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How to Chart an Equitable Exit from the Pandemic

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 7, 2021
Click to expand Image A person in Soweto, South Africa receives an injection as they participate in a clinical trial for a Covid-19 vaccine in June 2020.  © 2020 Siphiwe Sibeko/AFP via Getty Images

Today marks World Health Day with the World Health Organization (WHO) calling for increased government investment and cooperation to tackle global health inequities. Government policy and practice primarily determine the equity or otherwise of health outcomes both within and between countries. But the actions of pharmaceutical companies also have a huge impact on whether people have access to affordable life-saving health care.

Structural weaknesses in countries’ healthcare and social safety nets contribute to massive disparities in access to lifesaving support.

To chart an equitable exit from the Covid-19 pandemic, governments should ensure universal and affordable vaccine access or they risk further entrenching inequality and eroding human rights. Vaccine roll-out has so far largely mirrored the inequities that marked the rest of the pandemic: rich governments made opaque deals and prebooked the vast majority of scarce vaccine supplies, while also opposing efforts to temporarily waive complex global trade rules that could give us the best chance of universal and affordable vaccine access for all. This has increased the risk that the pandemic — as well as the inequality and rights abuses that have flourished — will continue in many countries for years to come.

Responding to the pandemic — via social distancing, quarantines, and business closures — has had an enormous economic impact. Low-income workers, who are often unable to work remotely, were disproportionately affected. Economic support during the pandemic has helped, but many people in need were left out. And government reliance on poorly designed or neglected technological infrastructure to distribute benefits has delayed and denied access to support while causing privacy problems.

Health care workers faced serious health and safety risks. Older people, people with disabilities, and women shouldered extraordinary burdens due to neglectful and discriminatory policy decisions. Schools around the world closed, shutting out an estimated 1.4 billion students, who may fall behind with some maybe never returning to education.

Health as a human right — enshrined in the WHO charter — means Covid-19 vaccines should be available to everyone. It means water and sanitation for everyone, social protection for everyone, and health care for everyone.

Covid-19 vaccine developments have shown that science can create technologies to save lives at a miraculous pace. Now it’s time to ensure everyone benefits — to end this pandemic and protect the right to health more broadly.

Equity is not a miracle, but fundamental for protecting rights.

Cambodia: ‘Stop Covid-19’ System Raises Privacy Concerns

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, April 6, 2021
Click to expand Image Cambodian school girls walk home at the end of their school day outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia. © 2021 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government’s “Stop Covid-19” QR Code system raises serious privacy and other human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should use less-rights-intrusive measures to contain and prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

On February 20, 2021, Cambodia’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunications and Ministry of Health initiated a QR Code system that aims to assist with contact tracing of new Covid-19 cases, which have recently increased. The ministries should publicly explain how the data collected through the QR Code system is used, who has access to the data and for what purpose, the measures taken to secure the data, and the period for which the data is stored.

“Cambodia’s QR Code system is ripe for rights abuses because it lacks privacy protections for personal data,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “These concerns are heightened by the government’s stepped-up online surveillance of Cambodians since the outset of the pandemic, putting government critics and activists at greater risk.”

The Post and Telecommunications Ministry did not respond to a March 19 letter from Human Rights Watch asking about access to personal data and its storage and protection measures under the “Stop Covid-19” QR Code system. Other ministries copied on the letter also did not respond.

The Post and Telecommunication Ministry’s Facebook page contains posts that state that the use of the QR Code system is “voluntary,” but “participation is strongly encouraged.” It asks users to scan the QR code when entering establishments or institutions that have previously registered their participation in the QR Code system and downloaded and printed a QR Code from the government’s website.

When a user indicates they have entered a certain establishment, their phone receives a six-digit code in a text message, which they need to enter into their phone. On March 25, a post on the ministry’s Facebook page announced that 154,869 public and private institutions around the country had registered to use the QR Code system, with more than 11 million locations scanned by users. Several provincial authorities are using the system at provincial border crossing-points as part of mandatory screening for Covid-19 symptoms.

Health Minister Mam Bunheng has stated that the aim of the QR Code system is to record the movements of customers, visitors, and staff at registered locations without violating users’ privacy. However, on March 8, the Post and Telecommunications Ministry announced that the QR Code scan would provide the government with information about the user’s location, allowing the authorities not only to quickly identify the user, but also reveal data on whether they were violating the two-week quarantine requirement.

Creating a log of people’s locations reveals sensitive insights about their identity, location, behavior, associations, and activities that infringe on the right to privacy, adding to the government’s existing intrusive surveillance practices, Human Rights Watch said.

Some business owners told Human Rights Watch that they have strictly enforced the QR Code system out of fear of being deemed non-compliant with government-imposed measures. This could make them subject to sanctions such as under the recently passed Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases, which introduced disproportionate criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison and fines. The QR Code system does not have any basis in legislation and its ostensible voluntary nature should not include sanctions.

Cambodia should enact a data protection law that would regulate and protect the usage, collection, and retention of data in accordance with international standards for privacy and other rights, Human Rights Watch said.

International law obligates governments acting to contain and prevent the spread of Covid-19 to ensure that such measures are based in law, necessary, proportionate, and the least intrusive for the purpose intended. Any contact tracing measures, such as Cambodia’s QR Code system, should be limited in scope and purpose, protect the right to privacy, and be used only for responding to the pandemic.

The measures should also ensure sufficient security of any personal data collected; be transparent about any data-sharing agreements with other public or private sector entities; incorporate protections and safeguards against abusive surveillance; and give people access to effective remedies. They should also be time-bound and only continue for as long as necessary to address the pandemic, mitigate any risk of discrimination or other rights abuses against marginalized populations, and provide for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders in data collection efforts.

“The Cambodian government should urgently develop a law on data protection and specific guidelines on protecting the right to privacy and security of data collected to apply to the QR Code system,” Robertson said. “The United Nations agencies in Cambodia should jointly call out the government’s failure to abide by international human rights law in its Covid-19 response.”
 

Lebanon: Refugees, Migrants Left Behind in Vaccine Rollout

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, April 6, 2021
Click to expand Image A nurse prepares a Covid-19 vaccine syringe at the Saint George Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon on February 16, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Hussein Malla

(Beirut) – The Lebanese government’s Covid-19 vaccination program risks leaving behind marginalized communities, including refugees and migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite the government’s promises of an equitable program, the effort has been tainted by political interference and a lack of information.

United Nations data shows that Syrian and Palestinian refugees have died from Covid-19 at a rate more than four and three times the national average, respectively. Yet, according to the government’s online Covid-19 vaccine registration and tracking platform, only 2.86 percent of those vaccinated and 5.36 percent of those registered to receive vaccinations are non-Lebanese, even though they constitute at least 30 percent of the population.

“With one in three people in Lebanon a refugee or migrant, a third of the population risks being left behind in the vaccination plan,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to invest in targeted outreach to build trust with long-marginalized communities or the Covid-19 vaccination effort is doomed to fail.”

Between February and March 2021, Human Rights Watch spoke to 21 Syrian refugees, 6 Palestinian refugees, the caretaker labor minister, and staff from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a grassroots collective in Lebanon that fights discrimination.

The Health Ministry has said that it aims to vaccinate 80 percent of the population by the end of 2021 and that the national vaccination plan covers everyone living in Lebanon, regardless of nationality. The first phase of the vaccine rollout prioritizes healthcare workers and those over age 75, followed by those over 65, and then those over 54 who suffer from certain underlying health conditions.

However, the government has so far only stated its intention to purchase seven million doses, enough for about half the country’s population. The vaccine rollout has been slow, with only 233,934 doses administered as of April 5 in large part due to the limited quantity of vaccines available. Lebanon has so far received almost 300,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and on March 24 received 33,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX facility, a global pooled procurement system that aims to provide lower-income governments with enough doses for 20 percent of their populations by the end of 2021.

The AstraZeneca doses lead to the addition of new priority groups, including teachers and workers in productive sectors (sectors that produce products such as agriculture and manufacturing), to the vaccination rollout starting in April, the caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan said. As of April 5, only 3,638 Palestinians and 1,159 Syrians have been vaccinated, though 19,962 Palestinian refugees and health workers and 6,701 Syrian refugees are eligible in the first phase of the vaccine rollout.

To speed up the vaccine rollout, the Health Ministry has allowed the private sector to import additional vaccines. Some politicians have already started securing vaccines for their constituents, raising fears that the distribution of vaccines will be based on political affiliation rather than transparent, evidence-based distribution criteria that apply equally to everyone in Lebanon, leaving marginalized groups behind.

Trust in the government’s vaccination plan was further eroded by a scandal around politicians jumping the vaccine line and getting vaccinated in parliament, in secret. The World Bank representative in Lebanon has threatened that “any violation of the criteria established for priority groups to be vaccinated” would be “dealt with” by the bank, which is financing much of Lebanon’s vaccine rollout and partnering with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to monitor the effort.

Given the limited supply of vaccines and the slow pace of vaccinations, some nongovernmental groups have started to secure funding to buy vaccines specifically earmarked for refugees.

Syrian refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch raised fears of arrest, detention, or even deportation if they registered through a government-managed platform, especially if they do not have legal residency in Lebanon. Due to restrictive Lebanese residency policies, only 20 percent of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have the legal right to live in the country, leaving the vast majority vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, detention, harassment, and even deportation.

Although the 200,000 Palestinian refugees do not face the same fears over arrest and deportation, many have very little trust in the Lebanese government, which has systematically discriminated against them and barred them from getting government social services, including health care. They can get health care only through the private sector, which charges prohibitively high fees, or through international organizations like UNRWA.

Mistrust of the Lebanese government runs so deep that Palestinian refugees told Human Rights Watch they fear that even if they were to register, they would not actually receive the vaccine and would have to pay a fee they could not afford.

Migrant workers, many of whom are working in Lebanon under the exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system, either had no information whatsoever about the vaccine or expressed mistrust of the Lebanese authorities.

To ensure equitable vaccine distribution despite the huge supply shortages, Lebanese authorities should follow the World Health Organization (WHO) SAGE values framework for the allocation and prioritization of Covid-19 vaccines, which offers guidance on the prioritization of groups when vaccine supply is limited. The SAGE guidance calls for ensuring national equity in vaccine access, particularly for groups experiencing greater burdens from the pandemic, such as people living in poverty, especially extreme poverty, and low-income migrant workers and refugees, especially those living in close quarters who are unable to physically distance.

The United Nations has warned that “in the absence of effective firewalls between health and public services and immigration authorities, data collection and information sharing related to Covid-19 vaccinations may also further raise fears among migrants in an irregular situation.”

“Lebanon was initially praised for its inclusive plan to vaccinate everyone living on its territory, but it has quickly become clear that there are serious gaps in the plan’s implementation,” Hardman said. “If Lebanon wants to achieve equitable vaccine distribution this year and kickstart the economy, it will need to ensure that everyone has access to information.”

Availability of Vaccines

Lebanon confronts external challenges facing many lower-income countries in obtaining Covid-19 vaccines. Human Rights Watch and many others are supporting a proposal by South Africa and India to the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive some intellectual property rights rules until “widespread vaccination is in place globally.”

The waiver of these rules under the Agreement of Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) would allow more international collaboration in the manufacture of the vaccines and other medical products – without authorization from the companies that created them – and could speed production and availability of vaccines worldwide. The World Trade Organization considered the proposal when it met in March, but most rich Western countries, including the UK, US, EU, and Australia, continue to oppose the waiver.

Lack of Information Among Refugees, Migrants

In addition to problems around vaccine supply and equitable distribution, the Lebanese government has failed to provide accurate and up-to-date information for Syrian and Palestinian refugees, as well as migrant workers, about the vaccine and how to register to be vaccinated, and reassure them that vaccination efforts will be firewalled from immigration enforcement activities.

As of April 5, only 17,891 Syrians registered for the vaccine, and only 1,159 had received the vaccine.

None of the Syrian refugees that Human Rights Watch interviewed had registered through the online platform. Seventeen Syrian refugees did not know of the existence of the online platform and nine did not know that they were entitled to register, believing it was just for Lebanese citizens. People interviewed said they had heard rumors they had to pay for the vaccine, and several said they did not know where the vaccination centers were, and suspected they would not be able to afford the transportation to get there. Three said they had heard the vaccine is not safe and could lead to fatalities.

Even when told that they were eligible to register and receive the vaccine free, nearly all expressed fears regarding the consequences of registering with a government-led application that could lead to arrest, detention, or deportation for lacking legal residency. Several had heard rumors that registering for the vaccine was somehow linked to a government plan to send them back to Syria.

Human Rights Watch’s findings mirrored those of the International Rescue Committee and the Lebanon Protection Consortium, who reported on February 26 that based on 883 household level interviews with Syrian refugees in North Lebanon and the Beqaa, “extremely few [Syrian] refugees appear to have information on the Covid-19 vaccine” and observed “high levels of vaccine hesitancy.”

Syrians’ lack of legal status has affected their ability to move freely due to the ubiquitous checkpoints that predate Covid-19, making it very difficult for them to access services such as health care. Discriminatory movement restrictions imposed by some municipalities on Syrian residents further marginalize the refugee population and impede their access to services. Syrian refugees have been particularly hard hit by Lebanon’s economic crisis, which has left 89 percent of Syrian refugees living in extreme poverty – up from 55 percent the year before.

The Palestinian refugees that Human Rights Watch spoke with also lacked awareness about the government’s vaccination plan and their eligibility and expressed fear that they would be discriminated against in the rollout, given the Lebanese government’s history of discriminating against them in access to virtually all social services.

A 39-year-old Palestinian woman living in Rashidieh refugee camp said:

Nobody has come to explain anything to us. It is not like the beginning of pandemic when people came to explain [about the coronavirus] to us... Even I didn’t trust the vaccine and it was only when I knew someone who received the vaccine overseas that I changed my mind… There is no awareness-raising – instead rumors are spreading on WhatsApp. Nothing has been explained properly. It is essential that the positive side of the vaccine is explained so people understand.

A UNRWA spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that the low registration rates among Palestinian refugees could be attributed to a lack of trust in the vaccine and a reluctance to take the vaccine in centers located outside the camps.

There is mixed messaging from the Lebanese authorities on whether migrant workers are included. While the national Covid-19 committee, responsible for devising the plan, has publicly stated that everyone in Lebanon can register regardless of nationality, the Health Ministry has said that it does not have the funds to inoculate migrant workers.

The caretaker Labor Minister Lamia Yammine told Human Rights Watch that Lebanon has about 500,000 registered migrant workers and estimates many more undocumented workers. The IOM confirmed to Human Rights Watch that it is “looking at ways to support the vaccine roll-out to ensure migrants can be reached, including the procurement of doses.”

In a positive step, the vaccination registration platform enabled undocumented people to register without having to submit an ID number, but it remains to be seen whether those who are eligible for vaccination according to the plan will be given appointments.

There are also other significant barriers for migrant workers. The ARM found in research conducted in March that migrant workers lacked accurate information about the vaccine itself and about the process of receiving it in Lebanon. Some migrant workers told ARM that they fear the Lebanese government will not give them the “good vaccine,” demonstrating the low trust between the community and the government. The IOM has provided assistance to a group of migrant workers over the age of 55 with additional health issues to help them register for vaccination.

The Health Ministry has said that it does not have the funds to inoculate migrant workers, but caretaker Labor Minister Yammine has expressed her commitment to ensuring that all migrant workers can access the vaccine. Yammine said that she is working with the IOM on developing a plan to gather data about undocumented workers, ensure that all migrant workers can register, raise awareness about the vaccine among employers and migrant workers, and obtain funding.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the IOM office in Lebanon also recommended that “Governments offer solutions to remove some of the main barriers faced by some categories of migrants: including administrative or legal (e.g. requirement for documentation proving residence, work permit, ID…); financial (e.g. high costs sometimes required for accessing health service); and cultural and informational (e.g. use of channels and languages for communication on public health matters that are not adequate for migrant populations).”

In the joint guidance issued alongside regional human rights mechanisms, the United Nations Committee on Migrant Workers has suggested that “Communication messages and public information campaigns should make clear that migrants in irregular situations will not be penalized or targeted for immigration enforcement when seeking access to Covid-19 vaccination.”

Recommendations for Raising Awareness

The Lebanese authorities should build confidence in the vaccines and the national strategy by providing accessible information about the vaccines and how to register for them, and reassuring refugees and migrant workers that under no circumstances will their information be used to target them for arrest or deportation, now or at any point in the future, nor will they have to pay for the vaccine, Human Rights Watch said.

More broadly, donor governments should push Lebanese authorities to review their coercive policies against marginalized groups that have contributed to an environment of fear and mistrust at a time when that trust is most needed. This lack of trust could easily undermine national vaccine rollout efforts.

Information about Covid-19 vaccines should be accessible and available in multiple languages, including for those with low or no literacy. Communication materials should utilize plain language to maximize understanding.

To facilitate access to vaccines for those without identity documents, including undocumented migrant workers and refugees, the authorities should consult with community members to identify other ways they can confirm their identities. This could include allowing witnesses to attest to a person’s identity or having the person sign a statement attesting to their identity and eligibility.

In addition, governments should focus on community-based approaches to raise awareness and dispel myths for people to change their behavior. This is critical as past experiences in public health crisis response show that sustained behavior change over a long period depends on strong partnerships between all stakeholders, in particular women and religious leaders.

Community health systems can also monitor for potential adverse events from vaccination. Without a system in place to respond immediately and investigate such reports, unfounded rumors can form as a result of unrelated illnesses or deaths in people who have been vaccinated. Failing to address such events will strengthen vaccine hesitancy and undermine vaccination efforts. Developing strong ties to communities and community leaders can also help increase accountability if, for example, vaccines are mishandled or distributed in ways that contradict the priority criteria.

To overcome obstacles in reaching vaccination centers for marginalized groups who may not be able to afford transport to local hospitals, governments should consider providing mobile clinics in partnership with aid groups operating on the ground.

The WHO has recommended that “as countries gear up to deploy Covid-19 vaccines, they will need to design and implement monitoring systems to measure the progress and effectiveness of these programmes. This involves measuring vaccine uptake and coverage among the overall population, as well as among the at-risk populations prioritized for vaccination.” Governments with refugee and migrant populations should ensure that data is disaggregated with separate recording and reporting of vaccinations administered to specific populations, including those living in camps or camp-like settings for refugee and internally displaced people.

International standards

Discrimination on the basis of national origin or residency status is contrary to international law and, in particular, would violate Lebanon’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Indirect discrimination refers to laws, policies, or practices that appear neutral but have a disproportionate impact on the exercise of human rights. Any differential treatment based on national origin or immigration status can only be justified as nondiscriminatory if it pursues a legitimate aim and is proportionate to its achievement.

Governments are responsible for providing information necessary to protect and promote rights, including the right to health. Upholding the right of unhindered access to information is key to overcome vaccine hesitancy and to counter misinformation and mistrust, some of which are rooted in cultural stigma and taboos.

A rights-respecting response to Covid-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, vaccines, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all. Health authorities should provide regular health information briefings and public service announcements to counter misinformation, help calm panic, restore public confidence, and encourage people’s assistance in the crisis.

Cameroon: Boko Haram Attacks Escalate in Far North

Human Rights Watch - Monday, April 5, 2021
Click to expand Image Cameroonian soldiers patrolling along National Road 1, Mora, Far North region, Cameroon, February 5, 2021. © 2021 Private

(Nairobi) – The Islamist armed group Boko Haram has stepped up attacks on civilians in towns and villages in the Far North region of Cameroon since December 2020, killing at least 80 civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. The group has also looted hundreds of homes in the region. The government should take concrete measures to both increase protection to vulnerable communities and ensure a rights-respecting security force response to the worsening violence.

“Boko Haram is waging a war on the people of Cameroon at a shocking human cost,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As Cameroon’s Far North region increasingly becomes the epicenter of Boko Haram’s violence, Cameroon should urgently adopt and carry out a new, rights-respecting strategy to protect civilians at risk in the Far North.”

Click to expand Image The area where a Boko Haram’s female suicide bomber detonated her explosive vest in the bush around Mozogo, Far North region, Cameroon, killing 11 civilians, February 2021 © 2021 Private

Human Rights Watch documented how a Boko Haram suicide bomber blew up fleeing civilians, dozens of local fishermen were killed with machetes and knives, and an elderly village chief was assassinated in front of his family. Research suggests that the actual number of casualties is much higher, given the difficulty of confirming details remotely and that attacks often go unreported.

From January 25 to February 25, 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 20 victims and witnesses to 5 Boko Haram attacks since mid-December in the towns and villages of Blabline, Darak, Gouzoudou, and Mozogo in the Far North region, as well 4 family members of victims, 2 humanitarian workers, and 5 local activists. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 2 victims and a witness to human rights violations in the region by Cameroonian soldiers. Human Rights Watch reviewed reports from humanitarian and other nongovernmental organizations and local media reports on attacks in the region and consulted with academics, political analysts, and representatives of the African Union, the United Nations, and the European Union.

Human Rights Watch shared the research by email with Cyrille Serge Atonfack Guemo, the Cameroonian army spokesperson, on February 1 and again on March 19, requesting information about the Boko Haram attacks, the ongoing military operations, and the specific allegations Human Rights Watch documented. The army spokesperson did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Cameroon’s territorial administration minister said on February 12 that the security situation in the Far North region is “under control” and that Boko Haram is “living its last days.”

One of the deadliest recent attacks was in Mozogo on January 8, when Boko Haram fighters killed at least 14 civilians, including 8 children, and wounded 3 others, including 2 children. As fighters shot at residents and looted homes, a female suicide bomber infiltrated a group of fleeing civilians and then detonated her explosive vest, witnesses said.

“As the shooting started, I ran away toward the forest,” a 41-year-old resident said. “I heard a powerful explosion and lay on the ground. I saw a 7-year-old child covered in blood running toward me. He took me to the place where the kamikaze detonated her explosive vest. It was a bloodbath.”

The Boko Haram insurgency began in Nigeria in 2009 and then spread across the Lake Chad basin countries, including Cameroon. Boko Haram’s attacks are often indiscriminate, including suicide bombings in crowded areas that appear designed to maximize civilian deaths and injuries. Cameroon has had a sharp spike in attacks over the past year. According to a November 2020 report of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a United States Department of Defense think tank, the number of Boko Haram attacks against civilians in Cameroon in 2020 was higher than in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad combined.

In 2015, the African Union established the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), made up of troops from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, to respond to Boko Haram attacks across the Lake Chad basin. Comprising over 8,000 troops, the MNJTF receives technical, financial, and strategic support from international partners, including the European Union, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. The multinational force has conducted joint military operations across the Lake Chad basin.

It is essential for Cameroon and the multinational force to improve the conduct of forces deployed to counter Boko Haram attacks and to ensure that allegations of human rights violations by its forces are investigated and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said.

Since 2014, rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have documented widespread human rights violations and crimes under international humanitarian law by Cameroonian security forces deployed on operations in the Far North, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention, systematic torture, and forced return of refugees. 

On December 9, soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), an elite unit of the Cameroonian army, arrested four fishermen in Dabanga, in the Far North region, beat them, and took them to the Dabanga military base, where one of them died, said two of the fishermen and a family member. The fishermen said that the soldiers accused them of being Boko Haram members and that they saw one of the fishermen who was arrested with them taken from the cell soon after they arrived.

A family member of the fisherman who died said that BIR soldiers brought his body to their home hours after he was arrested, claiming he had died of a heart attack. The two fishermen and the family member said they believe the security forces killed him.

Cameroon’s international partners should push for accountability for human rights violations and work to strengthen the civilian component of the multinational force and its human rights compliance office, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also urges the Cameroonian parliament to hold a hearing to explore the government’s response to the increasing attacks on civilians in the Far North, to provide recommendations on how to enhance civilian protection, and to seek input from international actors as needed.

International humanitarian law, applicable to the armed conflict with Boko Haram, prohibits deliberate disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects. Those who order or commit such attacks with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes.

“With Boko Haram attacks on the rise in Cameroon, more needs to be done to effectively protect civilians, including by boosting the military presence and patrols across the Far North region and ensuring that the soldiers respect people’s rights,” Allegrozzi said. “Cameroon’s regional and international partners, including those supporting the multinational force, should bolster these efforts and ensure that their assistance does not contribute to human rights violations.”

For more details about the recent attacks and abuses in the Far North region, please see below.

Humanitarian Crisis

The Cameroonian military has deployed thousands of soldiers to the Far North region to prevent and repel attacks by Boko Haram, but residents and humanitarian workers said the soldiers’ presence is far too thin to effectively protect civilians. Cameroon’s overstretched army is also confronting a separatist insurgency in the country’s Anglophone regions and the threat of cross-border raids by rebels in neighboring Central African Republic. It has relied on over 14,000 so-called “vigilantes,” community self-defense groups, and in some cases forced untrained civilians to carry out security tasks without adequate training or protection, putting them at great risk.  

The Boko Haram violence in Cameroon has led to a major humanitarian crisis, forcing over 322,000 people from their homes since 2014, including 12,500 since December. Given the heightened insecurity, access to many areas is only possible with military escorts, making it difficult for humanitarian organizations to deliver aid while respecting their neutrality, depriving those in need of life-saving assistance. Aid workers and residents said that increasing the military presence and military patrols in violence-prone areas, including on market days, would both improve civilian protection and expand humanitarian access by enabling aid workers to safely travel without escorts.

Mozogo

Raid and Suicide Attack

Witnesses said that about 100 fighters, whom they recognized as being Boko Haram members from the way they dressed and spoke, entered the town of Mozogo on foot at about 1:30 a.m. on January 8, breaking into homes, looting property, and shooting at residents, killing two men, one of whom was 80 years old. As they fled towards the nearby bush, witnesses reported hearing a loud explosion. A female suicide bomber had infiltrated a group of fleeing civilians and detonated her explosive vest, killing 11 people on the spot, including 8 children, and wounding 3 others, including 2 children. A 43-year-old man later died three days later at the Koza Adventist hospital from wounds caused by the explosion.

Human Rights Watch spoke to five witnesses to the attack, including three family members of victims. Human Rights Watch also obtained lists of the 14 people killed from four sources and spoke to relatives and residents who carried out the burials. These details correspond with the information published by local media.

A 43-year-old woman who lost two of her children, a 17-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl, in the suicide attack said:

Boko Haram [fighters] fired shots and screamed “Allahu Akbar” [God is Great]. We ran toward the forest. Minutes later, we heard a loud explosion. I found myself on the ground. When I stood up, I looked for my children. My girl was dead, while the boy was badly injured. They were both covered in blood with wounds all over their bodies. Residents helped me carry the boy to our home, where he died.


A relative of the 80-year-old man said that four Boko Haram fighters armed with Kalashnikovs and machetes broke into their home and fired twice at the elderly man, who was too weak to run away:

Gunshots woke us up and suddenly they [Boko Haram fighters] were at our door. They destroyed the door and broke in. They shot twice at the husband of my grandmother, an 80-year-old man who could not walk very well because of his age. He was not quick enough to escape. I did. He was shot in the stomach and stabbed with a machete on his head. When the attack ended, I came back home and found him in a pool of blood. I took him to the hospital, where he died the same day.

Response of the Security Forces and Displacement

Witnesses said that soldiers from the 42nd Motorized Infantry Battalion (BIM) based in Mozogo intervened after the female fighter detonated her explosive vest. They fired in the air to chase away the Boko Haram fighters.

In a January 8 statement, Cameroon’s communication minister said that local authorities and security forces had opened an investigation into the attack.

On January 9, Midjiyawa Bakari, governor of Cameroon’s Far North region, said that military reinforcements had been deployed to Mozogo to secure the area, which was confirmed by witnesses, who said that up to five additional military vehicles patrolled the town for a few days. But residents said these military reinforcements appear to have left.

Residents said they are worried about their security especially since the departure of the military reinforcements. “We live in fear,” a 50-year-old man said. “We are tired of this situation; we have been economically and psychologically drained.”

Following the January 8 attack, hundreds of people fled Mozogo to nearby villages and towns, including Koza, Mokolo, and Touboro. At least 300 who remained in Mozogo did not spend the night at home, sleeping for over a month instead outside, in a secondary school compound near the gendarmerie brigade, or at the public stand used for national celebrations near the army base.

A 38-year-old man who survived the suicide attack said on January 28 that he had not slept at home since January 8 and spent his nights, from about 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., in the veranda of a secondary technical school, along with his two wives and six children: “I sleep with all my family on one single mat on the veranda of the school, which is 20 meters from the gendarmerie brigade. There are about 100 people sleeping there, outside.”

Night Guard Duty

Human Rights Watch previously documented how soldiers in Mozogo forced civilians to perform local night guard duty to protect the town against attacks by Boko Haram, using beatings and threats against those who refused. While the beatings appear to have stopped, Human Rights Watch spoke to residents who continue to perform night duty out of fear of renewed beatings and threats. Some expressed concerns for their safety and said they feel they are being put in harm’s way, lacking the necessary experience and equipment to perform the dangerous security tasks demanded of them.

“I usually do my night guard duty twice a week,” a 39-year-old mechanic said. “I only have a flashlight. I have no whistle, no weapon, no phone. This type of work is not remunerated and is dangerous. It is not the type of work civilians should do. It is up to the military to protect us from Boko Haram attacks. We are being unnecessarily exposed to great risks.”

A 50-year-old man from Mozogo said he stopped performing the night guard duty following a Boko Haram raid in November during which civilians who were on duty were attacked and fired upon: “We were alone. There was no member of the vigilante committee or soldier with us that night. We were just 10 civilians at the security post called Municipal Stadium. Up to 30 Boko Haram fighters shot at us. It was a miracle none got injured.”

Darak

On December 24, Boko Haram fighters attacked Darak, an island on Lake Chad. Human Rights Watch spoke to two survivors, three people who carried out burials, and a relative of a survivor. Those who carried out burials said that Boko Haram killed up to 80 civilians, the majority of them fishermen. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify the number of civilian deaths.

Local authorities told international and national media outlets that “scores” were killed in the attack. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that Boko Haram attacked four islands on the lake, on the border between Chad and Cameroon, on December 24, killing 27 people and kidnapping 12 others.

According to information collected by Human Rights Watch, about 100 Boko Haram fighters on wooden pirogues stormed an area of Darak known as Tonganamie, where night fishermen cast their nets, at about midnight. They rounded up the fishermen and killed them, mostly using knives and machetes.

“I heard people talking in Kanuri [a language commonly spoken in the Far North of Cameroon] and saying: ‘Come on! Come quickly! Go ahead.’ They were Boko Haram fighters and they were rounding up the fishermen to kill them,” a 24-year-old fisherman who witnessed the attack said. “I hid. Later, I went back to Darak town. I know eight among those who were killed that night; they were all fishermen from Darak.”

A 32-year-old fisherman who was seriously injured said:

Over 100 Boko Haram fighters came with their wooden rowboats. Some remained in the boats; some got out and rounded us up. They gathered all the fishermen who were there and killed them with their knives and machetes as they tried to escape. I was caught and they hit me with a machete on the head. I was also hit in the right hand with a spear. I thought I was dead. I jumped into the water to save my life. I swam and reached the grass side [of a nearby marsh]. Some fishermen later found me. I was taken to the hospital, where I stayed for 15 days. My wounds are yet to heal.

“I was among those who helped recovered the bodies from the water,” a 25-year-old Darak resident said. “It took us three days to collect them all. Bodies were floating in the water. The first day, after the attack, we collected over 40 bodies, including with the help of nets. The following two days, we collected 40 more, for a total of over 80 bodies. Most of them had visible stab wounds.”

Witnesses said the overnight attack in Darak took the security forces based there, including soldiers from both the marine and land forces, by surprise. They said Boko Haram fighters arrived on pirogues without engines and only fired a few gunshots to limit any noise that could have prompted soldiers to intervene.

In a previous Boko Haram attack on Darak in June 2019, insurgents killed 21 soldiers and 16 civilians.

Gouzoudou

On December 16, at about 1:45 a.m., a group of five Boko Haram fighters attacked the home of Gouzoudou’s traditional authority, known as the lawane, firing several gunshots and wounding two men. The lawane escaped and ran to the military camp in town to sound the alarm. The soldiers came shortly after, but the insurgents had already fled. Soldiers evacuated the wounded to the Maroua regional hospital. One of them, a 60-year-old man, is still receiving medical treatment, including amputating his right hand.

Human Rights Watch spoke to the lawane, as well as seven witnesses to the attack. “I was outside with my 30-year-old brother when we heard some noise,” the lawane said. “My brother used his flashlight to light the surroundings. I saw five Boko Haram fighters armed with Kalashnikovs. They shot my brother in his heel as I jumped off a little wall to save my life. When I returned home, I found that my food shop and my motorbike had been looted.”

Residents said Boko Haram has repeatedly targeted Gouzoudou, with at least eight raids recorded between December 14 and January 21. They said that until the end of 2020, there was a military camp in Gouzoudou, but that the camp has been dismantled.

Blabline

On December 2, at about 6 p.m., at least five Boko Haram fighters attacked a group of four civilians in the outskirts of Blabline village, killing one – a lawane from a neighboring village – and injuring three others, including a 16-year-old child. Human Rights Watch spoke to two witnesses of the attack and three Blabline residents who buried the body of the lawane and helped rescue the wounded.

One of the witnesses said:

I was a few meters away from the scene. I saw the Boko Haram fighters and hid. I watched as they captured the lawane, two of his sons and another man. They forced them on the ground and stole their phones. They spoke Kanuri and Arabic. Then, they fired a series of gunshots at them. The lawane was hit in the head and died on the spot. The fighters stole his motorbike and ran away with it. I rushed to rescue the wounded, including a 28-year-old man who was shot in the right shoulder, a 16-year-old child who was shot in the heel, and a 45-year-old man who was shot in the ribs.

Boko Haram fighters attacked Blabline again at about 11 p.m. on December 4. They fired at people as they fled, shooting a 38-year-old man in the stomach. They also broke into scores of homes, looting bicycles, motorbikes, food, telephones, clothes, and other items.

Human Rights Watch spoke to five witnesses to the attack, including the village chief who said that the attackers had looted 80 of the village’s 142 households.

Witnesses said soldiers intervened and chased the assailants away, but only after widespread looting. They also said that Boko Haram fighters attempted to attack the village four more times – on December 14, 27, and 31 – but that the military expelled them. In another attack on January 11, insurgents looted four homes.

Myanmar: Hundreds Forcibly Disappeared

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 2, 2021
Click to expand Image A man is held by police during a crackdown on anti-coup protesters holding a rally in front of the Myanmar Economic Bank in Mandalay, Myanmar on February 15, 2021. © AP Photo

(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s military junta has forcibly disappeared hundreds of people since the February 1, 2021 coup, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have taken into custody politicians, election officials, journalists, activists, and protesters and refused to confirm their location or allow access to lawyers or family members in violation of international law.

The security forces have arrested many people suspected of participation in anti-coup demonstrations or in the opposition Civil Disobedience Movement during nighttime raids on homes throughout the country. The nongovernmental organization, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, told Human Rights Watch they could confirm the location of only a small fraction of the more than 2,500 recent detainees they have identified.

“The military junta’s widespread use of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances appears designed to strike fear in the hearts of anti-coup protesters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Concerned governments should demand the release of everyone disappeared and impose targeted economic sanctions against junta leaders to finally hold this abusive military to account.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to family members, witnesses, and lawyers of 16 people feared to have been forcibly disappeared since the coup.

On February 1 at about 5:30 a.m., four uniformed soldiers and a man in civilian attire arrived at the home of Mya Aye, 55, an outspoken activist and member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, Yangon. The men showed no arrest warrant and offered no basis for his arrest to family members, which was caught on a neighbor’s CCTV camera and later was posted on Twitter.

Later that day, two plainclothes officers came to the residence to collect his medications but refused to provide additional information. In late March, Mya Aye’s family said that the authorities still had not told them where Mya Aye was being held and had not provided him access to a lawyer.

On March 6, police arrived at the funeral in Mandalay of a protester shot dead by police, causing those attending to flee in panic. A prominent activist, Nyi Nyi Kyaw, fell and the police arrested him. A friend of Nyi Nyi Kyaw said that the authorities did not tell his family where he was, and that they went into hiding out of fear that they may be targeted as family members.

The family received one communication from Nyi Nyi Kyaw – a short but chilling phone call to his eldest son from a blocked number – four days after his disappearance in which he sounded agitated and distressed, the friend said. The call was ended before the family could ascertain his whereabouts.

On March 9, military trucks arrived around 1:30 p.m. and parked outside the office of Karmayut Media in Yangon, neighbors said. At about 3 p.m., they saw soldiers take away the media outlet’s co-founder, Han Thar Nyein, 40, and the editor-in-chief, Nathan Maung, 45. Their families still have not been informed of their whereabouts, a family member said.

“We’re so anxious about where they are, and we’re worried for their well-being,” the family member of Han Thar Nyein said. “We want to see them with our own eyes, to accept that they are okay, that they are alive. And we want this to happen quickly, not to wait in this agonizing way.”

Many friends and family members of anti-coup protesters who have been arrested told Human Rights Watch they do not know exactly where the person was being held, heightening concerns about their safety and well-being.

In many cases, families have only received information informally about the location of their family member, such as when newly released detainees notify family members or lawyers that they had seen a person who had been detained. Some families believe that because a prison accepts a package for their family member, it is most likely the place where their relative is being held. However, this is conjecture and does not relieve the authorities of their obligation to provide information on a detainee’s whereabouts, produce a detainee in court within 48 hours, and allow access to counsel and family members.

Under international human rights law, a state commits an enforced disappearance when government authorities or their agents arrest or detain an individual followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealing the fate or whereabouts of the person, placing them outside the protection of the law. Forcibly disappeared people are commonly subjected to torture or extrajudicial execution. Families must live with the uncertainty of not knowing if their loved ones are dead or alive, and worrying about their treatment in captivity.

Enforced disappearances are grave violations of international law, and when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, are crimes against humanity.

“Enforced disappearances are a heinous crime, not least because of the anguish and suffering caused to family and friends,” Adams said. “Myanmar’s security forces have continually flouted any respect for human rights, but they should know that they will be held accountable for the disappearances of these individuals and for the safe return of everyone forcibly disappeared.”

Examples of Enforced Disappearances

Mya Aye

Mya Aye is a vocal critic of the military and a veteran pro-democracy activist who has been arrested twice previously, in 1989 and again in 2007. He served lengthy sentences both times. His daughter said that both times, he was also forcibly disappeared for months before the family could locate him.

Mya Aye was arrested on February 1 at his home in Yangon. On February 3, family members went to the Mingalar Taung Nyunt township police station to ask where he was being detained and the charges against him. The family said that police chief, Tin Maung Swe, said police were not responsible for Mya Aye’s detention and could not provide further details. On February 6, the family requested assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross to help locate him. On February 17, the family made a submission to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

Mya Aye’s family said that in the two months since he was disappeared the authorities have not informed the family of his whereabouts and failed to respond to the family’s numerous requests for an investigation into the circumstances of his arrest and disappearance. They said that he has had a quadruple bypass operation and requires daily medication. The family has sent packages that include food and medication to Yangon’s Insein prison with the hope that he is there, and that the medication reaches him, but they have no way to confirm if he has received them.

Nyi Nyi Kyaw

On March 6, police arrested Nyi Nyi Kyaw in Mandalay as he attended the funeral of a protester shot dead by the police. When security forces arrived at the service, held on the corner of 62nd and 102nd streets, the funeral congregation ran in panic. Nyi Nyi Kyaw fell over as he was running and appeared to be immediately targeted for arrest by the police there, his friend said. While other civil society activists were at the funeral, only Nyi Nyi Kyaw was arrested.

In attempts to locate Nyi Nyi Kyaw, his family on March 7 took packages to two prisons in Mandalay: Obo and then Lan Dwin. Both facilities denied that he was being held there.

The family decided to go into hiding after Nyi Nyi Kyaw’s son received a distressing phone call from his father on March 10, four days after his arrest. The family is unsure whose phone Nyi Nyi Kyaw was using, but he repeatedly avoided answering questions about his whereabouts or his well-being. His son told the family friend that his father seemed disoriented and asked questions about another individual involved in the civil disobedience movement who was on the run. The call was cut from Nyi Nyi Kyaw’s end when his son could not answer questions about the key leaders of the anti-coup movement.

“Maybe Nyi Nyi Kyaw called because he wanted to let his son know he was alive,” a family friend said. “His son is terrified for his father’s well-being but also worried that the family is being tracked so they have gone into hiding. This makes things even more desperate for Nyi Nyi Kyaw because he’s not receiving the packages from his family members that are so essential for the survival of prisoners in Myanmar jails.”

Nathan Maung and Han Thar Nyein

On March 9, the authorities arrested the Karmayut Media editor-in-chief, Nathan Maung, and co-founder, Han Thar Nyein, after security forces raided their office in Yangon. Two videos posted on Facebook on March 10, recorded from a neighboring building, show at least six army vehicles parked outside the office. Soldiers can be seen leaving the office building carrying bags and equipment and placing them in the vehicles. By matching the buildings visible in the videos with satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch confirmed it to be the location of Karmaryut Media in Kamayut township.

“No one has been able to tell me where they are,” a family member of Han Thar Nyein said. The family member said that lawyers had not had access to the pair and that the authorities had not told them where they were holding them.

On March 10, the families tried to send packages to Insein prison, but the next day prison officials told them to collect the packages as no one with those names was in the prison.

Yan Paing Hein

On March 9, the authorities arrested Yan Paing Hein, 25, together with 22 other residents from 3rd St., Lanmadaw township in Yangon, after protesters detained seven police officers who had been involved in trying to quash protests.

In a video livestreamed on Facebook on March 8 that Human Rights Watch could no longer locate but has access to an offline copy, Yan Paing Hein can be seen and heard attempting to prevent residents from beating the captive police officers. Soon after, the military arrives in a large convoy and shots can be heard. Yan Paing Hein can be seen running away. Human Rights Watch identified Yan Paing Hein in this video through interviews with family members. He later ran back to his home along with others who were not immediately arrested, a family member said.

Around 12:30 a.m., police broke down the front door of Yan Paing Hein’s house. Soldiers entered the house and arrested Yan Paing Hein. The soldiers also arrested 22 other young men from the neighborhood.

“They pointed guns at me and my father while they were searching our home, while they were questioning my dad and while they took Yan Paing Hein,” said his sister. “I didn’t see that my brother was beaten when they took him away, but I heard from another guy who was later released that Yan Paing Hein was beaten, that his nose was broken, and that he couldn’t breathe properly because the blood was clotting in his nose.”

The security forces took Yan Paing Hein to an interrogation facility in Shwe Pyi Thar township. Another man taken that night said that he saw 23 men there that night, including himself, but that when he and others were released at 5 p.m. the next day, he noticed that seven were missing, including Yan Paing Hein.

The authorities have not told the family where Yan Paing Hein is but detainees who were subsequently released told the family they saw him inside Insein prison. The family has sent four packages to the prison, none of which have been returned. Neither the family nor the lawyer have managed to have direct contact with him.

Sai Phyo Htike

On March 14, the authorities arrested Sai Phyo Htike, 23, an engineering student, on the corner of 81st and 21st streets in Mandalay. A friend of his now living abroad said that Sai Phyo Htike was riding home to Sein Pan Ward from an anti-coup protest when a group of armed men in civilian clothes ran in front of him and fired warning shots in the air. Sai Phyo Htike fell from his motorbike and was arrested in front of the No. 8 Police Station. The authorities have provided no details about why he was arrested and have repeatedly denied requests from his family and lawyer to see him. 

US Rescinds ICC Sanctions

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 2, 2021
Click to expand Image Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. © 2018 Marina Riera/Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – US President Joe Biden’s cancellation of punitive sanctions targeting the International Criminal Court (ICC) removes a serious obstacle to the court’s providing justice to the victims of the world’s worst crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 2, 2021, Biden revoked a June 2020 order by then-President Donald Trump authorizing asset freezes and entry bans to thwart the ICC’s work.

In announcing the repeal of the executive order, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “[t]hese decisions reflect our assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective.” The State Department also lifted existing visa restrictions.

“The Trump administration’s perversely punitive sanctions against the ICC showed stark contempt for the victims of grave international crimes and the prosecutors who seek to hold those responsible to account,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “In removing this unprecedented threat to the global rule of law, President Biden has begun the long process of restoring US credibility on international justice through the ICC.”

The Trump administration put the sweeping executive order into effect in September, when it imposed sanctions on the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and another senior official, Phakiso Mochochoko. It had repeatedly threatened action to thwart ICC investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine. In 2019, the Trump administration had revoked the prosecutor’s US visa.

Human Rights Watch had urged the Biden administration to rescind Trump’s executive order as a matter of priority. The Trump administration’s order was a threat to the global rule of law and the court’s work in bringing justice to victims.

It also created apprehension and uncertainty for nongovernmental organizations, consultants, and lawyers who work with the ICC in investigative and adjudicative capacities. Several academics and practitioners who provided expertise to the Office of the Prosecutor or represented victims before the court challenged the constitutionality of the executive order in two lawsuits in US federal court.

Several US lawmakers spoke out after the order was used to sanction the two ICC officials, as did ICC member countries, the European Union, and nongovernmental organizations in the US and globally. Significantly, ICC member countries repeatedly affirmed their collective support for the court, including during their most recent annual meeting, in December.

Even while repealing the order, though, the Biden administration made clear it continues to oppose the “ICC’s actions” in the Afghanistan and Palestine situations. In response to the ICC prosecutor’s March decision to open a Palestine investigation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to such an inquiry, contesting the court’s jurisdiction over the situation. The prosecutor’s investigation provides a long-awaited path to justice for both Palestinian and Israeli victims of serious international crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

ICC member countries should act on the lessons of the executive order’s repeal and voice their support for the court. The countries that created the ICC should stand ready to protect its crucial role against any action aimed at undermining its independence as a court, Human Rights Watch said.

With the punitive sanctions no longer in place, the US government should review its future engagement with the ICC. A US State Department spokesperson had previously indicated that the administration might consider resuming cooperation with the court in “exceptional cases.” While differences will remain between Washington and the court, the Biden administration should seek regularized cooperation with the ICC. Justice through the ICC can advance important US policy interests, as the February 4 conviction of Dominic Ongwen, a former leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, demonstrated. The Ongwen case highlighted the very constructive role that can be played by the US, which provided essential support for his surrender to the court in 2015.

While the US should work toward joining the court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, even as a non-member it can advance ICC cases by providing evidence, cooperating in the arrest of fugitives, calling for and endorsing UN Security Council actions to support the court, and engaging in discussions at the Assembly of States Parties that consists of the ICC’s 123 member countries.

“The ICC has its limitations, but its role as a court of last resort for the worst crimes is needed now more than ever,” Dicker said. “The Biden administration should back the ICC to ensure that victims get a chance for justice and that cooperation should be the rule, not the exception.”

Turkey Resumes its Crackdown on Student Protesters

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 2, 2021
Click to expand Image Police forcefully detain a protester during demonstrations against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rector appointment to Boğaziçi University, April 1 2021, Kadıköy, İstanbul, Turkey. © 2021 Murat Baykara/Sipa via AP Images

A Turkish court today ordered the release of two student protesters detained since February 4. Şilan Delipalta and Anıl Akyüz were arrested for joining an unauthorized protest against President Erdogan’s controversial appointment of an unelected rector to Turkey’s Boğaziçi University in January. Their detention was just one episode in a broad crackdown on student protesters in Turkey this year.    

Police have responded to peaceful demonstrations with excessive force detaining around 700 protesters since January – the majority of whom have been released shortly afterwards. At least five students were reportedly detained for carrying LGBT flags on March 25. The latest images of violent arrests of student protesters, 35 of whom were detained for a few hours on April 1, showed police grabbing some students by the throat and throwing them to the ground. These shocking images show growing government intolerance for students demonstrating against what they see as the Erdogan government’s bid to control higher education through the appointment of rectors.

At least 12 students have spent periods in pretrial detention and dozens currently face prosecution on charges such as “resisting police orders,” “violating the law on demonstrations,” and “inciting public hatred” for merely exercising their right to peaceful assembly. Authorities have imposed restrictive measures on dozens of other students including house arrest, travel bans, and judicial controls requiring they sign in at the nearest police station on a regular basis. Boğaziçi University has also placed dozens of students under disciplinary investigation, accusing them of  “insulting campus security personnel” and “organizing unauthorized protests on campus,” which could result in temporary or permanent expulsion from the university.

Turkey’s authorities should urgently drop their policy of crushing peaceful student protests, respect the rights of assembly and expression, and drop all arbitrary charges and sanctions against students for their involvement in them.

Boğaziçi University too should drop the ongoing disciplinary investigations against students and not misuse its authority to silence dissent on campus.

New York States Passes Important Legislation for Justice

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 1, 2021
Click to expand Image Melissa Moore of Drug Policy Alliance (M) speaks at a rally in support of the Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) alongside supporters of the bill on the steps on New York City Hall on November 21, 2019. © 2019 Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa via AP Images

On Wednesday, the US state of New York enacted two groundbreaking pieces of legislation. One law will limit the cruel practice of solitary confinement, the other legalizes marijuana, and both laws will advance justice and protect rights.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) not only legalizes marijuana in New York by removing it from the state’s Controlled Substances Act, but it also takes funds generated by a sales tax on certain marijuana-related products and reinvests the money into communities most harmed by the drug war. It does so by funding community-based projects, including adult education services, job training, after school programs, and re-entry services for people recently released from custody. This will help repair the harm from decades of racist enforcement of drug laws, including arrests for possession of marijuana, as documented by Human Rights Watch and many others. The law also creates ways for people convicted of marijuana-related offenses to have their sentences removed or reclassified. New Mexico’s legislature simultaneously passed a similar bill that is awaiting its governor’s signature.

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act (HALT Solitary Act), which will go into effect in a year, limits the use of solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days and bars it entirely for several groups, including those 21 and younger, 55 and older, and people with disabilities. It also creates more humane, effective alternatives to solitary, limits its use to the most egregious conduct, and enhances procedural protections, staff capabilities, and transparency and accountability through mandatory reporting and oversight. Our research and that of others has shown that jail and prison staff often impose prolonged periods of isolation that could amount to torture under international human rights law for minor misconduct, and in conditions that are needlessly harsh, counterproductive, and inconsistent with recognition of each person’s basic humanity and dignity.

Human Rights Watch supported both pieces of legislation, which are part of the JusticeRoadmap for New York, which is taking on laws that target Black and brown communities. But it is the bold state lawmakers who supported the bills, advocates from the Drug Policy Alliance, which led efforts on the MRTA, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which led on the HALT Solitary Act, VOCAL-NY, and many others, some of whom were convicted of marijuana-related offenses or spent years in solitary confinement themselves, who are responsible for this victory. These laws will make New York a better, safer, fairer place to be.

Afghanistan: Taliban Target Journalists, Women in Media

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 1, 2021
Click to expand Image Afghan journalists film at the site of a bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

(New York) – Taliban forces are deliberately targeting journalists and other media workers, including women, in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Threats and attacks against journalists across the country have increased sharply since talks began between the Afghan government and the Taliban, heightening concerns about preserving freedom of expression and the media in any peace settlement.

Human Rights Watch found that Taliban commanders and fighters have engaged in a pattern of threats, intimidation, and violence against members of the media in areas where the Taliban have significant influence, as well as in Kabul. Those making the threats often have an intimate knowledge of a journalist’s work, family, and movements and use this information to either compel them to self-censor, leave their work altogether, or face violent consequences. Provincial and district-level Taliban commanders and fighters also make oral and written threats against journalists beyond the areas they control. Journalists say that the widespread nature of the threats has meant that no media workers feel safe.

“A wave of threats and killings has sent a chilling message to the Afghan media at a precarious moment as Afghans on all sides get set to negotiate free speech protections in a future Afghanistan,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “By silencing critics through threats and violence, the Taliban have undermined hopes for preserving an open society in Afghanistan.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 46 members of the Afghan media between November 2020 and March 2021, seeking information on the conditions under which they work, including threats of physical harm. Those interviewed included 42 journalists in Badghis, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, Wardak, and Zabul provinces and four who had left Afghanistan due to threats.

In a number of cases that Human Rights Watch documented, Taliban forces detained journalists for a few hours or overnight. In several cases they or their colleagues were able to contact senior Taliban officials to intercede with provincial and district-level commanders to secure their release, indicating that local commanders are able to take decisions to target journalists on their own without approval from senior Taliban military or political officials.

Taliban officials at their political office in Doha, Qatar, have denied that their forces threaten the media and say that they require only that journalists respect Islamic values. But Taliban commanders throughout Afghanistan have threatened journalists specifically for their reporting. The commanders have considerable autonomy to carry out punishments, including targeted killings.

Women journalists, especially those appearing on television and radio, face particular threats. The recent wave of violent attacks has driven several prominent women journalists to give up their profession or leave Afghanistan altogether. Female reporters may be targeted not only for issues they cover but also for challenging perceived social norms prohibiting women from being in a public role and working outside the home.

Journalists outside the country’s main cities are especially vulnerable to attacks because they are more exposed and lack even the minimal protection that a larger Afghan media, government, and international presence provides. However, as the fighting has increasingly encroached on major cities, these have offered decreasing protection to journalists seeking safety from the violence in their home districts.

A journalist covering the fighting in Helmand province said that one of his sources told him the Taliban were looking for him and he should lie low. “The majority of Afghan journalists feel intimidated and threatened,” he said. “All the journalists are scared because everyone feels like they could be next.”

Residents of Taliban-held areas have long expressed fear of retaliation if they complain about the way Taliban forces carry out military operations or enforce restrictions. In a June 2020 report, Human Rights Watch documented severe restrictions in areas under Taliban control, including limits on freedom of expression and the media.

The Taliban leadership should immediately cease intimidation, threats, and attacks against journalists and other media workers, Human Rights Watch said. They should urgently provide clear, public directives to all Taliban members to end all forms of violence against journalists and other media workers, and intimidation, harassment, and punishment of Afghans who have criticized Taliban policies. The Taliban leadership should also explicitly reject violence against women in the media.

The United Nations and governments supporting the Intra-Afghan Negotiations should publicly press the Taliban leadership to adopt these recommendations, and provide increased support, including protection, to independent media organizations and journalists in Afghanistan, especially those facing threats.

“It’s not enough for Taliban officials in Doha to issue blanket denials that they’re targeting journalists when Taliban forces on the ground continue to intimidate, harass, and attack reporters for doing their jobs,” Gossman said. “Countries supporting the peace process should press for firm commitments from all parties to protect journalists, including women, and uphold the right to free expression in Afghanistan.”

Taliban Threats to Afghan Media

Although the Taliban routinely deny responsibility for attacks on journalists, the Afghan Journalists Security Committee (AJSC) has said:

Since the beginning of the spike in targeted killings in early November [2020], supporters of the group [Taliban] have welcomed the killings of journalists on social media, calling these killings in many cases a religious duty. Taliban supporters accuse journalists of being agents of Western countries, and corrupted by Western values, thereby legitimizing any violence against journalists and the media as not only being permissible but a key part of their war.

Taliban Threats Related to Reporting on the War

Taliban commanders and fighters have long targeted the media, accusing them of being aligned with the Afghan government or international military forces. If journalists report unfavorably about Taliban actions or military operations, the Taliban often accuse them of being spies. District and provincial-level Taliban commanders have also criticized journalists for not reporting incidents such as civilian casualties from government airstrikes. Journalists have said that the role some of them play as influential and prominent figures in many communities has made them targets of the Taliban. By attacking them the Taliban effectively threaten all local media. A journalist in Helmand said:

If the more prominent journalists are targeted first, the other journalists, who might be less influential or prominent, are automatically intimidated and fear for their lives .… Pro- Taliban accounts on social media … explicitly issue warnings to other journalists, along the lines of “learn something from the death of this journalist”—you can be next.

The effect on Afghan media has been profound. The killings and threats have generated fear among journalists and media workers, many of whom have altered their work patterns in an effort to mitigate the danger or try to be less visible.

Taliban pressure on the media is an apparent part of an effort to shape public debate about the war at a time of heightened political tensions surrounding the peace talks. Local journalists said Taliban commanders and fighters call them to complain about published reports, questioning why a certain issue was covered in a certain way. A journalist in Kandahar said:

The Taliban warned me about reporting on casualties related to a suicide attack. They wanted me to say that a lot of people got killed but I just reported the attacker dying … The Taliban threatened a couple of journalists over the last couple years for not reporting on assassinations. They say, ‘Why don’t you report the actual number?’ When we argue with them that it is the correct number, they threaten us.

When one journalist reported a Taliban attack on a civilian facility in Kandahar, he said that within minutes he received death threats and other warnings on his phone. The Taliban called him to say that they had not targeted civilians but a nearby government checkpost. The journalist said that he lives in fear that the Taliban might still come after him. Other journalists in Kandahar have reported being followed by Taliban fighters. Because of such confrontations, journalists often self-censor their stories.

In Helmand, Taliban commanders targeted journalists who reported on military operations during a Taliban offensive in October. Taliban forces attacked the outskirts of Lashkargah city, overrunning Afghan government checkpoints until US airstrikes drove them back. In the months before he was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) on November 11, Elyas Dayee, a journalist, had received multiple threats from Taliban commanders in Helmand, warning him to stop his reporting on their military operations. Another reporter covering the fighting said that the morning after his report came out, a Taliban commander called and accused him of publishing reports against the Islamic Emirates and warned that he would face consequences.

The Nature of the Threats

In Taliban-controlled provinces, threats often come from local commanders with knowledge of the journalist’s family, work habits, and movements. These commanders maintain individual contact with journalists and editors, and usually communicate these threats by phone or through social media.

A radio presenter in Zabul province said that he and his colleagues routinely receive threats from the Taliban accusing them of giving the government publicity. The callers always know details about the journalists they call, including their jobs, family members’ names, and often their addresses. One caller told him that he should either leave the area or work for the Taliban. When he refused the caller told him he should “count down to his death.” He said his relatives also receive these threats and are told to communicate them to him.

In Ghazni province, reporters say that they have been threatened and intimidated by various groups and do not know who is behind every attack. However, despite official denials from the Taliban leadership, comments by Taliban commanders and fighters on social media have led journalists to suspect that the Taliban are responsible for many attacks. These commanders generally have considerable autonomy to plan and carry out military operations independently.

The Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee said that in Ghazni province, the Taliban had instructed the majority of the local media outlets that they would only be permitted to continue media activities if they followed Taliban directives. Another journalist in Ghazni said that the Taliban commanders in the province object to any content that is negative or critical about them. Journalists whose reporting is perceived as favorable to the Afghan government may immediately become a target. Leaving their jobs is often their only recourse.

On December 21, Rahmatullah Nekzad, head of the Ghazni journalists' union, was fatally shot as he walked from his home to a local mosque. Although the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied that the group was responsible for the attack, Nekzad had been receiving threats from local Taliban commanders since at least 2019. He said in early December, that the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country's intelligence agency, informed him that he and 15 other journalists in Ghazni were at risk of a Taliban attack. He described the threats he received:

I use a social media account to upload daily news. Some local Taliban called me to accuse me of running social media pages that post anti-Taliban news. … Their argument was that every time you post something on your wall, these … are also your accounts. They also threatened people who commented on the post.

In another case in mid-December, Taliban forces stopped the vehicle in which a local journalist was traveling. He called a contact, who then contacted a Taliban official. As a result of this intervention, the local Taliban released him. While he was in their custody, the Taliban accused him of working for the government’s intelligence agency and for “foreigners.”

Journalists have also been threatened for reporting on Taliban abuses. A radio correspondent from Badghis province said that after he and his colleagues broadcast a report about the Taliban extorting payments from highway drivers, the journalists began to receive threats: 

In addition to the radio, we have a Facebook page where we publish the news of the day. After I posted this story, one of the comments read: “The martyrs of the Islamic Emirate will soon kill the employees of this media station.” The same message came in [Facebook] Messenger. Since then, we report less news on Facebook now. Badghis’s capital is a very small city. Everyone knows each other and I have no doubt that they also know the address of our office.

Another journalist from Badghis said that in November, as he was traveling from Herat to Badghis province, Taliban fighters stopped him and forced him out of his car. They interrogated him about whether he had cooperated with government security forces and threatened to kill him. He said that his family was aware that he was on the road. He was finally released after local and ethnic Taliban elders who knew them mediated his release. “I am still in fear and … shock from this incident,” he said. “Now I publish less news of the war. Whenever I go to a press conference, I am fearful and cautious. I only cover news from the capital now.”

Local Taliban fighters have assaulted journalists who have traveled into Taliban-controlled districts. A journalist from Wardak province said that a group of Taliban fighters stopped and beat him and another reporter, accusing them of spying and “going around without the Taliban's permission to take pictures, record videos, and talk to people.” The journalists showed their press identification but were not released until after they called a contact, who then informed senior Taliban officials, who ordered them released.

Threats also come in writing. A journalist in Ghazni said that a letter was dropped by his house ordering him to meet with the local Taliban because his reports were not “neutral.” It warned him that if he did not change, his death was “close.” After the warning, he left his home district and stayed in Kabul for a few months. Eventually he returned home but avoided his office out of fear.

The Taliban also send cell phone text messages to comment on media coverage, often chiding reporters that they should have included the Taliban point of view. While criticism of media reporting is not in itself problematic, when it comes from an armed group with a history of killing journalists, the messages are intimidating and create fear. “Being a journalist is something that can put your life in danger without even doing anything specific to antagonize the Taliban,” one journalist in Ghazni said.

Journalists also receive threats when they share their political views on social media. Taliban commanders also use Facebook to issue threats. A journalist in Ghazni said that shortly after he posted a government statement on a military offensive that resulted in Taliban casualties, he received a message from a Taliban commander demanding to speak with him:

He told me not to listen to what [government officials] say and ordered me to come see him. I had to comply. He came with his men in a Toyota vehicle. He threatened me and told me not to post anything more on Facebook.

Another journalist in Ghazni had a similar experience after using Facebook to post his report on the police killing a suspected Taliban bomber. He received a call from a man who said he was with the Taliban and asked him why he was publishing inaccurate information. The man warned him that they would watch out for what he published and that he should not publish such reports anymore.

Local Taliban commanders issue warnings about radio and television stations airing music programs, which they consider prohibited, and blame journalists for this practice. One journalist described the threats he received:

Whenever the Taliban hears about music on local radio channels, they immediately start calling you, threatening to kill you. They told me many times that they held court sessions about me, proving that I am guilty of broadcasting music. They threatened to kill me. I left this job because of these threats.

The journalist said that local Taliban officials had also told him not to broadcast election-related news because elections were “US-instigated.” He said: “I argued with them for a couple of months that this is not my personal choice but the station’s editorial decision. Then the Taliban asked for my boss’ number and threatened him until he left.” Another Ghazni reporter said he had received at least six threats in which callers warned him of vague consequences if he did not remove music or make other changes to the programs.

Threatening to harm relatives is a common tactic to spread fear. A journalist in Khost said that he received threatening calls from unknown numbers, some accusing him of working for Christians, others accusing him of being a foreign spy. Some specifically warn him that they know his relatives and where he lives:

I am terrified but cannot do anything about it … One of my relatives said that I should leave [journalism] because he is scared … I cannot carry on with my work. I cannot go outside freely. A caller shared a lot of information about me as proof that they have been watching me – he told me my name, my father’s name, where I work, and the address of my house … after a few days, I got a message saying “the path you have chosen is not the right path, so you should move on from it or else we will decide what to do with you.”

For the time being, the journalist has changed his phone hoping to prevent further threats.

Taliban Threats to Women in the Media

The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee reported that 14 women working for media outlets in Afghanistan were threatened or violently attacked in 2020. An increasing number of Afghan women in journalism have left the profession because of worsening security and threats, a trend that emerged after 2015 and has accelerated.

The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), an armed group affiliated with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), took responsibility for killing four women journalists and media workers, including Malala Maiwand, the first woman TV presenter for Enikass News, on December 10, and the March 2 killings of Mursal Waheedi, Saadia Sadat, and Shahnaz Raufi, who worked at Enikass News dubbing foreign language news reports. 

It is often not clear whether the ISKP, the Taliban, or other groups are responsible for some threats and attacks against women. In Ghazni province, the Taliban have instructed media outlets that the hosts of entertainment programs should not be women, and that no music should be broadcasted.

Farahnaz Forotan, one of Afghanistan’s best-known journalists noted for her hard-hitting interviews on Tolo News, left the country in November after hearing that she was on a Taliban blacklist and would soon be killed.

She said that the Taliban:

do not accept free media, and, in many events, they had rejected being interviewed by women. The reason they wanted to kill me, was because as a woman I am not accepted according to their values … The situation in Kabul is very scary. I know four journalists in Kandahar who left their jobs. The local media does not reflect it because they cannot. They are being threatened and the government cannot provide protection … Every morning I check messages to make sure that everyone is safe. I live with fear – it is very difficult to live with the fear of losing a loved one.

Another Kabul-based journalist had worked as a producer for a television news outlet but left her job in mid-2020 after receiving threats. She said:

The Taliban threatened me a couple of times on the phone, and they told me to leave my job. I also found a letter from the Taliban in a hole in our door. The letter repeated that I must not work anymore for news agencies because this job doesn't suit me morally. If you continue, then you have no right to complain [about the consequences].

US Court Rules for Safety in Meatpacking

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 1, 2021
Click to expand Image © 2019 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

In a major victory for meatpacking workers, a United States district court in Minnesota on Wednesday found that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had violated federal law with a 2019 rule eliminating slaughter line speed limits in hog processing plants. In its order, the court found the agency had failed to appropriately consider workers’ health and safety.

The USDA’s rule was a focus of Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants,” and our campaign to #SlowDownTheLine.

September 4, 2019 “When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting”

Nearly all the meat and poultry workers I interviewed for the report identified production speed as the biggest factor making their job dangerous. Human Rights Watch documented alarmingly high rates of serious injury and chronic illness among meatpacking workers, and called on the USDA to stop pursuing this rule — which at the time was not yet in effect — and other policies that increase work speeds in meat and poultry plants. We also described concerns raised by workers’ rights advocates about the failure of the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to adequately consider the effects that eliminating line speed limits would have on workers.

I met with the then-acting head of the FSIS to talk about the experiences and concerns that workers shared with me. In short, she reiterated what FSIS had consistently said about whether they are required to address potential impacts of their policies on workers: That’s not our job.

This week’s court decision ultimately centered on this issue. But US District Judge Joan Ericksen roundly rejected the agency’s excuse:

“[T]he [rule] provided a shield that allowed the agency to avoid explaining why it chose to not only increase, but entirely eliminate line speed limits despite decades of research about the effects that change could have on workers.”

USDA and FSIS have 90 days to decide how to respond to the ruling. The agencies now have a second chance to listen to the concerns raised by meatpacking workers, health and safety experts, and advocates, and finally take steps to #SlowDownTheLine.

Greece: Lead Contamination Threat to Migrants Unresolved

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 1, 2021
Click to expand Image Authorities removing soil on January 25, 2021.  © 2021 DunyaCollective

Dozens of families are still accommodated in areas of a migrant camp in Lesbos where soil testing showed elevated lead levels two months after the Greek government confirmed that the areas were contaminated, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have yet to conduct comprehensive soil testing inside the camp in the highest-risk areas to assess the extent of contamination.

The Greek government has known the risks since at least December 2020, when test results confirmed lead contamination in parts of the Mavrovouni camp, which houses nearly 6,500 migrants and asylum seekers. The government should have been aware of the risk and was specifically warned by media and civil society organizations shortly after the camp was opened in September because it was built on top of a small arms firing range that had been in use until the camp was opened.  

“Based on the results of testing by the Greek government’s own experts, it is clear that young children and pregnant women are at serious risk when living on and playing in soil and dust contaminated by lead,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek authorities’ failure to protect camp residents when tests show elevated lead levels amounts to serious negligence.”

Click to expand Image Satellite imagery recorded on March 9, 2021, shows at least 90 tents, five reception structures and an administrative area in direct proximity to the areas where elevated lead levels were detected by the Greek Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration (EAGME) in November 2020. Lower resolution satellite imagery from the end of March indicates that little has changed from March 9, and tents remain in this location. Satellite image courtesy of Planet Labs Inc.  © 2021 Planet Labs Inc


In meetings in January and February 2021, both the migration and asylum minister, Notis Mitarachi, and European Commission officials told Human Rights Watch that authorities had removed all the tents from areas at risk of lead contamination. However, as of March, through satellite imagery analysis and interviews with migrants living in the camp, Human Rights Watch confirmed that authorities had not relocated about 90 residential tents, five reception structures, and nine administrative structures in close proximity to contaminated areas at the base of Mavrovouni hill. Instead, the authorities only removed tents on the former firing range, where they have been adding new soil and gravel layers.

The tents at the base of Mavrovouni hill are within 160 meters of the two locations where government test results suggest serious health risks for small children and during pregnancy. While government testing was limited to these two samples near and at the base of Mavrovouni hill, the entire area around the hill is at high risk because the direction of the firing at the range was such that projectiles containing lead would have landed there. The samples taken in November by the Greek Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration (EAGME) showed the most elevated lead levels found among all 12 samples taken in the camp. The EAGME in its report on the site identified the area at the base of the hill as an area at high risk of lead contamination and recommended taking it “into account in the design and location of the tents in the [camp] as well as in taking measures to avoid possible dust generation during periods of drought and strong winds.”

Analysis of satellite imagery from March 9, corroborated by camp residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch, indicates that the authorities appear to have erected a fence less than 100 meters in length around the area of the sample with very elevated lead levels of 2,233 mg lead/kg soil (“MAV-01”). However, the authorities have maintained a cluster of nine administrative structures that residents regularly visit for services between 3 and 100 meters away from where this sample was taken. About 90 residential tents housing at least 70 families, many with young children and some with pregnant women, and five reception structures also remain at the base of Mavrovouni hill, six camp residents told Human Rights Watch.

The tents are between 15 and 125 meters from where very elevated lead levels of 2,233mg/kg were detected (“MAV-1”), and between 3 and 160 meters from where elevated lead levels of 330 mg/kg (“MAV-12”) were found. According to Greek authorities, the maximum acceptable level of lead in soil for playgrounds is 100 mg/kg. Similarly, people living in tents and children playing in the dust can be expected to be exposed very acutely to soil and dust, making the ‘playground’ standard appropriate rather than the standard of 500 mg/kg for other types of residential areas, which the Greek authorities contend should apply.  

European Commission officials told Human Rights Watch, in a meeting on February 26, that the EAGME experts will soon return to the camp to test whether the additions of new soil and gravel have adequately reduced exposure to dangerous lead levels.

However, they said there are no apparent plans to further test the area at the base of Mavrovouni hill. In addition, said an aid worker operating in the camp, because the work is still going on, there is no sign that the experts are returning to the camp imminently to conduct the testing. Given the high levels of lead found in that area and the limited number of samples taken, the government should remove all residents living near lead-contaminated areas, until experts urgently conduct comprehensive testing to protect the health of residents and staff in the camp.

In a February 1 briefing with aid organizations working inside the camp, Minister Mitarachi said that the authorities would provide camp residents with information about the lead risks at the camp. But the six camp residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch in March, including four who live in direct proximity to where the two elevated lead samples were found, said that the authorities had yet to provide them with information about lead contamination and how to protect young children and pregnant people from exposure. One woman living in that area who had been pregnant since September and had a miscarriage in January, said: “I didn’t receive any information from aid workers or the government about how to protect myself while pregnant and living in this camp … and I didn’t receive any information about the lead contamination in the camp.”

Based on media reporting, due to strong local opposition to any permanent structure, people will most likely be living in this camp, and therefore suffer prolonged exposure, for at least another winter before there will be any prospect of moving to another camp site.

The authorities at the camp should inform all camp residents and staff in languages they understand about the risks of lead poisoning and ongoing testing and mitigation measures, acknowledging the current knowledge gaps, Human Rights Watch said. This should include information about particular risks for children and during pregnancy, and the government should bring experts in to train those providing medical services on how to inform patients about the areas that are known to be contaminated by lead and steps they can take to mitigate the risks of exposure.

The Greek authorities should clarify when new soil testing will take place, consult with independent experts about the testing plans, and allow them to comment on investigative work plans, audit the soil testing process, and collect split samples for independent testing. Small children and people who are pregnant who spend time in these areas should be offered free blood testing, prioritizing children between 9 months and 2 years because they are most at risk of severe lead poisoning.

“If the Greek government fails to take swift action, the risk that young children and pregnant women will develop lead poisoning and potentially severe health problems goes up by the day, and the government will bear responsibility for that harm,” Wille said. “The risk already is mounting with every delay in constructing a new camp on Lesbos that will allow people to leave the contaminated area.”

Papua New Guinea’s Universal Periodic Review

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Click to expand Image A boy and a woman at a bus stop in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, November 17, 2018. © 2018 Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant/Sipa USA via AP Images

The Papua New Guinea government has failed to live up to commitments on women’s rights, children’s rights, and police accountability, Human Rights Watch said in a recent submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Papua New Guinea’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights situation before the council has been scheduled for November 2021.

“Papua New Guinea has made big promises to the UN, but failed to meet them,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “During the review, UN member countries should remind the Papua New Guinea government that it needs to do much better, especially to defend the basic rights of women and children, and to investigate and prosecute police brutality.”

Under the UPR system, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva reviews each country’s human rights record every five years. During the previous cycle, in 2016, Papua New Guinea accepted numerous recommendations. It pledged to take steps to protect the rights of women and girls; to investigate gender-based violence, including accusations of sorcery; to increase access to education, and to ensure that police officers are held to account for abuses. However, the government has failed to show progress on these key issues.

The submission also covers the death penalty, disability rights, the rights of LGBT people, and refugee rights given that 130 refugees and asylum seekers remain in Papua New Guinea, transferred there by the Australian government since 2013.

Saudi Arabia: Alleged Child Offender on Death Row

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Click to expand Image Abdullah al-Huwaiti © Private

(Beirut) – A Saudi man on death row could be executed even though he was 14 at the time of the alleged crime and his conviction followed a grossly unfair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. His case will be transferred next to the Supreme Court in Riyadh for a final ruling.

While Saudi authorities announced an end to the death penalty for children for certain crimes in 2018 and applied this retroactively to previous cases in 2020, the death penalty remains a possible punishment for the type of crime Abdullah al-Huwaiti is accused of committing.

“Al-Huwaiti’s court proceedings flouted almost every internationally recognizable fair trial guarantee, and yet a Saudi court still sentenced him to die for a crime allegedly committed when he was 14,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “In sentencing a child to die while ignoring torture allegations, the Saudi court made a mockery of the country’s alleged ‘reforms’.”

In October 2019, the criminal court in the northern province of Tabuk sentenced al-Huwaiti, then 17, on murder and armed robbery charges along with five other defendants, one of whom was also a child at the time of his arrest in May 2017. The court also sentenced al-Huwaiti to pay upwards of 1,315,000 Saudi riyals (around USD 350,000) in restitution to the victims.

The other defendants received 15 years in prison and 1000 lashes each for allegedly aiding and abetting the crime. All six had pleaded not guilty, telling the court during the trial that interrogators coerced their confessions through torture or the threat of it. The court ignored the authorities’ own evidence that al-Huwaiti had an alibi, basing its verdict almost entirely on his and other defendants’ confessions.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the court documents in the men’s trial, a detailed notice of appeal submitted to an appeals court by al-Huwaiti’s lawyer in November 2020, snippets of CCTV footage at the crime scene, and a handwritten letter by al-Huwaiti that describes his torture and ill-treatment during questioning.

On May 5, 2017, court documents say, a man dressed in a woman’s black abaya, niqab, and gloves walked into a jewelry store in the city of Duba in Tabuk armed with a pistol and a machine gun. He robbed the store at gunpoint, shot and wounded two store employees, and killed a policeman as he arrived at the scene in a patrol car. The man then pulled the dead officer out of the car and drove away in the patrol car. Publicly available CCTV footage supports this account of events.

On May 8, according to al-Huwaiti’s recounting of events in a letter dated January 22, 2019 and posted to Twitter by his mother, masked security agents raided his family home in the city of Duba, arrested him and his brother, and took them to a nearby police station, where they accused al-Huwaiti of robbing the jewelry store and killing the policeman.

Al-Huwaiti’s letter and his memorandum of defense say that security forces detained him for four months at Tabuk’s criminal investigations department alongside adult detainees. It is not clear why al-Huwaiti was not detained at a Ministry of Social Affairs-operated social observation home, where boys ages 12 to 18 are held during investigation, trial, or otherwise judicially ordered detention. The lawyer’s notice of appeal says that security forces interrogated al-Huwaiti without the presence of his legal guardian, his lawyer, or even a social worker.

Al-Huwaiti said in the letter and to the court that interrogators subjected him to torture and ill-treatment to force him to confess. He said they made him stand for hours at a time, beat him and slapped him on the face, flogged him with an electric cable on the soles of his feet and various parts of his body until he lost consciousness, forced him to hold his brother’s legs while he was being beaten, and lied that his mother and sisters were also in detention and would only be released once he confessed.

Al-Huwaiti eventually signed the confession prepared for him, after which authorities transferred him to a social observation home in Tabuk. He told another investigator there that his confession had been forcibly extracted. He said he was then transferred to a prison cell, where the criminal investigations interrogators from Tabuk arrived after midnight, blindfolded him, and transferred him back to the criminal investigation department.

There, he said, an interrogator threatened to pull out his nails, suspend him from one hand, and torture him in ways he “could not begin to imagine,” prompting al-Huwaiti to promise him he would not tell anyone else about his ill-treatment.

A second defendant, Sleman al-Atwi, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, also told the court during trial that his confession was coerced. “They tortured me, they beat me, and they sent me to the hospital,” he told the judge, court documents say.

The other four defendants also told the court that their signed confessions were incorrect and were obtained under duress. “I confessed because I was tortured, they would beat me and deny me sleep and they put me in a solitary cell,” one said. “I have torture marks on my feet.” Two said they did not know or have any connection to the others.

Both al-Huwaiti and al-Atwi said that during the investigation, when interrogators asked each of them to identify one of the other defendants in the case from within a group of several men, they showed them a picture of the man they wanted them to identify and ordered them to do so.

During the trial, police presented evidence that DNA from al-Huwaiti matched samples found in the patrol car, but this was the only material evidence against him and was contradicted by other evidence, court documents show. General Waleed al-Harbi, the police investigator who was initially in charge of the investigation and who was taken off the case for unstated reasons just days later, told the court after re-examining the case two months later: “I didn’t find any material evidence besides the matching DNA samples against Abdullah al-Huwaiti. In fact, I found several pieces of evidence that negate what the defendants confessed to in their court-certified statements.”

General al-Harbi stated that analysis of al-Huwaiti’s mobile phone found that al-Huwaiti was on the corniche in Duba during the crime. He also said that a review of CCTV cameras in Duba that day showed al-Huwaiti and his brother on the corniche, and not near the crime scene, at the time of the crime.

There is no indication in the court documents that the court took into account or investigated any of these allegations, and instead it based its verdict almost entirely on the forced confessions.

In 2018, four months after al-Huwaiti’s trial at the criminal court in Tabuk began, Saudi Arabia introduced the Juvenile Law, which sets a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for anyone who committed a crime before they turned 18 and was convicted under the Islamic law principle of ta’zir, which gives judges wide discretion to determine punishments in individual cases. In April 2020, Saudi Arabia introduced a royal decree allowing the law’s provisions to be applied retrospectively.

On February 8, 2021, the Human Rights Commission announced that the authorities had reduced the death sentences against three men arrested while children for protest-related crimes to 10-year prison terms. Saudi prosecutors are also no longer seeking the death penalty for another group of Saudi men arrested while children and on trial for protest-related crimes.

Despite statements by Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) claiming no one in Saudi Arabia will be executed for a crime committed as a child, the provision does not apply to qisas, or retributive justice offenses – usually for murder – or hudud, which are serious crimes defined under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law that carry specific penalties and the category under which al-Huwaiti was sentenced to death. Also in April 2020, Saudi Arabia introduced criminal justice changes that end flogging as punishment for those convicted under ta’zir (discretionary rulings), which is how the court sentenced the other five defendants to prison terms and flogging. Human Rights Watch did not learn whether authorities carried out the floggings.

In a statement welcoming the commutation of the death sentences for the three men in February, UN human rights experts also expressed “deep concern for the fate of all those who remain on death row, including Mr. Abdullah al-Huwaiti, who was also sentenced to death for a crime allegedly committed when he was a minor and is now facing execution following a trial marred by torture allegations.”

The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, which reported on al-Huwaiti’s case in 2019, said the case will be heard at the Supreme Court in Riyadh next. Saudi authorities should review the case and investigate allegations of torture.

“Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system will never gain credibility until it makes sweeping changes,” Page said. “At a bare minimum, Saudi Arabia should join the vast majority of countries by banning the death penalty for children in all cases without exception.”

Germany: New Policy to Champion LGBTI Rights Abroad

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Click to expand Image A participant at a feminist protest on international women’s day in Munich, Germany on 8 March 2020.  © 2020 ddp images/Sipa USA via AP Images

(Berlin) – The German government has pledged to do more to uphold the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people abroad, Human Rights Watch said today. The commitment is included in its multifaceted strategy for foreign policy and development cooperation, adopted on March 3, 2021.

Among its many goals, the LGBTI Inclusion Strategy aims to further Germany’s role in promoting LGBTI people’s rights at international and regional human rights institutions. It commits Germany’s diplomatic missions to do more to engage in dialogue on LGBTI issues with host countries and, where appropriate, with religious, business, and other sectors. The policy also highlights the importance of monitoring human rights abuses and collaborating closely with civil society.

“The German government’s important policy comes at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the discrimination that many LGBTI people experience around the world,” said Cristian González Cabrera, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The policy’s focus on strengthening civil society organizations recognizes the crucial role they play as front-line human rights defenders and the violence and harassment they face for their pro-LGBTI work.”

The policy says that Germany may provide assistance for at-risk activists by raising relevant issues with the host governments, expressing solidarity through official statements where needed, observing trials, and, in urgent circumstances, providing asylum.

In the area of development cooperation, the strategy says that Germany will pay “appropriate attention” to LGBTI rights, including by expanding funding and technical support, capacity building, and networking opportunities for organizations serving LGBTI populations abroad.

As a member of the Equal Rights Coalition, the Global Equality Fund, and the UN LGBTI Core Group, Germany already plays an important role in advocating LGBTI rights abroad, Human Rights Watch said. The LGBTI Inclusion Strategy formalizes and expands upon those activities, including by aiming to streamline LGBTI rights support through “appropriate initial and continuing training measures” for public servants working on foreign policy and development cooperation.

The adoption of the LGBTI Inclusion Strategy is the result of sustained advocacy from German civil society groups since 2012, spearheaded by the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (Der Lesben- und Schwulenverband in Deutschland, LSVD), the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation, and the Yogyakarta-Alliance. The policy incorporates many of the preliminary considerations that these groups presented to the German federal government in 2017, including making cooperation with civil society a centerpiece of the efforts.

With the adoption of the Inclusion Strategy, Germany joins other countries like the Netherlands, Canada, and Sweden in setting LGBTI rights as a priority in their foreign policy. In February, US President Joe Biden issued a memorandum on advancing the rights of LGBTI and queer people around the world. As Germany is one of the European Union’s most influential members, its added support for a pro-LGBTI foreign policy agenda is significant.

The LGBTI Inclusion Strategy is noteworthy for highlighting the importance of improving access to comprehensive sexuality education, children’s right to age-appropriate learning material that can help foster safe and informed practices when it comes to sexual development, relationships, and safer sex. It can also prevent gender-based violence, gender inequality, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies. Expanding access to such information can be a key tool to combat violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics.

The policy is also significant in noting that “[l]ocal history and the life stories and traditions of LGBTI people, including relevant aspects of mission and colonial history, are essential considerations” in carrying out the policy. A representative of the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation told Human Rights Watch that they pushed for the inclusion of these concerns as a way to recognize the nefarious impact of European colonial and missionary interventions on questions of gender and sexuality in certain contexts in the Global South, such as in the case of colonial-era laws criminalizing same-sex conduct.

The LGBTI Inclusions Strategy references and upholds international human rights standards on non-discrimination for LGBTI people, such as those found in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also rightfully frames LGBTI rights as a question of advancing human dignity, mandated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The implementation of the ambitious LGBTI Inclusion Strategy will require close monitoring in collaboration with civil society in Germany and beyond. The government proposes to evaluate the policy after three years, which may offer an opportunity to identify areas for improvement and expansion.

“Organizations working to advance the rights of LGBTI people worldwide need supportive governments, like Germany’s, to provide moral and material support in the face of national and transnational forces that aim to block or roll back advances,” González said. “Germany has taken an important step toward a holistic human rights-based foreign policy, and the authorities should ensure that the policy will be carried out.”

 

Uzbekistan: Independent Blogger Attacked

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 31, 2021

(Berlin) – Unidentified assailants brutally attacked an independent blogger who has publicly defended lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights outside his home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan late on March 28, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today.

The blogger, Miraziz Bazarov, had publicly called for the decriminalization of consensual same-sex conduct. He was hospitalized with a concussion, fractured bones, and internal bruising. The police have opened a criminal investigation but blamed Bazarov for instigating events that day.

Click to expand Image Miraziz Bazarov at a hospital in Tashkent after the attack on March 28. © 2021 Timur Karpov

“The police should thoroughly and impartially investigate this violent assault on Miraziz Bazarov, examining all possible motivations,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “At a time when homophobia is on the rise in Uzbekistan, it’s critical for the authorities to bring those responsible to justice.”

Bazarov, 29, is an outspoken critic of the government and a blogger who provides sardonic social media commentary on alleged corruption and other public interest issues on his Telegram and TikTok channels. In July 2020, Bazarov alleged in an open letter that Uzbek authorities most likely inappropriately spent Covid-19 relief funds provided to the government, saying that the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund should stop issuing loans unless they put in place strict oversight mechanisms. At the time, security services summoned him for questioning. Bazarov has also repeatedly called for the decriminalization of consensual same-sex conduct, which is punishable by up to three years in prison in Uzbekistan.

The assault on Bazarov on March 28 came hours after an anti-gay mob accosted a group of fans of Japanese animation films and Korean K-pop music who had met during the day for a regular get-together in central Tashkent. Bazarov was involved in organizing the meetings, though he did not attend that day. The attackers apparently perceived members of the fan group to be LGBT.

In a March 28 post commenting on the anti-gay mob, Bazarov said that supporters of pro-government bloggers had begun trolling him in late February after he called upcoming elections “dishonest” and said that he would urge a boycott of the October presidential election if rights violations continued. Bazarov also said in the post that several pro-government bloggers had falsely accused him of being gay and of spreading “LGBT propaganda.”

Police issued an unusual video statement after the confrontation with the fan group at the square on March 28, in which they accused Bazarov of “propagandize homosexuality” and of trying to stoke “conditions for protest.” The police acknowledged that the mob that gathered to protest the fan group had caused “disturbances.” In a separate statement, the police said that 12 people “were arrested for initiating the conflict and taking an active part in it” on charges of hooliganism.

Bazarov was attacked outside his home later that night by three masked men, one of whom beat him with a baseball bat, media reported. The attack left Bazarov with internal bruising, a fractured leg, and a concussion. He was hospitalized right after the attack and remains hospitalized.

The police are obligated to ensure that their investigation into the attack is effective and capable of identifying those responsible and bringing them to justice, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure that all possible motivations are investigated and that the authorities’ views of Bazarov’s advocacy for equality, LGBT rights, and other issues of social justice do not affect their investigation.

This violent attack against a blogger who defends LGBT people’s rights raises alarm bells about the safety of LGBT people in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch said earlier in March that gay and bisexual men in Uzbekistan face arbitrary detention, prosecution, and imprisonment as well as homophobic violence, threats, and extortion.

Uzbek law has no provision for hate crimes, or for treating crimes as aggravated offenses if they are motivated by hatred based on discrimination. Uzbekistan has yet to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected ground. 

Several deputies in parliament have spoken out against LGBT people in the last two days, contributing to the anti-LGBT environment in which the recent violence and harassment took place.

Members of Tashkent’s diplomatic community have expressed concern about the events, with the United States Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Daniel Rosenblum, calling on the “Govt of Uzbekistan to investigate the beating of blogger Miraziz Bazarov, who exercised his #FreedomofExpression in support of the LGBTI community.”

“Homophobia, discrimination, and violence against LGBT people and those who support LGBT rights have no place in a rights-respecting country,” Williamson said. “Uzbekistan’s highest officials should condemn these gross abuses over people’s sexual or gender identity and ensure that those responsible are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Poland: Escalating Threats to Women Activists

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Click to expand Image Protesters hold a banner of Strajk Kobiet (Women's Strike) during a protest in Warsaw on March 8,  International Women's Day, organized by the Women's Strike (Strajk Kobiet) against the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and the decision of the Constitutional Court. © 2021 Attila Husejnow / SOPA Images / Sipa USA.

(Berlin) – Bomb and death threats targeting at least seven groups in Poland for supporting women’s rights and the right to abortion are disturbing reminders of escalating risks to women’s human rights defenders in the country, Human Rights Watch, CIVICUS, and International Planned Parenthood Federation-European Network (IPPF-EN) said today.

The authorities should urgently investigate, protect the women targeted and hold those responsible for the threats accountable. Polish officials should also counter abusive misinformation campaigns targeting activists.

“The increasingly hostile and even violent environment for women’s rights and their defenders in Poland should ring alarm bells for Polish authorities and European Union leaders,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Women’s rights defenders should be able to express themselves publicly, including when they oppose government policy, without having targets on their backs.”

Human Rights Watch, IPPF-EN, and CIVICUS collected information between March 15 and March 26 from seven organizations in Poland that have been threatened due to their work for or perceived support of women’s rights issues, including Abortion Dream Team, Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa), Feminoteka, FundacjaFOR, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Women’s Rights Centre (Centrum Praw Kobiet), and All-Poland Women’s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet).

At least six human rights organizations in Warsaw, including the women’s rights groups Feminoteka, Women’s Rights Centre and Women’s Strike, received bomb threats via email on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021. The threats said they were “payback” for supporting the Women’s Strike movement, which has been at the forefront of mass protests following increased restrictions on access to legal abortion. Some organizations received the threat at multiple email addresses.

Federa, a reproductive rights group, received bomb threats via email on March 12 and March 23. Members of the Women’s Strike and the Consultative Council (Rada Konsultacyjna), an independent body of groups established to develop legal and policy measures to address Women’s Strike protesters’ demands, received further bomb threats via email on March 20 and March 23. The March 20 threats targeted a performance on that day by an artistic collective in central Warsaw at Szklany Dom (Glass House), near the residence of Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) Jarosław Kaczyński. The performance proceeded following checks of the building by police.

Warsaw city council member Dorota Łoboda, a member of the opposition Civic Coalition and active supporter of women’s rights and the Women’s Strike movement, also received bomb and death threats. The district prosecutor’s office is reportedly pursuing an investigation into threats against Łoboda.

Staff members at Feminoteka, Federa, Women’s Rights Centre, Women’s Strike, FundacjaFOR, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and Grupa Stonewall reported bomb threats received between March 8 and March 23 to police, who checked the premises of their offices and found no evidence of explosive devices. However, some said that the police minimized the security risks and made no commitment to open and pursue a full investigation. Only one person who had reported threats had been told by the police after she inquired that they sent the file to the prosecutor, but she received no information about whether the prosecutor would pursue the investigation. 

These escalating threats come amid ongoing public protests led by the Women’s Strike movement following an October 2020 ruling by Poland’s politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal that virtually eliminates access to legal abortion. The ruling officially took effect after publication in the national Journal of Laws in January.

Activists said their sense of insecurity is heightened by government rhetoric and media campaigns aiming to discredit them and their work, which foster misinformation and hate that can put their safety at risk.

“I feel like I am not safe here and that they [the government] make choices about who deserves protection and respect,” said a Federa staff member. “For me this is very serious, because it is not just some freaks who send us a message [saying] ‘you are a murderer.’ It is in the whole context of what is going on in Poland, where what we are doing is really perceived as something evil.”

Several women’s rights defenders have been detained or face what they claim are politically motivated criminal charges, including for allegedly praising vandalism of churches, obstructing religious services, and creating an “epidemiological threat” for protests held during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Instead of stoking anger against those trying to uphold basic rights, Polish officials should focus on doing everything in their power to protect women and women’s rights, including the rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, to access safe and legal abortion, and to be protected from violence,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space researcher at CIVICUS. 

Police should thoroughly investigate threats of violence against women’s rights and other human rights defenders and punish those responsible, the organizations said. They should work with those targeted to put in place security measures to ensure women’s rights defenders can continue their work without fear of violence or reprisals. Prosecutors should drop any politically motivated and baseless charges against activists. Officials should counter public campaigns aimed at spreading misinformation about and generating hatred toward women’s and human rights groups.

Click to expand Image People demonstrate in a protest organized by Women Strike against restrictions on abortion law on International Women's Day,  March 8, 2021, in Krakow, Poland. © 2021 Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via AP.

European Commission officials should press Polish authorities to investigate threats and hold those responsible to account, and guarantee the right to peaceful protest without fear of reprisals or violence. The European Commission should also press Polish government officials to refrain from using hostile rhetoric against women’s rights activists and other critics of government policies.

“This is simply another indication of how far the rule of law has fallen in Poland, and the impact that has on basic freedoms for everyone,” said Irene Donadio, senior lead on strategy and partnership, IPPF-European Network. “Allowing Poland to continue flagrantly disregarding and undermining these rights without consequence is dangerous not only for women and girls in Poland, but throughout Europe.”

For more information on the escalating threats to women in Poland, see below.

Human Rights Watch, IPPF-EN, and CIVICUS collected information from organizations and activists affected by bomb and death threats since the October 2020 Constitutional Tribunal Ruling. This included video or telephone interviews between March 15 and March 23, 2021, with nine staff members of six organizations and e-mail exchanges with three people, including staff members of two additional groups. Human Rights Watch obtained copies of e-mailed threats received by three of the organizations. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Polish government on March 24 with the findings and a request for an official response. The government has not responded.

Background

On October 22, Poland’s politically-compromised Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling that further curbed legal access to abortion in Poland, which already had one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. The decision declared that abortion on grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” is unconstitutional, eliminating one of the few legal grounds for abortion in Poland. Mass protests, led by the Women’s Strike movement, began immediately following the ruling.

Even when abortion is legal, multiple barriers limit access, including widespread invocation of conscientious objection, which permits medical providers to refuse care based on personal or religious belief. Laws restricting or criminalizing abortion do not completely eliminate it, but drive women and girls to seek abortion through means that may put their lives and health at risk.

Since coming to power in 2015, the ruling Law and Justice party has repeatedly attempted to further curb sexual and reproductive health and rights, including through a bill that would have enacted a total abortion ban, which was met by mass public protests. Poland’s government has also blocked efforts to provide comprehensive sexuality education and threatened to withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention.

Under Law and Justice, Poland’s government has targeted women’s rights organizations and activists, including through smear campaigns and systematic defunding. A crusade against so-called “gender ideology” has been used to galvanize support for measures that target the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

The Law and Justice government has undermined the Constitutional Tribunal’s independence and its effectiveness as a check on the executive. The Council of Europe’s legal advisory body, the Venice Commission, and the European Commission have criticized the Polish government’s interference with the Constitutional Tribunal. In 2017, the European Commission initiated proceedings against Poland that could lead to the suspension of membership rights under Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union due to breaches of rule of law, including concerns related to the lack of an independent and legitimate constitutional review.

Independent media have been curtailed under Law and Justice’s leadership. A December 2020 report by the International Press Institute found that “five years of policies aimed at destabilizing and weakening independent media has taken a debilitating toll on media freedom and pluralism.”

Earlier in March, the Law and Justice party confirmed Bartłomiej Wróblewski as its candidate for Ombudsperson, the independent office for monitoring human rights. Wróblewski was responsible for submitting the application to the Constitutional Tribunal for a review of the abortion law that resulted in more restrictive measures.

Threats against Women’s Rights Defenders

Following bomb threats earlier in March, Federa staff members and the Women’s Strike co-founder Marta Lempart received emails on March 23, each with an image of her face edited to show a bloody bullet hole in her forehead and blood pooled at the photo’s edges; in the corner appears to be an infant’s hand holding a figure of Jesus on the cross. The accompanying text says that the bomb threat on March 20 targeting an artistic performance at Szklany Dom was “a test of police vigilance” and that the senders will continue to “terrorize” the recipients by planting a bomb.

These and other death threats have targeted those supporting access to legal abortion and include subject lines such as “Do you support abortion? Wait, you are about to die!” Six women staff members at Federa and at least two affiliated with Women’s Strike each received emails on March 4 containing an image of a rifle target overlaid on a photo of their face with the word “DIE” underneath and message text reading, “You have 5 days left.” Other messages appear to threaten activists’ families, including their children, if they do not “withdraw support for abortion.” Some state the recipients will die if they continue to support the Women’s Strike. Messages often come from email addresses with names comprised of anti-choice slogans.

Police Response to Threats

At least seven groups, including Feminoteka, FEDERA, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Women’s Rights Centre, and Women’s Strike, reported bomb threats to police between March 8 and March 23, in some cases multiple times. Members of least four groups filed official criminal complaints with police about bomb or other death threats received since March 4.

Those interviewed said that, although police arrived quickly following notification of bomb threats, in some cases police officers minimized the security risk or indicated it was unlikely that prosecutors would pursue the case, leaving them with little confidence that there would be a full investigation.

Staff members from at least three organizations were called to police stations for interviews regarding the threats. Aleksandra Magryta, head of the Great Coalition for Equality and Choice under Federa, submitted the emailed threats to police electronically, including a death threat with a rifle target on her face and a bomb threat, but the police officer who took her statement said it was unlikely the prosecutor would take action because “we need evidence and the emails are not eligible as evidence because we don’t know who sent the email.”

Magryta first approached police in Warsaw, where the organization’s office is located, but they said she had to go to the police station in the small town where she lives outside the city, where she was later interviewed. She said the police there did not indicate that they would coordinate with police in Warsaw.

A staff member from the Women’s Rights Center in Warsaw said that, when responding to the March 8 bomb threat at their office, a police officer said the situation was a “low priority.” “[He] really discouraged us from taking any kind of action because he said this is not really serious, because it was a mass emailing [to multiple organizations],” she said. She noted that they had provided the emails as well as IP addresses to police. “So I think if [the police] really wanted to do something, it would be very easy,” she said.

Activists contrasted this with strong police response against women’s rights defenders in other cases, including during peaceful protests. On International Women’s Day, police pepper sprayed, detained, frisked, and “kettled” protesters for hours. Kettling is a tactic that restricts protesters’ movements to a particular area. Police have previously detained, kettled and used excessive force against protesters and Women’s Strike activists, sometimes taking detainees to police stations dozens of kilometres away from where they were arrested.

“For many months the Polish Government has been waging a campaign against people who are on strike or who support the women's strike,” wrote Joanna Piotrowska of the women’s rights group Feminoteka by email. “It has misinformed the public in the public media and the police have reacted in an inappropriate and violent manner toward those on strike, mainly women.”

Detainees have included the Women’s Strike co-founder Klementyna Suchanow. Lempart, the other co-founder, faces up to eight years in prison on charges including praising destruction of churches and endangering the life and health of the public by organizing protests during the Covid-19 pandemic. Lempart has said the charges are a form of intimidation and political pressure.

Three women activists were charged in November with “offending religious beliefs” for posting images of the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo symbolizing support for LGBT rights. A court acquitted them on March 2, finding their intent was not to offend but rather to condemn anti-LGBT actions.

Lack of Trust in the Police

People interviewed expressed their deep mistrust in police following poor treatment of women’s rights defenders and protesters since protests began in October as well as historical inaction by police to threats against defenders of women’s and other human rights.

Lempart said she had a friend contact police about the bomb threat on March 20 because, as a Women’s Strike leader, “I knew that they [police] wouldn’t help me or they would drag their feet.” Police responded and Lempart’s friend filed a complaint on behalf of Women’s Strike, including information about the IP address from which the threat was sent. However, Lempart said, “I think pressure is needed [on authorities] because if there is no pressure there will be no investigation.”

A leader of a reproductive rights organization described multiple instances in which she said police did not demonstrate respect for her rights or those of other activists. She said police defended anti-choice protesters trying to prevent her colleague from participating in a public demonstration against the Constitutional Tribunal ruling.

“[The police] were saying ‘You cannot participate here because you are not welcome here,’ because they [pro-government protesters] said so,” she said. “So we kind of realized… that police are not really going to protect us and protect the people who peacefully demonstrate.”

Almost all of the women’s rights defenders interviewed said they do not believe the police will pursue an investigation or take action against those responsible for threats against them. For some, this is more worrying than the threats themselves. “The situation is serious because of the inaction of the police, because it will encourage people [who are] maybe more radical,” said a staff member of an organization assisting women survivors of violence. “Or [those sending threats] will be able to paralyze our work because it will happen again and again, and they will go unpunished for these acts.”

Even if the threats prove empty, she said, they disturb the organization’s work: “We must treat it seriously because we have clients in our office, we have volunteers, we are there – we can’t really say, oh, okay, another email [threat], let’s just keep working.”

Smear Campaigns and Targeting by Politicians

Those who oppose women’s right to reproductive autonomy, including the right to choose and access to legal and safe abortion, as well as those who oppose LGBT equality, often use false sensationalist claims and rhetoric to provoke strong emotions against activists who defend and promote these human rights. This has long been the case in Poland, and activists interviewed said such public campaigns have increased since the Constitutional Tribunal ruling.

In one case, in October, an anti-choice group co-opted a magazine cover featuring the founders of Abortion Dream Team, which works to combat stigma and misinformation about abortion in Poland, labelling them “Abortion Killing Team” and using the image alongside that of a dead infant on billboards and on a truck that drove around Warsaw. In March, the  anti-choice group Shield of Life reported Abortion Dream Team to the regional prosecutor’s office in Gdansk for allegedly persuading women online to have abortions and committing “genocide.”

Billboards opposing abortion and divorce, mostly erected since February, line Poland’s streets. Some use an image of a baby inside a heart-shaped “uterus” or a baby’s face alongside slogans implying the baby could be subject to abortion. Others say, “Love each other mom and dad,” written in handwriting resembling that of a child, in what women’s rights defenders said feeds into efforts to discourage divorce.

Of particular concern in Poland is that such malign messaging, which overwhelms public spaces, reflects wider efforts by government and its allied groups to push an extreme agenda that can have dangerous consequences for women, particularly those in vulnerable situations. “It might seem like it is nothing, but it is part of a broader campaign against divorces and so on, neglecting the fact that when there’s violence [in the home] you should get separated for your own safety,” said a staff member at an organization providing assistance to women survivors of violence.

This is particularly concerning amidst politicians’ and government leaders’ efforts to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, and public statements minimizing the problem of domestic abuse in Poland, the organizations said.

Activists said they feel that people who oppose their activities are emboldened by government rhetoric, including via public media, that openly targets them and their work. The public service television station TVP, which has become state-controlled under Law and Justice and is widely known as a government propaganda machine, frequently refers to protesters as “supporters of killing unborn children” and issues “news”  reports smearing the Women’s Strike and its leaders.

“The state-owned TV talks about [us] killing children rather than [about] abortion or interrupting pregnancies,” said a Federa staff member. “So no wonder we are called murderers.”

In response to protests following the Constitutional Tribunal ruling, the Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who was  recently appointed deputy prime minister, called protesters “dangerous” and said the Polish people should “defend everything that may destroy us.” He condemned protesters having entered churches, saying, “This attack is an attack intended to destroy Poland” and that “we must defend [churches] at any cost.” Opposition leaders and activists said such speech incited hatred against protesters and the pro-choice movement.

In November, Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek, threatened to cut public funding to universities that permitted students and faculty to participate in Women’s Strike protests if it meant they would not attend class.

In May 2020, the Ministry of Justice awarded a medal for “merit in the field of justice” to an anti-choice activist who prevented a 17-year-old girl from taking medication to induce an abortion by reporting her intentions to her parents and harassing her online when she saw the girl post about it in an online chat room.

High-level politicians, including President Andrzej Duda, often invoke the need to protect “traditional families” in their efforts to dismiss the Istanbul Convention and deny LGBT equality. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who initiated preparations in July 2020 for withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, which binds the government to standards on combating violence against women, has lambasted the convention as a “feminist creation” that promotes so-called “gender ideology.”

Threats received by at least three women’s rights organizations echoed politicians’ rhetoric, accusing the women of destroying “traditional family values” or endangering the church.

A bomb threat received on March 23 by Lempart and staff members of Federa, reads in part, “We must defend the Church at all costs…. [W]e will do everything in our power to prevent the destruction of the country, of traditional family values. You will not succeed in destroying the Polish nation, you leftist scum.” Each message is accompanied by a photo of the person’s face manipulated to show a bullet hole in the forehead, blood spatters, and what appears to be an infant’s hand holding a black cross.

Climate of Fear and Intimidation

Some of those targeted said the threats have affected their sense of security and capacity to work. One staff member at Federa said the threats have taken significant time away from her work and said that she no longer feels safe at the office.

She attributed her fear not only to the threats, but to the climate for women’s rights defenders and what she said is complicity of officials in fomenting hostility toward them. “It is not one incident – it is a series of events that show how the party in power has divided our society, [a party with] a very clear worldview that sends hateful messages to us,” she said.

A member of the Women’s Strike Consultative Council, which includes hundreds of activists, academics, and leaders of non-governmental organizations, said she has received nine threats by email since February 18 and that they seem different from others she received in the past. “Every time I check my e-mail inbox and see another threat, I feel more and more afraid and overwhelmed,” she wrote in an emailed response. “The most frightening are the bomb threats – I feel like my life is really in danger.” She said it takes a mental and physical toll: “I feel broken. It is harder for me to concentrate on my job. I am only 20 years old and I face death threats practically every day.”

She said she reported two threats to the police, who responded and took her statement, but three weeks later police would only tell her that the case is pending and she feels they are not addressing it with urgency.

Lempart said the threats are becoming more targeted, moving from general threats to a bomb threat on a specific day, and then a bomb threat targeting the artistic performance at a particular location and time. “It is kind of like they are closing in on us,” she said. “I think something might happen… And if something happens we will all have the feeling that we saw it coming.”

People interviewed repeatedly remarked on possible parallels with the murder of the Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, a liberal politician stabbed to death in January 2019. Adamowicz, a Law and Justice opponent, was regularly criticized in the media for supporting LGBT people and migrants. The nationalist organization All-Polish Youth published a “death certificate” for Adamowicz in January 2019. Women’s rights defenders said politicians’ speech fed into threats against Adamowicz, but the threats were not taken seriously.

Istanbul Convention

In July 2020, Justice Minister Ziobro announced he would pursue Poland’s withdrawal from a landmark European convention on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki referred the convention to the Constitutional Tribunal for review due to its definition of “gender.”

A citizens’ initiative bill entitled “Yes to family, no to gender,” backed by the far-right Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture and the Christian Social Congress, had its first reading in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, on March 17.  On March 30, the Sejm voted to send the bill to committee for further work rather than to reject the bill or send it immediately to a second reading. The bill will now go to parliamentary committees on justice, human rights and foreign affairs.

To replace the Istanbul Convention, and with support from right-wing and religious groups, Poland’s government is pushing a so-called “Family Rights” Convention both nationally and regionally. It would enshrine, for example, the protection of “the life of a conceived child” and the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Service providers supporting women victims of violence warned that withdrawal from the convention could further threaten their already scarce public funding, deter police from responding to domestic and other violence against women, and imply that such violence is not a serious concern in Poland. They said that this is another part of broader strategy to undermine women’s rights and women’s rights defenders.

Recommendations

The police should thoroughly investigate threats of violence against organizations and activists and punish those responsible. European Commission officials should actively push Polish authorities to ensure such an investigation and accountability.

Government officials and public media should refrain from using speech attacking women’s rights activists and protesters, falsely accusing them of criminal acts, or calling on people to obstruct peaceful protests and support nationalist movements, which can contribute to inciting violence against women’s rights and other human rights defenders. They should counter public disinformation campaigns and speech that may generate hatred toward women’s and human rights groups. Prosecutors should drop any politically motivated and baseless charges against women’s rights defenders and protesters.

The government should also uphold rights to freedom of assembly and expression. It should put in place measures to protect women’s and other human rights defenders and ensure they are able to conduct their work safely.

Poland’s government should ensure reproductive rights are upheld in accordance with international law. This includes the right to access safe abortion. Moves to further curb access to safe abortion are retrogressive and incompatible with the government’s obligations under international law and put the lives and health of women and girls at risk.

The government should take steps to combat violence against women and girls in line with its obligations under international law to uphold the rights to life, health, freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment, and non-discrimination.

European Commission officials should press Polish authorities to uphold the right to peaceful protest without fear of reprisals or violence and to refrain from using hostile rhetoric against women’s rights and other human rights defenders.

The European Commission and EU member states should urgently address breaches of the rule of law and their impact on women’s rights, including reproductive rights, and on human rights defenders in Poland, including through expanding and advancing scrutiny under Article 7 proceedings and conditioning access to EU funds to respect for the rule of law and the EU’s democratic values.

US State Department Re-Commits to Reporting on Reproductive Rights

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Click to expand Image Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about the release of the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the State Department in Washington, March 30, 2021.  © 2021 AP/AFP Pool/Mandel Ngan

Today, the US State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights. While this year’s edition once again lacks reporting on key reproductive rights around the world, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that addendums will be added to address the previous deletion of these sections and that the State Department would work to ensure these issues are included in future iterations at the outset.

Under the Trump administration, the State Department had cut most mentions of key human rights abuses that disproportionately impact women and girls from its reports, in particular country analyses of maternal mortality and unmet contraceptive needs.

The omissions in subsequent years paralleled harmful policies aimed at restricting reproductive rights globally, showcasing a deliberate attempt by the administration to exclude reporting on these rights. Human Rights Watch and other human rights and reproductive rights organizations sharply criticized these efforts. The severity of these policies, from the Global Gag Rule to defunding the United Nations Population Fund and setting up a commission to reexamine internationally recognized human rights law and norms, should energize the Biden administration to rectify the US approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Blinken asserted today that “Human rights are…co-equal; there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others.” It is a welcome rebuke of the Trump administration’s approach to human rights. But reproductive rights could still be excluded in government reporting if another administration decided to pursue anti-choice policies. Congressional action is sorely needed to ensure future administrations won’t be able to exclude specific human rights discussions on political whims. Congress should reintroduce and pass the Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act, which would require the State Department to report on violations of reproductive rights globally.

In the meantime, Blinken has work to do to make his words reality. The State Department should meet with civil society organizations working on women’s rights and gender justice, particularly on sexual and reproductive health and rights, to develop clear and actionable instructions for documenting and reporting on women’s rights and gender justice in the next report. The Biden administration should not only restore the reporting that was excised during the Donald Trump presidency but take this opportunity to improve reporting on human rights across the board.

Arizona Legislators Should Reject Immunity for Nursing Homes

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Click to expand Image © 2009 iStock/Getty Images

This week, Arizona legislators will vote on bill 1377, which would shield nursing homes from civil liability for negligence while providing services during the Covid-19 pandemic.

At least 32 states have already passed laws or issued executive orders during the pandemic making it harder for nursing home residents or their families to take the companies that run these facilities to court. The new Arizona bill would protect any health care institution assumed to be acting in “good faith” except in cases of “willful misconduct” or “gross negligence.”

The provision of such broad immunity is particularly problematic for nursing homes in light of growing evidence indicating that during the pandemic, nursing home residents have suffered considerable harms from neglect and prolonged isolation, in addition to the risk of Covid-19 itself.

In a report published last week, Human Rights Watch documented serious concerns over possible neglect in nursing homes across the United States during the pandemic’s first year, when staffing was low and family members were often not allowed in facilities. Residents, family members, and staff reported extreme weight loss, dehydration, and infected bedsores, which in some cases may have contributed to death. In many cases, residents’ hygiene appeared to have been neglected as well, with family members reporting residents were left in soiled incontinence pads for hours at a time and their hair and fingernails grew long and dirty. Many nursing home residents, deprived of daily social contact because of restrictions on visitors and activities, declined physically and emotionally.

The academic evidence echoes our findings: just last week, an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association (JAMDA) found that in Connecticut nursing homes, depression, substantial weight loss, and incontinence increased among residents in the four months after visitor restrictions went into place.

During the pandemic, independent monitors were largely restricted from visiting facilities, leaving fewer mechanisms for residents and their loved ones to have concerns addressed quickly and effectively.

Arizona should reject immunity for nursing homes and take a different path, as some other states have done. On March 24, New York state lawmakers repealed corporate immunity for nursing homes in the wake of reports about lack of transparency around Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes.

Nursing home residents across the US need access to the courts now more than ever to protect themselves from neglect and abuse. Arizona legislators should not strip them of their ability to exercise this fundamental right.

Covid-19 Pandemic Ravages Brazil

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Click to expand Image An aerial photograph of a burial in April 2020 in Manaus, in the Amazon forest in Brazil, where people who died of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 are buried. © 2020 Michael Dantas/AFP via Getty Images

President Jair Bolsonaro went on national TV last week and claimed to have adopted all necessary measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. As he was speaking, thousands of Brazilians banged pots on their windows in disagreement – with good reason. 

Brazil’s national health system is on the verge of collapse: Intensive care units across the country are at or near capacity: 24 states have an intensive care unit occupancy rate of over 80 percent, in 19 states it is 90 percent or more and in six states it exceeds 100 percent. News organizations report people are dying while waiting for a bed.

About a quarter of all Covid-19 deaths in the world last week were in Brazil. And the country broke another record on March 26: more than 3,600 deaths in a 24-hour period. One study estimates that the country may reach 5,000 deaths a day between April and May.

How did the country descend into this devastating chaos?

Since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, the president has downplayed the threat, joined crowded events, and vetoed a law that made it mandatory to use masks in schools, stores, and prisons. He even tried to get the Supreme Court to stop governors and mayors from imposing social distancing rules.

Instead of encouraging the use of masks and social distancing, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), Brazil’s government invested heavily in drugs that it claimed, without scientific evidence, prevented or cured Covid-19. Add to that the emergence of a new, more contagious variant of the virus, and low vaccine availability – only seven percent of Brazilians have received a first dose – and it is easy to understand why the country is in such a dire situation.

International human rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and to ensure access to health care for those who need it.

 Without meaningful collaboration among all authorities, including all governors, and without adherence to WHO recommendations, thousands more Brazilian families are likely to lose loved ones. Bolsonaro needs to start listening to science and putting the lives of Brazilians first.

Time to Focus on Human Rights in EU’s Turkey Agenda

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The bolder Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gets, the quieter the European Union (EU).

Click to expand Image Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel at the European Council building in Brussels, March 9, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

The conclusion of last week’s EU summit showed, as last year under the German Presidency, that when it comes to Turkey, geopolitics and migration have pushed human rights off the EU’s priority list.

Despite the Erdogan government using courts to silence and detain journalists, opposition politicians and anyone regarded as a critic by bringing  bogus terrorism charges, or applying new laws to stifle free speech and target civil society, the EU treats human rights as secondary.

President Erdogan’s government recently doubled down attacks by withdrawing from a treaty combatting violence against women and moved to close down the second-largest opposition party in parliament. But EU leaders barely blinked.

They should urgently review their approach if they don’t want to lose leverage on rights and credibility among those in Turkey who seeks a better and more democratic future.

First, talks with Turkish counterparts should clearly lay out the severity of the human rights situation in Turkey and be backed up by public statements on the same. The examples of the EU’s top diplomat deleting a mild reference to rule of law when due to speak beside the Turkish foreign minister, or the EU’s top officials Ursula Von Der Leyen and Charles Michel not even bringing it up, are shameful recent instances of appeasement.

Second, they should press Turkey to comply with its basic international law obligations. The refusal to comply with the European Court’s rulings to release philanthropist Osman Kavala and politician Selahattin Demirtaş should lead to serious consequences. Finally the EU should give little weight to a vague ‘human rights action plan’ until Turkey demonstrates its judiciary is not a weapon of repression.

Visible progress on human rights should be a prerequisite for any move to open discussions on a modernized Customs Union. It’s now, before talks start, that Turkey should understand that progress is not possible without concrete measures to ensure an independent judiciary and democratic, accountable institutions that are essential for good relations with Europe.

EU leaders’ hope for more stable and reliable relations with Erdogan’s government should not mean giving up on all possibility of a rights-respecting Turkey. An EU “positive agenda” that ignores human rights isn’t positive at all when it flouts EU values and fails Turkey’s citizens.

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