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The Myanmar Junta’s Assault on the Truth

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 29, 2021

Myanmar security forces have launched a full-scale attack on the country’s media, targeting journalists for arrest, raiding the offices of newspapers and online media, and banning five outspoken media outlets. At least 71 journalists, including a Japanese freelancer, have been arrested, of whom 48 remain in detention.  

Click to expand Image AP journalist Thein Zaw talks to reporters outside Insein prison after his release Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar. Thein Zaw, a journalist for The Associated Press who was arrested last month while covering a protest against the coup in Myanmar, was released from detention on Wednesday.  © (AP Photo)

In the latest escalation, the junta is including journalists in the nightly broadcast of individuals “wanted” by the authorities. Every day brings new reports of additional journalists being detained.

The authorities have charged many of those detained with violating a new provision in the penal code, adopted by the junta after the February 1 coup, that makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.” Those convicted face up to three years in prison. 

It is clear that in today’s Myanmar, “false news” is any news the junta doesn’t want the public – or the world at large – to hear.  

The crackdown on journalists is part of the junta’s larger effort to suppress coverage and deny the reality of serious rights abuses the military is committing across the country. Facing international outrage over the killing of more than 750 people by security forces, authorities have accused the media, which it says “does not want peace and stability in the country,” of “plotting to mislead the international community and the public.” The junta has also threatened “severe action” against a local group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, that has been tracking arrests and deaths, accusing the group of releasing “incorrect data” and harming “state stability.”

The authorities have imposed severe restrictions on the internet, making it very difficult for people to access or to share information. Mobile internet data and wireless broadband have been turned off for more than six weeks, and Facebook and other social media platforms popular in Myanmar have been blocked since the coup.

Despite the challenges and risks, Myanmar’s journalists and ordinary citizens continue to document atrocities and share information with the world.  For daring to share what is happening in Myanmar, they are in the military’s crosshairs.  They urgently need and deserve the international community’s attention and support.






US: Pass PRO Act to Empower Workers, Protect Rights

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 29, 2021
Click to expand Image Frontline healthcare workers in Minnesota picket for fair wages.  © 2021 SEIU Healthcare Minnesota

(Washington, DC) – The United States Senate should pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), five human rights and labor groups said today in releasing a question-and-answer document about the issue. The Senate should seize on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle rampant economic inequality by empowering workers and building a more just and human rights-based economy.  

The 16-page document, “Why the PRO Act Matters for the Right to Unionize in the United States” examines how the PRO Act would bring the US closer to meeting its obligations under international law by eliminating many of the barriers that prevent workers from exercising their rights to organize a union. Protecting these rights is critical to reducing economic inequality, as it allows workers to bargain collectively  for fair wages, adequate benefits, and safe working conditions, reducing power imbalances between workers and employers. US President Joe Biden has pledged his support for the PRO Act, which the US House of Representatives passed on March 9, 2021.

“The Covid-19 pandemic cruelly exposed how severe inequality is in the United States, where many low-wage workers face hunger, suffer from inadequate health care, or risk losing their homes, while the affluent have recovered far more quickly and even thrived,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Passing the PRO Act would be a major step toward tackling inequality by protecting workers’ rights, a key element in a just and human rights-based recovery.”

The groups are Human Rights Watch, AFL-CIO, Amnesty International USA, the Economic Policy Institute, and the National Employment Law Project. The US’ failure to meet its international human rights obligations to protect the right to unionize has opened the door to anti-union tactics and undermined organizing efforts, the groups said.

"The PRO Act is one of the most consequential pieces of US human rights legislation in our lifetimes. It will strengthen workers’ ability to come together and demand a fair share of the wealth we create—boosting wages, securing better health care and rooting out discrimination,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “The past year has laid bare the enormous injustices facing millions of the United States’ working people who keep the country afloat. We cannot allow those systemic failures to persist for another moment."

The groups describe in the document  how the PRO Act would close many existing loopholes in US law and extend the right to unionize to a broad swath of workers. The act is badly needed to address the modern realities of the US workforce. It would make it easier for the subcontracting workforce to organize and recognize app-based “gig” workers as employees for the purposes of collective bargaining, extending freedom of association rights to as many as 1.6 million workers.

"The PRO Act is long overdue labor law reform that will empower millions of US workers to have a say at their workplace,” said Brian Chen, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “Particularly for the millions of people who work in precarious jobs without employment protections, the PRO Act cuts through the convoluted work structures devised by union-busting employers and finally grants those workers the ability to build power with one another.”

For decades, employers have engaged in anti-union-organizing drives. Employers are also increasingly using surveillance technologies  to monitor organizing efforts and exploiting their access to workers’ data to spread anti-worker messaging. The PRO Act establishes key safeguards that would curb these abusive tactics. It would also strengthen workers’ right to strike.

Furthermore, the PRO Act would hold employers accountable when they violate labor law. There are currently no civil penalties for employers who engage in anti-union discrimination. The existing remedies are so meager that they have little deterrent effect. The PRO Act would  authorize meaningful penalties for employers that violate workers’ rights and strengthen support for workers who suffer retaliation.

“We know that employers are charged with violating the law in 41.5 percent of union election campaigns,” said Celine McNicholas, government affairs director at the Economic Policy Institute. “Employers know that under current labor law, they will face no real consequences for violating workers’ rights. Passing the PRO Act would provide important reforms, including establishing meaningful penalties for employers that violate the law. This will help restore workers’ ability to organize with their co-workers and negotiate for better pay, benefits, and fairness on the job.”

The PRO Act would also help advance gender equality and racial justice because unions and collective bargaining help shrink the gender and Black-white wage gaps. It would also help undocumented workers, who are particularly vulnerable to employer retaliation, granting them compensation if they are fired for union organizing.

"The PRO Act would transform the ability of workers across the country to join together in union to ensure their labor is valued and respected by employers through their wages, benefits and treatment on the job,” said Tamara Draut, chief impact officer at Amnesty International USA and author of ‘Sleeping Giant: The Untapped Economic and Political Power of America's New Working Class.’ “The right to join in union is a human right that the United States is failing to protect, respect, and fulfill—passing the PRO Act would help to correct the current lopsided, employer-biased unionization rules that have fueled inequality, disrespect, and discrimination in the United States’ workplaces.”

DR Congo: Prioritize Justice for Serious Crimes

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 29, 2021
Click to expand Image Women demonstrate for peace in Beni, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, April 23, 2021. © 2021 Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro

(Kinshasa) – The Democratic Republic of Congo’s newly appointed government should adopt a clear strategy for holding those suspected of criminal responsibility for grave human rights violations accountable, a coalition of 50 Congolese and international nongovernmental groups said.

President Felix Tshisekedi’s new government, led by Prime Minister Sama Lukonde, has a historic chance to address past and recent serious crimes under international law, including those described in the 2010 United Nations Mapping Report. The government should deliver justice and reparations for victims and their families and carry out the long-awaited security sector vetting and reforms.

“Decades of impunity for serious crimes continue to fuel conflicts and abuses in Congo,” said Dr. Denis Mukwege, the Nobel peace laureate. “President Tshisekedi should now act on his word to adopt a strategy to address the shocking absence of justice and the consequences of impunity.”

In successive, multilayered armed conflicts that have devastated the country since the early 1990s, Congolese and foreign armies, as well as non-state armed groups, have committed countless crimes under international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, and grave human rights abuses.

President Tshisekedi has repeatedly vowed to restore justice and the rule of law. However, since taking office more than two years ago, he has failed to set out the concrete steps his administration will take to end impunity and cycles of violence. His previous government, led by former prime minister Sylvestre Ilunga, worked on two transitional justice decree proposals that only focused on nonjudicial initiatives and that failed to address the pervasive impunity gap in Congo. Transitional justice efforts will only be credible if they include and prioritize criminal accountability for serious crimes, in line with international law, the groups said.

The groups urged President Tshisekedi and Prime Minister Lukonde to publicly commit to making the fight against impunity a top priority, and to promptly provide a roadmap for transitional justice that should include the establishment of:

An international judicial mechanism or a mechanism with a strong international component to investigate and prosecute serious international crimes committed in Congo by both Congolese and foreign actors, including those documented in the UN Mapping Report, covering crimes committed between 1993 and 2003, and more recently. The judicial mechanism should, at least initially, be staffed by international and Congolese personnel. This could help build specialized capacity and expertise among Congolese judicial staff, and contribute to strengthening the domestic judicial system. It could also help protect against political, military, and economic interference in sensitive cases. This mechanism should respect international standards, and have adequate financial, material, and human resources to carry out its mandate. In addition, it should ensure victims’ participation in the proceedings and provide accessible information about its work to the affected communities. A vetting mechanism to identify and provisionally remove from their posts security force officers and other executive branch officials who may have been implicated in serious human rights violations, while their cases are in progress. The vetting mechanism should take into account reports by the UN Group of Experts on Congo, the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO), the UN Human Rights Council, and Congolese and international human rights organizations. It should also go hand in hand with a robust Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program for former armed group combatants, to separate out those accused of grave crimes from those immediately eligible for demobilization and reintegration. Those accused of grave crimes should be fairly investigated and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecuted. A comprehensive reparations program for victims of serious international crimes and their families, including victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, in line with international law, to help them rebuild their lives. The program should provide redress for harm suffered in the form of restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition.

The Mapping Report, published in 2010, documented more than 600 incidents of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed in Congo between March 1993 and June 2003, including mass killings, sexual violence, attacks on children, and other serious abuses. The report’s recommendations, including the establishment of a judicial mechanism to investigate and prosecute the crimes documented, have yet to be carried out.

About 120 armed groups continue to prey on civilians in the country’s eastern regions, including several groups that have been responsible for large-scale killings and other serious abuses. Government troops have also played a major role in the recent violence, with allegedly abusive officers occupying senior positions in the chain of command. The recent large-scale atrocities and violence have also caused immense suffering elsewhere in the country, including in the central Kasai region and western Yumbi territory, and all but a few of the crimes remain unpunished.

The scale of crimes stands in stark contrast with the prevailing impunity, the groups said. Over the years, abusive warlords have been integrated into the Congolese army, the police, and the intelligence services. They have also been promoted and appointed to key political positions while remaining involved in abuses and profiting from the war economy. Congolese troops often use abusive armed groups as proxy forces, while foreign governments have provided support to abusive rebel militias with near total impunity. Armed groups and militias still control swathes of territory, harassing and imposing “taxes” on civilians, at times under the watchful eye of government soldiers.

Some efforts have been made to investigate and prosecute grave crimes domestically over the past 10 years, mostly through military courts, and there have been noticeable improvements in the conduct of some proceedings. However, these efforts have remained disparate and inadequate in view of the scale of the crimes. Moreover, serious shortcomings, including political and military interference, still hinder the judiciary’s ability to tackle Congo’s impunity gap.

The contribution of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – which only has jurisdiction over serious crimes committed after July 1, 2002 – to the fight against impunity in Congo has also been limited. The ICC has convicted three former rebel leaders for atrocities committed in Ituri from 2002 to 2003, but the Congo cases have failed to address accountability by senior political and military officials.

“Today’s continuing violence in eastern Congo is a tragic reminder that too little has been done to hold human rights violators to account,” Micheline Mwendike, member of the citizens’ movement Lutte pour le Changement (Struggle for Change, or LUCHA) said. “Congo’s new government should demonstrate that it’s serious about providing young Congolese with a better future, and immediately take the steps necessary to deliver justice and reparations to the nation’s many victims.”


Congolese Organizations

Action Contre l’Impunité pour les Droits Humains (ACIDH) Alliance pour l’Universalité des Droits Fondamentaux (AUDF) Amis de Nelson Mandela pour la Défense des Droits Humains (ANMDH) Association Africaine de Défense des Droits de l’Homme (ASADHO) Association Congolaise pour l’Accès à la Justice (ACAJ) Association des Femmes Juristes Congolaises (AFEJUCO) Association des Victimes du Grand Kasaï (AVGK) Association pour la Défense de Droits des Enfants, Femmes et Opprimés (ADEDEFO) Centre d’Observation des Droits de l’Homme et d’Assistance Sociale (CODHAS) Centre de Formation Populaire pour les Droits de l’Homme (CEFOP/DH) Cercle National de Réflexion sur la Jeunesse (CNRJ-RDC) Conscience Congolaise pour la Paix (KOPAX) Dynamique pour le Droit, la Démocratie et le Développement Durable (D5) Groupe d’Associations de Défense des Droits de l’Homme et de Paix (GADHOP) Groupe Lotus (GL) Héritiers de la Justice (HJ) Institut de Recherche en Droits Humains (IRDH) Justice Plus Justicia asbl Ligue des Électeurs (LE) Mouvement National des Survivantes de Violences Sexuelles en RDC Nouvelle Dynamique pour le Développement Rural et Intégral (NODRI) Nouvelle Société Civile du Congo (NSCC) Panzi Foundation Réseau des Femmes pour la protection des Droits de l’Enfant et de la Femme (REFEDEF) Réseau pour la Réforme du Secteur de Sécurité et de Justice (RRSSJ) Société Congolaise pour l’État de Droit (SCED) Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral (SOFEPADI) SOS Information Juridique Multisectorielle (SOS IJM) Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (SFVS) Voix des Sans Voix (VSV) Voix Intègre des Communautés Opprimées (VICOP)

Congolese Citizens’ Movements

Compte à Rebours Engagement Citoyen pour le Changement (ECCHA) Filimbi Les Congolais Debout (LCD) Lutte pour le Changement (Lucha)

Congolese Churches

Commission Épiscopale Justice et Paix (CEJP/CENCO) Consortium des Confessions Religieuses et Société Civile pour la Promotion de la Justice Transitionnelle en RDC Église du Christ au Congo (ECC)

International Nongovernmental Organizations

Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture (ACAT-France) Action Kivu Amnesty International Crane Center for Mass Atrocity Prevention Freedom House Global Survivors Fund Human Rights Watch Mukwege Foundation Never Again Coalition Protection International

Tunisia Jails Repatriated Women With Suspected ISIS Ties

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 29, 2021
Click to expand Image The Palace of Justice in Tunis, Tunisia, on January 29, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo / Hassene Dridi

(Tunis) – Families of women and children with ties to suspected members of the Islamic State (ISIS) who were recently repatriated to Tunisia say that all of the women are in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Some have faced abuse, have contracted Covid-19, and have been denied their rights.

The Tunisian authorities should immediately ensure that all repatriated women are treated humanely, receive necessary medical treatment, and are granted their full due process rights while in detention.

“While the authorities should assess these women individually and prosecute any who committed serious crimes, there is no excuse for depriving them of their rights,” said Hanan Salah, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Prison authorities should end all alleged abuse, ensure access to lawyers, and ensure that adequate preventive measures and health care are in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

Between March 11 and 18, 2021, Tunisian authorities repatriated 10 women and 14 children who were held in Libyan prisons, some for more than 5 years, for having ties to suspected members of the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), according to the Tunisian Observatory for Human Rights (TOHR). One woman, who has two children, was a child herself when she went to Libya, her brother said. All the repatriated children were released to the care of relatives or are under government care in social service facilities.

Relatives and lawyers of four of the women said they are detained in Manouba Prison. None had access to a lawyer during interrogation, and one of them said the family could not afford to hire a lawyer. One woman told her relatives she was beaten by investigators during interrogation and coerced to sign an interrogation report. Formal charges against the women remained pending, relatives and lawyers said.

Two relatives said that detention conditions were abysmal and that at least three repatriated women said they had contracted Covid-19 and believed that some other repatriated women were also sick with Covid-19.

Detainees are often at heightened risk of Covid-19 due to close proximity, inability to practice “social distancing,” a lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene, a high incidence of underlying medical conditions, and lack of adequate medical care.

Containing Covid-19 and offering adequate medical treatment to those affected should be a priority for the authorities. But they should not use Covid-19 as an excuse for indefinite detention without charge, Human Rights Watch said.

The father of one of the women told Human Rights Watch that his daughter, who was repatriated on March 18, told him that she had contracted Covid-19. He said they were separated by a glass barrier during his five-minute visit: “She was sick when I saw her and told me that other women had also contracted Covid-19. She told me that the women were not receiving any medical treatment inside the prison.”

His daughter also told him that she had been ill-treated while in detention in Tunisia: “My daughter told me that officers at the Gorjeni Anti-Terrorism Unit beat her during interrogation and coerced her to sign interrogation reports. She told me that she had beating marks on her body. She said that authorities confiscated all her belongings and left her with just the dress that she was wearing. She told me that she has no underwear, and that the women had nothing inside the prison.”

The basis for the continued detention without charge of the women is Tunisia’s 2015 counterterrorism law, which extends incommunicado detention from 6 to up to 15 days for terrorism suspects, permits courts to close hearings to the public, and allows witnesses to remain anonymous to the defendants. The law allows the police to interrogate suspects without a lawyer for 15 days. The law endangers human rights, lacks safeguards against abuse, and should be amended, Human Rights Watch said.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Tunisia is required to ensure that anyone deprived of their liberty is treated humanely and with dignity and is afforded their full due process rights. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules) establish standards to which all UN member states should adhere.

Tunisian authorities, as an immediate step, should grant unfettered access to lawyers and allow family members to visit the detained women, Human Rights Watch said.

In keeping with United Nations resolutions, Tunisian authorities should prioritize rehabilitation and reintegration services for the repatriated women and children, Human Rights Watch said. Children who lived under ISIS control and women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims, and children should face prosecution and detention only in exceptional circumstances. A continued lack of reintegration support would contradict international principles for children associated with armed groups. Children should remain with their parents absent compelling evidence from independent experts that separation is in their best interest.

“These Tunisian women and children have already spent up to five years in abusive arbitrary detention in Libya because the two countries failed to reach a repatriation agreement sooner,” Salah said. “Those not suspected of serious crimes badly need assistance, rehabilitation, and reintegration, especially the children, some of whom were born in prisons in Libya and know no other life.”


Thousands of foreign fighters and their family members, including hundreds of Tunisian nationals, went to Libya in 2016 when ISIS controlled some areas in Libya.

Libyan forces battling ISIS in Sebratha in February 2016 and Sirte in December 2016 captured hundreds of women and children with suspected ties to ISIS fighters, including Libyans, Tunisians, and other foreigners and detained them. Tunisia repatriated nine orphans from Libya between 2019 and 2020, but had been deadlocked with Libyan authorities on bringing home or helping repatriate the rest. According to TOHR, in 2020, Tunisian authorities also repatriated from Libya one woman with suspected ties to ISIS who remains under investigation.

Ten more Tunisian women and twenty-one children, most of them young, await repatriation from Libya, according to TOHR, which has been tracking cases of Tunisian citizens with suspected links to ISIS members abroad.

Scores of other Tunisians are arbitrarily detained as ISIS suspects and family members in northeast Syria. The Tunisian authorities should take all feasible steps to bring their nationals home or assist their repatriation for rehabilitation and reintegration and, if warranted, monitoring or prosecution in line with international legal standards.

Account 1

A lawyer who represents two of the women repatriated to Tunisia on March 18 said that both had contracted Covid-19, which prompted the judges in their cases to postpone the proceedings. The lawyer said that officers from the Gorjeni Anti-Terrorism Unit under the Tunisian Interior Ministry had interrogated both women, who are in Manouba’s women prison, without the lawyer being present:

I tried to visit both my clients in Manouba but authorities told me that the women were tested and had contracted Covid-19. They are being investigated by different judges but have not yet been seen by them. One of the women was supposed to appear before a judge but because she has Covid-19, the judge postponed the session, but I don’t have a date yet. The other judge responsible for the case of my other client already let us know that he would not proceed with the case until after the month of Ramadan.

The lawyer said the clients had not been formally charged and that the lawyer’s priority was to meet with both women.

Account 2

The father of one woman, who was repatriated together with her child on March 18, said that the authorities had handed over the child, who is under 6 years old to him for care and that he managed to visit his daughter at the women’s prison in Manouba only once. His daughter told him that she had contracted Covid-19:

I only saw her for five minutes and she was crying throughout. She asked about her daughter. She also asked for fresh clothes. She was wearing just a light dress and didn’t seem well. She said that the other women who were repatriated didn’t have anything with them. She said that she and the other women have Covid-19, but I don’t know where she contracted it. She told me that authorities are keeping the women who have Covid-19 together in one room.

He said that his daughter was interrogated by the Gorjeni Anti-Terrorism Unit, but that she does not have a lawyer because he could not afford to pay for one. He did not know the exact crimes the authorities accuse her of.

Account 3

The brother of one woman who was repatriated on March 11 with her two young children, both under 6 years old, said that his sister was still a child herself at the time she traveled to Libya in 2016 with her husband, who subsequently died. He said his sister had appeared in court for at least one session, where he briefly saw her, and that she was currently in Manouba prison.

He had not been able to get access to visit her there and did not know about her detention conditions. He also said that he did not know what were the formal charges against his sister, but that authorities had accused her of “traveling without a passport,” which is illegal in Tunisia. 

Human Rights Watch also spoke with this woman’s lawyer, who confirmed that she had been interrogated by officers at the Gorjeni Anti-Terrorism Unit without him being present, although he was allowed to briefly speak with her there. The lawyer said that she appeared before the investigating judge of Counterterrorism Judicial Pole who had 14 months under Tunisian law to finalize his interrogation. The lawyer said that authorities appear to be holding his client on the basis of the 2015 counterterrorism law. The two children are under the care of their grandparents.

Another Day of Violence Across Nigeria

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 29, 2021
Click to expand Image Greenfield University in Kaduna state, Nigeria. © Greenfield University

As I went about my day on Monday of this week catching up on the happenings in Nigeria, I was struck by the number of violent incidents reported across the country in just 24 hours.  

I began in the morning following up on reports of attacks by Boko Haram’s splinter faction, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), in Geidam, Yobe State and Mainok, Borno State. The Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria – now in its 12th year – has killed thousands and displaced over 2.5 million people. Eleven people were killed and around two thousand residents fled their homes during the attacks in Geidam, according to media sources.

By the afternoon, news of the death of two students at Greenfield University in Kaduna State broke. The students were among over a dozen people abducted from their school on April 20 by an armed group that apparently demanded 800 million naira (over US$2 million) for their release. The two students are believed to have been murdered by their abductors. The dead bodies of three others who had been kidnapped had been found three days earlier in a village near the university.

Other kidnappings were also reported on Monday afternoon in Kaduna, Oyo, Osun, and Benue states, where nine students were taken from their university.

Kaduna is among several states in Nigeria’s northwest region plagued by incessant kidnappings carried out by armed groups that emerged following years of conflict between nomadic herdsmen and farming communities. In recent months, armed groups have attacked several schools in the region and abducted hundreds of children for ransom.

Kidnapping for ransom is also a growing concern in the middle belt and southern parts of the country where multiple factors including conflict, unemployment, proliferation of arms, and security sector failures make crime a thriving business.

Before the end of the day, reports of attacks, abductions, unrest, and sectarian clashes in Borno, Niger, Lagos, Rivers, and Kebbi states also filtered in.

This Monday was no different from many other days in Nigeria. The authorities need to do more to protect civilians. They should urgently reassess their current approach, identify its inadequacies, and develop and implement a concerted, new response grounded in respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.

New York City Government Votes to Promote Intersex Rights

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Last week, the New York City Council passed a bill mandating the city’s health department to develop educational materials about how so-called “normalizing” surgeries on children born with variations in their sex characteristics are medically unnecessary and risk lifelong harms.

Click to expand Image People rally to end intersex surgeries in New York, October 27, 2018. © Voices4 via Instagram

This groundbreaking bill, which passed by a vote of 45-2, was authored by Council Member Daniel Dromm. “This legislation not only signifies a major step forward for the principle of informed consent but also aims to reduce the unfortunate stigma that still exists,” Dromm said in a press release. “The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will create a new outreach campaign, which will incorporate the input of several organizations and experts.”

Intersex people — or people born with variations in their sex characteristics — make up approximately 1.7 percent of the world’s population. Since surgeons popularized cosmetically “normalizing” surgeries on infants to remove gonads, reduce the size of the clitoris, or increase the size of the vagina in the 1960s, these practices have become widespread. Since the 1990s, intersex advocacy groups, as well as a range of medical and human rights organizations, have spoken out against the operations and called for regulation. One former New York City health commissioner, herself a pediatrician, called for the same in 2019.

Despite growing consensus that these surgeries should be a thing of the past, parents continue to face pressure from some surgeons to choose medically unnecessary operations when their children are too young to participate in the decision. In 2016 and 2017, I interviewed parents across the United States, including in New York, who described how  surgeons urged them to elect these procedures for their perfectly healthy children. Why? Because the surgeons argued that children would be stigmatized if they looked different.  

New York City has taken an important first step in supporting parents by providing accurate, affirming information about their children’s health to counter the misinformation and bigotry evident in what some surgeons present as medical advice.

India: Protect Rights, Dignity Amid Covid-19 Crisis

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Click to expand Image Healthcare workers rushing with an oxygen cylinder at Jaipur Golden hospital where at least 25 Covid-19 patients died the previous night during an oxygen shortage, New Delhi, India, April 25, 2021. © 2021 Naveen Sharma/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images

(New York) – India’s government needs to urgently address healthcare shortages amid the world’s fastest-growing Covid-19 crisis and ensure that vulnerable communities have equitable access to treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. Donors and diaspora groups that are rushing assistance to India should encourage the government to end curbs on free speech and to respect human rights in its pandemic response.

Following widespread criticism of its handling of the pandemic, with shortages in oxygen supplies and hospital care costing lives, the Indian government ordered nearly 100 social media posts to be taken down, saying they spread fake information. Most of the content targeted, however, had angrily criticized the government’s response to the crisis. Uttar Pradesh state’s chief minister has denied oxygen shortages and warned that charges would be brought under the draconian National Security Act against anyone, including healthcare workers, spreading “rumors” on social media to “spoil the atmosphere.”

“The Indian government should be focusing only in its efforts on responding to people desperately in need of help and dying for lack of medical care,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, what we find is a prickly reaction to legitimate criticism of its handling of the crisis, including by trying to censor social media.”

India’s new Covid-19 infections broke the global record, with over 320,000 cases recorded on April 27, 2021, plus nearly 2,800 deaths, bringing the total to more than 17 million cases since the pandemic began in 2020. The death toll is believed to be undercounted, and crematoriums and burial grounds are overrun. Several hospitals have called for emergency supplies as oxygen stocks fell short.

Social media in India are flooded with calls for help from families and hospitals running low on supplies. The authorities are scrambling to bolster a health infrastructure that is crumbling under the rising flood of cases. Community groups have also stepped up to support people who are struggling due to acute shortages in medicines, oxygen, ventilators, hospital beds, ambulances, and cremation and burial services.

A rights-respecting response to Covid-19 should ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all, Human Rights Watch said. The government’s censoring of free speech will ultimately limit effective communication about the pandemic and undermine trust in government actions.

Healthcare experts have criticized the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government for failing to invest in the country’s weak health infrastructure since the pandemic began. Although the authorities have advocated using masks and other public health practices, they conveyed contradictory messages by claiming that they have beaten the virus while allowing and participating in large-scale gatherings, including election campaign rallies. The government promoted a Hindu religious event in which millions of people participated.

Courts have repeatedly criticized the government for its failure to adequately address the pandemic. “You had all of last year to plan and take a decision,” said Sanjib Banerjee, the chief justice of the Madras High Court. “If it had been done, we would not be in this situation... We were lulled into a false sense of security only to be hit by this tsunami of infection now.”

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which India has ratified, everyone has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” The right to health provides that governments must take effective steps to ensure that health facilities, goods, and services are available in sufficient quantity, accessible to everyone without discrimination, and affordable for all, including marginalized groups.

The government should immediately take steps to remove bottlenecks in supply chains of essential medical goods and services, and to ensure an adequate supply of oxygen, life-saving medicines, ventilators, and testing kits, Human Rights Watch said.

Because of the domestic crisis, the Indian government has temporarily suspended exports of vaccines produced in India. The United States is allocating to India raw materials critical for vaccine production so that Indian manufacturers can address the shortage of vaccines in India and elsewhere. However, the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Australia, and others should also end their opposition to India and South Africa’s proposal at the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Council, which next meets on April 30. The October 2020 proposal would temporarily waive certain intellectual property rules on Covid-19-related vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical products to facilitate increased manufacturing to make them available and affordable globally.

The Indian government has ignored calls from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for governments to release “every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, and those detained for critical, dissenting views” to prevent the growing rates of infection everywhere, including in closed facilities, such as prisons and detention centers. Instead, the BJP-led government has increasingly brought politically motivated cases against human rights defenders, journalists, peaceful protesters, and other critics, and jailed them under draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws, even during the pandemic.

The Indian government should take immediate steps to release all those jailed on politically motivated charges for peaceful dissent and consider reducing prison populations through appropriate supervision or early release of low-risk category of detainees. Detained individuals at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus, such as older people, people with disabilities or with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for similar release, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Indian government should put people above politics and ensure that everyone gets the medical care they need,” Ganguly said. “The administration has called for citizens and international governments to help, but it cannot shirk its own responsibility to protect each and every life.”

University of Toronto’s Leadership Draws Fire Over Academic Freedom

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Click to expand Image Signage at the University of Toronto. © Faculty of Arts & Science, University of Toronto

Last summer, a hiring committee unanimously selected Dr. Valentina Azarova to direct the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s law school. When the school’s dean stopped Azarova’s hire under disputed circumstances, the university commissioned a retired Supreme Court of Canada judge to review that decision.

At the heart of concerns is that her appointment was blocked because some of her academic work was critical of Israel’s human rights record. The judge in his report acknowledged that after Azarova’s name was leaked to the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a pro-Israel advocacy group, a quiet effort began to stop her appointment. He found that days before her appointment was terminated, a former board member of the lobby group, who is a major donor to the university, contacted the university after a CIJA official advised him to warn the university’s leadership that her hire would spark “a public protest campaign [that] will do major damage to the university, including in fundraising.”

However, despite these facts, the judge, who in the middle of his review, gave a keynote address at a conference hosted by the CIJA, sided with the university’s claim that immigration issues were behind the decision. Taking at face value the position of the dean, the judge concluded, “I would not draw the inference that external influence played any role” in the dean’s decision. Rather than attempt to reconcile his conclusion with the sudden termination of the hire following the donor’s intervention, he said his review would not assess the credibility of disputed factual claims.

Several professors at the law school have rejected the report. Last week, the Canadian Association of University Teachers found the explanation for the termination so “implausible” that, for the first time since 2008, it imposed a censure for “a serious breach of widely-recognized principles of academic freedom.” The association has asked its 72,000 members to not accept any speaking engagements or positions until the university takes appropriate measures. The university argues that academic freedom does not protect a human rights program director because they perform a “managerial” job. “I think we will carry on with business as usual,” University of Toronto President Meric Gertler said of the censure.

For full disclosure, Dr. Azarova’s spouse works at Human Rights Watch. But this case is about much more than the individuals involved: it speaks to the core of what academic freedom means and the principle that no country should be off limits for critique of its rights record. Human Rights Watch’s academic partnership with the University of Toronto law school needs to be based on upholding these values for it to continue. Rather than washing its hands of the case, the university’s leadership should grapple with the unresolved concerns that the university has compromised its academic freedom.

The US Shouldn’t Use Intellectual Property Claims to Block Vaccine Access

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Click to expand Image A woman receives the AstraZeneca vaccine for Covid-19 at an apartment building in Bengaluru, India, April 24, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

The Biden administration announced this week that the US will donate 60 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to other countries in need. The announcement comes as India and Brazil face devastating surges in Covid-19 cases and deaths, with hospitals overrun and oxygen in short supply. Recently, France, New Zealand and Spain committed to sharing stocks too, and for months now, China, India, Russia, Serbia, Israel and the UAE have been making vaccine donations of their own.

While sharing vaccines is welcome, it is nowhere near enough to address yawning inequities in global vaccine access. For that reason, many members of the US Congress, from Nancy Pelosi, Jan Schakowsky and Ro Khanna to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have been urging the Biden administration to change its approach on intellectual property protections. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also appealed to President Biden personally to support a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 related vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. The Biden administration promised medical aid to India but has yet to end the US opposition to the waiver at the World Trade Organization, which meets again on the issue April 30. Although more than 100 countries support the waiver, the US along with the EU, Australia and other wealthy governments, have stood in the way. Undoubtedly, there are other factors affecting global supply too, but if a waiver had been adopted last October, when it was proposed, it might have already unlocked new production capacity.  

The New York Times editorial board recently joined the chorus demanding a waiver, echoing Nobel laureates and former world leaders, hundreds of lawmakers from Europe, the head of the World Health Organization, faith leaders like the Pope, and countless civil society organizations and unions. Sixty percent of US voters support a waiver and the new US Trade representative, Katherine Tai, appears open minded too. She’s said “the market once again has failed in meeting the health needs of developing countries” and urged members of the WTO “to consider what modifications and reforms to our trade rules might be necessary.”  

In the US, anyone over the age of 16 is eligible to be vaccinated, but in many countries even frontline health workers may wait months, if not years, for their shot. Last year, President Biden told Ady Barkan, a prominent health care advocate, that Trump’s “America First” approach “lacked any human dignity.”

Biden pledged to do things differently. We’re waiting. 

High-level Commitment in Brazil to Protect People with Disabilities

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Brazil’s National Council for Prosecutors, the government body overseeing the country’s prosecutors, took a major step yesterday by approving a resolution that could mean significant human rights improvements for the more than 10,000 adults with disabilities living in institutions in Brazil.  

Click to expand Image A group of persons with disabilities in a yard in an institution in Rio de Janeiro. Residents are taken outside for a few hours during the day but spend most of the time confined to their beds. © 2018 Human Rights Watch

The new resolution requires prosecutors to conduct annual inspections of institutions for adults with disabilities and take legal action against institutions for abuses or failings in their management obligations. Unfortunately, the resolution does not cover Brazil’s health system, which also manages numerous long-term institutions for people with disabilities. The new resolution replaces a non-binding recommendation on inspections, which in practice meant little prosecutorial oversight.  

Human Rights Watch has documented abuse and neglect in institutions in Brazil against people with disabilities, many of whom are placed there as children and remain for life, deprived of making choices about their lives. We found dire conditions in many of these institutions, including use of physical and chemical restraints, inadequate health services, and deprivation of the legal capacity of those institutionalized. Some people reported that just to leave the institution if they want to, they were required to obtain their family’s permission. Prosecutorial oversight is essential to prevent and remedy abuses. We have called for regular, thorough inspections to end abuses inside institutions, as well as accelerated efforts to move away from the use of institutions.  

Significantly, the resolution calls on prosecutors to “promote measures for the progressive deinstitutionalization” of people, meaning measures to support people with disabilities to live independently in the community, rather than in institutions. This is a notable recognition by Brazil’s top prosecutorial body of the fundamental human right enjoyed by people with disabilities to decide where, how, and with whom to live, with support as necessary, and that this right is denied to people forced to live in institutions. This means shifting resources into community-based and individualized services, such as personal assistants.  The resolution orders state prosecutors to monitor judicial rulings restricting legal capacity for people with disabilities.

The government’s healthcare and social assistance systems should also ensure that people with disabilities are not forced to live in abusive conditions because of a lack of meaningful choices. Institutionalizing people with disabilities and barring them from leaving unlawfully deprives them of liberty, and it’s time it ended. 

Bangladesh: Rohinyga Refugees Allegedly Tortured

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Click to expand Image Rohingya refugees headed to the Bhasan Char island prepare to board navy vessels from the south eastern port city of Chattogram, Bangladesh on Feb.15, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo

(New York) – Bangladesh authorities should immediately investigate allegations that security forces beat and arbitrarily detained Rohingya refugees who tried to leave Bhasan Char island, Human Rights Watch said today. The Bangladesh government has relocated nearly 20,000 Rohingya refugees to the remote island without consulting international experts to ensure their safety or determining their humanitarian needs.

Bangladesh security forces on April 6, 2021 arrested and beat at least 12 refugees who were caught trying to leave the island, restricting their freedom of movement. The authorities have not informed family members of their whereabouts. On April 12, a Bangladesh sailor allegedly beat four children with a PVC pipe for leaving their quarters to play with refugee children in another area. The authorities should immediately release any refugees who are arbitrarily detained, and hold to account those responsible for abuses.

“The Bangladesh government saved countless lives by providing refuge to Rohingya people, but this doesn’t justify detaining them on an island and beating them if they try to move,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The burden Bangladesh has taken on in caring for Rohingya refugees does not negate its responsibility to ensure they are safe, and their rights are respected.”

Witnesses said that security forces beat the refugees during an interrogation in the newly built police station on Bhasan Char. According to one witness, a police officer said, “Tell your Rohingyas that if they are thinking of escape, their fate will be same.” The authorities also raided Bhasan Char shelters to identify those missing, and beat residents demanding information.

Families of two detained Rohingya said that they had no information about the whereabouts of their relatives. They also said that unidentified people claiming to be from the police had demanded a bribe to provide information.

The mother of one detained refugee said that someone claiming to be a police officer threatened to kill her son in “crossfire,” a euphemism in Bangladesh for extrajudicial executions, unless the family paid a bribe. “A police officer called me but as I did not understand his language, my niece who can speak Bangla talked to that policeman,” she said. “He threatened us, saying that we should keep ready cash, or they would target my son in a crossfire. We said we could not afford to pay and asked where my son was now. The man said, ‘Pay the money first, then your son will be safe.’”

In the April 12 incident, families and a witness said that a man in a navy uniform beat four children, ages 8 to 11, with a PVC pipe because they had crossed into another block to play with other children. These children are from among a group of refugees rescued at sea who are sequestered on Bhasan Char. Photographs shared by the refugees show severe bruises from the beating.

One mother said that the beating was so brutal, she feared her child would be killed: “Our children are not allowed to go outside the block where we are living. When a sailor found that the children had gone to another block, he came out of his outpost and started beating the children mercilessly. My son could not run away while the others managed to escape. I begged the sailor not to beat him, but he continued for another two or three minutes. What if my child had died?”

The Bangladesh government says it wants to relocate at least 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited silt island in the Bay of Bengal, to ease the overcrowding in the camps set up in Cox’s Bazar where many Rohingya settled after fleeing an ethnic cleansing campaign by the Myanmar military. Several thousand have already been relocated from the refugee camps, despite serious concerns over the island’s habitability.

The authorities started populating the island by first taking 306 Rohingya refugees stranded at sea to Bhasan Char, initially to quarantine them to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, but is continuing to hold them there a year later.

Among the refugees caught trying to escape from Bhasan Char, were some that were rescued at sea in May 2020. Authorities at the time had promised that they would be reunited with their families. However, one refugee told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had refused to heed their plea to be returned to the camps in Cox’s Bazar: “The officers used a rubber stick to beat the detainees. These people did not commit a crime. They were just desperate after so many false promises from the authorities here that they would take back them to their families.”

These security force abuses occurred shortly after a visit by foreign heads of mission to Bhasan Char on April 3. A United Nations team also was allowed to visit the island from March 17 to 20.

“Bangladesh authorities should act promptly and impartially to put an end to the beatings and wrongful detention of refugees or risk the international goodwill they have earned,” Adams said. “Donor countries and UN agencies need to be asking serious questions about the conditions in Bhasan Char – and getting answers.”

Japan: Suspend Aid Benefitting Myanmar Junta

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Click to expand Image People protest the Myanmar Armed Forces in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo on April 1, 2021. © The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should immediately review its aid portfolio for Myanmar and suspend non-humanitarian projects that benefit the junta or military, Human Rights Watch said today. Japan should immediately suspend Official Development Aid (ODA) infrastructure projects carried out by Myanmar government ministries and other assistance involving military-controlled entities.

Following the February 1, 2021 military coup, the Japanese government stated it would refrain from carrying out new non-humanitarian ODA programs in Myanmar, but it has yet to adopt a clear, public position regarding ongoing projects. The latest figures show that in 2019, Japan provided about 169 billion yen (US$1.6 billion) in loan assistance, 15 billion yen ($140 million) in grant aid, and 6.7 billion yen ($62 million) in technical assistance to Myanmar.

“As Myanmar’s security forces gun down protesters on the streets, Japan should not take a ‘wait and see’ approach but should promptly and responsibly review its aid portfolio to Myanmar,” said Teppei Kasai, Asia program officer. “Japan should suspend all non-humanitarian aid projects that benefit the junta or military as part of global efforts to pressure Myanmar’s generals to cease their violent crackdown, release all political prisoners, and restore the democratically elected government.”

Ongoing nationwide protests have demonstrated widespread opposition to military rule. The response of the junta’s State Administration Council to the largely peaceful protests has been increasingly brutal. Since the coup, security forces have killed over 750 people, including at least 45 children, and detained an estimated 3,431 activists, journalists, civil servants, and politicians.

Human Rights Watch and four other organizations sent a letter to Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi on February 25 saying that the Japanese government should halt non-humanitarian ODA programs to Myanmar. A Foreign Ministry official told Human Rights Watch on April 15 that Japan’s plans for a 100 million yen ($930,000) financial grant to the Myanmar police, originally announced on July 2, 2020, had been “undetermined” due to the coup. The official did not clarify whether the aid has been permanently terminated or suspended, and no public statement has been made regarding this project, or any other ongoing aid project.

Another problematic project is the Bago River Bridge Construction Project in Yangon, approved by Japan and Myanmar in December 2016. The project involves a 31-billion-yen loan ($288 million) provided by Japan’s aid agency, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). On March 26, the local media outlet Myanmar Now reported that the project involves the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), a military-owned conglomerate recently sanctioned by the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union. The report said that a MEC-owned steel mill in Hmawbi, Yangon, is supplying steel for two-thirds of the bridge’s construction and profiting enormously.

In response to a March 27 inquiry by Human Rights Watch, JICA confirmed that Yokogawa Bridge Corp., a Japanese construction firm involved in the project, had finalized a contract with MEC and its affiliate in November 2019. A representative from Yokogawa Bridge also confirmed to Human Rights Watch that it has a “business dealing” with MEC, while saying that construction was on hold partly due to a “lack of material resources.” The representative said that the company would “pay close attention to ensuring the safety of those involved in Myanmar and continue discussions with relevant parties on what to do going forward.”

The project is also being carried out in conjunction with Myanmar’s Construction Ministry and the Myanmar Port Authority under the Transport Ministry.

According to Mohinga, the aid website operated by Myanmar’s Planning and Finance Ministry, Japan is currently funding several non-humanitarian infrastructure projects directly with the Planning and Finance, and Transport and Communication Ministries. Such projects should also be reviewed for possible suspension. 

Japan has been a leading donor to Myanmar. By 2017, the government had provided more than a total of 1 trillion yen ($9.3 billion) in loan assistance, more than 320 billion yen ($2.9 billion) in grant aid, and 98 billion yen ($912 million) in technical assistance. As of 2017, Official Development Aid from Japan to Myanmar ranked highest among member countries and institutions of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s development cooperation directorate. In November 2016, when Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited Japan, Japan announced that its public and private sectors would contribute 800 billion yen ($7.4 billion) to Myanmar over a five-year period.

The Japanese government should trigger human-rights-based conditions enshrined in its ODA charter, which states that “Japan will pay adequate attention to the situation in the recipient countries regarding the process of democratization, the rule of law and the protection of basic human rights, with a view to promoting the consolidation of democratization, the rule of law and the respect for basic human rights.”

With respect to humanitarian aid, Japan should maintain such projects but redirect the funds through nongovernmental groups to ensure it is used effectively and directly benefits populations in need. Development aid should be directed only toward basic human needs and where possible delivered through independent nongovernmental organizations. 

Since the coup, the junta has overhauled the Myanmar Investment Commission and all regional investment bodies, installing nine members, including Lt. Gen. Moe Myint Tun, who is also a junta member. The US, UK, and EU have sanctioned Moe Myint Tun for his direct involvement in and responsibility for what the EU said was “undermining democracy and the rule of law in Myanmar … repressive decisions and for serious human rights violations.” As a military commander who oversaw operations in Rakhine State until 2019, he was also “therefore responsible for those serious violations and abuses against the Rohingya population,” according to the EU.

“The Japanese government’s indecisiveness and silence over suspending its non-humanitarian aid that benefits the junta is contributing to the military repression in Myanmar,” Kasai said. “Japan should swiftly and publicly show it is on the side of Myanmar’s people and not the commanders who are behind the arrests and killings of protesters every day across the country.”

Cambodia: Revise Flawed Disability Bill

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Click to expand Image Front side of the National Assembly of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, May 7, 2019. © Daniel Kalker/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should revise a draft disability law to ensure equal rights for people with disabilities in accordance with international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia, in 2012, ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which aims to ensure full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by everyone with disabilities while enabling their full inclusion and equal participation in society.

The draft Law on the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has not been made public, but Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the bill, which is dated March 3, 2021. The draft law purports to create a legal framework for the rights of people with disabilities, but it fails to adopt a human rights-based approach. It uses language that reinforces stigma against people with disabilities rather than ensuring equal access to education, employment, transportation, social and legal services, and independent living.

“Cambodia has long needed a disability rights law, but the proposed bill needs to drop stigmatizing language and to support the right to be fully included in society, not marginalized,” said Kriti Sharma, disability rights expert at Human Rights Watch. “If the draft law is revised to meet international standards, the government would be taking a monumental step toward ensuring equal rights and strong social protections for the large number of people in Cambodia who have disabilities.”

The draft law’s definition of disability is based on an outdated paradigm guided by a medical model of disability, and uses stigmatizing language such as “disorder,” “damaged,” and “malfunctioned,” implying that a disability needs to be “cured” or “fixed.”

The bill should be revised to carry out key articles of the international treaty, Human Rights Watch said. This includes CRPD article 4 on requiring consultation with people with disabilities; article 12 on equal recognition before the law; article 14 on the right to liberty and security, including preventing arbitrary detention in institutions; article 15 on freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; article 19 on the right to live independently and be included within the community; and article 29 on participation in political and public life, including ensuring the right to seek public office.

The draft law sets out “levels of disability,” which is discriminatory because it creates a basis for excluding people with certain disabilities from living independently or accessing appropriate support. The government should reformulate the provision to reflect the requirement in the international covenant for adequate support measures for people with disabilities that would allow them to be fully included and live independently in society.

Chapter IV sets out rights of people with disabilities and the government’s obligations, including on employment, health services, education, accessibility arrangements, equal participation, and legal services. The section on education specifies that the government will provide classes for “persons with disabilities who cannot attend an inclusive class.” This introduces a form of segregation instead of providing for inclusive quality education. Under article 24 of the convention, government schools and educational institutions have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations – necessary and appropriate adjustments based on the individual needs of people with disabilities – and teaching using inclusive methods to ensure that instruction is adapted to the needs of all students.

The draft law article focusing on protection from sexual violence and harassment falls short of article 16 of the convention, which safeguards against all forms of exploitation, violence, and abuse, including those based on gender, and provides guidance for monitoring systems and support services. The bill uses vague language, merely requiring “appropriate and effective measures” and does not offer protections from other forms of violence such as physical violence, exploitation, and abuse. The article should set out complaints procedures that are accessible, anonymous, and provide for reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities.

Chapter III seeks to establish a Cambodian National Council for Persons with Disabilities. This government body should be supplemented by an independent body, as required by article 33 of the treaty, and include people with disabilities and representative organizations in decision-making in line with the fundamental principle of the treaty, “nothing about us, without us.”

In 2019, Cambodia rolled out a disability identification card pilot project in eight provinces, and said that by early 2021 it had registered about 14,000 people with disabilities. This card is designed to provide access to social benefits. However, the process has been slow, with inadequate dissemination of information to people with disabilities about registration and inadequate training for officials. “Of course, right now the disability ID doesn’t have much value,” Yeap Malino, the head of the department on disabilities, said in February.

In June 2020, the Interior Ministry proposed a draft Public Order Law, which will further entrench discrimination against people with psychosocial disabilities – mental health conditions. The current draft bill provides the authorities with unfettered powers to arbitrarily strip people with psychosocial disabilities of their civil liberties and detain them in institutions.

Human Rights Watch, in a 2013 report, documented that people in Cambodia with real or perceived psychosocial disabilities continue to be shackled – chained or locked in confined spaces – due to lack of adequate and accessible community-based services, as well as stigma and discrimination. The government should immediately ban shackling, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Cambodian government should not waste the opportunity to move away from a system of isolation and abuse and should build a system of support and independence,” Sharma said. “The United Nations, donors, and others involved in drafting Cambodia’s disability law should insist on a final text that is consistent with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

Nearly 400 MEPs and MPs Join Chorus of Voices Calling for a TRIPS Waiver on COVID-19 Vaccines

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Click to expand Image ©

The European Commission and European Union (EU) Member States continue to ignore growing calls for a patent waiver that would increase global production and availability of COVID-19 vaccines and related equipment. Recently, nearly 400 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and of national Parliaments from across the EU signed a joint appeal expressing their unequivocal support for the measure, adding their voice to that of 175 Nobel laureates and former Heads of State and Governments, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), scientists, trade unions, NGOs and the general public.

In October 2020, South Africa and India submitted a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive certain intellectual property (IP) rights under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) until widespread vaccination is in place globally. Since then, and despite the growing support for the initiative, the discussions have not gone beyond the exchange of clarifications and additional explanations. This is due to the opposition of a handful of countries, most notably the EU and its Member States, the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan, among others. Supporting the TRIPS waiver would be among the most powerful and effective available ways for governments to demonstrate their commitment to global cooperation and increase global access to vaccines.

It is evident that there are insufficient vaccine doses because of limited manufacturing capabilities and other challenges to the supply chain. Traditional voluntary mechanisms will not and cannot deliver the scale-up of production and technology transfer needed to respond to this challenge. Initiatives like the COVAX facility depend heavily on pledges and commitments that have yet to materialise, and in any case would be insufficient to provide the level of coverage needed to bring a timely end to the pandemic. If the situation remains unchanged, the interests and profits of the few will determine the fate of most. As the Director General of the World Health Organization has said, we face the risk of a “catastrophic moral failure”.

It is not too late for the European Commission and EU governments to change course and finally listen to leading experts and elected representatives, dropping the opposition to the TRIPS waiver and engaging in text-based negotiations.


Amnesty International Association des Femmes de l'Europe Méridionale (AFEM) Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) European African Treatment Advocates Network (EATAN) European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG) European Network against Privatization and Commercialization of Health and Social Protection European Public Service Union Fairwatch Global Network of People Living with HIV Health Action International (HAI) Human Rights Watch International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFSMA) Medact Médecins du Monde Oxfam International Public Services International (PSI) Right to Cure - European Citizens’ Initiative Society for International Development (SID)


Viva Salud Centrale Nationale des Employés (CNE)


Oxfam Ibis


Coalition for Research and Action for Social Justice and Human Dignity Physicians for Social Responsibility


Observatoire Transparence Médicaments Global Health Advocates


BUKO Pharma-Kampagne Brot für die Welt Medico International World Vision Deutschland




Access to Medicines Ireland (AMI)


Pharmaceutical Accountability Foundation Wemos


Asociación por un Acceso Justo al Medicamento ATTAC Spain Club de Madrid Médicos Sin Fronteras (MSF) España No Gracias Salud por Derecho Salud y Farmacos

Abusive Israeli Policies Constitute Crimes of Apartheid, Persecution

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, April 27, 2021

(Jerusalem) – Israeli authorities are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The finding is based on an overarching Israeli government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians and grave abuses committed against Palestinians living in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.

The 213-page report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” examines Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It presents the present-day reality of a single authority, the Israeli government, ruling primarily over the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, populated by two groups of roughly equal size, and methodologically privileging Jewish Israelis while repressing Palestinians, most severely in the occupied territory.

April 27, 2021 Q&A: A Threshold Crossed

Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution

“Prominent voices have warned for years that apartheid lurks just around the corner if the trajectory of Israel’s rule over Palestinians does not change,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This detailed study shows that Israeli authorities have already turned that corner and today are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

The finding of apartheid and persecution does not change the legal status of the occupied territory, made up of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, or the factual reality of occupation.

Originally coined in relation to South Africa, apartheid today is a universal legal term. The prohibition against particularly severe institutional discrimination and oppression or apartheid constitutes a core principle of international law. The 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the 1998 Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court (ICC) define apartheid as a crime against humanity consisting of three primary elements:

An intent to maintain domination by one racial group over another. A context of systematic oppression by the dominant group over the marginalized group. Inhumane acts.

The reference to a racial group is understood today to address not only treatment on the basis of genetic traits but also treatment on the basis of descent and national or ethnic origin, as defined in the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. Human Rights Watch applies this broader understanding of race.

The crime against humanity of persecution, as defined under the Rome Statute and customary international law, consists of severe deprivation of fundamental rights of a racial, ethnic, or other group with discriminatory intent.

Human Rights Watch found that the elements of the crimes come together in the occupied territory, as part of a single Israeli government policy. That policy is to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the occupied territory. It is coupled in the occupied territory with systematic oppression and inhumane acts against Palestinians living there.

Drawing on years of human rights documentation, case studies, and a review of government planning documents, statements by officials, and other sources, Human Rights Watch compared policies and practices toward Palestinians in the occupied territory and Israel with those concerning Jewish Israelis living in the same areas. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Israeli government in July 2020, soliciting its perspectives on these issues, but has received no response.

Across Israel and the occupied territory, Israeli authorities have sought to maximize the land available for Jewish communities and to concentrate most Palestinians in dense population centers. The authorities have adopted policies to mitigate what they have openly described as a “demographic threat” from Palestinians. In Jerusalem, for example, the government’s plan for the municipality, including both the west and occupied east parts of the city, sets the goal of “maintaining a solid Jewish majority in the city” and even specifies the demographic ratios it hopes to maintain.

To maintain domination, Israeli authorities systematically discriminate against Palestinians. The institutional discrimination that Palestinian citizens of Israel face includes laws that allow hundreds of small Jewish towns to effectively exclude Palestinians and budgets that allocate only a fraction of resources to Palestinian schools as compared to those that serve Jewish Israeli children. In the occupied territory, the severity of the repression, including the imposition of draconian military rule on Palestinians while affording Jewish Israelis living in a segregated manner in the same territory their full rights under Israel’s rights-respecting civil law, amounts to the systematic oppression required for apartheid.

Israeli authorities have committed a range of abuses against Palestinians. Many of those in the occupied territory constitute severe abuses of fundamental rights and the inhumane acts again required for apartheid, including: sweeping movement restrictions in the form of the Gaza closure and a permit regime, confiscation of more than a third of the land in the West Bank, harsh conditions in parts of the West Bank that led to the forcible transfer of thousands of Palestinians out of their homes, denial of residency rights to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their relatives, and the suspension of basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians.

Many of the abuses at the core of the commission of these crimes, such as near-categorical denial of building permits to Palestinians and demolition of thousands of homes on the pretext of lacking permits, have no security justification. Others, such as Israel’s effective freeze on the population registry it manages in the occupied territory, which all but blocks family reunification for Palestinians living there and bars Gaza residents from living in the West Bank, use security as a pretext to further demographic goals. Even when security forms part of the motivation, it no more justifies apartheid and persecution than it would excessive force or torture, Human Rights Watch said.

“Denying millions of Palestinians their fundamental rights, without any legitimate security justification and solely because they are Palestinian and not Jewish, is not simply a matter of an abusive occupation,” Roth said. “These policies, which grant Jewish Israelis the same rights and privileges wherever they live and discriminate against Palestinians to varying degrees wherever they live, reflect a policy to privilege one people at the expense of another.”

Statements and actions by Israeli authorities in recent years, including the passage of a law with constitutional status in 2018 establishing Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” the growing body of laws that further privilege Israeli settlers in the West Bank and do not apply to Palestinians living in the same territory, as well as the massive expansion in recent years of settlements and accompanying infrastructure connecting settlements to Israel, have clarified their intent to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis. The possibility that a future Israeli leader might someday forge a deal with Palestinians that dismantles the discriminatory system does not negate that reality today.

Israeli authorities should dismantle all forms of repression and discrimination that privilege Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians, including with regards to freedom of movement, allocation of land and resources, access to water, electricity, and other services, and the granting of building permits.

The ICC Office of the Prosecutor should investigate and prosecute those credibly implicated in the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. Countries should do so as well in accordance with their national laws under the principle of universal jurisdiction, and impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on officials responsible for committing these crimes.

The findings of crimes against humanity should prompt the international community to reevaluate the nature of its engagement in Israel and Palestine and adopt an approach centered on human rights and accountability rather than solely on the stalled “peace process.” Countries should establish a UN commission of inquiry to investigate systematic discrimination and repression in Israel and Palestine and a UN global envoy for the crimes of persecution and apartheid with a mandate to mobilize international action to end persecution and apartheid worldwide.

Countries should condition arms sales and military and security assistance to Israel on Israeli authorities taking concrete and verifiable steps toward ending their commission of these crimes. Countries should vet agreements, cooperation schemes, and all forms of trade and dealing with Israel to screen for those directly contributing to committing the crimes, mitigate the human rights impacts and, where not possible, end activities and funding found to facilitate these serious crimes.

“While much of the world treats Israel’s half-century occupation as a temporary situation that a decades-long ‘peace process’ will soon cure, the oppression of Palestinians there has reached a threshold and a permanence that meets the definitions of the crimes of apartheid and persecution,” Roth said. “Those who strive for Israeli-Palestinian peace, whether a one or two-state solution or a confederation, should in the meantime recognize this reality for what it is and bring to bear the sorts of human rights tools needed to end it.”

And the Oscar for Censorship Goes to Xi Jinping

Human Rights Watch - Monday, April 26, 2021
Click to expand Image Director Chloe Zhao, winner of the Academy Award for Best Director for her film "Nomadland," poses at the Oscars in Los Angeles, April 25, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool

“Renzhichu xinbenshan” or “people at birth are inherently good.” Beijing-born Chloe Zhao invoked this Chinese proverb in her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards last night as she became the first woman of color to win an Oscar for best director for her film Nomadland. It was a moving speech, and the proverb would be familiar to any Chinese ear.

You would think this was a celebratory moment in the Chinese government’s campaign for “soft power,” in which it lauds international recognition of Chinese citizens and people of Chinese descent. But few people in China got to know about this historic moment. Chinese social media platforms removed news about Zhao and her film’s Oscar wins. Authorities went to extra lengths to block a virtual private network service that some netizens used to circumvent China’s Great Firewall to livestream the award ceremony. 

When Zhao became the first Asian woman to win the Golden Globe for directing in March, news about Nomadland, which portrays itinerant lives in the American West, was initially celebrated. But after a nationalistic backlash erupted online over a comment Zhao made nearly a decade ago, it was scrubbed from the Chinese internet. In a 2013 interview, she said China is “a place where there are lies everywhere.”

Zhao had a point. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has spent 70 years censoring much more than Oscar ceremonies. It routinely jails its critics and fills the internet, newspapers, and textbooks with propaganda; there is no independent media.

In order to exert greater cultural influence on the international stage, the CCP over a decade ago embarked on a top-down campaign to promote its “soft power,” establishing overseas foreign-language media outlets to tell “China’s story” and Confucius institutes to teach Chinese language and culture.

When celebrated Chinese writers, artists, and athletes decide not to follow the CCP’s script of “China’s story” but instead speak their minds on the global stage, they are often censored. Nobel Literature laureate Gao Xinjian, artist Ai Weiwei, and soccer player Hao Haidong are among the best known. And now Chloe Zhao.

If the government wants to make China more attractive to a global audience, it has a better option: let people freely make films and art, write books, and express their opinions. Then Beijing could revel in their exceptional work, not try to hide it.

An Opportunity to Lower Drug Costs in the US

Human Rights Watch - Monday, April 26, 2021
Click to expand Image File photo showing pharmaceuticals.  © 2018 AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File

Last week, members of the United States House of Representatives reintroduced a bill to lower prescription drug costs. Congress now has the chance to provide relief for millions of people in the US struggling to afford vital medicines.

For many in the US, health care is a privilege they simply cannot afford. Soaring prices, insurance coverage limitations, and high deductibles and copays result in out-of-pocket costs that undermine the right to health. Patients delay or forgo care due to these costs, worsening health outcomes. Bills drive millions of people into financial distress, debt, or bankruptcy. And people with low incomes and communities of color are most affected.

While the cost of prescription medication is only one piece of the crisis, its impacts are felt widely. A 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly 30 percent of adults in the US had not taken prescribed medication as recommended in the past year because of the cost. Instead of refilling expensive prescriptions, people skip doses or cut pills in half.

Nonadherence to prescribed medication poses serious dangers. A November 2020 study estimated that cost-related medication nonadherence will cause 1.1 million premature deaths among Medicare beneficiaries over the next 10 years.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The bill reintroduced last week, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, or H.R.3, centers on Medicare, a government program that provides healthcare coverage for more than 60 million people in the US over the age of 65. It would lower drug costs by, among other reforms, overturning a restriction on Medicare’s ability to directly negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and limiting yearly drug price increases to the rate of inflation.

But these proposed changes would also make medicine more affordable for everyone, including those not covered by Medicare and the uninsured. In 2019, the Department of Health found that, over the next 10 years, just these two reforms would reduce out-of-pocket costs for US households by over $91 billion and lower premiums by nearly $29 billion.

The international human right to health includes equal and affordable access to essential medications.  While much more is needed to address the systemic crisis of affordability in the US healthcare system, Congress can have a tremendous positive impact on the rights of millions of people in the US by passing H.R.3.

UN Elections Shouldn’t Disparage Human Rights

Human Rights Watch - Monday, April 26, 2021
Click to expand Image U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. © AP Photo/Jeenah Moon

When the United Nations General Assembly held its annual election for seats on the Human Rights Council last October, five countries in the Asia regional group vied for four open seats, including two of the world’s most notorious rights abusers, Saudi Arabia and China. Member states took notice. In the secret ballot vote, the Saudis lost and the Chinese government scraped by for the last seat.

When offered a choice, governments can make the right decision. It happened in 2016 as well, when Russia failed to win a seat on the Human Rights Council thanks to competition. UN elections should always have competitive slates so governments can vote against unfit candidates with poor rights records.

But last week, the 54 member countries of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) did things the wrong way by holding uncompetitive elections. The result was undeserved prizes to abusive governments, notably Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Myanmar and China, by awarding them seats on UN bodies linked to women’s rights.

Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, and China were elected to the Commission on the Status of Women. Iran, Egypt and Pakistan have deplorable women’s rights records and shouldn’t be commission decision-makers. Beijing sees itself as a champion of women’s rights but is responsible for grave abuses against Turkic Muslim women in Xinjiang, where Human Rights Watch found that Chinese authorities are committing crimes against humanity. The secret ballot obscures who voted for Iran, Pakistan, and China, but the final tally indicates that some Western governments backed them. There only was a ballot on the Asia slate, which normally are approved by acclamation, because the US called for a vote.

In another appalling result, Myanmar was elected by consensus to the board of the UN Population Fund, the agency responsible for reproductive and maternal health. Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a February 1 coup and has killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 that included widespread rape and other sexual violence.

UN delegations shouldn’t be giving credibility to abusive states by rewarding them with human rights posts. The records of the five should now receive extra scrutiny. In the future, UN member states should avoid voting for abusive governments whenever possible and insist on competitive slates for all.

Anything less only undermines the standing of UN bodies on human rights.

Venezuela: Security Force Abuses at Colombia Border

Human Rights Watch - Monday, April 26, 2021

(Washington, DC) – Venezuelan security forces have committed egregious abuses against local residents during a weeks-long operation against armed groups on the border with Colombia, Human Rights Watch said today.

Venezuelan security forces opened the offensive in Apure state on March 21, 2021, with the alleged purpose of combatting armed groups in Venezuela. The operation led to the execution of at least four peasants, arbitrary arrests, the prosecution of civilians in military courts, and torture of residents accused of collaborating with armed groups. The abuses follow a pattern similar to that of systematic abuses that have led to international inquiries into possible crimes against humanity in the country.

“The egregious abuses against Apure residents are not isolated incidents by rogue agents, but consistent with the Venezuelan security forces’ systematic practices,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “International inquiries are essential into the mounting evidence against security force members who have committed abuses, and against commanders and top-level officials who knew or should have known what was happening during these operations.”

On April 5, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López announced the arrests of 33 people, to be tried under military jurisdiction. He said six camps of “terrorist groups” had been dismantled, and nine “terrorists” had been killed. He reported 8 deaths and 34 injuries of soldiers.

Confrontations between the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, FANB) and a dissident group from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) known as the Martin Villa 10th Front broke out in various rural areas in Venezuela on March 21. Since then, at least 5,800 people have fled Apure state for Colombia, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Despite support from aid groups and the authorities in Arauquita, the Colombian city of 50,000 where most of the displaced Venezuelans and Colombians have arrived, shelters are overcrowded and aid is insufficient. Many more are staying in homes of friends and relatives in rural areas in the state of Arauca, Colombia, with limited, if any, access to aid. Colombian authorities have also reported the arrival of Venezuelans and Colombians living in Apure in the Colombian municipalities of Arauca and Saravena. Between 300 and 400 forcibly displaced people are in other parts of Venezuela.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 68 people in person in the state of Arauca and by phone in March and April. They included 38 people who had fled Apure, as well as lawyers, forensic experts, community leaders, journalists, local Colombian authorities, and humanitarian and human rights organizations. Most of those who had witnessed abuses feared reprisals in Venezuela and spoke on condition that their names and other identifying information be withheld.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed information from Colombian and Venezuelan authorities, and other evidence such as photographs, videos, and audio recordings of attacks, lootings, and people crossing the river to Colombia. The Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office and Ombudsperson’s Office did not respond to requests for information.

Displaced Venezuelans said that frequent airstrikes and fighting, as well as egregious abuses by Venezuelan security forces, caused them to flee.

The security forces they identified as responsible for abuses included the FANB, the Special Action Force of the Bolivarian National Police (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, FAES), the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB), and the National Anti-Extortion and Anti-Kidnapping Command (Comando Nacional Antiextorsión y Secuestro, CONAS).

Interviewees said soldiers and security force agents raided the houses of families living in the town of La Victoria and its rural areas of El Ripial, Los Arenales, La Capilla y La Osa. The agents did not show a search warrant, witnesses said. Residents, mostly peasants, were dragged from their houses without arrest warrants. Agents ordered detainees to cover their heads with their t-shirts and beat them, threw them to the ground, and threatened to kill them.

An official list of detainees and their whereabouts has not been provided, but relatives and human rights groups reported they were initially held at a military base in the city of Guasdualito and, weeks later, transferred to a section within the Santa Ana prison in Táchira state that is administered by the military. Two detainees who were later released confirmed that they had been held in military installations. Multiple interviewees said that detainees were not members of armed groups.

On March 25, FAES took four members of a family from their house in La Victoria, said a family member. Their bodies were found a mile away, in El Ripial, with cuts, bullet wounds, and apparent bone dislocations. Forensic experts concluded that photos of the bodies suggest that they had been moved, and that firearms and grenades may have been planted by their hands.

Security forces broke into several houses and looted or destroyed personal belongings, food, and household items, residents said. Some families locked themselves inside their houses for days, then fled to Colombia. People with dual Venezuelan and Colombian citizenship feared that security forces would consider this proof of ties to armed groups.

In 2020, the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela and the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) found evidence that crimes against humanity may have been committed in Venezuela. Their reports implicated the same security forces accused of committing abuses in Apure.

On March 26, Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek Saab appointed two human rights prosecutors to investigate events in Apure, and established a joint commission of 12 experts to investigate the killings in El Ripial. The Attorney General’s Office has not responded to a Human Rights Watch request for information on the status of investigations.

The Venezuelan judiciary has routinely failed to adequately investigate compelling evidence of widespread human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch research has shown, allowing impunity to remain the norm.

The Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court and the UN Fact Finding Mission on Venezuela should assess the possible responsibility of those directly implicated in extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, and torture by Venezuelan security forces in Apure, Human Rights Watch said. They should also assess the possible responsibility of commanders and high-level authorities who may have ordered abuses, or may bear responsibility for failing to take appropriate steps to prevent crimes or hold those responsible to account.

For additional information on Human Rights Watch’s findings, please see below.

Systematic Human Rights Abuses in Venezuela

The abuses in Apure are similar to others that the Venezuelan security forces have systematically committed.

Between 2016 and 2019, Venezuelan police and security forces killed more than 19,000 people, alleging “resistance to authority,” according to data provided in several reports by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission found FAES responsible for 59 percent of all killings by security forces since 2014. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of alleged “resistance to authority” in the past in which there was no confrontation and FAES agents were implicated in extrajudicial killings and manipulating the crime scene. Similarly, OHCHR concluded that the information it analyzed “suggests that many of these killings may constitute extrajudicial executions,” and that FAES agents frequently manipulate the crime scene and evidence, and plant arms and drugs to suggest a confrontation.

Security forces have also brutally mistreated people in custody at least since 2014. In 2020 OHCHR documented cases of severe beatings with boards, suffocation with plastic bags and chemicals, waterboarding, electric shocks to eyelids and genitals, exposure to cold temperatures and/or constant electric light, being handcuffed for extended periods of time, and death threats.

More than 800 civilians have been prosecuted in Venezuelan military courts since 2014. The Fact-Finding Mission found an “increasingly frequent use of military jurisdiction to prosecute and try civilians.” Latin America has not seen such frequent use of military courts to try civilians since the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, Human Rights Watch said. International law prohibits prosecutions of civilians by military courts when civilian courts can function.

Context of the Attacks in Apure

Armed groups operating in the eastern Colombian state of Arauca and the neighboring Venezuelan state of Apure use violence to control peoples’ everyday lives. They impose rules normally enacted and enforced by governments, including curfews; prohibitions on rape, theft, and murder; and regulation of fishing, debt payment, and even closing times for bars. They exercise control through threats, kidnappings, forced labor, child recruitment, murder, and extortion of those carrying out virtually any type of economic activity.

Several armed groups operate both in Arauca and Apure, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), a guerrilla group formed in Colombia in the 1960s; and the Martín Villa 10th Front and the Second Marquetalia, both of which emerged from the demobilized FARC after the 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC. The Patriotic Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Patrióticas de Liberación Nacional, FPLN), a Venezuelan armed group that originated during the 1990s, also operates in Apure.

The Second Marquetalia was formed in August 2019 by Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” the FARC’s former second-in-command and top peace negotiator, as well as by other former top FARC commanders.

Human Rights Watch research has shown that Venezuelan security forces and other authorities have tolerated and at times colluded with armed groups operating in Apure. In recent years, the ELN and the FARC dissident groups appear to feel safer and able to operate more openly in Venezuela than they do in Colombia. They have operated camps in Apure.

In early March, Venezuela’s FANB initiated Operation Bolivarian Shield to commemorate the anniversary of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s death, and “combat and expel internal and external threats, and Colombian armed groups.”

Confrontations between the FANB and the Martín Villa 10th Front broke out in various rural areas of Apure on March 21, local media reported, with airstrikes and shooting.

The Venezuelan Defense Ministry issued its first news release on March 22, saying that the March 21 clashes had resulted in the death of two soldiers and one commander of the Martín Villa 10th Front, known as “Nando.” Several Venezuelan authorities issued separate statements, holding Colombian authorities responsible for the presence of armed groups on Venezuelan territory. The government of Nicolás Maduro requested United Nations assistance to deactivate antipersonnel mines that they said armed groups laid in Venezuela.

Reports vary as to what triggered the hostilities, but human rights and aid groups in Arauca, as well as leaders from towns and rural areas in Apure where the attacks occurred, told Human Rights Watch that the Second Marquetalia is closely linked to the Maduro government and that—to consolidate control over drug trafficking—they are seeking to remove the rival Martin Villa 10th Front. Residents also said that they had witnessed frictions between the ELN and FARC dissident groups over control of the area.

Extrajudicial Executions

On the afternoon of March 25, based on interviews and audio testimony from family members and neighbors, and media reports, members of FAES dragged four members of one family from their house in the neighborhood known as July Fifth (Cinco de Julio) in the town of La Victoria. The victims were Luz Dey Remolina, 42, Emilio Ramírez Villamizar, 44, Ehiner Yanfrán Anzola Villamizar, 22, and Yefferson Uriel Ramírez, 20.

Emir Remolina, 26, the son of Luz Dey and Emilio, said that he stopped by and saw his parents that morning, as he headed for work. In the afternoon, he noticed many security force agents on the streets and snipers on roofs, and he tried several times to reach his parents by cellphone. He got no response. Around 3:30 p.m., he went to his parents’ house and found no one there. He found several household items destroyed, and furniture and a motorcycle were missing. Neighbors told him that FAES agents had taken his parents alive, with their t-shirts pulled up over their heads, and had loaded them onto an armored tank.

After several hours, Emir saw messages and photos circulating in WhatsApp groups reporting that FAES had killed a family on a farm near the rural area of El Ripial, about a mile from Emir’s parents’ home. The images, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, showed the bodies on the ground, face up, with weapons by their hands. Emir recognized them as his parents, brother, and uncle.

Venezuelan authorities, days later, reported that security forces had killed—“neutralized”—six people in El Ripial, without specifying their names.

At least 13 people from La Victoria said that Emir’s relatives were not guerrillas but peasants who had lived and worked there for more than 15 years. Three people from El Ripial confirmed that the family did not live or have a farm in the area where their bodies were found.

Onder Ozkalipci and James Lin, members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG), which is coordinated by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), and Carlos Valdés, former director of Colombia’s Institute of Forensic Science, analyzed the photos showing the bodies of Emir’s family members. They told Human Rights Watch that, based on their examination of the photos, the bodies appear to have been moved and the weapons staged, and that there is indication that one person was shot at close range.

The forensic experts said the four bodies followed a “pattern”: they were on their backs, with arms extended to the sides, the men were without shirts, and they all had guns or grenades at similar distance to their right hand. The forensic experts also said that:

Ehiner Yanfrán Anzola Villamizar had a grenade next to his right hand and a broken right humerus, which appears to have occurred before his death. His body had two bullet wounds in the chest, where there appears to be residue, which would indicate that he was shot at close range, less than three meters. It appears that blood was cleaned off his face. Luz Dey Remolina had entry and exit wounds on her right arm and a grenade near her right hand. The overall pattern of the bodies and the evidence that the bodies were moved indicate that the location of the weapon was staged. Emilio Ramírez Villamizar’s face and torso had bloodstains that appeared to have been cleaned up. Blood had dripped down from a wound on the right side of his head in a direction that suggests he had later been moved toward the right. The pattern of bloodstains suggests that his arms were by his body, instead of extended out as in the photograph. Additionally, the experts indicated that it was very likely that his body was originally lying face down.

The bodies were in civilian clothing, not in the combat uniforms of guerillas. Family members denied that guns and grenades shown near the bodies belonged to the victims. 

On March 28, Emir recovered his relatives’ bodies and buried them in Arauquita. Venezuelan authorities did not give him death certificates, autopsy reports, or other documentation of a forensic examination.

Arbitrary Detention and Torture

Since March 21, local media outlets and people from La Victoria have reported detentions by security and military forces. The authorities have not provided a comprehensive list of those detained or information on their whereabouts. Padrino, the defense minister, said that the 14th Military Tribunal would try 33 detainees. The Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office and Ombudsperson’s Office has not responded to Human Rights Watch’s request for information about them.

Human Rights Watch has received information about the arbitrary arrest of 17 people, through direct testimony from family members, human rights organizations, or audio and video testimonies. Additional cases have been reported by the media.

Nine witnesses said that FAES detained 10 of their relatives, after raiding their homes without arrest or search warrants. Relatives, along with representatives from the human rights groups Foro Penal and Fundaredes, said the detainees were initially held at a military base in the city of Guasdualito, 62 miles from La Victoria, but they were not allowed to see them for weeks. On April 12, 26 detainees—25 men and 1 woman—were transferred to a military area within the Santa Ana prison in Táchira state, known as “Procemil,” family members and the Venezuelan nongovernmental group Foro Penal said.

In El Ripial and the neighboring rural area of Los Arenales, those detained were peasants who lived and worked on farms, based on information from people interviewed.

In La Capilla, a rural area about four miles from La Victoria, FAES agents took 17 men from their homes or shops, a wife of one of the detainees said. FAES agents covered the detainees’ heads with t-shirts, beat them, threw them to the ground, and threatened to kill them.

Some people were detained because they had videos or photos of the attacks or military presence in the area on their cellphones, witnesses and a human rights defender said. Fearing searches and arrest, many people interviewed in Arauquita said they had erased multimedia material related to the attacks in La Victoria and surrounding areas.

FAES members took Alejandro, 23, and Vicente Rojas, 20, (pseudonyms), brothers who worked in a gas station, from their house in La Victoria at 10:30 a.m. on March 24, their sister said. Agents broke through the door, she said, and searched their cellphones for photos and videos. The agents pulled the brothers’ t-shirts over their heads and beat them on their stomachs and backs. A witness told the family that the young men were taken to Guasdualito military base. On April 10 their sister was able to visit them for 10 minutes at the military base. She said the brothers told her that agents had beaten them during their first days in detention. A lieutenant who said he was defending her brothers told her on April 12 that they had been charged with crimes before a military court, including “attacking a sentinel,” and that they would be transferred to Santa Ana prison. On the morning of March 21, 26-year-old Jessica Vera (pseudonym) noticed men in green uniforms, whom she identified as Bolivarian National Guard agents, near the little house in El Ripial she shared with her husband, Javier Cuesta (pseudonym), who owned a radio and TV repair business, and their children, ages 9, 5, and 2. By around noon, armored tanks were moving through the streets, and security agents entered and searched houses. Jessica said that the uniformed men gestured to Javier across their courtyard to come out.

They ordered him to lift his shirt, cover his head with it, and raise his arms. They asked for his identity card and he asked his wife to look for it in the house. When she came out with the ID, her 9-year-old daughter told her the men had taken him away handcuffed. An agent told her they would investigate her husband as a “guerrilla fighter.”

She and her children walked to La Victoria to inquire about his whereabouts. When Jessica arrived at the town, she saw some soldiers who told her only that he was at a military facility. After three days of fruitlessly seeking information, while attacks continued in La Victoria, she crossed, with the children, to Arauquita. On April 16, Jessica told Human Rights Watch that her husband, with whom she had been able to speak by phone, had been transferred from the military base in Guasdualito to the Santa Ana prison in Táchira.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a 17-year-old boy and an adult who said FAES detained them at the military base in Guasdualito and released them after six days.

Pedro Cabrera (pseudonym), a 43-year-old Colombian who lived in Apure, said that on March 21, FAES and GNB agents detained his two-month-pregnant wife Camila Vélez (pseudonym), and their sons, Marcos (pseudonym), 17, and Ernesto (pseudonym), 14, in the Los Arenales rural area. They had been awakened that day by gunshots and shells exploding, Pedro said that because he did not have a Venezuelan ID, he hid near his house. From there, he watched agents throw his wife and children to the ground, kick them in the stomach, cover their faces with their own t-shirts, and tie their hands behind their backs.

Marcos, who was released six days later with his brother, said that during beatings at the time of the arrest, agents accused his brother, his mother, and him of being members of a guerrilla group. They took them to a nearby house, threw them to the ground again, and continued to beat them until nightfall, when they took them to a military base in La Victoria.

The next day, agents transferred the boys and their mother to the Guasdualito military base, where FAES and GNB agents held them in an overcrowded, unventilated cell with approximately 30 people and no measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, he said. They slept on the floor and were fed only mangoes and water.

He said a member of the military informed them that they were accused of “rebellion,” “treason,” “attacking a sentinel,” and “theft of military objects,” but they were not taken before a court or given access to a lawyer. During the initial days of Marcos’ arrest, security agents beat him and the other detainees repeatedly. They used the butts of their rifles to punch them in the stomach and the head, he said.

On the sixth day, Marcos and Ernesto were released with six other people, two children and four adults. Officials from the Ombudsperson’s Office took the two brothers to a shelter, and the next day handed them over to a relative, who helped them get to Arauquita. A Human Rights Watch researcher saw some of Marcos’s bruises, and Jairo Urrutia (pseudonym), 54, who was detained in the same cell as Marcos, corroborated his story.

On April 14, Pedro told Human Rights Watch that his wife, Camila, had been transferred to the Santa Ana prison. Although he had not been able to speak with her, he learned through a relative who was allowed to visit her that she had lost her pregnancy.
  Jairo Urrutia said that on March 21, FAES and GNB agents entered his house in El Ripial, threw him to the ground, tied his hands behind his back, and loaded him into a tank where they kicked him in the stomach. He was taken to the Guasdualito military base, where FAES and GNB agents accused him of being a “guerrilla informant” and held him in an overcrowded cell. He said that on the sixth day he was taken to a hearing before a military court, where a military judge told him that he was being accused of “rebellion,” “firearms possession,” “attacking a sentinel,” and “resistance,” but the Ombudsperson's Office requested his release. He was not assisted by a lawyer. He fled to Arauquita that night.

Three people interviewed said they were victims of abusive treatment during raids.

Carlos Pérez (pseudonym), 28, and Diego Ruíz (pseudonym), 14, said that at around noon on March 25, at least 15 FAES agents broke down the door to Carlos’s house, where Diego was staying too. The agents threw them to the ground and covered their faces with their t-shirts. They took each to a different house nearby, where they forced both to kneel with their hands tied behind their backs while they interrogated them about their alleged links to guerrilla groups, which Carlos and Diego denied. The agents made them eat dirt and kicked them in the ribs.

Carlos said that a FAES agent pointed a gun at his neck and threatened to kill him. He pulled the trigger, but the gun was not loaded. Diego said that the FAES agents holding him did the same, at least four times, and that an agent squeezed part of his nose with pliers so he would confess his supposed ties to guerrilla groups.

After several hours, both were released. They fled to Arauquita with their families that night.
  On March 25, two tanks with some FAES agents entered the farm where Pablo Ramírez (pseudonym) and his family lived and worked, in the rural area of La Victoria. Pablo said that agents stuck a knife in his right little finger as they interrogated him about his alleged links with guerrilla groups. When he did not answer, they sank the knife deeper into his finger, then twisted his finger with pliers. “I felt that they were going to break it,” he said, showing his finger with a scar. The agents threatened to kill him, take his 5-year-old son away, and cut his 5-month-pregnant wife’s belly to take out the baby she was carrying. The family fled to Arauquita.

Humanitarian Response in Colombia

As of April 19, Colombian authorities indicated that more than 5,800 people, including Venezuelans and Colombians who had been living in Venezuela, had fled Apure since March 21, mostly through informal crossings using canoes to cross the Arauca river. The majority were staying in 19 shelters in Arauquita. In late March, when official numbers indicated that 4,500 people had fled, local authorities in Arauquita told Human Rights Watch that approximately 3,000 more were staying in homes of friends and relatives in rural areas of Arauquita.

The Arauquita shelters are administered by local authorities with crucial support from international humanitarian groups, including UNHCR, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), UNICEF, Comitato Internazionale per lo Sviluppo dei Popoli (CISP), among others. Despite sustained support by aid groups to bolster local capacity to provide food, drinking water, health supplies, and medical attention, available aid is insufficient. Some children have continued going to local schools in Colombia, but their education is difficult because they were forced to leave their materials at home, aid workers said.

Overcrowding in shelters makes social distancing difficult and, together with difficulty properly isolating people who have Covid-19, has most likely contributed to the spread of Covid-19 in shelters. As of April 16, the authorities had confirmed 76 positive cases.

The authorities and aid workers also said that it is enormously difficult to help people staying outside of urban shelters due to security risks from guerrilla groups in Arauca.

The activity of international aid groups in La Victoria, Venezuela, has been largely suspended due to the ongoing situation.

Some interviewees, including aid workers, said that people displaced in Arauca fear returning home under current circumstances and will most likely stay in Arauca or move elsewhere in Colombia, given security concerns and because they lost their homes and personal belongings in the attacks.


To the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court and the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela:

Review promptly allegations of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, and torture by Venezuelan security forces in Apure, as well as gender-related violence, including cases documented in this report. Analyze the possible responsibility of those directly implicated in the abuses, and of commanders and high-level authorities who may have ordered abuses, or may bear responsibility for failing to take appropriate steps to prevent crimes or hold those responsible to account.

To the administration of Colombian President Ivan Duque:

Carry out a comprehensive census in Arauca of all Venezuelans and Colombians who were forced to flee Apure, including those currently not staying in shelters, and guarantee their access to legal status in Colombia. Ensure that those arriving in Arauca have access to basic humanitarian aid, including food, shelter, personal protective equipment and other hygiene supplies necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19, medical attention including access to sexual and reproductive health services, and access to drinking water and basic sanitation. Effectively implement the “state of public calamity,” decreed on April 6 in Arauquita, which under Colombian law would allow greater resources from the national government to support humanitarian efforts to provide aid to displaced Venezuelans and Colombians in Arauquita.

To donor governments and international humanitarian agencies:

Support efforts to ensure sufficient humanitarian aid is available for authorities in Arauca administering shelters created to house the thousands of displaced people who recently fled Apure.

World Food Program Set to Help Venezuelan Children

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 23, 2021
Click to expand Image A girl reaches for a tangerine at a soup kitchen in Petare, Venezuela, February 27, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

On April 19, the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations’ food assistance branch, announced it had reached an agreement with the Nicolás Maduro government, after over a year of negotiations, to deploy in Venezuela to supply food to young children in need. The agreement is a huge step toward mitigating Venezuela’s spiraling humanitarian emergency, a crisis that predates the Covid-19 pandemic and for which Venezuelan authorities are largely to blame.

According to the WFP, one in three Venezuelans are food insecure and in need of assistance. In 2019, 9.3 million Venezuelans suffered from food insecurity, a number projected to increase significantly. The Venezuelan organization Caritas has reported more than 14 percent of children under five years of age in some low-income areas suffer from acute malnutrition.

WFP operations in Venezuela will focus on providing school meals to the most vulnerable children between ages 1 and 6 through public and private schools, particularly through preschool and special education. The agency’s goal is to start delivering aid in July and reach 185,000 children by the end of 2021, 850,000 children by the end of the 2021-2022 school year, and 1.5 million by the end of the following school year. Due to school closures during the pandemic, beneficiaries will receive monthly boxes with takeaway meals.

The WFP has stated their meal programs are independent and “separate from any other interference.” This means food will be delivered apolitically and in compliance with basic humanitarian principle of neutrality, which is essential in a country where authorities have favored supporters in the distribution of subsidized food.

The WFP’s deployment is an essential first step to ensure that at least the youngest Venezuelan children will see food on their tables, and donor countries should contribute to cover the program’s estimated US$190 million operating costs. But this development is also the result of sustained international pressure on Venezuelan authorities to let the WFP in. If there’s any hope for sufficient medical and food aid to reach people in need, it is through an increased role by the WFP, which has the logistical capacity to help deliver aid into the interior of the country.

The pressure has started to work. Now it should continue.