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EU, Denmark Failing Imprisoned Danish-Bahraini Activist and His Daughter

Human Rights Watch - 5 hours 51 min ago
Click to expand Image Bahraini anti-government protesters raise signs with images of jailed human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja Friday, April 6, 2012, in Jidhafs, Bahrain. © 2012 AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

Maryam al-Khawaja has spent nearly 13 years relentlessly campaigning for the release of her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Danish-Bahraini human rights defender wrongfully serving a life sentence in Bahrain for his peaceful human rights work. In a heartbreaking message on February 19, Maryam announced she’s now also fighting cancer.

Those who know Maryam know that no one fights as fiercely as she does. In that way, she is her father’s daughter. Over the years, she has never given up on her quest for justice to see her father released from prison, where he still fights for his and others’ rights. Last August, he was among the many Bahraini political prisoners who started a hunger strike to protest their inhumane and degrading treatment. Fearing for her father’s life, Maryam tried to board a plane to Bahrain, knowing she risked arrest upon arrival. She and a delegation of leading human rights figures were prevented from boarding.

Unfortunately, neither the Danish government nor the European Union have shown similar determination in fighting for human rights in Bahrain.

Deeming Bahrain to be a “strategic partner” in the region, EU member states have been reluctant to indicate to the Danish government their readiness to support collective action against Bahrain and to make al-Khawaja’s case an “EU case.” Last year, following the prisoners’ hunger strike, EU member states finally agreed to mention Bahrain in a statement at the United Nations, but some EU governments were so reluctant that the final, negotiated language is borderline flattering to Bahrain’s autocratic rulers and includes no reference to political prisoners or their plight.

The Danish government has also been too timid in its actions, both to rally support within the EU and in confronting Bahraini authorities. Danish Foreign Minister Lars Lokke said on February 27 that he spoke about Khawaja’s case with Bahrain’s foreign minister, but was “not optimistic” about the outcome. He made no reference to what consequences Bahrain’s reluctance to release Khawaja and others will have on its relations with Denmark and the EU. And that’s precisely the problem.

Thirteen years of “private diplomacy” and “human rights dialogues” have done nothing to reunite Maryam and her father. The EU needs to recognize it has failed them both and must urgently change course. 

India: Protect Farmers’ Right to Peaceful Protest

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 29, 2024
Click to expand Image Protesting farmers flee exploding tear gas shells used by the police near the border between Punjab and Haryana states, about 200 kilometers from New Delhi, India, February 21, 2024. © 2024 AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

(New York) – Indian authorities are using threats, excessive force, and internet shutdowns to stop farmers from holding peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said today. Since mid-February 2024, farmers from Punjab and Haryana states seeking higher prices for their produce have congregated outside India’s capital, New Delhi, to raise their demands.

The protests revive a year-long movement that ended in 2021 after tens of thousands of farmers camped outside New Delhi and obtained the repeal of new agricultural laws. The farmers’ current demands include an expanded list of 23 crops that the government would purchase at a minimum guaranteed price. To prevent the demonstrators from entering the city, the authorities have barricaded highways with cement blocks, metal containers, and barbed wire. Talks between the farmers and the government have been deadlocked.

“The Indian authorities have an obligation to uphold the right to peaceful protest, whoever is taking part and whatever the issue,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities may not threaten or use force against the farmers to deny their right to express their views in a peaceful manner.”

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has repeatedly cracked down on peaceful protests and arrested critics of government policies. In response to the farmers’ protest, the government has urged dialogue. However, the authorities have threatened to revoke demonstrators’ passports and visas, with a police official stating, “We have identified them with CCTV and drone cameras. We will request the ministry of home affairs and the embassy to cancel their visas and passports.”

The authorities also deployed drones and used tear gas shells to disperse gatherings and medical camps. They fired shotguns loaded with metal pellets, which can cause blindness and other serious injury, for crowd control. On February 21, Shubhkaran Singh, a 24-year old farmer, died of a bullet wound to the head after police repeatedly fired on protesting farmers in the area bordering Punjab and Haryana states.

The protesting farmers have taken several measures to counter security force actions, such as flying kites to distract drones, wearing swimming goggles to protect their eyes from tear gas, and using their tractors to pull down barricades.

The Haryana government imposed temporary restrictions on internet services in seven districts in an apparent attempt to disrupt the farmers’ protests, a tactic the Indian government often uses for political purposes. The Global Government Affairs team at X (formerly Twitter) stated that the Indian government issued “executive orders” requiring them to take down specific accounts on February 21. Most of these accounts, including some barred on Facebook, belong to journalists reporting on the protests, farmers union leaders, and others supporting the farmers’ actions.

India is obligated under international human rights law to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. In July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.

BJP supporters have used social media to describe the protesting farmers, many from the Sikh minority community, as “separatists,” a dangerous accusation. In West Bengal state, a BJP leader used a similar slur against a Sikh police officer, leading to strong condemnation by police officers and protests by the Sikh community. The authorities have repeatedly failed to hold to account BJP leaders and supporters who incite violence against religious minority communities, which communal divisions can escalate to a human rights crisis, Human Rights Watch said.

The Indian government should publicly direct the security forces to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and take all other necessary steps to ensure that the forces act with restraint, Human Rights Watch said. Protest organizers should take steps to deter their supporters from engaging in violence against members of the public and law enforcement officers.

The 2020 UN guidance on “less-lethal weapons” in law enforcement says, “Multiple projectiles fired at the same time are inaccurate and, in general, their use cannot comply with the principles of necessity and proportionality. Metal pellets, such as those fired from shotguns, should never be used.”

“As India heads into elections, it’s critical for the BJP-led government to act to minimize rather than exacerbate political violence,” Pearson said. “A genuine commitment to human rights and democracy means providing room for dissent, peaceful protest, and political disagreement.”

Xinjiang Abuses Show Need for Robust EU Forced Labor Law

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 29, 2024
Play Video Read a text description of this video

VOICEOVER:

Do you have a car?  

If so, then parts of your car could be made with forced labor from China. 

Let's explain how. 

The first thing you need to know is that factories in China make the most cars in the world.

Major brands such as General Motors, Tesla, BYD, Toyota, and Volkswagen manufacture and sell cars in China.  

Factories in China are also increasingly exporting cars and car parts to global markets. 

So where does the forced labor come in?  

Well, almost 10 percent of the world’s aluminum, a key material for car making, is produced in the Xinjiang region of China. 

Xinjiang is home to the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic ethnic group whose culture and language are different from China’s majority Han population.  

The Chinese government has long repressed Uyghurs and in recent years committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.  

The government’s abuses include: 

An estimated one million arbitrary detentions.  an intrusive mass surveillance system  (and) cultural and religious persecution 

The Chinese government has also subjected Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim communities to forced labor, both in detention centers and through labor transfer programs. 

Labor transfers relocate Uyghurs from their homes in rural areas to urban areas to work in factories.  

Teams of government officials go door-to-door to identify candidates for transfers.  

Human Rights Watch and other organizations analyzed hundreds of Chinese government and company documents available online, and found links between Xinjiang’s aluminum producers and labor transfers.

Uyghurs fear detention or other sanctions if they refuse the transfers, so there’s little choice but to accept the jobs and relocate.  

Labor transfer workers frequently face ideological indoctrination and limits on their freedom of movement.  

So how could aluminum produced by forced labor end up in your car?  

Aluminum from Xinjiang is exported to other regions of China, where it is melted down again, enabling it to enter global supply chains undetected.

And maybe into the car that you use.  

Car companies are aware of the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs and the risk of forced labor in their supply chain. 

But some carmakers have succumbed to Chinese government pressure to apply weaker human rights and responsible sourcing standards in their operations in China.

Consumers should not have to buy or drive vehicles with links to grave abuses in Xinjiang.   

So, what can be done?  

When looking to buy a new car, consumers should ask manufacturers how they protect against links to human rights abuses, including forced labor in Xinjiang.

Car companies should require their suppliers, in China and elsewhere, to prove the source of raw materials and show they are free from human rights violations. 

Countries should require companies to disclose their supply chains and prohibit the import of products containing parts or materials produced by forced labor. 

The cars we drive shouldn’t be made with forced labor. 

 

 

 

Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has investigated forced labor in Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China where Chinese government labor transfer programs coerce Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims away from their homes and into jobs in factories and warehouses. Uncovering the products and materials linked to forced labor, from the aluminum in cars to the polysilicon in solar panels, that enter undetected into global supply chains is extremely challenging.

The difficulties around this work underscore why a new European Union law banning imports and exports linked to forced labor needs specific measures to tackle state-imposed forced labor.

February 1, 2024 Asleep at the Wheel

The combination of government-led forced labor and broader state repression and surveillance in Xinjiang severely limits access to the region and makes it impossible to safely interview workers. Human Rights Watch investigators instead spent months pouring over thousands of webpages to find evidence of companies’ participation in labor transfers. But Chinese internet censorship is making even this research increasingly difficult.

The European Parliament’s version of the proposed law would empower the European Commission to identify particular economic sectors in specific areas (for example, aluminum from Xinjiang) where there exists a high risk of state-imposed forced labor. Companies under investigation for importing products from these sectors and areas into the European Union would have to demonstrate they were not produced with forced labor.

EU governments have so far resisted the European Parliament’s proposal and included only fleeting references to state-imposed forced labor in their own version of the law. Under that version, regulators would only target individual products for investigation rather than classifying broader categories of products in Xinjiang or other regions as at high risk of forced labor. Given the vast number of products produced with state-imposed forced labor and the difficulty in obtaining information from Xinjiang, this would severely undermine the law’s effectiveness.

Thirty-three civil society organizations and trade unions, including Human Rights Watch, wrote to EU governments on February 5 to urge them to adopt measures to address state-imposed forced labor and other key changes to the law.

European governments should ensure passage of a robust forced labor law that effectively addresses state-imposed forced labor. 

Suing Maldives to Enforce its Environmental Laws

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 29, 2024
Click to expand Image Satellite imagery from 2019, 2022, and 2023 shows the evolution of the land reclamation on the island of Gulhifalhu, Maldives. Image © Maxar Technologies, CNES / Airbus, Google Earth. Graphic © Human Rights Watch.

An ongoing court case in the Maldives sheds light on why it is so hard to get the government to enforce the country’s environmental laws.

The Maldives is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the consequences of climate change, with 80 percent of the archipelago’s islands less than a meter above sea level. The government has enacted significant environmental legislation, most notably the Environment Protection and Preservation Act, which mandates Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for all development projects.

The act stipulates that EIAs must be carried out before development projects can be approved. However, government ministries often preapprove projects, rendering EIAs little more than box-ticking exercises. A former official from the Maldives Environmental Protection Agency told Human Rights Watch that once EIAs are published for a particular project, officials often reject most of the recommendations.

These issues are being played out in Maldives courts in the case of the Gulhifalhu reclamation project. In 2019, the Maldives government awarded the project to the Dutch construction company Boskalis without any formal tendering process, in a deal reportedly worth US$53 million. Six months later, the authorities released an EIA that revealed that the project could cause irreversible environmental damage. The decision to proceed with the project had been made prior to the completion of the EIA.

In 2021, climate activist Humaida Abdul Gafoor filed a case against the government on the grounds that the reclamation project risked causing serious economic, environmental, and cultural harm to the local community.

Earlier this month, climate activists were encouraged when the high court issued an injunction to suspend work on the reclamation project with immediate effect, pending a final ruling in the case. However, the government immediately appealed the injunction to the Supreme Court, arguing that a halt would cause severe financial losses to the project. The Supreme Court lifted the injunction, allowing work on the project to continue.

The case can still proceed to the merits, even as the reclamation continues to cause harm. But importantly it has already put the government on notice that if it wants this and similar projects to continue, it will be subjecting its lax enforcement of the country’s environmental protection laws not only to judicial scrutiny, but to the scrutiny of the Maldives public and beyond.

Instead, the Maldives government should be championing its environmental protection laws and minimizing the environmental damage caused by development projects.

Saudi Arabia: Migrant Workers’ Long Overdue Wages at Risk

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 29, 2024
Click to expand Image Foreign laborers work on the construction of new luxury houses in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, April 2019.  © 2019 FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Representatives of two construction companies in Saudi Arabia announced recently that migrant workers will get their long overdue unpaid wages, but gaps in the repayment scheme puts the payments at risk, Human Rights Watch said today.

Saudi authorities should ensure all former workers of these companies receive the full amount they are owed. The authorities should also put in place robust wage protection measures to address the rampant wage theft that migrant workers across the country experience.

“Migrant workers who were relieved after the announcement that they would finally be paid what they are owed want to remain optimistic despite almost a decade of waiting,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But it’s critically important for the appointed bankruptcy and liquidation trustees, the Saudi authorities, and the migrants’ countries of origin to ensure that these promises are fully carried out.”

In 2016, following a period of low oil prices and an economic downturn in Saudi Arabia, several companies failed to pay hundreds of thousands of migrant workers their wages, leaving them stranded. In late 2023, Saudi Oger’s Liquidation Trustees and Mohammad Al-Mojil Group (MMG)’s Bankruptcy Trustee, the trustees of the two Saudi-based construction companies, who faced such economic challenges and are currently in liquidation and bankruptcy respectively, announced that former employees should register for their payments.

The extent of unpaid wages is enormous. The Executive Court in Riyadh estimated in 2019 that the now-liquidated Saudi Oger owes an estimated SAR 2.6 billion (about US$693 million) in unpaid wages and other benefits to workers. Based on news sources and announcements from the migrants’ countries of origin, at least 21,000 workers just from the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are owed wages by these two companies.

In January 2024, Human Rights Watch interviewed 27 migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Senegal who said they were formerly employed by Saudi Oger or MMG. Researchers also reviewed several workers’ salary sheets and checks. The workers said they had worked between 3 and 20 years in Saudi Arabia and were owed as much as SAR 80,000 (about $21,333) by one of the companies, including end-of-service benefits.

Human Rights Watch also wrote to Saudi Oger’s Liquidation Trustees, MMG’s Bankruptcy Trustee, and Saudi Arabia’s Alinma Bank requesting details and status of the repayment schedule, but has yet to receive a response.

Of the 27 migrant workers Human Rights Watch spoke to, two former Saudi Oger employees, including one still living in Saudi Arabia, said they had received checks for back wages and had been able to cash them. Six others said they received checks by mail but could not cash them. Twelve are awaiting further details or checks after registering, and seven could not register due to missing names or claim numbers. At the end of February 2024, Human Rights Watch also followed up with 10 of the 27 workers, but they reported no changes in their registration or payment status.

The cost to workers of employers’ non-payment of wages for extended periods can be catastrophic financially and mentally for them and their families. One migrant worker who worked at Saudi Oger said: “I always get tense about my wages because I have lost my sweat and blood to earn every penny. Now I am affected with high blood pressure … I am living a very hard life. I had to take bank loans to run my family and for our [medical] treatment. If I get that money, I can repay the loans. Otherwise, I will be destroyed.”

Workers also vividly recalled having to rely on their embassies or Saudi authorities in 2016 for food and repatriation support when their wages weren’t paid. Others used their savings or had help from family back home, including loans. A few workers said that they had been trapped in Saudi Arabia as they were neither paid nor able to leave the country because the company had not renewed their residency permit.

The workers said they relied on social media and each other over the years to stay updated about the status of plans to pay back their wages. Some continued to fight for their wages even after returning home. A Filipino worker said: “In the Philippines, my colleagues rallied … [they] went to Mendiola Street [a street in Manila often used for protests], stood there and were interviewed by the media, and dispersed peacefully. We spoke with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Department of Migrant Workers, etc...”

The issue of unpaid wages for thousands of migrant workers had been central to the Philippines’ diplomatic discussions with Saudi authorities, who provided assurances that the workers would be paid, as per media sources. On February 6, Philippine authorities announced that 843 checks out of 1104 that have been issued cleared and were credited to the migrant workers, amounting to a total of around 868.7 million pesos (about US$15.5 million). However, over 9,000 more workers are still waiting for their dues.

Thousands of Pakistani migrant workers have not been able to register their details correctly, authorities and people interviewed said. Three workers active on social media said they have been helping their peers register for their claims. One said: “We help those who connect with us on social media, but we do not know how many remaining workers are not aware of these schemes.”

The son of a former MMG employee said his father, who is not technologically savvy, found out through a local radio news program in Nepal about the call for registration and asked his son to get him registered. The authorities should maximize their outreach efforts to ensure that all eligible workers are informed about the program and can easily register their details.

One Nepali worker who had lost hope about ever receiving his money said he was pleasantly surprised to see an announcement from his country’s embassy about repayment. He said that he had registered and is waiting for the check, and that “with that money, I will do business in my village.”

Another worker from Pakistan in a similar position said: “Once I receive this money, inshallah [God willing], I plan to either start a business, arrange my sister's marriage, build a new house, or find a job. This money will relieve the problems and tensions I've faced.” An Indian worker, while relieved to cash his check, said: “Why should I be happy? This is our right.”

Workers who received their checks are also facing practical issues cashing them. A Bangladeshi worker said he desperately made expensive international calls multiple times to Alinma Bank, a Saudi-based bank from which former Saudi Oger workers received checks. When he finally received his check, no bank in Bangladesh was willing to cash it. One worker said that a local Bangladeshi bank had accepted their check, but that it would take them several weeks to receive their money. Philippine workers Human Rights Watch spoke to said they have deposited their checks but that their local banks would, as one put it, “wait until Alinma bank will give this money into our savings.”

The seven workers interviewed whose names were not included in the original claimants list or given claim numbers said they are owed thousands of dollars. They have received no clarity about why they were excluded. One said of officials at his embassy: “All they told me is that only names of lists provided to them [by the MMG Bankruptcy Trustees] are eligible for claims.”

In social media posts calling on former Oger and MMG employees to submit their claims, many Saudi returnees from other companies with similar grievances have questioned whether there will be similar calls from their former employers. Ongoing research by Human Rights Watch has also documented extensive cases of wage theft by employers, with many recent workers returning home without what is owed to them. This wage theft remains widespread, Human Rights Watch found, despite Saudi authorities announcing various labor reform initiatives.

“Workers who migrate to seek better opportunities should not be returning home empty-handed from Saudi Arabia,” Page said. “This is a major opportunity to remedy a continuing injustice, and it is critical for the Saudi authorities to get the details right and ensure that all workers’ owed wages are compensated, especially ahead of mega-events that will rely entirely on migrant workers.”

Syria: Abuses, Impunity in Turkish-Occupied Territories

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 29, 2024
Click to expand Image A member of Sultan Suleiman Shah, a faction of the Syrian National Army, holds a Turkish flag as he takes part in a military exercise in Afrin, Syria, October 31, 2021 © 2021 REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi Türkiye bears responsibility for the serious abuses and potential war crimes committed by members of its own forces and local armed groups it supports in Turkish-occupied territories of northern Syria. Turkish officials are not merely bystanders to abuses, but bear responsibility as the occupying power and, in some cases, have been directly involved in apparent war crimes in what it calls a “safe zone.” Türkiye is obliged to restore public order and safety, protect inhabitants, hold those responsible for abuses accountable, provide reparations, and guarantee the rights of property owners and returnees.

(Beirut) – Türkiye bears responsibility for the serious abuses and potential war crimes committed by members of its own forces and local armed groups it supports in Turkish-occupied territories of northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Kurdish residents have borne the brunt of the abuses due to their perceived ties to Kurdish-led forces that control vast swathes of northeast Syria.

February 29, 2024 “Everything is by the Power of the Weapon”

The 74-page report, “Everything is by the Power of the Weapon: Abuses and Impunity in Turkish-Occupied Northern Syria,” documents abductions, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, sexual violence, and torture by the various factions of a loose coalition of armed groups, the Türkiye-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), as well as the Military Police, a force established by the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and Turkish authorities in 2018, ostensibly to curb abuses. Human Rights Watch also found that Turkish Armed Forces and intelligence agencies were involved in carrying out and overseeing abuses. Human Rights Watch also documented violations of housing, land, and property rights, including widespread looting and pillaging as well as property seizures and extortion, and the failure of attempted accountability measures to curb abuses or to provide restitution to victims.

“Ongoing abuses including torture and enforced disappearances of those who live under Turkish authority in northern Syria will continue unless Türkiye itself takes responsibility and acts to stop them,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish officials are not merely bystanders to abuses, but bear responsibility as the occupying power, and in some cases have been directly involved in apparent war crimes.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 58 former detainees, survivors of sexual violence, relatives, and witnesses of violations, as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations, journalists, activists, and researchers. Human Rights Watch researchers also spoke to an informed source who directly engages with the Military Police, and a Syrian source previously close to Turkish intelligence officials who had access to and oversight of various factions’ conduct in Afrin between July 2019 and June 2020, and who has since left Syria.

Türkiye’s military operations in northern Syria since 2016 resulted in its control of the predominantly Arab region north of Aleppo that includes Azaz, al-Bab, and Jarablus, the previously Kurdish-majority Afrin, and a narrow strip of land along Syria’s northern border between the ethnically diverse towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

Through its armed forces and its intelligence agencies, Türkiye exerts control and directly oversees the Syrian National Army, providing it with weapons, salaries, training, and logistical support. Türkiye also exercises administrative control over occupied regions via governorates in provinces of Türkiye bordering Syria.

The Turkish government has declared its intention to establish “safe zones” in the areas under its occupation, contending that the Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria are affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Türkiye, the United States, and the European Union regard as a terrorist group, and with which Türkiye has been engaged in a decades long conflict. The Turkish government also sees the “safe zones” as facilitating the return of Syrian refugees from Türkiye.

However, Türkiye has failed to ensure the safety and well-being of the civilian population, and life for the 1.4 million residents of the region is marked by lawlessness and insecurity. “Everything is by the power of the weapon,” said one former resident who lived under SNA rule for just under three years.

SNA factions and the Military Police have arbitrarily arrested and detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured and otherwise ill-treated, and subjected to unfair military trials scores of people with impunity. Kurdish women detainees have reported sexual violence, including rape. Children as young as six months old have been detained alongside their mothers.

In cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the UN Commission of Inquiry, and other human rights organizations, Kurds have overwhelmingly borne the brunt of these abuses. Arabs and others perceived to have close ties with Syrian Democratic Forces have also been targeted.

Factions of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army and Military Police committed abuses in detention centers where Turkish military and intelligence officials were sometimes present, according to former detainees, who also said Turkish officials were sometimes directly involved in their torture and ill treatment.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 people who experienced housing, land, and property rights violations.

Since Türkiye's Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in the Tel Abyad – Ras al-Ain strip in 2019, hundreds of thousands of residents in the area have been displaced from their homes. Subsequently, SNA factions engaged in widespread looting, pillaging, and seizure of properties. The majority of those affected remain without proper restitution or compensation. “The hardest thing for me was standing in front of my house and not being able to enter it,” said a displaced Yezidi man from Ras al-Ain. The cycle of looting, pillaging, and property seizures persists, leaving those who challenge these actions vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, kidnapping, and enforced disappearance.

Accountability for serious human rights abuses and possible war crimes in Turkish-occupied territories remains elusive. Human Rights Watch investigated the cases of four high-ranking people alleged to be involved in serious abuses. None have been prosecuted, and three currently hold high-ranking positions within the SNA structure, according to informed sources.

Neither the SNA's military courts, lacking independence, nor Türkiye, as the occupying power and primary backer of the SNA, have adequately addressed the serious crimes by those in power in Turkish-occupied territories. Human Rights Watch attempted to engage Türkiye in dialogue on these matters and shared detailed research findings in a letter sent twice by email to Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan on November 21, 2023 and on January 4, 2024, but the letterhas been met with silence. A letter to the SIG Defense Ministry on November 20, 2023 and January 8, 2024, inquiring among other things about any judicial proceedings related to four publicly reported deaths in detention, has also received no reply.

Türkiye is obliged to ensure its forces strictly observe international human rights and international humanitarian law, including the law governing its duties as the occupying power and the de facto government in these areas of northern Syria. This includes restoring and maintaining public order and safety in territories it occupies, protecting inhabitants from violence, holding those responsible for abuses accountable, providing reparations for all victims of serious human rights abuses at the hands of its forces and local forces it controls, and guaranteeing the rights of property owners and returnees, including compensating them for the unlawful confiscation and use of their property and any damage caused. Türkiye and the Syrian Interim Government should grant independent investigative bodies immediate and unhindered access to territories under their control.

“Turkey’s occupation of parts of northern Syria has facilitated a lawless climate of abuse and impunity – it’s the furthest possible thing from a ‘safe zone,’” Coogle said.

Indonesia: End Hijab-Linked Bullying in Schools

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Click to expand Image A schoolgirl walking near her state high school in Senayan, Jakarta, Indonesia. The mandatory school uniform includes a hijab, a long-sleeve shirt, and a long skirt. © 2022 Andreas Harsono/Human Rights Watch

(Jakarta) – The Indonesian government should better enforce a revised state school uniform regulation to protect girls and women from being required to wear the hijab, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Education Ministry in September 2022 adopted a regulation providing for personal choice in school uniforms that covers about 150,000 state schools nationwide. However, more than 70 local regulations require girls to wear a hijab in school and up to 15 provincial education offices refuse to abide by the 2022 regulation. A national curriculum that requires female students to wear the hijab in Islamic class also thwarts choice in dress.

“The Indonesian government took an important step by adopting a national regulation to tackle hijab-related bullying, intimidation, and other abuses against girls and women,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the religious affairs and other government ministries need to work together to overcome local school uniform rules that deny schoolgirls their rights by requiring them to wear the hijab.”

Restrictive regulations on girls and women’s dress in schools and other public buildings have spread rapidly throughout Indonesia over the past two decades. They have compelled millions of schoolgirls and female government employees to wear the hijab, covering the hair, neck, and chest, usually in combination with a long skirt and a long-sleeve shirt.

Article 3 of the 2022 regulation states that state schools can adopt a local government regulated pakaian khas (uniform), which may be based on pakaian adat (traditional clothes) such as wearing the hijab. However, because the regulation allows for parents rather than the schools to provide uniforms for their children, the parents can decide whether their daughters should wear the hijab – as well as either with long-sleeve or short-sleeve shirts, and long skirts or knee-length skirts.

Article 15 states that the Education Ministry should coordinate with the Home Affairs Ministry to ensure that local governments and school principals enforce the regulation. But the authorities also need assistance from the Religious Affairs Ministry, which mandates Islamic class teachers to require their female students wear the hijab.

Across Indonesia, the 2022 regulation has been difficult to enforce because of the many local hijab regulations. In August 2023, a teacher in a state middle school in Lamongan, East Java, shaved the heads of 14 schoolgirls for not wearing the ciput (cloth), a knitted head covering, under the hijab. In July 2023, in Karawang, West Java, a family of Sunda Wiwitan believers took their daughter out of a state primary school because her teachers bullied her over her refusal to wear the hijab. Ultimately, the family moved from Karawang.

Previous government regulations facilitated widespread bullying of girls and women to force them to wear the hijab, which led to deep psychological distress. In at least 24 predominantly Muslim provinces of Indonesia’s 38 provinces, girls who did not comply with hijab requirements were forced to leave school or withdrew under pressure. Some female civil servants, including teachers, doctors, school principals, and university lecturers, lost their jobs or felt compelled to resign because of hijab requirements. Bullying and intimidation to wear the jilbab has also frequently occurred on social media.

Schoolgirls and female teachers have a right to make their own decisions on what clothing to wear, and especially whether to wear the hijab. The Indonesian government’s enforcement of hijab regulations against women and girls violated provisions in several human rights treaties that Indonesia has ratified, including the rights to freedom of religion, expression, privacy, and personal autonomy.

Indonesia has had 120 local mandatory hijab regulations, mostly local executive decrees, which were first introduced in West Sumatra in 2001 and Aceh in 2002. Of those, 73 are still in force. Sanctions for violations include verbal warnings, expulsion from school or work, and jail terms of up to three months, according to the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan).

“The 2022 regulation should result in girls and women wearing clothes that reflect their own choices,” Pearson said. “The Indonesian government’s compliance with its international human rights obligations means ending the use of uniform regulations that violate women and girls’ rights.”

Cambodia: Carbon Offsetting Project Violates Indigenous Group’s Rights

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Click to expand Image Community members harvest rice in one of the villages included in the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project in Koh Kong province, Cambodia, June 25, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch ​​​​A major carbon offsetting project in Cambodia shows that such initiatives can harm Indigenous people when communities’ effective participation and consent are not ensured. Conservation strategies that sideline and punish Indigenous peoples to address the global environmental crisis are unacceptable, and counterproductive. Verra, the standard-setting organization that enabled the project to issue carbon credits, should ensure compensation for those affected. The government should title the Indigenous Chong’s territories and uphold their rights.

(Bangkok) – A major carbon offsetting project in Cambodia shows that such initiatives can harm Indigenous people when communities’ effective participation and consent are not ensured, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

February 28, 2024 Carbon Offsetting’s Casualties

The 118-page report, “Carbon Offsetting’s Casualties: Violations of Chong Indigenous People’s Rights in Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project,” concerns a project carried out by the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and the conservation group Wildlife Alliance, that encompasses half a million hectares in the Cardamom mountains, a rainforest area that has been home to the indigenous Chong people for centuries. The project operated for more than two years without consulting the local Chong people on the project, who face forced evictions and criminal charges for farming and foraging in their traditional territories.

“Conservation strategies that sideline and punish Indigenous peoples to address the global environmental crisis are unacceptable, and counterproductive,” said Luciana Téllez Chávez, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project should be revised to ensure the Chong people’s effective participation in key decisions, titling of Indigenous communal land, and benefit-sharing agreements with the Chong that acknowledge they own the carbon stored in their territories.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 90 people in 23 of the 29 villages included in the project as well as 3 government officials over a two-year period. Human Rights Watch also analyzed satellite imagery, topographic maps, media reports, and social media. Since September 2022, Human Rights Watch has met and communicated with the Environment Ministry, Wildlife Alliance, and other key private actors involved in the project.

The REDD+ project conducted activities for 31 months before beginning to consult the Chong communities in August 2017. During that period the Environment Ministry and Wildlife Alliance made crucial decisions on the management of the designated land without the Indigenous Chong people’s free, prior, and informed consent. They incorporated eight Chong villages into a national park, undermining their rights over their customary land and forests.

Chong community members said that they shared the goal of protecting the rainforest, but they wanted the REDD+ project to treat them as partners, and that they would like to lead their own conservation activities independent of Wildlife Alliance.

“They [Wildlife Alliance] have no concern with our Indigenous identity,” said a Chong resident of Chumnoab commune. “They’ve never asked us for permission because from their perspective they already have an agreement with the government.”

Project decisions made without consulting affected communities continue to affect the Chong, Human Rights Watch said. Two Chong men said that in 2018 and 2021, patrols composed of Environment Ministry rangers, gendarmes, and Wildlife Alliance staff arrested and mistreated them while they collected resin – a sustainable activity – in the conservation area.

“When they first rushed into the camp they hit me in the back with their gun,” a man in O’Som commune said. “They destroyed everything I had with me – even the clothes on my back.”

Six Chong families described being forcibly evicted by the rangers, gendarmes, and Wildlife Alliance staff from land they had customarily farmed. The authorities arrested three community members and detained them for months without trial following the eviction, according to official records. “We didn’t ask for help or complain after it happened,” said one man from Pralay commune. “We’re just normal villagers, we don’t dare.”

Verra, an organization that has certified nearly half of all projects in the global voluntary carbon market, accredited the REDD+ project in 2018. Multinational companies buy carbon credits to compensate for their pollution, a practice known as “carbon offsetting.” In June 2023, after receiving a letter from Human Rights Watch sharing its findings, Verra stopped issuing credits for the project and said it would conduct a review. Verra has declined to comment further on the findings while the review is ongoing.

Several of the issues Chong residents raised had repeatedly been communicated to auditing firms that submitted their assessments to Verra between 2018 and 2023. The first audit, submitted in 2018, noted that the project start date was January 1, 2015, but the first consultations with communities only began in August 2017.

Another audit, in 2021, noted that “several communities reported high numbers of persons with no knowledge of the REDD+ project,” and “high numbers of these persons report they do not know about the definition of REDD+, its implementation, how REDD+ benefits and funds will be shared to the community, [and] boundary demarcation between REDD+ and their farmlands.”

The Environment Ministry spokesperson wrote to Human Rights Watch that “the sale of carbon credits has benefited communities that were involved in the protection and conservation of natural resources.” Wildlife Alliance wrote that they extensively consulted residents, that their activities constitute lawful environmental enforcement, and that the project benefits local communities. It said that the project had built wells, toilets, a laterite road, two schools, and a health post; given university scholarships to five youths; provided agricultural training to small landholders; and operated two eco-tourism initiatives that benefited local residents.

The REDD+ project, however, does not have a benefit-sharing agreement with any of the communities included in the project. These agreements are legally enforceable contracts that establish the percentage of project earnings that would be disbursed to communities. Existing agreements regulate revenue distribution between Wildlife Alliance, the Environment Ministry, and the Koh Kong provincial government, according to Wildlife Alliance’s website.

While maintaining that it disagreed with Human Rights Watch findings, Wildlife Alliance in November 2023 committed to: “provide technical and financial support” for “indigenous community land titling;” “establish, train, and support an indigenous Community Patrol team;” “provide formal human rights training to all Cambodian government rangers and Wildlife Alliance staff;” and develop a “formal Human Rights Policy.”

These commitments, if carried out, can have a positive impact, but Wildlife Alliance’s response thus far has fallen short of acknowledging and remedying the human rights harm caused by the project. Wildlife Alliance should create a comprehensive remediation plan in consultation with affected communities to compensate any victims of forced evictions, arbitrary detention, and unjust imprisonment. Wildlife Alliance should also hold accountable any project staff implicated in the abuses.

Verra should make reinstatement of the project conditional on comprehensive remediation for individuals and communities adversely affected by the project, including monetary compensation, and a new consultation process enabling the Chong to revisit the existing design, boundaries, activities, and project implementer of the REDD+ project, as well as benefit sharing arrangements. The Cambodian government should provide title to the Indigenous Chong traditional territories and acknowledge that Indigenous peoples own the carbon stored in their lands.

“Verra’s inaction for years in the face of the multiple red flags seriously calls into question its oversight and accountability mechanisms,” Téllez Chávez said. “These findings raise concerns about whether other carbon offsetting projects across the globe that were approved by Verra are causing harm to the very communities that most depend on forests for their livelihoods.”

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Chadian Commission President Removed at Critical Moment

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Click to expand Image Chadian civil society leader Mahamat Nour Ibedou (center) attends a press conference in N'Djamena, Chad, February 5, 2018. © 2018 AFP via Getty Images

Last week, a prominent rights defender, Mahamat Nour Ahmat Ibédou, was removed from his post as president of the National Human Rights Commission. His departure is a blow for a country facing presidential elections.

On October 20, 2022, security forces in Chad fired live ammunition at protesters, killing and injuring scores. Hundreds of men and boys were arrested, and many were taken to Koro Toro, a high security prison 600 kilometers away from N’Djamena, the country’s capital. The transitional government effectively ignored the abuses, casting the protestors as insurrectionists. Only one government body, the National Human Rights Commission (Commission nationale des droits de l'homme, CNDH), had the courage to publish a truthful accounting of that day.

In its report released in February 2023, it said that 128 people were killed and 518 injured on the day many people have branded jeudi noir (black Thursday). The commission found that security forces “systematically violated several fundamental human rights … [using] disproportionated means” to quell the protests. The commission asked several questions to the government, including why no judicial investigations had been opened into human rights violations. It also made recommendations to the transitional military authorities, including prosecuting those responsible for violations.

Soon after the report’s publication the Commission’s president, Ibédou, came under pressure. Before joining the CNDH, he had been the secretary general of the Chadian Convention for the Defence of Human Rights (Convention Tchadienne de Défense des Droits de l’Homme, CTDDH), and had been persecuted by the governments of both Hissène Habré and Idriss Déby Itno, before his death in 2021. He was arrested several times under Idriss Déby Itno for his work in the civil society movement. Despite intimidation and harassment, he is known throughout the country for putting human rights before politics and pushing for accountability.

Last week, Ibédou was shuffled out of the CNDH, in a move that, while sanctioned by the country’s Supreme Court, insiders have told me they view as politically motivated. He was removed as the country’s presidential elections, scheduled for October, have been pushed up to May of this year.

Ibédou’s removal is a loss for Chad. Governments who profess to support human rights should be defending an independent CNDH, with independent people like Ibédou at its helm. Otherwise, there may soon be no organizations strong enough to defend human rights and uphold the rule of law.

Australia: Spotlight Rights at Summit with ASEAN

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Click to expand Image Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stands alongside Foreign Minister Penny Wong (right) and Special Envoy to Southeast Asia Nicholas Moore in Jakarta, Indonesia to launch Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy, September 6, 2023. © Prime Minister's Office Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese should focus on human rights concerns and democratic backsliding at the upcoming summit with Southeast Asian leaders. Human rights conditions have worsened in ASEAN countries in recent years, and ASEAN as an organization has done little to address key crises among its members. Key concerns include the need for stronger sanctions against Myanmar and ending attacks on dissidents in Cambodia and Vietnam, and security forces’ targeting of activists in the Philippines.

(Sydney) – Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese should focus on human rights concerns and democratic backsliding at the upcoming summit with Southeast Asian leaders, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Albanese will host leaders from nine of the countries making up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit on March 4 to 6, 2024, in Melbourne.

Human Rights in Southeast Asia Briefing Materials for the ASEAN-Australia Summit Melbourne, Australia | March 4-6, 2024

The 60-page report, “Human Rights in Southeast Asia,” summarizes critical human rights issues that Albanese should raise at the summit. Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to put its values as a rights-respecting democracy at the core of its relations with ASEAN countries. As the Australian government approaches the summit with the goal of removing blockages to regional economic cooperation, it should not bypass human rights concerns in the hopes that they will resolve themselves, because they will not.

“This high-level meeting would be a lost opportunity for Australia and the people of ASEAN countries if the Australian government were to gloss over human rights issues,” said Daniela Gavshon, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Australian government should send the message that human rights violations are a key foreign policy concern.”

It will be especially important for Australia to guide discussion toward human rights since the subject has been left off the summit agenda.

The summit marks 50 years of ASEAN-Australia dialogue relations. Over the past five decades, successive Australian governments have pursued closer economic, security, and political partnerships with ASEAN countries. Australia continues to strengthen its ties with Southeast Asian countries to offset the shift in global power dynamics.

United States influence in the region is being challenged by the growing political, economic, and military clout of a more assertive China. To counter China’s threat to human rights and the rules-based international order, Australia should center its dialogue with ASEAN leaders on the rights of Southeast Asian people rather than just on strengthening friendly relations.

The anniversary presents a unique opportunity to reflect on human rights in the region and to reframe the next 50 years of Australia-ASEAN cooperation. Albanese has already projected the next half-century to be “even more successful than the last” for ASEAN-Australia relations, and pledged A$95.4 million (US$63.9 million) to kick-start Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040.

In a February letter, Human Rights Watch urged Prime Minister Albanese to press for commitments from individual countries at the summit, and raise specific human rights issues with individual governments.

“Human rights conditions have worsened in ASEAN countries in recent years and ASEAN as an organization has done little to address key crises among its members,” Gavshon said. “Australia’s failure to directly address human rights concerns at the summit would be a propaganda coup for abusive leaders, and it will embolden new ASEAN leaders to continue the human rights abusing legacies of their predecessors.”

In its most serious human rights lapse, ASEAN has not dealt with the spiralling humanitarian and human rights crisis in Myanmar. The consequences have spilled over the borders of Thailand, India, and China, and contributed to the continued suffering of ethnic Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh. Tens of thousands have sought safety in neighboring countries since the 2021 coup by the Myanmar military. In addition, Rohingya who fled crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in 2017 cannot return. Given increasing insecurity and deteriorating conditions in the camps housing one million Rohingya in Bangladesh, 4,500 made the high-risk sea voyage to Indonesia or Malaysia in 2023, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus – which Myanmar’s junta repudiated days after agreeing to it in April 2021 – is not a viable framework for dealing with a military that continues to commit crimes against humanity and war crimes. Australian and ASEAN governments should agree to enforce sanctions against Myanmar, including those newly imposed by Australia on banks and jet fuel suppliers, in their own jurisdictions. Together, Albanese and Southeast Asian leaders should commit to strengthening multilateral action at the UN Security Council.

Among other key rights issues to be addressed is the Thai and Cambodian governments’ cooperation to uncover, intimidate, and arrest Cambodian civil society activists in Thailand. In Vietnam, the government systematically suppresses freedom of expression and other basic liberties. In the Philippines, the security forces target activists, rights defenders, and journalists, often with deadly results.

State-sponsored discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia remains pervasive. On an institutional level, ASEAN purports to respect the human rights of its 685 million citizens. However, its Human Rights Declaration and ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) have no real impact.

In its capacity as summit host, the Australian government can direct conversations with a human rights focus. It can encourage openness by acknowledging the deficiencies in its own domestic rights record. This forthright approach will send the message that strong diplomatic relations still thrive without condoning or covering up allies’ human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said.

“The 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Australia dialogue relations marked at this summit could be a turning point,” Gavshon said. “Looking forward to 2040, the region will face environmental challenges, economic uncertainty, and strategic competition, but these challenges can be lessened if governments show respect for human rights and democracy.”

Australia: Spotlight Rights at Summit with ASEAN

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Click to expand Image Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stands alongside Foreign Minister Penny Wong (right) and Special Envoy to Southeast Asia Nicholas Moore in Jakarta, Indonesia to launch Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy, September 6, 2023. © Prime Minister's Office Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese should focus on human rights concerns and democratic backsliding at the upcoming summit with Southeast Asian leaders. Human rights conditions have worsened in ASEAN countries in recent years, and ASEAN as an organization has done little to address key crises among its members. Key concerns include the need for stronger sanctions against Myanmar and ending attacks on dissidents in Cambodia and Vietnam, and security forces’ targeting of activists in the Philippines.

(Sydney) – Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese should focus on human rights concerns and democratic backsliding at the upcoming summit with Southeast Asian leaders, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Albanese will host leaders from nine of the countries making up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit on March 4 to 6, 2024, in Melbourne.

Human Rights in Southeast Asia Briefing Materials for the ASEAN-Australia Summit Melbourne, Australia | March 4-6, 2024

The 60-page report, “Human Rights in Southeast Asia,” summarizes critical human rights issues that Albanese should raise at the summit. Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to put its values as a rights-respecting democracy at the core of its relations with ASEAN countries. As the Australian government approaches the summit with the goal of removing blockages to regional economic cooperation, it should not bypass human rights concerns in the hopes that they will resolve themselves, because they will not.

“This high-level meeting would be a lost opportunity for Australia and the people of ASEAN countries if the Australian government were to gloss over human rights issues,” said Daniela Gavshon, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Australian government should send the message that human rights violations are a key foreign policy concern.”

It will be especially important for Australia to guide discussion toward human rights since the subject has been left off the summit agenda.

The summit marks 50 years of ASEAN-Australia dialogue relations. Over the past five decades, successive Australian governments have pursued closer economic, security, and political partnerships with ASEAN countries. Australia continues to strengthen its ties with Southeast Asian countries to offset the shift in global power dynamics.

United States influence in the region is being challenged by the growing political, economic, and military clout of a more assertive China. To counter China’s threat to human rights and the rules-based international order, Australia should center its dialogue with ASEAN leaders on the rights of Southeast Asian people rather than just on strengthening friendly relations.

The anniversary presents a unique opportunity to reflect on human rights in the region and to reframe the next 50 years of Australia-ASEAN cooperation. Albanese has already projected the next half-century to be “even more successful than the last” for ASEAN-Australia relations, and pledged A$95.4 million (US$63.9 million) to kick-start Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040.

In a February letter, Human Rights Watch urged Prime Minister Albanese to press for commitments from individual countries at the summit, and raise specific human rights issues with individual governments.

“Human rights conditions have worsened in ASEAN countries in recent years and ASEAN as an organization has done little to address key crises among its members,” Gavshon said. “Australia’s failure to directly address human rights concerns at the summit would be a propaganda coup for abusive leaders, and it will embolden new ASEAN leaders to continue the human rights abusing legacies of their predecessors.”

In its most serious human rights lapse, ASEAN has not dealt with the spiralling humanitarian and human rights crisis in Myanmar. The consequences have spilled over the borders of Thailand, India, and China, and contributed to the continued suffering of ethnic Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh. Tens of thousands have sought safety in neighboring countries since the 2021 coup by the Myanmar military. In addition, Rohingya who fled crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in 2017 cannot return. Given increasing insecurity and deteriorating conditions in the camps housing one million Rohingya in Bangladesh, 4,500 made the high-risk sea voyage to Indonesia or Malaysia in 2023, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus – which Myanmar’s junta repudiated days after agreeing to it in April 2021 – is not a viable framework for dealing with a military that continues to commit crimes against humanity and war crimes. Australian and ASEAN governments should agree to enforce sanctions against Myanmar, including those newly imposed by Australia on banks and jet fuel suppliers, in their own jurisdictions. Together, Albanese and Southeast Asian leaders should commit to strengthening multilateral action at the UN Security Council.

Among other key rights issues to be addressed is the Thai and Cambodian governments’ cooperation to uncover, intimidate, and arrest Cambodian civil society activists in Thailand. In Vietnam, the government systematically suppresses freedom of expression and other basic liberties. In the Philippines, the security forces target activists, rights defenders, and journalists, often with deadly results.

State-sponsored discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia remains pervasive. On an institutional level, ASEAN purports to respect the human rights of its 685 million citizens. However, its Human Rights Declaration and ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) have no real impact.

In its capacity as summit host, the Australian government can direct conversations with a human rights focus. It can encourage openness by acknowledging the deficiencies in its own domestic rights record. This forthright approach will send the message that strong diplomatic relations still thrive without condoning or covering up allies’ human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said.

“The 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Australia dialogue relations marked at this summit could be a turning point,” Gavshon said. “Looking forward to 2040, the region will face environmental challenges, economic uncertainty, and strategic competition, but these challenges can be lessened if governments show respect for human rights and democracy.”

China: Free Detained Tibetan Demonstrators

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Click to expand Image Tibetans protest the Chinese government’s construction of a hydropower dam on the Dri Chu River, Derge county, Sichuan province, China, February 14, 2024. © RFA

(New York) – The Chinese authorities should immediately release hundreds of Tibetan monks and villagers who were detained while peacefully protesting the construction of a hydroelectric dam in China’s western Sichuan province, Human Rights Watch said today. The dam, which will generate electricity for eastern China, will submerge historic monasteries and numerous Tibetan villages.

“The Chinese authorities have long been hostile to public protests, but their response is especially brutal when the protests are by Tibetans and other ethnic groups,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch. “Other governments should press Beijing to free these protesters, who have been wrongfully detained for exercising their basic rights.”

Reports from Radio Free Asia say that at least 300 villagers travelled to Derge county government in Sichuan province on February 14, 2024, to protest the building of the Kamtok (Tibetan: sKam thog, Chinese: Gangtuo) dam. Video footage obtained by Tibetan exile media and confirmed by Human Rights Watch shows villagers from the area of Wontoe (Tibetan: dBon po stod, Chinese: Wangbuding) protesting the dam’s construction. The dam is the sixth in a proposed series of 13 on the Dri Chu (Tibetan: ’Bri chu) River, known as Jinsha or the upper Yangtse River in Chinese.

Severe reprisals by the authorities in Tibetan areas of China have meant that protests – at least those publicly known – are rare. Extensive restrictions on communications make it difficult and dangerous to organize and publicize such events.

On February 20 and 21, teams of county officials and police arrived at two monasteries in Wontoe township in preparation for their demolition as part of the construction of the Kamtok dam. Yena monastery in Shiba village and Wontoe monastery in Wontoe village are cultural landmarks believed to date back over 700 years, and the mural paintings in the monasteries have historical importance.

Monks and villagers, including the bursar of Wontoe monastery, peacefully appealed to the authorities for dialogue. The following day, the police beat and detained large numbers of those who were part of the protest. Informants told Radio Free Asia that the police told detainees to bring food and bedding from home, indicating that their detention would be long. Community members who visited the detention centers to appeal for the detainees’ release were themselves detained.

Exile media sources have obtained and published other citizen videos that show the protests and subsequent detentions, which Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify. While the videos provide a rare glimpse into the situation in Tibetan areas, they also heighten fears that people accused of sending the videos abroad will face severe punishment.

Five major hydroelectric dams are already in operation or under construction along this stretch of the river, with an installed capacity of 8.6 gigawatts. By comparison, the world’s most powerful hydro dam, the Three Gorges, lower down the Yangtse River, has a generating capacity of 22.5 gigawatts. All of this electricity is sent from Tibetan areas through the Ultra High Voltage “West to East” (xi dian dong song) transmission infrastructure, due to be completed by 2025.

Since 2017, authorities have relocated over 11,000 people from 7 townships in Gonjo and Markham counties bordering the Jinsha River for “poverty alleviation” reasons, according to official figures, though such reports do not link the mass relocation to dam construction.

The right to protections against forced eviction derives from the right to adequate housing as provided under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which China is a state party. According to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors state compliance with the covenant, for evictions to be lawful they must be “solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society,” and carried out “in strict compliance with the relevant provisions of international human rights law and in accordance with general principles of reasonableness and proportionality.”

These safeguards include, for example, that the government explores “all feasible alternatives” prior to eviction, and that it provides an opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected. Mass evictions carried out in Tibetan areas often have not met these basic standards, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Chinese authorities’ mass arbitrary detention of peaceful protesters highlights grave concerns about the effects of further dam construction on Tibetans’ heritage, culture, and livelihoods,” Wang said. “The government needs to view genuine participation by the affected population as essential for carrying out major infrastructure projects.”

Philippines’ Marcos Addresses Australian Parliament Amid Abuses

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Click to expand Image Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, left, meets with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., at Malacañang palace in Manila, September 8, 2023. © 2023 Earvin Perias/AP Photo

Australian lawmakers attending Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s address before a joint sitting of parliament in Canberra on Wednesday should take his human rights rhetoric with a grain of salt.

Australian-Philippine relations have improved since President Marcos took office in 2022, replacing Rodrigo Duterte, whose abusive “war on drugs” killed thousands and amounted to crimes against humanity. In September, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited Manila and signed an agreement establishing a strategic partnership between the two countries.

But human rights violations in the Philippines remain rampant. Drug-related killings implicating the police have continued under Marcos, if at a lower rate. The government refuses to cooperate with the International Criminal Court’s investigation into the “war on drugs.” Arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings of activists and human rights defenders persist. Government officials and the security forces continue the dangerous practice of "red-tagging," publicly branding leftist activists and politicians as members or supporters of the communist insurgency, putting them at higher risk of abuse.

Australia’s Labor government should be especially concerned by the rising harassment and violence against labor leaders and union organizers in the Philippines. Albanese should urge Marcos to act to stop these abuses and thoroughly investigate recent killings.

In September, police shot and killed labor leader Jude Thaddeus Fernandez at his home in the town of Binangonan in Rizal province. The officers claim Fernandez “fought back” while being served with a search warrant, without explaining why his home was being searched or why he resisted. Fernandez’s colleagues told Human Rights Watch they believe police were using the commonly used defense of nanlaban (fighting back) to justify killing him.

Marcos’s visit to Australia is an important opportunity for Australia’s leaders to address well-documented human rights abuses in the Philippines. Ignoring them will only embolden Marcos and the prevailing culture of impunity. The people of the Philippines deserve more than warm words and empty rhetoric when it comes to respecting and upholding their human rights.

Algerian Activist Keeps Up Fight from Abroad

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Click to expand Image Zaki Hannache, an Algerian activist, in Algiers on February 13, 2021.  © 2021 Ryad Kramdi/AFP via Getty Images

Five years ago last week, people filled the streets of Algiers to protest then President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to run for a fifth term, in a march that launched the Hirak, Algeria’s biggest proreform movement in decades.

When the Hirak forced Bouteflika’s resignation six weeks later, the protest didn’t fizzle. These peaceful Friday marches continued, with Algerians demanding an overhaul of the country’s autocratic political system.

At the time Zakaria “Zaki” Hannache was a well-paid, apolitical industrial technician in Algiers. He missed the inaugural march but none thereafter, he said. When the arrests of protesters started in mid-2019, he joined an ad hoc group to monitor them. Their work grew heavier as Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected president in December of that year, escalated the crackdown and, aided by COVID restrictions on public gatherings, blunted the movement.

Despite no human rights training, Hannache earned a reputation as a trustworthy source of information about the arrests, trials, and imprisonment of hundreds of Hirak activists, on vague political charges like “harming national unity.” Lawyers and victims’ families, fearful of reprisal, entrusted information to Hannache, who circulated it responsibly.

When the police detained him in February 2022, they interrogated him about his work. “The gist was, why would U.N. human rights officials want to talk with the likes of me? Why would I do this work when I had a good job as a technician with Sonelgaz [the state energy company]? I must be getting money from abroad.”

Authorities released Hannache provisionally the following month but charged him with "dissemination of false information" and receiving "funds ... to perform or incite acts likely to undermine ... security and public order," In August 2022, Hannache left for Tunisia, where the UN Refugee Agency quickly recognized him as a refugee.

From exile, Hannache has remained a go-to source on the repression in Algeria, at a time when the government was arresting independent journalists and researchers and closing, on spurious grounds, prominent rights groups, and leading rights defenders to flee into exile.

Hannache lived in semi-hiding in Tunis, mindful that in 2021 another Algerian refugee had been kidnapped there and whisked back to Algeria, then tried and imprisoned. In March 2023, an Algiers court convicted Hannache in absentia and sentenced him to three years in prison.

On December 19, 2023, Hannache moved to Canada, which had agreed to resettle him. Since then, he has skipped hardly a beat in monitoring the repression of peaceful dissenters back home.

The Hirak may have been subdued but one of its legacies is a new crop of human rights defenders like Hannache, though many must operate from the diaspora, for now.

Russia: Court Convicts Human Rights Leader in Sham Trial

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Click to expand Image Oleg Orlov reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial in a Moscow courtroom during his trial, February 2024. © 2024 Ekaterina Yanshina, for Memorial

(Moscow, February 27, 2024) – A Russian court sentenced one of the country’s top human rights leaders, Oleg Orlov, to 2 years and 6 months in prison, on charges of “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces in what was clearly a farcical trial, Human Rights Watch said today.

Orlov, 70, is the co-chair of Memorial, one of Russia’s leading human rights groups and one of three recipients of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. The charges against him stem from an article he published in 2022, alleging that Russia was descending into fascism.

In October 2023, a court fined Orlov on a “repeated discreditation” charge. Orlov appealed the verdict, and the prosecutor’s office counter-appealed, charging him with an aggravated “discrediting” offense, after which the case was sent to retrial.

The following quote can be attributed to Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch:

“The case against Oleg Orlov is a Kafkaesque farce. The Kremlin should not be allowed to eliminate its critics in sham trials. International actors should do everything in their power to free Orlov and hold Russia accountable for its persistent and outrageous human rights violations before it’s too late.”

Burkina Faso: Abductions Used to Crack Down on Dissent

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Click to expand Image Ablassé Ouedraogo, a former foreign minister and chair of the opposition party Le Faso Autrement, speaking here in November 2014, was abducted from his home in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on December 24, 2023, by assailants claiming to be members of the national police. © 2014 STR/AFP via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – The Burkina Faso military junta is increasingly abducting civil society activists and political opponents as part of its crackdown on peaceful dissent, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since late November 2023, unidentified men have abducted at least six activists and opposition party members in the capital, Ouagadougou, raising concerns of enforced disappearances. The Burkinabè authorities should urgently take effective measures to produce those missing or forcibly disappeared, end abusive conscription, and bring those responsible to justice.

“The Burkinabé authorities are using increasingly brutal methods to punish and silence perceived critics and opponents,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should urgently and impartially investigate all abductions, enforced disappearances, and abusive conscriptions, and release those wrongfully detained.”

In a recent case, on February 20, 2024, armed men in civilian clothes abducted Rasmané Zinaba, a member of the civil society group Balai Citoyen, at his home in Ouagadougou. “At least four gunmen took him between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m.,” a Balai Citoyen member told Human Rights Watch. “They drove him off in a civilian vehicle.”

The following day, February 21, men in civilian clothes, presenting themselves as government security officers, abducted Bassirou Badjo, also a member of the Balai Citoyen  at the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs office in Ouagadougou.  Later that day, Balai Citoyen issued a statement condemning the abductions and calling for its members’ immediate release. The men’s families and Balai Citoyen filed a complaint with the police, but there has been no follow-up action.

On the night of January 24/25, unidentified men abducted Guy Hervé Kam, a prominent lawyer and coordinator of the political group Serve and Not be Served (Servir Et Non se Servir, SENS), inside Ouagadougou’s international airport. The group issued a statement on January 25 that men in civilian clothes presenting themselves as members of the national intelligence services took Kam into custody and drove him to “an unknown destination.”

On December 24, 2023, unidentified men abducted Ablassé Ouédraogo, 70, a former Burkina Faso foreign minister and chair of the opposition party Le Faso Autrement (the alternative Faso). On December 27, the party released a statement that “individuals claiming to be members of the national police” had taken Ouedraogo from his home in Ouagadougou at about 6:30 p.m. on December 24.

On December 1, 2023, unidentified men abducted Daouda Diallo, a prominent human rights activist and secretary-general of the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatization of Communities (Collectif contre l'Impunité et la Stigmatisation des Communautés, CISC), in Ouagadougou. Diallo had just left the government’s passport office after a meeting with officials to renew his passport. The CISC issued a statement the same day saying that men in civilian clothes pushed Diallo into a vehicle and drove off. His whereabouts remain unknown.

On November 29, 2023, men in civilian clothes presenting themselves as members of the national intelligence services abducted Lamine Ouattara, a member of the Burkinabè Movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights (Mouvement Burkinabè des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples, MBDHP), from his home in Ouagadougou, the head of the group said.

In early November, the Burkinabè security forces, using a sweeping emergency law, notified at least a dozen journalists, civil society activists, and opposition party members, including Diallo, Ouédraogo, Zinaba, and Badjo, that they would be conscripted to participate in government security operations across the country.

On February 18, Ouédraogo and Diallo appeared in a video posted on social networks, wearing camouflage military uniforms, holding Kalashnikov assault rifles and participating in military exercises presumably in a conflict zone. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the video. The authorities have never provided any information regarding the whereabouts of Ouédraogo and Diallo, or any of those recently abducted.

The transitional military authorities asserted that the conscription orders issued in November were authorized under the April 13, 2023 “general mobilization,” part of a plan to recapture territory lost to Islamist armed groups, which control roughly half of the country. The plan seeks to create a “legal framework for all actions” to be taken against insurgents and gives the president extensive powers to combat the insurgency, including requisitioning people and goods and restricting civil liberties. However, domestic civil society groups, media organizations, trade unions, and international human rights groups have strongly condemned the “general mobilization” decree, contending that it has been used to silence peaceful dissent.

While governments are empowered to conscript members of the civilian population over  18 years old for the national defense, conscription should not take place unless it has been authorized and is in accordance with domestic law. The conscription law needs to meet reasonable standards of fairness in apportioning the burden of military service. It needs to be carried out in a manner that gives the potential conscript notice of the duration of the military service and an adequate opportunity to contest being required to serve at that time. Conscription also needs to be carried out according to standards consistent with nondiscrimination and equal protection under law.

On December 6, 2023, a court in Ouagadougou ruled on a complaint filed by the journalist Issiaka Lingani and Balai Citoyen activists Badjo and Zinaba, who received conscription notices in November. The court found that their conscriptions were unlawful, violated rights to freedom of expression and movement, and caused a risk to physical integrity, and ordered their suspension. Kam, the lawyer who was abducted in January, was among the legal representatives of the three men who filed the complaint.

Human rights activists and journalists told Human Rights Watch they avoid speaking out against the junta out of fear of being conscripted. “We are paralyzed by fear,” said a SENS member on January 26. “Even holding a press conference, one of our basic rights, becomes a heroic act.” A human rights defender based in the Sahel region said: “A journalist called me to comment on a recent attack by suspected armed Islamist fighters in the city of Essakane. I told him: ‘Do you want me to get conscripted?’ Expressing your views on the security situation in the country can send you straight to the front, that’s the reality.”

Since the October 2022 coup, Burkina Faso’s military junta has increasingly cracked down on peaceful dissent and the media, shrinking the civic space in the country. National and international journalists, as well as civil society members, face increasing harassment, threats, and arbitrary arrests.

Burkina Faso is a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Under the convention, a state commits an enforced disappearance when government authorities or their agents detain an individual followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealing the fate or whereabouts of the person, placing them outside the protection of the law. Forcibly disappeared people commonly face torture or extrajudicial execution. Families must live with the uncertainty of not knowing if their loved ones are dead or alive, and worrying about their treatment in captivity.

“The Burkinabè authorities use of abusive conscriptions are abductions that may amount to enforced disappearances and need to stop,” Allegrozzi said. “Using conscription to crack down on critics and dissidents is not only illegal but undermines efforts to combat the insurgency in Burkina Faso.”

Abusive Interrogation Video in Japan Shows Urgent Need for Reform

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 26, 2024
Click to expand Image Yamato Eguchi speaking at the "hostage justice" survivor event at the Japanese National Diet, Tokyo, November 10, 2023.  © 2023 Yoshiyuki Nishi

Criminal cases in Japan that go to trial have a 99.8 percent conviction rate, and the trial of Yamato Eguchi, a former lawyer who was arrested and charged in 2018 and later convicted, was no exception. Humiliated and abused through days of relentless interrogations, Eguchi brought a lawsuit against the government, demanding state redress for what he endured while in custody.

The public caught a rare glimpse of Japan’s “hostage justice” system in action in January when a portion of the video recordings of Eguchi’s interrogations were played in court and released on YouTube on January 18, 2024. The 13-minute video (with English captions) shows the prosecutor showering abusive language at Eguchi, who remains silent.

“You’re a brat, aren’t you? You’re like a child,” the prosecutor from Yokohama District Public Prosecutors Office says in the video. “You’re just annoying. You’re just a pain in the ass. That’s all.”

Eguchi, who was accused of inducing his client to make a false statement regarding a car accident, had said that he was innocent and expressed his intention to exercise his right under the Japanese constitution to remain silent. Eguchi’s lawyer was not allowed to be present.

However, like in many other cases, the interrogation continued for 21 days, over a total of 56 hours, as the prosecutor insulted Eguchi to fuel his anxiety. At one point he pulled out Eguchi’s middle school grades. “It looks like you weren’t very good at math, science or any science stuff,” the prosecutor said. “[Y]our logical sense is a bit off.”

Eguchi’s case illustrates the current state of “hostage justice,” in which authorities coerce suspects to confess through denial of bail and prolonged interrogations without the presence of lawyers.

The abusive practices Eguchi experienced have torn apart countless lives and families and resulted in numerous wrongful convictions. Japan’s Diet should urgently reform the criminal justice system. This includes ensuring the internationally protected right against self-incrimination and allowing lawyers to be present during questioning. Furthermore, the authorities should ensure that suspects have the right to apply for bail during pre-indictment detention and reform the bail law to bring it in line with international standards of presumption of innocence and individual liberty.

Public outrage over the Eguchi video might just spark genuine reforms in Japan’s criminal justice system.

Russia: Sham Trial of Human Rights Leader Draws to a Close

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 26, 2024
Click to expand Image Oleg Orlov reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial in a Moscow courtroom during his trial, February 2024. © 2024 Ekaterina Yanshina, for Memorial

(Moscow) – Oleg Orlov, a leading Russian human rights defender, has begun reading his closing statement following what was clearly a sham trial, Human Rights Watch said today.

Orlov, the co-chair of Memorial, the Russian human rights group which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 along with two other recipients, is charged with “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces for speaking out against the war in Ukraine. The verdict, which is expected within hours, comes in the wake of the death of Russia’s key opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, for which the Kremlin bears responsibility.

“Orlov’s trial was pure Kafka, so it is fitting that he chose to read the author’s iconic novel, The Trial, in protest during the court hearings,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is another grim day for Russia.”

In his closing statement, Orlov speaks of Navalny and other victims of politically motivated prosecutions and describes Russia’s slide into totalitarianism. But he notably urges his compatriots not to lose hope.

The full text of Oleg’s closing statement can be read here.
 

Israel Not Complying with World Court Order in Genocide Case

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 26, 2024
Click to expand Image The International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, August 27, 2018. © 2018 Mike Corder/AP Photo

(The Hague, February 26, 2024) – The Israeli government has failed to comply with at least one measure in the legally binding order from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in South Africa’s genocide case, Human Rights Watch said today. Citing warnings about “catastrophic conditions” in Gaza, the court ordered Israel on January 26, 2024, to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian aid,” and to report back on its compliance to the specific measures “within one month.”

One month later, however, Israel continues to obstruct the provision of basic services and the entry and distribution within Gaza of fuel and lifesaving aid, acts of collective punishment that amount to war crimes and include the use of starvation of civilians as a weapon of war. Fewer trucks have entered Gaza and fewer aid missions have been permitted to reach northern Gaza in the several weeks since the ruling than in the weeks preceding it, according to United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“The Israeli government is starving Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians, putting them in even more peril than before the World Court’s binding order,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli government has simply ignored the court’s ruling, and in some ways even intensified its repression, including further blocking lifesaving aid.”

Other countries should use all forms of leverage, including sanctions and embargoes, to press the Israeli government to comply with the court’s binding orders in the genocide case, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch found in December 2023 that Israeli authorities are using starvation as a weapon of war. Pursuant a policy set out by Israeli officials and carried out by Israeli forces, the Israeli authorities are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food, and fuel, willfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas, and depriving the civilian population of objects indispensable to its survival.

Israeli authorities have kept its supply of electricity for Gaza shut off since the October 7 Hamas-led attacks. After initially cutting the entire supply of water that Israel provides to Gaza via three pipelines, Israel resumed piping on two of its three lines. However, due to the cuts and widespread destruction to water infrastructure amid unrelenting Israeli air and ground operations, only one of those lines remained operational at only 47 percent capacity as of February 20. Officials at the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility told Human Rights Watch on February 20 that Israeli authorities have obstructed efforts to repair the water infrastructure.

According to data published by OCHA and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the daily average number of trucks entering Gaza with food, aid, and medicine dropped by more than a third in the weeks following the ICJ ruling: 93 trucks between January 27 and February 21, 2024, compared to 147 trucks between January 1 and 26, and only 57 between February 9 and 21. A survey of impediments to the entry of aid faced by 24 humanitarian organizations operating in Gaza between January 26 and February 15 pointed to a lack of transparency around how aid trucks can enter Gaza, delays and denials at Israeli crossings and inspection points, and concerns about safety of trucks.

By comparison, an average of 500 trucks of food and goods entered Gaza each day before the escalation in hostilities in October, during which time 1.2 million people in Gaza were estimated to be facing acute food insecurity, and 80 percent of Gaza’s population were reliant on humanitarian aid amid Israel's more than 16-year-long unlawful closure.

High-ranking Israeli officials have articulated a policy to deprive civilians of food, water, and fuel, as Human Rights Watch has documented. The Israeli government spokesperson said more recently that there are “no limits” to aid entering Gaza, outside of security. Some Israeli officials blame the UN for distribution delays and accuse Hamas of diverting aid or Gaza police for failing to secure convoys.

The Israeli government cannot shift blame to evade responsibility, Human Rights Watch said. As the occupying power, Israel is obliged to provide for the welfare of the occupied population and ensure that the humanitarian needs of Gaza’s population are met. The Israeli human rights group Gisha challenged the Israeli government’s claims that it is not obstructing entry or distribution of aid and also found that it is not complying with the ICJ order.

Israeli authorities have also obstructed the aid that enters Gaza from reaching areas in the north. The survey of humanitarian organizations found that “almost no aid is distributed beyond Rafah,” Gaza’s southernmost governorate. On February 20, the World Food Programme paused deliveries of lifesaving food to the north, citing lack of safety and security. Israeli forces struck a food convoy on February 5, the UN said and CNN documented.

Between February 1 and 15, Israeli authorities only facilitated 2 of 21 planned missions to deliver fuel to the north of the Wadi Gaza area in central Gaza and none of the 16 planned fuel delivery or assessment missions to water and wastewater pumping stations in the north. Fewer than 20 percent of planned missions to deliver fuel and undertake assessments north of Wadi Gaza have been facilitated between January 1 and February 15, as compared with 86 percent of missions planned between October and December, according to OCHA.

“Israel’s ground forces are able to reach all parts of Gaza, so Israeli authorities clearly have the capacity to ensure that aid reaches all of Gaza,” Shakir said.

Since the ICJ order, Israeli authorities have also apparently destroyed the offices of at least two humanitarian organizations in Gaza and taken steps to undermine the work of UNRWA, the largest provider of humanitarian aid in Gaza, which more than half of other humanitarian organizations rely on to facilitate their operations. The head of UNWRA, Philippe Lazarini, said in a February 22 letter to the UN General Assembly president that the agency has reached a “breaking point” due to multiple government suspensions of funding and Israel’s campaign to shut the agency down.

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said on February 13 that he had blocked a US-funded flour shipment to Gaza, because it was going to UNRWA. Israel has alleged that at least 12 of the agency’s 30,000 employees participated in the October 7 attacks, which the UN is investigating.

In late December, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a multi-partner initiative that regularly publishes information on the scale and severity of food insecurity and malnutrition globally, concluded that over 90 percent of Gaza’s population is at crisis level of acute food insecurity or worse. The IPC said that virtually all Palestinians in Gaza are skipping meals every day while many adults go hungry so children can eat, and that the population faced famine if current conditions persisted. “This is the highest share of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity that the IPC initiative has ever classified for any given area or country,” the group said.

On February 19, The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that 90 percent of children under age 2 and 95 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women face “severe food poverty.” On February 22, Save the Children said families in Gaza “are forced to forage for scraps of food left by rats and eating leaves out of desperation to survive,” noting that “all 1.1 million children in Gaza [are] facing starvation.”

In response to a request by South Africa for additional provisional measures following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s order for Israeli authorities to explore a possible plan to evacuate Rafah ahead of a ground incursion, the ICJ said that the “perilous situation demands immediate and effective implementation of the provisional measures” throughout Gaza – but not new measures – and highlighted Israel’s duty to ensure “the safety and security of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.”

Beyond enabling the provision of basic services and aid, the measures in the ICJ’s binding order require Israel to prevent genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and prevent and punish incitement to commit genocide. The ICJ issued these measures “to protect the rights claimed by South Africa that the Court has found to be plausible,” including “the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide.” Although South Africa asked the court in its oral arguments during January hearings on the provisional measures to make any report it ordered public, the court did not indicate that it has done so.

Between January 26 and February 23, more than 3,400 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, according to figures from Gaza’s Health Ministry compiled by OCHA.

South Africa’s case against Israel for genocide is distinct from the proceedings on the legal consequences of Israel’s 57-year-occupation, which began at the ICJ on February 19.

“Israel’s blatant disregard for the World Court’s order poses a direct challenge to the rules-based international order,” Shakir said. “Failure to ensure Israel’s compliance puts the lives of millions of Palestinians at risk and threatens to undermine the institutions charged with ensuring respect for international law and the system that ensures civilian protection worldwide.”

Egypt: Rights Group and its Director Threatened and Smeared

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 26, 2024
Click to expand Image Ahmed Salem, director of the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights. © Private

(Washington DC) – The Egyptian authorities and affiliated groups have responded to recent reporting by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, an Egyptian human rights group with a focus on Egypt’s militarized North Sinai, with a smear campaign and threats against the group and its director, Ahmed Salem, 18 civil society organizations denounced today.

Since mid-February 2024, several government and progovernment figures and entities have engaged in an aggressive smear campaign against the Sinai Foundation and Salem on television, in newspapers, and social media. Salem, a United Kingdom-based Egyptian human rights activist, said that, through intermediaries close to Egyptian authorities, he received threats that he “would be brought back to Egypt” if he did not drop his work. One of these threats, through a government-appointed Sinai local clan leader, warned that Salem “is not far from reach even abroad.”

“The Egyptian authorities should immediately end the threats against the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights and its director Ahmed Salem,” said Seth Binder, Advocacy Director at the Middle East Democracy Center. “They should ensure the safety of his family in Egypt, and end their smear campaigns and the relentless, years-long crackdown on human rights groups and independent organizations.”

On February 14, 2024, the Sinai Foundation issued a report based on witness accounts, photographs, and videos about the Egyptian authorities’ hurried construction of a fortified zone on the border with Gaza and Israel in Egypt’s North Sinai which it reported was “for the purpose of receiving refugees from Gaza in case of a collective displacement” as a result of the ongoing armed conflict in Gaza. The report has been widely covered by major international news agencies and newspapers.

Salem said that, since February 15, 2024, according to two sources in North Sinai, the Egyptian military has increased patrols and checkpoints in the area, stopping residents and construction workers, and looking into the contents of their mobile phones in an attempt to intimidate locals and prevent reporting about the construction work of the fortified zone.

On February 17, 2024, a prominent progovernment television anchor and a member of the government’s Supreme Media Regulatory Council, which plays a leading role in censorship and the government’s crackdown on independent reporting, described Salem on the progovernment TEN television as an agent linked to terrorist groups and the Israeli Mossad among other allegations presented without evidence.

On February 15, the official X (formerly Twitter) account of the Sinai Tribal Union, the main pro-army militia group in Egypt’s North Sinai, described the Sinai Foundation, without naming it, and reports about the construction of the fortified zone as efforts by conspirators to “spread poison against the Egyptian State.” Several pro-government pages on X and Facebook published photographs of Salem with similar allegations.

Satellite images of the border area captured between February 5 and 19 and analyzed by Amnesty International’s Evidence Lab show the clearing of land and construction of a new wall.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government has launched a public relations exercise to deny the news about building camps for Palestinians in Sinai. On February 16, 2024, Egypt’s State Information Service denied in an official statement that the government was preparing to receive Palestinians in Sinai and said that such reports “give a wrong impression, falsely propagated by some, that Egypt is participating in the crime of (forced) deportation that some parties in Israel have been advocating for.”

For over a decade, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has used media smear campaigns to intimidate human rights activists and discredit their work as part of a multifaceted campaign to obliterate Egypt’s once vibrant civic space. Those campaigns have often been led by television anchors who are close to government and security circles or hold official positions, and have included aggressive forms of disinformation and statements that in some cases include incitement to violence and threats of harm.

Such campaigns have frequently involved transnational repression, targeting human rights defenders based outside Egypt, including by harassment, arbitrary arrests, prolonged detentions and prosecutions of family members of those living in exile. Despite living in the United Kingdom with his wife and children, Salem expressed fear that the authorities could target his family members in Egypt. The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, said on February 22 that she “urge(s) the Egyptian government to ensure his (Salem) & his family’s safety.” The Egyptian government should heed this call and prevent any retaliation against Salem’s family members, the organizations said.

The Sinai Foundation has been one of the main independent, credible sources of information about developments in North Sinai, where the Egyptian government forces, mainly the military, have battled armed militants of Wilayat Sina’ (Sinai Province), an armed group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in 2014. Both the military and ISIS militants have committed serious abuses, some of which amount to war crimes according to Human Rights Watch, but the armed clashes remained largely hidden due to Egyptian military restrictions on reporting.

Under the pretext of battling this armed group, Egyptian security forces have displaced tens of thousands of North Sinai residents and imposed restrictions on the movement of people and goods, which have brought commercial and economic activity, for several years, to a near halt. According to Human Rights Watch’s research, thousands of North Sinai residents have been subjected to mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, abduction, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Since then, North Sinai has turned into a closed military zone under a tight government media siege to prevent the flow of information and curtail access to journalists and independent observers.

Even though the military has apparently been able to largely eradicate Wilayat Sina’, and its attacks have almost ceased since 2022, the region effectively remains a closed military zone where independent reporting has been severely restricted. Massive home demolitions, farmland destruction, and forced evictions by the military in border and non-border areas have been among the main grievances of the local population. The fortified zone currently being built by the Egyptian government includes some of the areas from where the local population had been forcibly evicted.

The Egyptian authorities should immediately halt reprisals against critics living abroad, and end its zero-tolerance policy of independent reporting which is effectively criminalizing freedom of association and expression and human rights work. The Egyptian authorities should also immediately allow independent journalists and independent civil society to work freely in Sinai, and report on the grievances of its residents following a decade of military operations hidden from public scrutiny as well as any impact of cross-border developments on the ongoing armed conflict in Gaza.

“Instead of intensifying its chokehold on reporting in Sinai, the government should ensure that the human rights abuses committed during a decade of military operations there are independently investigated, including those bravely documented by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights,” Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said.

Signatories:
Amnesty International
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
Committee for Justice
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
DIGNITY - Danish Institute Against Torture
Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR)
Egyptian Human Rights Forum (EHRF)
EgyptWide for Human Rights
El Nadeem Center
EuroMed Rights
FairSquare
Human Rights Watch
International Commission of Jurists
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
International Service for Human Rights
Middle East Democracy Center (MEDC)
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE)
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)

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