The ILO Committee making up governments, employers, and workers, following the adoption of the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention and Recommendation 2019, ILO, Geneva. 

© International Labour Organization
(Geneva) – The adoption of a ground-breaking global treaty on June 21, 2019 by the International Labour Organization (ILO) will improve protections for workers facing violence and harassment, Human Rights Watch said today.

ILO member governments, worker representatives, and employers’ organizations spent two years negotiating the text and voted overwhelmingly to adopt the ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment, and an accompanying non-binding recommendation that provides guidance on the convention’s obligations.

“Governments, workers, and employers have made history by adopting a treaty that sets standards for ending the scourge of violence and harassment in the world of work,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The women who bravely spoke up about their #MeToo abuses at work have made themselves heard at this negotiation, and their voices are reflected in these important new protections.” 

Governments that ratify the treaty will be required to develop national laws prohibiting workplace violence and to take preventive measures, such as information campaigns and requiring companies to have workplace policies on violence. The treaty also obligates governments to monitor the issue and provide access to remedies through complaint mechanisms, witness protection measures, and victim services, and to provide measures to protect victims and whistleblowers from retaliation.

The treaty covers workers, trainees, workers whose employment has been terminated, job seekers, and others, and applies to both formal and informal sectors. It also accounts for violence and harassment involving third parties, such as clients, customers, or service providers.

Previously there was no international standard specifically addressing violence and harassment in the world of work. The World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law 2018” report found that 59 out of the 189 countries studied had no specific legal provisions covering sexual harassment in employment.

The ILO has found many gaps in legal protections relating to violence and harassment in the workplace. These include a lack of coherent laws, a lack of coverage in laws and policies for workers most exposed to violence, and an overly narrow definition of “workplace” in existing laws and regulations.

The new ILO convention and recommendation affirm the right to freedom from violence and harassment in the workplace. They provide for an integrated, inclusive, and gender-responsive approach for the prevention and elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work.

The convention defines violence and harassment as “a range of unacceptable behaviors and practices, or threats thereof, whether a single occurrence or repeated, that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm, and includes gender-based violence and harassment.”

The treaty recognizes that violence and harassment go beyond just the physical workplace.

“Many workers face violence not only in the four walls of an office or factory, but on their commutes to work, at social events, or while dealing with customers or other third parties,” Begum said.

The convention requires governments to take measures to prevent and protect people from violence and harassment, and to provide enforcement mechanisms and remedies for victims, including compensation. These include adopting legal prohibitions of violence and harassment at work, and ensuring effective inspections, investigations, and protection from retaliation.

Governments should require employers to have workplace policies addressing violence and harassment, appropriate risk assessments, prevention measures, and training. Employers should address violence and harassment in their occupational safety and health management.

The convention also recognizes that vulnerable groups may be disproportionately affected by violence and harassment at work, and calls for states to ensure the right to equality and non-discrimination in employment and occupation.

States will also be required to identify high-risk sectors or occupations and take measures to effectively protect those workers.

The convention also sets out standards for how governments should mitigate the effects of domestic violence in the world of work, including by having flexible working arrangements and leave for domestic violence survivors.

Governments from many regions played a leading role in advocating for stronger protections, including Uganda and Namibia, which led the African Group of states, the European Union group led by France, as well as Canada, New Zealand, Philippines, and many Latin American and Caribbean states.

Out of 476 votes, 439 voted for, seven voted against, and 30 abstained. The United States reversed its decision from last year and chose to vote in favour of the convention.

The convention will enter into force one year after at least two states have ratified it.

Human Rights Watch has documented violence and harassment at work for more than 20 years, particularly for domestic workers, garment workers, fishers, farm workers, and migrant workers.

“The #MeToo movement showed us just how pervasive violence and harassment is in many workplaces, but now we have a treaty that spells the beginning of the end to such cruelty,” said Begum. “Governments should now ratify this treaty and seek to make a safe world of work a reality.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Under a huge baobab tree in Sudan’s Nuba mountains, I met Sebila, a 27-year-old mother of three. In March last year, her village had been attacked by Sudanese ground troops and bombed by government war planes. The assault forced Sebila and many other villagers to flee deeper into rebel-held territory.

She was just back in the village for the day with her children, two toddlers in tow and carrying a baby, to dig up sorghum she had buried. Sebila said food here is scarcer than it has been for years, because of poor rains and conflict fighting. “It’s exhausting, trying to feed them all [my family],” Sebila said of her children.

Aid obstruction in the rebel-held territories of Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile has been in force for nearly six years, and has had a devastating impact on the communities here. For Sebila – and all the women living across these territories – it has meant no access to contraception. “Every year, I give birth,” she told me. “It would be better if I could space it [out].” But Sebila cannot space her babies out, or have any control of her body. Like all women living in rebel-held territory here, she has zero access to contraception.

 In the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, access to family planning and maternal healthcare is severely limited by blocks on humanitarian supplies.

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

It has also meant a severe lack of maternal healthcare. There is no local midwife, and Sebila lives five hours’ drive from a hospital, in a region where cars are a rare luxury. Women told me of waiting hours for transport while in obstructed labour, or being held propped up, bleeding and falling in and out of consciousness, between two men on the back of a motorcycle to reach a hospital. Multiple and closely-spaced births can carry serious health risks for both mother and infant, and can be life-threatening without proper treatment.

Yet there is no coordinated international aid effort under way in the Nuba mountains. Funds are in place, but both the government and the rebel group are preventing supplies getting in. The conflict has left already-stretched health services in the region in a pitiful state. Most facilities are little more than a table with some basic medicines, and there are only five doctors and one blood bank for perhaps close to a million people.

Despite many rounds of peace talks since fighting began in 2011, the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North have failed to agree on how to allow aid – needs-based and impartially delivered – into the affected areas. Instead they are still arguing about whether aid can come through a third country, or, as the government insists, only from inside Sudan. Some aid groups have found ways to provide occasional help, unauthorised by the government but supported by the rebels, but this is no substitute for the large-scale effort needed. 

This has very serious consequences for reproductive health. None of the women I met in the Nuba mountains had any access to family planning. One clinic provides a three-month injectable contraception, but local rebel regulations require women to get their husband’s permission first. Despite evidence that gonorrhoea and syphilis are on the rise and hepatitis B common, condoms are scarce. Most of the women I met had never seen a condom, let alone any other form of contraception.

It is also feared that the number of women and girls dying in childbirth in the rebel-held areas of Southern Kordofan – already much higher than other states in Sudan – is rising yet further. And two major aid efforts, including a UN polio vaccination campaign for children, have failed.

Sudan has a long history of aid obstruction going back to the start of the conflict: denying travel permits; rejecting visas; blocking work permits; and expelling aid workers. Meanwhile, citing mistrust of the government, the rebels have still not agreed to an offer by the US to provide aid via Khartoum, and have instead called for yet more negotiations. 

Although aid saves lives, and warring parties in conflict have an obligation to allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians, preventing it from reaching people is rarely punished. The UN security council briefly threatened punitive action against Sudan in 2012, but never acted. The health crisis unfolding in the Nuba mountains should prompt a change of tack. The UN security council, the African Union and the EU should investigate and consider travel bans and asset freezes on rebel and government leaders found to have deliberately blocked such deliveries. 

International aid is often a lifeline to civilians trapped in conflict. And it would help women like Sebila to access contraception, avoid risky childbirth, and feed their children.

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

Sarah Jamal Ahmed, a 24-year-old sociologist who was one of the activists during the 2011 uprising in Sanaa, stands by posters of dead protesters posted in the streets.

© 2012 Panos/Abbie Trayler-Smith

The revolution made us proud to be there on the front line and men were forced to accept us. But now there are some who think it is time for women to go home.

—Salwa Bughaighis, lawyer and human rights activist, Benghazi, Libya, July 2012[i]

In 2011, women were at the forefront as the Arab Spring erupted in Libya, organizing and demanding their rights to have a voice in their country’s future. The ensuing civil war resulted in the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi being toppled.  In the transitional period following that armed conflict women organized as voters and candidates in preparation for elections, documented human rights abuses, and worked to ensure any new constitution would enshrine women’s rights.

The revolution made us proud to be there on the front line and men were forced to accept us. But now there are some who think it is time for women to go home.

Salwa Bughaighis

Lawyer and human rights activist, Benghazi, Libya, July 2012

Iman and Salwa Bughaighis—sisters and human rights activists—were among the key organizers of the first demonstrations against Gaddafi in Benghazi in February 2011. “The revolution was an earthquake to the cultural status of women in Libya,” Iman told Human Rights Watch.

But the space for women’s political participation soon began to shrink. As the wrangling intensified over power and the future of Libya, women found themselves facing significant obstacles to their full participation in the country’s transitional processes, and even targeted for violence. On June 25, 2014, following threats, unidentified gunmen murdered Salwa Bughaighis in her home in Benghazi. One month later, on July 17, unidentified assailants shot dead Fariha al-Barkawi, a former lawmaker, in the eastern city of Derna.[ii] Both crimes are among hundreds of apparently politically motivated killings in post-Gaddafi Libya that remain uninvestigated and unprosecuted.

On the eve of Libya’s first democratic national election, Haja Nowara held a vigil in the square outside the courthouse in Benghazi, where she had spent many evenings supporting the revolution since early 2011. “I have waited my whole life for tomorrow, which will be a new day for Libya,” said Nowara, who would be voting for the first time in her life. “We sacrificed a lot to get here.”

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

In its treatment of women and girls in wartime and in the post-war transition, Libya is sadly unexceptional.  Throughout history, women and girls have often been targeted in wartime for violence, especially sexual violence.  And they have also been denied the ability to participate in conflict prevention and post-conflict resolution efforts. Governments and non-state armed groups did not pay attention to the use of rape as a weapon of war, nor to the exclusion of women from crucial decision-making on conflict resolution and prevention, until women themselves mobilized for recognition and action.

This document sets out the commitments that the international community has since made to women and girls affected by armed conflict and outlines the major disappointments and gaps in implementation in three distinct but interconnected areas: participation; protection and assistance; and accountability. It also makes recommendations to governments, to all parties to armed conflicts, and to the UN on how to turn the promises made to women and girls in these three areas into reality.

Security Council Resolution 1325

After sustained advocacy efforts from women’s civil society organizations, the United Nations Security Council, in 2000, adopted Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.[iii] It was the Security Council’s first dedicated resolution that recognized the specific risks to and experiences of women in armed conflict and women’s central role in maintaining international peace and security. Resolution 1325 elucidated states’ obligations to women and girls in situations of armed conflict, including ensuring that women are involved in all aspects of conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and post-conflict rebuilding. As broadly understood, the women, peace and security agenda acknowledges the linkages between participation, protection and assistance, and accountability, and the centrality of these issues to broader human rights concerns.

Angelina, 20, from Koch county, was spared in May when members of government aligned militia abducted three women and a teenage girl who she was hiding with. “When I fled [my village], I felt very tired and I sometimes would fall and have to use my arms to pull myself forward on the ground,” said the 20-year-old who has a physical disability. “I arrived [at the UNMI SS camp] three weeks after the attack. My whole body was swollen.” 

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

This groundbreaking resolution and the subsequent resolutions on women, peace and security elaborate the responsibilities of all parties to ensure the meaningful “participation of women in all levels of decision-making” in institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of armed conflict, calling on all actors in peace talks to increase women’s participation in negotiations, and to ensure women’s rights are addressed in peace agreements.[iv] The resolutions remind all parties to armed conflicts of their obligations under international law, particularly civilian protection in armed conflicts, and call for states to end impunity for crimes of gender-based violence in armed conflicts. They urge the UN and governments to take steps to increase the number of women throughout the justice sector, and in armed forces. In these resolutions, the Security Council also states its intention to ensure it incorporates women, peace and security in its own work, including through consulting with civil society.

The resolution has given women around the world increased attention and legitimacy in their work in areas of armed conflict. Since the resolution’s adoption in 2000, many governments have begun to recognize that women’s roles in peace processes are not negotiable add-ons, but fundamental to sustainable and implementable peace accords. Security Council resolutions and commitments by UN member states have recognized conflict-related sexual violence as a tactic often ruthlessly deployed in war, and have expanded international prevention and response efforts. Governments and international bodies have introduced new policy frameworks, including additional Security Council resolutions, on women, peace and security at the national, regional, and multilateral levels. The UN is starting to collect data on a range of protection and participation aspects—from sexual violence in armed conflicts to women in peace talks—allowing policymakers and program implementers to begin to track where there has been success and where problems persist.

Much Work Remains

The remaining challenges are many. There is a lack of concerted, high-level leadership willing to spend political capital at key policy moments, such as in Security Council negotiations and in peace talks. There is insufficient and irregular funding, particularly for grassroots organizations working on women’s local-level peacebuilding and service provision.[v] Despite the improvement in data collection, there remains a lack of timely and disaggregated information for policymakers on women and girls in crisis situations, accompanied by a lack of analysis and recommendations for policymakers on appropriate action to take.[vi] Despite the heightened risk of violence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and women with disabilities in situations of armed conflict, specific measures for them are rarely incorporated into policy and programming, often leaving these populations out of decision-making processes and unable to access services.

Sexual violence during Nepal’s 10 year conflict between Maoists and government forces has remained largely undisclosed. 

©2014 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

The UN Security Council, despite six subsequent resolutions on women, peace and security, often fails to bring these issues into its work on crisis situations. Despite the Security Council members’ meeting with women civil society representatives on its 2013 visit to the Great Lakes region, the subsequent report on the mission contained no substantive analysis or recommendations on women’s rights and concerns.[vii] Briefings from senior UN officials often lack specific information on women’s rights violations, on the inclusion of women in peacemaking efforts, and on the levels of women’s participation in security reform. Use of sanctions and other tools at the Security Council’s disposal are similarly haphazardly applied with respect to women, peace and security.[viii]  The Security Council rarely takes advantage of information on perpetrators to hold them to account and prevent future violations. For example, despite evidence of widespread crimes of sexual violence committed by Sudanese forces in Tabit in Darfur in 2014, the Security Council has not adopted a strong response.[ix] 

With women’s rights high on their rhetorical agenda, practical support among donor countries lags. It is rare, for example, that donors make women’s rights and women’s participation in decision-making a priority in political engagement with conflict-affected countries. Too often, including in countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia, officials assert it is not the right time to push for women’s rights, that security is somehow a prerequisite for women’s rights rather than inextricably linked with them, or that they do not have the leverage to act.[x]

For women and girls living in situations of armed conflict, participation, protection and assistance, and accountability for gender-based crimes remain a distant promise. As detailed in the following sections, it will take strong action backed by persistent political will for the potential of the women, peace and security agenda to be realized.

Nigerian girls in a refugee camp near Lake Chad in Chad. 

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


When Afghan women were asked their definition of security, we used the word “amnyat wa masuniat,” by which we mean a comprehensive feeling of safety when engaged in daily public and social life. The success of peace agreements must be gauged by real, measurable security improvements for women and for all members of the community, not just that a peace agreement has been signed. Excellencies, peace is a process, not an event. We look to you as Member States, including members of the Security Council, to ensure that women are consistently appointed as mediators and negotiators, and that our rights are fundamental to peace processes and outcomes.

—Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat, Afghan civil society representative and women’s rights advocate, delivered in the UN Security Council on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, New York, October 28, 2011[xi]

Despite years of rhetoric on the importance of women’s participation in Afghanistan peace processes, no women have been included in over 20 known rounds of informal talks between the international community and the Taliban. In talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban, women were present on two occasions.[xii] In most situations of armed conflict and post-conflict, women have few channels and face formidable obstacles to participating in conflict prevention, conflict-resolution, and political processes such as elections and constitutional reform.

The success of peace agreements must be gauged by real, measurable security improvements for women and for all members of the community, not just that a peace agreement has been signed. Excellencies, peace is a process, not an event. We look to you as Member States, including members of the Security Council, to ensure that women are consistently appointed as mediators and negotiators, and that our rights are fundamental to peace processes and outcomes.

Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat

Afghan civil society representative and women’s rights advocate, delivered in the UN Security Council on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, New York, October 28, 2011

Women have little representation in formal peace talks. Available UN and academic data show that women are rarely present in these negotiations, and specific rights and concerns of women and girls are rarely reflected in peace agreements. One study of peace processes from 1992-2011 shows that only 4 percent of signatories to peace agreements have been women, and only 18 out of 300 peace agreements signed between 1998 and 2008 addressed any aspect of women’s rights and concerns.[xiii] Women struggle to have their voices heard, but examples of greater women’s involvement are gradually increasing. In Colombia, for example, women are present as permanent members of the negotiation delegation, and a sub-committee on gender in the negotiations was established in 2014, and women’s rights are discussed in the substantive talks. This happened after concerted pressure from civil society organizations, supported by UN Women.[xiv] Despite these gains, however, women’s civil society organizations have not been afforded a formal role in the Colombia negotiations.

Those facilitating formal peace talks often fail to recognize women’s work in community-level peace efforts.  When the opportunity to engage in formal peace talks arose in the 2014 Geneva II talks, Syrian women mobilized. With support from international nongovernmental organizations, UN member states, and the UN, women met behind closed doors with the Security Council, held consultative meetings to draft consolidated demands, and worked with women peacemakers from Ireland, Guatemala, and Bosnia-Herzegovina on strategies for engaging in the peace process.[xv] But when they met with the UN special envoy to Syria, Lakdhar Brahimi, he did not stay to hear their concerns and recommendations. “Mr. Brahimi, we are already building peace in Syria,” the women said, although Brahimi, effectively the chief mediator of Syria’s peace process, had already left the meeting. “We can help you if you let us.”[xvi]  Brahimi’s successor, Staffan de Mistura, has consulted with Syrian women’s groups, despite the stalling of the formal peace process.

Two activists working with the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation (WADI), a German-Iraqi human rights group supporting Yezidi women and girls who escaped ISIS. WADI has three mobile units that visit women and girls in camps and settlements. It is seeking funds to build a center for training courses and social activities.

©2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Women should have seats at all decision-making tables, and women’s rights and concerns should be included in the outcomes of conflict negotiations. For example, women's rights should be reflected in humanitarian access agreements, human rights agreements, ceasefires, ceasefire monitoring, and in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts agreed to by parties to a conflict. They should also be integrated throughout security sector reforms, including the vetting of armed and security forces, justice, reparations, and in relief and recovery programs.[xvii] Women’s participation is also the key to ensuring their protection and minimizing risks in displacement settings. This includes in the design of refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps so that women and girls are not placed at further risk in those settings.[xviii] Targeted efforts need to be made to ensure that the diversity of women’s perspectives is reflected in all aspects of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. For example, women with disabilities face unique challenges and can share their problem-solving approaches in conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts.

Women human rights defenders often face risks, particularly in times of armed conflict. Even when women can legally conduct their work, they may face physical assault, sexual violence, and threats far greater than their male counterparts. Human Rights Watch has documented physical attacks, death threats, threatening phone calls, sexual harassment and assault, rape, and threats against children of activists in armed conflicts, all of which can create a chilling environment in an effort to silence these women.[xix] In the 2015 Sudan elections, for example, National Intelligence and Security Service officers arrested Dr. Sandra Kadouda, a prominent political and human rights activist, on April 12 as she drove to an anti-elections event at the National Umma Party headquarters in Omdurman. The authorities held her for three days at an unknown location, and then freed her on April 15, visibly bruised and with injuries to her shoulder, credible sources reported.[xx]

Women should also have the opportunity to participate in security forces without facing discrimination or harassment.  Women often are subject to hostile work environments that dissuade them from staying in or even joining police and military services. In Afghanistan, for example, despite efforts to increase their numbers, women have remained about 1 percent of the Afghan police over the last several years.[xxi] In addition to a lack of the most basic toilet and changing room facilities, women in the Afghan police face abuse and sometimes assault, including sexual assault, by male colleagues. Despite multiple reports of such incidents, these crimes often go unpunished, and government officials, including the minister of interior, have denied that abuses against women officers are a problem.[xxii]

Recommendations to Governments, Parties to Armed Conflict, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

  1. Implement national-level policies, including National Action Plans, on UN Security Council Resolution 1325, to ensure the full and meaningful participation of women in all peace and security discussions, including in all peace processes and transitional justice mechanisms. All parties involved in peace negotiations, including mediators and facilitators, should act to ensure women’s rights and concerns are a priority in negotiations and are integrated throughout any agreement. All discussions should benefit from the full engagement of civil society organizations, including women’s rights groups, women from marginalized populations, such as ethnic and religious minorities, and women with disabilities.
  2. Safeguard women’s security and support women’s participation in post-conflict elections, referendums and constitutional drafting, and reform processes. This includes promotion and protection of women candidates, voters, election workers, and women’s human rights defenders.
  3. Protect women’s human rights defenders. Governments should monitor threats and attacks against women's human rights defenders and provide protection as requested in a manner that allows them to continue their work.
  4. Strengthen recruitment and retention strategies for women in the security sector, including by addressing cultural and practical barriers that women face, by providing specific training and facilities, and ensuring women have equal opportunities for responsibility and advancement.
  5. Ensure women’s leadership and protection in displacement settings. Encourage and facilitate women’s representation in the leadership of camps and centers for the internally displaced and refugees. UN agencies should consult with women and girls, including those with disabilities, to ensure camp designs are accessible, safe, disability-inclusive, and provide equal access to food distributions, sanitation facilities, health—as well as reproductive health—services, education, and vocational training for women and girls.

A female election worker helps an elderly voter at a polling station in Benghazi. The electoral law rightly allowed people with “special needs” to bring assistants. However, barriers remain to ensure the right to political participation for women and men with disabilities.

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Protection and Assistance

The government should give us proper shelter with a fence and an entrance. Police should secure the camp and manage who comes and goes. The worst thing is that the rapes push us into poverty because afterward we cannot do the same work or carry heavy loads. We need money for our kids to live. The government should do something or kids will die of hunger.

—Farxiyo, who was raped in an IDP camp, Mogadishu, Somalia, August 2013[xxiii]

No one has offered me one-on-one counselling of any kind. I’d be interested in receiving professional counseling to help me process my experiences if it was available.… I have trouble sleeping at night, and only sleep a few hours at a time. When I sleep, I often see my parents and siblings in front of my eyes, especially the image of my brothers being forced to kneel on the road, and my mother’s face.

—Narin (pseudonym), 20-year-old woman from Sinjar who escaped captivity and sexual abuse by ISIS fighters, Dohuk, Iraq, January 2015[xxiv]

In armed conflicts around the globe, combatants frequently target women and girls for abuse. National armies and non-state armed groups use sexual violence as a tactic in war in violation of international law.  Conflict-related sexual violence can include rape, abduction, forced prostitution, forced marriage, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy. 

Women and girls face multiple abuses in war, in addition to conflict-related sexual violence, including: forced displacement; the targeting and punishment of women because of their own activism or activism by male relatives; the drive towards early, forced, and child marriages because of instability and a lack of security for girls and younger women; an increase in domestic violence and sexual violence committed by civilians; lack of access to food, shelter, and health care; the interruption of education; and sexual exploitation and trafficking, to name but a few.

The government should give us proper shelter with a fence and an entrance. Police should secure the camp and manage who comes and goes. The worst thing is that the rapes push us into poverty because afterward we cannot do the same work or carry heavy loads. We need money for our kids to live. The government should do something or kids will die of hunger.

Farxiyo, who was raped in an IDP camp, Mogadishu, Somalia, August 2013

For example, Human Rights Watch has documented the abuse faced by Syrian women activists and other civilians.[xxv] Some of these women have long histories of activism while others began participating politically only after the beginning of uprisings against the Syrian government. Some were targeted or arbitrarily detained for their work, such as Jelnar, who used her pharmaceutical credentials to smuggle medications between neighborhoods. Several of them experienced torture, sexual assault, physical abuse, or harassment as a direct result of their activism, like Layal, who was detained by government forces for assisting the internally displaced. Others became household heads following their husbands’ detention or death, such as Zeinab, who lost her husband and son in separate incidents at the hands of government forces.

In Sudan’s ongoing armed conflicts, Sudanese government forces and allied militias have committed rape and other sexual violence against women and girls on numerous instances. For example, Sudanese military forces engaged in the mass rape of more than 200 women and girls in the town of Tabit, Darfur, in late 2014, restricted access to the town for UN and international investigators, peacekeepers, and humanitarian agencies, and threatened residents with reprisals if they spoke about their ordeals. Government authorities fostered a climate of fear in Tabit that deterred many women and girls from seeking medical care at clinics and hospitals.[xxvi]  

Adequate protection measures are vital to ensuring the safety of women and girls, but when attacks do happen, service provision is vital for survivors. In Nigeria, numerous victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the lack of security force presence in areas particularly vulnerable to attack by Boko Haram, notably in towns and villages in Borno State. Victims, witnesses, community leaders, and analysts told Human Rights Watch that government security services could have done more to prevent attacks by ensuring the adequate presence and arming of military personnel, and by responding more quickly and effectively to reports of attacks once in progress. Survivors of Boko Haram attacks received virtually no necessary psychosocial and medical services, and none of the rape survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch had any information about how and where to access post-rape care.[xxvii]

Manal Ameer, 33, pictured here with her two daughters, was among the first to vote in Benghazi. She said she had learned about the election process through television advertising and had researched candidates via the Internet.

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

In northern Iraq, the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has carried out systematic rape and other sexual violence against Yezidi women and girls since August 2014. Human Rights Watch documented a system of mass abduction, organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces.[xxviii] Many of the women and girls remain missing, but survivors who escaped to the Kurdish Region of Iraq need psychosocial support and basic humanitarian assistance. These survivors require specialized and expert psychosocial services in their present locations to aid their recovery and their reintegration into their communities. Few have received these.

Women and girls in displaced populations are at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, and of becoming victims of sex and labor trafficking.[xxix] Humanitarian crises often mean that women and girls are placed at greater risk of violence, with specific measures such as camp design and humanitarian relief necessary. Human Rights Watch research has found that women and girls with disabilities were frequently abandoned or left behind in crises, condemning them to face isolation, neglect, and abuse in post-conflict settings.[xxx] Despite commitments from governments and the UN, prevention efforts, access to services, and holding perpetrators accountable all remain extremely weak, and in some cases, non-existent.

Women displaced by armed conflict often find it difficult to access necessary long-term protection and humanitarian assistance. In Colombia, in an example that highlights the complexity of long-term access to assistance, Lucia fled her community in Antioquia with her husband and six children when an armed group threatened her son for refusing to join their ranks in 2010. Lucia’s husband had physically abused her and this became worse after the family fled to Medellín. Despite trying to access humanitarian assistance for herself and her children directly, the government agency never responded to her case. [xxxi]

No one has offered me one-on-one counselling of any kind. I’d be interested in receiving professional counseling to help me process my experiences if it was available.… I have trouble sleeping at night, and only sleep a few hours at a time. When I sleep, I often see my parents and siblings in front of my eyes, especially the image of my brothers being forced to kneel on the road, and my mother’s face.

Narin (pseudonym)

20-year-old woman from Sinjar who escaped captivity and sexual abuse by ISIS fighters, Dohuk, Iraq, January 2015

Women with disabilities in displacement settings also face discrimination on the basis of gender, disability, and poverty, and thus need particular measures to address protection concerns.[xxxii] Lack of mobility and communication barriers, for example, mean women with disabilities are at particular risk of sexual violence. This discrimination, as well as more general social stigma, prevents them from realizing their rights to accessible information, and accessing health care and other government services. In a displacement camp in Northern Uganda, Charity, a woman with a physical disability, recounted her experience: “People told me I should just die so others can eat the food: ‘You are useless. You are a waste of food.’”[xxxiii]

In line with their obligations under international humanitarian law—the laws of war—parties to armed conflicts should take all feasible measures to protect civilians under their control from attack, including protecting women and girls from sexual and other gender-based violence.[xxxiv]  International human rights law also applies during armed conflict, and provides protections to women and girls against sexual violence and other abuses, including domestic violence.[xxxv] States have obligations to investigate credible allegations of war crimes and other serious human rights abuses and prosecute those responsible.

International humanitarian and human rights law prohibit acts of sexual violence. International humanitarian law sets out protections for civilians and other non-combatants during both international and non-international armed conflicts.[xxxvi] It implicitly and explicitly prohibits both state armed forces and non-state armed groups from committing rape and other forms of sexual violence.[xxxvii]

International human rights law also contains protections from rape and other forms of sexual abuse through its prohibitions on torture and other ill-treatment, slavery, forced prostitution, and discrimination based on sex.[xxxviii]  The Convention on the Rights of the Child contains additional protections for children.[xxxix]

Recommendations to Governments, Parties to Armed Conflicts, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

  1. Comply with international humanitarian law and human rights law prohibitions of rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, cruel treatment, and other abuses. All parties to armed conflicts should issue clear, public orders to all forces under their control to end and appropriately punish all abuses, including crimes of sexual and gender-based violence.
  2. Governments providing military and other security assistance should ensure that such support does not encourage or facilitate abuses against women, and that it provides a basis for promoting greater respect for women’s rights.  Compliance with international human rights standards should be a factor in evaluating the continuation of such support. Governments should vet recipients of this assistance to exclude units or individuals when there is credible information they have been involved in serious violations of human rights.
  3. Ensure that survivors of sexual violence and other gender-based violence have access to essential medical and psychological care, as well as available economic and social support. Humanitarian aid should include access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services that respect the confidentiality and rights of survivors, including for pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, and injuries resulting from sexual violence, with specific measures taken to ensure these services are accessible for women with disabilities.
  4. Make women’s and girls’ protection and access to assistance a priority in displacement settings, including through consultation, promoting women’s leadership, camp and shelter design, registration and distribution systems, security measures, and recruitment and training of female security staff.
  5. Ensure all parties to armed conflicts grant UN agencies and independent humanitarian organizations unfettered access to civilians and communities in need of assistance. The media and human rights groups should also be provided access to conflict areas.
  6. Governments and the UN should highlight women’s participation, protection, and assistance concerns at the highest levels, including by conducting high-level visits to areas where serious abuses have been reported and raising the issues with senior government officials, donor governments, and regional and international bodies. Security Council members should press all parties to armed conflicts to meet all international law obligations.
  7. The UN Security Council and concerned governments should impose arms embargoes on state armed forces and non-state armed groups implicated in widespread or systematic serious human rights abuses, including those targeting women and girls. The Security Council should require states to suspend all military sales and assistance, including technical training and services, to these abusive actors until meaningful steps are taken to end such violations and appropriately punish those responsible. Travel bans and asset freezes should also be imposed on individuals responsible for serious abuses, with appropriate due process protections.

“For three months, I had a feeling that one of us was going to die,” said Maha, 28 (left), of the young activists group in which she participated. In November, 2012, she and fellow members of the group had just finished a peaceful protest outside a mosque in Aleppo, when government shelling struck the site, killing her husband of only a few weeks. Her sister Nuha, 23 (right), also an activist, was kidnapped by pro-government militia while on her way to work in Damascus in August 2012 and held for 23 days. 

©2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


We want these people punished. We just don’t have the reach or the power. If I did, we would have dealt with it a long time ago. We need support.

—Husband of Nandita (pseudonym), who was raped in 2001 because her husband was a Maoist combatant, Nepal, April 2014[xl]

Perpetrators of abuses in armed conflicts rarely face justice and, by all accounts, are even less likely to when responsible for sexual violence against women and girls. In November 2012, in Minova, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congolese army soldiers raped at least 76 women and girls when nearby Goma fell to the M23 rebel group.[xli] The crimes created an outcry at the national and international level. Strong international pressure was brought on the Congolese authorities to pursue justice. The UN threatened to suspend support by the peacekeeping mission MONUSCO to the Congolese army unless those responsible were brought to justice. The UN Security Council and donor governments raised the need for accountability for the crimes in Minova in multiple statements and in meetings with Congolese authorities. High-profile visits to the area by the Congolese minister of justice, the wife of President Joseph Kabila, UK Foreign Minister William Hague, and UN refugee agency special envoy Angelina Jolie, raised attention to the issue.

Three years after the attacks, accountability, services, and security are still insufficient. Despite considerable efforts by Congolese authorities and international partners to ensure judicial proceedings in the case, including by providing for the participation of numerous victims and effective protection of victims and witnesses, the verdict did little to achieve justice. Out of 39 soldiers and officers brought to trial, only 2 rank-and-file soldiers were convicted of rape.  All mid-ranking officers present in Minova at the time of the crimes and brought to trial were completely acquitted. No high-level officers were even charged.[xlii] 

The Minova case illustrates the difficulties of ensuring accountability for conflict-related sexual violence. Congolese authorities and international partners have made considerable efforts to increase accountability for sexual violence in Congo over the past several years, resulting in a few trials involving charges of rape as a war crime or a crime against humanity, and dozens of proceedings and convictions for rape as an ordinary crime. Investigating and proving sexual violence in judicial proceedings remains a complex matter and further efforts are needed.

We want these people punished. We just don’t have the reach or the power. If I did, we would have dealt with it a long time ago. We need support.

Husband of Nandita (pseudonym), who was raped in 2001 because her husband was a Maoist combatant, Nepal, April 2014

Women and girls who suffer rights abuses in armed conflicts, including sexual violence, face tremendous barriers in obtaining redress. Regular police and court functions may be in disarray. They may not wish to seek avenues for justice out of fear of retaliation or marginalization in their communities and homes. They may lack the financial or logistical means to access courts and legal assistance. National judicial systems often lack expertise in handling vulnerable victims of sexual violence during investigations and prosecutions. Physical protection and psychological assistance may be lacking. There may be strong resistance to or lack of resources for reforming the security apparatus in the immediate and long-term aftermath of an armed conflict. Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs often neglect to address female combatants and women euphemistically called “bush wives,” or women who are associated with armed groups, often forcibly. Women with disabilities have particular difficulty accessing redress or justice mechanisms, including physical barriers in entering police stations and courtrooms, communication barriers, or questioning of the credibility of their testimony if they have a psychosocial or intellectual disability.

Even when international peacekeeping forces are in place to bring stability to conflict-riven regions, they are sometimes perpetrators themselves. Although the UN has a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, accountability for these crimes remains a concern.[xliii] For example, in the past decade, there have been allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic, Haiti, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The persistent lack of transparency on these cases makes it very difficult to help victims seek justice. With the UN historically providing few specifics on allegations of abuse, and few countries that contribute troops and police to UN operations providing information on investigations and prosecutions, the scope of the problem is unclear. In one of the few cases in which public information is available on accountability for UN peacekeepers, a Pakistani peacekeeper charged with sexually assaulting a Haitian boy was convicted, and faced a one-year sentence upon conviction.[xliv]

A woman prisoner looks out a window in Parwan prison north of Kabul, Afghanistan, in February 2011.The woman was convicted of moral crimes after a man from her neighborhood raped her. She later gave birth in prison.

© 2011 Farzana Wahidy

When crimes of sexual violence are committed as part of armed conflict, they can be prosecuted as war crimes. States have an obligation to investigate alleged war crimes committed by members of the armed forces and other nationals, and prosecute those responsible.[xlv] Non-state armed groups also have an obligation to prevent war crimes and should investigate and appropriately punish perpetrators.[xlvi] Those acts of sexual violence committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) specifies that acts of rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity can constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.[xlvii]

Aside from their direct criminal responsibility for crimes committed, for instance, by issuing orders that subordinates carry out, commanders and other superiors may be criminally liable for failing to prevent or punish crimes committed by their subordinates.[xlviii]

International human rights law also enshrines the right to an effective remedy, which obligates the state to prevent, investigate, and punish serious human rights violations.[xlix] State should also provide reparations to victims of human rights violations, such as compensation for damages.[l] The UN has reaffirmed these principles specifically in relation to eliminating violence against women.[li]

Recommendations to Governments, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

  1. Ensure comprehensive, credible, and impartial investigations into sexual and gender-based violence and appropriately and fairly prosecute those responsible. This should include independent investigations into all allegations against members of armed forces, including peacekeepers, that respect the confidentiality and rights of survivors.
  2. Ensure accessible judicial processes that adhere to international fair trial standards for grave international crimes, including sexual and gender-based violence. This should include providing specialized training to investigators, prosecutors, and judges on the proper handling of such cases.  Adequate protection measures and psychological support should be available, before, during, and after trials, including, but not limited to, relocation measures for victims and their households. Judicial mechanisms should also be accessible for women with disabilities, including by facilitating access to police stations and courts, ensuring access to documentation, and relevant training for law enforcement and the judiciary.
  3. Strengthen independent institutions capable of responding to sexual and gender-based violence and supporting survivors. Governments should create accessible and safe channels to report rape, assault, and other abuses and issue clear, public orders to all security forces to end any harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of those who speak out or seek to enforce their rights. Reporting mechanisms should be fully inclusive and provide specific accommodations for women and girls with disabilities. Governments should ensure proper and timely investigations and prosecutions that respect the rights of the survivor.
  4. Enact security sector reform to provide vetting of police and other security personnel, ensure recruitment, hiring, and training of female security personnel, and provide training for prosecutors, as well as judges and defense lawyers, on respecting women’s rights in the justice system, including handling crimes of sexual violence. Identify and exclude individuals from the security forces who are under investigation, have charges pending against them, or have been subjected to disciplinary measures or criminal convictions for sexual violence or other serious abuses.
  5. Press for accountability and justice, including through the UN Security Council, General Assembly, and Human Rights Council. When national level efforts fail or are inadequate, pursue alternative paths to justice, such as independent commissions of inquiry, the use of universal jurisdiction, and when applicable, referrals to the ICC. In accordance with the ICC prosecutor’s newly adopted Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes, the ICC should continue to ensure that these crimes are the focus of special attention in ICC proceedings.[lii]
  6. Ensure reparations programs meet international standards and include specific consideration for women and girls. Consult with local women’s rights groups and women from communities affected by armed conflict in determining and distributing reparation packages.
  7. Protect women’s rights in national laws and ensure they meet international standards. This includes ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) with no reservations, or removing any existing reservations to CEDAW. National laws should guarantee equality before the law, protection from violence, and freedom from discrimination, including on the basis of sex, gender, pregnancy, disability, and marital status. Consistent with international standards, sexual violence and other gender-based violence crimes should be included in the criminal code. Ensure accountability when these laws are violated.
  8. Institute measures to ensure accountability, including by raising public concern and urging relevant actors, including troop-contributing countries, to carry out immediate investigations when there are substantial grounds to believe that peacekeepers have committed serious human rights abuses or war crimes, including sexual exploitation and abuse.

[i] Human Rights Watch, A Revolution for All: Women’s Rights in the New Libya, May 2013,, p. 11.

[ii] “Libya: Extremists Terrorizing Derna Residents,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 27, 2014,

[iii] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1325 (2000), S/RES/1325 (2000) (accessed July 21, 2015).

[iv] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1820 (2008), S/RES/1820 (2008) (accessed  July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1888 (2009), S/RES/1888 (2009) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1889 (2009), S/RES/1889 (2009) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1960 (2010), S/RES/1960 (2010) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2106 (2013), S/RES/2106 (2013) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2122 (2013), S/RES/2122 (2013) (accessed July 21, 2015).

[v] According to the 2014 Secretary-General’s report on women, peace and security, data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that “only 0.35 per cent of aid allocated to conflict, peace and security activities [was] marked as having a gender focus.” United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on women and peace and security,  S/2014/693, September 2014, (accessed July 17, 2015).

[vi] Based on data from: NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, “Mapping Women, Peace and Security in the UN Security Council: 2012-2013,” December 2013,  (accessed July 8, 2015); and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, PeaceWomen, “Report Watch,” undated, (accessed July 8, 2015).

[vii] United Nations Security Council, Sixty-eighth year, 7045th meeting, October 21, 2013, (accessed July 8, 2015).

 [viii] Based on data from: NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, “Mapping Women, Peace and Security in the UN Security Council: 2012-2013”; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, PeaceWomen, “Report Watch”; and Security Council Report, “Cross Cutting Report: Women, Peace and Security,” April 2014,  (accessed July 8, 2015).

[ix] Human Rights Watch, Mass Rape in North Darfur: Sudanese Army Attacks against Civilians in Tabit, February 2015,

[x] Heather Barr, “A seat at the table in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, May 1, 2015, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xi] Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, October 28, 2011, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xii] Oxfam “Behind Closed Doors: The risk of denying women a voice in determining Afghanistan’s future,” November 24, 2014, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xiii] See UN Women, “Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations: Connections between Presence and Influence,”  October 2012, (accessed July 20, 2015); and United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on Women and Peace and Security, S/2011/598, September 29, 2011, (accessed July 27, 2015); S/2012/732, October 2, 2012, (accessed July 27, 2015); S/2013/525, September 4, 2013, (accessed July 27, 2015); and S/2014/693, September 23, 2014, (accessed July 27, 2015). See also, Christine Bell and Catherine O’Rourke, Women and Peace Agreements 1325 Dataset, Distributed by University of Ulster, Transitional Justice Institute, 2010 (accessed July 20, 2015).

[xiv] “Women take the reins to build peace in Colombia”, UN Women press release, May 28, 2015, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xv] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “Innovative WILPF Conference Gathers Syrian And Bosnian Women’s Rights Activists,” February 21, 2014, (accessed July 16, 205); Cynthia Enloe, “Day I of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks,” Women’s Action for New Directions,  January 20, 2014, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xvi] “He Left Before Syria’s Women Could Speak,” Human Rights Watch Dispatch, December 19, 2013, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xvii] UNSCR 1888, Operative Paragraph 17; UNSCR 1820, Operative Paragraph 10; United Nations Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Resource Centre (UNDDR), Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Standard, “5:10, Women, Gender and DDR,” August 2006,,%20Gender%20and%20DDR.pdf (accessed 21 July 2015).

[xviii] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1325, Operative Paragraph 12.

[xix] “UN Human Rights Council: Call to Recognize the Status of Women's Human Rights Defenders,” Human Rights Watch Oral Statement during the Annual Day of Discussion on Women's Human Rights, June 26, 2012,

[xx] “Sudan: Surge in Detention, Beatings, Around Elections,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 28, 2015,

[xxi] “Afghanistan: Urgent Need for Safe Facilities for Female Police,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 25, 2013,

[xxii] “Afghanistan: Surge in Women Jailed for ‘Moral Crimes,’” Human Rights Watch news release, May 21, 2015,

[xxiii] Human Rights Watch, “Here, Rape is Normal”: A Five-Point Plan to Curtail Sexual Violence in Somalia, February 2014,

[xxiv] “Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 14, 2015,

[xxv] Human Rights Watch, “We are Still Here”: Women on the Front Lines of Syria's Conflict, July 2014,

[xxvi] “Sudan: Soldiers, Militias Killing, Raping Civilians,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 14, 2014,; “Sudan: Mass Rape by Army in Darfur,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 11, 2015,

[xxvii] Human Rights Watch, “Those Terrible Weeks in their Camp”: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northeast Nigeria, October 2014,

[xxviii] “Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 14, 2015,

29 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on women and peace and security,  S/2014/693, p. 19.

[xxx] Human Rights Watch, “As if We Weren’t Human”: Discrimination and Violence against Women with Disabilities in Northern Uganda, August 2010,

[xxxi] Human Rights Watch, Rights Out of Reach: Obstacles to Health, Justice, and Protection for Displaced Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Colombia, November 2012,, p. 5.

[xxxii] World Bank and World Health Organization, “World Report on Disability,” 2011, (accessed July 21, 2015), p. 8.

[xxxiii] Human Rights Watch, “As if We Weren’t Human.”

[xxxiv] See International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Customary International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), rule 22, citing Protocol I, art. 58(c) and rule 93 (prohibiting rape and other forms of sexual violence).

[xxxv] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (art. 7) and protects women’s right to be free from discrimination based on sex (arts. 2(1) and 26). ICCPR, adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, arts. 2 and 16; Rome Statute, arts. 7 and 8. The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that governments violate their treaty obligations not only when state actors are responsible for the action, but also when the state fails to take necessary steps to prevent violations caused by private actors. The committee’s General Recommendation No. 31 to the ICCPR notes that governments must “take appropriate measures or … exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate or redress the harm caused by such acts by private persons or entities.” The Committee against Torture requires governments to prevent and protect victims from gender-based violence and rape by exercising due diligence in investigating, prosecuting, and punishing perpetrators—even private actors—of rape and sexual assault.

[xxxvi] See four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Protocols Additional of 1977. Other sources of international humanitarian law are the 1907 Hague Convention and Regulations, decisions of international tribunals, and customary law.

[xxxvii] Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.

[xxxviii] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted December 18, 1979, G.A. res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, entered into force September 3, 1981.

[xxxix] Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. res. 44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force Sept. 2, 1990, arts. 2, 34, 37, 43.

[xl] Human Rights Watch, Silenced and Forgotten: Survivors of Nepal’s Conflict-Era Sexual Violence, September 2014,

[xli] The United Nations has documented at least 135 victims in this case. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “Report of the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office on Human Rights Violations Perpetrated by Soldiers of the Congolese Armed Forces and Combatants of the M23 in Goma and Sake, North Kivu Province, and In and Around Minova, South Kivu Province, From 15 November to 2 December 2012,” May 2013, p. 4, (accessed July 8, 2015).

[xlii] “DR Congo: War Crimes by M23, Congolese Army,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 5, 2013,; “Revealed: how the world turned its back on rape victims of Congo,” The Guardian, undated, (accessed July 8, 2015).

[xliii] United Nations General Assembly, “Fifty-ninth session, Agenda item 77, Comprehensive review of the whole question of peacekeeping operations in all their aspects,” March 24, 2005 (accessed July 8, 2015); United Nations Secretariat, Secretary-General’s Bulletin, “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse,” October 9, 2003, (accessed July 8, 2015); Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), “Evaluation Report: Evaluation of the Enforcement and Remedial Assistance Efforts for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by the United Nations and Related Personnel in Peacekeeping Operations,” May 2015, (accessed July 23, 2015).

[xliv] Somini Sengupta, “Allegations Against French Peacekeepers Highlight Obstacles in Addressing Abuse,” New York Times, May 25, 2015, (accessed July 8, 2015),

[xlv] The obligation of states to prosecute grave breaches of international humanitarian law is outlined in each of the Geneva Conventions.

[xlvi] ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, pp. 591-93, 607-10.

[xlvii] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute), U.N. Doc. A/CONF.183/9, July 17, 1998, entered into force July 1, 2002. The Rome Statute is the treaty creating the ICC. Command responsibility is an established principle of customary international humanitarian law and has been incorporated into the Rome Statute.

[xlviii] Rome Statute, art. 28.

[xlix] See UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment 31, Nature of the General Legal Obligation on States Parties to the Covenant, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.13 (2004) , para. 15. See also, Updated Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity (“Impunity Principles”), U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/2005/102/Add.1, February 8, 2005, adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights in Resolution E/CN.4/2005/81, April 15, 2005, principle I; Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, adopted December 16, 2005, G.A. res. 60/147, U.N. Doc. A/RES/60/147 (2005), principle 11.

[l] UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment 31, para. 16.

[li] UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, December 20, 1993, G.A. res. 48/104, 48 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 217, U.N. Doc. A/48/49 (1993).

[lii] International Criminal Court, Office of the Prosecutor, Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes, June 2014, (accessed July 8, 2015).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Liesl Gerntholtz is the executive director of the women's rights division. She is an expert on women's rights in Africa and has worked and written extensively on violence against women and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. Her work at Human Rights Watch has included documenting access to safe and legal abortion in Ireland and sexual and gender-based violence in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Liesl worked for some of the key constitutional institutions promoting human rights and democracy in a post-apartheid South Africa, including the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Gender Equality.  A lawyer by training, she was involved in high-profile, strategic human rights litigation to promote women and children's rights, including a case that changed the definition of rape in South Africa.

NPR Interview - Women's Rights In The Age Of The Arab Spring

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Indonesia said it will stop administering “virginity tests” to female aspiring civil servants as part of its admission process. The country’s Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo announced this change—which will affect women working in government offices—on the heels of Human Rights Watch research that documented this degrading practice in the admission process for another branch of the Indonesian government, the National Police force.

Human Rights Watch found that the testing included the invasive “two-finger test” to determine whether female applicants’ hymens are intact. Minister Kumolo said that it was “illogical” to recruit a student based on her virginity and noted that a woman’s hymen could be torn due to sports, exercise, or other accidents. 

Rumors about these tests have circulated for decades, but Human Rights Watch brought the issue into the national spotlight by gathering concrete testimony from eight  current and former police women and applicants as well as police doctors, a police recruitment evaluator, a National Police Commission member, and several prominent women’s rights activists. The women we interviewed described the examination as frightening, humiliating, and extremely painful.  

Virginity tests are a form of gender-based violence, cannot be administered to men, and are inherently degrading and discriminatory. Moreover, these tests have been widely discredited by the scientific community and the World Health Organization. For years, Human Rights Watch has been pushing for an end to this practice and documenting cases of abusive testing in Indonesia and several other countries including Egypt, India, and Afghanistan

Ending virginity tests for Institute of Public Administration applicants is an important step forward, but much remains to be done.  Recently, the municipal government of Indonesia’s city of Jember in east Java proposed forcing female high school students to pass a virginity test before they could receive their diploma. This time, however, officials quickly back-pedaled from the proposal.

Indonesia’s National Police and the Indonesian Armed Forces have yet to follow the Institute of Public Administration’s lead. Despite Human Rights Watch’s findings, police officials continue to deny administering virginity tests, claiming that the female recruits are simply undergoing a required “medical examination.” Human Rights Watch’s research has also revealed that the military—the air force, the army, and the navy—has for decades also extended the “virginity test” requirement to female recruits as well as the fiancées of military officers prior to marriage.

Indonesia's police and military need to abolish virginity testing and make sure their recruiting stations across the country stop using it as well.


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

LGBT activists protest the planned revision to Indonesia’s criminal code outside parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 12, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo
Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced on Friday he wanted parliament to delay its vote on the country’s proposed new criminal code. The pending bill contains dozens of articles that violate the rights of women, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people – and ultimately all Indonesians.

Jokowi’s announcement followed large demonstrations in Jakarta’s streets in recent days. Yet it will mean little unless he can persuade his ruling coalition to vote against the draft law.

Jokowi’s opposition is a welcome but belated turnaround. The bill had earlier received support from his administration, allowing it to proceed to a second stage of deliberations where the plenary session in the House of Representatives will decide.

If passed by parliament, the 628-article bill would become law 30 days later, whether Jokowi signs it or not. Jokowi has instructed Minister for Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly to encourage parliamentarians to delay the bill, letting the next parliament, to be sworn in on October 1, debate it.

Provisions in the bill that effectively censor the dissemination of information about contraception and criminalize abortions will deprive women and girls of their right under international law to make their own choices about when and whether to have children. Provisions that criminalize sex outside of marriage and unmarried cohabitation violate international law by criminalizing consensual sex between adults. These provisions are likely to disproportionately affect women and criminalize same-sex conduct – something Indonesia has never done.

Six new articles on blasphemy could be used to further discriminate against non-Muslim, non-Sunni, and local believers. Indonesia’s blasphemy law is already used as a “political weapon”; expanding its “elements of crimes” – including defaming religious artifacts – will facilitate Islamist militants’ targeting of minorities.

A new criminal code could be an opportunity to remove toxic and discriminatory laws from the books and build a better, rights-respecting Indonesia. But if Jokowi’s late move to delay debate fails, his vision of a modernizing and open country will be lost.

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


Indonesia: Indigenous Peoples Losing Their Forests

The Indonesian government is failing to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples who have lost their traditional forests and livelihoods to oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan and Jambi provinces.

(Jakarta) – The Indonesian government is failing to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples who have lost their traditional forests and livelihoods to oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan and Jambi provinces, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Loss of forest occurs on a massive scale and not only harms local indigenous peoples but is also associated with global climate change.

The 89-page report, “‘When We Lost the Forest, We Lost Everything’: Oil Palm Plantations and Rights Violations in Indonesia,” examines how a patchwork of weak laws, exacerbated by poor government oversight, and the failure of oil palm plantation companies to fulfill their human rights responsibilities have adversely affected Indigenous peoples’ rights to their forests, livelihood, food, water, and culture in Bengkayang regency, West Kalimantan, and Sarolangun regency, Jambi. The report, based on interviews with over 100 people and extensive field research, highlights the distinct challenges Indigenous people, particularly women, face as a result.

“Indonesia’s Indigenous communities have suffered significant harm since losing their lush ancestral forests to oil palm plantations,” said Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, researcher on women and land at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Indonesian government has created a system that facilitates the deprivation of Indigenous land rights.”

A complex web of domestic and international companies is involved in growing palm fruit, processing palm fruit into oil, manufacturing ingredients, and finally using these ingredients to produce consumer products sold around the globe – everything from biodiesel blends to frozen pizzas, chocolate and hazelnut spreads, cookies, and margarine, to the manufacturing of numerous lotions and creams, soaps, makeup, candles, and detergent. Given its ubiquity in consumer goods, every person globally has probably consumed palm oil in some form. 

Human Rights Watch focused on the plantation operations of two palm oil companies: PT Ledo Lestari in West Kalimantan and PT Sari Aditya Loka 1, a subsidiary of the Jardine Matheson Group, in Jambi. Both oil palm plantations have had a devastating impact on the rights of two Indigenous peoples: the Ibans, a subgroup of the Dayak peoples indigenous to Borneo (Kalimantan), and the Orang Rimba, a semi-nomadic, forest-dependent Indigenous people in central Sumatra.

Kinda, 48, a resident of Dusun Pareh, said, “The water [in the river] is contaminated.” Some residents believe the Kumba River they previously relied on for water to drink, cook, and perform household chores has been contaminated, based on their observations of the color of the water and their perceived skin sensitivities to it. Bengkayang regency, West Kalimantan, September 2018.

2018 Pailin Wedel for Human Rights Watch

The impact of oil palm production can be seen across Indonesia, including in restive Papua province, Human Rights Watch said. Conflicts related to land are pervasive and have frequently been linked to oil palm plantations. Konsorsium Pembaruan Agraria (Consortium for Agrarian Reform), an Indonesian nongovernmental organization, documented more than 650 land-related conflicts affecting over 650,000 households in 2017, and about 410 conflicts affecting 87,568 households in 2018.

Various Indonesian laws, starting from 1999, require companies seeking to develop oil palm plantations to consult local communities at every stage of the process to obtain government permits. Companies have responsibilities under international law to have ongoing consultations with communities.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence that these oil palm plantation companies adequately consulted with affected households until after forests were significantly destroyed. In West Kalimantan, Iban villagers said they learned that the company had initiated operations in their forest only when bulldozers and other equipment rolled in to raze their land. A decade later, PT Ledo Lestari signed agreements with some families to relocate their homes a few kilometers into the plantation but did not provide any compensation for the loss of their indigenous forest and livelihoods derived from it. Their community is now enclaved within the company’s oil palm plantation, leaving them no land for gardens. The forest has been largely destroyed, clearing plants they use for food and materials used to make mats and baskets they sell to supplement household revenue. Community members said company representatives burned down their traditional homes at the old village, including the belongings of residents who refused to relocate.

In Jambi in central Sumatra, PT Sari Aditya Loka 1 failed to adequately consult with the Orang Rimba to mitigate any ongoing harm after legal reforms introduced clear obligations to do so. The company has not organized any meaningful consultations nor reached agreement to provide remedies to the Orang Rimba the company displaced from their forests.

The forest itself has been irrevocably changed. In the past, the forest provided community members with most of their needs – from food to rattan. Many Orang Rimba in Jambi province are now homeless, living in plastic tents, without livelihood support. Some Orang Rimba said they had been self-sufficient but are now reduced to begging on the highway or “stealing” oil palm fruits from the plantation area to sell and make money. Many now live in abject poverty.

In both communities, women experienced distinct losses in passing on intergenerational knowledge and skills, such as weaving mats and baskets made from forest products. Several Indigenous women also said they had lost sources of supplemental income.

In 2018 and 2019, Human Rights Watch wrote to both PT Ledo Lestari and PT Sari Aditya Loka 1 introducing our research and later explaining our findings, along with a list of questions. PT Ledo Lestari has not responded. In August, Human Rights Watch received a letter via email from the vice president of sustainability at PT Astra Agro Lestari Tbk, PT Sari Aditya Loka 1’s parent company. The letter provided details on education, health, and economic programs the company implemented in the area. However, both companies have failed to create any mechanism to explore restitution or provide just and fair compensation for losses suffered, in consultation with the Indigenous people affected.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights set out company responsibilities independent of government obligations to identify, prevent, mitigate, and remedy human rights abuses linked to their operations. Human Rights Watch research indicates that the companies were falling short of their human rights responsibilities.

Successive governments in Indonesia have turned a blind eye to widespread forest clearance, facilitating the proliferation of oil palm plantations. Between 2001 to 2017, Indonesia lost 24 million hectares of forest cover, an area almost the size of the United Kingdom. Indonesia has about 14 million hectares of land planted with oil palm.

Deforestation on such massive scale threatens not only the wellbeing and culture of the Indigenous populations, but also has global significance associated with climate change. The European Union responded to the environmental concerns around palm oil production by capping all palm oil imports for biofuel at 2019 levels until 2023, and a total phase-out by 2030. The EU policy should also advocate for transparency within the supply chain to curb human rights risks communities face due to oil palm plantations.

On September 23 at the Climate Action Summit in New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will be asking leaders from government and business to enhance their commitments to reduce carbon emissions drastically by mid-century. One key summit theme is a focus on nature-based solutions by increasing carbon sink capacity and enhancing resilience within and across forestry.

In 2018, President Joko Widodo announced a moratorium on new permits to oil palm plantations. The moratorium is a good start, but additional reforms are long overdue, Human Rights Watch said.

A bill to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights and ensure that simple recognition procedures are put in place is being debated in Indonesia’s parliament. If passed, it would go a long way in protecting Indigenous peoples’ rights to their customary forests.

“The poverty, hunger, and loss of identity experienced by Indigenous people in exchange for oil palm and the consumer goods it produces is a human rights tragedy,” Nnoko-Mewanu said. “Parliament should promptly adopt the bill to protect Indigenous rights to stop further irreversible damage caused by the palm industry.”

Selected accounts from the report:

Leni is a 43-year-old Iban Dayak woman and mother of two, in Jagoi Babang district of West Kalimantan province – an area her Indigenous community has inhabited for centuries. A decade and a half ago, lush forests with evergreen fruit-bearing rambutan trees surrounded Leni’s home. Currently, they have little land to farm and no forest in which to forage after the land was cleared to make way for an oil palm plantation run by an Indonesian company. Leni explained:

Before our lives were simple, not rich, but enough. Since oil palm came there is more suffering. I can’t feed my family. I have a baby. I must put food on the table every day. How do I do that when both of us [my husband and I] are not working. Every day I must figure out how to do this.

Maliau, an elderly Orang Rimba mother of nine children, has struggled to survive off land in Sarolangun district of Jambi province on the island of Sumatra. The forests once sustained her the families in her community. They have now been decimated by an oil palm plantation that began operating in the area nearly three decades ago:

Life was better before. Women could find many types of food. Some wove mats from leaves and baskets. We made lamps from gum resin. Now we cannot find materials to make these.

Mormonus, a 49-year-old village leader of Semunying Jaya, was one of two people who were detained by the police in 2006 for organizing protests against PT Ledo Lestari’s expansion into their forest:

Forest means everything. Forest provides water. Water is blood … land is body, wood is breath. When we lost the forest, we lost everything. We can’t pray to the god of oil palm.

Francesca, a 28-year-old Iban Dayak mother of two, said she and her husband refused relocation. She said that company representatives torched her home, rendering them homeless:

An assistant manager came to my home. On that day my oldest son had fever. He said to my husband, “Your five hectares of land here is gone and two hectares here is gone. Go to the company and get your money.” My husband told them he doesn’t want to sell. Months later, while I was at my mother’s new house [in the plantation] and my husband was away in Malaysia, we heard a loud noise and could see smoke. I went to see, and it was crazy. My house was already burned. Everything was in there, my son’s bicycle, clothes, and all the wood we planned to build a house, all was gone.

Susanti, a 37-year-old Iban Dayak single mother of four, said:

The [company] cleared the land and said I must move to another place. I had to sell my land or let them take it with no pay. I did this to survive. They [company] did not provide transportation for me to move my things [to new location]. They burned my wood and belongings I left behind.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Indonesian government is failing to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples who have lost their traditional forests and livelihoods to oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan and Jambi provinces.

Human Rights Watch examines how a patchwork of weak laws, exacerbated by poor government oversight, and the failure of oil palm plantation companies to fulfill their human rights responsibilities have adversely affected Indigenous peoples’ rights to their forests, livelihood, food, water, and culture in Bengkayang regency, West Kalimantan, and Sarolangun regency, Jambi. The report, based on interviews with over 100 people and extensive field research, highlights the distinct challenges Indigenous people, particularly women, face as a result.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

What Indigenous communities did you focus on?

Indonesia is home to about 50 to 70 million Indigenous people, about a quarter of the country’s population. We looked specifically at the impact of large-scale oil palm plantations on two groups: the Iban Dayak in West Kalimantan, and the Orang Rimba in Jambi.

The two communities are very different. The Ibans have a more sedentary way of life: they farm, build wood houses, and live as a community in Dayak traditional long houses. The Orang Rimba are semi-nomadic and live in small groups. But for both, losing access to forest and land has erased their core identity, and the rituals they used to carry out can’t exist anymore.

What do their lives look like now? 

It was shocking to see how these communities struggle. For the Orang Rimba, not being in the forest means not being able to forage, gather, and plant what they want and move when they want. They have limited access to water, and often go hungry for days. They can’t eat the forest’s fruits and roots or hunt for lizards there. They now live in plastic tents and rely on scavenging palm nuts that they boil or sell to buy rice or instant noodles.


Indonesia: Indigenous Peoples Losing Their Forests

The Indonesian government is failing to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples who have lost their traditional forests and livelihoods to oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan and Jambi provinces.

What impact has the development of oil palm plantations had on land and forests? 

It has resulted in massive forest loss. Between 2001 and 2017, commercial ventures in Indonesia destroyed more than 24 million hectares of its tree cover, an area nearly as large as the United Kingdom. Oil palm plantations accounted for over half of all forest depletion in Indonesia during this period. This loss of tree cover not only harms local Indigenous communities but also contributes to global climate change.

Companies have rerouted streams into trenches they’ve built so that even in the dry season, the palms have water. Indigenous people said they’ve lost access to fresh water sources, so they now rely on rainwater to cook and bathe. Some members worry that herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that they believe are used on plantations and effluent, or waste, from mills get washed off into the rivers, and that the water is polluted. Neither the government nor the companies have made information accessible concerning the quality of fresh water sources. People, especially Indigenous populations, should not have to fear getting sick from drinking the water.

Did any one person stand out for you?

Some Orang Rimba we met live in small groups of five to seven families within oil palm plantations. They move together when someone dies or they’re chased away by plantation security guards. I had been visiting the community throughout my stay. I knew there was a woman who was pregnant, but because I’m a stranger, I wasn’t supposed to go near her or take pictures of her, in accordance with their cultural beliefs. One day, we arrived very early in the morning and everyone was standing around. There was a lot of tension in the air, something was wrong. We found out that the woman was in labor, and they were tense because they’d gotten information that security guards were planning to come and break up their camp and destroy the tents. Everyone in the group was on high alert. They wouldn’t move until the woman had given birth. We sat off to the side, and I just started reflecting on what it would be like to be in this situation, and what it would be like for this baby, coming into a world where its people’s culture has been in many ways erased. And how the government wasn’t even looking at ensuring that things were better for these people, for the next generation. 

She had the baby, and they started packing up right away. And I cannot imagine giving birth and then being loaded onto a motorcycle and driven off to a new location to create a new home.

Why did the government grant permits to oil palm plantation companies for land that belonged to Indigenous communities in the first place?

Successive governments in Indonesia turned a blind eye to forest clearance and prioritized economic gains. And now there are a web of laws that make it difficult for Indigenous people to claim their ancestral land. 

What are some of the laws that make it difficult for Indigenous groups to claim ancestral land?

According to Indonesian law, if Indigenous peoples have not been legally recognized, they have no claim on land even if they have been living on it for generations. The process for Indigenous groups to gain legal recognition is managed by their district or province. Yet many districts and provinces do not have a system in place to recognize Indigenous peoples.

What steps have the government and the companies taken to address the claims of Indigenous communities?

In West Kalimantan, the government and various agencies initiated a mediation between the plantation company PT Ledo Lestari and the Indigenous community – but only 10 years after it started clearing the forest. As a result, PT Ledo Lestari paid monetary compensation to some for their family land, but not their community forest. It relocated others, but gave them single brick houses instead of their traditional long houses. The compensation didn’t take into consideration long-term impacts on their livelihoods, including loss of access to forests and food.

PT Ledo Lestari has not responded to Human Rights Watch’s hand-delivered letters, calls, and text messages.

PT Sari Aditya Loka 1, the company that operates in Jambi, explained in a letter to Human Rights Watch that they provided educational, health, and economic initiatives in the area. It said that in over 10 years it had always strived to help the Orang Rimba. But these programs would absorb the Orang Rimba into mainstream society, erasing their culture.

The company said it and the government had built houses for the Orang Rimba, but most people who were assigned to houses sleep outside, so the houses are vacant. When I went through one collection of houses, it was deserted.

The company’s efforts are not done in collaboration with the Orang Rimba, and the company isn’t thinking about what the Orang Rimba want and need. What they want is their land, and they need access to land to be able to plant, grow, and live on it, without fear of being chased off.

What can be done to help these Indigenous communities? 

Various Indonesian laws already require companies to consult local communities at every stage of the process to obtain government permits for creating and operating plantations. In 2018, President Joko Widodo announced a moratorium on new permits to oil palm plantations. It’s a good start, but they need to do more.

There are bills sitting in parliament that the government should enact. For instance, the draft law on the Recognition and Protection of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, which would clarify how communities can become legally recognized as Indigenous and lay claim to their land. We would like the government to better monitor the human rights impacts of oil palm plantations on local communities. We ask that donor organizations like the World Bank, which is supporting a program to map out all land in Indonesia, ensure that land disputes are resolved before land is mapped. We also call for a long-term land conflict resolution commission that could hear land disputes prevalent all over Indonesia.

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

(Washington, DC) – Human Rights Watch and four other plaintiffs will present arguments on September 20, 2019 against the dismissal of their challenge to a 2017 United States law that imposes criminal liability for online speech about sex work.

The hearing will take place at 9:30 a.m. in Courtroom 31 of the E. Barrett Prettyman US Courthouse and William B. Bryant Annex in Washington, DC. Plaintiffs contend the law violates freedom of speech and makes sex work more dangerous for an already vulnerable and criminalized population, Human Rights Watch said.

People march in support of sex workers, Sunday, June 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. People marched in support of decriminalizing sex work and against the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, among other issues. 

© AP Photo/John Locher
The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, commonly known as FOSTA, makes it illegal to own or use an internet site with the intent to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” Because the law’s language is broad and vague, it could prevent sex workers and others from writing about sex work and posting about critically important health and safety issues, and it would restrict organizations like Human Rights Watch from effectively reporting on and advocating for the decriminalization of sex work.

“We’re going to keep fighting this law that threatens our ability to do our job – to clearly advocate for the rights of sex workers and to see our work shared freely across the internet,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “We’ve already seen the law impel many partners and intermediaries to take down information that helps guide sex workers to online resources to protect themselves.”

Sex workers and sex worker organizations in the United States have said FOSTA has endangered them. Websites that made it easier for sex workers to screen clients and to sell sex in safer locations have stopped sex workers from posting.

The co-plaintiffs in the case with Human Rights Watch are the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, the Internet Archive, and individuals Alex Andrews and Eric Koszyk. The lower court dismissed the case in September 24, 2018 without addressing the substantive claims, on the basis that plaintiffs faced no imminent risk of prosecution. The plaintiffs will argue that the court applied the wrong standard, and that, in cases involving free expression, the appropriate lens is whether speech will be unconstitutionally burdened or chilled.

“We’ve already seen a chilling impact from FOSTA and it has affected how our partners work,” Wheeler said. “We’re not going to sit around and wait to be prosecuted before we fight this law.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Palestinian women hold a banner that reads in Arabic, "General Union of Palestinian Women, we need a law to protect us and to protect the Palestinian family," during a rally in front of the Prime Minister's office, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, September 2, 2019. Hundreds of Palestinian women protested in front of the prime minister's office to demand an investigation into the death of Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old woman whom many suspect was the victim of a so-called "honor" killing.

© AP Photo/Nasser Nasser
Videos that circulated on social media in August appearing to show a hospital corridor with a woman heard pleading and screaming, and sounds of intermittent thuds, have sparked protests and outrage at the lethal cost that Palestinian women pay because of a lack of protections and discriminatory laws.

The woman in the video was Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian make-up artist from the village of Beit Sahour in the southern West Bank who had been hospitalized on 10 August after being beaten by her family. The videos suggested she may have been subject to further beating while in hospital. She was later discharged but on 22 August she died. A social media campaign #كلنا_اسراء_غريب (“We Are All Israa Ghrayeb”) snowballed, calling for justice for Ghrayeb and more protections for women.

On 12 September, the Palestinian Authority attorney general Akram al-Khatib finally held a news conference to address her death. He said she had died of respiratory failure as a result of serious injuries from domestic violence. He also contended that that the police had not initially conducted an investigation because when they spoke to her, she had apparently said she had been injured in a fall and had no visible marks on her body. He acknowledged that the videos of her screams at the hospital were authentic but gave no further information about these incidents.

He said an investigation concluded that Israa had been repeatedly subjected to psychological and physical violence. Prosecutors charged three unnamed individuals under article 330 of the Penal Code for assault that led to an unintentional killing, which carries a sentence of at least five years in prison.

The attorney general said only that, “based on our investigation, this is not an ‘honor crime’; the motives will be made clear in court when the charge sheets are issued.”

While the investigation and the charges are positive steps, the case highlights the need for a comprehensive domestic violence law to prevent such violence from occurring in the first place and to protect and assist victims. The Palestinian nongovernmental organization Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) documented a total of 23 killings of women in the West Bank and Gaza in 2018 –10 in Gaza and 13 in the West Bank.

Women’s rights groups have pushed for a comprehensive domestic violence law since 2007 and the Palestinian Authority has been reviewing a draft Family Protection Law since 2016. Ikhlas Sufan, who directs a shelter for victims of violence in Nablus, told Human Rights Watch in 2018 that domestic violence continues because “there are no legal or social deterrents” and the abuser “knows he can get away with it.”

A domestic violence law should set out the obligations of the authorities to prevent violence, protect survivors, and prosecute abusers. This includes training police on how to identify and screen for domestic violence, how to conduct investigations appropriately, and how to build trust in the community so that victims feel safe to seek help.

Prevention is key. A version of the draft bill that Human Rights Watch reviewed in 2018 included an article that obligated all ministries and institutions to reduce domestic violence by developing programs, policies, and plans to combat such violence and to promote a public policy response, including education.

Palestinian authorities should ensure that the draft law and policies tackle the root discrimination, including the idea, prevalent among many, that women must adhere to a strict moral code of behaviour and that men should use violence and other means to control women’s behaviour.

Protection systems are vital to ensuring women’s safety. The draft law we saw included provisions for emergency protection orders restraining orders – to prohibit contact between the accused and the victim, including removing the accused from the home. The draft also would require the police and family protection units to accept complaints, investigate, and assist and protect survivors. Protection orders can save lives and should be both easy for victims to get, and effective. Police should receive training on how to interview survivors in private and assist them.

Claims that so-called “honor” violence or killings are one-time reactions to behaviour deemed to transgress moral codes are questionable. Instead such violence may occur in a continuum of domestic violence in which the perpetrator uses abuse or threats to control a woman’s behaviour or movements. Such killings moreover are never justifiable and terming it as “honor” killings may reinforce the idea that the victim is to blame for their own deaths.

Prosecuting domestic violence requires criminalizing abuse in all its forms: physical, psychological, economic, and sexual. The draft bill as reviewed by Human Rights Watch criminalizes specific forms of abuse such as forced marriage and increases penalties for physical violence. However, the authorities should go further to explicitly criminalize domestic violence in full including marital rape.

The draft bill should maintain provisions that allow prosecutors to pursue a criminal case in the absence of a formal complaint from the victim if they have evidence of abuse, which is critical as otherwise abusers or their families can pressure victims not to start or proceed with a complaint. The Palestinian authorities should amend the draft Family Protection Law to ensure full protection of survivors and pass it expeditiously. The authorities should also end all forms of discrimination in law, including provisions in the personal status laws that require women to obey their husbands.

The questions hanging over Israa Ghrayeb’s killing should lead to conclusions about what the authorities could have done to protect her from such violence and what is needed now to prevent any more violence and killings. Until those measures are fully in place and the authorities routinely carry them out, we are all Israa Ghrayeb.

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

(Warsaw) – Tajikistan’s government takes little action to investigate or prosecute domestic violence cases and is doing far too little to help survivors, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Despite progress in some areas, Tajik law does not criminalize domestic violence, and women who experience abuse lack adequate protection and access to shelter and other services.

"He Often Beat Me Up"

"He Often Beat Me Up"

Senior researcher Steve Swerdlow talks about domestic violence in Tajikistan, and how oftentimes no one – from the police, to judges, to their own families – will help victims. 

The 93-page report, “‘Violence with Every Step’: Weak State Response to Domestic Violence in Tajikistan,” documents obstacles to help and justice for domestic abuse survivors. Despite laws that guarantee survivors’ rights to protection and social services, Human Rights Watch found ongoing gaps in police and judicial responses to domestic violence, including refusing to investigate complaints, failing to issue or enforce protection orders, and treating domestic violence as a minor offense. Human Rights Watch also released a video with domestic violence survivors describing the hurdles they faced when trying to get protection.

“The response to domestic violence victims in Tajikistan often leaves them in danger,” said Steve Swerdlow, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Officials are ignoring their obligations to enforce Tajikistan’s law on domestic violence.”


Tajikistan: Barriers to Aid for Domestic Violence Victims

The Tajik government takes little action to investigate or prosecute domestic violence cases and is doing far too little to help survivors. 

A 2013 law on preventing domestic violence led to important measures, such as awareness-raising campaigns and staffing of some police stations with specially trained female police inspectors. But survivors, lawyers, and service providers report that police often ignore the law, and that victims lack adequate protection from abuse and access to shelters.

Underreporting and insufficient data collection make it difficult to assess the scale of domestic violence in Tajikistan, but local and international groups report that it is commonplace. In 2016, United Nations Women, the UN agency that champions gender equality, reported that domestic abuse affects at least one in five women and girls throughout the country, drawing on government statistics. In November 2018, the UN committee that oversees implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women expressed concern that domestic violence in Tajikistan is “widespread but underreported” and that, along with marital rape and sexual assault, it is not criminalized.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 people, including 55 female domestic violence survivors from the country. Human Rights Watch also interviewed police, lawyers, shelter and crisis center staff members, government officials, service providers, and representatives of the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and other international organizations with projects on violence against women.

The Tajik government had not responded to requests for information regarding the implementation of the 2013 domestic violence law or provided any comment on the findings.

Women interviewed reported enduring years of abuse, usually by husbands or partners, including rape, stabbing, strangulation, and beatings with sharp and heavy objects such as a shovel, a fireplace poker, an iron, and a chair. They said abusers deprived them of food, clothing, and access to toilets or the kitchen. Women said the violence caused injuries, including internal bleeding and damage to vital organs, concussions, skull fractures, broken jaws, and severe bruises, as well as symptoms of trauma and emotional distress.

“After he beat me, I narrowly escaped and went to the city prosecutor’s office covered in blood,” said a 28-year-old woman who endured four years of spousal abuse and rape. But as she tried to report the violence, she said the prosecutor interrupted, saying, “Aren’t you yourself to blame?” He called her husband, exposing her whereabouts, and told her, “Everything will work out fine. Go home.”

Tajikistan’s domestic violence law allows police and courts to issue temporary or long-term protection orders to prohibit abuse or bar contact between the abuser and the victim. However, many survivors said that the police never informed them about protection orders or failed to enforce the orders or penalize abusers who violated them. Abusers are rarely prosecuted or brought to justice, Human Rights Watch found.

“Those responsible for domestic violence should be brought to justice,” Swerdlow said. “Without accountability, abusers are sent a message that domestic violence is acceptable.”

Survivors also face a dire lack of services. Tajikistan has only four specialized shelters for domestic violence survivors for a population of nearly nine million people, far short of the minimum called for in international standards. Nongovernmental groups provide most of the available services. Although Tajikistan has a network of state-supported women’s resource centers throughout the country, qualified psychosocial and mental health counselors are virtually nonexistent, and there is almost no legal assistance for survivors, including for property division following divorce.

Survivors and activists said that even in women’s resource centers and shelters, most available counseling focuses on reconciling survivors with their abusers rather than ensuring protection, services, and accountability for serious ongoing violence. Women said they were often encouraged to return to abusive relationships and continued to experience violence.

Other barriers include financial dependence on abusers and fear of losing custody of their children. Many women said they remained in abusive relationships or tried to reconcile with abusive husbands who had abandoned them because they and their children would otherwise go hungry.

In Tajikistan, where wives usually live with their in-laws, housing options, even after divorce, are extremely limited. A provision of Tajik law known as vseleniie means that courts often order that a divorced woman and her children be allocated a portion of the home of her former in-laws and husband in which to reside. Vseleniie has placed many women and survivors of abuse in even more precarious situations where they are exposed to continuing risks of violence.

Other harmful practices that can heighten the risk of domestic violence include polygamy and unregistered, forced, and child marriages, even though the government has raised the marriage age to 18 and taken steps to ensure that couples register their marriages with the state.

The Tajik government should amend the domestic violence law to explicitly criminalize domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that police, prosecutors, and judges issue and enforce protection orders and investigate and prosecute domestic violence. Officials who fail to do so should be disciplined.

The government should also support shelter, health, psychosocial, and legal services for survivors, including by expanding legal aid and domestic violence shelters. The government should amend the vseleniie provision and develop longer-term housing options for vulnerable segments of the population, including domestic violence survivors.

Tajikistan’s international partners, including international aid agencies, should press the Tajik government to criminalize domestic violence. They should also offer further assistance for shelters, affordable longer-term housing, and other services for victims of domestic violence.

“The Tajikistan authorities’ priority should be protecting women from abuse, not pressuring them to return to unsafe environments,” Swerdlow said. “Tajikistan should ensure that domestic violence is investigated and prosecuted, and that there are shelters and other services available to keep women safe.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

What is happening in Tajikistan in terms of domestic violence?

Reports indicate that at least one out of five, and probably more, women in Tajikistan have been abused by a current or former husband or partner. The number is likely much higher, but the government doesn’t systematically collect the information, and women are reluctant to report abuse. Some studies have claimed that as many as 97 percent of men and 72 percent of women say domestic violence is normal, expected, and should be tolerated in a marriage.

Is it illegal?

Domestic violence is not a distinct crime in Tajikistan. It is treated as an administrative infraction, although people can be prosecuted for common assault and battery.

However, Tajikistan did pass a law in 2013 that allocated more resources to fight domestic violence. It led to the opening of women’s centers and put money into educational programs and hospital programs. It’s an important step, but more needs to be done.

What type of abuse did you see there?

We documented beatings with a burning brick to the face, a shovel, a broom, a stick, a fireplace poker. Women also told us about their husbands or partners raping them repeatedly, starving them, or even refusing to let them use the toilet.

I encountered horrific stories all over Tajikistan, and it was deeply unsettling. At Human Rights Watch, I typically work on political and civil rights in Central Asia. I’ve documented torture done by police officers and jailers acting as part of an authoritarian system. And what I found traveling across Tajikistan with my colleague, Viktoriya Kim, hearing women’s stories, was that domestic violence is just as sadistic. Men were abusing their wives in ways that amounted to torture, often for years.


Tajikistan: Barriers to Aid for Domestic Violence Victims

The Tajik government takes little action to investigate or prosecute domestic violence cases and is doing far too little to help survivors. 

Did any stories stand out to you in particular?

I met a woman who was married for 14 years to a man who forcibly shaved her head, doused her with dirty water, and made her stay outside in a garage in freezing weather. He also shot her, raped her, stabbed her, beat her, and generally humiliated and insulted her, often for no reason.

I met another women who had only been married for two years when her husband hung her by her arms from their ceiling for hours. He also raped and beat her.

In many cases, women would confide in their mothers, who would explain to them that, while terrible, their duty and obligation were to preserve the family at all costs, and they should keep quiet about the abuse.

I met a woman and her mother. They sat beside each other as the mother shared, with great regret, how after she told her daughter to go back home, her daughter’s husband hit her so hard with a shovel that her spleen burst. The daughter literally came to our interview coughing up blood. I remember watching the guilt on her mother’s face as she said things could have been different had she not insisted her daughter go back.

Wives in Tajikistan live with their husband’s families. This means there are mothers-in-law and other family members – brothers, sisters, fathers-in-law – who can also perpetuate the violence. And then there are the neighbors, police, local officials, prosecutors, and judges who ignore it.

Why is domestic violence such a problem in Tajikistan?

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to profound upheaval, and this tumult created a power vacuum for other types of authority to fill. Tajikistan is a predominantly Muslim country and so in this vacuum, patriarchal norms – like more conservative interpretations of Islam – took on more prominence. After the end of the USSR, a bloody civil war in the early-to-mid 1990s weakened the central government. People were hungry, there were no jobs, and millions of men left Tajikistan to find work, often in Russia.

Women’s rights went backwards. Fewer girls finished high school, especially in rural areas. Although child marriage is illegal in Tajikistan, families began marrying their daughters off earlier so they would have one less mouth to feed.

There was also a rise in polygamy, which is outlawed but still pervasive. Many of the women we interviewed were second or third wives with no legal rights. And there was a rise in unregistered religious marriages (nikoh).

Why does it matter if your marriage isn’t registered?

Under Tajik law, a person can only be married to one spouse, and wives own 50 percent of the marital home and are entitled to alimony. But if you’re in an unregistered marriage, or if you’re a second or third wife, you can’t enforce your property rights. Women told us they stayed with abusive husbands, in part fearing that by leaving, they and their children would end up on the streets.

Also, in religious, as opposed to state, marriages, wives need their husband or a cleric to grant a divorce, making it harder to obtain one.

All of this contributes to women’s dependence on their abusers and inability to flee violence.

How easy is it for men to obtain a divorce?

About a decade ago, the phenomenon of men ‘divorcing’ their wives via text seemingly reached its zenith. These men pointed to a widely disparaged interpretation of Islamic law, under which all a husband has to say is ‘taloq,’ or ‘I divorce you,’ three times to do so. Tajikistan’s government compelled clerics to inform people that this type of divorce isn’t allowed. Yet in a remarkable number of cases, women told me that after their husbands beat them, they would say ‘I divorce you,’ and then threaten to say it twice more. They used divorce as a psychological tool, threatening to throw their wife out of her home and take away custody of her children.

What does happen to women who divorce?

Traditional values dictate they can’t go back to their parents’ home. It’s considered shameful, for both the woman and her parents.

Oftentimes, after a divorce, the court will divide property such that that the ex-wife and her kids are allotted one room in her partner’s or in-laws’ home. This usually means they literally live in the same abusive home, which sets the stage for more violent confrontations. Imagine heating up a pot of tea and seeing your abuser, his new wife, or your former mother-in-law every time you go the kitchen. Sometimes, women said their ex-husbands or in-laws would bar them from using the kitchen or bathroom.

One of our recommendations for this report is subsidized housing for victims of domestic violence.

What do law enforcement officials do when women report domestic violence?

Under the 2013 domestic violence law, the government has mandated gender sensitivity training and have staffed some police stations with female officers trained in handling domestic violence. But most of the survivors we spoke with said police wouldn’t register their complaints or encouraged them to go back to their husbands.

One woman I met, Zebo, described how after her husband – a police officer – beat her, she went to the prosecutor’s office, covered in blood. The prosecutor looked at her and said, “What do you want from me, this is a family matter.” He picked up the phone, called her husband, and told him she was at his office. So, she went to the next building and tried to get help from a judge, and he ignored her, too.

Who is helping these women?

The women’s shelters we visited were amazing places, run by incredible women with very little support. Unfortunately, there are only 4 shelters serving the country’s 9 million people. The women running these places are heroes. They provide legal and psychological support, and job training.

I met Zebo at a shelter, and she showed me the cookies she now sells in the capital, and the clothing she sews and sells. She’s also working part-time at the shelter. She talked about how everyone there helped her get back on her feet and become independent. If these shelters had more resources, they could make a real difference in even more women’s lives

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

LGBT activists protest the planned revision to Indonesia’s criminal code outside parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 12, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo

(Jakarta) – The Indonesian parliament should substantially revise the proposed new criminal code to meet international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today. The current bill contains articles that will violate the rights of women, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as freedom of speech and association.

“Indonesia’s draft criminal code is disastrous not only for women and religious and gender minorities, but for all Indonesians,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Lawmakers should remove all the abusive articles before passing the law.”

Updating Indonesia’s criminal code, which dates back to the Dutch colonial era, has taken more than two decades. On September 15, 2019, a parliamentary task force finalized the 628-article bill. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill later in September.

A coalition of Indonesian civil society organizations has urged President Joko Widodo to delay passing the law because it will discriminate against non-Muslims, non-Sunni Muslims, and local religious minorities, as well as women and LGBT people.

Provisions of the draft criminal code violate free speech and freedom of association. The ability to engage in political speech, even speech espousing a peaceful political ideology that the government does not favor, lies at the heart of the democratic process.

Provisions that effectively censor the dissemination of information about contraception and criminalize some abortions will set back women and girls’ rights under international law to make their own choices about having children. Unintended pregnancies can affect a range of rights, including by ending a girl’s education and contributing to child marriage, as well as putting women and girls’ lives at risk and other health complications.

“The bill’s provisions censoring information about contraception could set back the progress Indonesia has made in recent years to dramatically reduce maternal deaths,” Harsono said.

The bill also expands Indonesia’s 1965 Blasphemy Law, which increases the enumeration of “the elements of crimes” to include defaming religious artifacts. Parliament should remove blasphemy offenses that are inconsistent with Indonesia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“Indonesia’s parliament should be encouraging free speech and association, and limiting – not expanding – the Blasphemy Law,” Harsono said. “The new criminal code is a precious opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted to remove toxic laws from the books and build a better, rights-respecting Indonesia.”

Problematic Provisions in the Draft Criminal Code

Article 2 recognizes “any living law” in Indonesia, which could be interpreted to include hukum adat (customary criminal law) and Sharia (Islamic law) regulations at the local level. Indonesia has hundreds of discriminatory Sharia and other regulations that discriminate against women, religious minorities, and LGBT people. As there is no official list of “living laws” in Indonesia, this article could be used to prosecute people under these discriminatory regulations.

Article 417 punishes extramarital sex by up to one year in jail. (The current code says only that married couples can be prosecuted for extramarital sex based on police complaints by their spouse or children.) While this article does not specifically mention same-sex conduct, since same-sex relationships are not legally recognized in Indonesia, this provision effectively criminalizes all same-sex conduct. It will also subject all sex workers to criminal prosecution.

Article 419 states that couples who live together without being legally married could be sentenced to six months in prison. A village head could report these couples to the police.

Article 421 criminalizes “obscene acts” in public with a penalty of up to six months in prison. This article could be used to target LGBT people.

Articles 417, 419, and 421 violate the right to privacy for consenting adults that is protected under international law. Such provisions can reinforce or exacerbate discriminatory social norms and have heightened impact on women, who may face pressure to enter forced marriages if accused of sex outside of marriage or an increase in societal “policing” of their behavior.

These articles could also be used to target religious minorities and the millions of Indonesians – some estimates suggest as many as half of all Indonesian couples – who do not marry legally because of difficulties in registering the marriage. They include members of hundreds of unrecognized religions including Baha’i, Ahmadi, and local religions, as well as people in remote regencies and islands.

Article 413 criminalizes the production or distribution of pornography, which is poorly defined under existing law. As Human Rights Watch has documented, the 2008 Law on Pornography, which defines portrayals of “deviant sexual intercourse” to include lesbian and male homosexual sex, has been used for discriminatory targeting of LGBT people.

Article 414 states that anyone who is “to show, to offer, to broadcast, to write or to promote a contraception to a minor” – children under age 18 – could face a prison term or fine.

Article 416 specifies some narrow exceptions for health professionals and authorized “competent volunteers” to discuss contraception in the context of family planning, preventing sexually transmitted infections, or providing health education.

While the exceptions are notable, the overall chilling effect of article 414 will diminish free exchange of vital health information, including by teachers, parents, the media, and community members, and will most likely impede even those who are officially exempted from the law.

Sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS can be largely prevented by regularly using condoms, and interfering with people’s ability to get information about condoms impedes their rights to life and health.

Human Rights Watch has documented that restricted access to condoms has particular impacts on marginalized groups – such as men who have sex with men and female sex workers and their clients – who already shoulder most of the burden of Indonesia’s HIV epidemic.

Articles 415, 470, and 471 state that only doctors have the right to decide to perform an abortion. This conflicts with the 2009 Health Law, which says a woman can seek an abortion in “a medical emergency,” which could be interpreted to include health reasons or rape. A woman who aborted her pregnancy could be sentenced to up four years in prison. Anyone who helps a pregnant woman have an abortion could be sentenced up to five years in prison. These articles might also be interpreted to prosecute those selling or consuming so-called morning-after pills as an abortion tool, with up to a six-month jail term.

Human Rights Watch research in several countries has shown that criminalizing abortion impedes rights protected under international law, including to life, health, freedom from torture and degrading treatment, privacy, and to determine the number and spacing of children.

Articles 304 to 309 expand the current Blasphemy Law and maintain the maximum five-year prison term. They will punish deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. More than 150 individuals, most of them religious minorities, have been convicted under the Blasphemy Law since it was passed in 1965, including former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, a Christian, in 2017.

Article 118 imposes up to a four-year prison sentence on anyone who spreads Marxist-Leninist teachings.

Article 119 authorizes a 10-year sentence for associating with organizations that follow a Marxist-Leninist ideology “with the intent of changing the policy of the government.”

Article 219 criminalizes “insults” to the president or vice president.

Article 220 limits, but not sufficiently, application of the law to cases filed by the president or vice president.

Under international human rights law, restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and association are only permitted to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation and must ensure that any measure taken under the law is strictly proportionate to the aim pursued.

Laws penalizing criticism of public leaders are contrary to international law. Public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority, may be subject to criticism, and the fact that some forms of expression are considered to be insulting is not sufficient to justify restrictions or penalties.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Zhanar Sekerbaeva co-founder of Feminita, a feminist initiative in Almaty, gives a talk on the demographics of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women in Kazakhstan. 

© 2019 Feminita

(Berlin) – An appeals court in Kazakhstan on September 3 upheld a decision denying Feminita, a national feminist initiative, registration as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). The group’s focus includes the rights of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women.

The Almaty department of the Justice Ministry had refused the group registration on the grounds that it didn’t comply with the Law on Noncommercial Organizations. That refusal was upheld as lawful by both a lower-level court and the appeals court. Registration is required for the group to operate lawfully in the country, and to conduct activities such as raising money and hosting events.

“This appeals court ruling allows an arbitrary and discriminatory decision by the Ministry of Justice to stand,” said Laura Mills, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakhstan authorities should stop preventing groups from operating lawfully just because they are critical of the government or work on controversial issues.”

Kazakh authorities have denied registration to certain organizations that are critical of or work on issues deemed controversial by the authorities, for example an organization that campaigns against mass surveillance and detention of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang province in China. They have also repeatedly denied registration to independent trade unions.

Feminita, which has been operating informally since 2015, focuses on promoting the rights of marginalized women in Kazakhstan, from lesbian, bisexual, and queer women to those with disabilities, and sex workers. In December 2017, it first applied for official registration as an NGO, but registration was denied three times over the course of the year.

Each time, the Almaty department of the Justice Ministry said that the organization did not comply with the Law on Noncommercial Organizations. But even though it is required to do so by law, it did not explain what the shortcomings were or what steps Feminita needed to take to comply. Feminita told Human Rights Watch that it does comply with the law.

Feminita filed a case against the Ministry of Justice. In May 2019, a judge ruled that Feminita was not eligible to register under the Law on Noncommercial Organizations or the Law on Charities, holding that its stated goals did not “provide for the strengthening of existing spiritual-moral values … [and] the prestige and role of family in society.” Feminita had not sought to register under the charities law because it doesn’t provide any charitable services.

The appeals court ruled to uphold the lower court’s decision, but provided no further explanation supporting the decision to deny Feminita registration. Nor did it explain how the refusal to register the group could be compatible with the right to freedom of association.

“It feels like they are constantly searching for grounds to stop our work,” Zhanar Sekerbaeva, co-founder of Feminita, told Human Rights Watch. “There are and have been for a long time lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women in Kazakhstan, and with this [denial] it is as if they are excluding an entire group from society.”

In 2015, Kazakhstan changed its laws essentially to allow the government to regulate funding for nongovernmental groups through a government-appointed body. In addition, individuals can face hefty fines and administrative charges if they direct or participate in an unregistered organization.

Kazakhstan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires it to respect the right to freedom of association. The Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the ICCPR, has repeatedly said that “the existence and operation of associations, including those which peacefully promote ideas not necessarily favorably received by the government or the majority of the population, is a cornerstone of a democratic society.”

The committee has held that an arbitrary refusal to register an organization violates the right to freedom of association, and that preventing an organization from operating is only justified if it is “necessary to avert a real and not only hypothetical threat to national security or democratic order, that less intrusive measures would be insufficient to achieve the same purpose, and that the restriction is proportionate to the interest to be protected.”

Feminita members have experienced discriminatory treatment by the authorities before. In 2019, the authorities denied Feminita permission to organize a march for International Women’s Day multiple times. In August 2018, Sekerbaeva was detained, charged with “minor hooliganism,” and fined $30 because she organized a photo shoot that she said was intended to destigmatize menstruation. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Kazakhstan routinely face harassment, discrimination, and the threat of violence.

“Kazakh authorities should reverse course and allow Feminita and all other groups arbitrarily denied registration to register and operate lawfully within the country,” Mills said. “Kazakhstan has nothing to fear from independent organizations and has obligations to live up to.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am