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Witness to Carnage in Burma’s Rakhine State

5 hours 23 min ago
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Hasina witnessed a massacre. Burmese army soldiers threw her infant into a fire. Her younger siblings were beaten to death. The soldiers attempted to rape her before leaving her for dead in a burning house. Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, September 22, 2017.

© 2017 Anastasia Taylor-Lind for Human Rights Watch

Hasina is a soft-spoken 20-year-old Rohingya woman from Rakhine State in Burma. She asked us to use her picture and tell her story so the world knows what is happening there.

Her village, Tula Toli, was attacked in late August by the Burmese army on a rampage of killing and arson after Rohingya militants carried out coordinated strikes on police posts. The villagers ran when the soldiers came, but some were trapped on a river bank. Dozens, Hasina said, were murdered on the beach in front of her eyes, but the nightmare was only beginning.

The army forced Hasina and many other women to stand waist-deep in water and watch while soldiers dug a pit to burn the bodies of those they had killed. She tried to hide her infant daughter under her shawl, but a soldier noticed the baby, snatched her away and tossed her into the fire.

Hours later the soldiers took Hasina, her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and three other relatives, all children, to a nearby house. The soldiers tried to rape the women, knifing the mother-in-law to death when she resisted and beating Hasina and her sister-in-law unconscious. They beat the young children to death with spades.

When Hasina regained consciousness, she found herself inside the house. It was on fire, and she had been left locked inside by the soldiers. Her sister-in-law was alive, too. They managed to escape the flames, but with serious burns. Badly injured, they somehow made their way to Bangladesh. Both still have burn injuries. Hasina’s sister-in-law, who confirmed this horrible incident, showed us a big gash on the back of her head from when she had been beaten unconscious, and that a doctor had stitched.

Hasina insisted we take her picture and show her face to the world. For her, it is a brave act of defiance to those who sought to eliminate her and her family. 

India: Key UN Rights Recommendations Ignored

Thursday, September 21, 2017
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The Indian Delegation at the third Universal Period Review in Geneva, September 21, 2017.

© 2017 UN

(Geneva, September 22, 2017) – The Indian government did not accept a number of key human rights recommendations on September 21, 2017, at its United Nations review in Geneva, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should promptly act on the recommendations raised by UN member countries during the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

India’s government responded on September 21 to the recommendations made by other UN member countries on May 4 during India’s third periodic review. The Indian government was unwilling to accept important recommendations for greater accountability of its security forces, ensuring freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, repealing the law criminalizing consensual adult same-sex relations, and abolishing the death penalty.

“In the face of countless attacks on free speech and threats to marginalized communities, the Indian government has chosen to be in denial,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “India should show leadership on the world stage by taking the human rights concerns of other countries seriously and adopting concrete steps to address them.”

At the May 4 session, 112 countries made a total of 250 recommendations. On September 21, the government accepted 152, including commitments made toward sustainable development goals aimed at alleviating poverty, improving access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and strengthening protections for children and women.

In the face of countless attacks on free speech and threats to marginalized communities, the Indian government has chosen to be in denial. Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

Thirty countries called on India to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture, a treaty it signed two decades ago but never ratified. Even as the Indian government denied the existence of torture at the May meeting, saying “the concept of torture is completely alien to our culture and it has no place in the governance of the nation,” it said it remained committed to ratifying the treaty. However, India made a similar commitment at the last UPR cycle in 2012 when the recommendation was made by 17 countries, and yet failed to take any steps to fulfill it. In a recent report on deaths in police custody, Human Rights Watch found that torture is frequently used to gather information or coerce confessions.

At the UPR outcome meeting, India’s National Human Rights Commission pointed to the country’s failure to implement several recommendations adopted in the previous UPR cycle.

Regarding several pressing human rights concerns, the government’s outcome report merely “noted” the recommendations, drawing criticism from several countries and domestic and international rights groups. In the past, the Indian government has consistently ignored recommendations that it only noted. For instance, concerns over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law that provides soldiers who commit abuses effective immunity from prosecution, was also “noted” in previous UPR sessions. But the government has refused to repeal the law despite recommendations from numerous independent commissions in India.

Similarly, at the 2012 review, the government said it noted the concerns raised over the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a law regulating foreign funding to nongovernmental organizations, but failed to take any action to address it. Instead, since 2014, the Indian government has increasingly used the law to harass, intimidate, and shut down foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations that criticize the government, its actions, or policies. During this UPR, at least 10 countries raised concerns over restrictions to freedom of assembly and association, including the FCRA, but the Indian government merely “noted” the recommendations.

Mob attacks by extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against minority communities, especially Muslims and Dalits, have become a serious threat. In the first seven months of 2017, there were 26 attacks, and seven people were killed over rumors that they sold, bought, or killed cows for beef. The government has failed to prosecute those responsible for such attacks, and at the same time several BJP leaders have made incendiary remarks against minorities, and in support of Hindu nationalism. Fifteen countries raised concerns over such increasing violence, recommending that India should better protect these vulnerable populations and freedom of religion, and prosecute attacks against them. However, the Indian government was unwilling to make any commitments.

More than 30 countries raised concerns over violence and discrimination against women, and 10 asked India to criminalize marital rape. The Indian government accepted recommendations to protect women from violence, but did not accept recommendations regarding marital rape.

Several countries also called on India to repeal section 377 of the penal code, which criminalizes consensual same-sex relations, and to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, a recommendation made and only noted in 2012 and again during the 2017 review. This is despite an Indian Supreme Court ruling in August saying the law had a chilling effect on “the unhindered fulfilment of one’s sexual orientation, as an element of privacy and dignity.”

“The Indian government’s claims of respect for the UPR process mean nothing if it simply brushes aside important recommendations at a time when the country’s long cherished freedoms and its poor and vulnerable are at great risk,” Ganguly said.

Uzbekistan’s Leader Talks Rights, Now More Action Needed

Thursday, September 21, 2017
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Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

In his inaugural address on Tuesday to the UN General Assembly, having assumed power last year, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev used this global stage to pledge to protect human rights – a promise that breaks with Uzbekistan’s past. Now, it’s time to follow words with action.

Until recently, this speech from an Uzbek President would have seemed inconceivable. Mirziyoyev served as prime minister to Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s late, long-time authoritarian leader who was the architect of the country’s atrocious human rights record.

Mirziyoyev’s remarks seemed aimed at moving on from Karimov’s terrible legacy, even expressing the goal to build “a democratic state and a just society” where “human interests come first”. Mirziyoyev added: “We are deeply convinced that people must not serve government bodies, rather government bodies must serve the people.”

The question is whether Mirziyoyev’s ambitious words, coupled with the modest steps his government recently made to relax repression – like releasing some political prisoners and easing the clamp-down on free speech – will turn into meaningful rights improvements.

Take three areas President Mirziyoyev highlighted in the speech, where action is important. First, the estimated one million people a year who are subjected to systematic forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. The president flagged Uzbekistan’s cooperation on this issue with the International Labour Organization as evidence of progress. While cooperation is useful, the true marker of progress should be what is happening in the fields. Human Rights Watch and other groups continue to document forced labor, also during the current cotton harvest which started this month.

Second, exit visas. The president stressed that the arcane practice of Uzbek citizens requiring visas to leave the country had been abolished. This is true – but only from 2019 onwards. Implementing the change now would improve the lives of many people overnight.

Third, Uzbekistan’s openness to national and international nongovernmental groups. The president mentioned a welcome readiness for an “open dialogue” with such groups. Yet there are still restrictive, heavily bureaucratic and often arbitrary rules on their activities. Reforms would allow this sector to breathe freely.

This is a moment of hope for Uzbekistan’s people, and Mirziyoyev’s speech paints a picture of a new beginning. Let’s hope concrete steps will follow, spurring further confidence in the president’s approach. 

Afghan President Speaks Out for Human Rights at UN

Thursday, September 21, 2017
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Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

On Tuesday at the United Nations General Assembly, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani promoted his country’s bid to join the UN Human Rights Council.

To make his case, Ghani cited the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, condemned the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Burma, and said that Afghans were “keen to add our voice in support of human rights.” He also called insurgent attacks on civilians in Afghanistan crimes against humanity. Yet, while welcoming the Trump administration’s ramped-up military strategy in Afghanistan, he said nothing about the rising number of civilian casualties from the fighting. Nor did he discuss human rights concerns his own government has failed to address.

Ghani didn’t seem to recognize that the purpose of the Human Rights Council is to promote the protection of human rights throughout the world, not to shield its members from criticism.

Ghani’s pitch for a Human Rights Council seat was undermined by his government’s poor performance before the UN Committee against Torture in April. Committee members grilled Afghanistan’s delegation about the government’s well-documented failure to curb torture. One committee member pointedly asked Afghanistan’s Attorney General Farid Hamidi, what the government was doing about Gen. Abdul Raziq, whose name has become synonymous with systematic torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances.

Raziq serves as the police chief of Kandahar, and the committee noted numerous reports of detainees in Kandahar who alleged torture or ill-treatment, including “suffocation, crushing the testicles, water forcibly pumped in the stomach and electric shocks.”

Despite Ghani’s 2015 vow to end torture in the country, United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan data indicates it’s on the rise, its statistics demonstrating that 39 percent of detainees of the police and intelligence agency are tortured in custody.

Ghani’s impassioned human rights rhetoric falls far short in practice. Afghans won’t take Ghani seriously on protecting rights until he begins to bridge the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality by taking meaningful steps to end systematic torture, and hold police and other security forces accountable. 

Indonesia’s Tepid LGBT Support at UN

Thursday, September 21, 2017
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Sebuah kelompok yang menentang komunitas Lesbian, Gay dan Transjender (LGBT) sedang bersiap untuk menghadapi kelompok pro-LGBT yang melakukan protes tandingan di Monumen Tugu, Yogyakarta, pada 23 Pebruari.

© 2016 Andreas Fitri Atmoko/Antara

This week at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Indonesia accepted two recommendations from UN member countries to improve the situation for sexual and gender minorities – a good step. But after 18 months of government-fueled animus against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people that has stoked a surge in violence and harassment, the government should have done better.

Indonesia had initially indicated that it would reject all LGBT-related recommendations at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the process in which every UN member state has its human rights record reviewed every four years. However, this week the government announced it would accept two vague proposals to “take further steps to ensure a safe and enabling environment for all human rights defenders,” including LGBT activists, and a pitch to implement freedom of expression, association, and assembly rights, and give priority to equality and non-discrimination – including for LGBT people.

But it won’t go unnoticed that Indonesia rejected more specific calls to “repeal or revise legislation, notably the relevant provisions of the Aceh Islamic Criminal Code, which criminalizes sexual relations among consenting adults of the same sex,” as well as to “guarantee the rights of…[LGBT] persons, through effective legal action against incitement to hatred and violent acts, as well as by revising legislation that can have discriminatory effects.”

These decisions in Geneva have consequences at home.

In 2012, during its first round of peer reviews at the UN, Indonesia rejected a recommendation from Spain to repeal the local law in Aceh province that criminalizes adult consensual same-sex conduct and prescribes punishment of up to 100 public lashes for offenders. The Indonesian government claimed the recommendation “did not reflect the actual situation in the province.” This May, two young men paid the price for the government’s negligence: Sharia (Islamic law) police raided their private home, detained and tried them, and flogged them 83 times while a crowd of thousands jeered.

The government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo stayed silent – not even a whisper from the administration that touts “unity in diversity” as a core value. Diluted pledges at the UN don’t let them off the hook, though, for abetting a campaign of hate and the officials that support it.

Iraq: Missed Opportunity for Comprehensive Justice

Thursday, September 21, 2017

(New York) – The United Nations Security Council has missed a key opportunity to address war crimes and rights abuses by all sides to the conflict in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today. The council unanimously adopted a resolution on September 21, 2017, that establishes an investigative team to collect and preserve evidence of serious crimes allegedly committed by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) – which is needed – but fails to include within its mandate abuses by anti-ISIS forces.

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Heads of state and their representatives take part in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to address the situation in the Middle East during the General Assembly for the 71st session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 21, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

“No one denies the importance of tackling the widespread atrocities by ISIS in Iraq, but ignoring abuses by Iraqi and international forces is not only flawed, it’s shortsighted,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The pursuit of justice is essential to all victims who saw their loved ones tortured and killed, or houses burned and bombed, regardless of who is responsible.”

The resolution mandates the UN secretary-general to establish an investigative team headed by a special adviser to collect and preserve evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by ISIS members in Iraq, for anticipated use in future criminal proceedings in Iraq or possibly in other national courts. It stipulates that “any other uses” of the evidence collected by the team is to be “determined in agreement with the Government of Iraq on a case by case basis.”

However, the team can and should play a positive role in advocating for federal Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities to bring charges against ISIS suspects for the full range of crimes they have committed, improve respect for due process rights of suspects and detainees, and to take a more victim-centered approach to national accountability efforts. It can and should seek to convince the Iraqi government to allow it to broaden the investigations to include abuses by all sides in the conflict.

An initiative aimed at documenting serious crimes by ISIS is a positive first step to support accountability efforts in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said. ISIS forces in Iraq have carried out human rights abuses, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and what the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria found to be genocide. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for international support for efforts to bring ISIS members to justice. But beyond ISIS atrocities, Iraq urgently needs investigations of serious crimes by all sides to the conflict.

The United Kingdom submitted the resolution after working closely with the Iraqi government to establish an investigative body for ISIS crimes in Iraq through the Security Council. Their discussions began in September 2016 after the United Kingdom, together with Iraq and Belgium, began a global campaign at the UN General Assembly to bring ISIS to justice.

The UK decided to formally move forward with the draft resolution in August after receiving Iraq’s consent through a letter to the Security Council. Iraq made clear that it was working with the UK on a resolution “in line with Iraq’s national sovereignty and jurisdiction at both the negotiation and implementation stages.”

Iraqi authorities face a complex task to bring to justice ISIS suspects. Iraq is prosecuting thousands of detainees under counterterrorism legislation, for crimes tied to their affiliation with ISIS. However, Human Rights Watch research has found that abuse is rampant in the detention of ISIS suspects and that serious due process violations are undermining the judicial proceedings. Iraqi authorities are not charging any suspects for serious international crimes such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide, which are not criminal offenses under Iraqi law, or even rape or slavery, which are. The authorities have made no efforts to solicit victims’ participation in the trials.

Iraq is also not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Human Rights Watch in March 2016 that Iraq has no plans to join – out of apparent concern that the court would be able to examine grave abuses by government security forces.

The European Union and the UN human rights office have called on Iraq to join the ICC, which would allow for possible prosecution of serious crimes by all parties to the conflict.

While abuses by Iraqi and KRG forces, as well as historically Shia military units regularized into state forces known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, have been longstanding, the battle against ISIS has given these forces latitude to carry out abuses under the guise of fighting terrorism.

During operations to retake Mosul, Iraqi forces frequently tortured and executed those captured in and around the battlefield with complete impunity, sometimes posting photos and videos of the abuses on social media sites. Since 2014, KRG and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces units have also carried out widespread destruction of civilian property in Sunni areas recaptured from ISIS.

Despite repeated promises to investigate wrongdoing by security forces, al-Abadi has yet to demonstrate that Iraqi authorities have held a single soldier accountable for murdering, torturing, or otherwise abusing Iraqis in this conflict. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, Iraqi and KRG courts have not opened investigations into the vast majority of human rights abuses by Iraqi army, federal police and PMF forces, and Kurdish and other anti-ISIS security forces in their battle against ISIS.

The lack of impartial justice could undermine longer-term prospects for stability and development. An imbalance in accountability efforts threatens to open new divisions and could breed a resurgence of ISIS-like groups at a moment when the Iraqi government has a unique opportunity to move the country toward meaningful reconciliation, Human Rights Watch said.

The resolution that establishes the ISIS-focused investigative team stipulates that evidence the team collects should be used in “fair and independent criminal proceedings, consistent with applicable international law,” and that the team should act consistent with its terms of reference, the UN Charter, and UN best practice. It does not explicitly exclude the use of evidence in proceedings that allow for the death penalty, one of only two penalties laid out in the federal Iraqi counterterrorism law, as well as a sentence KRG judges have handed down for counterterrorism convicts within the KRG judicial system.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. A majority of countries in the world have abolished the practice.

The resolution asks the UN secretary-general to prepare, within 60 days, terms of reference “acceptable to the Government of Iraq” to guide the investigative team’s work for the Security Council’s approval. The Security Council stipulates that the terms of reference should specify the appointment of Iraqi investigative judges and other criminal experts to the team to work “on an equal footing alongside international experts”.

Though the Security Council resolution notes that the team should complement Iraqi investigations, it is unclear how its work will, in practice, interact with ongoing investigations by federal Iraqi and KRG security forces, as well as other nongovernmental efforts in Iraq to document ISIS crimes. The investigative team should ensure that its own efforts are not duplicative, at the risk of re-traumatizing victims and witnesses, and do not significantly delay the application of justice, to the detriment of victims as well as detainees being held in inhumane conditions.

“The real test for this new UN-mandated investigation is whether it can help Iraq end the rampant impunity in the country that has fed into the endless cycles of violence,” Jarrah said. “Ensuring justice for ISIS crimes – however essential – is not enough. What Iraq needs is a much more comprehensive approach that ends the selective prosecutions for abuses that have plagued the country for decades.”

Bangladesh Textile Mill Burns, Yet Again

Thursday, September 21, 2017
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In September 2016, another factory burned in the same district. Here, firefighters stand at the site of a fire at a packaging factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, September 10, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

A fire in Ideal Textile Mills in Bangladesh killed at least six workers this week, reportedly after sparks from welding set ablaze inflammable chemicals stored close by.

Soon, the blame game will begin. Perhaps there’ll be a government-ordered inquiry. Maybe someone will be sent to jail. Then it will be business as usual, and the six workers will join a growing list of those who died in factory tragedies there.

Earlier this year, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement between clothing brands and unions, was renewed. The accord covers more than 1,600 garment factories. Under the revised agreement, the accord steering committee can opt in textile mills. This means the mills could also be subject to fire and building safety inspections, and management and workers could be trained on safety measures.

Instead of rallying around the Bangladesh Accord, the Bangladesh government has protested its extension. Unhelpfully, the government also announced it will begin a “new” initiative on fire and building safety.

The Bangladesh government authorities already inspect about 1,550 garment factories not covered by the accord or the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (another fire and building safety initiative led by American brands). In addition, government authorities inspect factories in sectors not covered by the accord or alliance, including textiles.

Over the past few years, the accord brands cut ties with 76 garment factories that failed to make their buildings safer. Similarly, the alliance brands terminated business with 158 garment factories. These factories are now the responsibility of government inspectors.

How have these terminated factories fared? Has the government ensured that the factories took steps to make the workplaces safer? Were any of these factories closed down as unsafe?

Who knows. In 2017, Human Rights Watch spoke with workers from four terminated factories. They had no knowledge about whether the government had inspected their factory and declared it safe. As one worker said, “We came to know it [the factory is not safe] only from some staff. We also asked the owner about it once. He only said that everything will be fine. ... We used to see fire drills here on the first Thursday of every month. But we haven’t seen this in the last three months – I don’t know why… I get worried when I think that our factory building is unsafe. But still I have to continue the job because I need it.”

If the government wants to be considered a credible labor inspectorate, it should at least publish reports on how factories terminated from the Accord and Alliance are faring. It’s not just an investment in transparency. It’s also a strategic investment in business.

 

Ethiopia’s Refugees Unsafe in Kenya and Elsewhere

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

“Wako” fled Ethiopia for Kenya in 2012, after his release from prison. He had been locked up for two years after campaigning for the Oromo People’s Congress, an opposition party that has often been targeted by the government.

In Kenya, he hoped to be safe. But six months later Ethiopian officials kidnapped him in Nairobi and brought him to Ethiopia’s notorious Ziway prison, where he was mistreated and tortured, before being released. He fled to Kenya a second time.

When I spoke to him in Kenya, he said he planned to travel overland to South Africa. He hoped for better safety there.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of harassment and threats against Ethiopian asylum seekers in Kenya and elsewhere since 2010. In a recent letter to the Kenyan police, to which they have not responded, we describe how asylum seekers were assaulted, detained, and interrogated before Ethiopian officials in Nairobi, and forced to return to Ethiopia. Many also received threatening phone calls and text messages from Kenyan and Ethiopian phone numbers.

In private, some Kenyan police told us that Ethiopian Embassy officials in Nairobi have offered them cash to arrest Ethiopians. Ethiopian refugees said Ethiopian officials tried to recruit them to inform on others, promising land, protection, money, and resettlement to the US or elsewhere.

Threats to fleeing Ethiopians are not limited to Kenya. Community leaders, social media activists, opposition politicians, and refugee protection workers have been harassed in other countries. Human Rights Watch has documented abductions of Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers from Uganda, Sudan, Djibouti, and elsewhere.

High-profile opposition figures with foreign citizenship have also been handed to Ethiopian authorities without a legal process, including a British citizen detained in Yemen, a Norwegian citizen in South Sudan, and a Somali national handed over last month by Somalia’s government.

In Somaliland, we recently spoke to 10 asylum seekers who were forced back to Ethiopia during one of the frequent roundups of Oromo in Somaliland. Eight said they were tortured upon their return to Ethiopia. Many described harassment from Ethiopian embassy officials and indifference from the UN refugee agency.

All this creates a climate of fear and mistrust amongst Ethiopian refugees, preventing them from living normal lives, going to working or even applying for asylum.

The UN refugee agency and host countries should work harder to ensure Ethiopians fleeing torture and persecution can safely access asylum processes and be safe from the long reach of Ethiopian officials. 

Ending China’s Retaliation Against Activists at the UN

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
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Cao Shunli

Courtesy of openDemocracy

Four years ago this month, Chinese authorities stopped activist Cao Shunli at Beijing’s airport. After questioning her about her plans to travel to Geneva, where she was slated to participate in training sessions about the United Nations Human Rights Council, Cao was detained, held incommunicado for a month, and then charged with “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles.” She became gravely ill in detention, was denied adequate medical care, and died in March 2014. When nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) tried to hold a moment of silence for her at the council, Chinese officials blocked the move.

For years the Chinese government has obstructed human rights activists who work on China from participating in the UN. It prevents activists from traveling to Geneva or New York, harasses them while they are there, and sometimes intimidates and interrogates them upon return to China. Chinese officials have also harassed UN officials, staff, and independent experts, and used its membership on a key committee to block NGOs critical of China from being granted UN accreditation. Some UN officials have pushed back against or ignored improper Chinese pressure. Others have soft-pedaled their concerns, presumably to avoid confrontation with China. 

Several UN human rights experts have pressed China for an inquiry into Cao’s death. China, which disputes the very legitimacy of human rights defenders, has largely ignored these requests, providing no explanation for the circumstances of her death.

The UN has only recently began taking steps toward addressing China’s – and other governments’ – abusive actions at the world forum. Andrew Gilmour, the assistant secretary-general for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, will soon report on his office’s yearlong effort to track reprisals against human rights defenders trying to work with the UN. That report includes information about cases like Cao’s, actions taken, and responses received.

But it’s still unclear how far the UN will go in punishing abusive governments like China for its actions in cases like Cao’s. At a minimum, the Human Rights Council should have a discussion on cases of government harassment of activists at the UN. But neither this, nor a condemnation of China at the upcoming Universal Period Review of its human rights record, is likely to prevent future outrages against activists.  

Brazil Judge’s Ruling Sparks Conversion Therapy Controversy

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
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A man shows his rainbow flag during the Gay Pride parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 30, 2006.

© 2006 Reuters

A Brazilian judge’s decision to overturn an 18-year-old ban on conversion therapy has put the spotlight on discredited sexual orientation change efforts.

The judge, Waldemar de Carvalho, overruled a 1999 decision by the Federal Council of Psychology that banned the treatment. One of the plaintiffs in the case is a psychologist whose license was revoked for offering the treatment and once described homosexuality as a “disease.”

The global public health consensus amongst professional medical associations that conversion therapy – the attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation – is ineffective, unethical, and potentially harmful. 

The World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1990, a shift from seeing homosexuality as an illness to a natural variation of human sexuality. There would likely be an uproar if a therapist tried to change a heterosexual into a homosexual, but the absurd logic is the same. “There is no way to cure what is not a disease,” says Rogério Giannini, head of Brazil’s Federal Council of Psychology.

In 2016, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), an association of national psychiatric societies across 118 countries, condemned the practice as “wholly unethical,” and the Pan American Health Organization warned in 2012 that conversion therapies “lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.” 

A 2015 joint statement issued by 12 United Nations agencies, including the World Health Organization, called for an end to “unethical and harmful so-called ‘therapies’ to change sexual orientation.”

Around the world, medical associations have condemned the practice, including in India, South Africa, Lebanon, Thailand, Turkey, Philippines, and the United States, where the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association have condemned conversion therapies on scientific and ethical grounds.

The practice is also ineffective. In the US in 2015, four men and two of their parents successfully sued Jews Offering Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act for false advertising in conversion therapy ‘success’ statistics and mischaracterizing homosexuality as a mental illness. Similarly, in China, in 2014, a Beijing court sided with a young gay man who had undergone conversion therapy in a private clinic. The clinic was ordered to pay compensation for “false advertising” and “ineffective treatment.”

In attempting to cure a nonexistent disease, the psychologists at the center of the case are acting against international medical consensus that so-called “conversion therapies” are ineffectual, unethical, and potentially harmful.   

Why Britain Should Back the Safe Schools Declaration

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
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Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai speaks during the first focus event on education at the donors Conference for Syria in London, Britain February 4, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Among the thousands of excited students across Britain starting university soon will be the remarkable Malala Yousafzai, who will read politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford. Five years ago, Malala was shot on her way home from school, viciously attacked by the Pakistani Taliban for promoting girls’ education.

While Malala’s story is well known, her tireless campaigning on education and the rights of women and girls has yet to be matched by comparable political action. Her courage should prompt politicians to do more, not least in Britain.

Malala’s attack was horrific, but attacks on students and the schools they attend is a global problem. In at least 29 conflict-affected countries around the world, insurgent groups and even government forces have bombed, shelled, and burned schools and universities. Many schools have also been turned into bases or barracks for warring parties. The presence of fighters puts students in the line of fire, makes them vulnerable to recruitment as child soldiers, and puts girls at risk of sexual violence.

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For this reason, Human Rights Watch and others are promoting the Safe Schools Declaration – in which governments pledge to not use schools for military purposes and to protect them during military operations.

Sixty-nine countries, including most NATO and European Union member states, have now endorsed the declaration. France and Canada are recent signatories. Britain is not yet among them. But Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has announced a review and ministers are currently assessing whether the British government should support it.

The case for Britain to join is overwhelming. The Ministry of Defence worries the declaration creates extra legal obligations for British soldiers beyond what is found in the laws of war. It does not. In fact, to its credit, the British military already has some of the world’s strongest regulations on protecting schools in wartime.

So why join? Because Britain would reinforce the growing global consensus that schools must be safe places, even during war. It would strengthen Britain’s hand in discussions with countries like Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, where attacks on schools and students are still all too common. And it would fit squarely with Johnson’s declared foreign policy priority to get more children, especially girls, into school – free from discrimination and misogyny, in a safe environment where they can learn, grow, and thrive.

Lebanon: Refugees in Border Zone at Risk

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
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A general view shows Syrian refugee camps dotted in and around the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria, Lebanon, September 21, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(Beirut) – Many refugees in Arsal, a border town in northeast Lebanon recently cleared of armed groups, face pressure to return to Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Some have already returned to Syria because of the harsh conditions in Arsal. A recent Human Rights Watch visit to Arsal found widespread lack of legal residency, restrictions on freedom of movement, and fear of seemingly random arrests during army raids. Lebanese authorities should prioritize restoring services and protecting civilians there, following the military campaigns and negotiated agreements that pushed the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra militants out of the area.

“Conditions in Arsal have gotten so bad that many refugees have decided to go back into a war zone,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanese authorities have a difficult job maintaining security in Arsal, but now that ISIS and al-Nusra have been pushed out, it is essential to improve services and protect civilians.”

Syrians who left Arsal for Idlib told Human Rights Watch by phone that they went back to Syria because of the situation in Arsal, including army raids on refugee settlements, a widespread lack of legal status, fear of arrest and detention, restrictions on their movement, and limited access to education and health care. Human Rights Watch did not find evidence of direct forced returns, but all of those interviewed said they left under pressure, not voluntarily.

Lebanon should ensure that refugees can regularize their legal status and have freedom of movement and access to humanitarian aid, Human Rights Watch said. Security measures should respect the rights of civilians in Arsal.

Arsal currently hosts an estimated 60,000 Syrians alongside a population of 38,000 Lebanese, according to the municipality. The Lebanese army has maintained tight control over Arsal since the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the town in 2014, and has restricted access to the town since then. While the army quickly regained control of the town, fighters from the Islamic State and al-Nusra remained in areas around Arsal until recent campaigns by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah ended in negotiated deals, under which armed men and their families as well as unaffiliated civilians returned to Syria.

Almost 10,000 Syrians have returned from Arsal since June, according to the municipality, largely under agreements negotiated by Hezbollah. Human Rights Watch entered Arsal in September, with permission from the Lebanese authorities, to interview Syrians and assess conditions first-hand. Human Rights Watch spoke with 19 refugees inside Arsal and by phone with five Syrians who returned to Syria.

“When we left [Arsal], we were forced to go,” said a doctor who returned to Idlib. “It wasn’t our place. We would always be persecuted there. Our fate was either arrest, or death, or permanently living in anxiety. This is why most people left, because of the persecution.”

Syrians said that the widespread lack of legal residency was a factor in the decision of many to return to Syria. Nine of the 19 said they did not have legal status, and that men in particular feared arrest by the General Security Organization when trying to renew their residency. Without residency, Syrians face restrictions on movement for fear of arrest, affecting their access to work, health care, and birth and marriage registration. Aid groups estimate that between 70 to 80 percent of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack legal status.

Eight Syrians in Arsal said that either they or an immediate family member had been arrested when trying to renew their residency, and that authorities had detained children as young as 9. One camp representative showed Human Rights Watch a list of 222 people who attempted to renew residency but whose identification cards had been held by General Security for at least a year – and as long as three years in some cases.

Syrians said that they feared arrest by the army during frequent security raids on refugee settlements in Arsal. Many said they perceived the arrests as “random,” and feared they could be arrested at any time. Several said that the mass raids in June resulting in the arrests of more than 350 Syrians, and the deaths of four Syrians in military custody amid evidence of torture, created a sense of fear and contributed to families’ decisions to return. Human Rights Watch has called on the army to release its investigation of this incident, but the army has not done so. Camp leaders said they were still unaware of the whereabouts of some of those detained.

“I’m not against the army,” one camp leader in Arsal said. “We will enter with them if they want to enter camps, we want to cooperate with the Lebanese army.”

Syrians in Idlib said they did not have clear information about conditions there before they returned. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, does not have a permanent presence in Arsal, was not involved in facilitating the returns to Syria, and for the most part did not interview Syrians before they left to assess whether their departure was voluntary. UNHCR has not issued a public assessment as to whether these returns were voluntary.

“Our stay in Arsal was in fear, living in the unknown, our departure was in fear and to the unknown, and the trip was in fear and through the unknown,” said one man who returned to Idlib. “We were asking about guarantees but no one told us what it was. … We were in psychological torment. It’s the most difficult decision to make: whether to stay in the unknown or go toward the unknown.”

Almost all of the Syrians interviewed said they would have preferred to stay in Lebanon if they had felt safe.

Syrians still in Arsal also said that they felt under pressure to leave. “The army is putting pressure, General Security is putting pressure, people are putting pressure on us, the situation here is unacceptable,” one man said. But while some said they would consider going back under an international agreement, all said they would prefer to remain in Lebanon if conditions improved, until it was safe to return to Syria.

“I want to go back home with my honor, go back to my house, not under pressure [to Idlib],” one woman said.

Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but is bound by the universally binding customary law principle of nonrefoulement not to return anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of being persecuted, exposed to torture or other ill treatment, or to threats to their lives or freedom. Lebanon is also bound by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment not to return anyone to a country where they would be in danger of torture or ill-treatment.

Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure on them is so intense that it leads them to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face serious risk of persecution or threats to their lives and safety.

The returns to Syria follow heightened calls by Lebanese politicians for the return of refugees to Syria. In July, President Michel Aoun called for safe, not voluntary, returns. Idlib province is considered a “de-escalation zone,” based on an agreement among some of the warring parties in Kazakhstan in May, but cannot be considered safe for returns. International experience has shown that “safe zones” rarely remain safe, Human Rights Watch said.

“With ISIS and al-Nusra gone from Arsal, Lebanon should recognize that it’s not in its interest for refugees to fear interaction with security services and reassess its security policy,” Houry said. “Lebanon should ensure that Syrians are able to obtain legal residency and that security operations respect the safety and security of refugees living in Arsal.” 

UN: Push North Korea to End Child Sexual Abuse

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
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A North Korean flag flies at the DPRK Permanent Mission in Geneva. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Seoul) – The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child should press the North Korean government to protect children who are victims of sexual abuse and harassment, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 20, 2017, as part of its 76th plenary session, the committee will convene a hearing with North Korean government officials to discuss the country’s record in protecting children’s rights.

The North Korean government claims no one has been punished since 2008 for raping or sexually abusing or exploiting a child because “such acts are inconceivable for the people in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] who regard such acts as the most disgraceful.”

However, Human Rights Watch documented four cases of child sexual harassment or abuse in North Korea during the period between 2008 and 2015, the current reporting period under review by the committee, and three other cases that took place in the early 2000s. North Koreans who recently escaped to third countries or maintain contacts in the North told Human Rights Watch that when girls are sexually harassed or abused, some guardians refuse to formally complain to police or other government officials because they believe government officials will not investigate, and the girl and the family will face stigmatization.

“North Korean girls really have nowhere to turn to when they are victimized by sexual abuse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The Committee on the Rights of the Child should debunk the claim that there is no sexual abuse and demand that Pyongyang take immediate steps to ensure real, substantive protections are in place for victims.”

The Committee on the Rights of the Child is a body of 18 independent experts that reviews the compliance of each state party with its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the human rights treaty that protects the rights of children. North Korea ratified the convention in 1990. The committee also monitors implementation of the convention’s Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography, which North Korea ratified in November 2014.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child should debunk the claim that there is no sexual abuse in North Korea. Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

Governments that ratify the CRC must submit regular reports to the committee on how they are implementing their rights obligations under the convention. States must submit an initial report two years after acceding to the convention and then periodic reports every five years.

In May 2016, the North Korean government submitted its fifth report, due in 2012, combined with its sixth report covering the period between 2008 and 2015. The CRC convened a pre-sessional working group meeting which was held in February, and the committee will conduct its plenary session with North Korea on September 20.

Eyewitness Accounts of Abuse
A total of 26 North Korean adults and children who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch between January 2015 and February 2017 described how it is unremarkable for North Korean woman and girls to witness or experience gender-based violence.

North Koreans interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that domestic violence is usually not punished or checked, but instead government authorities view it as a private matter in which the state and persons outside the family should not intervene. Five of the witnesses from urban areas in North Hamgyong, Ryanggang, and South Pyongan provinces said it was common for children to see men verbally or physically abusing women in public. Reasons received by Human Rights Watch for these abuses varied, but included showing what a man perceived as an “arrogant” attitude, staring at a man at the wrong moment, failing to reply fast enough to a man’s question, and having a business disagreement with a man.

Interviewees also described how the state fails to protect children from common types of unwanted sexual contact, such as men groping women and girls’ breasts and hips in both public and private spaces and trying to reach under their clothes. Such behavior usually happens in crowded public areas such as official and neighborhood celebrations, on trains, or while traveling by car or truck on the road.

Both adults and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch said victims do not dare report crimes of sexual violence because they don’t trust the authorities to seriously investigate, and they fear repercussions and stigma if it is found out they have been sexually abused, while the perpetrators would remain untouched by stigma or the justice process. Survivors of sexual abuse said that their family members and close friends who knew about what happened discouraged them from going to the authorities.

Each of the North Koreans interviewed told Human Rights Watch that the police and security forces do not consider violence against women a serious crime. A former State Security Department (SSD) agent who received all criminal reports that took place in two provinces for a decade until the late 2000s said in December 2016 that he never saw a single instance of a woman filing a rape complaint about an incident where there were no third party witnesses. In practice, he said the police and the SSD only investigated alleged sexual assault or rape cases when the woman suffered severe injury or death, or if the victim was connected to a powerful family.

The former SSD agent and two former high-ranking party officers said that although there were some cases in which authorities acted against perpetrators of violence against women, those cases were usually brought for ulterior motives, such as political gain when the perpetrator faced loss of their position at the instigation of an opponent wanting that position, or for reasons of personal revenge. The officers said the punishment in such cases rarely included imprisonment, but would more likely entail demotion, or sending the perpetrator to a less desirable posting in the countryside or working in a mine. They added official interventions did not lead to support for victims, who suffered stigma because of publicizing the attacks, and were left vulnerable to possible retaliation, without support or assistance.

Although the number of persons interviewed is not large enough to reach conclusions on overall conditions inside the country, they did provide a consistent picture of abuse based on the interviewees’ personal experiences. The interviewees provided disturbing accounts of sexual harassment and rape of children, and lack of child protection.

Survivors Speak
In 2015, a female North Korean student in her 20s (who escaped North Korea in 2014) spoke with her aunt who lives in Ryanggang province. Her aunt told her that her 5-year-old cousin had been raped by a family friend who was supposed to be taking care of her. “Somehow, she managed to describe what she went through, so they did not let him near her anymore,” she said. But the victim’s parents decided not to tell anybody about the rape. They didn’t believe the police would do anything about it. They also doubted the perpetrator would be punished and thought that if others in the community knew about the incident, it could ruin their daughter’s future and make it harder to get married when she grew up.

The student told Human Rights Watch in February 2016 she was surprised her aunt told her about the case because most adults in the community had told her that rape of a child is an unimaginable crime. But the student said she believed rape of children was more common than what adults talked about. She added that when she was 15 years old, her parents warned her not to pass near the house of an old man who had been disowned by his family for raping his granddaughter and leaving her badly injured. At that time, her mother explained to her what rape was and she realized she had been raped by a neighbor who was babysitting her when she was 6 years old. “I was playing with my doll and he said we’d play a different game. I just remember thinking it was painful and did not like it. He said, ‘Don’t worry, let’s just count, just ten more, ten, nine, eight…,’” she recalled. “I kept on crying and saying I did not like him, but my parents did not understand what happened to me. After the third time leaving me with him, they decided to keep me away from him.” After realizing what happened, the student decided not to reveal her experience to anyone because she feared being stigmatized and facing problems in finding marriage prospects.

“The North Korean government needs to move past its denial of sexual abuse of children in North Korea, and ensure that survivors have access to comprehensive health, legal, and social services without fearing stigma or retaliation,” Robertson said. “The Committee on the Rights of the Child should call out Pyongyang for allowing these horrific abuses to continue, and demand it puts a priority on the protection of North Korean children.”

Germany: Parties Differ on Human Rights Approach

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
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Life jackets left by migrants on Greek beaches are pictured at the Schauspielhaus concert hall as part of a temporary memorial project by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in Berlin, February 12, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters (Berlin) –The platforms of the German parties most likely to be elected to the Bundestag differ greatly on protection of human rights in foreign policy and migration and asylum policy, Human Rights Watch said today.   “The election platforms of the main German parties offer a clear roadmap for voters when it comes to making sure their elected representatives will protect human rights,” says Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Right Watch. “Of course, what matters is the actual political work after the elections, which we will closely monitor.”   Three parties, the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands – Social Democratic Party of Germany), Bündnis90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens) and FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei – Free Democratic Party) – devote separate sections of their platforms to human rights in foreign policy.

In their shared platform, CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands – Christian Democratic Union of Germany) and CSU (Christlich Soziale Union in Bayern – Christian Social Union in Bavaria) seek to champion democracy, freedom, human rights, and Europe. They say that Germany’s role in the world should be based on its commitment to values like human dignity, protection and promotion of human rights, rule of law, democracy, and tolerance. The heading of the chapter on development cooperation refers to the close connection between human rights and development policy. However, there are no details about how to carry out these commitments. On migration and asylum policy, CDU/CSU agree that people in need should receive help. But they call for reduced migration, and quick and consistent deportation of rejected asylum seekers. They also praise the EU-Turkey deal, even though it has trapped asylum seekers and migrants in abusive conditions on the Greek islands.

The term “human rights” is not mentioned in the Bavaria Plan, the separate CSU election program. The CSU emphasizes, however, that the values of German foreign policy remain clear. These include international law, democracy, and rule of law. “Ending the persecution of Christians” is cited as a specific foreign policy goal, but there is no mention of protecting other religious denominations. The CSU advocates an arbitrary numerical limit on asylum seekers, irrespective of their protection claims, a violation of international law obligations, and limiting family reunification.

The SPD platform says that protecting and promoting human rights is a foreign policy priority. It says that peace and development are unthinkable without human rights. In concrete terms, this means that human rights activists need to be better protected, women fully involved in peace and security efforts, and LGBT individuals able to live free from violence. The party also advocates the expansion of corporate responsibility. The SPD also calls for strengthening international law and the International Criminal Court, and prosecuting those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. It seeks to ban autonomous weapons, to contain arms exports – in particular, to ban the export of small arms – and to bind human rights standards for all trade, investment and economic partnership agreements. The platform asserts that migration policy should be based on respect for human rights and adherence to the international Refugee Convention, and says that the temporary suspension of family reunifications should be lifted.

The Linke’s (The Left) platform says that Germany should act in accordance with international law and universal human rights, including civil, economic, social, and cultural norms. German foreign policy should create a global social infrastructure that enables everyone to gain access to education, health, work, and a self-determined life in dignity and social security. The protection of human rights is a clear priority when it comes to a fair world economic order, corporate responsibility, and the right to food. The Linke says the production and export of arms should be stopped. It rejects invoking human rights to legitimize military intervention and calls for strengthening international law in this regard. It also says the German government should join the Additional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, so that people whose rights are violated can appeal to the UN committee for a remedy. On asylum and migration policy, the party believes the basic right to asylum is not adequately guaranteed in the German constitution, and opposes an upper limit to asylum seekers, and restrictions on family reunification.

Bündnis 90/Die Grünen's election platform on foreign policy contains a separate subsection on “Peace, Global Equity and Human Rights.” It says that foreign policy engagements should follow the guiding principles of human rights and international law. Specifically, it supports greater protection for human rights defenders and the appointment of dedicated human rights consultants at all German embassies, and the establishment of a council for peace, sustainability, and human rights to review government action related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The platform says that development policy should be based on human rights, that women’s rights are an important factor for foreign and development policy, and that there should be worldwide protection for LGBT people. Arms exports to conflict areas and countries in which severe human rights violations are taking place should be prohibited by law. The platform supports the principle of “responsibility to protect” in cases of crimes against humanity. It says that trade relationships should be held to human rights standards, and that companies are responsible for the social consequences of their actions. On migration and asylum policy, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen advocates protecting the right to asylum, and opposes an upper limit on asylum seekers and restrictions on family reunification.

The heading of the FDP’s chapter on foreign policy is “Freedom and Human Rights,” which it seeks to strengthen worldwide. It says that Germany should be prepared to provide military assistance to end severe human rights violations and that Germany should clearly condemn the oppression of members of the opposition and civil society in Russia. It also advocates sanctions against EU member states that permanently violate fundamental and human rights and calls for the worldwide recognition of the International Criminal Court. The party opposes discrimination against LGBT people worldwide. The party also wants to promote an international freedom of information treaty that would secure the global internet's freedom and independence and curtail its surveillance and censorship. The FDP considers the right to asylum non-negotiable and rejects any kind of fixed upper limit.

In the AfD’s (Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) chapter on foreign and security policy, the term human rights is not mentioned. While the party commits itself to the values set down in the Charter of the United Nations and to the tenets of international law, the platform does not explain what this would mean in terms of protecting human rights. In its migration and asylum policy, the AfD calls for a restrictive amendment to the Basic Law as well as a renegotiation of the Refugee Convention to accommodate “the threat to Europe posed by population explosion and migration flows.”

“The election platforms clearly show the positions of parties contesting the Germany parliamentary elections when it comes to human rights,” Michalski said. “Now, it is up to voters to make a decision.”

Iraq/KRG: 1,400 Women, Children From ISIS Areas Detained

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
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Iraqi Ministry of Transportation buses taking internally displaced families to Hammam al-Alil in May 2017. In late August, Iraqi authorities bused 1,400 foreign women and children to the site. 

© 2017 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch  

(Beirut, September 20, 2017) – Iraqi authorities are holding more than 1,400 foreign women and their children who surrendered with ISIS fighters in late August 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The detentions appear to have no legal basis and none of the detainees has been brought before a judge to assess the legality and necessity of their detention. The authorities should promptly charge or safely release them and confirm the whereabouts of up to 200 men and teenage boys, many foreign, who surrendered during the same period.

Beginning on August 30, Iraqi authorities detained the women and children next to a displaced persons camp in the town of Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, then transferred them on September 17 to an informal detention site in Tal Kayf, 10 kilometers north of Mosul.

“Hundreds of foreign children risk being abandoned in a hellish twilight zone, with no legal identity and no country willing to take them,” said Bill Van Esveld, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Iraq, foreign countries, and international organizations should not let these children fall into statelessness, or consign them and their mothers to detention without charge.”

On September 10 and 11, Human Rights Watch visited the fenced Hammam al-Alil site, consisting of 17 large warehouse-style tents, which was controlled by Iraqi forces. Researchers conducted individual and group interviews with 27 foreign women. The family groups interviewed included no boys over 12 and no men. Two women were visibly pregnant, and dozens of children appeared to be under age 3.

The women and international humanitarian agency staff there said they included Afghan, Azerbaijani, Chinese, Chechen, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, Tajik, Trinidadian, and Turkish nationals. Reuters reported that they also included Algerian, French, and German nationals. Some women had identification documents but most said they did not. Most said they had traveled from their home countries to Turkey, then crossed into Syria before entering Iraq. Most of the children, particularly young children born in Iraq, had no birth certificates or ID documents.

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One of the entry stamps in a Syrian woman’s passport who said she had entered Iraq lawfully, who was being held at the Hammam al-Alil site on September 10, 2017. Most women and children at the site had no identification documents.

© 2017 Bill Van Esveld/Human Rights Watch

An Iraqi military intelligence official who declined to give his name told Human Rights Watch at the site on September 10 that the women and children were being held “for their own protection.” There is no legal power under Iraqi law to detain people on this basis, nor is it legal to detain individuals merely because a spouse or parent was a member of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Under international law, Iraqi authorities may detain children only as a measure of last resort, and all detention needs to have a clear legal basis, be decided on an individual basis, and all detainees should be brought promptly before a judge to assess the legality and necessity of their detention.

In late August, the foreign women and children fled a military offensive that retook the Iraqi town of Tal Afar from ISIS, and surrendered to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga military forces, who held them temporarily in a school before handing them to Iraqi forces, said international humanitarian officials and the women.

Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that men and boys over 12 were separated, their hands tied, and lined up against a wall inside the school compound. Women who were there on August 28 said that a woman carried out a suicide attack at the school that day, after which the Kurdish forces killed six males, possibly including two boys, who were being held separately just outside the school compound. When the women were moved to Hamman al-Alil on August 30, the men remained and the women did not know what happened to them.

On September 17, Iraqi military officers and Transport Ministry officials arrived at Hamman al-Alil, loaded the women and children onto buses against their will and left with them, saying they had orders from Baghdad to move them to a military intelligence detention site in Tal Kayf, humanitarian officials who were there told Human Rights Watch. Iraqi authorities did not give them advance notice or say where the families were being taken. It is not clear if the women currently have access to humanitarian assistance and protection monitoring, which is cause for concern, Human Rights Watch said.

Col. Ahmed al-Taie from Mosul’s Nineveh Operation command told Reuters on September 10 that the Iraqi army was holding the women and children under “tight security measures” while “waiting for government orders” as to how to deal with them, including women he described as having been “deluded” by “vicious IS [Islamic State] propaganda.”

On September 12, the Norwegian Refugee Council stated that it would no longer manage the Hammam al-Alil site, where Iraqi military forces were present, because it could not be considered a humanitarian facility.

A KRG spokesman confirmed the suicide attack on August 28, but denied that Peshmerga forces had carried out the alleged extrajudicial killings. He said Peshmerga forces shot a man on August 30 because he was armed and carrying a bomb and threatened to kill a Yezidi captive and Peshmerga forces. The official said the Peshmerga had turned over to Iraqi security forces all the people who surrendered. Bodies found in Mosul since October 2016 suggested some Iraqi forces had extrajudicially killed suspected ISIS members there.

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On September 16, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq stated in an interview that most of the women and children were not guilty of a crime, and that his government was “in full communication” with their home countries to “find a way to hand them over.” Human Rights Watch confirmed with humanitarian sources on September 18 that none of the women and children detained since late August at the Hammam al-Alil site had been repatriated.

Iraqi and KRG criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings, by any party to the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted.

Iraq should confirm the whereabouts of the missing men and boys, prioritize prosecution of ISIS members found to have committed the worst abuses, and consider alternatives to prosecution for people whose only alleged crime is ISIS membership or who entered Iraq illegally through Syria.

The Iraqi authorities should clarify the legal basis for holding the women and children, ensure all detainees are either charged with a crime and brought promptly before a judge, or immediately released, and are informed of their right to request consular assistance if they choose. Many of the foreign women apparently entered Iraq illegally, but not all are necessarily ISIS members. Iraq should work with international agencies to safely return foreign women who are not charged with a crime to their home country while considering the best interests of their children, taking into account the possibility that the mothers might be imprisoned. The government and international agencies should urgently identify durable solutions, including resettlement to third countries, for released women and children who cannot safely return to their home countries, including Syrian nationals.

While Iraq is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the women and children, their home countries’ and other foreign embassies have a key role to play in finding durable solutions, including potential third country resettlement.

“The Iraqi government should ensure the women’s safe repatriation, asylum or resettlement if they release them, or fair trials if it charges them with violating Iraqi laws,” Van Esveld said. “It would be a terrible irony if children, who were notoriously victimized by ISIS, were forced to pay with their future for ISIS’s crimes.”

Fleeing Tal Afar
ISIS took control of Tal Afar in June 2014. Iraqi forces opened an offensive on August 20, 2017, and retook control of the city and the eastern parts of the district from ISIS fighters on August 26, and the rest of the province in late August. A United Nations humanitarian update published on August 29 reported that 20,000 people fled the area between August 14 and 22, but that 1,500 who remained in the city attempted to flee on August 26.

The women Human Rights Watch interviewed said they fled fighting in Tal Afar at various times on or after August 26, in groups ranging from about 20 to hundreds of people. The majority were foreign women and children, but there were smaller numbers of older, wounded, or fighting-age men. Most women said their husbands were also non-Iraqi, and had been killed in fighting in Mosul or more recently in Tel Afar. Many had lived in the al-Askari neighborhood in Tal Afar.

Those fleeing found themselves stuck in a zone between Iraqi forces advancing from the south and a front line held by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north. All the women interviewed said they had surrendered to Peshmerga forces, who later transferred them to the custody of Iraqi forces.

The women described passing the town of Ayadiya, 17 kilometers north of Tal Afar, before meeting Kurdish forces, in an area of active fighting along a route strewn with landmines. Five of the women said they saw body parts or dead people along the route and some said that they saw incoming fire that killed some people fleeing. In most cases they could not attribute the source of the attacks. One woman said she saw a 12-year-old boy hit by a gunshot that blew off his leg below the knee. Another woman said that she saw a helicopter fire on a group fleeing ahead of her.

Surrender to Kurdish Forces, and Alleged Killings of Boys and Men
The women consistently said that Peshmerga soldiers gave them water and food, and facilitated the evacuation of some of the wounded and sick in ambulances. Some women said the soldiers took their money or gold. All the women said that when they surrendered, Peshmerga soldiers separated women from men and boys ages 13 or 14 and older, and took everyone to an empty school compound, apparently in the village of Saleh al-Malih. At the school, the Peshmerga placed the women, girls, and younger boys in classrooms, and the men and older boys along the inside of one of the walls that enclosed three sides of the compound, with their arms tied behind their backs.

Women who were there on the afternoon and evening of August 28 described seeing between 150 to 200 men and boys on the inside of the compound wall. Two women said they saw an older, heavy-set man with white hair, wearing a red T-shirt, lying unmoving on the ground for hours and apparently dead, among the men and boys seated next to the wall. They said a Peshmerga soldier walked back and forth in front of the men and boys, hitting them with his belt. Three women also said that they saw a group of around 20 men in their 20s and 30s, whom they described as ISIS soldiers, with arms tied, outside an earth mound along the fourth side of the compound.

These women said they arrived at the school at around 10 or 11 a.m. and that at around 1 p.m., a foreign woman who was apparently being checked by female Peshmerga soldiers at the school entrance detonated a bomb she was wearing or carrying, killing and wounding Peshmerga soldiers and displaced people. A KRG official said the bombing killed three soldiers. A UN report stated that a suicide bomber killed a child and two women and wounded 11 people, including 6 civilians. One witness had a small scar on her face and a bandage on her left forearm, which she said were from injuries caused by the explosion.

Two women, interviewed separately, said that minutes later, they saw Peshmerga soldiers shoot at least six men near the earth berm. The women did not know the victims or whether any were children, but “two of them were young and the other four had beards,” one woman from Syria said. They said the men’s arms were tied and that they did not appear to pose a threat. Three other women also described hearing an explosion, followed within 5 to 10 minutes by gunshots. The women said that shortly afterward, a Peshmerga soldier in a white flatbed truck drove with the men’s dead bodies around the school compound, and that they saw soldiers put the remaining members of the group of men outside the berm onto other trucks and drive away with them. It is not known what happened to the men.

In a separate incident, a Syrian woman in her 20s said that Peshmerga forces shot her husband, who was Turkish, and another Turkish man, both ISIS members, after they surrendered on August 30:

 

My husband had told the Kurds that he would surrender us and give back our Yezidi slave girl, and they told him we could go to Turkey, but then we surrendered and he was talking with another [ISIS member]. I was six meters away from him. I heard gunfire and turned around and his bloody body was on the ground. The other [ISIS member] started running and they shot him down.

 

In response to Human Rights Watch, a KRG spokesperson stated that “government sources strongly reject the allegation” that Peshmerga forces extrajudicially executed men at the school at Saleh al-Malih on August 28. He said Peshmerga had unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with the woman suicide bomber, who killed three soldiers and wounded two. On August 30, the spokesperson said, Peshmerga forces, who had been alerted by a Yezidi woman’s family that she was being held captive, shot and killed her Turkish captor when he arrived at their lines, threatening to kill her.

Transfer to Iraqi Forces; Disappearances of Men, Boys
The women said that Peshmerga soldiers held them at the school compound for varying amounts of time, not exceeding 24 hours, then loaded them and their younger children onto buses that took them to areas under the control of Iraqi forces, and ultimately to the Hammam al-Alil site. The military forces in control of the busses were Iraqi, not Peshmerga, soldiers.

The women described a large convoy of more than a dozen buses. Some women said that older men or wounded men were loaded onto the buses as well, but that most passengers were women and young children.

The women said that was the last they saw of the men and boys held along the school wall. Human Rights Watch interviewed women who were relatives of Turkish men ages 20, 43, 73, and around 45; an Azeri man in his 40s; and a Trinidadian man of 53 who last saw them at the school compound and do not know their whereabouts. Two Syrian women named eight women, four Syrian and four Azerbaijani, they last saw at the compound who had not turned up in Hammam al-Alil, and whose whereabouts they didn’t know.

Several women said Iraqi forces stopped their buses at checkpoints on the way to Hammam al-Alil, screened the passengers, and removed suspected ISIS members. At one of these stops, one woman said, a person whose identity was obscured by a mask identified 10 men and boys who were taken away by security forces that she could not identify, before the buses continued. A second woman said that Iraqi forces took her and other bus passengers into an empty building that was still under construction for screening.

Another woman, who was on a different bus, said that after it had passed two checkpoints, Iraqi security forces stopped it at a checkpoint in Hamdaniya, a Christian town 16 kilometers northeast of Hammam al-Alil, where a masked informant pointed out her Iraqi husband, age 56. A soldier took him and three other men from the bus to a prefabricated caravan at the checkpoint, and another soldier told her, “If he is innocent they’ll let him go.”

The woman, 39, has four young children, and insisted that her husband was not an ISIS supporter, and that the family had been in Mosul when ISIS took the city and had been unable to flee. Once the United States-led coalition started carrying out heavier airstrikes on Mosul, the family fled to Tal Afar, she said, where ISIS forces refused to let them leave.

According to international legal principles on the treatment of prisoners, Iraqi authorities have a duty to inform the families of the men who were taken off the buses, and to treat them humanely – regardless of whether they are ISIS supporters. Some Iraqi units have a record of enforced disappearances and executions of suspected ISIS members.

Treatment of the Women, Children
News media reported that Iraqi officials said Iraq was negotiating with the women’s home countries for their return. Human Rights Watch received information that the Azerbaijan embassy was pursuing the return of its nationals among the detained women and children.

Iraqi authorities should notify the women that they have the right to request consular support, and contact and facilitate consular access for women who wish to do so, while ensuring that women are not arbitrarily separated from their children except based on the determination that doing so would be in the child’s best interest. Iraqi authorities should ensure that women and children are not deported or repatriated if they would be at risk of persecution, torture, or unfair trials for their alleged Islamic State affiliation.

Iraqi authorities should protect the women and children from reprisal attacks, but not detain them or prohibit their freedom of movement unless they are suspected of specific crimes and have judge-issued warrants against them. Iraqi authorities and authorities in the women’s home states, if they are returned, should prioritize prosecutions for involvement in serious crimes.

Iraqi authorities should facilitate humanitarian access to them and their children, and ensure access to medical care and decent living conditions.

Equatorial Guinea: Political Cartoonist Arrested

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
(Washington, DC) – Equatorial Guinean authorities arrested a political cartoonist and activist on September 16, 2017, Human Rights Watch and EG Justice said today. He has been held in detention since then and authorities may be preparing to file criminal defamation charges against him.   The arrest of the cartoonist, Ramón Nsé Esono Ebalé, is the latest episode of government retaliation against artists who have used their work to criticize the government. EG authorities should repeal the country’s colonial-era defamation statute, which allows for the criminal prosecution of people who criticize the president and top government officials. They should abandon any plans to charge Ebalé under that law and, if he is accused of no other crime, release him immediately and without charge.   “The Equatorial Guinea government has again demonstrated its hostility to any form of critical expression that escapes its heavy-handed censorship,” said Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice, which monitors human rights violations in Equatorial Guinea.   Three state security officers detained Ebalé outside a restaurant in the capital, Malabo, at about 7 p.m. on September 16, along with two Spanish nationals who were with him. All three men were taken to the Office Against Terrorism and Dangerous Activities in the Central Police Station. The Spanish nationals were interrogated about their connection to Ebalé and freed after several hours.   Authorities continue to hold Ebalé without charge, exceeding the 72-hour period allowed under Equatoguinean law. Interrogators reportedly questioned him about his political cartoons, which often lewdly caricature President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and other government officials, and repeatedly told him that people may only participate in politics if they are associated with an official party.   Ebalé has lived outside of Equatorial Guinea for several years and had returned to the country to renew his passport. He has not been taken before a judge, which Equatoguinean law requires within 24 hours. Family members were allowed to see him on September 18 and 19, though prison guards refused to allow his sisters to visit on September 17 or to confirm he was being held there.   Based on the interrogators’ apparent questions, EG Justice and Human Rights Watch are concerned that Ebalé may be charged with violating Equatorial Guinea’s criminal defamation statute. In Human Rights Watch’s view, such laws are incompatible with the right to free expression and Equatorial Guinea’s statute should be repealed.   The arts have traditionally served as a safe space for independent voices to provoke public debate on social issues in Equatorial Guinea, a country with little tolerance for political dissent. But EG Justice and Human Rights Watch have documented an increasing number of incidents over the past two years in which the government has retaliated against artists and cultural groups.   In one recent incident, in July, authorities arbitrarily detained Benjamin Ndong, known as Jamin Dogg, after he released a song in support of taxi drivers protesting an increase in licensing fees. In August 2016, authorities suspended a UNICEF-funded theater production raising awareness about HIV after a comment from the audience questioning why the government hadn’t done more to stop the spread of the disease. And in August 2015, the interior minister closed an independent cultural center in Rebola after an artist performed a rap song critical of the government.   “Prosecuting a cartoonist for unflattering satirical drawings is incompatible with free speech and only highlights the power of the pen,” said Sarah Saadoun, researcher at Human Rights Watch.

China: Justice Ministry Pressures Law Firms

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
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The Ministry of Justice headquarters in Beijing, China. 

© 2013 Wikimedia Commons

(New York) – China’s Ministry of Justice has launched probes into human rights lawyers and law firms in a least six provinces and municipalities, Human Rights Watch said today. This official scrutiny, which authorities say is “to strengthen” and “standardize” the supervision of law firms, indicates that the government’s abusive campaign against rights lawyers, begun in July 2015, may continue.

“While China’s human rights lawyers are no strangers to official harassment, these sudden, invasive probes send an alarming message,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet again, China’s authorities are putting lawyers on notice that they are subject to the whims of the government.”

Since early September 2017, officials from the Beijing, Guangdong, Guangxi, Henan, Hunan, and Yunnan Bureaus of Justice, along with government-controlled local All-China Lawyers Associations and police, began what they call “comprehensive evaluations” or “research” into at least seven law firms. The precise scope of these investigations varies. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that in some cases the officials came for “chats” asking about the management of the firm, the number of criminal cases they have undertaken, their management, and how much they charge. In one case, a lawyer said officials asked to examine all his contracts and receipts. Officials told the director of a Beijing-based firm that they plan to investigate their “lawyers’ online speech,” among other issues. At a Guangdong firm, officials investigated only three out of over a hundred lawyers; at a Beijing firm, officials said they plan to speak individually to all 20 lawyers at the company.

Yet again, China’s authorities are putting lawyers on notice that they are subject to the whims of the government. Sophie Richardson

China Director

While authorities have visited these law firms in the past, particularly ahead of the annual evaluation of law firms that takes place by May, the lawyers interviewed said that the current investigations were unusual and “stricter than usual.” The number and ranking of investigating officials involved has been higher than in previous incidents. One law firm director said that six officials, including the highest ranking judicial officials in the province, came to speak to him. The length of some of the investigations – on-site investigations that last for days at the firm –also were unusually long.

The new round of intimidation against law firms raises concerns of a renewed crackdown on human rights lawyers, said Human Rights Watch. The lawyers interviewed described their interviews with authorities as intimidating. Said one lawyer: “It made me worried. They didn’t use strongly worded language, but they asked about my parents and my children. This is unusual as I don’t know them well at all…[so] it made me feel scared.” Another lawyer said that an official said threateningly: “There are lot of problems with your firm,” but gave no details about the problems or how they would be resolved. Authorities told one firm that the lawyers would be required to sign some kind of pledge, but again without details.

China’s Bureaus of Justice, under article 52 of the Lawyers’ Law, have the right to “conduct routine supervision and management” of lawyers and law firms. The supervisory powers under article 64 of the Management Methods on Law Firms are broad and vaguely defined, and permit the examination of firms’ “compliance with laws, rules, and regulations” and their “internal management.” The bureaus are not required to apply a set procedure before subjecting the firms to these investigations. The Management Methods also explicitly require lawyers and law firms to “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” and to establish Party branches in law firms. Lawyers are prohibited from expressing opinions that “reject the fundamental political system” of China or may “endanger national security.”

Harassment of the legal profession has intensified under President Xi Jinping, who assumed power in March 2013. During this time authorities have targeted some of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, including Xu Zhiyong, founder of the New Citizens Movement who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2014; Pu Zhiqiang, who was given a three-year suspended sentence for "inciting ethnic hatred" and "creating disturbances" in December 2015; and Guangzhou lawyer Tang Jingling, who was given a five-year prison term in January 2016 for promoting ideas of non-violent civil disobedience.

This latest probe also intensifies fears about the ongoing “709 crackdown.” Beginning on July 9, 2015, authorities rounded up more than 300 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country. Most have since been released, but the director of Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, Zhou Shifeng, was given a seven-year prison term in August 2016, while another lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, awaits trial. A number of those apprehended in the “709 crackdown” have formally been released, including prominent lawyer Wang Yu, but continue to be closely monitored and almost entirely isolated from friends and colleagues. Others have alleged that they were tortured and forced to confess to crimes in detention.

Authorities have also used other regulations or procedures improperly to punish activist lawyers, Human Rights Watch said. The Ministry of Justice and its lower-level offices revoke or deny lawyers’ licenses, which are issued annually, if authorities disapprove of the kinds of cases those lawyers or firms accept. For example, the authorities have not allowed prominent lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan of Fengrui Law Firm to pass the annual evaluation since 2015. Lawyers are at risk of being beaten, intimidated, and detained in their work by police, court officials, and others operating at the behest of authorities. On September 4, for example, police detained Chongqing lawyer Zhang Tingyuan overnight on suspicion of “soliciting a prostitute” after he investigated a suspicious case of death in police custody. Chinese courts can also order a maximum of 15 days of judicial detention for those who disturb court order, and police can arrest lawyers for “falsifying evidence,” a crime under article 306 of the Criminal Code, which has been brought against lawyers who encourage their clients to speak out about torture by criminal investigators.

“China’s leaders repeatedly claim adherence to the rule of law, but their actions reflect anything but when they intimidate and punish the very lawyers who seek to hold the state accountable for injustices,” Richardson said. “The Ministry of Justice should drop this campaign of intimidation immediately.” 

Russian Activist in Court on ‘Gay Propaganda’ Charge

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
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Interior Ministry officers guard the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community rally "VIII St.Petersburg Pride" in St. Petersburg, Russia August 12, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

A Russian court will soon decide whether posts that Evdokia Romanova, a Russian activist, made on social media back in 2015 amount to “gay propaganda” – a charge that could result in a fine for the accused and a further blow to freedom of expression in Russia.

If the court convicts Romanova, it would be at least the seventh conviction under Russia’s 2013 federal “gay propaganda” law that effectively prohibits any positive information about “non-traditional sexual relations” from public discussion.

Romanova is accused of sharing information on Facebook about the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, an international group that advocates for young people’s access to accurate information about health and sexuality. The group believes that information and education are vital for safeguarding the life, health, and well-being of young people.

The purported rationale behind Russia’s “gay propaganda” ban is that portraying same-sex relations as socially acceptable and of equal value to heterosexual relations supposedly threatens the intellectual, moral, and mental well-being of children. In other words, the law perpetuates the lie that being gay or lesbian poses a danger to children.

While supporters of the law claim it protects children, the ban in fact directly harms them by denying them access to essential information and perpetuating stigma against LGBT children and family members. The law has rightly been condemned by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Court of Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe , and the Council of Europe.

Romanova’s case clearly shows that Russia’s “gay propaganda” law is just a flimsy excuse to discriminate against LGBT people. Factual, positive, and affirming information about sexuality and health is essential for all children. For LGBT children who frequently feel isolated and vulnerable, this information can be life-saving. 

Defending Rights in An Age of Brexit

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
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The Union Flag and European Union flag fly in Parliament Square in central London, September 9, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

The need to focus on Brexit may have led Britain’s Conservative government to shelve its problematic plans to scrap domestic human rights law, in force since 2000, and leave the European Court of Human Rights (which is not part of the European Union). But as a new explainer from Human Rights Watch shows, the government is pursuing Brexit in ways that put human rights at risk.

Some of the rights enjoyed by people in the UK, including workplace protections, privacy, and safeguards against discrimination, are the result of EU membership. The government has given assurances that rights will not be diminished as a result of Brexit.

However, in the EU Withdrawal Bill currently before parliament, aimed at moving EU rules to domestic law after Brexit, the government has singled out the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as the only piece of EU law that will not be incorporated. And it has done so without saying how those rights will be maintained, a move that members of parliament from both main parties have vowed to oppose.  

The government has also refused to guarantee that it will remove or restrict some rights under the worryingly broad executive powers it would be granted under the bill. So it’s little wonder that leading UK human rights organizations are pushing for a “people’s amendment” to protect our rights.

One group particularly concerned about having their rights taken away are the estimated 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. While the UK government has made the right noises, it has missed repeated opportunities to create legal certainty for Europeans living here, despite a rash of hate crimes after the Brexit vote and recent reports of discrimination in employment and housing.

Unless Brexit is grounded in our values and guided by the compass of human rights, we may find that our rights have been hollowed out when we finally leave the European Union.  

Police Cells Are No Place for Migrant Kids

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
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Unaccompanied children line up for an evening meal at a detention facility run by the Greek police.
 

© 2015 Kelly Lynn Lunde

Is it ever acceptable for children to be detained in dark and dirty police cells, without access to the most basic services? Of course not. But when it comes to unaccompanied migrant children, Greek authorities appear to think the answer is yes. 

According to the government’s latest figures, published in early September, at least 113 children were detained in September in so-called protective custody at police stations or police-run detention facilities, waiting to be transferred to a shelter. The number was higher in August, when 142 children were kept in those cells. Human Rights Watch research has documented the detention of unaccompanied migrant children in police cells and other detention centres in Greece, in violation of international and Greek law.

Greek authorities justify the detention of unaccompanied children as a temporary measure to protect children from harm when the shelter system is full. But under international law, detention of unaccompanied children should be avoided. Binding European directives and national law state that when unaccompanied children are detained, it should be only as a measure of last resort, in exceptional circumstances, and for the shortest appropriate period. 

Children we interviewed described the deplorable conditions they faced: held for weeks in dirty, unsanitary, and overcrowded police cells, often sharing space with unrelated adults.

Far from protecting them, this makes children vulnerable to all kinds of abuses, including sexual violence and harassment and increases the risk of further deteriorating their already fragile psychological state. As if that wasn’t enough, we found unaccompanied children in detention are not correctly informed about their rights and have no access to educational or recreational activities.

In response to an open letter from Human Rights Watch in July, Greek Minister for Migration Policy Yannis Mouzalas has pledged that by the end of the year not a single child would be kept in protective custody.

To fulfil this pledge, Greece should use EU funding to provide suitable short-term alternatives to detention, increase the number of places in long-term shelters, and establish a foster family system. Other EU countries have a responsibility to address the situation too. They should make relocating unaccompanied children a priority, speed up family reunification, and broaden eligibility requirements for relocation so more kids can benefit. Unaccompanied children currently in police cells in Greece cannot wait any longer.

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