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Russia Legalizes Massive DNA Collection Without Oversight

Human Rights Watch - 6 hours 25 min ago
Click to expand Image DNA sample is pipetted into a Petri dish, January 20, 2020.  © 2020 Klaus Ohlenschläger/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law extending compulsory DNA data collection to millions of people yesterday. Anyone suspected of any crime will have their DNA collected, and those convicted or sentenced to administrative detention for a misdemeanor will have their DNA profile stored in a state database for life.

This new legislation boosts Russia’s massive surveillance system and delivers another blow to the right to privacy. The government anticipates collecting DNA from at least 1.8 million people annually. In 2019, Russian courts imposed nearly one million sentences of administrative detention and 620,000 criminal sentences, which indicates the intended scope of the measures after the law fully enters into force in 2025. The administrative offences include participation in “unauthorized” assemblies, traffic offences, public intoxication, and failure to pay a minor fine.

Previously, only people convicted of sexual offenses or other grave crimes were subject to DNA collection, although police officers often forced detained activists to submit DNA samples.

While all biometric data, such as fingerprints and facial images, is sensitive, mass collection of DNA information is particularly problematic because it can reveal the person’s ethnicity, family ties, and hereditary diseases.

Such a sweeping approach violates international human rights law. In Gaughran v. the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that indefinite retention of a DNA profile, without accounting for the seriousness of the offense, constitutes a disproportionate interference with the applicant’s right to respect for private life.

Russian law gives law enforcement agencies unrestricted powers to access and use the information in the database without independent oversight.

The offenders “have already shown their disloyalty,” the Internal Affairs deputy minister argued, calling on lawmakers to embrace the inevitability of total digital control.

In December 2022, Russia adopted laws requiring the pooling of all biometric data into a unified state database and giving Russian security services direct access to taxi users’ trips. Authorities are expanding the use of their facial recognition software to harass and prosecute activists and hunt down people evading conscription for Russia’s war in Ukraine. In the absence of safeguards, sensitive personal data and surveillance have already been shown to be prone to corruption and leaks.

Russia should renounce mass DNA hoarding, introduce time limits, periodically review the necessity of continued storage of genetic information, and narrow down the list of people authorized to access the database.

Indian Courts Provide Government a Pathway on Rights

Human Rights Watch - 7 hours 26 min ago
Click to expand Image Police and demonstrators scuffle during a protest against discriminatory citizenship laws outside Jamia University in Delhi, February 10, 2020. © 2020 Manish Rajput/SOPA Images via AP Photo

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government and its prominent supporters have been responding to recent international criticism of widespread discrimination against minority communities by stoking nationalism, even blaming a “colonial mindset.”

Two recent court rulings provide BJP leaders an opportunity to reverse the damage that the government’s divisive Hindu majoritarian policies have caused to the rule of law and India’s standing as a rights-respecting democracy.

On February 6, the Supreme Court criticized the police in Uttar Pradesh state for failing to investigate allegations in 2021 from a 62-year-old Muslim man who alleges he was beaten and abused because of his faith. The perpetrators of such hate crimes against Muslims and other religious minorities are often BJP supporters who are seldom prosecuted, and in this case the state government filed an affidavit denying that the attack was over religion. But one of the judges, noting the authorities’ failure to investigate, said: “When you create a climate where you foster hate crime, encourage it, do not prevent it, then it becomes a very serious thing.”

Two days earlier, a Delhi sessions court dismissed allegations that student protesters had committed violence and upheld their right to dissent. The police had accused 11 students, most of them Muslim, with inciting violence in December 2019 during their protest against a discriminatory citizenship law. The court found that the police charges made “scapegoats” of protesters and that the prosecution should have “abstained from filing such ill-conceived” charges.

These cases of police bias are yet another indicator that the BJP ideology of Hindu majoritarianism is finding its way into the ruling party’s governance. Fearing such outcomes, the Supreme Court, in a landmark 2006 decision, issued directives to kickstart police reforms, including to insulate the police from government interference and influence, and enhance police accountability. But the police and other law enforcements agencies have resisted these reforms, and have filed numerous politically motivated cases, including under counterterrorism, sedition, financial regulation, and tax laws to silence and punish critics.

If India’s government wants to regain global credibility, it is crucial that its political leaders as well as public officials pay heed to Justice KM Joseph, who said this week, “Action of every state officer augments respect for the law. Otherwise everyone will take law into their own hands."



Lebanon Rejects Civil Marriages, Puts Children at Risk

Human Rights Watch - 19 hours 34 min ago
Click to expand Image Khalil Rizkallah and Nada Nehme during their online civil marriage ceremony in Lebanon, November 2021. © 2021 Khalil Rizkallah

Couples in Lebanon who married in online civil services are facing unintended – and unfair – consequences.

It started on the other side of the world from Lebanon in 2020, when a county in the US state of Utah began conducting civil marriages online. The move was meant to facilitate weddings despite Covid restrictions and was open to foreign nationals.

The first Lebanese couple, Khalil Rizkallah and Nada Nehme, were married using this Utah online process in November 2021, and by May 2022, Lebanon’s Interior Ministry had registered their marriage. Following in their virtual footsteps, dozens of other Lebanese couples married online, including couples who said Lebanese authorities assured them their weddings would be officially recognized.

Then the authorities changed their mind. The about-face is not only affecting the couples, but also putting their children at risk.

In September, Rizkallah and Nehme learned the General Directorate of Personal Status had de-registered their marriage with no advance notice. In October, their first child was born. But Lebanon requires parents to provide a marriage certificate for their child’s birth to be officially registered. The Interior Ministry has also refused to register the remote marriages of other Lebanese couples, some of whom are expecting children.

Unregistered children in Lebanon may be at risk of exploitation, and could face hurdles to attending school, and, later, opening a bank account, getting a job, or marrying. A cumbersome procedure exists to register children of unmarried parents, but the child will be registered only under the father’s name, leaving no legal connection to the mother. They may still face social stigma as “illegitimate” as well as restrictions on rights, including inheritance.

Rizkallah and Nehme have filed a lawsuit over their marriage’s deregistration. The government’s response, documented by rights group Legal Agenda, is that couples must physically go abroad for a civil marriage. But since February 2022, Lebanon has imposed extraordinary restrictions on obtaining passports. And with the country in financial collapse – the currency is worth 1/40th of its 2019 value – many couples cannot afford international travel.

The government’s response is a dereliction of Lebanon’s obligations to register children immediately after birth and uphold their right to a nationality.

It also points to the underlying problem. In Lebanon, civil marriage is forbidden. Religious authorities control marriage, divorce, and where children live after divorce, and there are 15 religious court systems, each with different rules. The system is discriminatory, and women’s rights and other civil society groups have for years called on parliament to pass an optional civil personal status law.

These recent cases are another reason why parliament should act. In the meantime, Lebanon should register all children’s births, including those whose parents married online in Utah.

Gaza: Sisters at Risk After Return to Father

Human Rights Watch - 19 hours 34 min ago
Click to expand Image Wissam al-Tawil, 23, and Fatma al-Tawil, 19. © Private

(Gaza) – Gaza authorities should urgently ensure the safety and freedom of two adult sisters reported to be in forced confinement at the hands of their father and at risk of serious harm since their forcible return a month ago, Human Rights Watch said today. 

The two women, Wissam al-Tawil, 23, and Fatma al-Tawil, 19, have previously said that they escaped their father several times, including as recently as September 2022, and they reported their abuse to the authorities, human rights organizations, and on social media. However, on January 5, 2023, the police arrested the women several days after their father and two relatives reported them missing. The police forcibly placed them under a relative’s control, who took them to their father. The two have not been heard from since January 6. On February 3, pictures were posted on social media accounts of the father and other people connected to him, of several relatives visiting with the two women and their father. However, reliable sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the women remain confined to the sixth floor of their father’s apartment building in Rafah without their phones or other means of communication.

“Pictures of two women with their family a month after the police in Gaza tracked them down and forcibly returned them to their father, who they previously fled from after reporting severe domestic violence, including death threats, is not enough to assure the world that they are free, safe, and their lives are no longer at risk,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Hamas authorities in Gaza should urgently ensure the two women’s safety and freedom of movement, including that they are able to leave their father’s home to a safe place of their choosing, and speak freely and independently about their situation.” 

Human Rights Watch had been in regular contact with Wissam al-Tawil between September 2022 until her forcible return in January. Human Rights Watch also interviewed five people, including relatives, who were in contact with the women, and reviewed photographs, videos, and social media posts to corroborate the sisters’ accounts.

The interior ministry issued two statements on August 31 and September 8, 2022, reporting on how they sought to “resolve the dispute” involving the women. In October, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ministry of Social Development in Gaza about the imminent risk to the two women’s lives and physical integrity and requested information about the authorities’ steps to investigate their reports of abuse, assist the women, and ensure their protection. The authorities should take measures to protect and support them, Human Rights Watch said at the time. That should include properly investigating their complaints, ensuring they have access to the outside world and their phones while staying at a government shelter, and the ability to move around or leave the territory freely.

While the authorities did not respond to requests to clarify what measures they took, on November 3, a senior ministry official replied via WhatsApp that the authorities “are trying to remedy the matter in a mutually satisfactory manner that aims for family reunification.”

Wissam told Human Rights Watch that she and her sister endured violence by their father following his return to Gaza in 2019 after 12 years away. She said that in 2019, her father beat Fatma, including by throwing a TV at her, for leaving the house without his permission, and after Wissam tried to protect her, he locked them up in separate rooms on the sixth floor of their building for 35 days. She said that each of them was given a mattress, pillow, and blanket, received only one meal a day, and was only allowed to leave the room to use the toilet twice a day. When he finally released them, she said, he threatened to hang them if they did anything to upset him.

Wissam said that on August 15, 2022, he locked her inside a room for seven days. Fatma immediately reported this to the police, and repeatedly asked them for help, but they only came a week later. She said their father justified his abuse to the police by falsely claiming she was “mentally ill.” Even though Wissam told officers he had imprisoned her for a week, the police decided he would not harm her and left.

Wissam said, on August 26, her father told her and Fatma that they “will definitely die” and asked them to choose “the easiest way.” She said he left them in a room on the sixth floor of their building with a gas cylinder and encouraged them to take their own lives. “I told myself that we are already dead, we can try to jump and escape,” Wissam said, which they did by jumping out the window onto the fifth-floor balcony below and going into hiding. On August 29, they said they went to a shelter operated by a nongovernmental group and gave detailed accounts of their abuse to the authorities.

On August 31, the interior ministry published its statement that the police worked with the family to find solutions to the “social problem between the father and his daughters” and that the women had decided to return to their family. Wissam said they had left the shelter that day with a relative who signed an agreement with officials not to hand them back to their father. However, the women said on September 6 their father forced them to return to his apartment which is in the same building as their relative’s after severely beating and threatening to kill them. Wissam said their father’s apartment, where he already had a gun, was “full of weapons, more than before: a Kalashnikov, grenades.” She said her father threatened to kill them. “I felt we would die soon,” she said.

The sisters said on September 8, they escaped yet again and went to the police, where they reported the abuse and showed the physical marks of their beatings, and photos of weapons that their father had inside their house. The interior ministry issued a statement expressing their “surprise” that the women left the family home again reporting to the police their father’s continued abuse. The police then transferred them to a temporary government shelter because the women’s family “could not control the dispute.” Wissam said they moved to stay at a relatives’ house on September 16, and were granted police protection while there.

Videos were posted on the women’s father’s social media accounts dating back to August, including Facebook Live, where he accused relatives, women’s rights groups, and others who had helped the women, of kidnapping them. While Facebook blocked his account, multiple new Facebook accounts were created where he continued to appear in videos making similar claims and harassing people assisting the women. Their father also claimed in videos, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, that, it was no one’s business if he killed his daughters and that he would only be sentenced to six months in jail if he did.

Women’s rights groups and activists reported receiving threats from various people in Gaza for assisting the women. On September 29, the Palestinian NGOs Network (PNGO), a coalition of Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, called on the authorities to protect groups defending the rights of women in Gaza. Wissam told Human Rights Watch that their relative was under pressure to hand them back to their father: “We are not stable in any specific place. We are not even independent when it comes to our own decisions.”

On September 25, Wissam said the police transferred them back to a government shelter. However, on November 12, she said the police “dragged them” out of the government shelter and sent them to a relative, who locked them in a room for 48 hours. The women said they fled and went into hiding, moving from place to place for fear of being found and returned to their father. In mid-December, the women met with the authorities to discuss their situation.

A relative told Human Rights Watch that the women’s father and two relatives had reported the women missing to the police in early January. Days later, on January 5, the police arrested the two women and forcibly handed them to a relative who drove them to their father in Rafah, in southern Gaza, where their father lived. By midnight, they had messaged several people, including Amnesty International staff, that they were handed over to their father and were at his house. “We are at our father’s house; he will send us over to the sixth floor in a bit. We are doomed,” one of the sisters messaged Amnesty International.

On February 3, pictures were posted on social media accounts of the father and other people connected to him, of several relatives visiting with the two women and their father that day. A relative confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the pictures are new. They, however, stated that the women otherwise remain confined to the sixth floor without their phones or other means of communication.

Authorities in Gaza are obligated to exercise due diligence to prevent gender-based violence and to investigate and punish such acts of violence under international human rights law, including international conventions that are binding on Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority, which manages affairs in parts of the West Bank, has repealed or amended some legal loopholes in the penal codes for both West Bank and Gaza in 2011 and 2019 to prohibit reduced sentences for serious crimes against women and children. However, a draft Family Protection Law has remained under consideration by the Palestinian Authority for several years, while Hamas authorities in Gaza have not taken any steps to bolster laws to effectively protect women from domestic violence.

“Hamas authorities in Gaza have displayed a shocking response that ultimately prioritized family reconciliation over protecting the sisters, even after providing the women with shelter,” Begum said. “Hamas authorities should investigate the women’s complaints of their father’s violence against them, as well as authorities’ actions that endangered the women. Palestinian authorities should also pass and enforce a domestic violence law that meets international standards to prevent this from happening again.”

France’s Anti-Racism Action Plan Ignores Institutional Racism

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 6, 2023
Click to expand Image French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne presents the National Plan against racism, anti-semitism and ethnic discrimination for 2023-2026, at the Arab World Institute in Paris on January 30, 2023.     © 2023 Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

On January 30, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne launched the National Plan Combating Racism, Antisemitism and Discrimination Linked to Origin 2023-2026. While this new action plan on racism is welcome, it leaves huge gaps.

For instance, the government aims to improve historical teaching and memorialization in school curricula. The plan however fails to tackle institutional racism deeply rooted in France’s colonial past.

Borne also says she wants “better measuring” of discrimination in categories like employment, but the plan doesn’t commit to the collection of disaggregated equality data needed for targeted governmental measures tackling institutional racism. The lack of such data was raised by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in December 2022.

Crucially, the plan is silent on ending well-documented systemic ethnic profiling practices by French police, including in the context of identity checks. In June 2022, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance’s released its sixth report on France, highlighting “little progress” on curtailing the use of ethnic profiling by law enforcement officers.  

The plan intends to introduce complaints mechanisms aimed at tackling massive underreporting of hate crimes to the police. Yet it doesn’t explain how to rebuild trust among minoritized communities who experience such attacks in the very institutions that target them, such as the police. The plan also neglects to outline how its measures will be funded.

The strategy also doesn’t reference the European Commission’s first Anti-Racism Action Plan, which European Union member states were supposed to implement by December 2022. Common guidelinesstressed the importance of collecting disaggregated equality data to provide for evidence-based policymaking and setting objectives that tackle structural racism, including its historical roots. This is missing from France’s new plan.

If France really wants to set out a strategy to combat racism, the government needs to go deeper and look at reforming the state institutions and processes that institutionalize racial biases and discrimination in ways that harm people and their rights.

Afghan Professor Jailed After Protesting Restrictions on Women

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 6, 2023
Click to expand Image Ismail Mashal, a journalism professor, speaks during an interview with AFP in Kabul on December 30, 2022. © 2022 AFP via Getty Images

February 2 marked 500 days since the Taliban banned Afghan girls from secondary education. That day the Taliban also arrested university professor Ismail Mashal, one of the few men to bravely protest the Taliban’s recent ban on women’s university education.  

In solidarity with his students and thousands of women and girls prevented from exercising their basic rights, Mashal, 37, tore up his academic degrees on live TV. Mashal said, “If my sister and my mother can’t study, then I do not accept this education.” He then shut down the private university he managed, saying, “Education is either offered to all, or no one.” A few weeks later, he built a wooden cart and traveled around Kabul, handing out free books to the public. It was apparently this peaceful act for which he got detained last Thursday.

Mashal’s sense of justice, solidarity, and dissent provided a ray of hope in a country where peaceful protests are often solely championed by women. Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, public protests involving Afghan men standing up for women’s rights have been rare. It’s a vital step toward an understanding that all oppression is interconnected and the Taliban’s misogyny is ultimately harmful for all.   

Media reports indicate that the Taliban have accused Mashal of “provocative actions” and creating “chaos” that harms their rule. For them, any form of peaceful protest would seem to be a “provocative action.”

Since taking power, the Taliban have relentlessly silenced female protesters who peacefully chanted “bread, work, freedom” for all citizens of Afghanistan. Mashal’s arrest shows that the Taliban’s unwillingness to tolerate dissent is not limited to women, but extends to anyone who dreams of a rights-respecting and more equal Afghanistan.   

The Taliban should immediately release Ismail Mashal, drop any charges against him, and end their campaign of repression against women and girls’ participation in public life.  

Pakistan: IMF Bailout Should Advance Economic Rights

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 6, 2023
Click to expand Image A produce vendor waits for customers at a market in Islamabad, Pakistan, on January 22, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File.

(New York) – The International Monetary Fund (IMF) should work with Pakistan’s government to protect the economically disadvantaged by broadening social protection systems and minimizing reform measures that risk further harm to the most vulnerable people, Human Rights Watch said today. With poverty, inflation, and unemployment soaring, Pakistan is facing one of the worst economic crises in its history, jeopardizing millions of people’s rights to health, food, and an adequate standard of living.

The Pakistani government began formal negotiations with the IMF on February 1, 2023, to discuss a plan to rescue the economy, including an installment of US$1.1 billion in loans from a $6.5 billion bailout that had been designed to ward off economic meltdown in 2019.

“Millions of Pakistanis have been pushed into poverty and denied their fundamental social and economic rights,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The IMF and the Pakistani government have a responsibility to address this crisis in a way that prioritizes and protects low-income people.”

Pakistan’s central bank’s foreign exchange reserves decreased by 16 percent, to $3 billion, in the week ending January 27, an amount covering less than three weeks of imports. Acute shortages of foreign currency mean that many imports, including essential medicines, are scarce or unobtainable. Pakistan is facing its highest inflation levels since 1975, with the cost of perishable food items rising more than 60 percent in January. Inflation is expected to continue to rise. In response to IMF demands, on January 29, the government increased fuel prices and removed a cap on the foreign exchange rate, leading to a drastic depreciation of the Pakistan rupee’s value, including a 9.6 percent loss in one day in January.

At least a quarter of Pakistan’s population was living below the poverty line well before this crisis. The World Food Programme estimated that in 2018, 21 percent of Pakistan’s population was undernourished and 44 percent of children under the age of 5 had stunted growth. The Asia Development Bank reported that for every 1,000 children born in Pakistan in 2020, 65 would die before their fifth birthday. Almost 25 percent of the population did not have access to electricity in 2020.

Pakistan’s social protection system, the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), is a government cash transfer program that targets women living in extreme poverty. The program was initiated in 2008 to mitigate the impact of then-record levels of food and fuel inflation and continues to be Pakistan’s largest social safety net program. While the program is an important initiative assisting millions of households, it needs to be expanded significantly to protect large segments of the population from the added burden of potential additional IMF-mandated measures raising prices for necessities.

Pakistan’s negotiations with the IMF, which continue through February 9, are meant to clear the IMF’s ninth review of its Extended Fund Facility, aimed at helping countries with balance-of-payments crises. The IMF bailout installment would ease the crippling shortage of foreign exchange and unlock access to other funding, including from multilateral and bilateral donors.

Pakistan is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which protects the rights to health, food, housing, and an adequate standard of living, among others. The conditions the IMF places on this loan could either exacerbate social and economic hardship or provide desperately needed relief to Pakistanis while addressing the crisis’s underlying causes. Several adjustments proposed by the IMF as conditions for Pakistan to get the IMF loan and address the immediate economic crisis would have both a direct and indirect negative impact on low-income people.

The IMF, in addition to asking Pakistan to remove energy and fuel subsidies and move to a market-based exchange rate, has asked Pakistan to increase its general sales tax rate to a minimum of 18 percent from 17 percent at present, to raise more taxes, media reported. However, a depreciating local currency, skyrocketing inflation, and the removal of subsidies for electricity and fuel have already made it harder for many people to meet their basic needs. Increasing value added taxes instead of imposing progressive taxes will hit hardest on the people already most heavily affected.

The IMF program should conduct a thorough assessment of the direct and indirect impact these adjustments would have on low-income people and adequately mitigate them, Human Rights Watch said. It should use part of the anticipated savings to strengthen social safety nets by including a structural benchmark to significantly broaden coverage and increase social spending. The IMF should urge Pakistan’s government to enact policies to increase women’s access to employment by reducing barriers, including by providing state-funded maternity leave and access to affordable menstrual hygiene.

New tax measures should be progressive in nature and should not exacerbate inequality and increase the cost of living in ways that undermine rights. Any cuts in subsidies for electricity, fuel, and natural gas should be preceded by a comprehensive reform plan that ensures everyone is able to access energy supplies essential for basic rights.

The IMF’s recommendations should encourage government spending on social services, such as education, health care, and poverty-reduction programs while shoring up government revenues by improving the tax collection infrastructure and adopting stringent and transparent accountability measures. The IMF should use its procedures to make needed funds available as soon as possible, putting into place safeguards to protect people’s economic and social rights.

Pakistan’s deepening economic crisis comes amid devastation caused by cataclysmic floods. Floods in August 2022 killed over 1,700 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and millions of acres of crops, affecting more than 30 million Pakistanis and causing billions of dollars in damage. Forty percent of Pakistan’s 230 million people faced food insecurity in 2020, yet only 8.9 million families received assistance to mitigate the impact of rampant inflation. Poverty is concentrated in rural areas, which were particularly hard-hit by the floods.

“Pakistan’s government should use the influx of funds to expand support for those worst- affected by the economic crisis,” Gossman said. “The IMF should provide Pakistan the time and flexibility to achieve a sustainable, inclusive, and rights-based recovery.”

Houthis Violating Women’s and Girls' Rights in Yemen

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 6, 2023
Click to expand Image A Yemeni woman shops at a market in Yemen's third city of Taiz, on December 15, 2022. © 2022 Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP via Getty Images

Several United Nations human rights experts recently sent a letter to Ansar Allah – also known as the Houthis – the de facto authority in much of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, detailing the group’s “systematic violations of women’s and girls' rights,” including their rights to freedom of movement, freedom of expression, health, and work, as well as widespread discrimination. The Houthis have increasingly restricted women’s freedoms since taking over Sanaa in 2014.

The letter details numerous violations, including increasing restrictions on women’s freedom of movement. For instance, Houthi authorities have increasingly required women to travel with a mahram (a close male relative or their husband) or evidence of their written approval from their male guardian. The requirement has become de facto law throughout Houthi-controlled territory. The experts state that the Houthi’s Land Transport Regulatory Authority reportedly expanded the restrictions in August 2022, requiring that women no longer be permitted to travel anywhere within Houthi-controlled areas, to areas controlled by the Yemeni government, or outside the country without a mahram.

Yemeni women working with humanitarian actors, including UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations, have also reported being subjected to restrictions when traveling to different governorates to carry out their work, according to Amnesty International. The letter describes how humanitarian actors must include a mahram’s name when submitting travel requests to Houthi authorities for any female Yemeni staff traveling for work. It says that many female staff do not have a mahram who can accompany them on their crucial work travel, leading many to leave their jobs and lose much-needed income for their families. The experts said these restrictions are “effectively cutting off” Yemeni women and girls from receiving humanitarian aid.

According to Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni human rights organization, the Houthis have also impeded women’s access to health care since 2017, particularly reproductive health care. They have also increasingly imposed requirements on women’s dress, most recently requiring clothing shops selling women’s clothing to only sell long, black abayas to women, and barred women from many public places, including cafes and restaurants, as well as workplaces. In 2021, Houthi authorities sentenced four women, including Intisar al-Hammadi, a Yemeni actress and model, to between one and five years in prison on charges of committing an indecent act.

The Houthis should immediately end their restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, freedom of expression, health, and work. The continuing violations also further highlight the need for the UN to establish an independent accountability mechanism in the country.

UN Message to Ghana on Mental Health Care

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 6, 2023
Click to expand Image Two men with a real or perceived mental health condition held by a chain around their ankle at Mount Horeb Prayer Centre in the Eastern Region in Ghana. © 2022 Shantha Rau Barriga/Human Rights Watch 

(Geneva) – United Nations member countries have urged the Ghanaian government to address the shackling and inhumane treatment of people with mental health conditions in Ghana, Human Rights Watch said today. These recommendations were made on January 24, 2023, at the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Ghana.

“Ghana has failed to meet its own commitment to protect the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities who are held in shackles in faith-based and traditional healing centers,” said Adriana Masgras, disability rights coordinator at Human Rights Watch. “We want to see all countries institute and enforce a global ban on shackling, including in Ghana.”

The inhumane practice of shackling exists due to inadequate support and mental health services, as well as widespread beliefs that stigmatize people with psychosocial disabilities, which have continued despite positive legal developments over the past decade.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process was established in 2006, to assess the human rights records of each UN member state every five years.

Prior to the review itself, Ghana, through a national report, UN entities, and civil society organizations had the opportunity to report on Ghana’s progress in carrying out recommendations made during previous cycles of the review process. Human Rights Watch submitted a report outlining the human rights abuses against people with psychosocial disabilities in prayer camps and psychiatric hospitals in Ghana, which it documented with reports in 2012 and 2020.

During the 2017 review, Ghana’s government supported 10 out of 11 recommendations addressing the rights of people with disabilities, including to “prevent, investigate and prosecute inhumane treatment in prayer camps or witch camps and psychiatric hospitals” and “address societal attitudes condoning such violations and abuses of rights of persons with mental disabilities.” However, shackling persists.

In November 2022, Human Rights Watch visited five prayer camps and traditional healing centers in the Eastern and Central region of Ghana, and interviewed more than 50 people. These included people with psychosocial disabilities, mental health professionals, staff at prayer camps and traditional healing centers, mental health advocates, religious leaders, and two senior government officials. Human Rights Watch found more than 60 people, including some children, in chains or confined in small cages and witnessed serious human rights abuses, including a lack of adequate food, unsanitary conditions and a lack of hygiene, and a lack of freedom of movement.

One woman said she was raped three times and never received post-rape care. She said the staff’s response was to lock her door so outsiders couldn’t gain access to her. Human Rights Watch shared this information with Ghana’s Mental Health Authority and Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice.

Ghana should establish the levy envisaged under the 2012 Mental Health Act to fund mental health services as a matter of priority; develop voluntary and accessible community-based mental health and support services so families do not resort to shackling; and adequately resource the recently formed Visiting Committees and Mental Health Tribunal, mandated to monitor implementation of the law and investigate complaints.

It should also provide information to traditional and faith-based healers, as well as the general public, to combat the stigma associated with mental health conditions, and ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities receive adequate support for housing, independent living, and job training. Other countries, particularly those that called for an end to shackling, should hold Ghana accountable to the UPR recommendations it supported in bilateral and multilateral forums.

“Everyone in Ghana, including people with mental health conditions, has the right to live free from stigma, discrimination, and abuse and to receive the services and support they need,” Masgras said. “Ghana, with the encouragement of other governments, needs to abide by its own commitments and immediately enforce its existing ban on shackling.”

Nigeria: Impunity, Insecurity Threaten Elections

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 6, 2023
Click to expand Image Women cast their ballots as they vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections on February 23, 2019, at a polling station in Daura, Katsina State, northwest Nigeria.  © 2019 PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

(Abuja) – The failure of the Nigerian authorities to address accountability for past elections-related abuses and widespread insecurity across the country threaten the safe conduct of the upcoming 2023 general elections, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 25, Nigerians will elect a new president to replace President Muhammadu Buhari, who is completing his second 4-year consecutive term, the maximum allowed. They will elect federal National Assembly members the same day and governors and state lawmakers on March 11.

“There is a thick veil of violence shrouding the 2023 elections that undermines people’s fundamental right to vote,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is important for the authorities to swiftly restore public confidence in their ability to hold those responsible for electoral violence accountable and ensure the safety and security of all Nigerians.”

The elections are set to take place against a backdrop of impunity for abuses by security forces and other actors during the previous general elections in 2019. There have also been security threats from multiple groups across the country, including violent gangs in the northwest and groups in southeastern Nigeria who have been trying to undermine the elections.

Nigeria’s elections have historically been fraught with violence and other abuses. The election of President Buhari in 2015, the first transition of power to an opposition party since the country’s democratic transition in 1999, was largely peaceful. But the 2019 election was marred by violence from security forces, including the army, and thugs acting on behalf of politicians.

Human Rights Watch research on the 2019 elections in Rivers state in the south and Kano in the north, both of which have a strong history of violent elections, found that pre-election tensions including clashes between supporters of major political parties and rivalry between key politicians culminated in serious violence during the elections. Military officials indiscriminately shot and killed civilians in Rivers state while political thugs and security officials attacked election officials, voters, journalists, and other observers in both states.

Under international human rights law, federal and local officials are required to take all reasonable steps to create and maintain an environment in which election officials, journalists, and civil society can operate free from violence and intimidation. Democratic elections require the protection of freedom of expression and access to information. The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression has issued detailed guidance on how to ensure freedom of opinion, expression, and access to information during elections.

Despite repeated calls to the Nigerian authorities to ensure justice and accountability for election-related violence, Human Rights Watch has found that there has been little progress. A committee set up by the Nigerian Army to investigate allegations of violence and killings against officers during the elections was given two weeks in March 2019 to produce its findings. Four years later, the authorities have provided no information on the committee’s work, findings, or recommendations.

In 2020, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced the prosecution of 18 people in seven states across the country for offenses during the 2019 elections, including snatching and destroying election materials, disorderly conduct, unlawful possession of ballot papers and Permanent Voters’ Cards, and vote buying at polling places on election day. It is unclear how many of these cases have concluded or led to convictions.

The commission indicated that it faces constraints in ensuring justice and accountability for electoral offenses because, while it can prosecute offenders, the authority to investigate rests with the security agencies. This has led to a lack of effectiveness in dealing with cases involving election infractions, the commission said.

Law enforcement authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate and appropriately prosecute offenses, including violence and threats against candidates, voters, election officials, and others, Human Rights Watch said.

In January, INEC announced that it plans to move ahead with elections across the country, including in troubled areas, despite the prevailing insecurity and threats from various groups in various parts of the country.

In states including Zamfara, bandit gangs, which emerged following years of conflict between nomadic herdsmen and farming communities, have continued to carry out violent activities causing widespread displacement, among other problems. Election officials announced that adequate arrangements have been made for displaced people who now live in different areas of the state to cast votes in polling places other than those they were registered to do so in, which may remain inaccessible to them because of insecurity and other related concerns.

However, Yusuf Ankah, an analyst and journalist who follows the crisis in the state closely, told Human Rights Watch that provisions were only being made for displaced people and areas documented by the government, which could potentially leave people whose situation the government has yet to document out of the electoral process. He also said that security concerns persist due to the bandits’ violence, which may discourage people from coming out to vote or even interfere with voting on election day.

Concerns also persist around safety and security during the elections in states in the southeast, including Imo, where violent secessionist groups have repeatedly attacked offices of the electoral authority to disrupt elections. A human rights activist in Owerri, the capital city, who works on electoral violence in the Southeast, told Human Rights Watch that the general public does not have confidence in the authorities’ ability to ensure people’s safety during elections in areas like the Imo West Senatorial District, where several attacks have taken place.

“There is a strong sense of fear among voters,” he said. “Amidst the incessant attacks and threats they are witnessing, they are concerned about their safety … people want to vote to be a part of the political process, but this is severely challenged by the security issues which there appears to be little or no commitment to address.”

Samson Itodo, the executive director of Yiaga Africa, an organization working primarily on elections, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have failed to put in place or provide information about comprehensive early warning systems, including data on various threats communities face and clear plans to ensure citizens in these areas can vote safely and are not disenfranchised.

In 2019, Human Rights Watch also documented a lack of adequate and effective policing to ensure the safety of voters and polling places. Ahead of the elections, National Security Adviser Mohammed Babagana Monguo has assured citizens that the government is working to ensure adequate security for the elections, but with the security forces spread thin across the country, this remains a serious concern.

In 2020, the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security adopted a Code of Conduct and Rules of Engagement for Security Personnel on Electoral Duty. The committee was established by the Nigerian authorities to ensure that election, security, safety, and law enforcement agencies work together to manage election related violence.

The code of conduct, among other things, makes clear that security personnel deployed during elections need to ensure the security and safety of everyone involved in electoral activities, prevent abuse of fundamental human rights, and avoid the use of excessive force. It also says that they must maintain a high level of professionalism and be impartial and neutral to ensure the integrity of the elections.

“Nigerian authorities should put in place adequate systems and plans across the country that will allow citizens exercise their right to vote safely,” Ewang said. “The authorities should ensure that security forces deployed during the elections act in accordance with the law and put in place safeguards, including a system, to respond to complaints; protect voters, candidates, and election officials; and address any irregularities that may hinder the credibility of the elections.”

DR Congo: Atrocities by Rwanda-Backed M23 Rebels

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 6, 2023
Click to expand Image People displaced by fighting between the M23 armed group and Congolese government forces gather north of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on November 25, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Jerome Delay

The Rwanda-backed M23 armed group has committed summary executions and forced recruitment of civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said today. The Congolese army is responding to the M23’s offensive by collaborating with ethnic militias with abusive records.

The warring parties have increasingly appealed to ethnic loyalties, putting civilians in remote areas of North Kivu province at a heightened risk.

“Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in North Kivu are leaving behind a growing trail of war crimes against civilians,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Rwanda should end its military support for the M23 while Congolese government troops should prioritize protecting civilians and cease using abusive militias as proxy forces.”

Recent investigations by the United Nations Group of Experts on Congo, as well as Human Rights Watch research, provide significant photographic and other evidence that Rwanda is not only giving logistical support to the M23, but that Rwandan troops are reinforcing or fighting alongside the armed group inside Congo. The Rwandan government has denied supporting the M23 rebels.

The renewed hostilities by the M23, the Congolese army, and various other armed groups has forced more than 520,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. This has exacerbated an already catastrophic security and humanitarian situation in North Kivu and the broader eastern region. The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières has warned of a potential health disaster as cholera spreads rapidly in camps for displaced people outside Goma, the North Kivu provincial capital.

Between October 2022 and January 2023, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person and by phone 48 survivors and witnesses of abuses as well as victims’ family members, local authorities, activists, UN staff, security personnel, members of armed groups, journalists, and foreign diplomats.

A 38-year-old woman said she was at home in Kishishe with her husband and their three children on November 29 when a group of M23 fighters kicked the door open. “They took my husband and our son by force outside, and told me ‘Stay in the house, if you come out, we will kill you!’” she said. “So I closed the door behind them. They shot them a few meters away, I could see them through a hole [in the door].” Her husband was seriously injured but survived. Their 25-year-old son died.

Human Rights Watch found that on November 29, M23 rebels summarily killed at least 22 civilians in Kishishe following fighting with factions of Mai-Mai Mazembe, Nyatura and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR). Reliable information indicates that the M23 killed at least another 10 civilians while searching for militia members. Further reports by the UN and others conclude that M23 fighters may have unlawfully killed many more people, including captured fighters.

In a December 3 statement, the M23 rejected murder allegations and said that eight civilians had been killed by “stray bullets” during the fighting.

In late 2022, while the M23 expanded control over Rutshuru territory and attempted to capture parts of neighboring Masisi territory, several armed groups organized mostly along ethnic lines deployed in and around the town of Kitchanga, in Masisi.

In May, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said he opposed any alliance between Congolese military commanders and the armed groups. However, according to security sources, in late 2022 Congo sent two senior army officers to oversee military operations in Masisi, both of whom are former Hutu militia leaders who have retained close links to ethnic-based militias with poor rights records. This has raised fears of further retaliatory attacks and ethnic violence against civilians on both sides.

On December 16, the rebel commander Guidon Shimirai, who has been sanctioned by the UN, led his fighters from the main Nduma Defense of Congo-Renovated (Nduma Défense du Congo-Rénové, NDC-R) faction into Kitchanga following a meeting with leaders of other militias and army officers. Although Congolese authorities issued an arrest warrant for Guidon in 2019 for recruiting children, insurrection, and the crime against humanity of rape, he was filmed leading his fighters through one of Kitchanga’s main thoroughfares, walking alongside Col. Salomon Tokolonga from Congo’s national army.

Human Rights Watch recently documented Tokolonga’s involvement with a coalition of Congolese armed groups calling itself the Patriotic Coalition. Congolese officers who assist armed groups that commit abuses can be held responsible for aiding war crimes, Human Rights Watch said. Congo has an international legal obligation to investigate alleged war crimes on its territory and appropriately prosecute those responsible.

Hundreds of Tutsi civilians in Kitchanga and nearby villages, often perceived by members of other communities as supporters of the Tutsi-led M23, have fled for fear of reprisals from militias that are using increasingly hostile and threatening rhetoric against them. “The more M23 rebels attack and the more they advance, the more we’re being harassed by other communities who link us to them,” said a Tutsi community leader in Masisi territory, who for security reasons did not want his name used. On January 26, M23 rebels captured Kitchanga, prompting civilians from other communities to flee for fear of retaliation.

Rwanda has a long history of support for the M23 and its predecessor, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, CNDP). Angolan-led mediation efforts by the African Union between the presidents of Congo and Rwanda have made little progress. The African Union and its member countries should make clear to Rwanda, publicly and privately, that its continued military support for the M23 could implicate Rwanda in M23 abuses as a matter of state responsibility, and that Rwandan officials could be found complicit in M23 war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

On December 15, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Rwanda should “use its influence with M23 to encourage” them to withdraw and to “pull back” its own forces. Belgium, France, Germany, and the European Union  have also urged Rwanda to stop assisting the M23. The US, the EU, France, the United Kingdom, and other countries should suspend military support to Rwanda so long as it is assisting the M23. The EU should ensure that its recent assistance to the Rwandan Defence Force mission in northern Mozambique is adequately monitored so that the EU is not contributing indirectly to abusive military operations in eastern Congo.

The armed conflict in eastern Congo is bound by international humanitarian law, notably Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibits summary executions, forced labor and recruitment, and other abuses. Serious laws-of-war violations committed with criminal intent are war crimes. Individuals also may be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, or aiding a war crime. Commanders and civilian leaders may also be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible.

Congolese authorities should investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes, including ethnic violence and reprisals against the Tutsi community. Governments should maintain sanctions against senior M23 commanders and expand them to include commanders and officials across the region implicated in serious abuses.

“The Rwandan government’s support for the abusive M23 rebels is raising concerns about further ethnic violence in eastern Congo,” Fessy said. “Greater international pressure is urgently needed so that Rwanda and Congo take all steps necessary to end abuses and ensure the protection of ethnic groups under threat.”

For additional details about M23 abuses and the recent violence, please see below.

Killings in Kishishe

The village of Kishishe is in the predominantly Hutu area of Bwito chefferie (chiefdom) in north-western Rutshuru territory. Bwito is home to a headquarters, known as Kazahoro, of the largely Rwandan Hutu armed group FDLR, some of whose leaders took part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and to their families.

Following the capture of Rutshuru-Center and Kiwanja in late October, M23 rebels advanced into Bwito in November, committing atrocities along the way.

Human Rights Watch research corroborated through interviews with family members and witnesses the names of 22 civilians the M23 summarily killed in Kishishe on November 29, including 20 men and two teenage boys. Human Rights Watch identified 10 other civilians killed that day through secondary sources.

Residents said that M23 rebels first entered Kishishe on November 23. They briefly held the village following two days of fighting against government troops, Nyatura, and FDLR factions in the vicinity. On November 23, M23 fighters killed at least seven civilians outside of Kishishe as they were returning from their fields. The fighters soon left for nearby areas controlled by the FDLR and their allies.

Several residents confirmed that on November 28, fighters from Mai-Mai Mazembe, a Nyatura faction, and the FDLR entered Kishishe. Some of the fighters were wearing civilian clothes and were primarily carrying machetes and hoes, although some had guns. “People got scared and many fled,” one villager said. “We begged them to leave for fear that the M23 would target villagers,” another resident said. “People started to flee saying [the fighters] wouldn’t be able to fight against the M23 and would have us killed [by their presence].”

Early on November 29, M23 rebels in military uniforms with bulletproof vests, carrying guns, again advanced on Kishishe and overran militiamen to capture the village. A Mai-Mai leader known as “Pondu” was killed in the fighting. “I know that other [militiamen] were also killed but I can’t say exactly how many,” the same resident said. “They exposed people because the M23 rebels accused all young boys and men of collaborating with [their enemy].” When the fighting was over, M23 fighters went door to door searching for men they suspected of being Mai-Mai or FDLR fighters.

A 45-year-old man said he was hiding under a bed when M23 rebels entered his house demanding that all men go outside. Two other villagers who had sought refuge in the house came out. “They asked if anyone else was inside, but my wife said I was away,” the man said. “They shot them both in front of the house.” The man said he then fled through the forest. He said he saw five bodies while fleeing.

A 21-year-old man said four M23 rebels took him from his house when they first came to Kishishe on November 23 and forced him to carry supplies and ammunition. When they joined with the other fighters outside of the village, he said, there were about 30 other young men who had also been forced to work as porters.

He said M23 rebels went back to Kishishe on November 29 to fight militiamen who were there. After the fighting, those who had been recruited by force were divided into three groups to bury the dead. “On the first day [November 29] we buried 18 people, including my father and my brother,” he said. “[W]e buried them both in the same hole with three other people whom I didn’t know. There were people whom I knew the faces of but not their names, and others whom I didn’t even know.”

The young man said he had seen at least three bodies of Mai-Mai fighters with knives and a machete lying next to them. On November 30, he and others buried 11 men, 4 children, and a woman who had all been shot dead behind the church. “We dug only one hole and buried them all there,” he said.

A 30-year-old woman said she and her children had sought refuge at her father’s house when they started to hear gunfire early on November 29. Her father was hosting six men and their wives who had fled the nearby fighting from the week before. Later in the morning, M23 rebels came to the house. She said:

They were many and I was very scared. They screamed orders that we open the door. I opened and they said that all men must come out of the house. They all did. Three were shot on the spot, and they left with the other three, but they also killed them just a bit further away.

While Congolese authorities claimed that nearly 300 people were killed in Kishishe, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Congo (Mission de l'Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo, MONUSCO) said its preliminary investigation found that M23 rebels had killed 131 civilians.

Other M23 Killings and Abuses

Elsewhere in Rutshuru territory, Human Rights Watch confirmed the killings of at least 13 additional civilians by the M23 in October and November.

On October 28, near Rugari, M23 rebels opened fire on a bus and two motorbikes transporting civilians who were fleeing the fighting. A 35-year-old woman said from her hospital bed that she and four of her children were on one motorbike, while her other two children were on another bike. She said her 17-year-old daughter was killed, and her 14-year-old son wounded. At least two other children, ages 5 and 7, were killed in the attack.

Four men, ages 22 to 26, said that M23 rebels forced them to carry supplies and ammunition, do chores at their military camps, and take part in fighting. They said they found themselves with dozens of other young people who had also been forcibly recruited, including some brought in from Rwanda.

“They would whip us and order us to scout for [Congolese military] positions,” a 25-year-old said. “We had no shoes. They would beat us and leave us in the rain. I was taken for two months.” He escaped at night while on the lookout for government troops.

A 26-year-old said:

After one month, they took us to Chanzu [near the borders of Rwanda and Uganda]. It must have been like a headquarters as this is where they organized the fighting and there were so many fighters: it was an impressive camp. All fighters come through there, new recruits are trained there before they are sent to the front line. A group of about 50 youth arrived from Rwanda [when I was there]; they had come through the forest. After a week of training, they were given weapons and sent to fight.

On November 21, M23 rebels went through Butare where they forced 10 men to transport goods for them while on their way to Bambo, near Kishishe. The bodies of seven of them were found together in Mburamazi, just outside Bambo, the following day. The brother of one victim said, “I went with family members of four other victims to retrieve their bodies. We buried three on the spot.” Three more bodies were found three days later, according to local groups.

On November 26, M23 rebels killed at least three civilians when they opened fire near the market of Kisharo while chasing militiamen. Human Rights Watch received credible reports that another three civilians were also killed by the M23.

In a January 27 statement sent to Human Rights Watch, the M23 spokesperson Lawrence Kanyuka rejected Human Rights Watch’s findings and denied that the M23 executed civilians or forcibly recruited men to fight. He added that “civilians may be used to transport food for the military,” but “in return for payment as agreed.”

Coalition of Militias and Collaboration with Congolese Army

The resurgence of the M23 rebel group since late 2021 led several Congolese armed groups to form a coalition to fight “the aggressor.” Most of these militias are organized along ethnic lines and some were previously rivals. As Human Rights Watch recently documented, this coalition, called the Patriotic Coalition, was formed in Pinga in May 2022, and fought the M23 either alone or alongside Congolese troops until August.

Most of these militias gradually returned to their respective strongholds in August. But following the M23 offensive in late October and its advance into the Bwito chefferie and Masisi territory in November, the coalition resurfaced. It took on a prominent role on the front line with the apparent backing of some senior Congolese army officers.

The armed groups include the Patriots’ Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo (Alliance des patriotes pour un Congo libre et souverain, APCLS) led by Janvier Karairi; the Nyatura’s Coalition of Movements for Change (Coalition des mouvements pour le changement, CMC/FDP) led by Dominique “Domi” Ndaruhuste; the Nduma Defense of Congo-Renovated (Nduma défense du Congo-Rénové, NDC-R) faction under Guidon Mwisa Shimirai; and the Nyatura Abazungu’s Alliance of Congolese nationalists for the defense of human rights (Alliance des nationalistes congolais pour la défense des droits humains, ANCDH/AFDP) under Jean-Marie Bonane.

These armed groups have been implicated in serious human rights abuses in their strongholds. Human Rights Watch has previously documented widespread abuses by forces under the command of Guidon, the NDC-R leader, who remains under UN sanctions.

Some of these militias, most notably Nyatura factions and the APCLS, have often fought alongside FDLR fighters.

Several security sources, including a high-ranking army officer, told Human Rights Watch that the Congolese government deployed Gen. Janvier Mayanga Wabishuba and Gen. Hassan Mugabo to oversee military operations in Masisi territory. According to a 2008 UN Group of Experts’ report, Mayanga helped organize the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance (PARECO) in early 2007 and helped channel weapons and ammunition to the armed group.

PARECO has been implicated in raping women and girls, killing civilians who opposed their activities or whom they accused of being collaborators with their enemies, and raiding villages for cattle, goats, and other goods. Mayanga maintained contacts with PARECO as well as the FDLR while the Congolese army fought the M23’s first iteration, the CNDP, from 2006 to 2009. Mugabo was one of the founding members of PARECO and its deputy commander.

On December 10, Mayanga and Mugabo met with some of the Patriotic Coalition’s leaders at the Hotel Nyarusumba in Kitchanga. Two onlookers confirmed that a second meeting involving Congolese army officers and armed group leaders took place at the Hotel Nyarusumba on December 11. It is unclear whether Colonel Tokolonga participated in these meetings, but he appeared in a December 16 video walking in Kitchanga between Guidon and Deo Bafosse, respectively leader and chief of staff of the NDC-R.

Human Rights Watch has received credible information that more meetings took place in January, allegedly to coordinate operations against the M23 in Masisi. Three security sources, two fighters from Nyatura Abazungu, and one APCLS fighter said that although militia were fighting alone on the front line, they were at times receiving ammunition and food supplies from Congolese army officers.

“[The situation] is taking on an ethnic dimension in Bwito and Masisi: it’s getting worse,” a high-ranking military officer said. “Rwanda threw oil on the fire by arming the M23 but using these armed groups now [in response] is adding more oil [to the fire].”

Since October, Nyatura and FDLR factions have been responsible for kidnapping for ransom, sexual violence, and murders in areas under their control, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, which tracks violence in the region.

Most armed groups from the Patriotic Coalition took part in the third round of inter-Congolese talks in Nairobi, Kenya between late November and early December, and agreed to demobilize. The Congolese government’s use of these armed groups as proxy forces severely hinders national and regional efforts – so far unsuccessful – to demobilize fighters and militias responsible for abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

On February 5, 2023, Congo’s minister of communication and media, and government spokesman, Patrick Muyaya, told Human Rights Watch that “there is no collaboration between the army and the self-defense militias.” He said: “This would be counterproductive and could only exacerbate tensions and complicate the situation. However, there may be combat situations where our forces may have the same enemies as the militias’. We have to distinguish between collaboration that can be systematic and isolated events, because these are not things that are tolerated or that can be accepted.”

Abuses Against the Tutsi Community

The M23’s renewed military operations and abuses have stoked ethnic hatred against the Congolese Tutsi community, whom many Congolese in North Kivu consider supporters of the M23, a largely Tutsi-led armed group. Human Rights Watch documented several instances in which people from an ethnic Tutsi background or simply perceived as Tutsi or Rwandan faced hostility, threats and attacks by ethnic-based militia and the communities they claim to represent.

On November 28, Janvier Karairi, the leader of the APCLS, travelled to Kitchanga. Videos of his arrival show chanting crowds escorting his convoy through the town center. Among the chants heard, people repeated slogans hostile to the Tutsi community, such as “Janvier has come home, Tutsi go away!”

In the ensuing days, groups of hostile residents threatened Tutsi families and, in some cases, pelted their houses with stones. Residents also attacked cows belonging to Tutsi farmers, injuring or slaughtering some.

On November 25, a mob stoned to death a Tutsi man accused of spying for the M23 in Kitchanga. Two witnesses confirmed the presence of the Congolese military, which did not intervene. On January 1, an unidentified gunman fatally shot a Tutsi resident in Kilolirwe-Nturo in Masisi territory, just a few hundred meters from a Congolese army position and a position of a Nyatura faction. On January 4, just outside Kitchanga, APCLS fighters killed two Tutsi men, whom they accused of collaborating with the M23.

A senior military judicial source told Human Rights Watch that in the final months of 2022, government troops had arrested scores of villagers perceived to be Tutsi or Rwandan and accused them of collaborating with M23 rebels. “We fear racial profiling,” the source said. “These people are just farmers or herders.… Some are found without any ID and accused of collaborating with the M23.” Dozens remained in detention at Goma’s central prison facing charges such as unlawful “recruitment” or “infiltration.”

Congo’s government has repeatedly condemned hateful speech and violence against ethnic communities. However, most offenses targeting ethnic groups in North Kivu have not been investigated nor led to any prosecution.

President Tshisekedi’s administration should address historical discrimination, land and customary conflicts, and ensure accountability for past abuses, Human Rights Watch said.  

Human Rights Watch to Open Jordan Regional Office

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, February 5, 2023
Click to expand Image © 2022 Human Rights Watch

(Amman) – Human Rights Watch will open a regional office in Amman, Jordan, in February 2023, in a move to intensify its advocacy on key human rights issues across the Middle East and North Africa, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch has operated a separate Jordan country office in Amman since 2014. Jordan’s Ministry of Industry and Trade approved Human Rights Watch’s request to establish the regional office in October 2022.

“While most governments across the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly suppressing dissent and stymying the human rights movement, Jordan has taken a positive step for more human rights engagement in the broader region,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Our Jordan country office will continue to address increasing restrictions on basic rights in Jordan and to advocate with the Jordanian government to make important human rights reforms.”

Human Rights Watch is a nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization with close to 600 staff members working around the globe. The staff consists of human rights professionals including country experts, lawyers, journalists, and academics of diverse backgrounds and over 80 nationalities. In addition to the regional office in Jordan, Human Rights Watch also has offices for the Middle East and North Africa region in Tunisia and Lebanon.

Established in 1978, Human Rights Watch is known for its accurate fact-finding and impartial reporting to highlight human rights abuses, and targeted advocacy to bring them to an end. It works in close partnership with local human rights groups worldwide.

Each year, Human Rights Watch publishes hundreds of reports, briefings, news releases, and opinion articles on human rights conditions about 100 countries. Recent investigations include an examination of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and whether particular policies and practices in certain areas amount to apartheid and persecution, responsibility of Lebanese officials for the August 2020 Beirut blast, and lack of accountability for killings and disappearances of protesters during and after the 2019-2020 popular uprising in central and southern Iraq.

Human Rights Watch has published dozens of reports highlighting human rights violations in Jordan for more than two decades, including a September 2022 report documenting increasing restrictions on civic space in the country.

Human Rights Watch is supported by contributions from private individuals and foundations worldwide. It accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly.

“At a time when civic space is shrinking in many countries in the region, Jordan is taking a positive step in its engagement with global institutions,” Fakih said. “This is a positive step, and we hope it will be accompanied by clear and concrete steps to address urgent and ongoing human rights issues.”

Allegations of Bangladesh Police Torture, Illegal Detentions

Human Rights Watch - Friday, February 3, 2023
Click to expand Image Police confront Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists gathered in front of the party's central office in Dhaka on December 7, 2022. © 2022 Rehman Asad/Getty Images

Bangladesh authorities should investigate recent allegations of enforced disappearances and torture including by members of the police Detective Branch.

Violent protests broke out on January 19 in Gazipur after Mohammad Rabiul Islam, a 38-year-old shopkeeper, died in police custody allegedly due to torture, although the police said he had been hit by a truck.

On January 29, Abu Hossain Rajon, a lawyer, alleged that he was detained for a week at Hartijheel police station, but was taken to Detective Branch headquarters every day where he said he was tortured and interrogated. The police, however, denied he had been arrested.

Raghunath Kha, a journalist, alleged that he was tortured in Detective Branch custody on January 23 after being arrested by police in Satkhira district. “I was blindfolded at the police station and was taken to the DB office, where they put devices on both my ears and electrocuted me in phases for half an hour. They beat me upon my feet with a stick,” Raghunath told the media.

A senior officer at Satkhira’s Detective Branch, dismissed Kha’s claims saying: “Nothing such happened.”

Bangladesh’s Detective Branch has previously been implicated in allegations of grave human rights abuses by local human rights groups, including enforced disappearances and torture.

Allegations of torture in Bangladesh are rarely investigated or prosecuted. Following a review in July 2019, the UN Committee against Torture described the Bangladesh police as a “state within a state,” asserting that “in general, one got the impression that the police, as well as other law enforcement agencies, were able to operate with impunity and zero accountability.”

Only one case of torture has ever been convicted under Bangladesh’s Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act since it was passed a decade ago, according to media reports.

Bangladesh has ignored repeated requests from the UN Committee Against Torture to follow up its recommendations, as required. The Committee’s recommendations included independent monitoring of all detention sites and investigation of all allegations of torture or ill-treatment by law enforcement officials.

Bangladesh security forces are under increased scrutiny following the designation of human rights sanctions by the US government and in the lead-up to general elections slated for early 2024. Bangladesh authorities should implement the recommendations by the Committee Against Torture, investigate allegations, and hold perpetrators to account.

South Sudan: Rights Abuses Overshadow Pope’s Visit

Human Rights Watch - Friday, February 3, 2023
Click to expand Image South Sudan President Salva Kiir meets Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican on March 16, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

(Nairobi) – Pope Francis’ visit to South Sudan on February 3-5, 2023, alongside Anglican and Presbyterian church leaders is an opportunity to call on South Sudan’s leadership to respect dissenting voices and address the country’s ongoing human rights crisis and widespread impunity, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The Church leaders should use their visit to emphasize that it is far past time for the country’s leaders to implement essential reforms and end the suffering of people in South Sudan,” said Mausi Segun Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should also press South Sudan’s leaders to take concrete steps to end attacks on civilians and to ensure accountability for serious abuses.”

Civilians in various parts of the country continue to face violent attacks. Since mid-2022, clashes between armed opposition groups and government forces and allied armed groups in Upper Nile and parts of Jonglei state, where armed opposition groups are fighting for political and territorial control, have been accompanied by serious human rights abuses s and the displacement of thousands of people. The United Nations recently warned that the Agwelek,as mobilizing and creating greater risk for civilians. Cycles of attacks and counter attacks between cattle herders and farmers in the greater Equatoria region has led to loss of lives and livelihoods, with little mitigation from national authorities. An attack by cattle keepers in Kajokeji on February 2, 2023, left at least 20 people dead including pregnant women and children and nearly 3,000 people displaced.

South Sudan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers. Armed attackers have killed at least three aid workers while on duty since the beginning of the year in separate incidents in the restive Jonglei and Abyei administrative area.

Impunity for serious crimes committed by various groups, including government and rebel forces, across South Sudan during the conflict and after the signing of the Revitalized Agreement on Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) is the norm. The government has only prosecuted a handful of security force members for crimes against civilians.

The authorities have neither investigated nor held accountable officials and allied militias implicated in planning and carrying out attacks on civilians and civilian properties in territories under Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLA-IO) control in southern Unity State, between February and May 2022. The United Nations reported  

 that as a result of that violence, at least 44,000 people were displaced, 173 unarmed civilians killed, 131 women raped, including gang rapes, and at least 12 people seriously injured.

South Sudanese authorities and the African Union Commission have also failed to move ahead with the creation of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan proposed in the 2015 peace deal and 2018 R-ARCSS to prosecute the most serious violations, or even to provide a clear timeline for the court’s establishment. The establishment of two other accountability mechanisms, the Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing and a Compensation and Reparations Authority, is also pending.

Over the last year, civic space has significantly shrunk.

The authorities have harassed, arrested, and detained members of civil society, media and opposition parties using trumped up charges and malicious prosecutions to silence critics. This has resulted in the decline of space for debate and dissent, deterring political participation and resulting in self-censorship.

One journalist told Human Rights Watch: “There is so much we could say and report on the situation in South Sudan, but critical journalism is dangerous. You might be killed or disappeared, and your family threatened. We cover events but we don’t criticize. We just keep silent.”

The authorities have also violated due process and custodial safeguards of accused people. In early January 2023, the National Security Service (NSS) arrested six media workers  with the state broadcaster, South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation (SSBC) in relation to a leaked video showing President Salva Kiir urinating on himself. The six men were detained in the NSS headquarters at the Blue House, a detention facility notorious for torture and other abuses. They are: Joval Tombe, a SSBC control room director; Joseph Oliver, a senior camera operator; Mustafa Osman, a senior camera operator and technician; Victor Lado, an editor; Cherbek Ruben, a control room technician; and Jacob Benjamin, a camera operator.

On January 16, another staff member of the SSBC, Garang John, was reported missing, presumed to be forcibly disappeared. He is believed to be held at the NSS headquarters at Blue House, but authorities have not confirmed his detention or his whereabouts.

Last week, the authorities released three of the journalists: Tombe, Oliver, and Ruben. None of the men had been charged or allowed access to a lawyer or their families while in detention. The others, Osman, Lado, and Benjamin remain in NSS detention at risk of enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

Pope Francis and his fellow religious leaders should call for the immediate release of the detained media workers and for any charges against them to be dropped, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by the NSS and called for accountability for members of the service as well as limiting the agency’s powers of arrest, detention, and surveillance. NSS officials are rarely held to account for abuse of civilians. In December 2022, NSS officers arrested and beat an activist, Bol Deng Bol, in Jonglei state. None of the officers involved in the incident have been investigated or held to account.

A delegation of Human Rights Watch staff visited South Sudan between January 16-23, 2023, where they met with government officials, diplomats, human rights defenders, media workers, and members of opposition parties. Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to make a genuine commitment to end impunity for atrocities and to ensure full exercise of freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

“The climate of fear within which South Sudan’s civil society has operated for years is deeply distressing and unwarranted,” Segun said. “The Church leaders should make clear that opening up the space for critical dialogue and debate on issues of public interest will be key to a fairer and just future.”

Charge with 10-Year Sentence Reinstated Against Kazakhstan Opposition Figure

Human Rights Watch - Friday, February 3, 2023
Click to expand Image Kazakh opposition politician Zhanbolat Mamai speaks during an interview in Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 28, 2022.  © 2022 Pavel Mikheyev/REUTERS

As Kazakhstan gears up for parliamentary elections this spring, the Almaty City Prosecutor’s office on January 26 charged the opposition leader of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, Zhanbolat Mamay, with “organizing mass riots,” for his alleged role in the January 2022 protests in Almaty. The charge carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

Oddly, this “new” charge comes just two months after the prosecutor’s office dropped an identical charge, reclassifying his alleged actions as “violating the procedure for organizing and holding peaceful assemblies.” Mamay was placed under house arrest after spending just over eight months in pretrial detention. Mamay also faces lesser charges of “insulting law enforcement officers” and “disseminating false information.” His trial on those began November 7, 2022 and is set to resume on February 6. Mamay remains under house arrest. Kazakhstan does not allow any genuinely independent opposition parties; Mamay’s party has not been able to register.

The new 59-page indictment asserts that Mamay decided to “organize mass riots, accompanied by violence, pogroms, arson, destruction, property damage, the use of firearms, as well as armed resistance to the authorities.” At least 238 people died in the January 2022 events in Kazakhstan, most of them in Almaty. The authorities have failed to ensure accountability for the hundreds who died or who alleged ill-treatment and torture following the violence.

What is lacking in the indictment is any evidence that Mamay committed the alleged crime.

The prosecutor argues that in order to organize mass riots, Mamay uploaded videos to Facebook calling on Almaty residents to join the peaceful protest on January 4, that he misinformed the crowd by saying tens of thousands of people had gathered in the city of Zhanaozen, and that he acted on people’s heightened emotions to call for a fair government, a fair election, political reform, the dissolution of Parliament, and registration of political parties in Kazakhstan.

Expert analyses commissioned by the prosecution concluded that Mamay “promoted destructive attitudes of civil and political behavior” and “contributed to the growth of protest activism on January 3-4, 2022.”

However, the indictment does not say Mamay carried out any violent acts or called for violence because there is no evidence he did.

Calling for political reforms is not a crime, but locking Mamay away for 10 years most certainly would be.

Burundi: Journalist’s Conviction Violates Free Speech Rights

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 2, 2023
Click to expand Image Floriane Irangabiye © Private.

The conviction of the Burundian journalist Floriane Irangabiye on charges of “undermining the integrity of the national territory” on January 2, 2023, violates her rights to free speech and to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The High court of Mukaza sentenced her to 10 years in prison and a fine of 1,000,000 Burundian Francs (US$ 480). Irangabiye’s lawyers lodged an appeal on January 23.

According to the court verdict, her conviction is based on an August 2022 Radio Igicaniro broadcast she hosted during which she interviewed a human rights defender and a journalist in exile, who both criticized Burundi’s human rights record.

“Floriane Irangabiye’s conviction highlights the Burundian authorities’ manipulation of the justice system to shut down criticism,” said Clémentine de Montjoye, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the Burundian authorities are serious about reforms, they should end their vendetta against those they perceive to be against the government, including the scores of journalists and human rights defenders who fled after the country’s 2015 political crisis.”

During Irangabiye’s December 16 trial, the prosecution based its accusations on her work as a commentator and host on Radio Igicaniro, an online outlet that airs critical commentary and debates on Burundian politics and culture. The journalist she interviewed during the program, Bob Rugurika, is the director of Radio publique africaine. He was convicted in absentia of state security crimes alongside 11 other journalists and human rights defenders after an unfair trial in 2020.

Based on the verdict, the prosecution cited Irangabiye’s regular trips between Rwanda, where she was based, and Burundi, and accused her of criticizing the Burundian government and inciting youth to overthrow the government, including by taking part in meetings with Burundian youth in exile in Rwanda. It also cited photos in which she appeared with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and former Burundian President Pierre Buyoya, who was convicted in absentia over the 1993 assassination of his successor – Melchior Ndadaye – and sentenced to life in prison in November 2020.

The court verdict, and lengthy prison sentence, appears to be based on Irangabiye’s role, as a journalist, interviewing guests critical of the government on a radio show. The court dismissed arguments based on the right to free expression under the constitution of Burundi. However, the court's conviction and sentencing of Irangabiye are based on a crime that is vague, and open to arbitrary misuse to prosecute people for peaceful criticism and comment. It therefore amounts to a violation of freedom of expression.

Irangabiye was taken into custody on August 30, 2022, when she was intercepted by national intelligence agents while on her way to a relative’s funeral in Matana, in southern Burundi, according to a relative. She had traveled from Rwanda to Burundi in mid-August. After her arrest, a relative said that she was transferred to the national intelligence services’ headquarters in Bujumbura, where she was interrogated without a lawyer. She was held there until September 8.

Based on the verdict, during her trial, Irangabiye’s defense team asserted that the court should disregard the answers she gave during these interrogations, but the court dismissed the request.

Irangabiye was held without charge until October 27, in violation of the Burundian Code of Criminal Procedure as well as of African and international human rights standards on the right of everyone held in pretrial detention to be promptly charged or released. During an appearance before a pretrial court chamber, the prosecutor reportedly requested more time to gather evidence. She was transferred to Mpimba central prison, in Bujumbura, on September 8, and then, in late September, national intelligence agents transferred her to Muyinga prison in northeastern Burundi.

Irangabiye’s months-long detention without charge and the prosecutor’s failure to produce credible evidence of a crime amount to flagrant violations of several fair trial principles enshrined in Burundian and international law, Human Rights Watch said.

Sylvestre Nyandwi, Burundi’s prosecutor general, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a statement that Irangabiye’s case complied with Burundian criminal procedures and laws and that her conviction was not politically motivated.

Many Burundian human rights defenders and journalists fled the crackdown that followed the 2015 protests over the former president’s bid for a controversial third term. They remain in exile due to the continuing threats made against them by Burundian authorities, Human Rights Watch said.

Irangabiye’s conviction comes shortly after the acquittal and release of Tony Germain Nkina, a lawyer and former human rights defender who was unjustly imprisoned for more than two years. He was convicted of collaborating with a rebel group and sentenced to five years in prison following an unfair trial during which the prosecution presented no credible evidence. On December 6, 2022, the Supreme Court quashed his conviction, and the Court of Appeal of Ngozi acquitted him on December 20 after a retrial.

The government’s hostility toward Burundi’s once thriving civil society and media has continued despite the election of a new president in May 2020. Twelve human rights defenders and journalists in exile were convicted in June 2020 of participating in a May 2015 coup attempt. The verdict, which was only made public in February 2021, came after a deeply flawed trial during which the defendants were absent and did not have legal representation, flouting even the most basic due process principles. The group was found guilty of “attacks on the authority of the State,” “assassinations,” and “destruction.”

“Floriane Irangabiye’s conviction shows that the crackdown against those who criticize the government is far from over,” de Montjoye said. “Burundian authorities should carry out substantive reforms to address the lack of judicial independence, end politicized prosecutions, and ensure accountability for abuses committed since 2015.”

Israel: Collective Punishment against Palestinians

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 2, 2023
Click to expand Image Israeli forces enter the East Jerusalem home of Khayri Alqam, who killed seven civilians in the Israeli settlement of Neve Yaakov on January 27, 2023, to seal and eventually demolish it. © 2023 Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty

(Jerusalem) – Israeli authorities’ actions to seal the family homes in the occupied West Bank of two Palestinians suspected of attacks against Israelis amount to collective punishment, a war crime, Human Rights Watch said today. 

This punitive measure, which Israeli authorities have said they will follow by demolishing the homes, comes amid a spike in violence that has cost the lives of 35 Palestinians and 7 Israelis since January 1, 2023. The violence has included Israeli army raids that unlawfully attack Palestinian cities and refugee camps, Palestinian attacks on Israelis, and attacks on Palestinians and their property by Israeli settlers, who rarely face punishment for these crimes. 

“Deliberate attacks on civilians are reprehensible crimes,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “But just as no grievance can justify the intentional targeting of civilians in Neve Yaakov, such attacks cannot justify Israeli authorities intentionally punishing the families of Palestinian suspects by demolishing their homes and throwing them out on the street.”

One of the alleged Palestinian assailants, Khayri Alqam, opened fire in the Israeli settlement of Neve Yaakov in occupied East Jerusalem on January 27, killing seven civilians, including a child, and wounding three other people, before he was fatally shot by Israeli security forces. The attack came a day after Israeli forces killed 10 Palestinians, including 2 children and a 61-year-old woman, injuring at least 20, during a raid in the Jenin refugee camp.

In January, Israeli forces killed 35 Palestinians, including 8 children, according to the Palestinian Authority’s Health Ministry. The January 26 raid in Jenin refugee camp was the single incident that month with the most deaths. Israeli authorities said their forces entered Jenin to apprehend members of armed Palestinian groups who they alleged had carried out attacks on Israelis. Witnesses reported an exchange of gunfire, killing both apparent combatants and civilians. The Palestine Red Crescent Society said Israeli forces blocked medics from entering the Jenin camp to treat the injured.

The raid follows more than 10 months of intensified Israeli army raids in the West Bank, after several deadly attacks by Palestinians inside Israel in March 2022. Israeli forces killed 187 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 43 children, during 2022, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than in any other year since the UN began systematically recording fatalities in 2005. Israeli forces routinely use excessive or unnecessary lethal force against Palestinian civilians and are rarely held accountable for it.

On January 28, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy shot and gravely wounded two Israelis, a civilian and an off-duty soldier, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. The boy was wounded by an armed individual and hospitalized. No Palestinian armed group claimed responsibility for either the Neve Yaakov or Silwan attacks.

Israeli police said they detained 42 people in connection with the Neve Yaakov attack, many of them relatives and acquaintances of Alqam. Most were released the next day, but some remain in detention, a lawyer representing Alqam’s family told Human Rights Watch on January 31. The Israeli security cabinet also authorized sealing Alqam’s family home, which the authorities carried out immediately.

A lawyer for the Palestinian boy who allegedly carried out the Silwan attack told Human Rights Watch that Israeli authorities have detained the boy’s mother, father, and brother since the attack. The cabinet also agreed to seal the home of the boy’s family. Israeli forces have taken control of their house, according to the Israeli human rights group HaMoked.  

Israeli authorities have also taken a range of other measures in response to the Neve Yaakov attack. They have stepped up the punishment of Palestinian property owners for “illegal construction” in East Jerusalem, which has already led to the demolitions of properties, including homes, of Palestinians for whom building permits are nearly impossible to obtain. Israeli authorities have also said they plan to “strengthen” West Bank settlements, which violate international law, and have put forward a law to revoke citizenship or permanent residency for anyone who commits “an act of terrorism,” which passed its first reading in the Israeli Knesset on January 31.

Israeli human rights groups have documented an upsurge of settler violence in the West Bank since the Neve Yaakov attack. Between 2005 and 2021, Israeli police closed 92 percent of investigations against settlers who attacked Palestinians without an indictment, according to the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din.

International humanitarian law, including the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention, prohibits collective punishment, including deliberately harming the relatives of those accused of committing crimes, in all circumstances. Courts around the world have treated collective punishment as a war crime. However, Israel’s Supreme Court has consistently rejected the claim that the Israeli government’s practice of punitive home demolitions in Occupied Palestinian Territory amounts to collective punishment.

Various types of collective punishment, such as punitive home demolitions and sweeping movement restrictions against entire areas or communities based on the actions of a few people, are among the policies that Israeli authorities have relied on to systematically oppress Palestinians, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has found that Israeli authorities’ systematic oppression coupled with the inhumane acts they have committed against Palestinians as part of a policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

Nepal’s Social Protection System Reinforces Inequality

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 1, 2023

(New York) – Nepal’s newly elected government should prioritize coverage for all children and add coverage for millions of informal workers as it considers changes to the existing system, Human Rights Watch said today. Nepal’s social protection system fails to effectively protect children from poverty and reinforces inequalities between informal and formal workers.

Governments have an obligation to protect everyone’s rights to social security and an adequate standard of living. A universal approach to social protection, with benefits available to the entire population, fulfills that requirement, can strengthen public support for programs, and help build a strong social contract. Yet, in the past years the government of Nepal has taken steps attempting to target social protection at people in poverty, which can be counterproductive, preventing at-risk households from exercising their right to social security, Human Rights Watch found. Targeted programs are often too narrow; selection processes are costly, inaccurate, and can be prone to corruption; and many eligible people find it hard to apply or don’t apply due to the stigma.

“Nepal has made important strides in expanding social protection, but large groups, particularly children and informal workers, are being left behind,” said Lena Simet, senior economic justice researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Investing in social protection for everyone is crucial to protect people’s rights and to enhance the country’s economic well-being.”

In July 2022, Human Rights Watch examined the state of the social security system in Nepal, discussing policies with ministries involved in planning reforms as well as a municipal social security office implementing the current policies. Human Rights Watch also reviewed household data collected by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); interviewed 18 people about their experiences requesting or receiving social security; and consulted 16 experts, activists, social workers, and nongovernmental groups that work with people in need of assistance.

The shortcomings became particularly visible during the Covid-19 pandemic. Most people interviewed did not receive any form of social protection or relief during Covid-19-related lockdowns, reducing their ability to meet everyday expenses. The lack of resources led people to cut back on food, remove children from school, omit medical procedures, and take on debt.

A 38-year-old woman who lives with her two children in Chapagaun said, “during Covid, the only meal I could afford for my children [aged 2 and 3 at the time] was wheat mixed with water. I fed them this instead of milk.” A 27-year-old woman who makes and sells handbags for a living said she tried to distract her two children from their hunger. “I sent them outside to play so they would forget about food.”

Social security is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Countries should guarantee protection to everyone, particularly in the event of unemployment, parenting and other caregiving responsibilities, accident, illness, disability, old age, or other life circumstances. The right to social security is also recognized in the Nepali Constitution of 2015.

Yet, children and informal workers are largely invisible to Nepal’s social protection system, Human Rights Watch found. Despite United Nations and academic studies showing the positive effects of unconditional cash transfers to families on child nutrition, child labor, poverty, and future productivity, the government has been slow in expanding income support for children and their families. While 40 percent of Nepal’s population is under age 18, in 2020 children received just 4.1 percent of the social protection budget. In 2022, the Child Grant, Nepal’s main income support program for families, covered only about 40 percent of children under age 5 and just 9.5 percent of all children in the country. Payments are set at NPR 532 (US$4) per month, the lowest of all benefits.

Most social protection is tied to formal employment, though according to Nepal’s latest labor force survey in 2017/18, 84.6 percent of the total working population and 90.5 percent of women workers are engaged in informal work. This system reinforces inequality as workers in the informal sector are more prone to experiencing poverty as earnings are low, employment is unstable, and labor protections, such as the minimum wage, are not enforced. The absence of social protection further exposes them to the harmful effects of emergencies, social and economic shocks, and unpredictable crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, which left many workers unable to earn an income.

In general, the exclusion of informal workers from social protection contravenes international human and labor rights standards and is also likely to undermine economic recovery, Human Rights Watch said. The government should allow informal workers to register with local authorities, offering them access to relief in crises and ensuring their gradual inclusion in the social security system.

Human Rights Watch identified additional barriers that prevent families, informal workers, and other people in Nepal from enjoying their right to social security, contributing to the low social protection coverage rate of just 17 percent.

Eligibility for social protection is tied to citizenship laws, which leave an estimated 6.7 million people – more than a quarter of the population – effectively stateless and ineligible for social security. The high share of people without citizenship certificates results from longstanding discriminatory provisions that make it harder for Nepali women to obtain citizenship certificates for their children than for men, leaving many children of single mothers excluded.

Another barrier is the stigma associated with requesting government support. Many women, especially from Dalit and Muslim communities, report fear of discrimination. Actions by the government contribute to perceptions of stigma, according to officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch, such as publishing the names of people who receive social security or encouraging people to give up social security benefits in exchange for a “certificate of honor.” Targeting social protection more at the poorest households may appear to be the right strategy when financial resources are limited. Yet, it has high administrative costs and is much less effective than universal benefits in reaching the poorest households, so can create further barriers for people to enjoy their right to social security.

Instead of spending scarce government resources on a costly poverty targeting bureaucracy, the government should ensure that everyone can enjoy their rights, including all children and informal workers. Doing so is financially feasible. According to a 2021 UNICEF study, expanding the child grant to all children up to the age of 17 by 2035 would cost less than 0.7 percent of GDP a year. The implications for people’s economic and social rights would be significant. Family poverty could drop by as much as 16.8 percent, enabling families to afford better nutrition, healthcare, and education.

Global contributions, such as from a proposed Global Fund for Social Protection, could help finance the gaps emerging in the start-up period of a new or extended social protection program, and in times of crisis. However, domestic financing is critical for a social protection system's long-term sustainability, and Nepal’s policy of meeting social protection expenditure from domestic revenues is correct. The government should take steps to mobilize domestic resources to progressively attain universal social protection by reforming its tax system. Nepal has a tax-to-GDP ratio below the 20 percent ratio recommended by the UN as a minimum level to meet development goals.

“An inclusive social protection system is key for any rights-respecting economy and underpins building a strong social contract,” Simet said. “Realizing everyone’s right to social security, not just those in formal employment, is vital. This has never been clearer than in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, where countries with inclusive social security systems were better equipped to cope with the crisis.”


This research builds on a 2021 Human Rights Watch report on the rise in child labor and poverty in Nepal during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the pandemic’s impact on children’s rights in the absence of adequate social protection.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 18 people in Kathmandu, Dhulikhel, and Chapagaun in July 2022. Researchers spoke with families who received the child grant, people who applied unsuccessfully for social security during the Covid-19 pandemic, and people who said they did not apply for benefits due to fear of being stigmatized.

Human Rights Watch also met with three local activists who work on human rights, economic justice, and citizenship rights; four Nepali social protection and sustainable development organizations, including the Child Workers at Nepal Concerned Centre and the National Campaign For Sustainable Development; and the General Federation of Nepali Trade Unions and five international organizations, including the World Bank Group and United Nations agencies.

Human Rights Watch visited a center created by HomeNet Nepal, which provides a safe space for women experiencing economic hardship or domestic violence. Researchers also met with organizations running feeding programs, including the Sikh Gurdwara and Pashupatinath Temple. Saroj Acharya from the Social Protection Civil Society Network provided input and comment on the research.

Human Rights Watch spoke with three federal government offices: the National Planning Commission; Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security; and the Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives, and Poverty Alleviation, and with the social security office at Dhulikhel municipality.

Poverty and Inequality in Nepal

In 2019, the government and the UN estimated that at least 17.4 percent of the Nepali population lived in multidimensional poverty under an international standard involving a range of factors such as health, education, and standard of living. Women, children, and people with disabilities were most likely to live in poverty. One in three children under age 5 was stunted by malnutrition; the share is 44 percent among children living in poverty. In June 2020, UNICEF estimated that nearly 10 million children lived in poverty, with more facing multidimensional poverty.

A 2019 study by Oxfam International and HAMI, a Nepali nonprofit organization, found income and wealth inequality to be high and growing in Nepal, with discrimination against women, corruption, low-quality public services, and a regressive tax system as key drivers of inequality.

The Covid-19 pandemic, and particularly the lockdown to contain the spread of the virus, caused substantial job and income losses, contributing to increases in poverty. Recovery has been uneven; by the end of 2021, nearly a fifth of jobs lost had yet to be recovered, with workers in agriculture and lower-income occupations recovering more slowly.

In 2021, Human Rights Watch found that the economic impact of the pandemic, together with school closures and insufficient social protection, pushed children into exploitative and dangerous child labor. Many children felt they had no choice but to work to help their families survive. In 2021, the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned that the lack of access to social security and quality public services would not only have life-long negative implications for individuals but could also have irreversible adverse effects on Nepal’s economy.

UN data suggest that economic hardship remained high in 2022. Thirty percent of families that responded to a 2022 UNICEF survey said they needed financial assistance to meet living expenses and 20 percent said they struggle for food daily because of the lack of money and rising prices. Seven percent had reduced food for their children, 8 percent sent their child to work to help make ends meet, 12 percent had sold assets and 27 percent took on debt to pay for food, healthcare, and education.

Click to expand Image

Several people interviewed said they struggled every day to make ends meet, especially after increases in food and energy prices that contributed to indebtedness. People said they borrowed from relatives, employers, or local loan cooperatives, often at high interest rates. A man from the marginalized Dalit community who lives with his wife, two children, and mother in a tin shack along a main road in Dhulikhel, said: “The only way to do this [survive] is to buy food with credit at shops. You pay it back when you get a little bit of money. We worry.” His current debt with a loan cooperative is about NPR 260,000 ($2,000), at a 24 percent interest rate. He said he had to bribe the loan officer to issue the loan.

A daily laborer who lives with his wife and four adult sons in a shack on public land in the Dhulikhel municipality said life was particularly difficult in the monsoon season, when work availability is unpredictable. He regularly borrows money to make ends meet. His current debt is about NPR 392,000 ($3,000). He hasn’t been able to pay the loan nor interest for more than a year, which will force his family into further debt.

Others said they could not afford to keep their children in school. A 36-year-old farmer, who had just moved from the Terai southern planes to Kathmandu to work as a street cobbler, said his four children in his home village are out of school. “After primary school, it got too expensive.” During the pandemic, he borrowed NPR 50-60,000 ($380-460) from informal money lenders to feed his family and pays NPR 1,500 ($11.50) in interest every month. A 38-year-old woman teared up as she said that her then 12-year-old son had been out of school for two years because she couldn’t afford the fees.

Social Protection

Nepal was one of the early initiators of social protection in South Asia. In 1994, an old age allowance was introduced with a small monthly cash transfer to citizens aged 75 and above. Both coverage and the transfer amount have gradually increased since. Today, a near-universal social pension for older people is a core pillar of Nepal’s social protection system, a widely popular and successful policy.

The 2015 constitution gives social protection a high priority. Article 34 on the right to labor recognizes the right of every worker to contribute to a social security system. Article 43 sets out the right to social security to:

groups deemed to be the indigent citizens, incapacitated and helpless citizens, helpless single women, citizens with disabilities, children, citizens who cannot take care themselves and citizens belonging to the tribes on the verge of extinction shall have the right to social security, in accordance with law.

Special opportunities and benefits in social security, education, health, housing, food, and employment are also to be extended to “indigent citizens and citizens of the communities on the verge of extinction” under article 42 on the right to social justice. The constitution also recognizes a series of other social and economic rights, including the right to education in article 31, the right to health in article 35, the right to food in article 36, and the right to housing in article 37. The government has also committed to achieve 80 percent coverage by 2030.

But implementation of social protection is highly fragmented and managed through several public agencies, which the government and the UN acknowledge is a major problem. The ad hoc nature of programs, poor agency capacity, the mismanagement of funds, and inequity in program design and implementation compound the problem.

In 2018, the government passed a Social Security Act to provide the legal framework for social insurance programs and the application process. But the act failed to specify the nature of documentation required to obtain an identity card, except the need to show birth registration in applying for child grants. Neither does the act spell out the role of provincial and local governments in administering allowances.

In 2022, the government approved an Integrated National Framework on Social Protection to make the social protection system more coordinated and universal. The framework calls on all actors, including the UN and international development agencies, to work closely together to make the system work.

Plans to Increase Poverty Targeting

In 2016, the government took a $150 million World Bank loan to strengthen social protection and develop a “social registry” database to collect household level socioeconomic data and determine poverty using an algorithm based on a proxy means test. The test is part of the government’s “Poor Household Identification Program,” and estimates wealth using more than 40 criteria, including a household’s level of education, floor or roof material, ownership of durable assets, such as a television or refrigerator, and livestock. The criteria are then weighed and ranked to determine whether a household is deemed “poor” or “non-poor.”

Government officials interviewed affirmed that the administration’s focus is on targeting the poorest people for benefits. Research by the ILO and Development Pathways suggests that targeting methods like the proxy means test are highly inaccurate and fall short in identifying beneficiaries, partly because the data quickly become outdated, and because of rigid or exclusionary eligibility criteria. This leads to high exclusion rates and a lack of trust by people who are left out. The attempt to build a social registry, launched in 2016, is not yet complete, although much data already gathered will be out of date.

A previous attempt to target the poorest people in Nepal also failed. In 2012, the government introduced a poverty-targeted program to identify households with very low incomes and provide them with identity cards offering benefits, including discounts on education, health facilities, transport, and food. In 2019, cards had been distributed to only 10 percent of eligible households.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the 2022 list of poor households in Dhulikhel Municipality, which the local government produced based on the 2020 Poor Household Identification Survey. According to the list, only 4.36 percent of Dhulikhel’s population is considered “poor,” a fraction of the people estimated to live in multidimensional poverty before the pandemic.

Excluding people from benefits they are entitled to can destroy trust in government and appear arbitrary or corrupt to people. Kumar Parajuli, 56, a resident of Dhulikhel, unsuccessfully tried to get support from his local government office during the pandemic but said that only some eligible people got help. “Only clever and sly people got support and food relief,” he said. “It's a daily survival thing. When you're poor, people look down on you, you don't have influence… If there's no-one powerful speaking on your behalf, access [to benefits] is impossible.” He took on debt for food and medical bills, amounting to NPR 392,000 ($3,000).

In contrast, universal benefits can create a positive impression of government and, over time, strengthen the social contract between the state and its population.

Overview of Main Social Protection Programs

Nepal’s social protection system comprises contributory social insurance for formal sector workers, noncontributory social assistance, and employment programs.

The main contributory social insurance schemes are the Social Security Fund (SSF) for formal private sector workers and the Employees’ Provident Fund for public sector employees. Only formal sector employees can contribute and are eligible to receive benefits from the funds. Benefit amounts are significantly higher than those provided through the noncontributory system.

The noncontributory side of the system is meant to support “the most vulnerable groups of the population,” but constitutes the only available programs to those outside formal employment. It is composed of multiple social assistance programs, which are mostly administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA). Programs includes the Old Age Allowance, Single Women Allowance, Endangered Ethnicity Allowance, Disability Allowances, and the Child Grant. Coverage rates are low, with social pensions having the highest coverage rate.

In the Dhulikhel municipality for example, 3,001 people – 9.3 percent of the population (32,162 people) – received some form of social assistance in 2021/22. Seventy percent of the benefits were provided to older people, and 5 percent of benefits to children.

The existing system works best for those who work in the formal sector and are generally better off, with the wealthiest 20 percent receiving the largest share – 34.7 percent – of benefits and social protection spending, compared to 21.9 percent for the lowest 20 percent. Making social protection more universal could significantly reduce poverty and inequality. A 2022 simulation by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the United Nations University estimates that it would reduce the poverty headcount by 64 percent.

According to ILO estimates, approximately 17 percent of the population are protected by at least one social protection benefit, and the share of vulnerable persons covered is only 14.8 percent. Several barriers prevent people from enjoying their right to social security and contribute to the low coverage rates. Some of these barriers are discussed below.

Barriers to Equitable Social Protection

No Income Support for Most Children

Research published in Archives of Public Health on the Karnali region where the Child Grant was first rolled out found it improved food security and health. It also enhanced the public's perception of the government. In a survey of 2,040 households, the Oversees Development Institute found that 93 percent of beneficiaries believed the government cared about their socioeconomic well-being, with 85 percent reporting an improved opinion of the government owing to the program.

Despite the program's positive effects, only about 40 percent of children nationally up to age 5 years receive the grant, and a mere 9.5 percent of all children under 18. In tears, a 14-year-old girl told Human Rights Watch she was afraid she would have to drop out of school because her family had fallen behind on school fees for her and her younger brother. She sells balloons in Kathmandu’s central square to help her mother pay for daily expenses. Only one family out of 16 interviewed by Human Rights Watch had received the Child Grant for one of their two children. Although the family noted the low benefit amounts, they said they used the money to help meet the costs of lunch for both children.

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Programs benefitting children, such as the Child Grant, should be expanded nationwide and provided with more funding. According to a 2021 UNICEF study, if all children in Nepal up to the age of 17 received a small inflation-adjusted child benefit of NPR 430 ($3.30) per month by 2035, incrementally increasing from an initial age eligibility of children under 5, family poverty could be cut by as much as 16.8 percent and it would cost less than 0.7 percent of GDP a year.

Informal Workers Excluded from Social Insurance

Nepal’s contribution-based social security programs, which receive the largest share of the national social protection budget, do not extend to informal workers, who constitute 84.6 percent of the working population. In 2020, social insurance – primarily public sector pensions for public and formal private sector workers – took up 56 percent of the budget while noncontributory social assistance programs received 41 percent.

In 2021, the country’s largest trade unions asked the government to ensure that informal workers are also protected under this program. A news report quoted the leader of the Central Union of Painters, Plumbers, Electro and Construction Workers-Nepal as saying that “[T]he government should declare a package for informal sector workers in the annual budget, announcing that the 20 percent amount, which is being paid by employers, will be borne by the government.”

Given that informal workers often have lower wages than formal sector workers, their exclusion from social insurance reinforces inequalities. The government should adjust and expand the Social Security Fund to include informal workers.

A 38-year-old woman in Chapagaun said that she worries about getting older and not receiving government support because both she and her husband are informal workers: “We can’t retire. To survive, we have to work until we die. Once we close our eyes forever, we may receive retirement.”

The Citizenship and Identify Card Requirement

A 2015 study by the Forum for Women, Law and Development projected that 6.7 million people, about 23 percent of the population, lacked citizenship certificates in 2021. Since all social protection programs require citizenship, or a birth certificate in the case of child benefits, people without are excluded from social security.

While the child of a Nepali man is automatically entitled to citizenship, a Nepali woman must prove that the child's father is Nepali or declare that he is “unidentified.” If such a declaration is proved to be false, the woman would face prosecution. This makes the children of single mothers particularly vulnerable to statelessness and denies them access to government entitlements and services.

Other people are also affected. A 76-year-old man, who works in Kathmandu’s central square offering to weigh people for a few rupees, said he doesn't receive the old age allowance because of problems with his citizenship paperwork. “If I got the old age allowance, I wouldn't have to work,” he said. “I'd stay home and spend time with my grandchildren.” On a good day, he makes about NPR 100 (77 US cents). On a bad day, he borrows money from friends and family.

In 2022, the parliament passed a new citizenship bill, but it fell short of providing documentation to everyone in Nepal and was not endorsed by the president. Setting up alternative identity verification mechanisms to ensure that potential beneficiaries can access their entitlements should be a priority of government at all levels.

Government Practices Create Stigma

Stigma attached to receiving government assistance in Nepal deters people from applying for social protection. Would-be recipients interviewed by Human Rights Watch, as well as members of civil society and government officials, said that stigma was a major reason that people do not apply. Some government practices directly foster stigma, including presenting benefits as “charity” or “handouts” rather than rights, the public release of lists of people who receive benefits, and encouragement to voluntarily renounce social security benefits in exchange for honorific recognition by the local government in the form of a certificate.

A social security officer of the Dhulikhel municipality said that his office posts the names of people who receive benefits online and on lists displayed at government buildings to increase transparency and reduce corruption. However, this deters people from accessing their right to social security as they do not want others to know they receive government support.

A 39-year single mother who lives with her 9-year-old son and her parents on the outskirts of Dhulikhel said she never applied for government support, even when her son complains about hunger. “I don’t ask because it’s embarrassing and humiliating, especially if I would return empty-handed.” She sometimes skips meals to give him food.

Unclear Government Responsibilities

Since 2015, Nepal has been transitioning from a centralized to a federal system of governance, which may create the basis for a more responsive system to protect people from poverty. However, Nepal's decentralization process has lacked clarity about the responsibilities of different levels of government in providing social protection. Whether a beneficiary can exert their right to social security often depends on local and provincial governments' capacity and willingness to invest in social protection. Some local governments created systems to overcome barriers related to lacking identity cards, while others have failed to provide social protection for eligible and registered beneficiaries.

The constitution lacks clarity on these responsibilities. It simultaneously provides both that social security and alleviating poverty are the sole responsibility of the federal government and that these responsibilities are to be shared by the federal, provincial, and local governments. Yet the country has not promulgated federal laws setting the criteria for provincial and local roles, hindering provinces from proceeding with their own legislation.

The federal government should consult with provincial and local governments to design and carry out social protection programs and reconcile legal ambiguities that prevent people from accessing social security.

International Human Rights Obligations

Establishing a well-designed social protection system fulfills an important human rights obligation and creates a powerful tool to help reduce poverty and economic inequality. The right to social security is enshrined in both the UDHR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It is key to securing other economic and social rights, in particular the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the rights to food and to adequate housing.

The right to social security, including various forms of social protection, is also protected under other international human rights treaties to which Nepal is a party, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 26), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (articles 11 and 14), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (article 28).

Social protection is also key to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG Target 1.3 in particular calls on countries to “[i]mplement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable.”

Making the right to social security a reality for all is first and foremost the duty of domestic governments. However, international human rights law also establishes an obligation of international assistance and cooperation on governments to help all countries fulfil these rights.


The federal government should avoid “poverty targeting” and the use of “social registries,” which are costly, ineffective, and frequently exclude those who are most in need of social protection. The federal government should expand programs benefitting children, such as the Child Grant and midday meals, nationwide and provide them with more budgetary support. The federal government should expand the Social Security Fund to actively encompass informal workers. All levels of government should refrain from actions that reinforce stigma attached to receiving government assistance. Until the lack of citizenship certification can be addressed, the government should prioritize creating alternative identity verification systems to ensure that potential beneficiaries can access their entitlements. The federal government should consult with provincial and local governments to design and put into effect social protection programs and to reconcile legal ambiguities that prevent people from accessing social security. Provincial governments should consider and advance policies that would expand social protection coverage within their provinces. All levels of government should work to ensure that all fundamental economic and social rights, including the right to social security and to an adequate standard of living, are recognized and secured as rights of everyone in Nepal.

South Korea Cancels Plans to Update Definition of Rape

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Click to expand Image Union members at an International Women’s Day event in Seoul, South Korea, March 8, 2018. © 2018 Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last week South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced plans to revise its legal definition of rape to include nonconsensual sex. But within hours, South Korea’s Justice Department rejected the plan.

Consent should be at the heart of any legal definition of rape. Article 297 of South Korea’s penal code defines rape as intercourse by means of “violence or intimidation.” Korean legal scholars and lawyers have noted that the country’s courts have interpreted the law extremely narrowly, such that to constitute rape, it is insufficient for “violence or intimidation” to be present, but rather it should render the victim unable to resist. The courts also find mitigating circumstances when imposing punishments, such as the offender having no previous criminal record or being “mentally weak” when committing the crime.

In a 2021 report, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women highlighted the need for governments to harmonize their legislation with international standards, and that “[l]ack of consent by the victim should be at the center of all definitions of rape.”

Gender-based violence is widespread in South Korea – digital sex crimes are prevalent, with almost 90 percent of the victims being women. In 2019, the Korea Women’s Hotline estimated that a woman was murdered every 1.8 days. South Korea is rare in having a homicide rate equal for men and women; globally, 81 percent of homicide victims are men.

A 2019 survey by the National Sexual Violence Relief Centre showed that in well over two-thirds of rape cases received by sexual violence counseling centers across South Korea during the first three months of that year, victims did not face direct violence or threats. Shame, stigma, revictimization, and unlikely hope of justice are among the most common reasons victims do not report rapes.

The government’s announcement on October 6, 2022 that it is shutting down the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family will add to the many risks faced by women in South Korea, especially in the light of their failure to address sexual and gender-based violence across the country.  

South Korea’s government should urgently revise the penal code’s definition of rape to include nonconsensual sex as part of its efforts to combat sexual and gender-based violence. It should ensure that all victims can access services and seek justice. The Justice Ministry, and all Koreans, need to recognize that even without “violence or intimidation,” nonconsensual sex is rape.

Italy Reups Funding to Force Migrants Back to Libya

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Click to expand Image Migrants who were intercepted by Libyan authorities on a boat off the coast are held ahead of their transfer to a detention centre in Surman, Libya on May 12, 2022. © 2022 Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images

In its obsession to keep migrants and asylum seekers away from its shores, Italy is paying for tens of thousands of people to be intercepted and returned to Libya, where they face abuses that the UN describes as possible crimes against humanity.

Italy’s Memorandum of Understanding on Migration with Libya will be automatically renewed on February 2 for three years, after the November 22 date for making changes passed.

Since it was signed in 2017, the financial and technical support Italy provides to Libyan authorities has been key in facilitating the interception of thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy, forcing them back to Libya. There, migrants faced “murder, enforced disappearance, torture, enslavement, sexual violence, rape, and other inhumane acts … in connection with their arbitrary detention”, according to a June 2022 report by the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya.

In September 2022, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) said in a statement that according to his office’s preliminary assessment, crimes against migrants in Libya “may constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

Yet the Italian government keeps providing significant support to Libyan authorities despite these findings, countless reports by international human rights organisations, and repeated recommendations to suspend assistance, including by the UN Secretary-General, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, and Italian civil society. On January 28, 2023, Italian Prime Minister Meloni visited Libya to sign a major gas deal with the country and declared that Italy will provide the Libyan Coast Guard with five “fully equipped boats”.

The European Union has allocated €57.2million for “Integrated Border and Migration Management in Libya” since 2017, and announced plans in November 2022 to further increase support to Libya. Its border agency Frontex also provides surveillance information used by Libya to intercept migrants.

Assisting Libya’s coast guard, knowing that it will facilitate the return of thousands of people to serious human rights violations, makes Italy and the European Union complicit in such crimes.

Efforts to provide legal pathways out of Libya are little more than a fig leaf, with only around 9,000 refugees evacuated to safety by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) through an emergency mechanism since 2017. They certainly do not absolve Italy and other EU member states from their responsibility for the return of around 108,000 people to abuse in Libya since 2017, and for the deaths of migrants at sea or in detention by the hands of Libyan authorities.

Italy and the EU should suspend this support to Libya, and ensure any future assistance is conditional upon Libyan authorities’ tangible progress in relation to the respect of migrants’ rights and their access to justice.