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Artists Unite to Support Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch - 5 hours 16 min ago

(New York) – A group of contemporary artists whose works grapple with the challenges of our time announced an auction today to benefit Human Rights Watch.

The auction, 20 21 Artists in Support of Human Rights Watch was curated by WILLAS contemporary and will be hosted by the online platform Artsy. It features 41 works of photography, textile, sculpture, and other mediums that tell the story of the past through the eyes of 41 established and emerging artists. It will run online from March 4-18, 2021.

20 21 Artists in Support of Human Rights Watch: Benefit Auction

Hosted by Artsy, with curation led by Willas contemporary, this auction brings together a global, diverse group of artists to reflect on a year like no other. Bidding will take place from March 4th – 18th and funds raised will go towards Human Rights Watch’s work defending fundamental rights and freedoms around the world.


Art has the power to illuminate the world in novel and insightful ways,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “These artists connect us to the world in compelling new ways by spotlighting inspiring human stories of survival, resilience and kindness.”

Among the 41 artists donating works to the auction are James Nachtwey, Nick Brandt, Jeff Cowen, Helene Schmitz, Cooper & Gorfer, and Romina Ressia. Starting bids will range from USD$300 to $110,000. Artists will receive their full commission, which they can choose to donate back to Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch said that while the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the surface deep inequalities in our societies, it has also shone a light on our global connectedness and shared responsibility for one another. The auction is intended to mark this moment by inviting renowned and established artists to nominate new and emerging artists to participate.

The Artsy auction is the second of what Human Rights Watch hopes will be many collaborations with artists around the world. The organization’s growing Art & Activism initiative in 2020 featured a collaboration with world-renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who created face masks imprinted with his works of art. It was one of eBay’s most successful art auctions in its history, eBay said.

“We expect this auction to be only the beginning of Human Rights Watch’s effort to enlist art to give us a language to understand, and address, some of the world’s greatest current challenges,” Roth said.

For more information on the auction, please visit:

To learn more about Human Rights Watch’s Art + Activism project, please visit:

This auction was made possible through special contributions by:

Alina Acari, Göteborg, Sweden
Siri Stolt-Nielsen, Norway

Benjamin Jaeger Art Advisory, Berlin, Germany
Ceval Omar, Oslo, Norway
CP Art Advisory ltd, London, UK
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, USA
Joan Blackman, Miami, USA
Flowers Gallery, London, UK
Pauline Benthede and Johan Vikner, Fotografiska, Stockholm 
WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town, South Africa
Formuesforvaltning, Oslo, Norway
Michelle Loukidis, The Lens Collective, Johannesburg, SA
Ravenstijn Gallery, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Larsen Warner Gallery, Stockholm, Sweden
Nabiha Khan-Giordano, Weinberg/Newton Gallery, Chicago, USA Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, Norway
Kirsti Svenning, Oslo Norway 
Henrik Holm, Oslo Norway


Alexandria Eregbu
Anahid Ghorbani
Anja Niemi
Annie Johansson
Anton Corbijn
Arno Rafael Minkkinen
Axel Ahlsén
Bongiwe Phakathi
Carlos Betancourt
Christian Houge
Cooper & Gorfer
Helene Schmitz
Jacob Felländer
Jacqueline Landvik
James Nachtwey
Jan C Schlegel
Jeff Cowen
Jeffrey James
Jon Henry
Jorge Mañes Rubio
Julia Fullerton-Batten
Kim Schwanhäußer
Kjell Torriset
Lene Marie Fossen
Mandy Barker
Margo Trushina
Matthias Olmeta
Mohau Modisakeng
Nadav Kander
Nick Brandt
Olaf Heine
Richard Mosse
Romina Ressia
Scarlett Hooft Graafland
Shwan Dler Qaradaki
Steinar Christensen
Steve Schapiro
Theophilus Donoghue
Tiina Itkonen
Vee Speers

European Climate Change Lawsuit Spotlights Child Rights

Human Rights Watch - 11 hours 46 min ago
Click to expand Image Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire at the village of Chaveira, near Macao, in central Portugal on Monday, July 22, 2019. © AP Photo/Sergio Azenha

Increased heat, more frequent forest fires, and other extreme weather events fueled by climate change are already harming children in Europe today and governments are not doing enough to cut emissions and prevent catastrophic impacts on children’s rights in the future.

That’s the message four Portuguese children and two young adults have brought in a case against 33 governments before the European Court of Human Rights.

The lawsuit is in its early stages, and no decision on its admissibility or substance has been taken yet. But the Court has decided to fast-track it recognizing the “importance and urgency of the issues raised,” and in February, rejected a request by the 33 governments to reconsider that assessment.

Heatwaves, drought, and wildfires have increased in Europe in recent years and are projected to become far worse, particularly in southern Europe, according to a European Commission study. Human Rights Watch has documented how insufficient government action on deforestation and climate change has already harmed children’s rights. In Brazil, forest fires resulting from unchecked deforestation contribute to climate change and have poisoned the air, resulting in hundreds of infants being hospitalized with respiratory illness. In Canada, the government has done little to address food poverty and health issues among Indigenous children, as traditional food sources dry up in part due to climate change. And in the U.S., increasing heat has been linked to increases in premature birth.              

The Portuguese applicants, aged between 8 and 21, argue that heat waves and forest fires interfere with their right to life and harm their physical and mental wellbeing and governments’ failure to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the cause. They also argue they are victims of discrimination as they have more years ahead of them and will therefore experience the worst effects of climate change. The applicants join a broader movement of youth activists using street protests, online activism, and lawsuits to call out government inaction on climate change.

Now, the defendant governments—all EU states as well as Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom—have until May 27 to submit their response. The case promises to put government commitments to rapidly reduce emissions under intense scrutiny and challenge them to demonstrate how they are protecting children’s rights from the worst climate impacts.

Covid-19 Pandemic Sparked Year of Rights Crises

Human Rights Watch - 17 hours 15 min ago
Click to expand Image Relatives touch each other's hand through a plastic film screen and a glass to avoid contracting Covid-19 at the San Raffaele center in Rome, Italy, December 22, 2020. © 2020 Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP Government policies and actions in the year since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic have precipitated human rights crises around the globe. The pandemic and abusive government approaches have especially harmed the world’s most marginalized people. Governments should have the moral courage and political will to put protection of everyone’s human rights at the heart of a post-pandemic recovery, end abusive policies, and cooperate on vaccine access for all.

(Geneva) – The first year of the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated human rights crises around the world, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. As the one-year mark of the World Health Organization declaring the spread of Covid-19 a pandemic approaches, many countries should urgently change course to ensure a rights-respecting exit from this public health crisis. Governments should work together to scale up vaccine manufacturing and distribution to achieve universal and equitable vaccine access.

March 4, 2021 Future Choices

The 54-page report, “Future Choices: Charting an Equitable Exit from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” documents how the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare systemic frailties in the protection of basic rights and spurred a cascade of human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch recommends changes in approach to address and prevent repetition of human rights abuses based on its research throughout 2020 and early 2021. The report is accompanied by a series of essays on China and vaccine diplomacy, the impact of the pandemic on women’s rights, poverty and inequality, healthcare workers’ rights, older people’s rights, equitable vaccine access, and the rights problems created by using technology to combat the pandemic.

“Governments and corporations have the tools, including vaccines, to manage and end the pandemic, so it’s a matter of whether they have the moral courage and political will to make it happen,” said Tirana Hassan, deputy executive director and chief programs officer at Human Rights Watch. “To chart an equitable exit from the Covid-19 pandemic, governments should ensure universal vaccine access, or they risk further entrenching inequality and eroding human rights for years to come.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken the lives of 2.5 million people and infected at least another 110 million, leaving many severely ill. As documented by Human Rights Watch and numerous civil society organizations, human rights monitors, journalists, and other observers, the pandemic’s social and economic consequences have been widespread and devastating. 

While the scale and severity of the pandemic’s public health threat justified some restrictions on rights, many governments ignored public health guidance and even used the pandemic as a pretext to grab power and roll back rights, Human Rights Watch found.

Some governments introduced restrictions on movement that were disproportionate to, or inappropriate for, the health threat. Governments instituted discriminatory policies, and authorities enforced measures in a discriminatory way and with excessive – and sometimes fatal – violence.

The pandemic underscored structural weaknesses in public healthcare systems, contributing to massive inequity in access to lifesaving care. Governments cut back especially on sexual and reproductive health care. Healthcare workers faced serious risks to their health and safety. And Covid-19 has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on older people and people with disabilities, particularly in nursing homes or other communal settings where the virus can spread rapidly.

People in detention are frequently held in overcrowded conditions without adequate sanitation and hygiene or access to adequate medical care, putting millions of imprisoned people at severely increased risk of contracting Covid-19. While many governments released some people to stop the spread of the virus, these releases were too few and often excluded activists and critics, including those arrested for criticizing governments’ response to the pandemic.

Reported gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence against women and girls, increased worldwide amid the pandemic. In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, governments around the world closed schools in April, shutting out an estimated 1.4 billion students in preprimary, primary, and secondary schools in 192 countries. There are grave concerns that children who lost access to education during the pandemic are at risk of falling behind their peers, or of being pressed into child marriage or entering the labor market, making it less likely that they will return to school.

Many governments mandated social distancing, quarantines, and business closures, with an enormous economic impact. Low-income workers, many in fields like retail, restaurants, and the informal sector who are unable to work remotely, were disproportionately affected.

The pandemic further underscored the importance of protecting workers’ rights, particularly the need to guarantee paid sick and family leave. Economic support during the pandemic has gone a long way toward stemming the rise of poverty but it has left out many who urgently need support. Government reliance on poorly designed algorithms and technologies to distribute benefits has also delayed and denied access to critical support while causing privacy problems.

In the coming months, relief measures are set to expire in many countries, putting low-income groups at increased risk. Without greater measures to protect social and economic rights, and more economic support and equitable means of distribution, poverty and inequality are set to rise further.

Many governments also initiated and expanded digital surveillance to contain the virus, ranging from contact tracing apps to facial recognition cameras that enforce quarantine measures, to algorithmic risk assessments. Virtually all of these technologies pose serious risks to privacy and human rights.

Governments have also used the pandemic to crack down on free speech and peaceful assembly. Military or police forces physically assaulted journalists, bloggers, and protesters, including some who criticized government responses to Covid-19. In some countries, restrictions on free speech and assembly are still in place.

By early 2021, several vaccines had proven to be safe and effective and governments around the world began vaccinating certain groups. However, vaccine development has largely mirrored the inequities that marked the rest of the pandemic: rich governments made opaque deals and prebooked the vast majority of vaccine supplies rather than cooperating to ensure poorer countries’ affordable access to vaccines. These failures ensure that the pandemic – as well as the inequality and rights abuses that have flourished at this time – will continue in many countries for years to come.

International human rights law guarantees everyone the rights to life, health, and a decent standard of living, and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to make medical care affordable and accessible. In the context of serious public health threats and public emergencies, restrictions on some rights can be justified, but they must have a legal basis, be strictly necessary and proportionate to the goal they seek to achieve, and be neither arbitrary nor discriminatory.

“During the pandemic, governments have used the public health emergency to grab power, abuse rights, and systematically neglect some minority populations,” Hassan said. “Governments need to reverse their abusive policies and provide equitable vaccine access both to end the pandemic and to improve everyone’s ability to enjoy their human rights.”

Related Reading An Unequal Crisis China’s Dangerous Game Around Covid-19 Vaccines Covid-19 Exposed Need to Protect Older People’s Rights Reinforcing Rights Can Help Avert Failure on Covid-19 Vaccines Technology is Enabling Surveillance, Inequality During the Pandemic Hit Hard by Covid, Women Demand Fairer Post-Pandemic World Health Workers: Heroes, Yes, But They Need Our Support


Turkey: Free Politician after European Court Ruling

Human Rights Watch - 17 hours 15 min ago
Click to expand Image Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was among MPs jailed on November 4, 2016. His vacant seat in the general assembly of Turkey’s parliament is shown here marked with his photo. © 2016 HDP

(Istanbul) – The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers should direct Turkey to release the Kurdish opposition politician Selahattin Demirtaş in compliance with a European Court of Human Rights judgment, five human rights groups said today. The five are ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project.

The groups have made a detailed joint submission to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which oversees enforcement of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments, asking it to issue the decision at its meeting on 9-11 March, 2021. The groups said that Turkey continues to violate Demirtaş’s rights by flouting a landmark judgment issued by the court on December 22, 2020, requiring his immediate release.

Submission_Rule 9.2 Demirtas v Turkey Submission_Rule 9.2 Demirtas v Turkey

“President Erdogan and senior Turkish officials have responded to the European Court’s judgment ordering Demirtaş’s release with false arguments that it does not apply to his current detention and that the court’s rulings are not binding on Turkey,” said Aisling Reidy, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “The Committee of Ministers should call on Turkey to release Demirtaş immediately and leave no doubt that disregarding or attempting to bypass judgments of the Strasbourg court is unacceptable.”

Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish rights opposition party to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been held in Edirne F-Type prison in western Turkey since November 4, 2016.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that in initially detaining Demirtaş and then prolonging his detention for over four years, the Turkish government pursued an ulterior purpose of preventing him from carrying out his political activities, depriving voters of their elected representative, and “stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate: the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”

Ordering Demirtaş’s immediate release, the court found that Turkey had violated rights protected by Articles 5.1 and 5.3 (right to liberty) of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 10 (right to freedom of expression), Article 3 Protocol 1 (the right to free and fair elections), and Article 18 (misuse of limitations on rights in the Convention), by pursuing Demirtaş’s detention for political ends.

In finding the government acted in bad faith (Article 18 violation), the court notably refers to Demirtaş’s current detention, from September 20, 2019 which relates to an investigation into deadly protests in southeast Turkey on October 6-8, 2014. The Strasbourg court said what Turkey was attempting to do was “a new legal classification” of the same facts, because the same “acts and incidents” had formed the basis on which Demirtaş had been detained up until September 2, 2019, and for which he is already on trial.

Finding a continuity between Demirtaş’s pretrial detention from November 4, 2016, to September 2, 2019, and again from September 20, 2019, to the present, the court termed the September 20 order a “return to pre-trial detention.” The Turkish government has rejected this finding and contends that Demirtaş is currently detained in the context of a case not covered by the European Court judgment.

“As the European Court of Human Rights made clear, Demirtaş’s detention on September 20, 2019, was in fact not a separate detention but a ‘return to pre-trial detention’ and a continuing violation of his Convention rights,” said Róisín Pillay, Europe and Central Asia Director of the International Commission of Jurists. “The Committee of Ministers should press Turkey to immediately end this abuse of judicial proceedings aimed at harassing an opposition politician.”

The groups’ submission provides a full analysis of political and legal developments since the issuing of the ECtHR Grand Chamber judgment – including a new indictment against Demirtaş – and repeated statements from Turkey’s president and senior officials that the Demirtaş judgment and European Court judgments in general are not binding on Turkey.

“Charging such a prominent political figure with 30 serious ‘new’ offences based on political speeches mostly 6 years ago, which the Court already found to be protected, is pure repackaging – a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent compliance with the Court’s judgment requiring immediate release,” said Helen Duffy of the TLSP. “The Grand Chamber already rejected earlier ‘reclassification’ attempts, and it is time for a robust response by the Committee of Ministers to break the cycle of evasion.”

The groups urged the Committee of Ministers to place Demirtaş’s case under their enhanced procedures, treating it as a lead case, and to indicate that continued refusal to carry out the judgment may lead them to refer Turkey to the European Court for non-compliance. The groups urged the Committee of Ministers to call on the Turkish government to:


Immediately release Demirtaş as required by the ECtHR judgment, and make clear that the judgment applies to his ongoing detention and to any future charges or detentions in which the factual or legal basis is substantially similar to that which the ECtHR has already addressed in its judgment; Halt all criminal proceedings initiated against Demirtaş following the constitutional amendment lifting his immunity, which was deemed unlawful by the ECtHR’s Grand Chamber; End the abuse of judicial proceedings to harass Demirtaş, stifle pluralism, and limit freedom of political debate, emphasizing that this cessation is essential to the restoration of Demirtaş’s rights; End interference in Demirtaş’s cases, especially by attempting to pressure or unduly influence judicial authorities; and Publicly correct false claims promoted by senior Turkish government officials that the Grand Chamber judgment in the Demirtaş case and European Court judgments more generally, are not binding.

UAE: Greater Progress Needed on Women's Rights

Human Rights Watch - 17 hours 16 min ago

(Beirut) – The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has made important women’s rights reforms in recent years, such as passing new domestic violence protections, but significant discrimination against women and girls remains, Human Rights Watch said today. Laws still provide male guardian authority over women and loopholes allow reduced sentences for men for killing a female relative. 

Click to expand Image A foreign domestic worker with a child under a billboard in the United Arab Emirates. © 2006 Abbas/Magnum Photos

On February 26, 2021, Human Rights Watch submitted a report to the United Nations committee reviewing the UAE’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The committee has scheduled a session sometime during the first week in March to identify a list of issues and inquiries it will make to UAE authorities ahead of its review of the UAE’s record.

“The UAE’s recent women’s rights reforms are a step in the right direction, but in truth they do not go far enough to dismantle the deep discrimination against women in law and practice,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on the UAE Human Rights Watch Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on the UAE

Women’s rights in the UAE have recently come under heightened scrutiny following the emergence of new videos of Sheikha Latifa, daughter of the Dubai ruler, in which she describes the conditions of her forced confinement following her abduction and forcible return to the UAE in 2018. She also pleaded for an investigation into her sister Sheikha Shamsa’s abduction and forcible return to the UAE from the UK in 2000.

The CEDAW Committee made several recommendations to the UAE on steps needed to guarantee women’s equality during its 2015 review. They included calls “to repeal as a matter of priority all legal provisions which continue to discriminate against women, including those contained in the Penal Code and the Personal Status Law.”

The UAE has carried out some reforms, such as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex and gender in the country’s anti-discrimination law and revoking legal provisions that had obliged women to “obey” their husbands, explicitly affirmed a man’s legal right to discipline his wife and children, and punished consensual extramarital sex.

In March 2020, a new domestic violence law came into effect that included provisions enabling women to obtain restraining orders against abusers. However, the law’s definition of domestic violence reinforces male guardians’ ability to discipline their wives, female relatives, and children to an extent that authorities find acceptable. The law also does not criminalize marital rape.

In 2019 and 2020, UAE authorities introduced minor amendments to the personal status law, but a woman in the UAE can still lose her right to financial maintenance from her husband if she refuses to have sexual relations with him without a “lawful excuse.”

A judge can also deem a woman in breach of her spousal obligations if she leaves the house or takes a job deemed outside “the law, custom, or necessity,” or if the judge considers it against the family’s interests. This change was made gender neutral but prevailing social norms mean judges are more likely to consider it unnecessary for a woman to work than a man, resulting in discrimination against women.

“The UAE should uproot all forms of discrimination, especially misogynistic laws subjecting women to male guardian authority,” Begum said.

In November 2020, the UAE also repealed an article in the penal code that allowed men to receive lighter sentences for killing a female relative if they found them in the act of extramarital sex. However, families of the murder victim can waive their right to see the person punished in return for compensation (blood money) or choose to freely pardon them.

In such cases, the accused can be subject to a minimum sentence of seven years in prison instead of life. When family members kill a woman, including in so-called “honor” killings, the victim’s family is also the family of the murderer and is likely to allow men to receive lighter sentences.

Also in November 2020, the UAE amended the penal code to remove language that has been used to punish consensual sexual relations outside marriage. This provision disproportionately affected women as pregnancy could be used as evidence of extramarital sex.

Despite the change in the law, it is unclear if health policies that required a marriage certificate to obtain prenatal and postnatal care are still being implemented. Marriage certificates still appear to be required to obtain birth certificates. These policies disproportionately affect migrant women and can leave their babies undocumented, unable to obtain identification documents or travel.

The UAE’s labor law continues to exclude domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women. A 2017 domestic worker law extended protections like a weekly day of rest and paid vacation, but has fewer and weaker protections than the main labor law and falls short of international standards.

Many low-paid migrant domestic workers are at acute risk of labor abuses, forced labor, and human trafficking because of the kafala (visa sponsorship) system in the UAE, which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers. Foreign nationals account for about 90 percent of the UAE population, according to the World Bank.

Despite the UAE’s February announcement that it will extend citizenship opportunities to select foreign nationals, the country’s citizenship law still leaves out other groups, including children born to Emirati women and foreign fathers, and stateless people.

“The UAE has spent considerable time and money portraying itself as a champion of women’s rights and empowerment,” Begum said. “Now it needs to turn rhetoric into reality.”

Last Chance for EPP to Uphold Democratic Values in Hungary Showdown

Human Rights Watch - 17 hours 16 min ago
Click to expand Image Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes part in a European People Party (EPP) summit in St Julian's, Malta, March 30, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

The decision yesterday by Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz to quit the main conservative group in the EU parliament may seem like a decisive step in the power struggle within the European People’s Party (EPP).

Yet the truth is it leaves the question of Fidesz’s future in the pan-European EPP unresolved, and underscores the failure by leading conservative parties in Europe to confront the chasm between their stated values and the near decade-long assault on democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Hungary by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz.

Fidesz has neither left nor been excluded from the EPP as a party. It is just no longer part of the EPP faction at the European Parliament, a move Fidesz made after the EPP group in the European Parliament changed its own rules making it easier for EPP lawmakers to expel a national party from its ranks.

In fact, the EPP, as a pan-European party, has done little to hold its Hungarian member to account. In March 2019, the EPP suspended Fidesz after Hungary passed a law that forced the Central European University out and because of a smear campaign against Commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Since, the EPP leadership has failed to follow through, making stated commitment to democratic values ring hollow. In the meantime, Fidesz members of the European Parliament continued to sit as EPP members.

Two years on, Orban’s government has intensified attacks against media freedom and pluralism, refused to implement EU Court’s ruling on asylum and laws curbing freedom of association, and launched new assaults against LGBT and women’s rights. This goes against the values enshrined by the EPP’s own charter. But the EPP again failed to take further action.

Many in the EPP seem unconcerned by the risk Fidesz’s authoritarianism poses to the EPP and the EU. That includes Angela Merkel’s own CDU, Germany’s largest EPP member, which maintained an approach that, too often, helped shield Fidesz from criticisms and effectively enabled Orban’s rights-abusing government to continue trampling core EU values.

With Fidesz quitting the EPP’s group at the European Parliament, it’s time for the EPP to finally get to grips with the truth – and to permanently expel it as a member because it does not uphold fundamental values the EPP is founded on.

Myanmar: End Lethal Force Against Protesters

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Click to expand Image Protesters run in the middle of tear gas smoke during a demonstration against the military coup, Yangon, Myanmar, March 3, 2021. © 2021 Sipa via AP Images

(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s military junta should order its security forces to end the use of excessive and lethal force against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 3, 2021, security forces fired live rounds at protesters, killing at least 38 and wounding more than 100 at demonstrations across the country, the United Nations reported.

One of the deadliest incidents took place in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, where security forces opened fire on largely peaceful protesters. Security forces fired on some protesters as they attempted to rescue an injured man. Earlier in the day, police detained and brutally beat medical workers. Human Rights Watch reviewed an incident in which a man in custody appears to be shot in the back.

“Myanmar’s security forces now seem intent on breaking the back of the anti-coup movement through wanton violence and sheer brutality,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The use of lethal force against protesters rescuing others demonstrates how little the security forces fear being held to account for their actions.”

At a March 3 briefing, the United Nations special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, reported that 38 people had been killed during the day’s violence, bringing the tally of those killed since the protests began a month ago to more than 50. At least four of those killed were children, according to Save the Children.

Through the analysis of 12 videos and 15 photographs, Human Rights Watch documented three incidents in which security forces apparently used live fire against protesters along the Thudhamma Road in Yangon on March 3.

In a Facebook live video posted on March 3, Human Rights Watch identified a line of at least five military vehicles positioned on the overpass road that merges into the Airport Road near Okkala Thiri Park on Thudhamma Road. The video shows hundreds of protesters shielding and taking shelter from ongoing gunfire coming from the direction of the overpass.

Click to expand Image The location of the overpass where military vehicles were observed. Imagery taken on April 2, 2020 © 2021 Maxar Technologies. Source: Google Earth. Graphic © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Gunshots, consistent with semi-automatic and automatic weapons fire, can be heard frequently for the first five minutes of the video. At 1:35 minutes into the video, several protesters shield themselves while running toward a makeshift barrier to move an injured or deceased protester, while shots are fired at them. The video later shows an orange trash can with multiple apparent exit holes near where one of the protesters was killed. These exit holes and the direction in which people are shielding indicates that the shooting originated from the direction of stationed military vehicles.

In the videos and photographs reviewed by Human Rights Watch, no security forces were visible. In the videos, there is no indication that the protesters being fired upon are engaged in violent acts. The video does show one man at 2:05 launch a slingshot with an unknown projectile towards the center of the road.

Human Rights Watch also analyzed videos taken approximately two kilometers south of the incident described above on the Thudhamma Road of a makeshift barrier that had been set on fire. Protesters can be seen trying to extinguish the fire with water. In a Facebook live post, three people can be seen carrying a motionless man away from the direction of the blockade. Gunfire can be clearly heard in the previous minutes.

In another incident, Human Rights Watch confirmed the location of the shooting of a man in the custody of security forces on the Thudhamma Road. Filming from an apartment window, the video shows a group of at least 15 security force personnel gather on the Thudhamma Road as at least 10 other security force personnel lead a man in a white shirt toward them.

They move the man ahead of the larger group and at close range, no more than a few feet, one of the officers can be seen lowering his weapon in line with the man’s back. A shot can be heard in the video and the man instantly falls to the ground. Two security force members kick him, and getting no response, they drag him into the center of the road.

Click to expand Image Location of the shooting of a man in the custody of security forces in Yangon, Myanmar. Imagery taken on March 26, 2020 2021 Maxar Technologies. Source: Google Earth. Graphic © 2021 Human Rights Watch

In CCTV footage released online, police officers can be seen removing three workers from an ambulance of Mon Myat Seik Htar Charity group (MMSH), then beating the workers with their guns and batons and kicking them. At least six police were involved in the attack. One of the MMSH volunteers died from their injuries, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) reported.

The nongovernmental group confirmed that its members had been providing medical assistance to injured protesters in North Okkalapa. Photographs and a video of the ambulance with bullet holes and broken windows were later shared on social media. These photographs and videos match the location of the CCTV footage.

In addition to the Yangon attacks, security force killings took place over the course of the day in Monywa, Sagaing Region; Myingyan and Mandalay, Mandalay Region; Salin, Magway Region; and Mawlamyine, Mon State, based on media reports and local analysts.

The killings on March 3 followed extreme violence on February 28, in which the UN said that 18 people were killed by security forces. Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch a pattern of violence used by security forces in Yangon on March 1 and 2, including charging protesters and makeshift barricades without warning, the use of sound and stun grenades, teargas, and arbitrary detention.

Since the February 1 coup, millions of people have taken to the streets across Myanmar in largely peaceful protests to call for the military to relinquish power. In response, security forces have beaten protesters and deployed teargas, water cannons, kinetic impact projectiles, such as rubber balls, and live ammunition to disperse protesters. The use of force has been accompanied by widespread arbitrary arrests and detentions.

The authorities have detained over 1,100 government officials, activists, journalists, civil servants, and others since February 1, according to AAPP. The group reported that as many as 800 people were detained nationwide on March 3, including about 400 protesters held in Kyaikkasan Race Ground in Yangon.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials should “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.” The UN Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 37 stated that “[f]irearms are not an appropriate tool for the policing of assemblies, and must never be used simply to disperse an assembly.… [A]ny use of firearms by law enforcement officials in the context of assemblies must be limited to targeted individuals in circumstances in which it is strictly necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury.”

The UN Security Council is scheduled to hold a closed-door consultation on Myanmar on March 5.

“The UN Security Council should take the dramatically deteriorating situation in Myanmar as a clarion call for coordinated action to end to this cascading human rights disaster,” Weir said. “Concern and outrage aren’t enough. What is needed is action to hold the junta accountable, including through the use of targeted sanctions and a global arms embargo.”

Cambodia: Quash Conviction of Opposition Leaders

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Click to expand Image Sam Rainsy talks with media at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, November 9, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should immediately end politically motivated trials of opposition politicians and quash recent convictions, Human Rights Watch said today. The harassment and prosecutions by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen are part of a continuing effort to prevent the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from participating in future elections and the country’s political life.

On March 1, 2021, the Phnom Penh municipal court convicted in absentia nine exiled leaders of the dissolved CNRP on charges of “attempt to commit felony” and “attack” under articles 27 and 451 of Cambodia’s penal code. The case concerns unfounded allegations that all nine attempted to stage a coup by announcing their plans to return to Cambodia on November 9, 2019.

“The politically motivated trial and sentencing of Sam Rainsy and other exiled opposition leaders to decades in prison so they can never return to Cambodia is a page torn from the dictator’s playbook,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments in Japan, Europe, and the United States should recognize the depths of Cambodia’s human rights crisis and impose targeted sanctions against the government officials responsible.”

The court sentenced Sam Rainsy, the acting CNRP leader, to 25 years in prison, and deputy leaders Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang to 22 years each. CNRP leaders Tioulong Saumura, Men Sothavrin, Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, Long Ry, and Nuth Romduol received sentences of 20 years each. The court imposed total combined fines of 1.8 billion riel (US$440,000) and stripped all nine of their rights to vote, run for office, and serve as a public official.

Click to expand Image Mu Sochua speaks during an interview in London, November 16, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo

The court provided local nongovernmental organizations monitoring the trial with inaccurate information about the date of the verdict hearing. They were never informed of the actual date and, consequently, no trial monitors were in the courtroom on March 1.

In contrast to the hasty trial of the nine political opposition leaders in violation of their due process rights, the authorities have continued to delay the trial of the CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who has faced unsubstantiated, politically motivated treason charges since September 2017. The Phnom Penh court informed Sokha, who is banned from resuming his role in the CNRP, that his case was not considered a priority and his trial was unlikely to resume in 2021. Presiding Judge Kouy Sao stated in a letter to Sokha’s lawyers on February 2 that the court “has been busy with the criminal cases of the charged and accused who are detained in overcrowded prisons.”

As all nine newly convicted opposition leaders are abroad, the postponement of Sokha’s case contradicts the court’s claim that it was prioritizing hearings of suspects in pretrial detention, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Union condemned the verdict against the nine opposition leaders, noting that the “accused were not allowed to return to the country to defend their cases in court, in what appears to be a violation of due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law.”

In recent years, Cambodian authorities have banned the CNRP and staged political trials of dozens of party leaders. In 2021, the government has started a series of mass trials against opposition figures based on their political affiliation and against activists engaged in peaceful activism and expression. Human Rights Watch has documented the cases of over 75 political prisoners, including opposition members, youth and environmental activists, trade union leaders, and journalists. Many activists have fled the country because they feared arrest and sought refugee protection abroad.

Ahead of the exiled opposition leadership’s announcement of their intention to return to Cambodia on November 9, 2019, the authorities arrested at least 125 former CNRP members and activists who expressed support for their return. While the authorities released at least 74 on bail in December 2019, the baseless charges were never dropped. An increasing number have since been rearrested and are in pretrial detention.

“The prosecutions of senior opposition figures are the cutting edge of Hun Sen’s latest crackdown on dissent, with many more trials scheduled in which guilty verdicts and long prison sentences are a foregone conclusion,” Robertson said. “Legislators around the world should denounce the unjust case against Sam Rainsy and his colleagues, and speak out in support of democracy and human rights in Cambodia.”


Japan: Adopt LGBT Equality Act Before Olympics

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Click to expand Image Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto, left, speaks to media after a video conference with the IOC executive board in Tokyo, Japan, February 24, 2021.  © 2021 Takashi Aoyama/Pool Photo via AP

(Tokyo) – The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) should support LGBT nondiscrimination legislation to protect everyone in Japan from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, seven members of TOCOG’s Human Rights, Labor, and Participation Committee said.

In a February 26, 2021 letter to TOCOG’s new president, Seiko Hashimoto, the committee members urged TOCOG, as well as the Japanese Olympic Committee and Japanese Paralympic Committee, to promote passage of an anti-discrimination law during the current National Diet session ahead of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games scheduled for this summer. 

February 26, 2021 Letter to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the Japanese Paralympic Committee from the TOCOG Human Rights, Labour, and Participation Committee members February 26, 2021 Letter to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the Japanese Paralympic Committee from the TOCOG Human Rights, Labour, and Participation Committee members


“Japan’s national government should enact an anti-discrimination law in keeping with the Olympic Charter’s ban on ‘discrimination of any kind,’ including sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch and a member of the TOCOG Human Rights, Labor, and Participation Committee. “TOCOG’s sustainability and human rights experts urge TOCOG’s new president to support passage of an LGBT Equality Law before the Tokyo Games to bring Japanese law in line with international standards.”

Tokyo was slated to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government postponed the games for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Games are advertised as celebrating “unity in diversity” and “passing on a legacy for the future.” Japan should enact a national anti-discrimination law to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in accordance with international human rights standards. Human Rights Watch, along with 115 human rights and LGBT organizations, also sent a letter to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on January 25 in support of such legislation.

Hashimoto was elected TOCOG’s president on February 18, after the previous president, former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, resigned over his discriminatory comments against women earlier in the month. On February 24, Hashimoto announced a new gender equality team at the TOCOG, and stated that “Gender equality and women’s empowerment is going to be something that will be promoted.”

A 2020 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks Japan next to last for laws on LGBT Inclusiveness for developed countries. It says that: “LGBTI-inclusive laws are particularly critical for creating a culture of equal treatment of LGBTI individuals. One cannot expect to improve the situation of sexual and gender minorities if, to begin with, the law does not protect them against abuses or excludes them from social institutions.”

Although the Tokyo Metropolitan Government adopted an ordinance that protects LGBT people from discrimination in line with the Olympic Charter in October 2018, many Tokyo Olympic competitions, including the marathon, race walk, golf, fencing, and surfing, will take place outside of Tokyo, in Hokkaido, Saitama, Chiba, Shizuoka, Kanagawa, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Ibaraki prefectures. Foreign and Japanese LGBT athletes, officials, workers, and fans will expect to be protected from discrimination.

In his October 2020 message for the opening of Pride House, a facility to build awareness and support for LGBT rights, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said that he hoped the facility “will be successful and become a legacy of the Tokyo Games.”

“The Tokyo Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games represent an unrivaled opportunity for Japan to bring its laws into compliance with international nondiscrimination standards,” Doi said. “The TOCOG, Japanese Olympic Committee, and Japanese Paralympic Committee should act together to support Japan’s government to meet the expectations of the International Olympic Committee and thousands of visiting athletes and fans by passing an LGBT equality law.”

US Should Sanction Saudi Crown Prince

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Click to expand Image Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the first meeting of the defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counter-terrorism alliance in the capital Riyadh on November 26, 2017. © 2017 Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

A United States intelligence report released last week adds further evidence to what many have long suspected: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, had approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet despite the report’s findings, the Biden administration has failed to live up to its campaign promise to hold MBS accountable.

Human Rights Watch and 41 other organizations are calling on President Joe Biden to impose sanctions available under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on officials at the highest levels of Saudi leadership, including MBS.

The Magnitsky Act and related powers allow US authorities to sanction foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses or been involved in significant corruption. In November 2018, US authorities used it to sanction 17 Saudi officials in connection with their alleged role in the Khashoggi murder. Last week, the US also announced visa restrictions on an additional 76 Saudis because they “threaten[ed] dissidents overseas, including [about] but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”

Saudi authorities have continued to systematically target dissidents and subject them to trials marred by lack of due process and credible torture allegations. Some laws-of-war violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen amount to war crimes. As crown prince and defense minister, MBS acts as the day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia with near-total control over its security and military apparatus and economic and political affairs.

Last week’s intelligence report provides President Biden the opportunity to demonstrate his leadership by following through on his human rights pledges. In addition to powers granted under the Magnitsky Act, the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act would require US authorities to issue an entry ban on MBS given his direct involvement in “significant corruption” and “gross violation[s] of human rights.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and others have urged President Biden to remain “consistent” with US human rights policy and take bolder action against MBS. Several members of Congress have drafted bills that would impose sanctions on MBS and others.

President Biden should demonstrate that respect for human rights is central to his foreign policy. Imposing sanctions and travel bans on MBS and other Saudi officials should be the minimum response. The recent temporary freeze on US arms sales to Saudi Arabia should also be extended until authorities stop committing abuses in Yemen and hold officials who have committed or overseen war crimes to account.

Arwa Youssef is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a Human Rights Watch staff member.

US Has a Chance to Protect Forests Worldwide

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Click to expand Image “I don’t have gloves; when we pick up the fruit bunches it hurts us,” said a palm fruit harvester that has worked for the company for over a decade. “Sometimes the fruit bunches fall on people or animals’ excrement.” Boteka, November 17, 2018. © 2018 Luciana Téllez/Human Rights Watch.

A bill to prevent agricultural goods grown on illegally deforested land from entering the US market will be introduced in the US Congress, Senator Brian Schatz announced today. Beef, palm oil, soy, cocoa, and their derivatives are found in products that US consumers buy every day. They are all commodities associated with rights abuses and the destruction of forests – ecosystems that absorb and store carbon and that are vital to mitigating climate change.

The law would require US businesses to take steps to verify that the commodities they import did not originate from illegally deforested land, including forested land cleared in violation of legal protections for the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Senator Schatz’s announcement that he will introduce the bill comes as Human Rights Watch and 28 other civil society organizations released an open letter calling on the administration of President Joe Biden and Congress to tackle the US footprint on the world’s forests and emphasizing the importance of regulating commodities supply chains. “Voluntary initiatives and corporate commitments haven’t done enough to curb deforestation over the past decade,” the letter said, “government leadership and regulatory frameworks are needed to drive systemic change.”

Human Rights Watch research has shown how several of the commodities that drive deforestation are linked to egregious rights violations.

In Indonesia, the establishment and expansion of oil palm plantations has adversely affected Indigenous people’s rights to their lands, livelihoods and culture. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, oil palm plantations are rife with labor rights abuses. In Brazil, violent criminal networks drive illegal deforestation in the Amazon, and threaten and kill defenders who stand in their way. Fires are often set in the rainforest to clear land for cattle-grazing and agriculture, poisoning the air millions of people breathe. Altogether, these countries hold about half of the world’s rainforests.

The bill would be a major step in the right direction for climate action by requiring businesses to ensure their operations do not fuel the destruction of crucial ecosystems. It is also a major step in protecting US consumers from unwittingly contributing to human rights abuses and environmental degradation through their shopping bags. The Biden administration should build support for it.

How Europe Can Help End Death and Despair in the Mediterranean Sea

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Click to expand Image Migrants on a boat that they tried to take to Italy, after being detained at a Libyan Navy base in Tripoli on September 20, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

As the pandemic consumes Europe’s attention, a struggle for survival is taking place in the central Mediterranean.

Since the start of 2021, at least 185 people have died in the stretch of waters between north Africa and Italy. Italian and European Union (EU) policies are costing lives at sea and condemning many others to suffering in Libya.  

The central Mediterranean has long been the deadliest migration route in the world, with over 17,400 lives lost between 2014-2020. Last month, the UN Human Rights Committee found that Italy had failed to respond to a boat in distress in 2013, causing the death of at least 200 people, including 60 children. While Italy had direct primary responsibility in that case, the EU as a whole, bears responsibility for the tremendous death toll at sea.

EU institutions and states have progressively abdicated responsibility for search and rescue in these treacherous waters. The EU naval mission deliberately patrols away from areas where it might encounter boats in distress. Non-governmental rescue organizations that try to fill the gap face smear campaigns, administrative obstacles and even prosecution. Italy, Malta, and the EU border agency, Frontex, seem more interested in helping Libyan forces intercept boats than ensuring timely rescues and disembarkation in a safe port.

In the past two months, the Libyan coast guard intercepted at least 3,700 people and returned them to Libya, where they face indefinite, arbitrary detention and the real risk of sexual violence, torture, forced labor, and extortion. The number is significantly more than those taken back during the same period in 2020.

Everyone agrees that Libya is not a safe place, but that hasn’t stopped the EU from funneling money and technical support to the abusive coast guard units nominally under authorities in western Libya. In the past five years, that support has allowed Libyan forces to intercept and send back to Libya over 66,000 people.

This cycle of suffering and death can be averted. The European Commission and EU countries should ensure robust EU governmental search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean and support, not obstruct, other rescue efforts. They should also enact international cooperation agreements to minimize the number of people disembarked in Libya and evacuate more people directly from Libya to save them from the deadly journey. Ultimately, the best way to saves lives is to expand safe and legal channels for refugees and other migrants.

Time for a Female UN Secretary-General?

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Click to expand Image U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. © AP Photo/Jeenah Moon

There have been nine United Nations secretaries-general over the past 75 years, from all corners of the earth. But they’ve had one thing in common—they’ve all been men.

“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” That’s UN Sustainable Development (SDG) Goal Five. “End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.” That’s the first target for Goal Five. The UN is responsible for helping every country achieve that target by 2030.

That effort should start in the UN’s own house.

It’s time to choose the next “SG.” António Guterres, a veteran diplomat, former UN high commissioner for refugees and ex-prime minister of Portugal, has been in the job since 2017 and seeks a second term. The process for selecting the SG changed in 2015, becoming more transparent and inclusive. Campaigns including 1 for 7 Billion, of which Human Rights Watch is a member, want further reforms.

Several countries — China, Germany, and the United Kingdom — endorsed a second term for Guterres before more candidates emerged. In 2015, the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council called for member states to nominate women; this year they did not. But because of the 2015 changes, it is more likely candidates can come forward to run against the incumbent. A woman working for the UN, Arora Akanksha, announced her candidacy in February, drawing attention, again, to the lack of women in the role. In 2016, there were seven women candidates and six men.

Human Rights Watch is calling for competition and gender diversity in the candidate pool. Both Guterres and the General Assembly president voiced support for a transparent selection process this year. All UN member states committed to gender equity should consider presenting and supporting strong female candidates, an approach 1 for 7 Billion supports. With a diverse candidate pool in place, member states should select the most qualified candidate.

We are facing a crisis in women’s rights. The Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affects women; the UN predicts it will push 47 million more women and girls into poverty, and drive 13 million additional child marriages over the next 10 years. We need SDG Goal Five to be a reality, and the UN’s ability to help lead the world out of this crisis is undermined as long as gender equity is missing – from bottom to top.

South Asia’s Women’s Rights Activists Should Be Heard

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 2, 2021

As 2020 drew to a close, protesters across South Asia took to the streets, calling on their governments to take widespread sexual violence against women and children seriously, and to implement real reforms. But rather than listening to experts and activists, some governments reacted with knee-jerk populist calls to execute rapists. Others simply waited for the protests to die down.

As international attention waned, women and children across the region continued to face alarming levels of sexual violence with little support or legal recourse. In February 2021, in a case disturbingly similar to those that sparked protests in October, a group of men reportedly dragged a woman to a field in Jessore, Bangladesh, and gang raped her. In India, on March 1, protests reignited when the body of a 16-year-old Dalit girl was found in Aligarh. Police said they suspected attackers made an attempt to sexually assault the girl before she was killed. In Nepal, protesters returned to the streets after a 17-year-old girl was raped and strangled to death. Her body was found a day later near her village in west Nepal. Some protesters wore black over their eyes to symbolize the government closing its eyes to sexual violence.

International Women’s Day on March 8 should be a reminder to South Asian governments to stop ignoring the region’s rape problem and to start listening to activists. When protests broke out in late 2020, Human Rights Watch spoke with activists across the subcontinent about what governments should do to end widespread violence against women and girls.  The consensus was clear: the death penalty for perpetrators doesn’t solve the problem. Instead, governments should ensure adequate access to health, psychosocial, legal, and support services. They should reform and enforce laws that protect everyone, and train law enforcement and court officials to work with and support victims of gender-based violence. Schools should provide comprehensive sexuality education to address sex, consent, gender equity, and healthy relationships.

This International Women’s Day, governments should believe women saying there is a problem, and listen to their solutions.

Nigerian Victim Calls for Justice at Gambia Truth Commission

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Click to expand Image Paul Omozemoje Enagameh of Nigeria who was arrested and forcibly disappeared in The Gambia in 2005. © photo courtesy of Enagameh family

(Banjul) – A Nigerian man whose brother was among about 59 West African migrants killed in Gambia in 2005 by a paramilitary unit controlled by then-president Yahya Jammeh, told Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) on March 2, 2021 that he wants to see those responsible brought to justice. Gambian and international human rights groups have been monitoring the commission hearings, which began in January 2019.

Kehinde Enagameh testified that his brother, Paul Omozemoje Enagameh, then 28, was found to be missing in 2005 while seeking to migrate to Europe. Kehinde Enagameh later learned from a friend that Gambian authorities had arrested and killed his brother. But for many years he was unable to learn any more, until the killing of the migrants received international attention in recent years.

“Since my brother went missing 15 years ago, we have been searching for the truth about what happened to him. It’s been painful and traumatic for the whole family,” Kehinde Enagameh said. “I want Yahya Jammeh and those involved in my brother’s killing to be brought to justice.”

Paul Enagameh was one of nine Nigerians killed in the massacre, according to a 2008 report by the Nigerian High Commission in Gambia. Most of the other Nigerian victims have not been identified.

In addition to the Nigerians, about 44 Ghanaians, and nationals of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo are believed to have been killed over several days in July 2005. On February 25, a former senior officer of Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency testifying at the truth commission presented a list of 51 migrants who had been arrested, the first time that an official list of the arrested migrants has been produced. That list, which includes a “John Amase” from Nigeria, was apparently compiled after eight other migrants, including several Nigerians, had already been killed.

A 2018 report by Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International, based on interviews with 30 former Jammeh-era officials, found that Jammeh’s closest associates in the army, the navy, and the police detained the migrants. Then the “Junglers,” a unit of Gambian soldiers operating under Jammeh’s orders, summarily executed them. In July 2019, three former Junglers testified publicly before the truth commission that they and 12 other Junglers had carried out the killings on Jammeh’s orders. One of the officers, Omar Jallow, recalled that the operation’s leader told the men that “the order from … Jammeh is that they are all to be executed.”

Previous official attempts to investigate the massacre have been stymied or flawed. Ghana attempted to investigate the killings in 2005 and 2006, but was blocked by the then-Jammeh government. In 2008, the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) formed a joint investigative team, which produced a report in April 2009 that was said to have concluded that the Gambian government was not “directly or indirectly complicit” in the deaths and enforced disappearances. It blamed “rogue” elements in Gambia’s security services “acting on their own” for the massacre. The UN/ECOWAS report has never been made public, however, despite repeated requests by the victims and by five UN human rights experts. 

The Gambian truth commission has also heard testimony that former president Jammeh participated in the rape and sexual assault of women brought to him, forced HIV-positive Gambians to give up their medicine and put themselves in his personal care, and was responsible for ordering the killing and torture of political opponents and “witch hunts” in which hundreds of women were arbitrarily detained.

Human rights groups said that the hearings highlight the need for a criminal investigation and appropriate prosecutions of Jammeh and others who bear the greatest responsibility for the serious crimes committed by his government. Jammeh has lived in exile in Equatorial Guinea since his departure from Gambia in January 2017.

“We are going to locate the family of John Amase, whose identity has just been disclosed for the first time at the TRRC, and we will search for the identity of the remaining seven Nigerian migrants,” said Femi Falana, senior advocate of Nigeria, who represents the Enagameh family. “Yahya Jammeh may now be ensconced in Equatorial Guinea but sooner or later he is going to be held accountable.”

To watch Kehinde Enagameh’s statement to the truth commission, please visit:

Rights of Sri Lankan Muslims Need International Protection

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Click to expand Image Sri Lankan municipal cemetery workers carry the coffin of a Covid-19 virus victim for cremation in Colombo, Sri Lanka, December 21, 2020.  © 2020 Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via AP

The Sri Lankan government’s announcement that it would finally end its medically baseless policy of “forced cremation” of people who die with Covid-19 was welcomed by Muslim families, who for religious reasons bury their dead. But the government then added a gratuitous requirement that burials take place on the small northwestern island of Iranaitivu, which is principally inhabited by Catholic Tamils who have struggled to reoccupy their land for decades after the Sri Lankan navy seized it in 1992. 

Following months of condemnation from Sri Lankan religious leaders of all faiths, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), health specialists, and United Nations rights experts, the government announced the climb-down when faced with a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. The government seemingly sought to dissuade OIC member countries from supporting the resolution, which aims to advance accountability for past rights violations and prevent future abuses.

By decreeing that burials now take place on Iranaitivu, instead of in regular cemeteries around the country, the government has replaced one measure targeting grieving Muslim families with another. It has also needlessly linked this issue to a separate matter involving another vulnerable group – the people of the island who have struggled for decades to return to their homes.

President Gotabaya Rajapasaka’s Sinhala nationalist government has since taking office in November 2019 adopted discriminatory policies and practices against the country’s Muslim and Tamil minorities. The authorities have subjected Tamils to bans on memorial events, the destruction of war memorials, and increasing encroachment on Hindu temples.

The Rajapaksa administration has built on earlier harassment and attacks against Muslims. When nationalist mobs attacked Muslims in 2018, hate speech on social and mainstream media spread false rumors that Muslims were conspiring to sterilize Buddhist women, leading to the arrest of a Muslim doctor, and boycotts of Muslim restaurants. Following the ISIS-inspired Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, women wearing Islamic dress were denied access to public buildings. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, pro-government media accused Muslims of deliberately spreading the virus.

The ratcheting-up of abuses against Sri Lanka’s minorities make it vital that the UN Human Rights Council adopt a strong resolution at its current session. The Sri Lankan government’s cruel, gratuitous, and arbitrary policies won’t end until the rest of the world speaks out.

The UK Supreme Court Has Failed Shamima Begum

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Click to expand Image Renu Begum, eldest sister of Shamima Begum, 15, holds her sister's photo as she is interviewed by the media at New Scotland Yard, London, England, February 22, 2015. © 2015 Laura Lean/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s highest court delivered a shocking blow to justice when it ruled that Shamima Begum, who was just 15 when she left for Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS), could not return to Britain to challenge the government’s stripping of her citizenship. This was despite the Supreme Court accepting that she could not have a fair hearing while detained in northeast Syria.

Instead, the Court ruled that her due process rights are indefinitely suspended until she can play “an effective part in her appeal without the public’s safety being compromised,” but gave no indication of when that might be and left the decision in the hands of the government. This leaves Begum stuck in a detention camp in northeast Syria where thousands are held without any legal basis, in conditions so dire they amount to inhumane treatment or even torture.

An estimated 50 other British women and children have been held since 2019 in Al Hol and Roj detention camps without charge or trial. The dire conditions there may have led to the death of Begum’s newborn son in 2019 and have taken the lives of hundreds of other children including at least three who burned to death in a tent fire just days ago. Despite repeated requests from the Kurdish authorities who control northeast Syria, including these detention camps holding suspected ISIS-associated women and children, the UK government has refused to repatriate most of the British citizens held there except for six unaccompanied children.

With the Supreme Court’s blessing, the UK government has left Begum de-facto stateless and prevented her from effectively challenging the decision that did so. If Begum did commit crimes during her time with ISIS, she should be brought home and given a fair trial. This ruling and her continued detention make this impossible.  

The UK Government should heed growing calls from security experts, UN officials, and human rights groups, and immediately repatriate Shamima and the other British women and children. To turn its back on them is not only a legal and moral aberration, but a long-term security risk. Leaving them in detention camps leaves them vulnerable to radicalization and the dire conditions can serve as a recruitment tool. If we have learnt anything from the last 20 years, it’s that our security is never served by undermining human rights.

Australia: Urgently Address Aged Care Abuse

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Click to expand Image A resident looks out from the window of the Florence Aged Care Facility amid the second wave of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Melbourne, Australia August 17, 2020. © REUTERS/Sandra Sanders

The Australian government should immediately act on the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety to improve rights protections for older people, Human Rights Watch said today. The commission, in its final report released on March 1, 2021, called for the government to fundamentally reform the aged care system to refocus on the support needs of older people “instead of the funding requirements of aged care providers.”

As it undertakes these reforms, the Australian government should take a human rights-based approach to policies and services for older people, ban the use of chemical restraint in aged care homes, and better assist older people who wish to live at home, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Royal Commission into Aged Care’s final report makes clear that the current aged care system is failing older people in numerous ways,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Multiple investigations and reports have confirmed widespread abuse and neglect in aged care homes. The Australian government should urgently carry out the commission’s recommendations to protect the dignity, health, and human rights of older people.”

The Royal Commission into Aged Care was established in October 2018 in response to concerns about abuses in aged care publicized in an ABC investigative television program, Four Corners.

The Royal Commission heard from 641 witnesses, including residents, staff, families, and experts, held almost 100 days of hearings, accepted more than 10,500 public submissions, and produced 38 reports and research papers, including an October 2020 special report on Covid-19.

The eight volume final report makes 148 recommendations including a new Aged Care Act that enshrines the rights of older people, strengthening the oversight and accountability of aged care providers, and setting out minimum staffing times for qualified staff in aged care facilities, including at least one registered nurse on site at all times.

Revelations in late February of alleged deadly neglect in a Perth nursing home indicate that these abuses continue and that accountability mechanisms remain insufficient and weak.  

Among the commission’s findings were serious concerns regarding aged care facilities giving older people drugs to control their behavior even though the drugs are not required to treat medical symptoms – a practice known as chemical restraint. The commission stated that “The overuse of restrictive practices in aged care is a major quality and safety issue. Restrictive practices impact the liberty and dignity of people receiving aged care. Urgent reforms are necessary to protect older people from unnecessary, and potentially harmful, physical and chemical restraints.”

However, the commission missed an important opportunity to call for a complete ban on this abusive practice, Human Rights Watch said. An end to the abusive practice of chemical restraint will only happen if aged care providers that wrongly administer medication as a restraint are held accountable and if the government bans the practice.

In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch documented the use of chemical restraint in several aged care homes in Queensland, Victoria, and New South Wales. In certain circumstances, chemical restraint amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. Human Rights Watch has criticized Australia’s existing regulation on restraints as insufficient and has called for the government to ban the practice.  

In August 2020, The Australian reported that several residents in some aged care facilities in Melbourne who had tested positive for Covid-19 were refused hospital admission and were instead heavily sedated with morphine, the anti-psychotic risperidone, or other medications to prevent them from “wandering” and infecting other residents. The government said that it was investigating the allegations.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, in response to a December 2020 inquiry from Human Rights Watch, said that it does not proactively monitor for chemical restraint, meaning that the only information it has received about this practice is through complaints. It reported that “from 29 November 2019 to 16 October 2020, the Commission received 53 complaint issues in relation to chemical restraint in residential aged care.” It also stated that “from 1 July 2021, medication management will be introduced as a new quality indicator” in regulating aged care.  

The use of chemical restraints is closely linked to staffing and training. The Royal Commission urged the Australian government to ensure there are sufficient numbers of appropriately skilled staff available to attend to the needs of all people receiving aged care. It called for a daily minimum staff time for registered nurses, enrolled nurses, and personal care workers for each resident.  

Inadequate staff and training can make it difficult to take an individualized, comprehensive approach to supporting people with dementia with symptoms of agitation or aggression, which can drive chemical restraint. Non-pharmacological intervention can include exercise, music, building relationships, and reducing boredom and loneliness. The Royal Commission recommended that aged care staff should undertake regular training on dementia support.

The commission also said that the government should do more to support older people’s autonomy and choice by providing greater access to support services at home, known as home care packages, and to clear the waiting list for this assistance. A January 2021 report by the Productivity Commission found that there continue to be long waiting lists to receive support at home, with an average waiting time of 28 months for those requiring the highest level of support. In December 2020, the government announced funding for an additional 10,000 home care packages for older people, among other aged care reform initiatives.

“If implemented, the Royal Commission’s recommendations could catalyze a much-needed transformation of how Australians experience their later years,” Pearson said. “Older people should be able to receive support and services that respect their dignity, autonomy, and human rights whether at home or in an aged care facility.”

Myanmar: Post-Coup Legal Changes Erode Human Rights

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Click to expand Image Anti-coup protesters stage a sit-in demonstration, Mandalay, Myanmar, February 24, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s military government should reverse its post-coup d’etat revisions of legal protections for human rights in the country, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and Human Rights Watch said today.

Myanmar’s State Administration Council (SAC), appointed by the country’s military after it overthrew the elected civilian government on February 1, 2021, has dictated key revisions to the country’s legal system that criminalize even peaceful protests, and enable violations of the right to privacy and arbitrary arrests and detention. The changes were made through orders signed by the Commander-in-Chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, on behalf of the SAC, and outside the parliamentary process.

“As Myanmar’s military increasingly relies on excessive force and intimidation to quell peaceful protests against its coup, it is trying to give a veneer of legality to its actions by subverting existing protections in the legal system,” said Ian Seiderman, ICJ’s Director of Law and Policy. “These revisions, which violate the principle of legality and Myanmar’s international obligations, in no way excuse or legitimate the widespread violations of human rights now taking place in Myanmar.”

Since the coup on February 1, the military junta has:

arbitrarily suspended sections of the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (2017), removing basic protections, including the right to be free from arbitrary detention and the right to be free of warrantless surveillance and search and seizure; amended the Penal Code to create new offenses and expand existing offenses to target those speaking critically of the coup and the military, and those encouraging others to support the “Civil Disobedience Movement,” amended the Ward and Tract Administration Law to reinstate the requirement to report overnight guests; amended the Code of Criminal Procedure to make the new and revised offenses non-bailable and subject to warrantless arrest; and amended the Electronic Transactions Law to prevent the free flow of information and criminalize the dissemination of information through cyberspace, including expression critical of the coup or the acts of the junta.

Under international legal standards, any restrictions on human rights must be strictly necessary to protect a legitimate interest and proportionate to the interest being protected, even in times of public emergency or for legitimate national security purposes (conditions that do not apply in Myanmar currently). The orders issued by the SAC fail to meet that standard, as they will arbitrarily interfere with the exercise of rights protected under international law, including freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to liberty, and the right to privacy. Certain rights, such as the rights to bodily integrity and nondiscrimination, are not subject to restriction.

“By stripping the people of Myanmar of their basic rights, the military is once again demonstrating its disdain for international human rights protections,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “The junta cannot justify the oppression of Myanmar’s inhabitants through the unilateral creation of arbitrary new laws.”

For an analysis of the junta’s changes in the law, please see below.

Analysis of Legal Code Changes

Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (2017)
On February 13, the State Administration Council arbitrarily suspended sections 5, 7, and 8 of the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, eroding basic protections for individuals.

Section 5 required the presence of two witnesses whenever the police enter a residence for the purposes of search or seizure “to ensure that there is no damage to the privacy or security of the citizen.” The suspension of that protection significantly raises the risk of abuses during searches and arrests.

Section 7 required a court order for any detention of more than 24 hours. Suspension of the provision will facilitate violations of international law, which provides that any person detained on a criminal charge be promptly taken before a judge.

Section 8 provided protections of an individual’s right to privacy by prohibiting search and seizure, surveillance, spying, or any investigation affecting the privacy, security, and dignity of the individual without a court order, protections that the junta has removed. Under international law, no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with their privacy, family, home or correspondence.

Penal Code Amendments
On February 14, the SAC announced amendments to the Penal Code that could lead to criminal liability for thousands of demonstrators exercising their rights to free expression of their views, and anyone publicly criticizing the military coup d’etat through any means.

The SAC inserted a new provision, section 505A, that could be used to punish comments regarding the illegitimacy of the coup or the military government, among others. The new section would criminalize comments that “cause fear,” spread “false news, [or] agitates directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a Government employee.” Violation of the section is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Section 505(a) previously made it a crime to publish or circulate any “statement, rumor or report” “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or airman, in the Army, Navy or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty.” It has been replaced with much broader language clearly designed to penalize those encouraging members of the civil service of the security services to join the Civil Disobedience Movement.

Under the revised provision, any attempt to “hinder, disturb, damage the motivation, discipline, health and conduct” of the military personnel and government employees and cause their hatred, disobedience or disloyalty toward the military and the government is punishable by up to three years in prison.

The SAC also significantly broadened the “treason” provisions in section 124 of the Penal Code. Section124A, which already criminalized comments that “bring into hatred or contempt” or “excite disaffection against” the government, was expanded to include comments relating to the defense services and defense services personnel, effectively criminalizing any criticism of the military or military personnel. Violation of the section is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The newly added section 124C imposes a prison term of up to 20 years on anyone who intends to “sabotage or hinder the performance of the Defense Services and law enforcement organizations who are engaged in preserving the stability of the state.” This provision would criminalize efforts to encourage security forces to join the Civil Disobedience Movement or permit unauthorized protests.

Finally, under section 124D, a person can be sentenced up to seven years in prison if they hinder a government employee from carrying out their duties. This provision is so broad that any actions of protesters could be interpreted as preventing security personnel or defense service officers from performing their duty.

Code of Criminal Procedure Amendment Law
On February 14, the junta amended the Code of Criminal Procedure Amendment Law to make offenses under sections 505A, 124C, and 124D non-bailable and subject to arrest without a warrant.

Ward or Village Tract Administration Law (13/2/21)
The amendments to the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law (13/2/21) further increase the military’s ability to conduct surveillance on people’s movements, in particular on human rights defenders seeking shelter away from their own homes. Amendments to section 17 of the Act require all overnight guests from other wards or villages to be reported to the ward or village tract administrator, who are authorized by section 13 to “take action” against any who “failed to inform the guest list.” Section 27 reintroduces criminal sanctions for failing to report overnight guests. Such provisions existed under previous military governments and were deeply resented.

Electronic Transactions Law (Law No 7/ 2021)
On February 15, the junta also amended the Electronic Transactions Law to include, among others, provisions that had been proposed in the draft Cybersecurity Law.  

As was true under that much-criticized draft law, the amended Electronics Transactions Law permits government agencies, investigators, or law enforcement to access personal data in relation to “cyber-crimes,” “cyber misuse,” or any criminal investigation.

The amendments also include several provisions (articles 38(d) and (e)) that provide criminal penalties for “unauthorized” access to online material and that could be used to prosecute whistle blowers, investigative journalists, or activists who use leaked material for their work.

Section 38B criminalizes “obtaining, disclosing, using, destroying, modifying, disseminating, or sending someone’s personal data to anyone else without approval,” with one to three years in prison. While the protection of the right to privacy online is important, this provision goes well beyond legitimate protections on privacy and imposes arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression.

In particular, “personal data” is defined in a manner so broad as to include virtually any information associated with a person. The law is therefore impermissibly vague and overbroad, as it would likely prevent even the disclosure of information about anyone involved in alleged human rights violations, including by human rights defenders and journalists.

Section 38C criminalizes the creation of “misinformation or disinformation with the intent of causing public panic, loss of trust or social division on cyberspace,” and provides for imprisonment of one to three years in addition to fines. These provisions are similarly vague and overbroad and unnecessarily and disproportionately limit the exercise of expression online, including criticism of the coup and the military junta.

United States: Pandemic Impact on People in Poverty

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Click to expand Image Volunteers load food into the trunk of vehicles during a ''Let's Feed LA County'' drive-thru food distribution by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and the office of Supervisor Hilda Solis on February 23, 2021, in La Puente, California. © 2021 Ringo Chiu/AP Photo

(Washington, DC) – The United States government has made little progress in stemming the rise in poverty and inequality during the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should take urgent action to address the rights of millions of people suffering the compounded economic and social impacts of the pandemic.

A Human Rights Watch analysis of public-use microdata from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey shows that the pandemic’s economic fallout has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the rights of low-income people who were already struggling. President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by the US House of Representatives on February 27, 2021, provides key investments to mitigate the growing economic hardship affecting these parts of the population. The legislation is now with the Senate, where it may be amended before it is sent back to the House for a final vote.

“Millions of people in the US are falling into preventable poverty and hunger,” said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The measures put forth in President Biden's relief proposal are urgently needed and the government shouldn’t cut corners when so many lives and livelihoods are at risk.”

Federal policymakers should ensure that relief not only reaches everyone in need, but also provides sufficient levels of support. It should also lay the foundation for a human rights-based economic recovery that ensures an adequate standard of living to everyone in the United States and addresses racial, gender, and other disparities, Human Rights Watch said.

Since the start of the pandemic, 74.7 million people have lost work, with the majority of jobs lost in industries that pay below average wages. Many of those who lost work and income are running out of money and savings. In January, some 24 million adults reported experiencing hunger and more than six million said they fear being evicted or foreclosed on in the next two months due to their inability to make housing payments. By contrast, higher-income people have been relatively unscathed economically. Despite the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, the collective wealth of the US’ 651 billionaires has jumped by over $1 trillion since the beginning of the pandemic, a 36 percent leap.

Recent Census Bureau data show how households with different incomes are coping with the pandemic and that low-income households are disproportionally struggling for their social and economic rights to be met. Among households with incomes below $35,000, 47 percent of adults report being behind on housing payments, and 25 percent say they struggle to put food on the table. Thirty-two percent of low-income adults said they had felt depressed in the previous seven days. These low-income households urgently need a comprehensive rescue plan.

One-third of adults reported using past stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits to cover normal household expenses in the previous seven days; with 37 percent of them also going into debt by using credit cards and loans for routine expenses.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

At the end of January, the data indicated, more than 24 million adults had not had enough to eat sometimes or often in the previous seven days. That is five million more than in August 2020, when food hardship was already higher than before the pandemic. Human Rights Watch found that more than half of food-insecure households include children, raising serious concerns about the long-term consequences on children’s health and their academic outcomes. More than 45 percent of food-insecure households are in the lowest income quartile, making less than $35,000 a year. Racial disparities are high, with Black and Latinx adults living in food-insufficient households at more than twice the rate of white adults.

Human Rights Watch found that low-income households are at a particular disadvantage in recovery, because many experience multiple stress factors (“stressors”), such as housing insecurity. Sixty percent of households making less than $35,000 a year face at least two stressors simultaneously, compared to less than 20 percent of households making more than $150,000. These compounding stressors can push families and individuals deeper into poverty and represent a risk to people’s rights.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

“Government programs and past stimulus bills have provided crucial relief, but it was temporary,” Simet said. “Food and housing insecurity is rising and millions of people are going hungry or are on the brink of losing their home or seeing their utilities shut off in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It’s a clear indictment of a failed safety net and the urgent need to address people’s rights to food and housing.”

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on low-income people underscores the urgency of addressing the precarious financial situation that low-wage workers faced even before the pandemic, Human Rights Watch said. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage is one effective mechanism. It is also effective for combatting poverty and addressing wage inequality. Some legislators’ opposition to Biden’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of the rescue plan undermines an equitable recovery and puts low-wage earners further at risk, particularly women and workers of color, who continue to be shunted into the lowest-paid jobs.

A safety net will need to protect those who need it. Presently, the US’ largest economic and health support systems are geared largely toward supporting children and their parents, people with disabilities, and older people. These programs are often insufficient to ensure the right to an adequate standard of living for these groups.

But they also fail to respond to the needs of low-income people outside of these categories, who have fewer options for government support, and often fall through the cracks. In 2020, more than one in eight adults under the age of 65, without children and who do not have a disability, were living in poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“If the US government wants to address the economic insecurity and inequality that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated, it needs to make ensuring economic and social rights for all a priority,” Simet said. “This means building a universal and strong social protection system and investing in public services, notably education, health care, housing, and an adequate standard of living.”

For additional details about the situation in the United States and the need for stimulus relief, please see below.

Evidence of Economic Hardship in the US and Necessary Support

These findings are based on a Human Rights Watch analysis of public-use microdata from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey. For a detailed description of the data, see here.

Job and Income Losses Disproportionately Affect the Most Vulnerable

As of January 2021, about one year into the pandemic, the US economy remained weak, the jobs recovery had lost momentum, and there were 9.9 million fewer jobs than in February 2020, when the pandemic began. In the Pulse survey analyzed by Human Rights Watch, nearly half of adults who responded – 48 percent – said that someone in their household had experienced a job or income loss at some point since March 13, 2020. Latinx and Black adults were 1.4 times more likely to have answered “Yes” than white adults.

Low-income households were particularly likely to have lost work or income. Among households making less than $35,000 a year, 57.3 percent experienced income or employment loss during the pandemic, compared with 34.6 percent of those making more than $150,000 a year.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

States in the US offer varying degrees of support in unemployment benefits. In Mississippi, unemployment benefits are capped at $235 a week. Massachusetts is much more generous, with $855 a week. While differences in maximum benefit levels may be tied to the cost of living in a particular state, without additional weekly payments, even in lower-cost states like Mississippi, benefits are too low to make ends meet.

Even though the unemployment rate fell by more than 40 percent between June 2020 and January 2021 (to 6.3 percent), poverty has increased over the same period, with about eight million more people living in poverty. This disconnect results from some government benefits expiring at the end of July and an increasing number of workers dropping out of the labor market altogether. More than four million people have left the labor force in the past year; two in five of the over 22.3 million jobs lost in March and April 2020 have not returned. 

Women have left the labor force at a much higher rate than men. Of the 1.1 million people who left between August and September, over 800,000 were women. Experts suggest that due to the persistent gender earnings gap across spouses and the increase in caregiving burden, women were more likely to drop out of the labor force as schools and childcare centers closed. 

One tool to address the unequal labor market results is to extend paid sick days and family and medical leave. As part of the American Rescue plan, the government should enact a paid family and medical leave law to support workers’ health and economic security for the duration of the pandemic, while working to put in place a permanent, national, comprehensive, and inclusive program beyond the pandemic.

Difficulty Paying Household Expenses

The Census survey examined the disproportionate impact on low-income households and people of color and the ability to pay expenses such as food, rent or mortgage, medical expenses, or utilities within the previous seven days.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

About 35 percent of all adults live in households with difficulties paying for their usual household expenses, but this share is highest among those in very low-income households. Nearly 60 percent of households making less than $35,000 a year struggle paying for their usual expenses, suggesting that the impact of the pandemic, including job losses and Covid-19-related morbidity and mortality, is making it harder for many to make ends meet. This share is significantly lower for higher-income households, and lowest among those making more than $150,000 a year.

Black and Latinx adults are almost twice as likely as white adults to have difficulties in paying everyday expenses in the previous week.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch


Food Insecurity

In January 2021, based on the census data, more than one out of 10 adults lived in a home where there was sometimes or often not enough food to eat in the previous week. Racial disparities are high, with Black and Latinx adults living in food-insufficient households at more than twice the rate of white adults.

There is a clear relationship between income and food insecurity. A quarter of adults (nearly 11 million) who live in households with an annual income of less than $35,000 were food insecure in January, the data indicated. Of those with a yearly income between $35,000 and $75,000, 11 percent were food insecure. This share is much lower for households with incomes exceeding $75,000.

Food insecurity was particularly high among households that had lost employment during the pandemic. Three out of four food-insecure households have experienced job loss since the pandemic began and 58 percent did not have work at the time of the survey.

More than half of adults in food-insecure homes have children living with them. Nearly two-thirds of food-insecure families reported that in the previous seven days it was “sometimes” or “often” true that their “children were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” Most of these homes made less than $35,000 in the previous year.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

The American Rescue Plan would provide critical investments to address the alarming rates of hunger. It would extend the temporary 15 percent increase in the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from June through September. Benefits should be extended beyond the end of September if the US economy still is not fully recovered, Human Rights Watch said.

A significant portion of people who are receiving SNAP benefits are facing food insecurity. This suggests that the increased benefit may be too low. Among households with SNAP beneficiaries, 27 percent skipped meals in January. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one reason is that the US Department of Agriculture’s current interpretation of the emergency food assistance provisions under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act denies those allotments to nearly 40 percent of SNAP households. The federal government should address the immediate needs as well as structural inequities in food insecurity.

In addition, SNAP benefits leave out millions of households in need. There are 16.5 million households skipping meals that are not receiving benefits. About two out of three adults in food-insecure households did not receive food assistance in the previous seven days or have a SNAP beneficiary. Of adults who live in a home where at least one member received free groceries or a free meal in the previous seven days, nearly a quarter still did not have enough food that week.

If strict eligibility criteria or interpretations of who receives SNAP benefits fail to provide food assistance to all in need, putting cash directly into people’s pockets provides important relief. Thirty-three percent of adults who responded to the US Census Bureau Pulse Survey said they used the second stimulus check to pay for food.

Tax credits are another vehicle to help people in economic distress. The child tax credit proposed in the American Rescue Plan would help food-insecure households with children.

It would send $300 monthly checks to low-income parents with children younger than six years and $250 for each child between the ages of six and 17. In providing these benefits, the government needs to ensure that households that don’t file federal income taxes are not excluded.

Precarious Access to Housing

Housing costs, the largest expense item for most households, are becoming increasingly untenable for many. In January, 19 million adults reported living in households that are behind on rent or mortgage payments. Of those, 35 percent, or almost seven million people, said they fear being evicted or foreclosed on in the next two months, according to recent Census data analyzed by Human Rights Watch.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Precarious access to housing, which includes both delays in housing payments and the risk of eviction or foreclosure, risks people’s right to adequate housing. In January 2021, over 19 million adults lived in a household that was behind on rent or mortgage payments, the data indicated. This is a problem throughout the country. In 41 of the 50 states and Washington, DC, at least 10 percent of adults are behind on housing payments. Louisiana and New York report particularly high rates of households at risk with almost a quarter of households behind on housing payments in January.

There is a clear racial disparity in payment delays. Black adults are over three times more likely than white adults to live in a household behind on housing payments.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Housing insecurity is highest among low-income households. Of households earning less than $35,000 in 2019, 26 percent are behind on their housing payments, compared with four percent of those making more than $150,000. The proportion of income spent on housing varies depending on income level. In 2019, households in the bottom 20 percent of income levels spent about 40 percent of their annual income on housing. Among higher earners, that proportion is closer to 30 percent.

In addition to falling behind on housing payments, renters and homeowners reported trouble paying utility bills, racking up significant debts. The Urban Institute estimates that almost one in three Black renters (28.9 percent) and 25.9 percent of Latinx renters reported problems paying their utility bills in the previous 30 days, compared with 9.2 percent of white renters. In California, at least 1.6 million households have water debt, and unpaid water bills total $1 billion.

The Census Bureau asked people who are behind on housing payments about their perceived housing security. In January 2021, about 35 percent of adults behind on payments said that it was very or somewhat likely their household would need to leave their home in the next two months because of eviction or foreclosure.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

The American Rescue Plan would extend the federal moratorium on evictions that will otherwise expire in March through September and will fund legal assistance programs to help those facing eviction. However, it does not correct flaws in existing state and federal eviction moratoriums, which put millions of tenants at risk of eviction. In addition to an extension of the federal moratorium on evictions, there should be a national moratorium on shutoffs of water, electricity, broadband, and heat for inability to pay, Human Rights Watch said.

The severity of housing insecurity shows that additional support is needed to keep people from being evicted or being without a place to live. Researchers on houselessness state that it is too soon to know how trends have changed during the pandemic but have pointed out that was already on the rise pre-pandemic. The authorities need to do more to meet government obligations to guarantee everyone’s right to affordable, stable, and habitable housing, regardless of a person’s income.

Multiple Stress Factors Contributing to Financial Hardship

Low-income households are at a particular disadvantage in recovery, because many experience multiple stress factors potentially harmful to people’s rights, such as food insecurity, during the pandemic.

Tens of millions of households are estimated to be facing multiple stress factors simultaneously, including no work in the previous week, income loss, food and housing insecurity, or symptoms of depression. Low-income households are particularly prone to compounded layers of stress factors. One in nine adults living in households with an annual income below $35,000 experienced at least one of the five stress factors; 60 percent experienced at least two, and 30 percent struggled to manage three at the same time. Concurrent stress factors are much less frequent among highest earners, with only 18 percent currently experiencing more than one stressor.

Click to expand Image © 2021 Human Rights Watch

People of color are also more likely to experience overlaying stress factors. Close to 45 percent of Black and Latinx adults live in a household that faces multiple stressors, compared to 30 percent of white and Asian adults.

Impact of Raising the Minimum Wage on Economic Hardship and Insecurity

Adjusting the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as is proposed in the American Rescue Plan, could be very effective for combating poverty and inequality and a necessary step to ensure that everyone can enjoy their right to an adequate standard of living. It is an essential measure for addressing racial economic disparities and inequality since workers of color, especially women of color, make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workers. Sixty-three percent of Latinx workers and 54 percent of Black workers earn low wages, compared with 36 percent of white workers.

Even before the pandemic, the labor market was deeply unequal. The share of national income going to the bottom half of the income distribution has fallen by more than one-third since 1970. The share going to the top one percent has nearly doubled. 

Many low-wage workers face difficulties meeting their basic needs. The Brookings Institution found that in 2019, approximately 53 million workers between 18 and 64, about 44 percent of all workers, were in low-wage jobs. Their median hourly wage was $10.22, and median annual earnings were about $18,000, which would put a family of three below the federal poverty line of $21,960. 

As part of the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next five years. The minimum wage has been frozen at $7.25 since 2009. Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimate that a $15 minimum wage would raise pay for nearly 32 million workers while reducing government expenditures on public assistance programs between $13.4 and $31 billion.

Most workers who would benefit from a $15 per hour minimum wage are essential and frontline workers. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in an average week in 2025, when the minimum wage would reach $15 per hour, the number of people in poverty would be reduced by 0.9 million people, and employment would be reduced by 1.4 million workers. A raft of other recent research indicates minimal risk of widespread job losses.

Avoiding Austerity at the State and Local Level that Would Harm Rights

The pandemic has created a severe budget crisis for state and local governments, as tax revenue has dropped and demands for public health and social protection increased. Nineteen states reported making mid-year spending cuts in 2020 due to revenue shortfall. Adjusted spending meant that 1.3 million in state and local employment was lost since February 2020, with large burdens on women and Black workers, who make up a higher share in the state and local government workforce. 

Budget cuts that are damaging to human rights have already begun as well. Twenty-three states reported using targeted spending cuts; eight states used across-the-board cuts to balance budgets for 2021. The largest spending reduction was in K-12 education. In Georgia, policymakers approved a 10 percent budget cut for 2021, including a nearly $1 billion cut for K-12 public schools and cuts to programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities, among others. Maryland enacted $413 million in emergency spending cuts, including large cuts to colleges and universities.

The Biden administration’s proposal includes much-needed state and local government fiscal relief. Without more federal aid, many states will likely face hard budget choices, increasing the likelihood of another round of job cuts or austerity for services essential to realizing human rights.