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(Another) Mockery of Justice in Russia

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Oyub Titiev, a Chechen human rights activist, has been behind bars for more than 13 months on bogus drug charges and his trial is now drawing to a close. Today, the defense filed its last motion, and the judge declined it – just as she has declined all other defense motions.


Oyub Titiev at the Shali court in Chechnya, February 12, 2019.

© 2019 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

When Oyub’s trial began last summer, we had little, if any, expectations for a fair hearing. A man jailed by Chechen authorities in retaliation for documenting their rights violations cannot anticipate justice in a local courtroom. Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov has publicly and repeatedly condemned Oyub as a “traitor” working for an enemy organization – Russia’s leading rights group – and a “drug addict.” No local court would dare acquit him, no matter how blatant the fabrication.

Kadyrov runs Chechnya as his own fiefdom and judges, like others, who disobey him, risk retribution. So it’s no surprise that the presiding judge in Oyub’s trial was unfazed that a key prosecution witness had initially been unable to identify Oyub. Nor was she daunted by a “coincidence” of more than a dozen police precinct security cameras simultaneously experiencing temporary failure on January 9, 2018, when Oyub was arrested. She was also unaffected when the defense argued the marijuana Titiev supposedly had in his car had never been tested to ensure it had psychotropic properties, even though hemp grows wild all over Chechnya.

The police official who claimed to have seized the marijuana from Oyub’s car described it in an official document as being in “one black bag inside another.” A state forensic expert, however, described the evidence submitted for analysis as a black bag with a piece of scotch tape stuck to it. Somehow the second bag mysteriously disappeared, but a piece of tape appeared instead conveniently covered with the defendant’s hair, which made it possible for the prosecution to establish a direct connection between Oyub and the bag of marijuana. But naturally, the judge rejected the defense’s motion on evidence tampering.

One more hearing remains in this farcical trial. Then the court will hear final arguments and Oyub’s final statement, which he has been writing and re-writing for a month now. Then, we will hear the verdict.

International Disaster Law and the Standoff at the Venezuela-Colombia Border

Opinio Juris - Tuesday, February 12, 2019
[Alonso Illueca is a lawyer and adjunct Professor of International Law and Human Rights at Universidad del Istmo.] It is highly unlikely that someone would argue that, currently, Venezuela is not affected by a disaster, i.e. a series of events resulting in widespread loss of life, great human suffering and distress, mass displacement and large-scale material damage, which are thereby...

Remembering Alison Des Forges, 10 Years Later

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Alison Des Forges

Ten years ago today, our beloved colleague Alison Des Forges died in the crash of Flight 3407 traveling from Newark to her home in Buffalo. Alison had recently been in Uganda to meet with her research team that, to my great fortune, included me. A colleague and I had just finished documenting a series of massacres by the Lord’s Resistance Army, headed by Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony. While in Kampala, Alison had helped us finalize our report on what became known as the “Christmas Massacres.” As she went over the material, I remember her advising me to let the horror of the stories, and the victims’ own voices, speak for themselves. 

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Alison was a rock for Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, where she served as a senior advisor and led our Great Lakes work for nearly two decades. Always full of wisdom and guidance, she showed us the importance of being humble, respectful, discreet, persistent, and attentive to details when documenting abuses or confronting perpetrators. She never lost sight of the fact that human rights work was about being human. She asked about our families, laughed often, and acknowledged the dignity of survivors as well as suspected rights abusers.

Alison is best known for her work on Rwanda. In the months leading up to the 1994 genocide, she saw the dangers of planned violence, alerted the world, and urged action. As the genocide unfolded, and in its aftermath, Alison listened to countless accounts and documented the mass violence – and the international community’s indifference and failure to act. Her 789-page book, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” became the definitive account of the genocide. She went on to press for those responsible for the violence to be brought to justice, appearing as an expert witness in 11 trials for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, three trials in Belgium, and at trials in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada.

Unflinchingly impartial, Alison insisted that the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces, which defeated the genocidal regime, should also be held to account for their crimes, including the killing of thousands of civilians during and just after the genocide. Alison’s principled commitment to credible justice for victims of all crimes eventually prompted the RPF-led Rwandan government to ban her from the country in 2008

Since Alison’s death, important progress has been made in bringing perpetrators of the genocide to justice, including former high-level government officials and other key figures behind the massacres. Yet very few RPF members have been held to account for the war crimes and crimes against humanity they committed. 

As Human Rights Watch continues to press for justice for these crimes, and document the current, challenging human rights situation in Rwanda and elsewhere on the continent, we miss Alison deeply. We strive to live up to the example she set for us, and with each new challenge, we ask ourselves, “What would Alison do?”

Where do Apparel Companies Stand on Women Workers?

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A worker inside a garment factory in Tamil Nadu, India. India passed a law governing sexual harassment at the workplace in 2013. The Indian government can play a leadership role in advocating for a binding ILO Convention on violence and harassment at work, while simultaneously revamping efforts to implement the law in country.

© 2013 Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty

Will the fashion industry throw its weight behind the global #MeToo movement? The next few months will tell us how committed apparel companies are to fighting harassment and discrimination in their supply chains. 

Starting February 13, more than 400 representatives from governments, the apparel industry, unions, and civil society will attend the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector. The US$2.4-trillion apparel industry employs millions of workers globally, mostly women. Women workers experience specific challenges at workbecause of gender, including pregnancy-based discrimination and sexual harassment

In a new report, Human Rights Watch calls on global apparel companies to show leadership in confronting these issues by publicly supporting the call for a new binding International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on violence and harassment at work. There is a desperate need for a binding convention because 59 countries do not even have any specific legal remedies against sexual harassment at work. Even where legal remedies exist, they are often poorly enforced – like in India and Pakistan. 

Our report also highlights the flaws of relying on social audits – one of the primary tools apparel brands use to monitor conditions in factories across global supply chains – to check gender-based violence or harassment at work. 

Human Rights Watch looked at 50 social audit reports issued by big auditing firms, of factories primarily from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. We found that social audits (based on document reviews and on-site interviews) are not designed to elicit information about gender-based violence or harassment at work. They are not designed to overcome the specific barriers to reporting such harassment. They do not sufficiently create a safe space for workers who experience such harassment or guarantee anti-retaliation. Apparel companies that use social audits should know their limitations, and shouldn’t pretend they are the right tool for this job.

The global forum in Paris affords a unique opportunity for companies to reflect on these concerns and resolve to help lead the charge on the important new ILO initiative. 

Egypt: A Move to Enhance Authoritarian Rule

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Egyptian policemen standing guard outside a polling station with an electoral banner depicting incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seen with a caption reading in Arabic 'for the sake of Egypt we will continue the story of a nation', in the capital Cairo's central neighborhood of Zamalek, March 26, 2018. 

© 2018 Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Proposed amendments to Egypt’s constitution, including granting the armed forces authority to intervene in government, would undermine judicial independence and expand executive powers that are already being abused, Human Rights Watch said today.

The amendments, introduced in Egypt’s parliament on February 3, 2019, would make the military “responsible for protecting the constitution and democracy … and the civil state,” effectively granting the army governing authority.

“These amendments reinforce efforts of President al-Sisi’s military-backed government to stifle people’s ability to challenge those in power,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “If the amendments are passed, there is a clear risk that they will formally give the armed forces unchecked authority.”

The current constitution was adopted in 2014, a year after the army forcibly removed Egypt’s first-elected president, Mohamed Morsy.

A parliamentary committee quickly agreed to discuss the proposed amendments, only three days after they were proposed. Egypt’s parliament is dominated by supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with almost no opposition. Since its election in 2015, parliament has acted as a rubber-stamp for government policies and decisions. No minister or government official has been summoned by parliament for questioning in more than three years. Constitutional amendments also require a public referendum, according to the country’s constitution, but none has been scheduled.

Article 140 of the proposed revised constitution would extend presidential terms from four years to six. The draft clause would also add a “transitional article” that would allow the current president, after finishing his term, to run for two more terms. If the amendments are approved, al-Sisi, whose second term will end in 2022, could stay in power until 2034. Since he effectively rose to power in 2013 and later became president in 2014, his government has been overseeing Egypt’s worst human rights crisis in decades, including possible crimes against humanity.

In addition, the amendments could further undermine judicial independence by giving President al-Sisi tighter control over appointing senior judges and largely remove the State Council judges’ authority to revise legislation before it becomes law. The amendments could also grant wider jurisdiction for military courts to try civilians. In the last three years, over 15,000 civilians, including children, have been referred for military prosecution.

The effort to modify Egypt’s constitution follows authorities’ sustained use of counterterrorism policies and state of emergency laws to engage in serious abuses, crush dissent, and to hold elections that are neither free nor fair. During the March 2018 presidential elections, al-Sisi’s security forces arrested potential candidates and intimidated and threatened their supporters.

By stifling other candidates’ campaigns and subjecting them to arbitrary arrests, al-Sisi’s government violated the Egyptian constitution and the government’s international obligations and commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the 2002 African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa. Peaceful assembly is effectively prohibited, and dozens of journalists and bloggers have been jailed in recent years for criticizing the government, making Egypt one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world.

After forcibly unseating former President Morsy in 2013, al-Sisi, – then the defense minister – was part of the government that oversaw the planned mass killings of at least 817 protesters in one day when the army and police violently dispersed the largely peaceful sit-in in Cairo’s Rab’a Square. The mass killings were the worst in Egypt’s recent history and most likely amount to crimes against humanity.

Since then, the government has been waging a relentless nationwide crackdown against all forms of dissent. Interior Ministry forces have engaged in torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and the army has carried out home demolitions in North Sinai, resulting in thousands of forced evictions and victims, with little if any attention from Egypt’s allies. Some of these abuses may also amount to crimes against humanity.

Egypt’s allies have remained largely silent in the face of the serious abuses. Despite restrictions on United States security assistance to Egypt mandated by the US Congress, the Trump administration has fully embraced al-Sisi’s government and all but removed human rights concerns from the bilateral relationship. This was reinforced in July, when the administration released funds for Egypt that had previously been held due to human rights concerns. As the US Congress enters its annual budgeting process for the 2020 fiscal year, members of Congress should make clear that there will be consequences on aid allocation to the Egyptian security forces if serious abuses continue.

“Al-Sisi’s government is encouraged by the continued silence of its allies, and if the US, UK, and France want to avoid the destabilizing consequences of entrenching authoritarian rule in Egypt, they should act now,” Page said.

Tunisia: Scant Help to Bring Home ISIS Members’ Children

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 12, 2019
February 11, 2019 Video Video: Children of ISIS Members Trapped in Squalid Camps and Prisons

Tunisian officials have been dragging their feet on helping bring home Tunisian children held without charge in foreign camps and prisons for families of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members.

(Tunis) – Tunisian officials have been dragging their feet on helping bring home Tunisian children held without charge in foreign camps and prisons for families of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members, Human Rights Watch said today. Most of the children are held with their mothers, but at least six are orphans.

In rare calls and letters to family members, mothers of the children described living in overcrowded prison cells in Libya or tent camps in northeast Syria with acute shortages of food, clothing, and medicine. Two Tunisia-based family members said the mothers told them that some women and children – they did not say how many – had been beaten by interrogators, sometimes repeatedly, in al-Jawiyyah, a prison in Misrata, Libya, and that some detainees, including children, were severely withdrawn and spoke of wanting to kill themselves.

“Legitimate security concerns are no license for governments to abandon young children and other nationals held without charge in squalid camps and prisons abroad,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisian children are stuck in these camps with no education, no future, and no way out while their government seems to barely lift a finger to help them.”

In December 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed Tunisian family members of 13 women and 35 children detained in Libya and Syria as well as government officials, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, Western diplomats, and United Nations representatives. In July and September 2018, Human Rights Watch visited the three camps in northeast Syria controlled by US-backed Kurdish authorities detaining Tunisians and other foreign women and children linked to ISIS members. Expand

A woman walks with a child in Roj camp, which holds foreign wives and children of Islamic State (ISIS) members, in northeast Syria, September 2018.

© 2018 Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

While Tunisia is not the only country stalling on helping its stranded women and children to come home, and many of the others have significantly greater resources, Tunisia has one of the largest contingents. About 200 children and 100 women claiming Tunisian nationality have been held abroad without charge for up to two years as ISIS family members, most in Syria and neighboring Libya and some in Iraq, Tunisia’s Ministry of Women and Children told Human Rights Watch. Many of the children are age six or younger, and bringing home their mothers as well may be in their best interest.

Other countries should similarly help bring home children stranded in Iraq, Libya, and Syria after their parents joined the extremist armed group. Most younger children were born in ISIS-held areas or brought there by their parents.

Nearly all family members interviewed said they had received no replies to letters and documents they had sent to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the president, and other officials beseeching them to help bring the women and children home. “We went to everyone, but no one responded,” said Hamda Laouini, whose daughter, daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren are detained in Ain Issa camp in northeast Syria.

“For God’s sake, save the children from destruction,” one mother detained in a Libyan prison wrote to a family member in a 2018 letter shared with Human Rights Watch. “They are slipping [emotionally] from our hands.”

Authorities in northeast Syria and Libya have asked home countries to take back the women and children, saying they do not plan to prosecute them. Iraq has prosecuted foreign adults and children as young as nine for links to ISIS – often in procedures that fail fair trial standards – but has also asked countries to take back the children. Although inconsistent in their approach, at least nine countries have repatriated about 200 children and women detained in Iraq, Libya, and northeast Syria, showing that it is possible.

In a written response to requests for comment, the Tunisian Foreign Affairs Ministry said that “Tunisia attaches special importance” to the cases of the detained children as part of its “firm belief in human rights.” But so far Tunisia has helped bring only three of these children home, from Libya. In January, Tunisia also reportedly agreed to bring home six orphans living in a Red Crescent shelter in Libya by mid-February.

The Foreign Ministry response also said the government would not turn away detainees whose citizenship is established, noting that the Tunisian Constitution prohibits denying or revoking citizenship or preventing citizens from returning home. While Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Tunisia was turning away citizens at its borders, most if not all of the detainees have no way to leave locked camps and prisons to reach Tunisian consulates or borders, some of which are hundreds of kilometers away and on the other side of conflict zones, without their governments’ intervention.

International human rights law provides that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of theirs. Countries have a responsibility to ensure that children are not deprived of this right. This obligation extends to children born abroad to one of their nationals and who would otherwise be stateless. Countries must ensure acquisition of nationality by an otherwise stateless child “as soon as possible,” the UN Human Rights Committee has said.

Countries including Tunisia should ensure that all child nationals detained abroad solely because they are the sons and daughters of alleged or confirmed ISIS members are swiftly and safely brought home unless they fear ill-treatment upon return, Human Rights Watch said. If mothers are held without charge, children should not be sent home without them, absent compelling evidence that such separation is in the best interests of the child.

If Tunisia and other home countries deem the mothers to be security risks, they can screen and, if appropriate, monitor or prosecute them upon repatriation in line with fair trial standards. However, they should not interfere with the right of everyone to enter, and return to, the country of their nationality. Children will have more access to mothers serving prison sentences at home than they will if their mothers are held abroad.

Upon return, nationals should be provided rehabilitation and reintegration services. Children should be treated first and foremost as victims and should not be prosecuted for links to groups such as ISIS absent evidence of violent acts. Detention of children should be an exceptional measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate duration, in line with juvenile justice standards. Donors should prioritize assistance to countries such as Tunisia to ensure they have the capacity to screen and reintegrate returnees.

“These children and even their mothers cannot leave locked camps and prisons and make their way home on their own any more than fish can swim across the desert,” Tayler said. “Leaving family members to languish without charge in foreign camps and prisons will compound their suffering and risk fueling further grievances.”

Children Stranded Abroad
An estimated 2,000 children and 1,000 women from 46 nationalities are detained in prisons in Iraq and Libya and three camps northeast Syria – Roj, Ain Issa, and al-Hol – for family ties to foreign ISIS suspects or members. A majority, according to Human Rights Watch research, have not been charged with any crime. But most countries have balked at helping them come home, claiming they may be security threats or that verifying their nationalities may be difficult. Many of the women and children’s husbands and fathers are imprisoned, missing, or dead.

Most of the detained women and children were captured or surrendered as ISIS retreated from Sirte, Libya in December 2016; Mosul, Iraq in July 2017; and Raqqa, Syria in October 2017.

Dozens of countries with greater financial resources than cash-strapped Tunisia are also stalling on bringing home wives and children of ISIS members. The Belgian government said in December that it would appeal a court order to repatriate six Belgian children and their two mothers from al-Hol camp.

Of more than 200 women and children transferred out of prisons and camps so far, most were brought home by Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and Sudan. Germany, France, and the United States have brought home only a few each. France in October 2018 said it may repatriate additional children from northeast Syria, and in January said it would accept but prosecute adult French ISIS members if they are deported or otherwise come home. In January, two children from Trinidad were released from Roj camp in a rescue involving Roger Walters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd.

Tunisians in Camps and Prisons
Tunisian authorities say that just under 3,000 of their nationals have joined ISIS abroad. Two Western diplomats told Human Rights Watch they believe the number is far higher, with up to 6,500 Tunisians having traveled to Syria and another 1,000 to 1,500 to Libya. Either way, it is one of the world’s highest rates per capita. The numbers reportedly include as many as 1,000 women, although there are no breakdowns between women who joined ISIS and those who accompanied spouses.

Tunisia also is estimated to have one of the highest number of ISIS members who surrendered or returned home on their own – about 900, according to government officials. Two Western diplomats told Human Rights Watch they believe the number is closer to 1,500.

The country has been under a state of emergency since 2015, when ISIS and other extremist armed groups began a series of mass attacks on civilians as well as security targets. Perpetrators in two of the highest-profile ISIS attacks, on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and a coastal resort in Sousse in 2015, reportedly trained in Libya. A female suicide bomber who in October wounded 26 people, most of them police officers, in central Tunis had sworn allegiance to ISIS but had not traveled abroad.

In 2016, President Béji Caïd Essebsi proposed an amnesty for returning ISIS fighters and their families but quickly retreated in the face of negative media commentary and street protests.

Tunisia has only allowed the repatriation of three children, who had been detained in a Libyan prison for ISIS members’ families, according to government officials, family members, and human rights activists. Libyan media reported that Tunisian authorities said they will bring home six orphans after the Red Crescent Society of Misrata, which is caring for the children, on January 17 called on Tunisia to repatriate them within one month.

Officials with the Tunisian Ministry of Women and Children said that about 100 women and 200 children are detained abroad as ISIS family members, but referred Human Rights Watch to the Foreign Affairs and Interior ministries for specific numbers and breakdowns. Neither ministry responded to Human Rights Watch requests for data.

The non-governmental Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad (RATTA) has collected information on 116 Tunisian detainees – 93 children and 23 women – of whom it says more than half are in Libya, nearly one-third are in Syria, and the rest are in Iraq, Turkey or elsewhere. Nearly half the children tracked by RATTA are no more than two years old and four-fifths are no older than six.

Confirming the detainees’ nationalities can be a complex process. Tunisian citizenship can be transferred through a father or a mother. However, many detainees, particularly the children born in former ISIS territory, lack proof of identity or potentially have a second nationality through one foreign parent. Many countries including Tunisia have severed diplomatic relations with Syria. The Kurdish-led coalition controlling camps in northeast Syria is not an internationally recognized government. In Libya, two governments vie for legitimacy and different militias control the prisons detaining the women and children.

In April 2017, in an apparent effort to bring home children detained in Libya, an official Tunisian delegation visited representatives of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The delegation brought DNA kits to help determine the children’s identities but never used them after the Libyan and Tunisian authorities failed to agree on terms for the transfer, three Tunisian government officials told Human Rights Watch.

The Tripoli-based GNA wanted the Tunisians to bring home the women, the children, and at least 80 corpses in a morgue that they said were dead Tunisian ISIS fighters, but the Tunisians were at most willing to bring back the children as a first step, fearing the mothers were a greater security risk, the government officials said. Only one mother detained in Libya is known to have agreed to be separated from her Tunisian children.

Mohammed Ben Rejeb, the president of RATTA, accused the Tunisian authorities of insisting on bringing home children first as a ruse to stall on repatriating any of them. “The Tunisian government doesn’t want to bring back the children or their mothers,” he said.

Desperate for a solution, four Tunisian families paid a Libyan lawyer 2,000 Libyan dinars (US$1,440) per child to get five children out of Libya. But the lawyer has only been able to help release two siblings, whom the Tunisian government let come home in November.

An April 2018 report by the UN human rights office described Mitiga prison in Tripoli and al-Jawiyyah prison in Misrata as “facilities notorious for endemic torture and other human rights violations or abuses,” including against women and children. The report did not make reference to detainees related to ISIS members. Mitiga and al-Jawiyyah prisons hold at least 53 Tunisians – 29 children and 24 women – according to Tunisian family members, human rights activists, and journalists.

Libyan authorities did not respond to more recent requests by a Human Rights Watch researcher to visit Mitiga, run by the Special Deterrence Force allied with the Tripoli-based GNA, and al-Jawiyyah, nominally run by the GNA Judicial Police. Human Rights Watch was also denied access in September 2018 to the shelter run by the Red Crescent Society in Misrata.

The Families’ Accounts
Most of the family members who spoke with Human Rights Watch in Tunisia said their female relatives were duped by recruiters or seduced or coerced by husbands, but others said the women went willingly.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess these women’s motivations. Studies on recruitment include coercion and the desire to keep families intact as reasons that women have joined ISIS abroad, but they also list factors such as ideological motivations and desire for adventure. UN binding resolutions and principles for country responses to groups like ISIS note that women and children related to armed extremists may be perpetrators, supporters, or victims of terrorism.

“She was very obedient,” Hamida Hamouda said of her illiterate daughter-in-law, now detained with four children at Ain Issa camp. Two women detainees were child brides when they left with their husbands for Syria, family members said.

Zohra al-Hammi said four female relatives, now detained with five children in Roj camp, left with or followed their husbands to Syria in 2015 to keep their families intact. “Forty-five days later, they called and said, ‘We want to come back,’” she said, but Turkish border guards would not let them cross out of Syria.

Whatever the women’s motivations, relatives in Tunisia said the children stuck abroad from their families were brought by their parents to ISIS territories or were born there. Moncef Abidi said his sister Wahida and her Tunisian husband initially had legitimate jobs when the couple moved in 2013 to Libya. But two years later, the husband joined ISIS. Wahida called the family in tears, desperate to return to Tunisia with her son, Baraa, but said her husband told her, “If you go, our son stays with me,” Abidi said.

In 2016, during clashes between armed groups in the coastal city of Sabratha, Baraa’s father was killed and a bullet tore through Baraa’s back and out of his stomach. Baraa, now four, has had five operations and needs one more that cannot be performed in Libya, Abidi said.

Baraa and Wahida are detained together at Mitiga prison. The Special Deterrence Force reunited the mother and child but only after Baraa had spent four months in a hospital. The militia disseminated a video of the reunion, which shows Wahida, crying hysterically and Baraa, then a toddler, looking alternately frightened and dazed. “Can I please hug him – is that okay?” she asks. It is one of several videos that the Special Deterrence Force and GNA have released about the detained Tunisian women and children that appeared aimed at blaming Tunisia for the impasse on their repatriation.

Abidi said he has repeatedly appealed to the Tunisian authorities to let Baraa come home. “He is just a little boy,” Abidi said. “Why should he be punished for the crimes of his father?”

The family members’ descriptions of dire living conditions in the three northeast Syrian camps were consistent with Human Rights Watch findings in 2018 at these sites, where the Syrian Democratic Forces are holding up to 1,750 foreign women and children, including at least 150 Tunisians. Specialist health care, medicine, and food including infant formula were scarce and counseling and rehabilitation programs non-existent, female detainees told Human Rights Watch. Some women said that their interrogators, usually women, beat them during their initial questioning in detention facilities, before they were transferred to the camps.

Conditions in Al-Hol camp are “critical” and at least 29 children and newborns are reported to have died there or en route since early December, mainly from hypothermia, the World Health Organization said.

“I am hungry, I am hungry,” Bornia Mathlouthi said her 7-year-old grandson cried in December, when Mathlouthi spoke by phone with her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren in al-Hol camp. Two months ago, a sand storm destroyed the tent that housed the family, Mathlouthi said. All the children can do to pass time, she said, is “play with dirt and stones.”

“The children were hungry and pale and so was their mother,” said Chahiba Ghanmi, who visited her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in al-Jawiyyah prison in 2018. “The mother says they only survive on spaghetti in water. I gave Ahmed a candy and a cake. He had no idea what they were. He ate the candy with the wrapping still on it.”

The camps in northeast Syria and prisons in Libya also sell food but at exorbitant prices and families are not always able to send money, the Tunisian relatives said.

In addition to Baraa in Libya, two children stranded in Syria need surgery, Tunisian family members told Human Rights Watch. One is a 10-year-old boy whose face was disfigured from a cooking-gas canister explosion in a tent in Roj camp. The other is a 4-year-old boy living with his Syrian mother in a camp for displaced Syrians in Aziz, who has a hole in his skull from a bombing attack. That boy’s Tunisian father is dead.

Returned children
In its written response, the Foreign Ministry said it has confirmed “a number” of children as Tunisian through DNA testing and was rehabilitating them but did not elaborate. Human rights activists, family members, and other government officials said they only knew of three repatriated children.

One of them is Tamim, a 4-year-old orphan who made headlines when the authorities repatriated him from Libya in 2017. Tamim’s parents were killed in February 2016 during US airstrikes and ground fighting in Sabratha. His grandfather, Faouzi Trabelsi, said he went to Libya four times to seek his grandson’s repatriation before Tunisian authorities agreed to let the boy come home.

For his first month home, the authorities placed Tamim in a hospital ward for children who are orphaned or physically disabled. He received a month of medical and psychological care there but nothing since, his grandfather said.

The two other repatriated children, a 10-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl whose mother remains detained in Misrata, receive counseling from a state-appointed psychologist, a family member told Human Rights Watch. All three repatriated children appear to be adjusting to life back in Tunisia, the family members said.

The Foreign Ministry said the government is also developing an array of prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration programs to counter armed extremism. Western diplomats said the programs remain largely in the planning stage as Tunisia copes with overcrowded prisons, economic crisis and political turmoil.

Tunisia is “working to rehabilitate and reintegrate foreign terrorist fighters and their families” in line with UN Security Council resolutions such as Resolution 2396 of 2017, the Foreign Ministry said. That binding resolution emphasizes the need for children’s “timely” reintegration and rehabilitation.

All family members interviewed in Tunisia by Human Rights Watch said they thought the best way to help the children recover from detention and life under ISIS would be for Tunisian authorities to bring them home and their mothers with them.

“She is still breastfeeding them, they cannot be parted,” said Mohammed Kilani of his daughter and her 2-year-old twins – two of four young children detained with her in Roj camp. “The children are innocent, they have done nothing wrong. If my daughter committed any crime let her come back and be prosecuted in her own country.”

Kenya, South Sudan: Investigate Critics’ Disappearance

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 11, 2019

Aggrey Ezbon Idri (L) and Dong Samuel Luak.

© Private/Human Rights Watch

(Nairobi) – The Kenyan police and the South Sudanese authorities should ensure effective, transparent, and impartial investigations into the enforced disappearance of two South Sudanese critics in Nairobi more than two years ago, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 17, 2019, a Kenyan High Court ended its 24-month oversight of the police investigation into the disappearances of Dong Samuel Luak, a prominent South Sudanese lawyer and human rights activist, and Aggrey Idri, a member of the political opposition. They were snatched off the streets of Nairobi on January 23 and 24, 2017, respectively. The families had initiated the petition for judicial review following concerns that the Kenyan police had not effectively investigated.

“The families of Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri have waited patiently for the truth for two years, their lives in limbo,” said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But this decision which lets Kenyan police off the hook, risks sending this case into oblivion and denying the families justice.”

The men’s disappearance is believed by their families and many who follow South Sudanese politics to be the result of collusion between South Sudan and Kenya, but both governments have denied having custody of the men or knowledge of their whereabouts. The Kenyan police have not officially requested information from the South Sudan government, nor has South Sudan’s government investigated the disappearances or officially requested information about the case from the Kenyan authorities.

Soon after the men were forcibly disappeared, their families filed a case before a Kenyan High Court seeking a writ of habeas corpus, to require the government to produce them in court. The court denied that petition, saying it could not establish that Luak and Idri were in custody but that a “criminal abduction by unknown persons” had taken place and that the police should thoroughly investigate the matter.

However, police investigations stalled. On April 20, 2017, the families sought judicial review and an order to the police to investigate the disappearance of the two men more thoroughly. In the following months, the court noted gaps in the police investigation, including the failure to seek information from the South Sudanese authorities and to interview witnesses and Kenya’s intelligence service. At a hearing on February 5, 2018, the police said they could not access some of the witnesses and they had no further leads but would keep the file open.

But the January 17 final judgement dismissing the petition stated that the police had acted “prudently and within the law.” The court said it is required to respect the police approach and timeline, and that families should pursue alternative administrative remedies such as filing a complaint with the Internal Police Oversight Authority. The decision ends any judicial oversight into the police action on the case.

“How long will this charade go on as the families of Luak and Idri continue to languish in agony over their loved ones?” said Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

Credible sources told both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that they had seen both men in National Security Service (NSS) detention in Juba, South Sudan, on January 25 and 26, 2017. Information from South Sudan indicates that the men were moved from there on January 27 to an unknown location. Human rights organizations have documented the many serious human rights violations by NSS agents, including unlawful detention, ill-treatment, torture, and death in custody.

There have been more reports from former detainees corroborating that Dong and Aggrey were in South Sudanese custody in January 2017. In late 2018, a former detainee, William Endley, told the media that he had seen Aggrey and that others had confirmed seeing Dong at the prison in the NSS headquarters. But South Sudan’s government has remained silent and failed to investigate these reports.

If the two men are in the agency’s custody, as evidence strongly suggests, they are both at risk of abuse, including torture, the organizations said.

Dong was a registered refugee in Kenya, where he had lived since August 2013. Aggrey relocated to Kenya on a visitor’s pass after the conflict in South Sudan broke out in mid-December 2013 and was legally in the country at the time of his disappearance. Any acquiescence or cooperation by Kenyan authorities to the forced return of either man to South Sudan is a serious violation of Kenya’s international obligations.  

This is not the first time that a South Sudanese refugee was forcibly disappeared from Kenyan territory, with the apparent agreement of the Kenyan government, and illegally returned to South Sudan. In December 2017, South Sudanese political opposition official, Marko Lokidor Lochapo, was forcibly disappeared from the Kakuma refugee camp. He was detained without charge in the notorious “Blue House” detention facility in Juba until October 25, 2018.

In November 2016, Kenya deported James Gatdet Dak, then the spokesman for South Sudan’s political opposition, to South Sudan under great protest. Gatdet was subsequently sentenced to death by hanging for treason but pardoned on October 31, 2018. Gatdet’s account of his illegal deportation confirms collaboration between the highest levels of the Kenyan and South Sudanese governments.

The South Sudanese government’s inaction and unwillingness to investigate the disappearances and the status and whereabouts of Dong and Aggrey is an abdication of its binding legal obligations, demonstrates total disregard for the men’s fundamental rights, and exacerbates their families’ concerns, the organizations said.

“My biggest fear is to become a widow,” said Aya Benjamin, Aggrey’s wife. “When I think about it, my heart hurts. We are limited in our daily lives and usual activities and I have become depressed. I am not as hopeful as I was two years ago.”

“Dong’s disappearance has psychologically affected all of us especially his four daughters. He is their best friend,” said Polit James, Dong’s younger brother. “The hardest question I face is ‘Where is daddy? When is he coming home?’ You sometimes find them crying and writing emotional letters in their notebooks.” 

Emojis with Disabilities A Step for Inclusion

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 11, 2019

The new emojis include men and women with a range of disabilities

© Emojipedia

As a person with a disability, I have never seen myself represented in the vast range of emojis – those small digital images – found on smartphones. There are magician, mermaid and merman, zombie, and vampire emojis. There are thousands of emojis but up until now, no one with a disability.

That is all about to change. Later this year, smartphones will have 59 new emojis representing people with disabilities. The new icons include men and women with a range of disabilities. There will be people with a white cane, with a service dog, with prosthetic limbs, using a wheelchair, and with a hearing aid. There is also an emoji of someone using sign language.

Emojis have become a crucial part of how many of us communicate. They can help share congratulations, personal news, good and bad moods, wishes, and plans. In fact, emoji is thought to be the fastest-growing language. It is only right that people with disabilities, as the world’s largest minority, are represented in, and able to access, culture and communication like this equally.

There is still a long way to go for full inclusion and accurate representation of people with disabilities, but it is a big step forward to be included in the emojis. I am looking forward to sending my first emoji with a white cane.

Gutting Payday Loan Rules Will Harm Vulnerable Families

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 11, 2019

Gutting payday loan rules will harm vulnerable families

© Seth Anderson/Flickr

Proposed plans to get rid of rules designed to protect largely low-income consumers from abusive high-interest loans risk the well-being of some of America’s most vulnerable households.

The United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently announced the proposal to rescind rules that would have meant payday and auto-title lenders had to make sure that customers could repay loans under the terms of the contract. Loans not meeting this requirement would be considered unfair and abusive.

When people get trapped in predatory loan agreements, they can end up sacrificing their own and their families’ welfare in order to make the repayments. This rule would have helped prevent people from becoming trapped by these types of predatory payday and auto-title loans.

Many payday lenders exploit cash-strapped people, often with limited access to other forms of credit, by offering them small, short-term and high-interest loans. Some borrowers have reported paying triple-digit interest rates, in some states over 600 percent, on their payday loans.

Payments then balloon in size and people have difficulty keeping up, forcing some to choose between their loans and basic needs. Research has shown that payday lending disproportionately affects African American, Latino, and poor communities.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rules on payday lenders, finalized in 2017, created a national standard and safety measures to prevent this trap of predatory interest rates for payday and auto-title loans, while still giving access to small dollar loans. The rule was created after an extensive public comment period, with the participation of both payday lenders and the public.

Since the final rule was announced, industry lobbies have pushed for a rollback, saying that the rules would limit the access of low-income communities to much needed credit. The answer to limited credit access is not to allow more loans offering extortionate interest rates and unrealistic conditions that ultimately leave borrowers worse off. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau should instead be focusing its efforts on preventing abuse and empowering low-income communities to access fair credit with reasonable interest rates.

Stripping the very rules that protect the vulnerable does nothing to serve communities in need or advance consumer protections.

Israel’s Warm and Cozy Relationship with Myanmar

Opinio Juris - Monday, February 11, 2019
Amidst all the faux outrage over a Muslim Congresswoman’s (admittedly problematic) tweet — much of it coming from evangelicals who think all Jews will burn in Hell after the rapture and right-wingers who say nothing about blatantly anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros or Israel’s support for the deeply anti-Semitic Prime Minister of Hungary — here is your daily reminder of the...

US Department of Justice’s Misguided Move to Block Safe Injection Site

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 11, 2019

Last week, the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to stop the opening of a safer injection site (SIS) in Philadelphia, claiming it violates the federal Controlled Substances Act. This misguided action not only places the health of people who use drugs at risk, but undermines goals set by the Trump administration to tackle two public health epidemics plaguing the nation – HIV/AIDS and deaths from overdose.


Discarded syringes in an open-air heroin market that has thrived for decades, slated for cleanup along train tracks a few miles outside the heart of Philadelphia


At safer injection sites, staff provide sterile needles and equipment as well as testing for HIV and Hepatitis C, and linkage to drug dependence treatment for those who want it. These facilities operate in 120 countries and more than 100 peer-reviewed studies have shown they reduce transmission of infectious disease, death from overdose, and increase participation in treatment without increasing crime or drug use in a community. The American Medical Association has endorsed a pilot program for SIS, and the Philadelphia facility would be the first to openly operate in the US. 

Opposing this proven public health intervention not only undermines the administration’s pledge to address the opioid crisis, but runs counter to another major Trump administration initiative. In last week’s State of the Union address, the president announceda program designed to end the HIV epidemic by 2030 through targeted funding for HIV prevention and treatment. This ambitious goal is to be applauded, though it won’t likely be realized without changes to the administration’s health and civil rights policies that reduce access to health care for those most at risk of, and living with, HIV, including people who use drugs. 

Rather than taking legal action against an approach shown to reduce HIV transmission, there are important ways the Department of Justice could combat the overdose and HIV epidemics. Laws that criminalize drugs for personal use result in an arrest every 25 seconds in the US, and Human Rights Watch and others have documented the devastating harms that result to individuals, families, and communities, including driving people away from health services. Law enforcement should support criminal justice reform, as well as programs that contribute to public health and safety such as syringe exchanges and safer injection sites. Unless the nation’s top law enforcement agency becomes part of the solution rather than part of the problem, the Trump administration’s admirable goals to end the opioid and HIV epidemics will never be realized. 

Intervention (by Invitiation) in Venezuela?

Opinio Juris - Monday, February 11, 2019
[Ralph Janik teaches international law at the University of Vienna, Faculty of Law and Webster Private University Vienna. He specializes in the interplay of international law and international relations. Twitter: @RalphJanik] The crisis in Venezuela could enter a new phase. Juan Guaidó recently flirted with the idea of a US intervention on his behalf when he refrained from ruling out...

Thailand: Bahraini Footballer Goes Home to Australia

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 11, 2019

(New York) – Thailand has freed a Bahraini refugee football player threatened with extradition since November 2018 following global pressure from athletes, sports federations, and rights groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 11, 2019, Thai prosecutors dropped their extradition case against Hakeem Al-Araibi, sought by Bahrain, and allowed him to fly to Australia, where he has refugee status. Leaders of football’s global governing body, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), had publicly called for his release.

"Hakeem Al-Araibi is a refugee whose detention and threatened deportation was a grave injustice,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives. “FIFA and the IOC deserve credit for applying their new human rights policies to help gain Al-Araibi’s release and his return home to Australia.”

Thai authorities had detained Al-Araibi on a wrongful Interpol “Red Notice” seeking his return to Bahrain, where he had been tortured and feared for his life.

Al-Araibi, a former member of Bahrain’s national football team, was detained and tortured following the 2011 Arab Spring protests there. He fled the country and reached Australia, where he was granted refugee status. He currently plays for the professional Pascoe Vale Football Club in Melbourne.

Al-Araibi’s release shows the power of collective action by athletes, governments, nongovernmental organizations, United Nations agencies, players’ unions, and sports federations to address rights issues, Human Rights Watch said. Unfortunately, other Bahrainis who did not benefit from the urgent mobilization of the global sports and human rights community have been returned to reportedly face torture and mistreatment. Other refugees in Thailand, notably ethnic Uyghurs from China, have been forcibly returned to face a real risk of torture and persecution.

“Hakeem Al-Araibi’s freedom was secured with strong pressure from athletes, FIFA, the IOC, and the global rights movement,” Worden said. “But Al-Araibi’s case has also spotlighted gaps in FIFA’s system of human rights protections, and the need to ensure that human rights policies and practices are fully implemented.”

In 2017, FIFA appointed a Human Rights Advisory board, created a Human Rights Policy, and in 2018, opened a complaints system for human rights defenders and journalists who consider their rights to have been violated while performing work related to FIFA’s activities. The new Centre for Sport and Human Rights and FIFA’s Human Rights Advisory board were very involved in seeking Al- Araibi’s release, including with a letter from FIFA’s secretary general.

“FIFA and the IOC are starting to understand that sports federations’ interests align with rights defenders and the victims of abuses,” Worden said. “This case should encourage FIFA to tackle other serious human rights abuses in the world of football, including to stop sexual and other abuse in the sport.”


Modern Slavery and State Responsibility

Opinio Juris - Monday, February 11, 2019
I was delighted to comment on an important new report by Rosana Garciandia and Philippa Webb on State Responsibility for Modern Slavery at the UN on January 31.  Contemporary forms of slavery continue to be a major challenge in the 21st century. International law prohibits slavery, human trafficking and forced labour, and states are generally committed to eliminating these human rights abuses....

Fighting the Good Fight: Litigating Foreign Relations, International Law and Corruption at the Constitutional Level in Guatemala

Opinio Juris - Monday, February 11, 2019
[Carlos Arturo Villagrán Sandoval is a PhD Candidate at Melbourne Law School. His doctoral thesis considers Comparative Regional Integration with particular emphasis on Central-America. He is currently representing civil society actors in a constitutional injunction against the Presidential decision to denounce the CICIG treaty.] The CICIG is a pioneering international body, created between Guatemala and the UN, with broad reaching...

South Sudan: Does Juba Even Care About Protecting Girls From Sexual Violence?

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 11, 2019

Women line up for food rations at a distribution site in Bentiu, South Sudan, on December 8, 2018.

© 2018 Nyagoah Tut Pur/Human Rights Watch

In December after reports of the mass rape of women in and around Bentiu town surfaced, South Sudan’s response was a denial, followed by a rushed investigation  by a committee headed by the Minister for Gender, Child and Social Welfare. The committee ended its investigation after only two days on the ground, declaring that the rapes were “not a true story.”  

Rape and gang rape, abductions, forced mutilations and other sex crimes, consistent features of the conflict, have been committed with impunity by all parties to the current conflict in South Sudan. The government’s inadequate response has effectively normalized the violence. It raises the question of whether the government even cares about protecting women and girls, and their rights.

In January, I met Rhoda, [not her real name] one of countless survivors of sexual violence in South Sudan’s civil war, at the UN site in Juba for civilians who have fled the fighting. Sitting across from me in a tent she has called home since December 2013, she could not hide her anger: “When I heard about what happened in Bentiu, I was hurt. It made me think a lot. Is it not enough?”  Rhoda was gang raped by government soldiers  along with seven other women in July 2016 at Checkpoint, an area near the UN camp where government forces abducted and raped women as they traveled to the market.

Following the dismal conclusion of the initial fact-finding committee on Bentiu, the president established a second committee with a mandate to identify those responsible and hold them to account. This investigation is a litmus test of the political will to address sexual violence.

A key question  is whether either government or opposition forces coordinated or sanctioned the Bentiu crimes. Ceasefire monitors concluded that the rapes were a result of the failure of government and opposition leaders to control armed youth allied to them. A UN investigation into the reports is ongoing. When Human Rights Watch researched the allegations in December, we found evidence of a pattern of attacks on women and girls traveling to and from town, for food distributions and other errands. Survivors told us that armed young men, often with their faces covered to hide their identities, would beat,rape and rob them. Local authorities had been aware of ongoing sexual violence, but had failed to investigate, prosecute or put an end to the attacks.

One of the few examples of such prosecutions  came after a  July 2016 attack on the Terrain compound housing aid workers. A military tribunal found 9 soldiers guilty of crimes including rape and gang rape of foreign aid workers.  The trial, a result of sustained international pressure, showed that justice is possible where political will exists.

 In contrast, the government has consistently failed to address the widespread sexual and gender-based violence against South Sudanese women and girls. The trial for a mass rape by government forces in the village of Kubi in February 2017, has yet to conclude.  The government is also stalling on creating the AU Hybrid Court, which would have jurisdiction to try sexual and gender-based crimes among the abuses committed in the conflict.

The government has also failed more broadly to protect women and girls. It has not effectively addressed pervasive gender-based violence, early child marriage, use of girls as blood compensation and so many other issues.  Last year when news broke of 17-year-old Nyalong Ngong Deng Jalang marriage on Facebook, the world was reminded that even members of South Sudan’s government participate in child marriage which persists because of the dowry system, poverty, and lack of access to education. The government did not step in to prevent the marriage, condemn the incident, or sanction officials who were known to be involved even though it violated domestic laws and international obligations to end child marriage.  

The Bentiu mass rapes not only provide an opportunity for the government to take serious measures to reduce the stigma of rape, and the cyclical abuses that women like Rhoda continue to suffer but to show its commitment to women and girls’ rights

There are other options to ensure accountability for these crimes. The African Union Commission could move unilaterally to establish the Hybrid Court, given the delays by South Sudan to sign the memorandum of understanding. The UN Human Rights Council should also renew the mandate of the Commission of Human Rights on South Sudan to continue its important work of collecting and preserving evidence of abuses and providing guidance for future prosecutions. Such steps would signal that justice for South Sudanese women and girls is not being pushed off the agenda.

Lebanon: No Justification for LGBT Crackdown

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 11, 2019

 Lebanese security forces have repeatedly interfered with human rights events related to gender and sexuality in violation of international human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said today in a complaint to United Nations (UN) human rights officials.

The complaint follows unsuccessful attempts by Human Rights Watch to meet with Lebanon’s General Security officials about recent security force actions that have undermined the rights of sexual and gender minorities and human rights advocates in Lebanon. 

“Bans on these events not only discriminate against gender and sexual minorities and their advocates, but they also undermine everyone’s rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression in Lebanon,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanon can’t shy away from its obligations not to discriminate and to protect these basic rights by pointing to poorly defined morality standards.”

The complaint was submitted to the UN special rapporteurs on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and on human rights defenders, and to the UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Human Rights Watch urged the UN officials to press Lebanon’s government to hold its security forces accountable for violations of international law and to refrain from using unjustified grounds, such as vague “morality” claims, to undermine the rights of sexual and gender minorities.

General Security is the intelligence branch of Lebanese security forces that oversees foreigners’ admission to the country. On September 29, 2018, it attempted to shut down the annual NEDWA conference of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, which works to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and other human rights.

General Security officers also took details of all conference participants from the hotel registry where the conference was being held, including participants from countries such as Egypt, where police arrested over 70 people in 2018 for being gay or transgender, and Iraq, where armed groups have murdered LGBT people with impunity.

The four-day conference, whose initials stand for networking, exchange, developments, wellness, and achievement, included workshops on human rights, advocacy, movement-building, health, and the arts. It has been held annually in Lebanon since 2013 and includes people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. General Security’s interference followed public statements from the Muslim Scholars Association accusing the organizers of promoting homosexuality and drug abuse. The association called for the organizers’ arrest and the cancellation of the conference on the grounds of “incitement to immorality.”

The group has also filed a legal complaint against the Arab Foundation’s HIV prevention program, saying it promotes debauchery. Internal Security Forces, responding to the complaint, called in the foundation’s director, Georges Azzi, for questioning in December.

In May, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces detained an activist and pressured him to cancel events associated with Beirut Pride, including a poetry reading, a karaoke night, a discussion of sexual health and HIV, and a legal literacy workshop. Related Content

On October 25, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Major General Abbas Ibrahim, director of General Security, raising concerns about the security forces’ interference and requesting clarification on the agency’s position on the legality of advocacy or cultural events in Lebanon that touch on gender and sexuality issues.

He responded on November 26, citing the so-called “morals” exception under Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the right of peaceful assembly. He claimed that the article requires an event “to be consistent with the moral standards of the particular society,” and maintained that “the topic of the conference remains controversial in Lebanese culture.”

As a party to the ICCPR, Lebanon must protect freedom of expression, association and assembly for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, Human Rights Watch said. The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has made clear that it is prohibited to discriminate based on sexual orientation in upholding any of the rights protected by the treaty, including the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression.

In its April 2018 evaluation of Lebanon, the Human Rights Committee said that Lebanon should “explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and ensure that LGBTI individuals are afforded, both in law and in practice, adequate and effective protection against all forms of discrimination, hate speech or violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.” It said that Lebanon should “take all measures necessary to guarantee in practice the effective enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of LGBTI individuals.”

The Yogyakarta Principles on the application of human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity state that countries should ensure that notions of public morality “are not employed to restrict any exercise of the rights to peaceful assembly and association solely on the basis that it affirms diverse sexual orientations or gender identities.”

UN resolution 15/21 also mandates member states to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in all their manifestations.

Major General Ibrahim also attempted to justify the agency’s interference in NEDWA by claiming that the sponsor “failed to obtain prior approval from the authorities,” citing the 1911 Lebanese Law on Public Meetings. However, international guidance on freedom of association and assembly stipulates that even if prior notification might be required, no authorization should be required to assemble peacefully in a democratic society.

Ghida Frangieh of Legal Agenda, a Lebanese human rights organization, told Human Rights Watch that the 1911 law applies to public meetings, not private, invite-only conferences, “Let there be no doubt: the General Security forces are baldly misinterpreting archaic laws and applying them in a biased and discriminatory way in order to shut down discussion of gender and sexuality,” Frangieh said.

Since the NEDWA conference was held, the Arab Foundation has reported that General Security has prevented at least three people who attended from re-entering Lebanon, without providing  any explanation.

On December 17, Human Rights Watch sent another letter to Major General Ibrahim, requesting a formal meeting to discuss these developments. He declined the request.

Although it is unclear whether these entry bans are directly related to the individuals’ participation in NEDWA, Human Rights Watch is concerned that these measures further restrict the space for free speech and assembly in Lebanon. Human Rights Watch asked the UN officials to urge the Lebanese government to lift the entry bans if they are related to the activists’ participation in NEDWA.

Human Rights Watch also urges countries providing assistance to Lebanese security forces, including to General Security, to press them to abide by their international law obligations and ensure that this funding is not an investment in violating the rights of human rights activists in Lebanon.

“The efforts to shut down advocacy and cultural events in the name of public morality are unjustified and indefensible,” Fakih said. “There is nothing ethical about standing in the way of advocating for equality.”


Sudan: Video Footage Shows Extreme Violence, Abuse

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, February 10, 2019
February 10, 2019 Video Sudan: Video Footage Shows Extreme Violence, Abuse

Human Rights Watch released a video on February 11, 2019 that shows government forces’ extreme violence and shocking abuses against protesters during weeks of largely peaceful protests across the country. The United Nations Human Rights Council should urgently respond to the human rights crisis in Sudan at its March session and ensure an independent investigation into the violations committed since the start of protests in December 2018

(Nairobi) – Human Rights Watch released a video on February 11, 2019, that shows government forces’ extreme violence and shocking abuses against protesters during weeks of largely peaceful protests across the country. The United Nations Human Rights Council should urgently respond to the human rights crisis in Sudan at its March session and ensure an independent investigation into the violations committed since the start of protests in December 2018.

Video footage, verified by Human Rights Watch, shows security forces driving around in armed vehicles, shooting bullets and teargas at unarmed protesters, and rounding up and brutally beating protesters and bystanders with sticks and gun butts. The footage also shows gruesome, bloody injuries from gunshots; evidence of harsh beatings and torture; and the effects of raids by security forces on hospitals, filling emergency rooms with teargas and hindering medical care.

“There is irrefutable evidence that Sudan is using ruthless violence and brutality against peaceful protesters and critics of the government,” said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These violent tactics, which violate the very core of Sudan’s international human rights obligations, should end immediately, and those responsible should be held to account.”

Since mid-December, protesters have taken to the streets in towns and cities across the country to protest price increases and to call on President Omar al-Bashir, in power for 29 years, to step down. The protests began in Atbara and have spread to other cities and towns, including Gedarif, Wad Madani, Port Sudan, Dongola, El Obeid, El Fasher, Khartoum, and Omdurman.

Acting with complete impunity, government security forces – police national security and paramilitary groups including the Rapid Support Forces – have used excessive violence, shooting live bullets, rubber bullets and teargas in the air and directly at protesters.  Sudanese activists estimate that over 50 people have died, most from bullet wounds, including 25-year-old Babiker Abdul Hamid, a physician who was shot on January 17 at close range while attempting to treat the wounded.  

The forces have brazenly attacked hospitals and medical personnel, arresting dozens of doctors, and entering hospital compounds, as they did during the January 9 protests in Omdurman, firing bullets and teargas, and preventing medical personnel from treating wounded people. Physicians for Human Rights reported that seven hospitals have been directly attacked, severely hampering staff treating patients and causing breathing difficulties from teargas.

Government forces have also rounded up and detained hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters and critics, arresting them on the streets and in offices and homes. The video evidence shows signs of torture on released detainees. Despite a January 20 order by the head of national security to release all the detainees, only 186 were reported released. Security officials have continued to detain hundreds of people, including many prominent opposition party members, lawyers, doctors, and activists on a near-daily basis.

“With each passing week the situation is getting worse,” Henry said. “It is high time for the UN Human Rights Council to ramp up monitoring and reporting on the situation and to send investigators to the country at once.”

Lack of accountability for past violations has fueled continued abuses in Sudan, Human Rights Watch said.

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of responsibility for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur. Despite arrest warrants issued in 2009 and 2010, Sudan’s government has refused to cooperate with the court or to provide meaningful accountability for atrocities in Darfur and two other conflict zones, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. Human Rights Watch has documented atrocity crimes in those areas, including killings, rape, torture, attacks on hospitals and schools, and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Since 2011, Sudanese have protested more frequently and in larger numbers over a range of grievances. In 2013, Sudan’s government responded to a wave of popular protests with extreme violence, killing more than 170 people. The government has not prosecuted any of those responsible for the killings.

“Emboldened by years of impunity, Sudan’s leaders are once again committing grave crimes against civilians for weeks on end, without consequences,” Henry said, “Omar al-Bashir is an international fugitive who should be answering the ICC’s charges against him for crimes in Darfur, including genocide.”

Weekend Roundup: February 4-10, 2019

Opinio Juris - Sunday, February 10, 2019
Two posts this week addressed different legal aspects of the current political crisis in Venezuela. Kevin Jon Heller kicked off the week with a post on the advantages of Venezuela adopting the aggression amendments to the ICC Statute in light of the recent saber rattling by certain states to enforce, through military means if necessary, Juan Guaidó’s claim to the...

Australia Court Rules it is the ‘Wrong Time’ for Coal

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, February 10, 2019

An Australia court has rejected an appeal to grant permission to develop a new coal mine because it will contribute to global warming, the latest in a series of court rulings grounded in concerns over climate change.

It is the “wrong time” for coal, the Envrionmental and Land Court of New South Wales concluded,  “because the GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed…is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions.”

The court’s landmark decision last week is consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 Special Report of Global Warming of 1.5°,  which stressed the need to phase out coal to avoid surpassing the 1.5°C increase temperature threshold. The 1.5°C objective is spelled out in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change adopted in 2015.

The ruling also resonates with the November 2018 open letterfrom the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to governments participating in last year’s global climate talks.  Ms Bachelet reminded governments of their human rights obligation “to strengthen their mitigation commitments in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change."

Unfortunately, the United States, one of the world’s major emitters of GHGs, is moving in the opposite direction by deregulating the coal industry. In December 2018, Human Rights Watch released an 88-page report documenting howthe  government removed constraints on mountaintop removal, an extremely destructive form of surface coal mining, despite a large body of evidence that air and water pollution resulting from the activity pose serious health risks to nearby communities.

The Australian court’s ruling contrasts with its government’s support of the coal industry. Australia made headlinesas the only other country to join the United States at a pro-coal event during last year’s climate summit.

The ruling is the latest in a wave of litigation on climate change. In 2018, an appeals court in the Netherlands ordered the Dutch government to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020. In that case, the Dutch Court foundthat obligations to protect the human rights of the Dutch citizens require more ambitious climate targets.