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Pakistan: Government Shutters International Groups

Human Rights Watch - 0 sec ago


A flood victim carries a sack of flour on his head from a distribution point while heading to his village of Murad Chandio, some 35 km (22 miles) from Dadu in Pakistan's Sindh province January 26, 2011. 

© 2011 Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
(New York) – The Pakistani government’s decision to shut down at least 10 organizations without providing valid reasons violates rights to freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch said today. Organizations affected include prominent groups working on human rights, humanitarian assistance, and development issues.

On December 14, 2017, several international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), including Open Society Foundations and ActionAid, told the media that they had received letters from the federal government rejecting their applications for registration. The government has not published the list of affected groups, but according to media reports, none have been provided with reasons for the decision.

“The Pakistani government’s closure of international organizations without allowing these decisions to be contested shows disturbing disregard for the well-being of ordinary Pakistanis who benefit from them,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should be facilitating the vital work of independent groups, not obstructing it with intimidation tactics.” The Pakistani government’s closure of international organizations without allowing these decisions to be contested shows disturbing disregard for the well-being of ordinary Pakistanis who benefit from them. Brad Adams

Asia Director

The “Policy for Regulation of INGOs in Pakistan,” announced on October 1, 2015, contains vague and overly restrictive regulations that have harmed the work climate for many international groups. The regulations require all INGOs to register and obtain prior permission from the Ministry of Interior to carry out any activities in the country, and restrict their operations to specific issues and geographical areas. The ministry is broadly empowered to cancel registrations on grounds of “involvement in any activity inconsistent with Pakistan’s national interests, or contrary to Government policy”—terms that have vague meanings and can be used for political reasons to target critical organizations or individuals.

Pakistan’s government has the responsibility to prevent fraud, financial malfeasance, and other illegal activities by INGOs, but Pakistan already has other laws and regulations that address such concerns. The INGO regulations severely restrict rights to freedom of association and expression for Pakistanis working for INGOs, as well as for foreign nationals. These rights are protected under the Pakistani constitution and international human rights law.

International groups make significant contributions to Pakistan in safeguarding and promoting health, nutrition, education, sanitation, food security, and the rule of law and human rights, among many other areas. International humanitarian and development organizations working in Pakistan employ thousands of Pakistanis, contribute hundreds of millions of US dollars to the national economy, and, working alongside their local partners, reach an estimated 20 million Pakistanis with assistance and services every year.

Under the regulations, all international organizations are required to obtain permission in advance from a government “INGO committee” chaired by the secretary of the Ministry of Interior before carrying out any activity in Pakistan. The committee has the power to rescind that permission at any time, for vaguely defined reasons.

The regulations provide for a right of appeal only on decisions by the INGO committee to cancel registration. The appeals process, to a Special Ministerial Committee, will be final, denying the groups any recourse through an independent judicial process.

The Pakistani government should revise the policy for INGOs so that it does not contravene the rights to freedom of expression and association, and cannot be misused for political reasons to restrict the peaceful activities of nongovernmental organizations.

“The recent action against nongovernmental organizations comes amidst a shrinking space for free expression and dissenting voices,” Adams said. “Placing arbitrary restrictions on international groups is likely to increase the climate of fear for domestic organizations.”

2017 in Human Rights News

Human Rights Watch - 5 hours 40 min ago
It was another whirlwind year in the news. The human rights movement faced significant challenges in every region in 2017, from humanitarian catastrophes to a rise in populism that threatens the core values of human rights.   Throughout the year, Human Rights Watch reported on multiple crises and abuses around the world. And you were following along. To sum up the year's news, we have compiled the Top 10 stories based on the number of readers.   From Russia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma to the United States, this is what you were reading in 2017.   

[View the story "2017 in Human Rights News" on Storify]

Iran: Free Ailing Labor Activist

Human Rights Watch - 11 hours 40 min ago

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities should immediately release Reza Shahabi, a prominent labor activist, after he suffered a possible stroke in prison, Human Rights Watch said today. Medical experts who examined Shahabi said that he should be released for medical reasons.


The Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (SWTSBC), of which Shahabi is a member.

The Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (SWTSBC), of which Shahabi is a member, said that Shahabi told his family of his condition during a December 13, 2017 prison visit. He said he had seen the prison doctor after symptoms that included “drooping on the left side of his face.” Shahabi told his family that the doctor told him that he had probably had a mini-stroke, but that the doctor had not conducted any further medical examinations or follow-up.

“Allowing Reza Shahabi’s health to deteriorate further in prison, especially when he was imprisoned solely for his peaceful activism in the first place, is just cruel,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iranian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Shahabi.”

Shahabi’s union said that medical experts who had examined Shahabi before had determined that Shahahi should not continue to serve his prison sentence due to his medical condition.

Since 2005, authorities have repeatedly harassed, summoned, arrested, and sentenced workers who are affiliated with independent trade unions in Iran.

Authorities first arrested Shahabi, 45, for his activities as a member of the SWTSBC on June 12, 2010. Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced him to six years in prison and deprived him of “social rights” such as holding a public office or working in any governmental organizations, for five more years on charges of “conspiracy and collusion to act against national security” and “propaganda against the state.”

In May 2014, authorities released Shahabi on medical furlough, with the promise that he would not need to return to prison, Center for Human Rights in Iran reported. After being released from prison, Shahabi, who had been fired from his job, began working at a small mini-market with his wife.

On August 7, 2017, Shahabi returned to prison to serve the remainder of his prison sentence after receiving several warnings from the judiciary that he would lose his bail if he refused to go back.

Over the past year, authorities have sent back to prison several prominent trade unionists sentenced for peaceful activities but then later released on bail. They include Ismael Abdi, the Teachers’ Union secretary general, on June 7, and Mahmoud Beheshti Langeroudi, the Teachers’ Union’s spokesperson, on September 13.

Human Rights Watch, United Nations Experts, and other human rights organizations have documented numerous occasions on which authorities deprived prisoners in Iran of needed care. In August, several prisoners charged with vaguely defined national security charges, including Shahabi, embarked on a hunger strike in Rajai Shahr prison to protest the conditions of their detention, including a lack of access to medical care.

International and Iranian law require prison authorities to provide adequate medical care. Iran’s state prison organization regulations state that, if necessary, detainees must be transferred to a hospital outside the prison facility. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners require authorities to transfer all those held needing specialist medical treatment to specialized institutions, including civilian hospitals

Laos: 5 Years Since Civil Society Leader’s ‘Disappearance’

Human Rights Watch - Friday, December 15, 2017

(Bangkok) – The government of Laos should immediately disclose the fate or whereabouts of the prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly disappeared in the capital, Vientiane, in December 2012, Human Rights Watch said today.  Expand

Sombath Somphone is still missing four years after he was forcibly disappeared in Vientiane, Laos.


© 2013 Stephen Sautter

“Five years on, Sombath’s ‘disappearance’ highlights the glaring problems of enforced disappearance, widespread rights violations, and the culture of impunity protecting government officials in Laos,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government needs to end its cover-up and explain what happened to Sombath.”

Sombath, the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre, received Southeast Asia’s prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005. Security camera footage shows police stopping Sombath’s jeep at 6:03 p.m. on December 15, 2012, and police taking him into the Thadeua police post. Shortly afterward, an unidentified motorcyclist stopped at the police post and drove off with Sombath’s jeep, leaving his own motorcycle by the roadside. A few minutes later, a truck with flashing lights stopped at the police post. Two people got out of the truck, took Sombath into the vehicle, then drove off. The authorities later denied any knowledge of Sombath being taken into custody. He has not been seen since. Five years on, Sombath’s ‘disappearance’ highlights the glaring problems of enforced disappearance, widespread rights violations, and the culture of impunity protecting government officials in Laos. Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

At a news conference in Bangkok on December 7, 2017, Shui-Meng Ng, Sombath’s wife, publicly revealed that people she declined to name had seen Sombath at a police holding facility in Vientiane on the night of December 15, a number of hours after he was publicly seen at the police checkpoint. She said that his jeep was seen at the parking lot of that facility on the same evening.

This newly public information demonstrates the inadequacy of the official investigations into Sombath’s disappearance and the contours of a cover-up by Lao authorities. The authorities have repeatedly dismissed concerns raised by Sombath’s family, foreign governments, and human rights groups about whether the government investigation was serious.

Shui-Meng Ng told Human Rights Watch:

Five years on, we are sadly no closer to finding Sombath than we were in the week after he was taken from us. The only thing that has progressed over that time is the Lao government’s cover-up, and the wall of denial and delays it has constructed to buy time. While disheartened, the friends of Sombath all around the world will never give up demanding answers.

Laos has signed, but not ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under international law, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution. Disappearances are a continuing offense that cause anguish and suffering for the victim’s family members.

“Sombath’s ‘disappearance’ will be a stain on the Lao government’s reputation until his fate is explained and those responsible are fairly prosecuted and punished,” Robertson said. “Donor governments, UN agencies, and multilateral organizations should keep raising concerns with Lao leaders until there are credible answers about Sombath’s fate.”

Will Russia Block Twitter?

Human Rights Watch - Friday, December 15, 2017

A photo illustration interweaving the Russian flag with the Facebook and Twitter logos taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 22, 2015. Russia's media watchdog has warned that Google, Twitter and Facebook could be blocked if they do not comply with Russian Internet laws.

© 2015 Reuters

This week, Russia’s state media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, issued a warning to Twitter, giving it 24 hours to remove allegedly unlawful content – the Twitter account of opposition group Open Russia, led by Russian former oil tycoon and ardent Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Should Twitter disobey, the notice warns, it may be blocked in Russia. YouTube received an almost identical warning , also threatening them with a Russia-wide ban.

Russia has adopted a plethora of repressive laws restricting online expression in recent years. The most recent one empowered the Prosecutor General’s office to block content shared by foreign “undesirable” organizations as well as websites disseminating materials from these organizations. Since 2015, Russian authorities have designated 11 groups as “undesirable”, mostly US donor groups, adding the UK-registered Open Russia and affiliated groups to the list in April.

On December 11, Roskomnadzor, acting on orders of the Prosecutor General’s office, blocked Open Russia’s website and several other affiliated sources. On December 12 and 13, official requests to Twitter, YouTube, and Odnoklassniki, a Russian social media platform, to block their accounts followed. So far, only Odnoklassniki complied and blocked Open Russia’s page. Roskomnadzor said action to block Twitter and YouTube is postponed pending “negotiations.”

Russia has made similar threats in the past, threatening to block Telegram messenger service and Facebook. Some of the laws Russia adopted in recent years – such as one requiring all data on Russia users to be stored in Russia, or the law which effectively requires companies to hand over encryption keys to security services – are nearly impossible to implement on a technical level, not to mention detrimental to free expression.

So far, Russian authorities have mostly stopped short of implementing these threats. Although Russia blocked LinkedIn, as well as several messaging apps for non-compliance, the scale of blocking Facebook or Twitter is far greater and the fallout very different. One thing is for certain: Russia’s internet laws are designed to stifle free speech, and can and are being used to go after government critics or online debate on certain topics. And to make it even easier for the authorities, the laws enable them to block anything they want, any time they want – without the hassle of getting a court order.

Calling Out the ‘American Illusion’

Human Rights Watch - Friday, December 15, 2017


People view a memorial for a man killed by police on skid row in Los Angeles, California, March 2, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

The American Dream is fast becoming the American Illusion.”

That dire warning was issued today by Philip Alston, a United Nations independent expert who just completed a two-week tour examining what he called America’s “great poverty and inequality.”

Alston’s report examines US poverty from many angles – from its “gendered nature” and racial disparities, to the plight of children born into poverty and the suffering of people unable to access basic health care. But it’s also a scathing indictment of US government efforts to roll back poverty and mitigate its worst human rights impacts. He slams the country’s “confused and counterproductive” drug laws and their impact on the poor, accuses state and local governments of relying on criminalization not only to “conceal the problem” of poverty, but also to raise revenue off the backs of the poor. The tax plan working its way through Congress is likely to, “stake out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world,” he warns.

Poverty, and the government’s role in addressing it, generates considerable political debate in the US, but there is rarely any reference to the idea that poverty and inequality are human rights issues. The US has not ratified the international treaties that enshrine many of the rights most directly impacted by extremes of poverty and wealth, like education and health. It clings to the Cold War fixation that human rights encompass only the civil and political, and not the economic, social, and cultural entitlements that are just as central to the idea of human dignity as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

US law reinforces these gaps instead of helping to bridge them. The US Supreme Court has held that there is no constitutional right to an education, let alone a quality one, and has never held that there is a right to health care either. Alston describes the US as being almost alone in, “insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable health care, or growing up in a context of total deprivation.”

One of the most frustrating things about Alston’s report is its pointed reminder that there already exists a legal framework – bolstered by decades’ worth of practical guidance – that describes how governments should address problems affecting peoples’ health, education, and overall well-being. The US has so far steadfastly refused to take advantage of it, but as Alston notes, “denial does not eliminate responsibility.”

French Legislators Rebuked for Seeking to Criminalize Online Browsing

Human Rights Watch - Friday, December 15, 2017

A woman holds her smart phone which displays the Google home page, in this picture illustration taken February 24, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

France’s legislators have again been reminded that imprisoning people who look at websites perceived as glorifying or inciting terrorism is not acceptable in a democratic society – not least because France already has an extensive legal arsenal to go after those using the internet to incite violence.

For the second time this year, France’s Constitutional Council has struck down a recent amendment to the penal code criminalizing what is termed “regular consultation” of websites deemed to be, “inciting or glorifying terrorism.” The provision, which carried a two-year prison sentence and a €30,000 fine, was found unconstitutional because it unjustifiably restricted freedom of communication.

The court added that French law enforcement agencies had enough powers to tackle terrorism without this provision.

The court’s reasoning is a welcome respite from France’s rush to adopt restrictive counterterrorism measures at the cost of rights and freedoms. The problematic provision was initially introduced in a 2016 law making the regular consultation of websites deemed to contain material glorifying or inciting terrorism an offence – unless those websites were consulted in good faith, for research or professional reasons with the aim of informing the general public. The vague definition of the offence, along with the lack of guidelines about what constituted legitimate research purposes, increased the likelihood of a chilling effect on legitimate forms of expression and sharing information.

For example, one of France’s leading public research centers, the National Center for Scientific Research (known under its French acronym CNRS), even asked its researchers whose work led them to consult such websites to provide them with their names and coordinates to be able to defend them in case the police launched any investigation. The head of the CNRS’s social science institute noted that the law was, “dangerous for researchers.”

When the Constitutional Council first deemed the provision unconstitutional in February this year, instead of effectively addressing the court’s reasoning, French lawmakers tried to circumvent the ruling by adding a few words to the provision and adopting it again. Lawyers and French human rights organizations, the Ligue des droits de l’Homme and the Quadrature du Net, challenged the constitutionality of this barely modified provision, and today won, again.

The court has underlined that merely looking at websites or holding a certain heinous ideology does not justify loss of liberty. Let’s hope that the French legislators take the time now to understand and respect the court’s reasoning.

US Homeland Security Department Needs Accountability

Human Rights Watch - Friday, December 15, 2017

U.S. Department of Homeland Security emblem is pictured at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) located just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia September 24, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general, John Roth, recently retired, and Congress should take great care in vetting his replacement. The events surrounding Roth’s last weeks in office help illustrate just how important this is.

One of Roth’s last actions in office was to write a report critical of the Trump administration’s travel ban.

Roth’s report was held up for weeks before being provided to Congress. He wrote in a letter to Congress that he was “very troubled” by the move, saying such maneuvers could significantly hamper his office’s ability to hold the agency to account by masking the discovery “of decisions made based on illegitimate considerations, or evidence of outright misconduct.”

The inspector general, a presidentially appointed position, serves as a key watchdog of the DHS.

Roth’s review of DHS’ implementation of the “travel ban”, included damning findings. It concluded that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was given “virtually no warning” that the ban was to be issued and that neither CBP nor the DHS knew “the answers to basic questions as to the scope of the order.” Even more troubling, the report found that CBP “violated two separate court orders” in preventing affected travelers from boarding planes bound to the US.

The former inspector general’s findings are cause for alarm.

Given all this, Congress should closely monitor the DHS and carefully vet the next nominee for inspector general, when one is put forward. Accountability for DHS has never been more important than it is now, and the next inspector general should be up to the task and willing to speak truth to power. 

UK Judge Finds British Soldiers Responsible for Abuses in Iraq

Human Rights Watch - Friday, December 15, 2017

British soldiers prepare their Warrior armoured vehicle for patrolling through the area of Ahmed Al Ahamadi, 30 miles south west of Baghdad November 5, 2004.

© 2004 Reuters

Yesterday was a good – if belated – day for justice in the United Kingdom, with a court’s ruling that British troops were responsible for a slew of abuses against detainees in Iraq.

But today was not a good day for accurate reporting of the case, with London’s Daily Mail distorting the verdict, and giving it the headline: “Human Rights Fiasco.”

The facts are a British judge issued a detailed ruling on Thursday, after hearing extensive evidence, about the abuse of detainees by British troops during the Iraq occupation more than a decade ago. His findings, in a civil case for damages, that British forces inflicted inhuman and degrading treatment on detainees, makes for sobering reading.

One case concerned Abd Ali Hameed Ali Al-Waheed, a computer programmer whom British soldiers took from his home in 2007. The judge found he had been repeatedly beaten by the soldiers, probably with rifle butts, while being taken to a military base. At the base, British forces deliberately deprived him of sleep, and also of sight and hearing by covering up his eyes and ears for long periods and whenever he was taken from his cell to be interrogated. The judge found no justification for these abuses and ordered the Ministry of Defence to pay compensation to him and the other applicants.

The judge also found that Al-Waheed had been detained unlawfully for weeks, as British forces continued to hold him even after their detention review committee ordered his release. The judge’s ruling stated clearly that none of the Iraqi claimants, including Al-Waheed, had been engaged in terrorist activists or posed any threat to the security of Iraq.

None of this would be apparent from reading the Daily Mail’s front-page story, which glossed over the fact the judge found that British soldiers abused prisoners and that all the applicants were cleared of any suspicion of terrorism. It quotes a member of parliament, Johnny Mercer, attacking the ruling. Mercer previously successfully campaigned to get the UK government to shut down criminal investigations into war crimes in Iraq.

It is in the background of such attacks on attempts to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in Iraq, that a British judge has weighed up the evidence and ruled that unlawful abuses took place.

That isn’t a fiasco. It is justice doing its work.

Uganda: Police Raid Queer Kampala Film Festival

Human Rights Watch - Friday, December 15, 2017

Audience members watch films screened during the sold-out opening night of the 2017 Queer Kampala International Film Festival. Police raided and forcibly closed the festival on December 9, 2017. 

© 2017, Queer Kampala International Film Festival

(Nairobi, December 15, 2017) – Ugandan police raided and forcibly closed the Queer Kampala International Film Festival on December 9, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The festival featured films and documentaries portraying the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people. Police offered no formal legal basis for forcibly shutting down the festival.

The festival, held for the second year in Kampala, began on December 8. The festival organizer, Kamoga Hassan, told Human Rights Watch that the opening night was successful. A large audience responded positively to the films, he said, which included stories of LGBTIQ people coming to terms with their identities, fighting discrimination, engaging in activism, and falling in love. Organizers had hoped the stories shown during the festival would help to educate Ugandans about communities that face discrimination and marginalization in their country.

“The raid on the Queer Kampala International Film Festival is just the latest in a series of attacks on freedoms of expression, association and assembly for all Ugandans, including sexual and gender minorities.” said Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch. “Ugandans should be able to watch educational films about LGBT people without having to fear the police.”

On December 9, shortly before the films began, organizers received a tip-off that police intended to raid the festival and arrest participants if they did not disband. The organizers asked participants to leave. Shortly thereafter, three police officers entered the venue and told organizers that they were shutting down the festival because the films – many of which have received international acclaim – were “pornographic,” Hassan said.

“I was very surprised that they had to use a narrative that we were screening pornographic films – these were basically documentaries about people’s lived realities,” Hassan said, “Our constitution is clear. We’re not breaking laws.”

Uganda’s criminal code includes a colonial-era law prohibiting “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with possible sentences of up to life in prison. The law very rarely leads to prosecutions, but police have used it as a pretext to shut numerous events targeting LGBT audiences and their allies over the past several years, such as the entire 2017 annual Pride Week scheduled events, parades and a fashion show in previous Pride Weeks, and a human rights education workshop in 2012.

In January 2014, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which criminalized the undefined “promotion” of homosexuality and led to arrests, evictions, firings, and hate crimes against LGBT people. In August 2014, Uganda’s Constitutional Court declared the law null and void.

Ugandan officials have repeatedly banned events that they falsely claim “promote” homosexuality, Human Rights Watch said. A July 2014 High Court ruling, in violation of free assembly rights, endorsed Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo’s closure in 2012 of a human rights workshop organized by LGBT activists, claiming that workshop participants were “promoting” or “inciting” same-sex acts. Activists have appealed the ruling, but their appeal is yet to be heard.

In 2016, police raided a fashion show organized as part of the annual Pride celebrations – beating and humiliating participants, taking pictures of them without consent, and causing one participant to suffer severe injuries from jumping out of a window to escape police violence.

In August 2017, Lokodo ordered police to shut down all Pride events, stating that “No gay gathering and promotion can be allowed in Uganda,” media reports said.

“Human rights organizations have for the past few months been conducting human rights training amongst police officers,” said Clare Byarugaba, coordinator of the Equality and Non-discrimination Program at Chapter Four Uganda. “I question the value of these engagements, considering the police service’s continued deliberate suppression and violation of the rights of LGBT Ugandans.”

Ugandan police routinely violate free expression and assembly rights, particularly of people who criticize the government or who voice divergent views. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous instances in which police used excessive force in recent years, including around recent protests against removing a maximum age limit for presidential candidates from Uganda’s laws.

Hassan said he would try to reschedule the film festival after dialogue with the police.

“Police leadership should ensure the festival can be rescheduled and go forward free of harassment,” Ghoshal said. “Being LGBT is not a crime, and neither is seeking to better understand discrimination against LGBT people through film.”

The Draft Resolution’s Curious Paragraph 3

Opinio Juris - Friday, December 15, 2017
by Kevin Jon Heller

by Kevin Jon Heller A friend who is even more jaded than I called my attention to the following curious paragraph in the Draft Resolution the ASP has just adopted by consensus: 3.    Reaffirms paragraph 1 of article 40 and paragraph 1 of article 119 of the Rome Statute in relation to the judicial independence […]

ASP Adopts the Aggression Amendments by Consensus

Opinio Juris - Friday, December 15, 2017
by Kevin Jon Heller

by Kevin Jon Heller It went down to the wire, but it’s over. States reached consensus on adopting the aggression amendments — after those in the opt-out camp gave in to the opt-in camp. The adopted Draft Resolution provides the following: Confirms that… in the case of a State referral or proprio motu investigation the Court […]

Greece: Dire Risks for Women Asylum Seekers

Human Rights Watch - Friday, December 15, 2017


Moria hotspot on the island of Lesbos. Poor living conditions in the camp and overcrowded hotspots, with little to no access to basic services, such as sanitation and proper shelter, are key factors that contribute to psychological distress.

© September 2017 Private/Human Rights Watch (Athens) – Greek authorities are failing to provide adequate protection for women and girls living in government-run, European Union-sponsored facilities for asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos, Human Rights Watch said today.

In November, 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 asylum-seeking women and girls as young as 13, living in the Moria “hotspot” on Lesbos. They described harassment, the threat of gender-based violence, and health risks. Human Rights Watch found that the conditions resulted from insufficient security, poor hygiene and sanitation facilities, and failures in the system to identify and address the needs of vulnerable people.

“There is no excuse for failing to meet even the most basic standards for protection of women and girls almost two years after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The risks to women’s health and safety in Moria are dire, and as winter arrives, they will only get worse.”

End The Asylum Crisis on Greek Islands

Tell Greece’s Prime Minister to end the containment of asylum seekers on the Islands by December 21, and call on other European leaders to support Greece in doing so!

Act Now Thousands of women and girls are trapped on Greek islands, often in horrendous conditions, due to a “containment” policy for asylum seekers, to facilitate speedy processing and return to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal. “Hotspots” were established on several Greek islands to receive, identify, and process asylum seekers and migrants. Human Rights Watch has previously documented violence, insecurity, and unhygienic and unsanitary conditions in the hotspots. As of December 13, the population in Moria, which has a capacity of 2,330, was 6,238.

The women and girls interviewed described pervasive sexual harassment and a persistent sense of insecurity in Moria, and said authorities are unresponsive to their complaints and do not take adequate action to ensure their safety. One woman said she had been approached by a fellow asylum seeker asking for sex in exchange for money. Many said they do not feel safe moving around Moria alone and leave their shelters only in groups or accompanied by male relatives. A 17-year-old girl from Syria said: “Out of fear, I stay in the tent. I don’t go out.”

A 13-year-old girl from Syria who lives in a section of Moria reserved for women and girls travelling alone, said that male asylum-seekers call to women and girls using insulting and sexual terms. “The guys [living here], it’s like they’ve never seen a girl before,” she said.

She said another girl asylum seeker approached her about marrying the girl’s brother. “I was really scared,” she said. “I told her to go away. She left, but she looked at me with a lot of anger. I’ve seen her brother standing at the door [to the section], looking at us. I’m really afraid to go out.”

Frequent fights among asylum seekers – often among intoxicated men – leave women and girls feeling unsafe, and they said that authorities do nothing in response. “Even if there is fighting, the police just stand there watching while the men are bleeding,” said a 31-year-old Syrian woman. “It is impossible to go out by yourself because of the drinking [and] the fighting.”  

These findings echo what dozens of other female asylum seekers and representatives of agencies that provide aid to migrants told Human Rights Watch about conditions in the Greek hotspots, citing harassment, the threat of gender-based violence, and health risks, during earlier visits in 2016 and 2017.

Concerns about safety and inadequate facilities hinder women and girls’ access to toilets and showers. Female asylum seekers said that toilets and showers in Moria are not secure or private, and that they fear going alone. “We tell someone to come with us or we don’t wash ourselves,” said a 15-year-old girl from Syria.

Women and girls also said the toilets are unsanitary and unhygienic, with feces in some showers and toilets, and a lack of running water, forcing them to venture further from their tents to use alternate bathrooms. Human Rights Watch researchers have visited a number of toilets and showers in Moria and have confirmed these conditions. Some who live in tents in the section designated for unaccompanied women and girls said that other asylum seekers living in the containers, which house the section’s toilets, refuse them access.

Those interviewed also said that sanitation and hygiene are especially difficult during their periods, and that camp authorities provide few supplies such as sanitary pads.

In some cases, officials had failed to identify vulnerable women and girls, as Greek laws require, and to refer them to appropriate support services and accommodation. They include pregnant women and women who have recently given birth, survivors of sexual and other serious physical or psychological violence, trafficking victims, and people with disabilities.

Such vulnerable people are also entitled to exemption from the accelerated asylum border procedures and returns to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal, and to be given priority for transfer to the mainland, where more services are available. Human Rights Watch has previously documented indirect pressure from the EU on aid agencies and Greek authorities to minimize the number of people categorized as vulnerable and eligible for priority treatment.

Human Rights Watch interviewed women who clearly meet the vulnerability criteria but had not been given that status, including two who were nine months pregnant and sleeping on the ground in tents, and four who had informed authorities that they are survivors of rape, trafficking, or other gender-based violence.

Greek authorities, with EU support, should promptly investigate reports of harassment and violence in Moria and take urgent action to ensure that asylum-seeking women and girls can move freely around the hotspot and safely and securely access all of its facilities. There should be separate, secure shelter for women and girls traveling alone, and separate, secure, accessible, and hygienic toilets and bathing facilities that ensure privacy for men and women. Authorities should provide adequate lighting and identify and monitor high-risk areas. The EU and the Greek government should work together to identify asylum seekers in hotspots who meet “vulnerability” critera and facilitate their access to appropriate shelter, services, and asylum processes.

The recent announcement by Greece that 5,000 asylum seekers will be moved from the islands to the mainland by December 15 as an emergency decongestion measure is a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. A total of 2,000 people had been transferred from early December through December 13. But this measure is not sufficient to alleviate the overcrowding or address the systemic issues linked to the containment policy that have created this emergency situation.The Greek government should end the containment policy on the islands, including for women and girls, and, with the support of the EU and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, transfer asylum seekers to the mainland, and provide adequate accommodation.

Greek authorities are aware of overcrowding, poor hygiene and sanitation, and protection risks in Moria but have not acted to rectify the problems, both officials and aid workers interviewed at Moria told Human Rights Watch.

Greece should also ratify the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty on prevention of and response to violence against women, which guarantees protections and services for all women and girls regardless of residency status. Greece signed the Convention in May 2011 but has yet to ratify it.

“Asylum seekers fleeing war or abuse shouldn’t have to hide in their tents to feel safe in Europe,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek and EU authorities have a responsibility to put a stop to conditions that increase the risk of violence and harassment, and that deny women and girls privacy and dignity.”

Accounts of Women and Girls in Moria

Insecurity, Harassment

Nearly all of the 25 women and girls interviewed said that sexual harassment by male asylum seekers prevents them from moving freely around Moria. “Someone stopped me and asked me to have sex with him and he said he would pay me,” said Yusra, 31, from Yemen, whose name, as with others interviewed, was changed for her protection. “You hear this kind of thing every day: ‘Big ass,’ ‘Let me kiss you,’ ‘Come with me.’”

Nabila, 19, from Afghanistan, said that men also intimidate women by insulting them for not wearing a veil: “If a girl is walking alone, if she is not wearing a headscarf, they will say, ‘In just a few days here you have changed. What has happened to you?’ ”

Cynthia, 18, fled Cameroon – where homosexuality is illegal – because of persecution due to her sexual orientation. She said that fellow asylum seekers in Moria regularly harass and abuse her because of her sexual orientation and because she does not wear feminine clothing. She said that one male asylum seeker from Afghanistan threatened and assaulted her repeatedly: “He once pushed me against a tree by the throat. He said, ‘Don’t talk to Afghan women.’ I haven’t reported it. I’m afraid…. If I report it to the police, maybe they won’t do anything, [but] if he is reprimanded, his friends will come and hurt me.”

Women and girls said that when they reported harassment or protection concerns authorities in the hotspot did not address them. Several asylum seekers in the section for women and girls said that unaccompanied boys in an adjoining section or other males in the camp scale the fence between sections, and that they regularly come in and around the section at night, often drinking or using drugs. The women and girls’ section does not have its own designated guard.

Amal, 47, from Syria, said she reported the behavior to camp management, but to no avail. “I said we need someone to protect us in our section,” she said. “You told us when we arrived, ‘You are in a safe place here.’… But it is not a safe place. They didn’t respond – they did nothing.”

Yusra, 31, from Yemen, said that despite security at the entrance to Moria’s grounds, once inside the hotspot, there is little protection: “In your section, no one can save you. You are dealing with men, with drunks, with everything.” Yusra said she complained to police about an area near her section where people regularly do drugs, drink alcohol, and fight, but the police did nothing.

Wahida, 15, from Afghanistan, described a lawless atmosphere: “There are places to go report things, but they don’t care. That’s why mostly people solve this kind of problem themselves and there are fights.”

Women also said that inconsistent electricity sometimes leaves parts of the hotspot in darkness, creating additional fear and risk, especially at night. Sadia, 36, from Afghanistan, lives in Moria with her son and three daughters, ages 9 to 15. “We don’t go out alone,” she said. “If it’s possible, we don’t go outside at night. If you have to, you wake up another woman [to go with you].” Fatima, 31, from Syria, said her 11-year-old daughter fell on an unlit path one night and scraped her leg badly. Both women said they had requested flashlights from the management but had not received them.

Vulnerable Women and Girls

Under Greek law, pregnant women, new mothers, and survivors of sexual and gender based violence and trafficking are among those categorized as vulnerable and requiring access to special protection.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented the failure of Greek authorities and supporting partners to identify vulnerable people, and the lack of access to urgently-needed mental health care and psychosocial support for all asylum seekers on the Greek islands.

Human Rights Watch interviewed women at Moria who clearly meet the vulnerability criteria but had not been classified as such by Greek authorities, including four survivors of rape, trafficking, and other gender-based violence.

Farah, 42, said she fled Iran when her family threatened her for marrying someone from a different ethnic group, and that a smuggler raped her en route to Greece. She said she disclosed her experience, including the rape, to a government psychologist when she arrived on Lesbos, but the psychologist did not categorize her as vulnerable. She attempted suicide at Moria by swallowing prescription medications but was not relocated or provided psychological care.

“When I went to the psychologist and explained that I had tried twice to kill myself, she just passed over it like it was nothing,” Farah said. When she sought additional help, “[The doctor] said I need to see a psychologist. I went to the psychologist. She said I need to make an appointment. They gave me an appointment for January [2018]. I told them that’s too late, but they said that you have to pay money to go sooner.”

Cynthia, 18, who fled Cameroon because of persecution based on her sexual orientation, said she has experienced ongoing harassment in Moria since arriving in June because she identifies as a lesbian and wears clothing that does not conform to gender norms. She said that she disclosed full details of the harassment at Moria, as well as her previous experiences of persecution based on her sexual orientation, during her asylum interview in July. She also said she had sought help from a social assistant at Moria, telling the person about the recurrent harassment and threats and that she needed to be transferred elsewhere. As of mid-November, she remained at Moria.


Human Rights Watch interviewed three pregnant women in Moria, and one who was pregnant upon arrival but suffered a miscarriage soon after. Two women who were nine months pregnant were sleeping on the ground in tents.

“It is very difficult to sleep comfortably,” said Qasima, 20, from Afghanistan. Her previous pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. “I really need to move. I told [officials], but they didn’t say anything specific. They just said I’m on the list [for transfer to another site].” She also said that accessing the hotspot’s toilets and other facilities is a problem: “It is difficult to walk because there are no real paths. I am afraid I will fall.”

Rasha, 19, from Syria and also nine months pregnant, said: “Going to the toilet is very difficult, because my belly is big, and it is very cold.” Rasha said that she had been living in a tent with her husband and 8-year-old brother for a month, and that no one had discussed moving her to other accommodation. The family uses one of their three allotted blankets to cover the ground, and shares the other two for warmth.

With winter approaching, Rasha said, she was suffering from the cold: “We went [three times] to the place to get blankets and said I was pregnant, but they didn’t give us more.” International humanitarian standards call for vulnerable people, including pregnant and lactating women, to receive additional bedding and clothing in line with their needs.

Neither woman had received comprehensive pre-natal medical care or had information about whom to contact when she went into labor or where she could deliver her baby. “I don’t know if they will even take me to the hospital to give birth,” Qasima said. “Most of the time I just cry because I don’t know what will happen” There have been reports of women giving birth in their tents at hotspots on other islands due to lack of available medical care.

A third woman, who was five months pregnant and whose five previous pregnancies ended in miscarriages, said that doctors at a Lesbos hospital told her she needed specialized medical care in Athens for her high-risk pregnancy. She continued to live in a tent in Moria for one month, and though she had been transferred to a site with better conditions on Lesbos, she had still not been relocated to Athens or seen medical specialists.

Poor Hygiene, Sanitation     

All of the women and girls interviewed said that they did not feel safe using toilets and showers in Moria, and that the facilities are unsanitary, unhygienic, and insecure. Mariam, 21, from Syria, said that because of the distance to other toilets, men and women living in her area were sharing one toilet without a secure door. “The door is only tied with a rope,” she said. “The lock is broken.” Guidelines on prevention of gender-based violence in displacement settings from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) call for gender-separated toilets and bathing facilities with working locks, adequate lighting, and privacy.

Wahida, 15, from Afghanistan said that the toilet near the tent she shared with her mother, four sisters, and one brother was too dirty to use, but that other toilets are difficult to access. “There was a toilet closer to our tents, but it is so dirty – inside, it is full of shit everywhere,” she said. “The other one is better, but it is far away. It is 50 meters uphill and my mother has a knee problem, so it is too difficult for her.” Other women said that not all the toilets in the site have running water, forcing them to use toilets far from their shelters and making the functioning toilets overcrowded.

The lack of toilets for overcrowded shelters leads to open defecation in non-toilet facilities. Wahida said the tent she lives in with her family was meant for 10 people but houses 17. She and other women and girls said that people defecate in the showers, and there is increased risk of exposure to human feces, especially for females, due to lack of privacy in the shelters. Wahida said that the only place to change clothes in private is in the dirty showers: “It is horrible because, in the shower, you go normally to clean yourself, but [in Moria] you worry about getting dirty because inside, people use it as a toilet.”

Some women said that, because they share living space with other families, they are unable to remove their hijab, or headscarf, as they normally would at home. They said that the difficulty of bathing and changing and washing clothing, caused skin conditions and gynecological infections. They described symptoms including skin irritation, itching, and burning during urination.

Menstrual Hygiene

Some women and girls said there had previously been distributions of sanitary pads, but that these ceased around September. Others said they were given sanitary pads only once or twice after arriving on Lesbos. Wahida, 15, from Afghanistan, said that having her period is very difficult due to the lack of clean and easily accessible toilets with running water, and a dearth of supplies. “When we first arrived, they gave us a bag with some women’s stuff inside,” she said. “But it finished quickly, and you don’t know if you can ask for more.”

Women and girls said that since the distribution of sanitary pads stopped, they have to use their cash allowance to buy the products or rely on distributions at volunteer-run centers. Djamila, 13, from Syria, said she had not yet received cash assistance and had to ask other asylum seekers for sanitary pads. “I have to go to another girl to ask for one or two to manage [my period],” she said. “It’s like [the people distributing them] make fun of us because we go back and ask [for more] and they don’t give it to us.”

Some women said that poor sanitation in Moria exacerbates the difficulty of managing their periods and maintaining hygiene. They said that, during their periods, they carry water to their shelters every day to wash their clothing, and use the toilets even if they are not clean or easily accessible. “It is very difficult because the bathroom is far from here, and I have three kids, and I also have to carry water,” said Yara, 21, from Syria.

Legal Obligations; International Standards

Under Greek law, nine categories of people, including pregnant women, unaccompanied children, victims of torture, survivors of sexual or gender-based violence, and people with disabilities are considered vulnerable or at-risk. The law grants them special protection, including access to services, and exempts them from the accelerated admissibility process under the EU-Turkey deal. They are entitled to priority in the regular Greek asylum system and, transfer to the mainland, where they could more easily access services.

The Greek Reception and Identification Service, staffed by government doctors, psychologists and social workers, is responsible for identifying and registering people in vulnerable groups upon their arrival. The European Asylum Support Office supports the Greek Asylum Service in conducting vulnerability assessments.

The Sphere project, which sets international standards for hunaitarian assistance, calls for safe and equal access to water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities for everyone in the affected population, including private, secure toilets and bathing areas for women. The standards also call for provision of “appropriate materials for menstrual hygiene” to all women and girls of menstruating age, as well as means to discreetly launder or dispose of menstrual hygiene materials.

International guidelines on prevention of and response to gender-based violence in emergencies call for mitigating the risk of gender-based violence from the earliest stages of crisis response, including by providing sufficient lighting in all communal spaces; separate, private, and secure toilets and bathing facilities for men and women; and separate, secure accommodation for unaccompanied women and children. Authorities should also ensure appropriate mechanisms for reporting violence and harassment; promptly investigate and respond to complaints; and identify and monitor areas in displacement sites where there is high risk of gender-based violence and take needed security measures.

Under the Minimum Initial Services Package (MISP) for reproductive health in emergencies, displaced populations and relevant service providers should have information about how to access health services that can manage both normal and complicated pregnancy and delivery. Women in late-stage pregnancy should receive clean-delivery kits for home births if delivery in a clinic or hospital setting is not available. Referral systems for emergency obstetric care should be established in the initial stages of an emergency, and pregnant women and health providers should know how to get such care.

Response from Authorities

Greek authorities are aware of overcrowding, poor hygiene and sanitation, and protection risks in Moria but have not acted to rectify the problems. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch in late September, 2017, an official responsible for managing Moria acknowledged that the hotspot is well over capacity and said he had asked the central authorities repeatedly to transfer asylum seekers to the mainland before the onset of winter, but in vain.

Also in early October, Human Rights Watch researchers testified before Greek parliament about the conditions in Moria, including problems for people with disabilities. In response, the parliamentary committee on October 4 adopted a resolution to make an official visit and investigate the situation. As of December 15, the visit had not taken place, nor had a date been announced.

International aid organizations, including UNHCR, have repeatedly denounced the unsanitary, unhygienic, and unsafe conditions in Moria.

One humanitarian aid worker who had worked with two different organizations inside Moria said that she left her job in September due to the inhumane conditions she witnessed and the lack of response when authorities were informed of instances of attempted suicide, self-harm, sexual exploitation, and physical assault inside the hotspot. “I tried my best to report it,” she said, referring to efforts to tell police about abuse occurring inside Moria. “Nothing has changed.”

Turkey: Saudi Sisters at Risk of Forced Return

Human Rights Watch - Friday, December 15, 2017

Ashwaq Hamoud and Areej Hamoud, in still from video, fled Saudi Arabia in late February to Turkey to escape abuse from male family members.

(Istanbul) – Two Saudi sisters in Turkish police custody are at risk of forced return to Saudi Arabia, where they could face serious harm from Saudi authorities or family members, Human Rights Watch said today. One of the sisters lost a challenge to her deportation in a Turkish court in December 2017 and is at immediate risk of deportation, while the other’s case is still in process.

The sisters, Ashwaq Hamoud, 30, and Areej Hamoud, 28, said they fled Saudi Arabia in late February to Turkey to escape abuse from male family members, ranging from beatings to being locked in their room and deprived of food. Turkish authorities detained the sisters on May 16, in Istanbul when they attempted to follow up on applications for residency permits.

“Saudi women fleeing their family or the country can face so-called ‘honor’ violence or other serious harm if returned against their will,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Turkey returns these women, the consequences could be dire.”

The sisters are at risk of serious harm if returned to their family. They also face possible criminal charges, in violation of their basic rights, including for “parental disobedience,” which can result in punishments ranging from being returned to their guardian’s home to imprisonment, as well as charges of “harming the reputation of the kingdom” due to their public requests for assistance.

The sisters’ lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he challenged a deportation order for the sisters in May.

The father of the two sisters informed the Turkish authorities that he believed the two were planning to travel to Syria to join a militant group. The sisters have denied the allegation. There is no known criminal investigation into the women by the Turkish authorities in connection with their father's allegation.

The lawyer said that he viewed the sisters’ boarding passes, which indicated that the sisters attempted to flee to New Zealand on February 8 via Hong Kong from Abu Dhabi but were not permitted to board their connecting flight to Hong Kong because officials suspected that the purpose of the sisters’ trip was to claim asylum rather than tourism. The sisters instead decided to fly from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul on February 9 and stay in Turkey rather than return to Saudi Arabia, the lawyer said.

Following their detention on May 16, the sisters issued a series of videos from their mobile phone in which they claimed they fled family abuse and feared they would be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia.

Theirs is the latest in a series of high-profile cases in which Saudi women say they fled abusive families and are at risk of forcible return. In April, Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman, was returned to Saudi Arabia against her will while in transit in the Philippines. Mariam al-Otaibi, 29, fled abusive family members in al-Qassim Province for Riyadh in April, only to be captured by authorities and jailed. Authorities released al-Otaibi in late July.

Human Rights Watch has documented how under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry, or be released from prison, and may be required to provide guardian consent to work or get health care. These restrictions last from birth until death, as women are, in the view of the Saudi state, permanent legal minors.

While Saudi Arabia has some regulations on domestic violence, guardianship makes it incredibly difficult for victims of violence to seek protection or obtain legal redress for abuse. The near impossibility of transferring guardianship away from abusive relatives can condemn women to a life of violence. Shelters for survivors of domestic violence often send women back to their abusers if they sign a pledge not to harm them, and women cannot leave such shelters without a male relative to receive them.

“Saudi women face systematic discrimination every day, and the Hamoud sisters’ case shows that women who flee face the real threat of being returned to abusive families,” Whitson said.

South Sudan: Stop Delays on Hybrid Court

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 14, 2017
Launch Gallery

(Nairobi) – South Sudan’s top officials have failed to make good on promises to establish an African Union-South Sudanese hybrid court to try international crimes committed during the country’s civil war, Human Rights Watch said today. Four years into the conflict, both parties continue to commit grave human rights crimes against civilians.

Despite the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS), which envisioned the hybrid court, abuses by all parties persist as the conflict continues to spread. South Sudan’s transitional government has neither ended violations by its army nor made progress toward setting up the court. The lack of progress points to the need for measures like targeted sanctions against officials responsible and an arms embargo, Human Rights Watch said.

“The government has consistently let deadlines slip while its forces commit crimes with impunity” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The people of South Sudan deserve justice, not a chain of broken promises, and so the international community should impose consequences.”

In September 2017, the AU Peace and Security Council issued a communiqué on South Sudan, warning that it would consider necessary steps, including sanctions, should the South Sudanese parties continue to delay implementing the peace agreement in full. The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, during a visit to South Sudan in October, similarly warned of sanctions if the government did not live up to its pledges.

South Sudan’s civil war began on December 15, 2013, when troops loyal to president Salva Kiir – a Dinka – clashed with those of then-Vice-President Riek Machar – a Nuer – in the capital, Juba. Within hours, mainly Dinka government troops carried out large-scale targeted killings, detentions, and torture of mainly Nuer civilians in various parts of Juba, while thousands of Nuer soldiers defected to an opposition army. In the following months, fighting spread to Bor, Bentiu, Malakal, and across the Greater Upper Nile region. As towns changed hands, soldiers on both sides killed thousands of civilians, often based on their ethnicity, and destroyed and pillaged civilian property.

In late 2015, conflict spread to the Equatorias, as new rebel groups claiming an affiliation formed, and government forces carried out deadly counterinsurgency campaigns in previously stable regions south and west of the capital. Government soldiers and allied fighters have attacked civilians sheltering inside the UN bases in Malakal and Juba, in blatant violation of international law. In July 2016, government and opposition forces fought in Juba and government forces attacked, killed, and raped civilians, including displaced people and foreign aid workers. Since the Juba crisis, government forces have continued to fight rebels in Central and Western Equatoria, Unity, and northern Jonglei.

The impact of the violence and abuses is devastating. More than 4 million people have fled their homes, with more than 2 million now refugees in neighboring countries. In February, the UN declared a famine in parts of Unity state, and almost half the country’s population faces acute food shortages.

In October 2015, the AU released the final report of the Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan (AUCoISS), which found that the warring parties had committed grave human rights abuses and war crimes. The commission’s findings were largely consistent with Human Rights Watch reporting, and proposed creating an AU-led process to bring those with the greatest responsibility for the atrocities to account.


South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (bottom L) and South Sudan's rebel commander Riek Machar (bottom R), together with African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui (top L), Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (top C) and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, attend the signing a ceasefire agreement during the Inter Governmental Authority on Development Summit on the case of South Sudan in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Feburary 1, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

The August 2015 agreement included a hybrid court to be established by the AU Commission to investigate and try those responsible for grave abuses since 2013. Under the agreement, the court is to consist of South Sudanese and other African judges and staff. Human Rights Watch findings on significant weaknesses in the national justice system support the need for the court.

More than two years later, the court has yet to be created.

In early 2017, the AU held consultations with the South Sudanese Justice Ministry that led to a draft statute for the court and a memorandum of understanding between the AU and the South Sudanese government on the establishment of the court. Both documents were submitted to the South Sudan council of ministers in August, but the government has taken no further action.

In a September communiqué, the AU Peace and Security Council said the South Sudanese government should expedite creating the court and completing its part of the agreement, or face “necessary steps, including sanction measures, that could ensure effective and efficient implementation” of the agreement.

In December, government officials told Human Rights Watch researchers in Juba that a number of key ministers oppose the court, including the communications minister, Michael Makuei – against whom the US brought sanctions in September for undermining the peace process; the cabinet affairs minister, Martin Elia Lomuro; and the defense minister, Kuol Manyang.

Under the August 2015 agreement, the AU Commission has the authority to establish the court with or without the engagement of the South Sudanese government. If the transitional government continues to ignore its responsibilities under Chapter V of the peace agreement, the AU should proceed with the court on its own, Human Rights Watch said.

If a credible, fair, and independent hybrid court does not progress, the option of the International Criminal Court (ICC) remains and should be pursued, Human Rights Watch said. As South Sudan is not a party to the ICC, the UN Security Council would need to refer the situation to the court in the absence of a request from the government of South Sudan.

“The AU should ensure progress on the hybrid court, if necessary without cooperation from South Sudan’s leaders, or consider coercive measures like targeted sanctions against anyone responsible for obstruction,” Segun said. “If the leaders won’t stand by the victims of atrocities, the African Union should step up and show it won’t abandon this precedent-setting plan for accountability in one of the continent’s worst human rights crises.”

Documented Violations, Abuses Since the Peace Agreement

Since the 2015 peace deal was signed, Human Rights Watch has documented scores of cases of arbitrary arrests and detention, beatings, and torture, as well as numerous cases of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings, mostly by government forces in the context of counterinsurgency operations, but also crimes by opposition forces. Both sides also continued to forcefully recruit children to train and fight, despite pledges to stop. Army commanders overseeing abusive operations have not been investigated.

In March 2016, Human Rights Watch documented that government forces carried out killings, enforced disappearances, rapes, and other grave abuses against civilians belonging to Equatorian ethnic groups in the Western Equatoria region. Among those killed was a 34-year-old man arrested by soldiers in the Napere neighborhood of Yambio in November and detained for two months. His brother said he found the body weeks later: “He was tied and his face was rotten. All of his body was rotten. But I recognized him from his clothes, feet, and fingers.” The army commander of Yambio at the time, Col. Makeny Makor Buoy, was neither investigated nor tried. He was rotated to his home region of Lakes.

In Wau, in April 2016, researchers discovered that government soldiers had carried out a wide range of often-deadly attacks on civilians in and around the town, killing, torturing, raping, and detaining and disappearing civilians on the basis of their ethnicity, in addition to looting and burning down homes. A 55-year-old woman said that soldiers came to her village outside of Wau in March and shot her 60-year-old husband in the stomach and her 29-year-old son in the neck: “We were at home and then we heard shooting and we hit the ground and crawled away when a group of soldiers came in. There was no reason for them to target us.” The army commander of Wau at the time, Maj. Gen. Attayib “Taitai” Gatluak, was not investigated for his role in the crimes committed by his forces there, and has faced no charges for his participation in, or command responsibility for, any crimes.

Government soldiers killed at least 73 civilians, raped dozens of women, and extensively looted civilian property, including humanitarian goods, during and after clashes between government and opposition forces in Juba in July 2016. In many cases, government forces appeared to target non-Dinka civilians. A 35-year-old man said that two army picks-ups surrounded the hotel where he hid with 27 other Nuer men shortly before a ceasefire ended the fighting on July 11. A soldier knocked at the door and asked if any Nuer were staying there. “We urged the guard not to open. They asked, ‘Why are you hiding Nuer!’ and then they started to shoot with their heavy machine guns through the doors and wall. That’s how my friend Mading Chan was killed.”

The same day, a large number of soldiers overran the Terrain compound that housed a number of international organizations, executed a Nuer journalist, raped and gang-raped several women, and assaulted dozens of staff. International pressure led the government to establish an ad hoc tribunal to try armed personnel responsible for the attack, but no credible investigation was carried out to determine the responsibility for the scores of South Sudanese women raped, or civilians killed during and after the fighting officially ended in Juba on July 11.

The army chief of staff at the time, Paul Malong Awan, was replaced in April 2017, and has yet to be subject to criminal investigation to determine his responsibility for crimes committed while he was in command. He has since left South Sudan for Kenya.

In October 2016, researchers found that government and opposition forces had committed serious abuses in Yei, including killings, rapes, and arbitrary arrests by the army, and abductions by the rebels. On October 8, rebels ambushed a convoy of civilians leaving Yei and shot indiscriminately at a truck, then set it on fire. An 11-year-old boy who survived the attack said: “They started to shoot and I lay down [in the truck]. Others fell on top of me. One had been shot to the head.”

In mid-November 2016, an international journalist found seven charred bodies in a mud house in the outskirts of Yei, in a government-controlled area. Witnesses quoted by the Associated Press said the deceased were civilians who had been abducted and killed by men wearing uniforms. More than a dozen former detainees, released at the time of the Human Rights Watch visit, said they had been held by government forces in overcrowded cells in Yei with little food and water and routinely beaten and tortured.

In refugee camps in northern Uganda in May 2017, researchers heard from South Sudanese refugees that government forces indiscriminately fired into civilian settlements in the Equatoria region during counterinsurgency operations, killing many civilians. The attacks forced over a million South Sudanese to abandon their homes and livelihoods and flee across the border.

A woman from Kajo Keji county said that soldiers killed her husband and her two children, ages 5 and 10, while she was cooking dinner at home in January 2017: “About 10 soldiers came to our house. My son told me they had come, and my husband went out. They shot him. Then my other son followed him and they shot both boys. One soldier ran after me and severely twisted my arm. I managed to get away. And I just ran. With one arm, how do I care for my other children and my mother? I want to commit suicide.” 

A Different View of the Aggression Activation Negotiations – A Perspective from the Ground

Opinio Juris - Thursday, December 14, 2017
by Gregory Gordon

by Gregory Gordon [Gregory Gordon is Associate Professor of Law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong] I’m here on the ground in New York and I want to provide an additional perspective on Kevin’s post. First, the document he has posted is strictly a transitory draft meant only to facilitate discussion. In no way […]

The Opt-Out Camp Possibly Folds — Clearing Way for Aggression?

Opinio Juris - Thursday, December 14, 2017
by Kevin Jon Heller

by Kevin Jon Heller A new document is being circulated at the Assembly of States Parties entitled “Draft Resolution: Activation of the jurisdiction of the Court over the crime of aggression.” Operative Provision 1(b) seems to indicate that the opt-out camp, led by Liechtenstein, has conceded the jurisdictional point to the opt-in camp, led by Japan, Canada, and […]

We Need a “Clean” Dream Act Now, More Reform Later

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 14, 2017

The bridge between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. © 2017 Human Rights Watch

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security proudly announced a stark 42 percent increase in immigration arrests in the interior of the country, rather than at the border, during the first eight months of the Trump administration, from the inauguration to September 30. Department officials emphasized that “no category of removable aliens would be exempt from enforcement.”

These numbers are nothing to crow about. The surge in these arrests doesn’t just mean that US Immigration and Enforcement (ICE) is working harder. It means ICE is uprooting more immigrants who have lived in the US for many years and separating more families.

The Barcenas family is just one example. David Barcenas, who was brought to the US when he was 2 years old, was deported in May after almost 30 years in the US. He met Melissa, a US citizen, in 2008 and they quickly became a family with her two daughters from a previous relationship and their two children who came soon afterward. They were very much an American family. They had a happy life in Victoria, Texas, a routine of church on Sundays, followed by visits to the park or weekend trips to Corpus Christi.

But after a traffic stop, local police discovered that David was driving without a license. He was quickly arrested by immigration authorities and soon after deported to Mexico, a country he hardly remembered. His most serious run-in with law enforcement had been a conviction for driving under the influence over 10 years earlier. Since his deportation, Melissa has struggled emotionally and financially to take care of their children. “We cry daily for him. It doesn’t get easier with time,” she told us. David’s stepdaughter, Alyssa, said, “It feels like our family’s broken.”

David wasn’t eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals because of the DUI, but he could have benefited from the DREAM Act.

Stories like Melissa and David’s are not unique. Our staff and volunteers interviewed recently deported immigrants in Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, Mexico, during multiple visits to the border over eight months. We documented 43 cases of immigrants, many with strong ties to US families and communities, whose deportation has been devastating not only for them, but for their families and communities as well.

Alexis G., who also grew up in the US, told us, “If I were to sing an anthem right now, it would be the Star-Spangled Banner – I don’t know the Mexican anthem.” Lucia H., a farmworker from California, said since her deportation, her 5-year-old son had stopped eating and had to be hospitalized, and her 14-year-old son had suffered a breakdown and was receiving therapy.

DHS in its release also said it was prioritizing “its resources to enhance public safety and border security.” But a close look at its numbers makes clear that immigration arrests of people with no criminal convictions during the first eight months of the Trump administration nearly tripled compared with approximately the same period in 2016. “Sonia H.” told us: “I’ve never committed a crime, I’ve never been in jail. I didn’t drive because I didn’t have a license.” Her 9-year-old US citizen son now lives in a children’s home run by nuns in Laredo, Texas.

Even among those with criminal convictions, as Human Right Watch analysis has revealed in previous years, the large majority are not the dangerous, violent criminals highlighted in President Trump’s rhetoric and in ICE news releases.

Congress and the Trump administration should reform abusive immigration law and policy so that anyone facing deportation gets a fair, individualized hearing in which the person’s ties to US families and communities can be weighed against the government’s interest in deporting them. Those same ties should become the basis for a fair legalization program.

At the very least, Congress should pass a “clean” DREAM Act with no accompanying harmful trade-offs such as reduced protections for child migrants and refugees, as the White House has indicated it seeks. Congress should also decline any administration requests to increase funding of immigration enforcement efforts that are not tied to long overdue reforms to immigration law as well as efforts to increase transparency and address abusive conditions in immigration detention.

Without reform and limits to abusive immigration enforcement, many more American families will end up needlessly broken

I Didn’t Report Being Sexually Assaulted. Here’s Why.

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 14, 2017

Protesters hold signs to raise awareness of sexual assault on campus at the Stanford University commencement ceremony in Palo Alto, California on U.S. June 12, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

Eighty percent of female university students who have been sexually assaulted do not report it. I am one of them. Now, I fear that the US Department of Education will make it even harder for survivors like me to come forward.

During my freshman spring at Dartmouth College, I ran into a man I had only met once at a social gathering. Afterwards, he led me to his room to continue a conversation, but then became aggressive. He repeatedly ignored my calls to stop, and I became numb as I lost control of my body. Because there were no witnesses, and I took days to process the event, reporting it to police and taking him to court seemed hopeless. I feared social stigma, reprisal, and academic repercussions from the hours needed to report. He graduated that spring.

Earlier that year, my 19-year-old classmate was raped by a man who entered her room while she was asleep. She notified the police and I watched as she withstood weeks of fierce and skeptical cross-examination by a famous attorney. The trial, which included character witness testimony focused on the fact that she had previously drank alcohol and invited overnight guests, resulted in a not guilty verdict. Her attacker was cleared of seven charges of rape and finished his degree. My classmate transferred to another university.

The lesson my friends and I learned was this – stay silent, or be victimized further. The process of reporting an assault can retraumatize a survivor and the system is often stacked against victims in a variety of ways, as Human Rights Watch researchers found in a 2014 study of the police’s handling of sexual assault cases in Washington, DC.

Properly enforced legislation like Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in education, can help stop violence against women. While Title IX is known for opening up athletic opportunities for female students, it also requires federally funded educational institutions to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and assault. Implementation has been patchy, but Obama-era guidance elaborated schools’ obligations and marked a new era of increased scrutiny and enforcement.

But in September, the Department of Education issued a letter rescinding this guidance. Candice Jackson, then the department’s acting head of civil rights said, 90 percent of campus sexual assault allegations either, “fall into the category of, ‘we were both drunk,’” or, “we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.” Jackson later apologized for this dangerous misrepresentation, but the Trump administration has yet to give us any reason to have faith in its intentions. They also said police are better equipped to handle campus rape. But the truth is that police often fail – and even re-traumatize – women who come forward to report sexual assault.

Rape is already extremely underreported in the US, especially by students survivors. In this #MeToo moment, the government should be strengthening, not walking back support to survivors.

Kenya: Sexual Violence Marred Elections

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 14, 2017

Widespread sexual violence marred Kenya’s 2017 elections. The Kenyan government should urgently take steps to protect women and girls, as well as men and boys, from sexual violence.

(Nairobi) – Widespread sexual violence marred Kenya’s 2017 elections, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Kenyan government should urgently take steps to protect women and girls, as well as men and boys, from sexual violence.

The 31-page report, “‘They Were Men in Uniform’: Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Kenya’s 2017 Elections,” documents the devastating physical, mental, social, and economic impact of gender-based violence and serious human rights abuses surrounding the recent elections. Human Rights Watch found that the government failed to prevent election-related sexual violence, properly investigate cases, hold attackers accountable, and ensure that survivors have access to comprehensive, quality, and timely post-rape care. Many attacks were by security forces, survivors said. Expand

Judith Wavinya (not her real name), 30, was attacked by two men on the night of August 11, 2017, as she was walking home. They asked if she knew them, threatened her with knives, and took her to an isolated place where they beat her badly and one of them raped her vaginally and anally. She is one of the few survivors who sought medical treatment immediately after the rape, but says she continues to experience chronic and incapacitating health problems including back pain, pain when passing stool and injuries to her left ear—that she says does not hear well since the attack. She stopped working and is struggling to provide for herself and her three young children. Her husband, who had abandoned her before the rape, stopped giving financial support after he learned that she was raped. 

© 2017 Bonnie Katei for Human Rights Watch

“The impact of sexual violence on survivors is devastating,” said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Almost all women and girls we spoke to suffered physical harm and profound mental trauma and feared that their attackers may never be held accountable.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 68 females, three male survivors of sexual violence, and 12 witnesses in Mathare, Dandora, and Kibera in Nairobi, and in Kisumu and Bungoma in western Kenya. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 12 Kenyan and international civil society activists and community volunteers providing services to women. Human Rights Watch identified significant barriers that prevent many survivors from getting even basic medical and mental health support services and from seeking justice.

The women and girls interviewed described brutal gang rapes involving two or more attackers. Many said that they were raped vaginally and anally, that they were penetrated with objects, or that dirt was inserted into their private parts. Some were raped in the presence of family members, including young children. Most women said they were raped by policemen or men in uniform, many of whom carried guns, batons, teargas canisters, whips, and wore helmets and other anti-riot gear. In at least one case, a girl died after being raped.

A 27-year-old woman interviewed had given birth on August 7, and was raped by three policemen on August 11. “I feel useless,” she said, describing her life afterward. “I don’t speak to people. I feel so sad. I feel as if I have reached the end. I think of killing myself.”

Many women and girls said they suffered incapacitating physical injury or experienced other health consequences that left some unable to work or care for their families. Young girls said they experience nightmares, lack of sleep, listlessness, fear, and anxiety that limits their ability to study.

Most had not received post-rape medical or psychological care, including medication to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancy. Barriers included insecurity, the cost of services or transportation, stigma, a lack of health facilities, and a lack of information about the importance of timely treatment or where survivors could get free treatment. Some women who received medical treatment said that the services were not comprehensive, there was no forensic documentation of sexual violence, or that they did not get appropriate referrals for medical treatment, counseling support, or to the criminal justice system.

A history of impunity for sexual violence in Kenya seriously undermines women’s ability to report sexual crimes to the police, Human Rights Watch said. Very few women said they made police reports, and many expressed a lack of confidence in the police due to a long history of human rights abuses and corruption. Others said they feared retaliation. Some women who did try to report sexual violence said that police sent them away without taking statements, ridiculed or verbally abused them, or failed to follow up on complaints. December 14, 2017 Report “They Were Men in Uniform”

Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Kenya’s 2017 Elections

One woman who said she was raped in the presence of police, along with five other women, described what happen when they tried to report the attack: “They asked, ‘How do you know they were police?’ They said, ‘If you had been raped you would have gone to hospital first. Where is the evidence? How can we believe you?’ They told us we must have enjoyed the rape.”

The Kenyan government has long ignored election-related sexual crimes and victims’ suffering, Human Rights Watch said. Thousands of women and girls are estimated to have been raped during the 2007-2008 political violence, including by state security agents. They continue to suffer serious physical and psychological trauma, and socioeconomic hardship almost a decade later, and very few cases have been properly investigated or attackers held accountable.

Past government plans to assist victims of the 2007-2008 violence have excluded rape survivors, and they have not received medical or other assistance. Barriers to reporting, problems with the collection of forensic evidence, and the unwillingness of authorities to initiate genuine, credible, and fair investigations and prosecutions to punish attackers were key challenges in Kenya after the 2007-2008 election-related rapes, and remain a problem.

The Kenyan government should change its approach. It should ensure that all sexual assault victims get timely, quality, and confidential post-rape treatment, including psychosocial, or mental health, care for themselves and their families, and inform communities where victims can get post-rape care, including free treatment. The Kenyan government should ensure that credible investigations are conducted into all allegations of elections-related sexual violence.

“Sexual violence survivors should not be left suffering and ashamed of being victims while the Kenyan government shows no shame at failing to meet their needs or to prosecute their attackers,” Odhiambo said. “Instead of downplaying the election-related sexual abuse, the Kenyan government should ensure that all survivors get appropriate medical care and justice.”

Selected Accounts

Names of victims have been changed for their protection.

Rose Otieno, 37, was in her house with her five children on the night of August 11. She said that two men dressed in green-and-black uniforms, boots, and helmets broke into her house. One had a gun, the other a baton and a whip. They asked her where her husband was. “One asked me to say, ‘I do not support Raila [Odinga, the presidential challenger], I support Uhuru [Kenyatta, the winner].’ I refused…. The other one said, ‘Let’s teach her a lesson.’ He raped me in the presence of my children.” She said that due to the stigma and rejection attached to rape: “I didn’t go to hospital. I feared, I was ashamed. I have never gone to hospital. I feared because if you tell someone, even the doctor, you will hear about it.”

Liz Nzau said that she was on her way home from work on the night of August 11 when she met a group of young Kikuyu men who were out celebrating Kenyatta’s victory. They asked her, “Why are you not joining the celebration? You are Luo, you are NASA [National Super Alliance] supporter.” She said: “They took me into a shack where there were five other women. They brought some dirty-looking men who raped us as police walked around the shack. They were moving from one woman to another. They were slapping us and beating us with a rubber whip, and urinating on us. One of the women had her [menstrual] period and they wore a plastic paper bag when raping her. One of the women said they inserted a medicine bottle in her anus.”

On August 11, Gladys Moraa went to help her neighbor’s young child, who had been hit with a teargas canister. In the ensuing chaos, Grace tripped and fell: “A police officer kicked me on my upper back with his booted feet. I couldn’t move. He raped me and left. Another one came, kicked me on the stomach and back, and raped me. I thought I would die. I was in serious pain.” “My back pains a lot,” she said. “My business was destroyed, and now I do casual work washing for people. But most of the time it is difficult. I have problems bending.”

Gladys Moraa said that since she was raped: “even a slight sound scares me. I used to have nightmares. If I got counseling, it would really help me. I feel so sad when I remember. I was not counseled at the hospital.” Moraa heard a scream as a Human Rights Watch researcher was interviewing her and she jumped out of her seat saying, “Are those the police? Are those police?”

Purity Onyancha said that her 17-year-old daughter, Peris Onyancha, and a friend were gang raped together on August 14. Peris was left for dead, and her friend died following the rape. “She trembles when she sees boys,” the mother said. “I am worried about her mental health, and how she will perform at school. Sometimes her teacher calls me to say she is not talking, or she’s just walking around the school. When I talk to her, she says she is feeling dizzy and has headache, but when she is checked in the hospital there is nothing.”

Mercy Maina and her sister were raped on the night of August 13 by men she described as “police with rastas [dreadlocks].” She said that since the rape, “I feel pain during sex and there is a yellowish discharge. I smell and I have to shower many times a day. When I go near people I feel anxious, like they will smell me.”

Grace Kungu said she was raped on August 12 on her way home from work:

"They took me to an unfinished building and all four raped me in front [vaginally] and behind [anally]. Since that day, when I am pressed urine just comes out. Even stool, if I hold for long I find that I have stained my underwear. I wear a sanitary pad sometimes or tissue or a handkerchief to prevent leakage. I have a lot of pain in my lower abdomen. I take painkillers all the time."