Once they reached Sheraro and the contested town of Badme, some refugees felt they had no choice but to continue into Eritrea.

A 20-year-old refugee who returned to Eritrea via Badme said the Eritrean forces took three weeks to process those waiting to return to Eritrea around Badme, even though the refugees there had little food or shelter. She and hundreds of others eventually boarded buses and headed to Eritrea. While UNHCR said they were unable to verify the number of refugees that may have returned to Eritrea, ARRA said that they believed all those who ended up at the border returned to Ethiopia.

Abuses in Shimelba Camp by Eritrean Forces

Human Rights Watch interviewed five Eritrean refugees who fled Shimelba camp and faced violence and abuses, primarily from Eritrean forces, and spoke with aid workers who interviewed survivors from Shimelba.

Eritrean forces occupied Shimelba camp on November 17. Refugees said the Eritrean forces immediately threatened and intimidated them, pressuring them to leave. The soldiers called a meeting and told the refugees that “UNHCR would not be coming for them” and ordered them to return to Eritrea.

Eritrean soldiers walked around the camp with lists and detained approximately 20 refugees, men, and some women, including several community leaders. The refugees were taken away to an unknown location.

On December 7, as they occupied the camp, Eritrean forces executed six or seven Tigrayans in the vicinity of the camp, and left their bodies largely uncovered, sparking fear among the refugees. Many refugees fled Shimelba to the town of Sheraro, approximately 35 kilometers away. The Eritrean forces exerted considerable pressure on the refugees in Sheraro to return to Eritrea, the refugees said. One said: “Eritrean forces came into a big hall where we sheltered and told us that we had to leave. Some they took by force. In the street, if they found us, they told us to leave.”

Hundreds of refugees eventually returned to Shimelba. Meanwhile, Tigrayan militia fighters and special forces occupied Shimelba camp and prohibited refugees who remained from leaving.

Eritrean forces returned to Shimelba on December 16. Aid workers who spoke with survivors said that Eritrean soldiers shot dead at least one refugee at his home in front of his family and raped at least four refugees in the camp and its vicinity.

Around December 17, heavy fighting took place in and around the camp. Eritrean forces again took control of the camp.

Three residents said that at least six refugees were killed during the fighting. One witness said: “The heavy bombs were falling in the DICAC [Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission] schoolyard, and behind the schoolyard, there were local residents’ houses. Some of the civilian houses were destroyed. The schoolyard was in flames.” Satellite imagery recorded on December 17 at 10:42 a.m. shows burned ground in the DICAC schoolyard that then expanded across the schoolyard on December 18.

Satellite imagery collected on December 16, 17 and 18 show the progressive expansion of burn scars in Shimelba refugee camp, specifically in the DICAC [Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission] schoolyard, located on the eastern side of the image. Satellite imagery © Planet Labs Inc

 

Hardships Facing Eritrean Refugees Remaining in Ethiopia

For refugees who found a way to remain in Ethiopia, survival has been hard.

In December the deputy head of ARRA told the media that the government was returning hundreds of refugees who had fled from Tigray to Addis Ababa back to the two functioning refugee camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush. In January UNHCR raised concerns about refugees being returned against their will after ARRA informed them that 580 Eritreans had been taken back to Tigray. In its September 10 response letter, ARRA said that refugees arriving in Addis Ababa from Tigray had created logistical complications and that the refugees were returned after an ARRA assessment team found the two southern camps to be safe.

Most of the refugees identified had moved to or been moved to Mai Aini, Adi Harush, and Addis Ababa. UNHCR told Human Rights Watch that as of late August, of the refugees who are known to have received food rations in Hitsats and Shimelba in October 2020, 12,611 have been identified, while 7,643 remain unaccounted for. ARRA, however, said that the great majority of refugees from Hitsats and Shimelba have been accounted for, but the agency acknowledged that refugees could have been counted twice.

Human Rights Watch found that refugees outside of camps lacked access to urgent assistance. For several months, those who had made their way to Shire, a town in central Tigray, received no food assistance other than some high-energy biscuits. All the refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch who had fled to Addis Ababa said that they needed urgent assistance, including medical care, food, and shelter.

In May, UNHCR said that many refugees needed urgent assistance, but that discussions with the government were ongoing about providing this assistance outside the camp setting. In August UNHCR reported that ARRA had agreed to provide refugees who had arrived in Addis Ababa from Hitsats and Shimelba with temporary identification documents for three years, which would enable them to open bank accounts and receive support through cash transfers. ARRA confirmed this to Human Rights Watch. At the time of writing, refugees in Addis Ababa had still not received this support.

Refugees in Adi Harush and Mai Aini, along with UNHCR, raised concerns about armed men engaged in crime in both camps. In February, for instance, unidentified armed men attacked three refugees as they lined up for scarce water at about 5 a.m., wounding one and stealing their belongings.

On July 12, fighting broke out in and around Mai Aini and Adi Harush between the Tigrayan Defense Forces and Amhara regional forces, killing at least one refugee, according to UNHCR. The insecurity in the area caused access to aid, including food and water, to be cut off. UNHCR said that emergency assistance started again on August 5 but warned that “basic services such as health care remain unavailable, and clean drinking water is running out.” ARRA said on September 10 that, given the insecurity, they currently do not have a presence in the camps. While Tigrayan forces reportedly control the camps and vicinities, reports of insecurity and clashes in the area persist. Responding to a query about plans to relocate Eritrean refugees out of Tigray, Getachew Reda, the TPLF spokesman, questioned whether there were any credible security concerns for Eritrean refugees remaining in Tigray.

International Legal Obligations

Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia are protected by international human rights and humanitarian law. International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits attacks against civilians, including refugees, and civilian property, and requires parties to the conflict to facilitate humanitarian access to civilians in need. The warring parties who have committed abuses against refugees are responsible for laws-of-war violations. Individuals who have committed serious violations with criminal intent can be held responsible for war crimes.

Ethiopia is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and to African regional refugee conventions. These hold Ethiopia responsible for ensuring the protection of refugees within its territory and for cooperating with the UN refugee agency to facilitate its response to refugee crises.

UNHCR’s Executive Committee has long condemned military or armed attacks on refugee camps, and has said that governments should preserve the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps, ensure safe access for humanitarian assistance, and hold accountable those responsible for attacks on the security of refugees.

Recommendations

All parties to Ethiopia’s armed conflict should immediately cease attacks and abuses against Eritrean refugees and other civilians. They should respect the humanitarian nature of refugee camps and not deploy forces there. They should facilitate humanitarian access and freedom of movement for all refugees; The Ethiopian government should, with international support, provide immediate and adequate emergency assistance, including medical care, food, and shelter, to the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers currently displaced outside of camps, including in Sheraro, Adigrat, and Addis Ababa. They should identify and support those at particular risk or with specific needs, including women, the high caseload of unaccompanied and separated minors and other children, older people, and people with disabilities; The government should also ensure the physical safety of refugees within its territory, including by: protecting Eritrean refugees from Eritrean and other armed forces and groups; ensuring humanitarian access to all refugee camps and conflict areas; and committing to not forcibly returning Eritrean refugees to Eritrea or to areas where their lives and security would be at risk; Any UN-led, international investigation into alleged international crimes in the Tigray region should include an investigation into warring parties’ actions against Eritrean refugees and protected humanitarian infrastructure; Tigrayan armed forces should ensure the protection of Eritrean refugees in areas under their control, including through ensuring humanitarian access to all refugee camps, freedom of movement for all refugees, and cooperating with international investigations into abuses against Eritrean refugees; Ethiopia, Eritrea, and UNHCR should cooperate to account for the whereabouts and well-being of the thousands of refugees from Hitsats and Shimelba camps and throughout Tigray still unaccounted for; and UNHCR and affected governments should accelerate the handling of pending cases of third-country resettlement for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, as a highly vulnerable group.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 16, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, October 28, 2020. © 2020 Jeon Heon-kyun/Pool Photo via AP

(Seoul) - South Korea’s National Assembly should reject proposed amendments to the law on media arbitration that would undermine media freedom and freedom of expression, Article 19, Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet, Open Net Association, and Human Rights Watch said today in letters to President Moon Jae-in , National Assembly members, and the consultative committee reviewing the bill. Parliamentary sessions on the Act on Press Arbitration and Remedy for Damages Caused by Press Reports (the “Press Arbitration Law”) are scheduled to begin on September 27, 2021.

Joint Letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Press Arbitration Law Joint Letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Press Arbitration Law

The amendment bill of the Press Arbitration Law’s vague language and disproportionate damages against media outlets could limit a wide range of expression, including critical news reporting and coverage of unpopular or minority opinions. Media outlets may be compelled to self-censor to avoid publishing reports that may trigger unwarranted lawsuits. In this way, the proposed law will restrict the free flow information that is so critical in a democracy, the organizations said.

Joint Letter to National Assembly members and the consultative committee on Press Arbitration Law Joint Letter to National Assembly members and the consultative committee on Press Arbitration Law

“The proposed changes to South Korea’s Press Arbitration Law would seriously undermine media freedom because they authorize punitive damages simply on the basis alleged ‘false or manipulated’ reporting,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Unless the consultative committee significantly revises the bill before it reaches the National Assembly, the legislators should reject it outright.”

The bill defines “false or manipulated” reporting as “the act of reporting or mediating false information or information manipulated to be misconstrued as facts,” and authorizes the court to assess compensation “up to five times the damages” if such reporting causes property damage, infringes on personality rights, or causes emotional distress. Because the bill would permit awarding damages even if the falsity is not material, those subject to critical reporting could seek to recover punitive damages on the grounds of emotional distress for even minor factual errors.

The bill also creates a presumption that an allegedly “false or manipulated report” was made “with intention or gross negligence” in several broad and vaguely defined circumstances, including when “retaliatory or repetitive” false or manipulated reports have been made.

The law does not specify what would constitute a “retaliatory” report, raising the risk of arbitrary application of the law. In addition, the presumption of guilt may force journalists to choose between revealing their sources to counter the presumption or paying heavy damages. 

“This bill would deal a hammer blow to critical news reporting in South Korea because it opens the door for political leaders to retaliate against stories they don’t like,” Yoon said. “National Assembly members should ensure that the bill does not pass until it is revised to protect rights.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 16, 2021, 12:00 am
Click to expand Image Summitcare aged care facility in Baulkham Hills in Sydney, Australia, July 4, 2021. © 2021 Jenny Evans/Getty Images

For the first time in 12 weeks, residents of Sydney, Australia are now allowed to gather outdoors with up to four friends who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Since a fresh Covid-19 outbreak in late June, millions of people in Sydney have been living under strict lockdown.

This Friday also marks the deadline for aged care workers to have received at least their first Covid-19 vaccination.

The New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has announced that once 70 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, people can expect fewer restrictions.

But the rights of older Australians living in residential facilities also need consideration as Sydney reopens. Since July, in line with the government’s health advice, nursing homes in Sydney have banned all visitors, except those providing essential care functions and end-of-life visits. Most residents have been unable to exercise outdoors, depriving those under stay-at-home orders of critical mental health relief.

While the devastating impact of Covid-19 on older people makes putting limits on visitors to nursing homes reasonable, older people still need social interaction with their loved ones.

Last year, Human Rights Watch documented the steep decline in the physical and mental health of people with dementia in aged care homes during “voluntary lockdowns” by aged care providers. One woman could not visit her husband for three months while he was locked down in an aged care facility. “It’s cruel for us and it’s cruel for him,” she told me, lamenting the lost time.

Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, criticized these complete lockdowns at aged care facilities as “not acceptable, fair or compassionate,” and beyond the government’s guidance.

Once health officials determine it safe to do so, it is critical that visits be allowed to restart. Aged care facilities should provide safe ways for older people to see loved ones. This might include allowing a fully vaccinated visitor to meet outdoors in a socially-distanced visiting area with masks and providing visitors with rapid testing and PPE.

The Australian government should look at the United Kingdom’s guidance on safely visiting nursing homes both indoors and outdoors, including a recommendation that all residents and visitors be vaccinated before a visit.

Older people should be prioritized in the country’s reopening plans. If Australians are already planning how to safely enjoy a beer outdoors with friends, then they should also be given a way to safely visit their grandparents in nursing homes.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 15, 2021, 11:54 pm
Click to expand Image Prison guards at the main entrance of Welikada prison in Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 2019. © © 2019 Lakruwan WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images  

As the Sri Lankan government was assuring foreign diplomats of its commitment to human rights, the country’s minister for prisons was on a drunken, armed rampage in two prisons, some 200 kilometers apart.  

On Sunday, Lohan Ratwatte reportedly arrived at Anaradhpura prison and demanded to see Tamil prisoners held under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). He allegedly made two men kneel and threatened to shoot them.  

Earlier, Ratwatte had reportedly entered Welikada prison in Colombo, armed with a pistol and accompanied by a group of drunken friends, demanding to inspect the gallows. On Wednesday he resigned as prisons minister amid a public outcry. He remains minister for gems and jewelery.

The incidents reflect the disregard for human rights that prevails under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and in particular the vulnerable position of people held under the PTA. The law has been used to facilitate grave abuses since it was introduced as a “temporary measure” in 1979. Most of those subjected to the PTA belong to the Tamil and Muslim minority communities.

Under the PTA, the authorities can detain people for years without trial, evidence, or judicial oversight. Convictions have frequently been secured using confessions obtained under torture.

Sri Lanka made a commitment to the European Union that terrorism legislation would be brought in line with international rights standards when it was granted tariff free GSP+ trading privileges in 2017. Four years later, as these privileges are being reviewed, nothing has changed.

Instead, the government has attempted to mollify international partners by granting “pardons” to PTA prisoners who have already served most or even past their sentences. A new “advisory board” of three presidential appointees is preparing to consider further PTA prisoner releases. Although such releases would be welcome, this mechanism only underlines the arbitrariness of the law. Meanwhile new regulations outlawing “disharmony” make the PTA even more abusive.

The EU and other international partners should not be persuaded by the government’s false promises and cosmetic gestures, but should push hard for repeal of the PTA. And Lohan Ratwatte, who has faced numerous serious allegations for many years, should be made fully accountable for his actions.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 15, 2021, 6:37 pm
Click to expand Image Protesters in Athens, Greece on March 27, 2021 stand outside the Greek Parliament displaying a banner that reads “your sexism is harming both mother and child” against a new law that introduces presumptive co-custody of children, even in cases of domestic violence. © 2021 by Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via AP

(Athens) – A law scheduled to take effect on September 16, 2021, that amends child custody provisions in Greece’s civil code places women and children survivors of domestic violence at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. The Greek government should take steps to immediately modify the law to ensure that protection of domestic abuse survivors and the principle of the best interests of the child are properly safeguarded, in line with international human rights obligations.

Law No. 4800/2021, “Reforms regarding parent-child relations, other family law issues, and other urgent provisions,” presumes that “joint and equal” parental custody of children is in the child’s best interest in cases of divorce, separation, or termination of cohabitation. In cases of “poor exercise of parental responsibility,” which may include domestic violence, a court can make an alternate custody determination in the child’s best interest, but “joint and equal” custody applies during a potentially lengthy court process, placing domestic abuse victims and their children directly at risk.

“A child’s best interests have to prioritize safety and security, and a presumption of equal shared custody puts domestic abuse survivors – the vast majority of whom are women – and their children in direct danger,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The law needs to be amended to prevent putting women and children at unnecessary risk.”

Parliament approved the bill on May 20, 156 to 20. In an unusual break from party allegiance, two members of the ruling New Democracy party opposed the law. Opponents also included expert bodies such as the National Commission for Human Rights, and international and regional human rights bodies. 

May 6, 2021 Greece: Custody Bill Puts Women, Children at Risk

Reject Proposed Legal Changes; Improve Protections for Abuse Victims

Enacting the law could force domestic violence survivors and their children into ongoing contact with their abusers, putting them at risk of further harm and even death, particularly as the period immediately after victims leave an abuser is especially dangerous. Abusers may also use child custody arrangements to harm victims physically, psychologically, or through economic pressure, or to deter them from leaving a relationship. Women in Greece already face multiple barriers, including victim-blaming and dismissive police response, to reporting domestic violence and seeking help.

Under the new law, a court may curtail the right to custody if a parent is “in breach of their duty to care” for a child or “if they are abusive or unable to comply” with custodial responsibilities. However, the legal process to determine whether a parent has been abusive can take years, during which an allegedly abusive parent could maintain co-custody and communication with the child and co-parent.

In cases of “imminent danger” to a child’s mental or physical health, a prosecutor can take immediate protection measures for up to 90 days, potentially renewable for 90 days, during which time the case should be brought before a court. However, the law makes no specific mention of measures to protect victims of intimate partner abuse or their children in cases of co-custody.

The law prioritizes a parent’s and their relatives’ right to communicate with a child, including in person, and presumes that the child should spend no less than one-third of their time with the parent they don’t live with. It does not require any determination of whether this is in the child’s best interests or recognize that communication or visitation with a parent who has committed domestic abuse – or their relatives – can be detrimental and dangerous for both the child and the other parent.

In a positive step, the law specifies the right to mediation when parents disagree about joint custody or if one parent fails to comply with a custody agreement, however this does not apply in domestic violence cases. It is unclear what documentation a parent may need for an exemption. International and regional rights bodies have explicitly warned against mediation in cases of violence against women, saying that prior evaluation by specialists should be used to ensure that such procedures do not increase risks or are not conducted against the victim’s will.

During public consultation on the bill, Greek expert organizations criticized its fundamental presumption that parents’ equal participation in the child’s upbringing is in the child’s best interests, rather than requiring case-by-case determinations.

As a party to the Convention on the Rights of Child, Greece is obliged to ensure that any legislative presumptions about the best interests of the child do not preclude individual determinations that take into account the child’s specific circumstances. The new law does not ensure that those individualized determinations will take place in a timely and effective manner.

Likewise as a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Istanbul Convention to combat violence against women, Greece has obligations to ensure that the health and safety of women are a core consideration in family law cases including custody decisions, which this law does not guarantee.

In a letter to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on May 17, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and the chair-rapporteur of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls in law and practice warned of heightened risks for domestic violence victims if the bill were adopted.

They asked Mitsotakis to share their analysis with Greece’s Parliament, but parliament members were reportedly unaware of the letter ahead of the vote on the bill. The UN and regional experts had previously stated that intimate partner violence against women must be considered in child custody determinations and that neglecting to do so discriminates against women. 

It could also violate the European Union Victim’s Directive (2012/29/EU) establishing minimum standards on the rights, support, and protection of victims of crime. The directive requires member states to protect victims and their family members “from secondary and repeat victimisation [and] from intimidation and from retaliation, including against the risk of emotional or psychological harm.” It notes that domestic violence victims may need “special protection measures,” which may include prevention of contact between a victim and their family members and an offender.

A February European Parliament draft report noted that domestic violence “is clearly incompatible with shared custody and care” and that “the right of women to be protected and live a life free of physical and psychological violence should take precedence over the preference for shared custody.”

The law’s enactment comes amid a raft of legislation and policy initiatives in Europe aimed at promoting traditional conceptions of family life at the expense of women’s rights, including in ways that can curtail protections for women who experience domestic violence and perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.

Greece’s government should urgently amend the law to ensure that it protects the lives and health of parents and children in line with international law including through meaningful protections for domestic violence victims and their children, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also establish a family court system, which Greece does not have, to adjudicate such matters, including trained experts to assist in determining a child’s best interests, conduct risk assessments for parents and children, and refer domestic violence survivors to specialist services. 

Greece’s international partners, including the European Commission, the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights, and UN experts on violence and discrimination against women should urge the Greek government to modify the law so that it does not endanger domestic abuse victims and contravene Greece’s obligations under international law. They should also push the government to ensure that all domestic abuse survivors have access to services including shelter, legal assistance, medical care, and psychosocial – mental health – support.

“This law will force women experiencing domestic violence and their children into prolonged contact with their abusers, exactly the opposite of the protection and support they need when leaving an abusive relationship,” Margolis said. “To respect the best interests of children, the Greek government should change its law so that child custody doesn’t play into the hands of abusers.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 15, 2021, 6:00 pm
Click to expand Image A surveillance camera operates in Red square near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on November 2, 2019. © 2019 Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(Moscow) – Russian authorities continue expanding their use of facial recognition technology across the country, with no regulation, oversight, or data protection and against the backdrop of misidentification reports, Human Rights Watch said today. Their unregulated use of the technology has serious implications for human rights and fundamental freedoms and has already facilitated Russian authorities’ targeting of political opponents.

On August 27, 2021, Moscow’s government published a call for bids to upgrade the system law enforcement uses to access the facial images and video footage collected by the city’s vast CCTV network. The upgrade would enable police to track movements of targets and those who frequently associate with them and identify people repeatedly appearing at a particular location. Authorities also plan to expand the filters for data searches, such as by gender, age, or race.

“Russian authorities should stop expanding their irresponsible and unregulated use of highly intrusive facial recognition technology,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Weighty privacy concerns outweigh any alleged public safety benefits, and there is a need to protect fundamental rights such as liberty and freedom of association against the Kremlin’s misuse of this technology.”

Moscow authorities also plan to facilitate silhouette recognition. This technology creates an allegedly unique “silhouette” of a person based on height, size, clothing, and other factors to track movements when a subject’s face is not visible. New video surveillance systems allowing for silhouette and vehicle recognition have already been introduced in five regions of Russia.

The Moscow IT Department said the planned upgrade aims to create a safer environment for Moscow residents and to improve data protection. According to the authorities, in July, the Moscow metro facial recognition system detected 221 people from a list of wanted criminal suspects.

Privacy lawyers and digital rights groups have already expressed concerns over the human rights implications of the upgrade, including enhancing the Kremlin’s capacity to surveil and harass anyone it perceives as opponents.

The analytical agency Telecom Daily ranked Russia as the country with the second-largest CCTV network growth for the current year. According to the Moscow government, video analysis algorithms process video streams from the city’s 125,000 cameras. Facial recognition has a wide range of uses in Moscow, from monitoring public transportation payments to traffic monitoring and a school pass system. More than 5,000 cameras with facial recognition software already operate in other regions of Russia.

Despite the widespread use of facial recognition technology and vast amounts of data gathered by the authorities, Russian law still does not regulate the use of such technology, except in banking.

Russia’s law on Personal Data grants protection to information related to an identifiable person. However, Moscow’s IT Department claims that the data gathered by the city cameras cannot be considered personal since it is collected and stored anonymously. Instead, the officials argue, identification is carried out by the law enforcement agency that has access to the system. Moscow courts have upheld this position. At the same time, law enforcement procedures for processing data received from the facial recognition surveillance systems are not open to public scrutiny.

In April 2020, the Russian parliament adopted a law “On Experimenting with Artificial Intelligence,” allowing Moscow authorities to test new technology, including facial recognition, free of most of the personal data legislation restrictions.

“Federal law on experimenting with artificial intelligence made Moscow authorities feel like they can do whatever they want,” said Kirill Koroteyev, the head of the international justice program at Agora, a leading Russian network of human rights lawyers. “Thus, they do not only neglect the legislation on personal data but also disregard international standards.”

The lack of regulation and accountability for the use of facial recognition technology at the federal level has allowed a lack of transparency and data protection in local policies, Human Rights Watch said.

Roskomsvoboda, a prominent Russian digital rights organization, has documented multiple data leaks from the Moscow facial recognition system. Publicly available policies around processing Moscow’s video surveillance data do not regulate the use of facial recognition data. The existing policies are also reported to differ from the way the data is used.

In September 2020, an activist with Roskomsvoboda filed a lawsuit against the Moscow government after being able to purchase online information leaked to the dark web from the city’s CCTV system with facial recognition software, which revealed her whereabouts over the course of one month. At the trial, Roskomsvoboda lawyers pointed out that while Moscow’s data processing policies require that data must not be stored for more than two to five days, the plaintiff was able to acquire data for a longer period.

The data from Moscow’s video surveillance system with facial recognition is stored at the United Center for Data Processing and Storage managed by the Moscow’s IT Department. The Russian government is planning to expand the video surveillance system with facial recognition all over Russia and potentially to combine all the data gathered countrywide.

While the police increasingly rely on facial recognition in their daily work, reports show that the technology is far from flawless.

In October 2020, Sergey Mezhuyev reported to Roskomsvoboda that he had been mistakenly detained by the police in the Moscow metro. The facial recognition system falsely matched his image with that of a person on the wanted list, instantly notifying the police. Mezhuyev said the police officers detained, searched, and fingerprinted him and, while acknowledging the error, warned that his “troubles won’t be over” until they find the man they wanted. Mezhuyev said the system compared his image to a rough composite sketch of the criminal suspect.

In November, a security officer stopped Anton Leushin at a mall, claiming the facial recognition system identified him as a thief, and called the police. After six hours of interrogation at the police station and threats of eight years in prison, Leushin managed to prove his alibi and was released, he said.

The authorities already employ the facial recognition technology at their disposal to prosecute political opposition and peaceful protesters.

Following protests in January over the arrest of the political opposition leader Alexey Navalny and government corruption, media reported the detention and prosecution of more than a dozen protest participants and passers-by based on the facial recognition data. Some reported being stopped by the police days after – or even before – the protest for being on the list of “repetitive participants of unsanctioned protests.”

In April, Moscow authorities continued using the facial recognition system to identify and prosecute participants of the peaceful protests.

“The use of facial recognition technology to curtail the freedom of expression and association of people in Russia shows the repressive potential of this technology,” Williamson said. “The government should stop using this intrusive technology in public spaces instead of continuing to expand its use without minimal safeguards in place.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 15, 2021, 3:32 pm
Click to expand Image Police officers stand at the outer entrance of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China's Xinjiang region on April 23, 2021. © 2021 Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images

In just two sentences, the United Nations human rights chief signaled this week that time is up on the Chinese government’s attempts to evade international scrutiny for its sweeping human rights abuses. After noting possible areas of cooperation, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet bluntly told the United Nations Human Rights Council: “I regret that I am not able to report progress on my efforts to seek meaningful access to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In the meantime, my Office is finalising its assessment of the available information on allegations of serious human rights violations in that region with a view to making it public.”

This public commitment sends a strong message that no country is above international law. For nearly three years, Chinese authorities have stalled for time on Xinjiang, trying to defer, delay, or deny the UN meaningful access to a region where they are committing crimes against humanity—including torture, mass arbitrary detention, mass surveillance, cultural persecution, and family separations—against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

News about mass detentions began to trickle out of Xinjiang in 2017 but quickly became a tidal wave of evidence produced by academics, journalists, and human rights organizations.

Since the early 1990s, powerful actors gave Beijing many reasons to believe it would never be held accountable for its actions. Foreign governments held toothless bilateral human rights dialogues with Beijing, UN representatives participated in Chinese government-run forums on human rights, companies rarely took seriously their responsibilities to examine their business operations for abuses, and China will soon host another Olympics, all while Beijing’s repression has escalated.

But slowly change is beginning. Governments are imposing targeted sanctions on senior Chinese officials, including the United States imposing Magnitsky Act sanctions on Chen Quanguo, a senior Chinese Communist Party member responsible for abuses in Xinjiang. Several countries are considering tightening trade regulations to prevent products made by Uyghur forced labor from entering their markets. And growing numbers of civil society organizations and UN human rights experts have called for an international body to monitor rights violations by Chinese authorities.

Bachelet’s announcement is a critical step suggesting that Beijing’s reign of impunity might, at long last, be coming to an end.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 15, 2021, 3:11 pm
Click to expand Image An unexploded M77 DPICM submunition found in Dughayj village in northern Yemen after attacks by Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces in mid-2015 using US-made M26 cluster munition rockets. © 2015 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch The US policy on cluster munitions is outdated and dangerous. Cluster munitions spread bomblets indiscriminately over a wide area, leaving many “duds” that function as landmines and can kill or maim people for years. The Biden administration should recognize that cluster munitions have no role in a modern military, revise its current ill-considered policy, and join the treaty that bans their use.    

(Washington, DC, September 15, 2021) – The United States government should reject and reverse the ill-considered cluster munition policy directive adopted by the previous administration in 2017, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing the Cluster Munition Monitor 2021 report. The administration of President Joe Biden should commit to joining the treaty banning these unacceptable weapons.

“The US has a terrible history of using cluster munitions around that world and should bring that era to a close,” said Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and editor of the Cluster Munition Monitor 2021. “The Biden administration has an opportunity to put the US on that path by firmly rejecting cluster munitions.”

Cluster munitions can be fired from the ground by artillery systems, rockets, and projectiles or dropped from aircrafts. They typically disperse in the air, spreading multiple bomblets or submunitions indiscriminately over a wide area. Many fail to explode on initial impact, leaving dangerous duds that can kill and maim, like landmines, for years to come until they are cleared and destroyed.

The current US policy, issued under President Donald Trump in November 2017, replaced a Defense Department policy directive on cluster munitions issued by the George W. Bush administration in July 2008. The 2017 policy abandoned a requirement that by the end of 2018 the US could no longer use notoriously unreliable cluster munitions that result in more than a 1 percent rate of unexploded ordnance.

Instead, it permits the US to use all of the millions of cluster munitions in existing stocks “until sufficient quantities” of “enhanced and more reliable” versions are developed and fielded. It also facilitates US acquisition of cluster munitions from foreign sources to replenish stocks.  

The Biden administration has not reviewed or amended the 2017 policy. A recent Congressional Research Service report recommended that the US Congress consider how the 2017 “policy reversal on the military use of cluster munitions will be perceived by the international community.”

The US did not participate, even as an observer, in the 2007-2008 Oslo Process that resulted in the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which comprehensively bans cluster munitions, requires clearance of cluster munitions remnants within 10 years, and directs assistance to victims.

The 110 states parties to the treaty and 13 countries that have signed include 24 NATO member states and allies such as Australia and Japan. Countries that have suffered from US use of cluster munitions in the past such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, Laos, and Lebanon, are treaty members.

The Cluster Munition Monitor report tracks adherence to the Convention on Cluster Munitions by all countries. It finds that the United States no longer produces cluster munitions, but has not committed to never producing them in the future. China and Russia are actively researching and developing new types of cluster munitions.  

The last US use of cluster munitions was during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, with the exception of a single attack in Yemen in December 2009. The Obama administration suspended US cluster munition deliveries to Saudi Arabia in 2016 after evidence emerged of civilian harm from cluster munitions used by a Saudi-led coalition operation in Yemen.

US Senators Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein, and others have introduced legislation over the past decade encouraging the US to ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The US wing of the Cluster Munition Coalition, coordinated by the disability rights group Humanity and Inclusion (formerly Handicap International), has urged the US to change course on cluster munitions and join the growing global opposition to these weapons.

Cluster Munition Monitor 2021 is the twelfth annual report by the Cluster Munition Coalition, the global coalition of nongovernmental organizations co-founded and chaired by Human Rights Watch. The report will be presented to states attending the second part of the convention’s Second Review Conference in Geneva on September 20-21.

“The US should show other countries around the world that it recognizes the importance of protecting civilians in conflict zones from the lasting harm and danger of cluster munitions,” Wareham said. “The Biden administration should recognize that cluster munitions have no role in a modern military and reverse the 2017 policy.”
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 15, 2021, 2:00 pm